HASSAKEH, Syria (Christian Examiner) – With no explanation, Islamic State militants on Sunday released 19 of the nearly 300 Assyrian Christians kidnapped last week from villages along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria.
No mention was made of those who were not released. Most are believed to have been taken by ISIS fighters to Shaddadeh, about 30 miles south of Hassakeh.
The 16 men and three women who were released, according to the Associated Press, or 17 men and two women, according to Reuter's news agency – each more than 50 years old, and all from the village of Tal Ghoran – arrived safely Sunday at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Hassakeh.
"The captives had been ordered released by a sharia court after paying an unspecified amount of money levied as a tax on non-Muslims," said Osama Edward, the Sweden-based director of Assyrian Human Rights Network to the Associated Press. Such a tax is a well-established expense for non-Muslims in the Middle East.
Assyrian leaders and Sunni tribal sheikhs are said to be trying to negotiate the release of the captives.
"We're trying to contact any party that might help," said Younan Talia, a leader with the Assyrian Democratic Organizations. "We're working through our friends the tribal sheikhs. Some friends of Daesh [Arabic acronym for ISIS] are trying to send messages" between the two groups.
The kidnappings have added to concerns among religious minorities in Syria and in Iraq. Minority residents in both nations have been repeatedly targeted by ISIS. Some have been killed; many have been driven from their homes. Churches have been destroyed and many women enslaved by people King Abdullah of nearby Jordan calls "outlaws."
The king told CNN yesterday the fight against the Islamic State is a "third world war" and called upon all nations to come together to help counter the efforts made by the militant group over the last year as they conquered large sections of Iraq and Syria.
Assyrian Christians, an ethnic minority in Syria, are descendants of the Assyrians mentioned in the Bible in 2 Kings 15 and Hosea 11. In the first century Christianity became the primary religion of Assyrians, and it is reported their missionary zeal led to the first Christian missions to China and Japan. Adherence to Christianity has led to persecution, massacres and ethnic cleansing of Assyrians in waves by non-Christian neighbors and most of the 4.5 million Assyrians today live outside of traditional homelands in Iraq and Syria.