Islamic militants connected with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, have marked Assyrian Christians for death unless they embrace the group's hard-line interpretation of Islam.
Assyrian refugees from the town of al-Thawrah in north-central Syria report being threatened with death should they return to their homes. Jabhat al-Nusra fighters seized the town and its strategic dam on the Euphrates River in February.
The Assyrians are descendants of Syria's original inhabitants who have lived in the area since before the advent of Islam. They adhere to a form of Christianity that broke ranks with Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in the 5th century.
Christians saw their properties seized by the Islamists and their possessions sold on the black market to buy weapons and ammunition.
"Everything now is in Jabhat al-Nusra's hands," an Assyrian refugee told the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). "All the Muslims stayed here, but if any Christians want to go back they have to become Muslim or else they will be killed."
One Christian man said the Islamic extremists would call or text him on his cell phone ordering him to do as they said or be killed. Christians report they hesitate to provide too much information over the phone or on the Internet for fear Syrian rebels are monitoring communications.
Many feel paralyzed – they've been threatened if they return home, but if they try to leave the country, "All of the roads are full of rebel fighters," an Assyrian refugee from al-Thawrah told AINA. "There is nothing now, nothing to return to. We just need help to get out of here and settle in a country that's safe."
Christian leaders already have been targeted. Two Orthodox bishops were kidnapped in April. Their plight has been a top concern or Eastern Christians across the globe and has galvanized the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which has supported Vladimir Putin's effort to back dictator Bashar al-Assad. They may be being held as bargaining chips to get Russia to end its support for Assad's regime.
The bishops' fates remain officially unknown, but a report in al-Monitor suggests that they likely were killed hours after their abduction by Chechen terrorists. Syrian refugees, the report says, claim that the jihadists slit the bishops' throats in keeping with their reading of Islamic law.