In Syria, Assyrian Christians Cling On After ISIS Onslaught

Mar 27, 2016

On a sky-blue Sunday morning in the little town of Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria, sunlight pours through olive trees, dappling the path to a church that has for almost a century been the center of an Assyrian Christian community.

But inside the Church of Our Lady, the sound of sobbing mixes with the ancient Aramaic chants. Photographs of three people are on display at the front, propped up on white cloths embroidered with roses, next to silver crosses and golden bells; the mass is in their memory.

A year ago, ISIS fighters staged an offensive from the nearby Abdelaziz mountain, pouring into a string of small villages along the Khabur River Valley. The hamlets were mainly populated by Christians from the ancient Assyrian ethnicity, which traces its roots in the Middle East back more than 6,000 years, and which is now Christian.

"At 4 in the morning, we heard clashes," says Georgette Melki, speaking after the service. "Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak." After four years of Syria's civil war they were used to sporadic fighting. But as it got louder she got out of bed to see Islamic State fighters overrunning her tiny village of Tell Shamiran — "like ants," she says.

Melki says the extremists destroyed the church, looted houses and captured about 300 people from several villages. The extremists separated their captives into men and women and drove for miles to the town of Shadadi, where they were held. Some prisoners were later moved to the Islamic State's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

She says they were imprisoned but their treatment was not cruel. ISIS has raped, injured and killed thousands of people from the Yazidi religious minority and Shiite Muslims, whom it considers infidels. But they do not usually subject Christians to the same treatment.

After months of negotiations between Assyrian clergy and representatives of the militants, most of those captured were released. No one will confirm the terms of the deal but several people close to the negotiations say ransoms were paid.

But at least three people were killed, among them one of Melki's sons. She doesn't know why he was killed.

"I don't know why they treated us like this," she says. "We didn't do anything. We were in our village, in our houses."

The ISIS assault was the latest shock to a community which has struggled to cling to this verdant — if remote — area. Although Assyrians have lived for millennia in an area now divided between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, there were none in the Khabur River Valley a century ago.

But after an Assyrian community was attacked in Iraq, they came here as refugees, resettled when Syria was under the French Mandate in the 1930s. According to research by former U.S. diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez in the 1990s, many of their children emigrated, meaning the villages remained tiny, with just a few hundred people in some of them. Miniature mud-built churches were only gradually replaced with cinderblock ones.

In Tell Tamer, the largest settlement, the larger Church of Our Lady was built in the 1980s. It became these Assyrians' focal point, even as the Muslim — mainly Kurdish — population of the town grew and the Assyrians became a minority there.

Still, hundreds of families remained. But the ISIS threat has brought the community to the brink of extinction, says priest Bekos Ishaya.

With Kurdish forces helping the Assyrians, Islamic State fighters were pushed out of the string of villages along the river. They never entered Tell Tamer, which was better protected.

But the experience, and subsequent attacks including a devastating bombing, drove hundreds to leave the area or the country, says Ishaya. "There were only 450 [Assyrian] families in Tell Tamer before the crisis," he says. "Now there are 100."

But the grey-bearded priest, who remembers when the church that he lives behind was built, swears he will remain. He says God compared priests with light in the darkness.

"The priest must be an example for the people, and he must be first in everything," he says.

He adds that the people who left Syria "are not comfortable. I talk to them every day on the phone, our people. They are not happy."

They will only be happy, he insists, if they return to their roots.

There are also young men in uniform with weapons here. To protect their area, they have formed a militia, which is now part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance supported by the U.S. in its fight against ISIS.

Their spokesman is Kino Gabriel: tall, broad-chested, 26 years old. He says the community decided to arm themselves when they looked to the Christians of Iraq, who have been brutally targeted but never formed organized armed groups.

I ask how it felt the first time he put on a uniform.

"You feel strong," he says, laughing. "It is l think something cultural that when you wear a uniform, take up arms, you feel stronger."

Gabriel urges people not to leave these villages and tells people living abroad to come back and help rebuild. He believes people should return to their roots and their homeland.

"Staying in our land — that is the only way that we can preserve our life, our culture — our everything."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In many parts of the Middle East, minority Christian communities have become targets in civil wars. Many have gone underground. But in one corner of northeastern Syria, NPR's Alice Fordham met a group of Assyrian Christians who found themselves right in the path of ISIS, and it made them more determined to stay.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Aramaic).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's a pure, sky-blue Sunday morning in the quiet town of Tell Tamer. Sunlight pours through olive trees and dapples the churchyard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in Aramaic).

FORDHAM: The church is full, maybe a couple hundred people - women in colored headscarves at the back, men at the front, children skittering in the nave. But even as they celebrate mass together in the ancient Aramaic language, this congregation is full of sorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Crying, speaking foreign language).

FORDHAM: One year ago, ISIS fighters invaded a nearby string of villages largely populated by Christians from the Assyrian ethnic minority. The extremists held about 300 villagers captive for months, killing at least three. Their photographs are propped up next to silver crosses and golden bells at the front of the church in Tell Tamer, a neighboring town never taken by ISIS, which has long been a center of the Assyrian community.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Crying).

FORDHAM: Afterwards, there's an emotional crowd outside leaning on each other's shoulders, holding hands. Among them is an older woman in a black skirt suit named Georgette Melki. She remembers the day ISIS came into her village.

GEORGETTE MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: It was 4 in the morning, and she heard clashes.

MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: It got louder and louder, so they went outside and saw ISIS fighters overrunning the village...

MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: ...Like ants.

MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Melki says the extremists looted her house and destroyed the church. Then, they drove their prisoners to another town and held them captive.

MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: She was treated OK, but her son was killed. Still, she doesn't know why. After long negotiations between the Assyrian clergy and ISIS, which no one will discuss in detail, most of the captives were released. With the help of local Kurdish fighters, their villages were retaken from ISIS, but the community is scarred. I ask one of Melki's surviving children, Fadi, if he thinks they will stay.

FADI: (Through interpreter) If there is safety, maybe. But now, everything is destroyed - churches, houses, villages. So I think if - the people that have money, they will leave.

FORDHAM: Many have already left. But others swear to remain, including the priest, Father Bekas Ishaya.

BEKAS ISHAYA: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He says God compares priests to light in the darkness. And there are also young men in uniform with weapons here. To protect their area, they have formed a militia which is supported by the U.S. in its fight against ISIS. Their spokesman is Kino Gabriel - tall, broad-chested, 26 years old. He tells me they decided to arm themselves when they looked to the Christians of Iraq who have been brutally targeted but never formed organized armed groups. I ask how it felt the first time he put on uniform.

KINO GABRIEL: You feel strong (laughter). It is, I think, something cultural that when you wear a uniform, take up arms, you feel stronger.

FORDHAM: He says he urges people not to leave these villages.

GABRIEL: Staying in our land, that is the only way that we can preserve our life, our culture, our everything that - our identity in general.

FORDHAM: He also urges people living abroad to come back and help rebuild the villages. He believes people should return to their roots and their homeland.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Tell Tamer, Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.