Hundreds of Christian Fighters Scramble to Defend Syrian Town as ISIS Advance

Hundreds of Christian fighters from across Syria have arrived in the majority-Syriac Christian town of Sadad to prevent it falling into the hands of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), the head of the Syriac Orthodox church says.

Sadad, which lies just off a vital highway connecting the cities of Damascus and Homs in the west of the country, has faced an onslaught from the radical group's militants since October 31 as ISIS advances across central Syria and inches closer to the capital.

Some 500 Syriac Christian fighters have as yet prevented the group from entering the Sadad. But ISIS's capture of the town of Mahin, less than five miles away, at the end of October has left Sadad vulnerable to a continued assault by the militants.

Last Thursday, Mor Ignatius Aphrem Karim II, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox church, traveled to Sadad from the church's headquarters in Damascus in a bid to boost the morale of the fighters in the town. Following the ISIS assault last month, at least 200 Syriac fighters from Damascus, Qamishli and Hasakah traveled to Sadad to join the fight to defend the town, he told Newsweek by phone from the Syrian capital's Old City.

"It is under assault," Karim says. "IS advanced toward Sadad but they were not able to enter Sadad. The young people in Sadad, with the help of some armed groups, were able to fight back and push IS back to where they started. They are helped by some groups coming from different parts of Syria also."

Syriac Christianity is one of the world's oldest sects. It is an umbrella for a number of the churches of Eastern Christianity, such as the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syriac Catholic Church. Its followers speak the ancient language of Aramaic, the tongue that Jesus is believed to have spoken.

Sadad has come under attack before. In October 2013, the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front militant group, which is battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, captured the town and held it for just over a week, killing 46 Syriacs before the Syrian army retook the town.

Karim adds that the Syriac Christian fighters now in Sadad have been joined by non-Christians too. A number of Muslims and Alawites are in the ranks of the Syrian army fighting to defend the town and a "couple of hundred" Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) fighters, including Muslims, have also traveled to the town to assist in its defence, Karim says. The SSNP, headquartered in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, is a leftist organization that believes in a greater Syrian state where Christians and Muslims live side-by-side.

A Syriac Christian fighter in Sadad, who declined to be named for security reasons, says: "People from all over Syria have arrived to fight for Sadad. It is a symbolic place for us and we will not allow it to fall again."

Karim says the Syriac fighters are committed to their cause. "It was emotional but it was also very encouraging to see our young people determined to defend their land and stay in their homeland," Karim says of his visit. "To see them ready to fight and to sacrifice for their land, I think that's what's very meaningful, that made me very proud of them."

Thousands of Syriac Christians have already fled the town in fear that ISIS will take control and force them to live a life as second citizens under their extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Karim says that the population of the town in the summer was approximately 15,000 but it now numbers closer to 2,000 following the ISIS advance.

In August, ISIS captured another Syrian town with a large Syriac Christian population, Al-Qaryatain, taking hundreds of Christians—from both the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic denominations of Christianity—captive, before releasing them to their homes and forcing them to pay jizya (tax) and sign a dhimma (Sharia social contract) to avoid death.

Nuri Kino, founder of the Middle Eastern advocacy group A Demand for Action says that ISIS's treatment of Christian minorities elsewhere in the Middle East is motivating Christian militia to prevent another tragedy in Sadad.

"We hope that Sadad does not become a new Mosul, Nineveh, Khabour or al-Qaryatain," Kino says by email. "The people in Sadad and all those that joined them, many Christians from all over Syria, showed that they have had it with ISIS turning Christians into slaves."

Despite the hundreds of Christian fighters arriving in Sadad to protect the town, Karim is aware of the thousands to have left and issues a rallying cry to his people.

"It is better that we stay in our homeland," he says. "If we die here, we are defending our homeland and we are not trying to flee."