Assyrian Christians Demand Arms, Support to Fight ISIS as Hundreds Kidnapped

Hussein Malla/AP
Hussein Malla/AP

People in the Islamic State’s (ISIS/ISIL) way in the Middle East are desperate to fight against the terrorist group as the jihadists expand their caliphate. Syria’s Assyrian Christian population has increasingly expressed frustration over the lack of international funding and arms for their militias, while ISIS continues to kill and abduct hundreds.

Nino Youkhana left Syria for Lebanon two years ago to escape the civil war. He called his uncle when he heard the Islamic State entered villages around the Khabour River. An Islamic State member answered the phone and did not allow Youkhana to speak with his family. After a few tries, the jihadists allowed the two to speak, but only if “they spoke in Arabic and not in their Assyrian dialect.” That was the last time they spoke.

“All of my relatives have been kidnapped, and their houses and the churches in the area burnt,” he said. “Apart from the first day’s brief phone call, we haven’t been able to speak to them, and we know nothing. All we want is some news on them, on what is going on. This is all we’re asking for.”

The Islamic State kidnapped 220 Assyrian Christians in northeast Syria on February 23, as they attacked twelve villages. The victims include men, women, and children. Osama Edward, founder of the Assyrian Human Rights Network, told CNN the Islamic State kidnapped more than 262 people on February 23. The network is based in Sweden, but team members on the ground in Syria supply Edward with information. On Sunday, the terrorists released 16 men and three women in exchange for money. However, those released were over 50 years old, which makes officials believe “age might be a factor” in future negotiations.

In Hassakah, residents claimed the jihadists “ransacked” residential areas, “houses were burnt to the ground, and those who were not able to flee were either killed or kidnapped.” Activists in Beirut said the Islamic State kidnapped 240 people, while 3,000 fled from Hassakah and Qamishli. Residents claim the number kidnapped is much higher. Those in Beirut are frustrated and feel abandoned.

“We have men, we have a military council for Assyrians [in Hassakah], but no one is giving us weapons to defend ourselves,” explained Ibrahim Murad, head of Syriac Union Party. “There is a conspiracy against us to push the indigenous people off their land.”

During a meeting, one older man stood up and said he would fight against the Islamic State. Others wanted to know when the international community will step in.

“All we are hearing are empty words from politicians and leaders,” said Jean, one of the attendees. “Many people here are ready to enter Syria and to go fight, but the problem is no one wants to give us weapons. What are we supposed to fight with?”

Sharlet and Romel David, from Modesto, CA, spoke to CNN affiliate KCRA. They said twelve of their family members were kidnapped. Sharlet’s brother went to Syria two years ago to rescue his son and their family, but she believes the Islamic State took them.

“We pray, we pray all the time,” Romel expressed to CNN. “What we’ve heard is it was like a sea of black uniforms marching through all the villages, burning down the churches, desecrating the crosses and wreaking havoc.”

The Assyrians date back to Mesopotamia, which includes Syria, over 4,000 years ago. They faced discrimination throughout their entire history, which still causes them “to flee and seek refuge.” Assyrians make up five percent of the population in Syria, but over 50,000 fled to Lebanon since 2011.

“How can Syria be Syria without the Assyrians?” exclaimed Edward. “We gave the country our name.”