POSITIVE news this week about the release of a group of Christians held by Islamic State (IS) gunmen in Syria for nine months has been overshadowed by reports that yet more people were fleeing their homes in the face of jihadist advances.
IS has freed 37 people who were among 200 Assyrians captured in February (News, 27 February). Photos of those released arriving in Tal Tamr, a village in the far north-east of Syria, were posted on the Facebook page of the Assyrian Human Rights Network. Negotiations are continuing to secure freedom for the estimated 124 people who are still being held by IS.
Meanwhile, close to Syria’s border with Lebanon, IS advances are continuing. The Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Homs & Hama, Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, quoted by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), said that almost 1500 Christians had fled from the town of Sadad as IS forces that had already seized villages near by came close.
"We are afraid that ISIS, which God will hopefully prevent, will conquer the town. We would lose the centre of Christianity in our diocese," he told ACN. Sadad was held by IS for a short time two years ago. During that time, 45 Christians were killed, and churches and houses were destroyed.
In the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, many hundreds of Christians are among the population living in government-controlled areas that are coming under fire from opposition forces. The US-based Open Doors missionary group quoted one resident of Aleppo as saying that food was in very short supply: "Even the United Nations relief packages have stopped. Vegetables and fruit have disappeared from the shops.
"There is no gasoline in the stations. . . There is no electricity, and no water. People are standing in very long lines to fill their buckets."
Diplomatic moves to end the conflict are continuing. More talks involving the United States’
Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, are scheduled for this coming weekend in Vienna. Representatives of Iran, and other countries with a stake in Syria, are likely to take part as well.
Although Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov seem determined to remain engaged in the search for a solution, there are still huge differences over the key issue of the future of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia and Iran, on the one side, argue that it is for the Syrian people to decide his fate; Saudi Arabia and its Western allies are insisting that he cannot be part of any solution.
Even if a compromise on this issue can be found, there will still be many challenges ahead — not least how to persuade the dozens of armed groups to lay down their weapons.