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Assyrian Christians Released; Many Concerned for Those Still Held

02 Mar 2015 – By Dale Gavlak

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Christians in the Middle East welcomed the release of nearly 20 Assyrian Christians abducted by Islamic State militants in northeastern Syria, but expressed concern that more than 200 others remained in captivity.

“I can confirm the release of 19 persons [17 men and 2 women] who were captured by the Islamic State in the Khabur region,” said Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI.

“We pray and hope for the others to be released,” he added.

Bashir Saedi, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Organization, said all those released were around 50 years of age or older, suggesting that age might have been a factor.

Vatican Radio reported that Osama Edward, who heads the Assyrian Human Rights Network, said the Christians were released because jizya, an Islamic protection tax levied on non-Muslims, had been paid.

They are now “in the church of the city of Hassake,” Edward said. The network published photographs on its Facebook page that appeared to show people in Hassake greeting the returnees.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that an Islamic court had ruled the captives be freed, but it said the reasoning behind the decision was unknown.

On 23 February, Islamic State militants raided a cluster of villages along the Khabur River near Syria’s northeastern province of Hassake and abducted Assyrian Christian residents and other minorities.

There have been conflicting reports about the actual number of the captives still held by the extremists, and their fate remains unclear. The Observatory said there were 220. Other activists said the figure was higher than 260.

Sunni Muslim Arab tribal leaders have been mediating with the extremist militia to secure the captives’ release. Many observers believe most captives were taken to Shaddadeh, about 30 miles south of Hassake.

The abductions have added to growing fears among religious minorities in the Middle East who have been repeatedly targeted by the Islamic State group, especially in Syria and Iraq. During the militants’ campaign in Syria and Iraq over the past year, minorities have been repeatedly targeted and killed, driven from their homes, had their women enslaved and places of worship and cultural artifacts destroyed.

The attacks along the Khabur took place just weeks after video was released of Islamic State beheading 21 Egyptian Christians that it called “crusaders.”

At the Vatican, Pope Francis called on everyone to help the people of Syria and Iraq, many of whom are suffering because of their faith.

After praying the Angelus with those gathered in St. Peter’s Square on 1 March, the pope underlined his dismay over the ongoing “dramatic” events unfolding in the area — the “violence, kidnappings and oppression to the detriment of Christians and other groups.”

He said the church has not forgotten about the minorities and their plight and said Catholics were “praying urgently that the intolerable brutality” they are suffering “may end as soon as possible.”

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Tags: Middle East Christians Violence against Christians Chaldean Church Assyrian Church