AL-HASAKAH, Syria — Islamic State militants on Tuesday freed 22 Christians they have held captive since February, but a Syrian archbishop has warned that while the news is good, it could be a distraction ahead of another major assault.
“Perhaps we can do an analysis on why [the Islamic State group] returned them, because one month ago they attacked Hasakah to take it, [and] they couldn’t,” Jacques Hindo, the Syriac-Catholic archbishop of Hasakeh-Nisibi, told CNA.
“Maybe they are giving a signal that we are expecting another attack,” he said. “It’s a little like a drug for us, to reassure us so that we aren’t vigilant, and then they’ll make a new, large attack.”
Archbishop Hindo's diocese is centered in Syria's northeastern-most province, Al-Hasakah, which borders Turkey and Iraq. The archbishop collaborates closely with the city's bishop from the Assyrian Church of the East, whose people were those abducted in February.
The two bishops have been working side by side to negotiate the release of the 230 Assyrian Christians abducted by the Islamic State when they attacked villages across Al-Hasakah province.
Battle for Hasakah
In the initial assault, the militants took control of several farming communities on the southern bank of the Khabur river, as well as the Christian quarters in the south of Hasakah.
Archbishop Hindo noted that, during the siege, Islamic State militants were stationed on the other side of a bridge that sat barely 500 meters (1,600 feet) from where he and others were taking refuge.
However, the Islamic State group failed to take control of the province and unleashed another attack on Hasakah June 25, leading thousands of inhabitants to flee the city, including the remaining Christian population.
With no more Christians in the city, the archbishop also left and returned just two weeks ago, when the faithful themselves began to come back.
Since February, Archbishop Hindo has been in sporadic contact with the Islamic State group about the possibility of freeing those taken in the initial attack. A month ago, the militants asked for $1-$2 million in exchange for the release of the hostages.
However, after sending an immediate response saying that they couldn’t pay, Archbishop Hindo said he has yet to receive a reply from the Islamic State.
The appearance of the 22 Christians, most of whom are elderly, pulling up on a bus in front of an Assyrian church in Hasakah was an amazing but welcome sight. Despite the fact they haven’t said much yet, they seemed physically and mentally healthy, Archbishop Hindo noted.
He said the release of the 22 gives hope that the other 208 hostages, who are mostly women and children (including two infants no more than 5-6 months old) will also be set free, though he remained cautious.
In addition to their woes with the Islamic State, the Christians are also beginning to face difficulties with Kurdish soldiers, who, after driving out the militants, have entered into the Christian quarter of Hasakah and taken over portions of the schools, churches and houses.
Archbishop Hindo explained that their presence is making the Christians nervous, and many have begun to leave again.
“What we haven’t understood is why they are doing it. They said they are doing it to survey Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Islamic State]” and look for small pockets of militants who may have infiltrated the city, he said. “They say they are here to protect, but [the Christians] don’t believe them.”
He asked that the soldiers depart and leave the Christians “in peace,” and he made a personal appeal to the government “in the name of all Christians” to no longer put soldiers in the Christian quarter.
The ongoing battles and bombings have also taken their toll on the city. Archbishop Hindo said he is responsible for cleaning it, along with 120 others who assist him. The building where the supplies are kept, he said, has become known as the “Christian Commune.”
Besieged On All Sides
Although they have little support outside of the meager funds they receive from Caritas, the archbishop said they have been able to set up 300 beds and to offer food, medical and sanitation supplies for those in need.
Even though they’ve been doing the same work since Syria’s civil war broke out five years ago, this month there has been a stark increase in what they are handing out, because the need is enormous.
Help coming from the outside has been “very little,” he said, explaining that there is no way for them to receive assistance from neighboring countries.
“We have the borders closed around us. In the north we have Turkey, who has closed the border. In the east, [we have] Daesh in Iraq, in the west Daesh in Syria, and in the south Daesh,” he said.
“If someone is sick or needs surgery, no one can enter or leave, and we can’t go in the car. Everything is closed around us. All around us we have only enemies.”
Project of Martyrdom
However, despite their difficulties, the Christian community is enduring. They find their strength, Archbishop Hindo said, not from what they see around them, but from “what comes from the heart”: their own prayers and the prayers of others.
“Right now, we are a project of martyrdom. … The wars are not finished. [But] we cannot be pessimists, because the Lord is not a pessimist.”
Although they are afraid, they aren’t paralyzed, the archbishop said, adding that there is still work they can do.
“If we need to praise, we must praise Christ,” he said, and, quoting a Syriac saint, added: “If you sing, sing praise. This is what you have been created for.”
The archbishop then made an appeal for spiritual support, because“we don’t need pity. We need prayer; we need help.”