One pastor’s journey from life on the streets to the head of pro-democracy protests
Someone should tell ISIS: The orange jumpsuits no longer draw the world’s attention as they did a year ago when American journalist James Foley became one of the terror group’s first victims to be executed on camera wearing one.
In early October, three men crouched in sand wearing the orange one-piece outfits—all Assyrian Christians from northeastern Syria. They were shown being shot in the head and killed in a video released by ISIS. Those living in the United States most likely didn’t see the one-minute video clip. A few Arabic-language media outlets carried reports of the latest filmed execution and some showed the video, but in the United States no news outlets televised it, and only a few reported it at all.
Yet the footage is the first from ISIS, or Islamic State, of Syrian Christians being executed. It also carried threats of further killings against hundreds of Assyrian Christians who have been held hostage for months, according to the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights.
With the camera rolling and a brisk wind flapping their sleeves, the three men kneeling in the sand said they were “Nasrani,” a Muslim pejorative for Christians. They recited their names and hometowns: Ashur Abraha of Tel Tamar, Basam Essa Michael of Tel Shamiram, and Dr. Abdulmasih Enwiya of Jazira. Two gave their dates of birth. Three men wearing desert camouflage and black masks next stepped behind them, each raising a handgun to shoot each of the three Christians in the head. The victims’ bodies slumped forward, and seconds later three more men appeared kneeling behind the dead men, the executioners pointing guns at their heads also.
As with the first segment, each hostage recited his name and hometown, but one of them—in what looks like a scripted gesture—pointed to the bodies on the ground and said, “Our fate is the same as these if you do not take proper procedure for our release.” With that, the video ended.
The three killed and the three apparently left alive all are confirmed part of a group of 250 Assyrians abducted in February after Islamic State attacked about 35 villages along the Khabur River in Hasakah Province. ISIS killed at least 15 young Assyrian Christians in the attacks as they tried to protect the towns, and militants rounded up hundreds and took them hostage in the overnight raids—leaving 1,400 Assyrian families unable to return to their homes (see “One family’s night flight from ISIS,” March 5, 2015). ISIS released several dozen captives, mostly elderly, leaving about 180 still held.
At that time, church leaders reported American aircraft flew over the area but took no action. The surviving Khabur River families have not received support from international aid groups or the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), but were taken in by other churches in Syria and helped by the Iraq-based Assyrian aid group CAPNI and others. In April ISIS blew up a church in one of the villages, the 80-year-old Church of the Virgin Mary in Tal Nasri. In May Kurdish forces working with Christian militias managed to retake Tal Nasri and several other villages, but ISIS had land-mined the towns, especially the spaces surrounding churches. The Christian residents have not been allowed to return to the 35 villages dotting the area, which were settled by those escaping the genocide of Christians in Turkey and Iraq a century ago.
According to Arabic-language news outlets, the videotaped executions took place on Sept. 23 during a Muslim holiday known as the “Festival of the Sacrifice” (eid al-Adha). The killings followed months of indirect negotiations by Assyrian human rights groups for the captured Christians’ release.
Osama Edward, director of the Stockholm-based Assyrian Human Rights Network, says ISIS is demanding $12 million for release of all the hostages. The negotiations, he said, “have been suspended due to the unbearable demands of the terror group.” After the video’s release, he reported, ISIS threatened to execute the 180 remaining hostages if ransom wasn’t paid.
Adding to the decimation for Syria’s already dispersed Christian community, the same week brought an unconfirmed report of 11 Christian workers near Aleppo beheaded then hung on crosses by ISIS militants. According to Christian Aid Mission, the workers were Muslim converts to Christianity who presided over house churches in the area. ISIS captured them in August and demanded they renounce Christianity. When they refused, they were brutalized and killed.
With fighting and devastation intensifying in Aleppo and elsewhere in recent months, communication with church leaders has grown more difficult. At the Brussels-based European Syriac Union, a leading opposition group of the Assad government, foreign affairs head Rima Tüzün told me she had received the same report but her office had not been able to confirm the beheadings.
Western heads of state in recent weeks have become more focused on the region’s migrant crisis, rather than the violent brutality in Syria, Libya, and Iraq that is driving it. According to UNHCR, more than 300,000 refugees and migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean for Europe so far in 2015—up from 219,000 for all of 2014 (also a record-setting year for global migration).
The UN estimates at least 850,000 more people seeking refuge will cross the Mediterranean for Europe this year and next. It’s unclear how many Christians are among those taking to the sea. Many of them are seeking refuge with other churches or family members in the region—not wanting to risk emptying Syria and other parts of the Middle East of its Christian population, and not able to trust Western officials who seem deaf to their specific plight.