People gather at the scene of a car bomb explosion outside the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of al-Wasti in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in northeast Syria, July 11, 2019.
People gather at the scene of a car bomb explosion outside the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of al-Wasti in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in northeast Syria, July 11, 2019.

A suicide attack claimed by Islamic State (IS) near a church in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli shows that Christians remain a major target of the terror group, local officials and experts say. 

The car bombing, which took place Thursday near the Virgin Lady Church in Qamishli, left at least 12 people wounded, some in critical condition. It also damaged parts of the church.

The terror group claimed responsibility for the attack through its online media.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces declared victory over IS in March of this year, but SDF officials say the group still poses a threat to the local population.

IS "has a large number of sleeper cells that can wage deadly attacks against civilians in our area, particularly Christians and other minorities," said Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations in the SDF-led administration in northeast Syria. 

Losing all territory they once held means IS militants are more likely to plan and execute suicide attacks in areas under SDF control, Omar told VOA. 

Syrian Kurdish security forces lift the wreckage of a rigged car which detonated outside the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in Qamishli in northeast Syria, July 11, 2019.

When IS took control of large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014, it reinstated the jizya, an Islamic tax imposed on non-Muslims. Under that law, Christians were forced to pay monthly or yearly fees for living in IS-held territory.

Many Christians were also forced either to convert to Islam or face ill-treatment from IS militants.

Fear of future attacks 

Seeking protection, many Christians have aligned themselves with the U.S.-backed SDF. But still, some of them voice concerns about their future.

"No matter how stable the situation here gets, we always fear that [IS] and other terrorist groups are always prepared to attack us," said a 42-year-old Christian man from Qamishli whose female relative was among the wounded in Thursday's attack. He insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution. 

Christian activists say the time has come for Christians in Syria to unite and seek international support. 

"Religious and political leaders must come together, and make the protection of our defenseless people their ultimate objective," said Malek Hanna, a civil society activist based in Qamishli. 

IS Claims Attack on Christians in Syria's Qamishli video player.
Embed
At least 12 civilians were wounded in a car bomb explosion in Qamishli, Syria on July 11, 2019.

IS networks

Experts charge that IS's ability to carry out attacks against Christians and other communities stems from the fact that the terror group still has a network of militants that was not destroyed when SDF fighters took control of IS's last stronghold in eastern Syria in March. 

"This is the latest attack on Christians with similar attacks in Hasakeh city and the Khabur region in recent weeks," said Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a U.S.-based think tank. 

IS fighters "are known for their hostility to Christian communities. But these attacks should also be placed in the context of many similar acts of aggression against non-Christian targets in recent weeks," he told VOA. 

Spyer added that IS's increasing attacks are "all part of a campaign intended to foment chaos in this area."

Since April, IS has claimed responsibility for at least six major attacks on SDF-held territory.