ISIS empties Christians villages, destroys churches, Melkite bishop reports.
Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, Metropolitan of Aleppo for the Melkite Church, has been monitoring the situation in nearby Hassakah, where hundreds of frightened refugees from villages taken over by militants of the Islamic State group this week.
“Ten Christian villages situated on the river between the locality of Taltamer and the city of Hassake, have been … emptied of their population,” Archbishop Jeanbart wrote. “Two churches were destroyed and several others damaged, burned or sacked. Crosses and statues broken and icons thrown down and damaged.”
The archbishop referred to this week’s kidnapping of hundreds of residents of “the Christian villages inhabited by peaceful people of the Assyrian community." Their fate is still unknown, and some fear they may be executed by the Islamic State group or used as human shields against the airstrikes being carried out on ISIS positions by the US-led coalition. Others believe the Islamic State may use them as bargaining chips.
According to Fides news agency, the Islamic State first held the Assyrian Christians, including women and children, in a detention center at Mount Abdulaziz, then dispersed them to areas under their control, including their stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. The agency was quoting Samir Taji, a member of the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda, who told the Kurdish website ARA News that the prisoners include 40 Kurdish soldiers and Assyrian militiamen of the Sutoro Brigade.
Fides also quoted Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo, the Syrian Catholic Archbishop, who said that during the assault of the jihadists, four Sutoro militants were killed. Another Christian was burned to death because his shop was set on fire by jihadists. "Perhaps he was also armed and had tried to oppose those of the Islamic State," the archbishop said.
Archbishop Jeanbart, in his letter, said that many small localities have been attacked and occupied by the terrorist groups. "People were scared and had to leave their houses and find a refuge in the larger cities, protected by the Government regular army and not occupied by ISIS, as like Hassake and Qamishli, the neighborhood cities of that region of the country. Christians are anxious and afraid, of course, and they live in very bad conditions for the time being. What will happen tomorrow nobody knows? The future depends on the military progression of the army as well as the peacemakers’ efforts. We hope that they will be able to find significant arguments which can convince parties and lead them to make steps toward reconciliation and peace in order to unite and succeed in pushing away the invaders.”
In his own war-ravaged city of Aleppo, he said, there continues to be periodic shelling, as rebel forces continue fighting the government. “We see every day the civilians living in the residential areas of the city are terrorized by tens of shells falling upon them and provoking big damages and many casualties among innocents,” he said. Yesterday, in fact, a mortar fell on a well-populated street, close to St. Francis church. A 20-year-old woman was killed, he said, and “several of our faithful were injured,” including the wife of a church employee, who suffered a broken leg.
“All this is terrible and our Christians as well as many other citizens are scared,” he continued. “People suffer insecurity and all kinds of dangers and hardships: unemployment, poverty, lack of money, water, electricity, and fuel. Inflation has made everything very expensive. Poor people, and they are actually quite numerous, have very hard days, they often live miserably and in need of all kind of things a family needs.”
“We wonder sometimes about what will come next,” the archbishop continued. “We try to do our best to keep confident in order to help and comfort people as much as possible. We have organized several aid programs, we stand by, near their side and we do our best, trying to give them hope and courage to face their suffering and we look forward anxiously, hoping to see peace established once again.”
In the midst of all this, he said, emigration is “emptying the country of its Christian component and our Church of a good number of its faithful. We are confronting one of the most important challenges of our 2000 years history. We will fight with all our strength and act with all available means to give our people reasons to stay and not to leave, we know that it will be demanding and very hard, nevertheless we believe in God and we are convinced that our beloved Lord Jesus, is present in his Church and will never let us alone in our hardship."
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