02/26/2015, 00.00
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IS holding more than 250 Christians, for vicar to Aleppo, pope's prayers are a source of courage

Pope Francis is closely monitoring the situation in Syria and praying for the Christian minority. For Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, the pope's closeness is a source "of great consolation and help." The road to peace "is long, but the only one possible." At least 5,000 Christians fled from the Islamists. The UN Security Council condemns the abductions.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) - "Pope Francis words are a source of great consolation, help and courage for us Syrian Christians, in this period of crisis and difficulties. The pope knows the situation well. He is praying and has called on us to pray as well. We have great confidence in him, and we hope that others understand this and follow him. War leads nowhere. The road to peace is long, but it is the only one possible," said Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, apostolic vicar of Aleppo of the Latins, who spoke to AsiaNews about the crisis in Syria.

Pope Francis, who is involved in spiritual exercises in Ariccia (Italy), has been closely following events in Syria, where the Islamic State (IS) group has targeted an entire Assyrian community. According to the latest figures, IS stateis holding at least 250 people from Christian villages in Syria's northeastern al-Hasakah Governatorate, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

"ISIS now controls ten Christian villages," Observatory head Rami Abdulrahman said. "They have taken the people they kidnapped away from the villages and into their territory," he added.

Local witnesses said that, following the offensive, more than 5,000 of the 30,000 Assyrians that make up one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East have decided to leave the country, choosing the safety of exile.

Jihadists "have occupied at least 10 or 12 villages and those living in the surrounding areas have fled, seeking refuge in safer areas or across the border in Turkey," the apostolic vicar to Aleppo told AsiaNews.

Recent reports suggest that local Muslim clerics and leaders have been contacted as possible intermediaries with IS to secure the hostages' release.

"Something is underway but nothing official," Mgr Khazen said. "The situation is complicated. What happened to the Assyrian community is terrible. They are a great resource for Syria in cultural, religious and human terms."

The abductions in Syria occurred after Kurdish forces went on the offensive against IS in the northeast region of the country, near the border with Iraq. The area is of ​​great strategic importance, because it connects the main areas under caliphate control in Syria and Iraq, and could serve as a corridor to Turkey for weapons, supplies and fighters.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council strongly condemned IS's abduction of Assyrians in northern Syria. On Wednesday, it demanded an "immediate and unconditional" release of all those abducted, and slammed the group for its "brutality" and the "thousands of crimes and abuses against people from all faiths, ethnicities and nationalities and without regard to any basic value of humanity."

Since the beginning of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad in 2011, more than 3.2 million people have fled the country whilst another 7.6 million are internally displaced. At least 200,000 people have been killed in the fighting, many of them civilians.

In the spring of 2013, the Islamic State group emerged out of the cauldron of Syria's civil war, in all its violence and brutality. From that moment onward, it pushed forward rapidly, seizing large swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory, imposing a virtual reign of terror. (DS)

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