ISIS Releases 19 Kidnapped Assyrians

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Displaced Assyrians, who had fled their hometowns due to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group (ISIS) attacks against their communities, take part in a prayer at the Ibrahim-al Khalil Melkite Greek Catholic church in the Jaramana district on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 1, 2015. AFP/Louai Beshara

Published Monday, March 2, 2015

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group jihadists on Sunday freed 19 of the 220 Assyrian Christians they took hostage in Syria last week, after a ransom was paid for their release, activists said.

"Nineteen Assyrian hostages arrived on Sunday at the Church of Our Lady in Hasaka after they were released by ISIS," said Osama Edward, the director of the Assyrian Network for Human Rights.

"They arrived on two buses from Shaddadeh," the ISIS stronghold in the northeastern province of Hasaka where they had been detained, he told AFP.

Edward said an ISIS religious court decided on Saturday to release the Christians in exchange for a sum of money for each family that ISIS considers as jizya, or tax, paid by non-Muslims. He was unable to say how much was paid but recalled that in November ISIS released Assyrians after receiving payments of $1,700 per person.

The activist said negotiations for the release of all hostages began on Saturday between Assyrian officials and Arab Muslim tribal chiefs.

Last week, ISIS kidnapped 220 Assyrians in the Tal Tamer area where the Islamist group has seized control of 10 Christian villages, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Almost 5,000 people have since fled to Kurdish- and government-controlled areas.

According to the Observatory, 17 men and two women were released on Sunday.

Before the war erupted in Syria 2011, there were 30,000 Assyrians in the country, among an estimated Christian population of about 1.2 million.

The Assyrians, from one of the world's oldest Christian communities, have faced an increasing threat since ISIS captured large parts of Syria, targeting in particular ethnic and religious minorities as well as anyone who does not swear allegiance to its self-declared "caliphate." The group last month released a video showing its members beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura paid a surprise visit on Sunday to a church near the Syrian capital in a show of solidarity with the war-torn country's Christian minority targeted by jihadists.

An AFP photographer said de Mistura travelled in a two-car UN convoy to a Greek Catholic church in Jaramana, southeast of Damascus, and met with priest Toma Asitivo Kaka.

The church has been used as a place of refuge for Assyrian Christians fleeing the chaos of Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion of that country.

His visit coincided with a mass of solidarity with the kidnapped Assyrians.

Pope Francis on Sunday denounced the "intolerable brutality" being inflicted on Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria by ISIS militants.

"Unfortunately the tragic news just keeps coming from Iraq and Syria," the pontiff said after his weekly prayer in St Peter's Square, without specifically naming ISIS.

"We want to assure all those who find themselves in these situations that we have not forgotten them," he said. "Rather we are with them and we are praying intently for the rapid end of the intolerable brutality of which they are victims."

About 220,000 people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the country's conflict in March 2011 and half of Syria’s population of 22 million has been forced to flee their homes.

The conflict began as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators and Islamists poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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