As many as 90 Assyrian Christians have been abducted by ISIS from villages in northeastern Syria, according to human rights groups. The disturbing news comes just days after the filmed beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by militants linked to the group.
While no civilians have fared particularly well under ISIS’s rule, it’s been particularly catastrophic for religious minorities, including Shiites, Yazidis, and members of some of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Until recently, Christians, belonging to Orthodox, Catholic, or Assyrian denominations, made up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. That dropped to about 8 percent in 2013, according to the U.S. State Department, due to Christians fleeing the country’s violence. Thousands more have fled since then, with much of the country now under the control of militantly anti-Christian groups like ISIS and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
The situation is similarly bleak in Iraq, where ISIS conquered the country’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh, last August, causing thousands to flee. In June, for the first time in 1,600 years, there was no Christian mass held in Mosul. As of last December, 120,000 Iraqi Christians were living in exile in Kurdistan.
In many ISIS-held areas, including its “capital,” the Syrian city of Raqqa, reports suggest that Christians are given the choice between converting to Islam, death, or paying a tax for their safety. Christians are also barred from praying in public or displaying religious symbols. In other words, the public practice of the religion is banned. ISIS has also carried out a campaign of destroying Christian property, including millennia-old churches, and in Mosul has tagged Christian houses with the letter N for nassarah, a term for Christians used in the Koran.
Christianity was in a precarious position in the Middle East long before ISIS emerged on the scene, falling from 10 percent of the region’s population to 5 percent over the last century. Iraq’s once million-strong Christian community has faced two decades of violent persecution, first following the 1991 Gulf and then to an even greater extent after the U.S. invasion of 2003. ISIS now seems intent on finishing the job.
It’s not clear what ISIS has planned for its new captives. With its store of living foreign hostages dwindling as fewer journalists and aid workers risk travel to the area, it’s possible the group may try to use the Assyrian Christians as bargaining chips. Or maybe this isn’t about negotiating at all, and is just another act in the group’s ongoing “theater of cruelty.”