As the West and Middle East grapple with how to end the Islamic State (IS), an Assyrian mother who escaped Islamic State kidnapping in northeastern Syria said she does not know of the whereabouts of her husband.
With IS videos of its beheadings and other cruelties fresh in mind, Christians worldwide are praying for more than 220 Assyrian Christians kidnapped by IS militants last week in northeastern Syria. After being pushed out of Kobani on Syria's border with Turkey, IS began taking Christian hostages in villages, towns and cities in Syria's Hassakah Province on Feb. 23.
On Sunday (March 1), based on a ruling of a sharia (Islamic law) court, the Islamic militants released 19 Christians, most of them over 50; on Tuesday (March 3) IS released four more, including a 6-year-old girl whose father and pregnant mother had been among those freed earlier.
Assyrian and other leaders are reportedly negotiating with IS over the fate of the remaining hostages.
"Negotiations have come from several leaders in Syria; we are hopeful that these talks will result in the release of all those who have been captured," the president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, Juliana Taimoorazy, told Morning Star News. "I believe in the power of prayer, and I am happy to tell you there are hundreds of thousands of fellow Christians who have rallied around us and have lifted our Assyrian people in prayer."
The number of Assyrian Christians kidnapped in a 40-mile stretch along the Khabur River was between 262 and 373, according to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). It reported nine Assyrian fighters died defending their villages and that IS had executed at least 12 others who were captured, including two women.
One of the released Assyrians told AINA that IS drove the hostages to Mt. Abdul Aziz the first night, then the next day took them another four hours into the mountains. In spite of constant pressure to convert, the Assyrians refused and therefore were told they must pay the Islamic jizya, a tax on non-Muslims. Unable to pay while being held hostage, they were told that IS would not collect it but that they must leave the country.
All of the 3,000 Christians in the region have fled with the exception of some militia members fighting alongside Kurdish forces against IS; prior to the onset of the civil war 2011, the Christian population there was estimated at between 40,000 and 45,000.
Among those who fled was a mother with a newborn and two other young children; her husband was away at work when the kidnappings began in the city of Hassakah, and she had no way of making contact with him, she told a ministry assisted by Christian Aid Mission.
"I don't know where my husband is," the sobbing mother told the ministry director. "I knew there was no hope for him. I left without taking anything with me except my children."
The well-known terror tactics of IS, also known as ISIS, forced her into a hurried decision, according to Christian Aid Mission.
"We heard what ISIS did in the neighboring village, and we did not want to stay," she told the leader of the ministry in Lebanon providing aid to her and her 8-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son and 11-day-old infant girl. "I was scared for my children."
She and 11 other Assyrian, evangelical families escaped to the unidentified ministry center in Beirut, Lebanon after their pastor in Syria had advised them to search for it. Some of the families arrived via Turkey; others crossed Syria, roiled by nearly four years of civil war between Sunni Muslim rebels and the government forces of Alawite President Bashar al-Assad.
Christian Aid Mission reported that some of the families made it to Lebanon by bus, while others managed to get onto field tractors or into taxis. The mother of three (name withheld for security reasons) said she could not find transport. Carrying her newborn girl, she and her other two children began walking.
"The sound of the bombs was coming closer," she told the ministry assisted by Christian Aid Mission. "I can still hear women and children screaming and shouting. I don't know how we were able to escape all this."
Across areas of Syria where IS "enforces the cruelties of its caliphate and other zones where it freely operates without necessarily holding ground, the woman and her three young children walked and hitch-hiked 350 miles to Beirut," Christian Aid Mission reported. "She said seven or eight cars or pickup trucks stopped to pick them up, the last one leaving them just outside the Lebanon border. They walked across."
The mother said she and her children did not eat for days.
"I am here now in Lebanon with nothing," she said.
Of the estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees trying to escape the civil war and the vacuum it has created for IS to carve out its caliphate, nearly 1.2 million have fled to Lebanon, according to United Nations figures.
Ending the Caliphate
IS videos of its atrocities are designed in part to provoke a military response from those who refuse to swear allegiance to its caliphate; such a military reaction would attract a massive number of recruits in IS's jihadist objectives of world domination, The Atlantic's Graeme Wood writes in this month's issue.
IS requires Muslims to swear allegiance to the caliphate, and under its Islamic theology those who refuse are considered "apostates," or deserters of Islam, and are therefore subject to execution, Wood writes. IS, citing the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, also asserts that recognition of any nation's borders besides the caliphate's or recognition of any nation's governmental authority (as opposed to Allah's) constitutes error equivalent to apostasy and therefore also merits execution, according to Wood.
"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic," Wood writes. "Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam."
What this Islamic theology means for the West - and all Islamic governments in the Middle East - and how they try to contain the IS threat is still evolving. Jordan, whose participation with coalition forces fighting ISIS was questioned within the kingdom, upped its commitment with a series of aerial bombings of IS hideouts after the appearance last month of an IS video of captured Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh being burned alive in a cage.
While Wood notes that an escalation in U.S./Western involvement would leave IS and its sympathizers drooling at the opportunity to fight perceived infidel "crusaders," with an accompanying exponential increase in recruits, he acknowledges that such a scenario "should not be dismissed too quickly; an avowedly genocidal organization is on its potential victims' front lawn, and it is committing daily atrocities in the territory it already controls."
Assyrian activist Taimoorazy said the entire world, especially the West, should consider IS a threat that needs to be addressed with a united front.
"There should be an assault from four corners of the world, cyber/digital boots to combat this ideology and terror as well as aggressive air strikes to target their resources and their military equipment," she told Morning Star News. "We cannot win this war alone. There has to be a Judeo-Christian-Muslim coalition to face this evil head on."
The Atlantic's Wood believes "slowly bleeding" IS with air strikes and a proxy war by Kurds and Shiites is probably the best of several bad options; this at least would keep the caliphate from expanding, he writes. He notes that without occupied land, a caliphate - and its demand of everyone else to acquiesce to it at the cost of their heads - ceases to exist. One reason IS broke off from Al Qaeda was that the latter's vision did not include a caliphate except in the distant future.
"Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground," Wood writes. "The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate."
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Morning Star News.