Thousands of Christians in Syria are fleeing after advances by Islamic State into ancient Assyrian Christian heartlands.
ISIS has made ground in a fierce and destructive offensive on a town near Sadad, 35 miles south of Homs and 65 miles north-east of Damascus, the capital of Syria.
Meanwhile the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that the leader of Tank Brigade 47, Brigadier-General Taleb Salamah, has been killed in clashes betweem rebel and Islamist factions in the Hama countryside. In addition, the body of a pilot has been found in the city of Homs. He was shot after being handcuffed.
Aid to the Church in New York reported the ISIS advances from information provided by Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh of the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Homs and Hama. The area is vulnerable to ISIS, which has repeatedly targeted Christian populations, many of whom still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
Archbishop Selwanos told the international Catholic pastoral charity that Maheen, a town just four miles from Sadad, has already fallen and now Christians in Sadad and Al-Hafar are fleeing in fear of further advances. Just two years ago, ISIS seized Sadad and many Christians were massacred before it was retaken by the Syrian army. Sadad is strategically important because of its location between Damascus and Homs.
Archbishop Selwanos said nearly 15,000 people had fled to Homs, Zaidal and Fairouzeh. "We are afraid that ISIS – which God will hopefully prevent – will conquer the town. We would lose the center of Christianity in our diocese."
Father Luka Awad, the Archbishop's assistant, said: "We are doing all we can to help them in their need. And there are many of them. We are currently working to get them registered. For the moment, our greatest worry is finding enough housing for the people."
He added: "When the IS fighters conquered Al-Qaryatayn, they made the threat: 'We will kill all of the Christians in Sadad.'"
Aid to the Church in Need has in 2015 committed $9 million in aid to support Syrian Christian communities.