Residents in a coastal town along the Syria-Turkey border with a significant Armenian population face new threats after rebels seized control of their town from forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad a week ago.
Some of the rebels are from the al-Qaida-tied Jabhat al-Nusra, or al-Nusra Front, which the United States designated as a terrorist group.
Reports say that the rebels entered houses owned by Christians immediately after taking control of the city of Kassab, seizing all the alcohol and destroying all the publicly-displayed Christian imagery, including crosses.
Thousands fled the city.
"We had to flee only with our clothes," a woman from Kassab told the Associated Press. "We couldn't take anything, not even the most precious thing — a handful of soil from Kassab. We couldn't take our memories."
The rebels were companied by a radical Saudi preacher known as Abdullah Mhesne. Social media networks such as Twitter published a photo of Mhsne near a street sign saying "Welcome to Kassab."
Mhesne listed some of the rebel groups which helped conquer the Christian town of Kassab on his Twitter account. They include Ahrar Al Sham – which works with Jabhat Al Nusra – and other Islamic battalions that include foreign fighters.
Ahrar Al Sham is the largest group in the Islamic Front, a coalition of jihadi groups fighting Assad. It also is among the groups attacking Christians in Kassab. The group still enjoys support from American-based groups lobbying for support in ousting Assad. For example, Syrian Emergency Task Force Executive Director Mouaz Mustafa advocated for Western support for the Islamic Front in December.
Mhesne runs a campaign called "Jahed Be Malak," which translates to "perform Jihad with your money," to raise money for Jihadists to buy weapons and for the rebels in Syria. Mhesne uses Turkish and Saudi cell phone number to contact the donors: For example, on Thursday he tweeted:
For those whose souls yearn for Jihad, but cannot wage Jihad themselves. Here is our campaign "Perform Jihad with your Money." We want to buy one hundred Grad rockets, so we can demolish the city of Qardaha [Assad's hometown].
Later, he claimed to have received a $13,000 donation, which can be used to buy three rockets.
In other posts, Mhesne rationalized the bad treatment Christians face in Kassab. But anyone targeted was not singled out for their faith, he wrote, but because they supported Assad's regime. But he also said Christians would be forced into dhimmi status, or submission to Islam, in order to survive. In that scenario, "they agree to not display their crosses except in the houses and churches."The houses invaded during the past week were "for the need of Jihad," he wrote, downplaying the harm. "We entered the houses of the Christians with the brothers, but no one touched anything," Mhesne wrote. "We only broke the crosses, and the wine bottles, and the pork."