In Syrian Christian Town, ISIS Mass-Executed 116 People Before Assad's Army Closed In

Assyrian Kidnap Hostage Syria Middle East
In Beirut on February 28, 2015, Assyrians hold banners as they march in solidarity with Assyrians abducted by ISIS fighters in Syria. Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

Evidence has emerged of another Islamic State militant group (ISIS) mass execution, this time in the Syrian Christian desert town of Al-Qaryatain.

The militant group killed at least 116 civilians in executions committed in the days before the Syrian regime recaptured the town, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based monitoring group with an extensive network of contacts in Syria.

"ISIS has over a period of 20 days executed at least 116 civilians in reprisal killings, accusing them of collaboration with regime forces," SOHR chief Rami Abdelrahman told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

ISIS regained control of the town three weeks ago, and then the killings began. Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian air power, arrived and liberated the town on October 21 after dozens of ISIS fighters retreated, at which point the remains of the victims of the mass execution were found.

"After the regime retook it, the town's residents found the bodies on the streets. They had been shot dead or executed with knives," Abdelrahman said.

"Most of the ISIS fighters who attacked the town a month ago were sleeper cells.... They are from the town, know the town's residents and who is for or against the regime," he said.

A Syrian government official told the Associated Press that it was a "shocking massacre" and that government forces are continuing the search for victims in the town.

Another activist group, known as the Palmyra Coordination Committee, identified 67 civilians killed in Al-Qaryatain and said that figure could increase.

The town lies some 100 kilometers southwest of the ancient city of Palmyra. The town's population of Christians dropped from around 2,000 to just a few hundred when ISIS fighters took control in 2015. They held it for eight months before Syrian regime forces regained control in April 2016. That was followed by the renewed jihadi offensive at the end of September.

The group had taken more than 200 Christians hostage in the city in 2015, forcing them to live under their ultraconservative brand of Islamic rule. The group returned them to their homes only after they agreed to pay jizya (tax) and sign a dhimma (a Sharia social contract) in order to remain in the town and not face death.

In 2015, SOHR obtained a copy of the Sharia social contract. The dhimma shows that the orders came from ISIS's caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and state that he "gives" the Christians a guarantee on their "money, souls, not to force them to change their religion and not to harm any one of them."

The militant group carried out the same acts against Christians in Mosul, forcing them to leave, killing them or making them pay a tax to remain.

ISIS is an ultra-conservative Islamist group that considers ancient religious minorities, such as Syriac Catholics, Assyrians and Yazidis, to be kafir (disbelievers) and infidels.