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After Escape, Assyrian Christians Seek Refuge in Lebanon

Assyrian Christians attend a service at St. Georges Assyrian Church of the East in Beirut March 11. (photo: CNS/Doreen Abi Raad)  

19 Mar 2015 – By Doreen Abi Raad

BEIRUT (CNS) — Assyrian Christians from Syria’s besieged Khabur region who fled their homes when the Islamic State seized their villages in February are increasingly seeking refuge in neighboring Lebanon.

As of 17 March, the Assyrian Church of the East in Lebanon had registered 50 families from the region, and more are coming into neighboring Lebanon each day.

Michael and Hanna arrived in Lebanon on 11 March with their 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. They requested that Catholic News Service identify them by pseudonyms to protect their identity, because relatives are among the 300 or so hostages taken by Islamic State in the 23 February rampage on Khabur’s cluster of 35 villages.

So far, Islamic State released about 20 of the kidnapped, but there is no news of the remaining hostages, who include women, children and elderly.

“We have not heard anything,” Michael said. “We’re praying that God will protect them. What else can we do?”

Michael and his family were awakened around 3 a.m. by the thundering of Islamic State militants bombarding nearby villages. They waited a while to determine if the militants would approach their village, Tal Maghas. By 5 a.m., it was clear they had to escape.

“Everyone was terrified and panicking,” Michael said.

The family had time only to grab official documents, not even a change of clothes, before fleeing their home.

More than 3,000 people eventually fled the Khabur region, arriving first at Tel Tamr, about six miles away, then later traveling to Hassakeh and Qamishli. The uprooted villagers sheltered in churches and houses previously abandoned by other Christians, but the couple still did not feel safe.

“We were concerned that Hassakeh would be under siege, too. I was really afraid for my wife and daughter,” Michael said.

He reflected on life before the Syrian conflict, now entering its fifth year.

“In our village, we are simple people,” Michael said. “Just imagine, you live in your own house, you never owned a weapon, you never argue with anyone. We lived in harmony with everyone.”

“Then Daesh came,” Michael said, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic acronym. “They rob, kill, destroy, burn. Just because we are Christians.”

“We had the best life. It was lush and green,” Michael said of the Khabur area, where most of the residents work in agriculture. “They [Islamic State] even destroyed trees, everything. Now are lands are like a desert.”

Hanna quietly fiddled with a tissue, then quickly wiped tears from her eyes as she listened to her husband.

As if to reassure his wife, Michael adds: “I believe if it wasn’t for our faith in God, we wouldn’t have gotten this far.”

In Lebanon, they are staying with Hanna’s brother and his wife — Milad and Amira — who fled to Lebanon in January, also from the village of Tal Maghas. Milad found work as a custodian for an apartment building in Fanar, a suburb of Beirut. It provides the couple with small living quarters and a monthly stipend that barely covers the cost of food.

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Tags: Syria Lebanon Middle East Christians Violence against Christians Chaldean Church