Homs, Syria, Aug 10, 2015 / 16:10 pm
A priest in Syria has called for prayer after militants of the Islamic State kidnapped dozens of both Christians and Muslims near Homs last week.
"Does ISIS intend to negotiate and let the people go free, or does it intend to kill them? We don't know," said Father Jihad Youssef, a member of the Syriac Catholic religious community of Mar Musa.
The priest told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that the number of abducted people is unclear. However, he said it is realistic to think that the Aug. 6 abductions may have taken as many as 160 people, the approximate number of Christians who remained in the town of Al Quaryatayn, which is some 60 miles southeast of Homs.
"But we do not know if all of the remaining Christians were taken as hostages by ISIS, or if some went into hiding," he said. "At the end of the week, some 30 Christians succeeded in fleeing from the town. Some are shepherds and they know the region. They fled to Homs."
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that more than 230 persons were seized by the Islamic State from Al Quaryatayn, and that at least 60 of them are Christians.
Many of the Christians had fled to Al Quaryatayn from Aleppo, but Islamic State fighters captured the town Aug. 6 from fighters allied with Syria's president Bashar al-Assad.
Father Youssef's community has lost contact with their monastery in Al Quaryatayn.
The Syrian Orthodox and Syriac Catholic bishops of Homs are trying to resolve the situation, but people are afraid.
"Especially the Christians in places near to Al Qarytayn are anxious," Father Youssef said. "Many people are thinking of leaving their homes, or even leaving the country. The fear is growing."
The priest said the Islamic State group typically gives Christians the choice of paying an extortionate tax, converting to their form of Islam, or leaving the area.
"The latter option was evidently not offered, or the Christians would have left," he said.
In May, Father Jacques Mourad, a priest of Father Youssef's community, was kidnapped along with a deacon. The community has no information on these men, whose abduction may have been a reaction to Father Mourad's work in promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue and coexistence. The priest had helped to rebuild houses destroyed by the war in Syria.
"For many years he built bridges between the religions," Father Youssef said. "This has now proved its value in the war."
The kidnapped priest's work was supported by Aid to the Church in Need.
Father Youssef asked supporters of Aid to the Church in Need to "pray for our kidnapped brothers and the hostages of Al Qaryatayn."
"May God bring a change into the hearts of the kidnappers, so that they show mercy to the hostages," he said.
Aid to the Church in Need has committed over $13.2 million to assist Christians in Syria and Iraq since 2011. It recently committed another $2.2 million to humanitarian relief in Syria.
Since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011, more than 230,000 people have been killed. Four million have become refugees, and another 8 million have been internally displaced.