Lebanon Takes in 20 Assyrian Refugees Despite Restrictions

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Al-Akhbar Management

Published Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Lebanon made an exception to its border restrictions on Syrian refugees Tuesday to allow in some 20 Assyrian Christians fleeing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, a priest said.

The Assyrians, who included children, had fled their homes in the northeastern province of Hasaka and arrived Monday evening at a Lebanese border checkpoint, said Lebanese priest Sargoun Zoumaya.

"They spent the whole night at the border because of the very strict Lebanese entry measures and I had to make several calls so they would be allowed to come in," Zoumaya told AFP.

Lebanon's official National News Agency also reported the entry of the Assyrian refugees, putting the number at 17.

Lebanon has tightened border restrictions since January in an effort to curb the entry of Syrians into its territories.

In the past, citizens of both countries have been able to travel freely across their shared border since Lebanon gained independence in 1943.

However, Lebanon’s population has grown by nearly 25 percent since the war in Syria began in 2011, with over 1.5 million Syrian refugees sheltered in a country with a population of 4 million, making it the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world.

The refugee influx has put huge pressure on the country's already scarce resources and poor infrastructure, education and health systems, and has also contributed to rising tensions in a nation vulnerable to security breaches and instability.

Zoumaya said the Assyrians received a one-week visa "because it is a humanitarian case" and were brought to the Saint George Assyrian Church in east Beirut.

"They are all in good health and are being hosted in nearby homes. We'll try to help them," Zoumaya said.

On Saturday, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk announced he had given orders "to facilitate the entry of Assyrians into (Lebanon) because this community's situation is a humanitarian one."

ISIS kidnapped some 220 Assyrians last week as they seized control of several Christian villages in northeastern Syrian, prompting some 5,000 members of the community to flee their homes.

Four of those kidnapped were released on Tuesday, including a mother and a daughter, said Osama Edward, director of the Sweden-based Assyrian Network for Human Rights.

Edward said ransoms were paid for their release, but declined to specify the amount.

"Negotiations for the release of the rest are ongoing. For now, it's going positively," he told AFP.

An ISIS religious court decided Saturday to free some of the hostages in exchange for a "jizya," or tax paid by non-Muslims.

In total, 23 have been released since Sunday.

Meanwhile an anti-regime political activist detained since July 2014 by Syrian authorities was also released.

Samir Ibrahim, 59, a leader in the Assyrian Democratic Organization, was arrested on his way to Beirut last year.

Four Assyrian political activists are still detained by the Syrian regime, including one who has been held since 1978.

Before pro-reform protests in March 2011 were brutally repressed and led to an armed insurgency, Syria was home to about 30,000 Assyrians, one of the oldest Christian communities.

ISIS has captured large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, declaring what it calls a cross-border Islamic ‘caliphate,’ killing thousands and displacing millions in the two countries.

Lebanon, meanwhile, has seen a string of clashes and explosions linked to the conflict in Syria.

Last month, violent clashes erupted overnight between the Lebanese army and unidentified militants along the border with Syria and left three Lebanese soldiers injured.

In recent months, the Lebanese army has fought several battles against jihadists crossing in from across the restive border with Syria.

The deadliest battle took place last August in the border town of Ersal with jihadists of ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, al-Nusra Front.

The Ersal violence left 16 soldiers dead and 85 wounded, while dozens of jihadists are said to have been killed, along with three civilians.

Islamist militants withdrew from the town to its outskirts, taking with them 25 captive Lebanese soldiers and policemen, four of whom they have since executed.

In October, Lebanese troops fought deadly clashes with ISIS and Nusra jihadists in the northern city of Tripoli.

The fighting left 42 people dead, including 11 soldiers and eight civilians.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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