As many as 230 people understood to be missing, including dozens of Christian families, after Isil captures Syrian town of Qaryatain
An Isil flag is displayed
Isil has captured the strategically important town of Al-Qaryatain in Syria
By Louisa Loveluck and Nabih Bulos

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) militants have kidnapped dozens of Christian families after capturing the regime-held Syrian town of Qaryatain.

Activists said the extremist group seized entire families from churches and houses on Wednesday evening as they established control of the town after taking three checkpoints in suicide attacks.

As many as 230 people are understood to be missing, including followers of the Syriac Orthodox or Syriac Catholic churches.

Bishop Matta al-Khoury, secretary of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, said Isil had used a number of kidnapped residents as human shields against regime airstrikes.

Qaryatain, south-west of the ancient city of Palmyra, had a pre-war population of 18,000, including Sunni Muslims and around 2,000 Syriac Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

Bishop Khoury told AFP news agency that around 180 Christians were in the town when Isil seized control.

• Syrian Christians: ‘Help us to stay – stop arming terrorists’

The extremist group has been targeting the minority Christian community as it spreads its tendrils through war-torn Syria.

In areas where Isil and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra have seized control, churches have been destroyed, crosses smashed, and in some cases, residents have been forced to pay the “jiyza”, a religious tax.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, many of Qaryatain’s Christians had already fled south from Aleppo, seeking refuge in the town.

It said those abducted were wanted by Isil for “collaborating with the regime,” and their names were on a list used by the jihadists as they swept through the town. There are 45 women and 19 children among the missing, the group said.

Forty five regime soldiers were also killed during the militants’ “combing operations” in hills that lie west of the city, the pro-Isil Amaaq News reported on Thursday.

In the nearby government-controlled city of Homs, churches have been overwhelmed as hundreds of people seek sanctuary from the violence in Qaryatain.

“They need immediate aid,” said Nuri Kino, head of the activist group A Demand For Action. “You never get used to hearing from the priests or the bishops. There is fear in their voices, they are pleading to the world and no one is listening.”

The capture of Qaryatain brings Isil within 26 miles of the strategic Damascus-Homs highway, which acts as the main supply artery connecting the capital to central Syria and the coastal provinces of Tartous and Latakia.

It also affords the group potential access to the Qalamoun area, an important mountain range that has been a vital corridor for Syrian rebels into neighbouring Lebanon.