Bishop raises money to pay ransom for 226 Christian hostages in Syria

Syrian refugees and migrants pass through Slovenia, 23 October 2015 | Wikimedia Commons/Robert Cotič

Assyrian Christians are hailing a bishop as a saint after he secretly raised money to secure the release of over 226 Christian hostages taken from the Khabur valley by the Islamic State.

On Feb. 23, 2015, the militants simultaneously attacked 35 Christian towns and abducted hundreds of people. The residents who were able to escape phoned their relatives in the West, the Associated Press reported.

No one knew exactly how many were taken, but everyone was certain that the captives were going to die.

After a week, the terrorist group told 17 men captured from the village of Tal Goran that they could be released, but four women have to remain. The extremists sent a man to deliver a message to a bishop in the town of Hassakeh.

ISIS asked for $50,000 for each person in the group, which would amount to more than $11 million for all of the remaining captives. According to a report from Newsweek, the militants initially demanded $100,000 for each person.

Some of the captives were freed after the bishop, Mar Afram Athneil, sent a reply to the terrorists. He started secret negotiations in an attempt to free the others.

The news about the ransom spread across social media, and the Assyrian community started to raise funds for the remaining hostages. ISIS freed more captives incrementally over a few months, but in September 2015, the group released a video showing three Khabur men being shot to death.

"When that happened, everybody went crazy and money started flying in from all over. Assyrians don't have an army to go rescue them. They don't have SWAT teams, they don't have SEAL 6. The only option they have is to pay ransom," Assyrian filmmaker Sargon Saadi.

Saadi noted that there was no easy way to pay the ransom as it is illegal in many countries. There were no attempts from any government to stop the fundraising but no country tried to free the hostages either.

Beginning in November 2015, ISIS released hostages every two weeks. A final list of 43 hostages was sent to the bishop on Feb. 22, 2016. However, only 42 were onboard the bus that transported the captives to Hassakeh. It took another month of negotiations before ISIS freed 16-year-old Maryam David Talya.

No one but Athneil knows exactly how much was paid to the jihadist group. He is lauded not just for saving the lives of the hostages but also for saving the other Assyrians who fled from war-torn regions.

Aneki Nissan, a person who helped raised funds in Canada, said: "Honestly, this man should go down as a saint, the things that he's done, the sacrifices he's made to help these people. He's refusing to leave Syria until all his flock is secured."