Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with northern Iraq knows there’s several ancient people groups who’ve been there for millennia.
The Kurds descend from the ancient Medes. There were Jews there –- sent to the region by the Chaldean monarch Nebuchadnezzar in the fifth century BC to join earlier deportees -- who lingered there until very recently. And then there are the Assyrians who came to the fore in the ninth century BC.
It’s the ancestors of the latter that concerns this fascinating Associated Press story that recounts the tale of these latter-day Assyrians imprisoned by ISIS and the bishop who raised about $11 million to free them.
It was written by AP’s “international security” correspondent (didn’t know there was such a beat) and it’s a winner.
Start reading how an ancient Christian community took action, after governments around the world refused to help them.
SAARLOUIS, Germany (AP) -- The millions in ransom money came in dollar by dollar, euro by euro from around the world. The donations, raised from church offerings, a Christmas concert, and the diaspora of Assyrian Christians on Facebook, landed in a bank account in Iraq. Its ultimate destination: the Islamic State group.
Deep inside Syria, a bishop worked around the blurred edges of international law to save the lives of more than 200 people — one of the largest groups of hostages yet documented in IS's war in Syria and Iraq. It took more than a year, and videotaped killings of three captives, before all the rest were freed.
Paying ransoms is illegal in the United States and most of the West, and the idea of paying the militants is morally fraught, even for those who saw no alternative.
Then we get some back story:
The Assyrian Christians were seized from the Khabur River valley in northern Syria, among the last holdouts of a dwindling minority that had been chased across the Mideast for generations. They trace their heritage to the earliest days of Christianity, their Church of the East founded by the apostle known as Doubting Thomas. To this day, they speak a dialect of Aramaic, believed to be the native language of Jesus. But most also speak Arabic and some Kurdish, the languages of the neighbors who have long outnumbered them.
In a single night of horror on Feb. 23, 2015, IS fighters attacked the Christian towns simultaneously, sweeping up scores of people and sending everyone from 35 towns and villages fleeing for their lives…
We hear about calls to the diaspora:
As they were being rounded up, people made panicked phone calls to cousins, sons, daughters, friends -- Assyrians who had left the region in generational waves for the West. To the outsiders, rumor mixed with fact, choppy voices could barely be heard over the sounds of gunshots. Even the total number of hostages was a mystery, ranging in estimates from 200 to 280 men, women and children.
ISIS kept a few hundred captives until it figured out what to do: Shake down all their relatives -- and the worldwide Assyrian community -- for stunning amounts of money to support their cause.
The killers sent one of the hostages to the Syrian town of Hassakah to a certain bishop.
The extremists gave Marza a scrap of paper signed and stamped by the Islamic State group, allowing him safe passage: "The infidel Christian Abdo Marza wants to negotiate between us and their church for money. Please facilitate his task from the checkpoints in three days."
The bishop, Mar Afram Athneil, took three days to answer as he consulted with others in the church around the world on what to do. Finally he gave Marza a sealed envelope to take back to IS.
The rest of the story –- and it is fascinating -– tells how this bishop pulled off a Schindler’s list-type operation to get more than 200 people out of Iraq. It cites members of the community in London, Melbourne, Australia, Burbank, Calif., and Saarlouis, Germany, who scavenged fellow church members around the world to come up with the money.
The article almost reads like a thriller down to the final 43 hostages and then the final one who almost didn’t make it out. Sadly, the bishop wouldn’t go on the record for AP and the article’s one serious hole, in terms of essential facts, is that we get no description of Athneil: What he looks like, what kind of church he presides over or any quotes from people who know him. He remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps that's the point (although we did find one photo of him that appears in this piece).
Although the piece certainly gives a human face to a people group that few westerners know about, it’d help if we knew a bit more about the brand of Christianity they adhere to. Are they Catholic, Orthodox, Syriac or a mix? Athneil heads up a diocese in the Assyrian Church of the East, which is neither Catholic nor Orthodox. Its seal is included with this story.
However, the reporter did the story based out of Germany and eastern Syria is not an easy place to get to these days, even to interview a bishop. She did well enough to get the story she had. Which goes to say there a zillion stories out there about religious groups caught in the crosshairs of world politics, but we rarely hear them except in small specialty publications.
Sadly, I am sure there are more thrillers like this out there. Would that more reporters would dig around to find them.
FIRST IMAGE: Bishop Mar Afram Athneil.