Syria: Final group of Hassaka hostages released

On 22 February, Islamic State released a final group of 43 Assyrian Christian hostages from the Hassaka group abducted in February 2015.

The released hostages had been among the 253 Assyrian Christians abducted from 35 villages along the Khabur River in Hassaka province, northeast Syria, on 23 February 2015, during raids in which IS burned churches and forced 3,000 other Assyrians out of their villages. The released hostages are from the villages of Tel Jazeera, Tel Shamiran and Tel Jazeera, and had been held in Raqqa, the city used as Islamic State’s headquarters.

Groups of hostages had been released throughout the year, beginning with the elderly and little children. Before this final release it had been thought that a larger number remained in captivity, but Bishop of Syria Mar Afram Athneil, Chairman of aid agency The Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation (ACERO), has said that this freed group comprises the final hostages from the Hassaka group. He is pictured above with the released hostages.

An ACERO statement said: “No hostages remain and any reports quoting other figures to the contrary are unsubstantiated… While this news thankfully marks the end of the most recent tribulation, we mourn the tremendous losses, both human and material, suffered by the indigenous Assyrians of Syria. The destruction of their livelihoods in the historic Khabur villages is a loss for the Assyrian nation and for Syria as a whole.

ACERO spokesman Joseph Haweil said, “This is the culmination of the tireless efforts of the Assyrian Church of the East in Syria and the church’s international aid agency, ACERO. The captives who have been incrementally released over the last year have suffered inordinate psychological trauma. The attempted destruction of Assyrian continuity in Syria is only the latest installment in more than a decade of intense persecution suffered by the indigenous Assyrians throughout the Middle East. Today, however, the Assyrian people have witnessed a ray of light from amidst the darkness. We pray that all of Syria’s suffering people may also see this light of hope.”

Negotiations
The release of each group of hostages followed extensive negotiations led by church leaders working with local negotiators. There was no public mention of ransoms being paid for these releases, but IS had demanded enormous ransoms, and several sources have confirmed that ransoms were paid for the release of the final group.

An Assyrian source with knowledge of Monday’s release and of the negotiations told Newsweek on condition of anonymity that the Assyrian community paid ransoms for the hostages’ release. The source declined to specify how much was paid, but said that a lower price was negotiated than the $100,000 per hostage demanded last year, and added that the release was negotiated between Syrian Christian leaders and Sunni tribal leaders aligned to IS.

In spring 2015, IS demanded a ransom of $100,000 for each hostage, totalling $23 million. (Some 23 hostages, most of them elderly, had already been released.) The Assyrian community could not afford to pay, so the demand was lowered to between $12 and $14 million.

In May, the Assyrians offered $1.15 million, or $5,000 per hostage, to be financed by donations from their community. IS rejected the offer. In October, IS released a video showing the execution of three of the hostages and threatening to kill the rest if a ransom of $50,000 per hostage, totalling over $11 million, was not paid.

Younan Talia of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation said the release came after mediation led by a top Assyrian priest in northern Syria. He said IS demanded a ransom of $18 million for the Assyrian Christians, but that the figure was lowered following negotiations, although he said he did not know the final amount.

A Syrian Christian speaking on condition of anonymity said the worldwide Assyrian community launched a campaign for the captives’ release shortly after they were abducted and that when a bank account was opened in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil donations began to flow in from around the world. He said, “We paid large amounts of money, millions of dollars, but not $18 million. We paid less than half the amount.

Rami Abdurrahman, Director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said $25-30 million in ransom money was paid by businessmen and the Assyrian church, who asked that the terms of the deal remain secret to avoid allegations of supporting terrorism. He did not say how he got the information.

The Assyrian Church
The ancient Assyrian Church of the East has roots dating back to the 1st century AD. Assyrian Christians speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and have origins in ancient Mesopotamia – a territory spread across northern Iraq, northeast Syria and southeastern Turkey. Since the Hassaka attacks in February 2015, IS has besieged several ancient Assyrian sites, including the Iraqi city of Nimrud.

(ABC News, Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation, Christian Today, Newsweek)