A day after ISIS claimed responsibility for mass suicide bombings of Damascus and Homs, the extremist group released 43 Assyrian Christians for millions in ransom money. The Christians were the last of over 200 Assyrian Christians that were kidnapped by ISIS last year and held for ransom, according to Newsweek.
The kidnapped Christians were forced by ISIS to live under its strict Islam rule and made them pay jizya, a tax that early Islamic rulers demanded non-Muslim subjects to pay. They also had to sign a dhimma, a sort of social contract in a state that is under sharia law. The dhimma grants special status to non-Muslim subjects, protecting their rights of residence in return for paying jizya.
Negotiations have been going on since ISIS first kidnapped the Assyrian Christians and several of the hostages had already been released after ISIS received money for their return. Originally, the Assyrian community had raised $1.15 million and offered the money, which was $5,000 per hostage, to ISIS for the release of the hostages but ISIS turned the offer down. ISIS demanded $100,000 for each hostage instead, for a total cost of $23 million.
According to the Newsweek article, an Assyrian source who asked for anonymity, confirmed to Newsweek that the Assyrian community paid ransoms for the hostages’ release. The source did not reveal what organizations donated money, but a lower price than $100,000 per hostage was negotiated.
The Christian Post reported that several Christian aid groups together with IS-affiliated Sunni tribal leaders completed the trade that ultimately released the last of the Assyrian Christians. According to CP, an anonymous Syrian Christian activist told the AP that the exchange was made after the money was secured by donations from around the world. “We paid large amounts of money, millions of dollars, but not $18 million,” the activist told the media, adding “We paid less than half the amount.”
The Christians, including women and children, were kidnapped from villages surrounding Tal Tamr, and ISIS reportedly rounded up hostages from the south bank of the Khabur river in the early morning hours. The extremist group had launched a three-day offensive strike and attacked the 35 villages along the Khabur river. ISIS also blew up churches, looted and burned homes and crops while kidnapping entire families. The U. S. State Department condemned the attack as “brutal and inhumane treatment.”
“ISIL’s latest targeting of a religious minority is only further testament to its brutal and inhumane treatment of all those who disagree with its divisive goals and toxic beliefs.”
CP said the White House also later released a similar statement stating that the kidnappings “were proof of the terrorist group’s ‘depravity.'” The White House statement added, “The international community stands united and undeterred in its resolve to bring an end to ISIL’s depravity. The United States will continue to lead the fight to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”
ISIS has released the hostages in stages beginnning last March, with 19 Christians released. Hostages were not released again until November when 10 Christians were released, then 25 in December, 16 in January, and finally the 43 who were the last to be released Monday morning.
Newsweek reported that Assyrian Christians are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Middle East. The rise of radical Islamist groups such as ISIS has caused the Christian population to steadily decrease.
Newsweek also said that as of July 2015, a third of Syria’s 600,000 Christians had escaped from Syria, and only a third of the 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq in 2003 still live there today, according to the New York Times. Lebanon’s Christian population has shrunk from 78 percent down to 34 percent over the last century.
The hostages’ relatives also told Newsweek that they were relieved that their loved ones had been released. One relative, Sabah, said “I am shaking. I have been praying for this day. I thought it would never come. They are on their way to the church in Hasakah.”
Another relative, Shami, said she had spoken to her cousin after the release of the hostages.
“Thank you all that have shown that the world is not entirely egoistic, that people still can count on help. Today is a victory in so many ways. I have just spoken to my cousin that was released, there is no way that I can explain my feelings.”
[Photo By AP Photo/Hussein Malla]