Ten days after the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s harsh offensive emptied out a cluster of Assyrian Christian villages in northeast Syria, the extremists’ intentions toward their 220 or more Christian hostages still remained unclear.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an Assyrian commander said IS extremists released 29 of their Christian hostages on March 1st, citing a so-called “Sharia court decision” to set them free. But the first group of released captives to reach safety in Hassaka city on March 2nd numbered only 19.
All in their 50’s or older, the 19 former captives included 17 men and two women. All were civilians from Tel Goran village; except for one hostage believed to have been captured by IS a month earlier. Local Sunni Arab leaders reportedly helped negotiate for the release of the Tel Goran hostages. “We did not believe that we would come out alive,” one of the released Christians later told the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). “We were in constant fear.”
On March 3rd, four more hostages, including a six-year-old girl named Mariana and her great aunt, were released and welcomed to Hassaka by crowds of relieved Assyrians. Although the militants ordered the release of Mariana’s father in the first group of captives, they demanded that he return to pay a ransom before they would set his daughter free. The other two released Assyrians were from a separate village, Tel Shamiran.
According to one of the released Tel Goran hostages who spoke by telephone with AINA, everyone in the small village was awakened, rounded up and kept under guard during the initial three hours of fighting in the early hours of February 23rd. The 17 men and four women were driven to Mt. Abdul Aziz for the first night, and then the next morning driven north another four hours into the mountains.
For the next five days, he said, “They kept pressuring us to convert to Islam. It was their constant focus. But we were not mistreated.” When the Christians refused to convert, they were told they must then pay the jizra “tax” for not becoming Muslims.
“We said we would pay the jizra, but we would not convert.” Later, their captors said they would not collect the jizra, since villagers had not fought against them. But the condition of their release, the IS fighters said, was that the Christians could not return to their village.
“They said if we returned and they captured us again, they would kill us. They would behead the men and enslave the women.”
The Associated Press, citing the Assyrian Network for Human Rights in Syria, has reported that the extremists could be positioning their captives as human shields from coalition air attacks against Shadadi town, 40 miles south of Hassaka. News reports also have cited relatives of hostages saying IS fighters answering the mobile phones of their hostages have suggested they wanted prisoner swaps with the Kurdish forces, who have captured IS fighters.
Violent clashes are continuing between IS militants and the Kurdish and Assyrian forces, who are trying to drive them from the Khabour region of Hassaka province. In one significant victory on February 27th, Kurdish fighters pushed the IS militants out of Tel Hamees, a strategic stronghold near the Syria-Iraq border which the jihadists had held for nearly a year.
“The southern bank of Khabour River is now controlled by IS,” said Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, head of the Christian Aid Program in northern Iraq. “The northern part is controlled by Assyrian and Kurdish fighters,” and the area’s 3,000 Christians have all evacuated their homes now and fled to Hassaka and Qamishli, he said.
With Turkey discouraging the flow of refugees into their nation, some 40 displaced Assyrian Christians have fled across the Lebanese border, where they began arriving on March 2nd. Lebanese Parliament member Michel Aoun spoke out strongly in support of the special one-week visas being granted to the displaced Assyrians, declaring at a press conference March 3rd, “We do not want [Christians] to take refuge in Europe or anywhere else. It is a crime to treat in that way the people who have lived in the Levant for centuries.”
Meanwhile, church leaders in Hassaka province are caught in a “sensitive situation” concerning the several hundred remaining Christian hostages, Emanuel told World Watch Monitor from Dohuk, in northern Iraq. “We are focusing on saving lives and the safe release of these people. Our bishop and church in Hassaka are doing their best.”
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father, we are overwhelmed at times as to how to pray for the nation of Syria, Christians and Muslims alike. But today, we pray for the hostages who were released; that You would provide a place to live, along with other Christians in the area. We pray for healing from the fear they must have experienced at the hands of IS forces and give thanks for their protection. And we pray for the hostages who remain in captivity; that You would protect them and cause Your peace that transcends all understanding, to rest upon them. We pray for the Christians in Syria, especially the church leaders, as they consider their response to the civil war that continues to rage through the country. Lavishly pour out Your wisdom and understanding upon them as they consider the complex political situation and the difficult decisions they must make. In the name of Jesus, through whose sacrifice the Spirit of the Living God dwells within us, Amen.