A bishop worked secretly to save the lives of 226 members of his flock from the Islamic State group — by amassing millions of dollars from his community around the world to buy their freedom.
The Assyrian Christians were seized from the Khabur River valley in northern Syria, among the last holdouts of a minority that had been chased across the Mideast for generations. On Feb. 23, 2015, IS fighters attacked 35 Christian towns simultaneously, sweeping up scores of people.
It took more than a year, and videotaped killings of three captives, before all the rest were freed.
Paying ransoms is illegal in the United States and most of the West, and the idea of giving money to the Islamic State group is morally fraught, even for those who saw no alternative.
“You look at it from the moral side and I get it. If we give them money we’re just feeding into it, and they’re going to kill using that money,” said Aneki Nissan, who helped raise funds in Canada. But “to us, we’re such a small minority that we have to help each other.”
The Khabur families trace their heritage to the earliest days of Christianity. To this day, they speak a dialect of Aramaic, believed to be the native language of Jesus.
When the villages were attacked, fleeing residents phoned cousins, sons, daughters, friends — Assyrians who had left the region in waves for the West. In the chaos, no one was sure how many were taken captive — but everyone was certain they were going to die.
As days stretched into a week, it became clear IS had other plans.
The group told the 17 men captured from one village, Tal Goran, they could have their freedom but with a catch. Four female captives would remain, and one of the men had to deliver a message to their bishop in the town of Hassakeh about 40 miles away, and return with an answer. The extremists demanded $50,000 per person for the whole group.
Abdo Marza reluctantly agreed. His 6-year-old daughter was one of the captives.
It took the bishop, Mar Afram Athneil, three days to make a decision, as he consulted with members of the church around the world on what to do. Then he gave Marza a sealed envelope, with no explanation.
When Marza handed it over, the IS extremist broke into a smile. “Your bishop is a very smart man.” With that, his daughter and three old women were freed.
Athneil began secret negotiations for the remaining captives.
In California, Assyrian filmmaker Sargon Saadi packed his gear, hoping to learn what had happened to the Khabur villages. He found them almost deserted.