Assyrian Christian Mar Afram Athneil raised millions of dollars to pay ransom
By Lori Hinnant / The Independent
December 6, 2016
“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.”
— Aneki Nissan
Deep inside Syria, a bishop worked secretly to save the lives of 226 members of his flock from the Islamic State group — by amassing millions of dollars from his community around the world to buy their freedom.
They were seized from the Khabur River valley in northern Syria, among the last holdouts of a minority that had been chased across the Mideast for generations. On February 23, 2015, ISIS fighters attacked 35 Christian towns simultaneously, sweeping up scores of people.
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 giving money to the Islamic State group is morally fraught, even for those who saw no alternative.
“You look at it from the moral side and I get it. If we give them money we’re just feeding into it, and they’re going to kill using that money,” said Aneki Nissan, who helped raise funds in Canada. But “to us, we’re such a small minority that we have to help each other.”
The Khabur families trace their heritage to the earliest days of Christianity. To this day, they speak a dialect of Aramaic, believed to be the native language of Jesus.
When the villages were attacked, fleeing residents phoned cousins, sons, daughters, friends — Assyrians who had left the region in waves for the West. In the chaos, no one was sure how many were taken captive — but everyone was certain they were going to die.