The Assyrian Christians released by the Islamic State after being taken hostage last week were forced to pay a religious tax because they refused to convert to Islam, and are unable to return home under penalty of death.
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights [SOHR] revealed that 19 hostages were released after a Shariah court ordered them to pay an unspecified amount as a traditional tax on non-Muslims. Several days later, four more Assyrians, including a six year old girl, were released under unspecified circumstances.
On Thursday, the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) spoke to one of the freed Assyrians named Robert, who recounted how the militants attempted to convert the Christians to Islam, and forced them to pay a fine when they refused.
"They kept pressuring us to convert to Islam, it was their constant focus," he recalled. "We said we would not convert. They said you must then pay the jizya [a Christian poll tax] or leave the country. That was the option given to us. We said we would pay the jizya but we would not convert."
According to Robert, jihadi group eventually agreed to release him and 18 others, but threatened to kill them if they ever attempted to return home.
"They said that they would release us on condition that we not return to our village. They said if we returned and they captured us again they would kill us without any other option, they would behead the men and enslave the women."
He added, "They again said that we must not stay in the country, if they captured us again they would kill us...it is by the grace of God we were saved."
Last week, the jihadist group targeted a number of villages inhabited by the ancient Christian minority near Tel Hmar, south of the Khabour river, killing nine Assyrian fighters and kidnapping hundreds of others. Later attacks bought the number of villages raided to 35, forcing over 3,000 men, women and children to flee their homes.
Fear continues to mount for the 190 Christians still in ISIS captivity as reports emerged over the weekend that the group has executed at least 12 Assyrian fighters captured, two of them women.
Since overtaking large swaths of Iraq and Syria last summer, ISIS has killed, tortured, and displaced thousands of religious minorities and destroyed entire villages and Christian churches in an effort to purge the area of religions other than Islam.
The extremist group is also known for imposing hefty fines on those who don't follow Islam. After overtaking the predominantly Christian city of Mosul, Iraq last June, ISIS announced over loudspeakers that all non-Muslims must flee, convert to Islam, or pay a tax. Those who refused risked death "by the sword".
Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, has voiced his concern at the latest use of the religious tax and the growing persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
"While we are relieved to hear of the release of these hostages, it is worrying that they have been made to pay an unjust tax enforced by non-nationals in order to continue living in their ancestral homes," he said in a statement.
"Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those who are still held captive by a sect that does not hesitate to plumb to the depths of inhumanity. We renew our call to the international community to provide protection for Syria's religious and ethnic minorities against an onslaught that seeks to erase the country's diverse heritage."