Scores of Syrian Christians Kidnapped by Islamic State

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ISTANBUL — Islamic State militants swept into several Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria in recent days, taking scores of hostages, including both civilians and fighters, according to numerous interviews with residents and representatives of the many factions fighting in the area.
The attacks have displaced hundreds of families and sharpened Middle Eastern Christians’ fears of the Islamic State, which considers non-Muslims, along with many Muslims who disagree with its tenets, infidels.

The extremist group displaced entire Christian communities from northern Iraq when it swept through Mosul and the surrounding area last year.

The new attacks came as some Christians in northeastern Syria, seeking to avoid the fate of northern Iraq’s Christians and other minority sects like the Yazidis that were singled out by the Islamic State, had taken a more assertive role, fighting alongside Kurdish and other militias.

The latest fighting took place in a string of villages along the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates. The central village, Tel Tamer, is a strategic crossroads, with a bridge over the river that connects northeastern Syria with the country’s northern hub, Aleppo; residents reported that Islamic State militants bombed the bridge on Tuesday.

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The area has long been controlled by Kurdish militias but has lately come under attack from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

In recent weeks, villages have changed hands several times as the Kurdish groups, some Arab Muslim factions and a Christian group called the Syriac Military Council have joined forces against the Islamic State.

In the chaos Tuesday, the exact number of hostages seized remained unclear, with estimates ranging from several dozen to more than 100. Nuri Kino, an Assyrian-Swedish activist with family ties to northeastern Syria, said that Islamic State fighters were holding about 60 women and children in the village of Tel Shamiran, and that they had taken 90 men up into a mountainous area they control, perhaps seeking to exchange them for Islamic State prisoners.

Mr. Kino, who founded A Demand for Action, a group that advocates for religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, said he had gleaned the information by talking to residents over Skype from Los Angeles.

Dawoud Dawoud, the deputy president of the Assyrian Democratic Party in the area, reached in Hasaka, said that the villages had long been largely left alone, but that in early February, Islamic State fighters had demanded that crosses be removed from churches.

The jihadists raided the village of Tel Hermez, driving away a local group, the Guardians of Khabur, that had protected churches there, said Omar Abd al-Aziz, a local antigovernment activist who uses a nom de guerre for his safety. Called to help, Kurdish militias entered the town with fighters from the Syriac Military Council, who filmed themselves retaking the area and leading away bound men they said were Islamic State members.

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Now, the Islamic State appears to be retaliating with even greater numbers and heavy weapons.

“It’s the new Kobani,” said Mr. Kino, referring to the Kurdish enclave bordering Turkey whose encirclement by the Islamic State prompted American-led airstrikes that helped drive the group back. He called for United States intervention to prevent massacres and displacements.

The threats to minority enclaves, as in Kobani and the attacks on Yazidis in Iraq’s Sinjar mountains last summer, have galvanized international action when other fighting did not.

Another activist in the area, who gave only his first name, Siraj, because of concern for his safety, accused the Kurds of leaving the Assyrians vulnerable in order to provoke a Kobani-like international reaction.

But Nawaf al-Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Union, a political party, tried to find a bright side, saying the events were “a good sign of stronger ties between the Kurds, the Arabs and the Christians” against the Islamic State.