DAMASCUS, Syria – The Islamic State group demolished an ancient monastery founded more than 1,500 years ago in central Syria Friday, near a town where the extremists abducted dozens of Christians earlier this month, activists and a Christian priest said.
The extremist group posted photos on social media Friday showing bulldozers destroying the Saint Elian Monastery near the town of Qaryatain, which IS captured in early August.
A Christian clergyman told The Associated Press in Damascus that IS militants also wrecked a church inside the monastery that dates back to 5th century. The priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the monastery included an Assyrian Catholic church.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria's conflict, also reported the destruction of the monastery.
Since capturing parts of Syria and Iraq, IS fighters have destroyed mosques, churches and archaeological sites. Earlier this week, fighters in the IS-held town of Palmyra publicly beheaded an 81-year-old antiquities scholar who had dedicated his life to studying and overseeing the Palmyra's iconic ancient ruins.
A resident from Qaryatain who recently fled to Damascus called on the United Nations to protect Christians as well as ancient Christian sites in Syria.
The man, who spoke on condition that his name is not made public for fear his relatives still in Qaryatain might be harmed, said militants leveled the shrine and removed the church bells.
Osama Edward, the director of the Christian Assyrian Human Rights Network, told the AP that government shelling of the area had already damaged the monastery over the past two weeks before IS fighters destroyed it.
"Daesh continued the destruction of the monastery," said Edward, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State group. He said the monastery was founded in 432.
Christian priest Jacques Mourad, who lived at the monastery, was kidnapped from the area in May and remains missing. According to Edward, Mourad had actively welcomed and sheltered both Muslim and Christian Syrians fleeing the fighting elsewhere in Homs province.
Shortly after capturing Qaryatain, activists said the Islamic State group abducted 230 residents, including dozens of Christians. Activists say some Christians were released, though the fate of the others is still unknown.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria's prewar population of 23 million.
In February, IS kidnapped more than 220 Assyrian Christians, after overrunning several farming communities on the southern bank of the Khabur River in the northeastern province of Hassakeh.
Since then, only a few have been released and the fate of the others remains unknown.