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Kidnapped Assyrians freed by Islamic State after ransom paid

04 March 2016

Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation (ACERO) www.theacero.org

Freed: the released captives with Bishop Mar Afram Athneil, who chairs the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization

Freed: the released captives with Bishop Mar Afram Athneil, who chairs the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization

FORTY-TWO Assyrian Christians, who were in a group of 230 people kidnapped in Syria in February 2015, have been released by their Islamic State (IS) captors. Seventeen women were among the final group. Their freedom was negotiated by an Assyrian priest in northern Syria after the payment of an unspecified ransom.

The group were kidnapped when IS took control of several villages in Hassakeh province, early last year (News, 27 February 2015).

A spokesman for the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation said that the 42 most recently released had “remained steadfast in their Christian faith, despite a horrific year-long trial”. Over that year, hostages were released incrementally as ransoms were paid.

They had all “suffered inordinate psychological trauma”, the spokesman said. “The attempted destruction of the Assyrian continuity in Syria is only the latest instalment in more than a decade of intense persecution.”

The freeing of the last batch of hostages, he said, provided “a ray of light from amidst the darkness. We pray that all of Syria’s suffering people may also see this light of hope.”

Diplomatic efforts continue to convert the two-week-long truce, arranged by the United States and Russia, which came into effect last weekend, into a more solid ceasefire. Meanwhile, campaigns to persuade the British and American governments to categorise as genocide the atrocities committed by IS on Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq are gathering momentum.

The vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, Lord Alton of Liverpool, has written to the Prime Minister asking the Government to reconsider its opinion that a decision on whether genocide is occurring in the Middle East is “a matter for the international judicial system and not governments or other non-judicial bodies”.

Lord Alton’s letter, signed by seven other members of the parliamentary group, urges the Government “to revisit this position for the sake of tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities who are currently subject to acts of genocide”.

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is to make a decision by mid-March on whether to declare the killings in the Middle East as genocide. Among the groups urging the Obama administration to make such a declaration is the Roman Catholic philanthropic organisation the Knights of Columbus, and the group In Defense of Christians.

In a joint petition, they have urged the US to “end its silence about the ongoing genocide against Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria”.

In the opinion of the two groups, “extensive and irrefutable evidence supports a finding” that IS mistreatment of Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities “meets this definition”.

Regardless of the arguments for or against such a categorisation, the only hope in the future for Syrian and Iraqi Christians, as much as for those of other faiths there, is a political solution that brings bloodshed to an end and restores security and stability. Only then will there be hope that the millions of refugees can return home, allowing the start of the long and costly reconstruction process.

The defeat of jihadist groups, and the bringing to justice of IS followers who have committed atrocities needs to be accompanied by a political process that involves the creation of new societies where religious tolerance is guaranteed. Without such developments, it is hard to imagine anything other than the withering of Christianity in the Middle Eastern.

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