Levels of danger rose sharply in late April for northeast Syria’s isolated Assyrian Christians, according to Barbara Baker’s May 8 World Watch Monitor article. They have been caught for nearly three months now between Kurdish militias and Syrian army forces battling with militants from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) for control of Hassaka province.
“We are going through a terrible time,” Syriac Catholic Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo told Fides News on April 30. “The jihadists of the Islamic State attacked Hassaka for two days. They were warded off by the [Syrian] army and Kurdish militias. But we are cut off now, like an island surrounded by jihadists from all sides.”
Some 1,000 Assyrian families forced out of their village homes along the Khabur River by the Islamic State in late February have now sought refuge in Qamishli and Hassaka city. In addition, the 242 Assyrian Christians captured during the attacks are still being held, reportedly at al-Shaddadi, an IS stronghold that was bombed last week by the Syrian army. Church officials have identified all 93 women, 51 children and 98 men that were taken captive. After two months of behind-the-scenes negotiations through local intermediaries, church attempts to gain the release of the hostages have been rejected by the captors.
According to Australia’s Archbishop Mar Meelis of the Assyrian Church of the East, in a May 1 interview with Newsweek, the IS jihadists demanded a ransom of $23 million, or $100,000 per person, to release their Khabur captives. The militants reportedly described the ransom as the jizya—a payment required under Islamic law for non-Muslims who refuse to convert to Islam.
In response, an Assyrian church leader told World Watch Monitor, “This is an amount beyond the capacity of a tiny church and community. These captives are poor people who depended on their low incomes as farmers.” The church’s counter-offer, which the cleric said was “a reasonable amount that the families can afford,” was rejected, bringing negotiations to a standstill.
In March and April, dozens of the displaced Assyrian families began fleeing Hassaka to resettle abroad, with at least 300 families going to Beirut where the Lebanese government has agreed to grant six-month visas to Assyrian Christians from Hassaka who apply through the church. Others fled to refugee camps across the Iraqi border near Dohuk.
The violent clashes have now come close to the suburbs of Hassaka city, where the arch-bishops of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Syriac Catholic Church are headquartered. Only 800 Christian families remain in the province, he said.
“Assyrian Christians are facing a danger that threatens their existence in their historical regions,” Youkhana told the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights in Brussels on April 23.
Not only is Hassaka under the control of armed Islamist groups, he reported, but Assyrians are being manipulated by the Assad regime, which presents itself as the only alternative to protect Syria’s threatened religious minorities. As an ancient eastern church, Assyrian Christians are linked ethnically with the Syriac and Chaldean Christians of Turkey and Iraq.
An Assyrian doctor working in a government hospital in Qamishli told World Watch Monitor in late March that no group fighting for control of the Hassaka province is trustworthy. “I don’t trust any of them. There is clear coordination between them. They are all in contact with each other. And who wins? The weapon industry,” he said.
In Beirut, Bishop Yatron Koliana of the Assyrian Church of the East sadly agreed: “We are fasting and praying that the governments of the world will not give weapons or facilitate things for the Islamic State and their allies,” he told World Watch Monitor. ”Sometimes we feel that Christians here are being sold for oil and gas. So we plead for prayers that the big decision-makers will have mercy in their hearts to save us.”
“Any of the sides fighting here could stop it,” the doctor said. “But they don’t want to- they want to empty out all the Christians from here. Turkey has its fingers here, too. Without the Christians here, it will become like Afghanistan.”
Father, once again, we come before You on behalf of our fellow Christians in Syria who are being driven from the cities their families have dwelt in for generations. We pray for Your protection over them and Your wisdom to guide their decisions in the coming days and weeks as they find themselves caught between two hostile powers. We pray for the nation of Syria as it loses the godly influence of the Christians there. As spiritual darkness rapidly engulfs this nation, we pray that the light of Christ will break through with the gospel of redemption in miraculous ways, bringing peace to this war-ravaged land. And we pray that the small remnant of Christians who remain will grow into a mighty church, bringing the message of the gospel of Christ to the nations around them. In the Name of Jesus, who hears the cry of His people, Amen.