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Monthly archives: July, 2015

Assyrian Christian woman shares story of captivity by Islamic State

BEIRUT — They were kidnapped by the Islamic State on Feb. 23 in the governorate of Hasakah, Syria. A total of 253 Assyrian Christians, from 35 different villages along the Khabur River. A small group of 23 elderly individuals were released March 1, allegedly due to their age. Among the sources who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, the exact number of those initially abducted varies slightly. Since then, little more has been learned about the fate of those who are still held hostage. Statements that could not be confirmed claim that local Sunni leaders are negotiating for the release of the hostages. Ransom requests by IS reaching $35 million have not been met and a veil of deafening silence has covered the issue.


Displaced Assyrians who fled from the villages around Tel Tamr sit outside the Assyrian Church in Hasakah as they wait for news about the Assyrian abductees remaining in the Islamic State’s hands, March 9, 2015. (photo by REUTERS/Rodi Said) Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/07/lebanon-syria-assyrian-christian-woman-isis-captured-release.html#ixzz3hVAsPup5

Author Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli Posted July 30, 2015
A Christian Assyrian woman released recently agreed to meet with Al-Monitor at her daughter’s home in the outskirts of Beirut and tell her story of those months living as an IS hostage and what she could learn about her captors and their identities. For security reasons, her name will not be disclosed.

Sitting on her mattress on the floor, she said she is safe now, but the rest of her family is still held by IS in Syria’s Shaddadeh. As far as she knows her family is still there, where they had all been kept since February, when the villages were attacked.

Reports on the number of Assyrians living in Syria vary, at times widely. According to Father Georgio, an Assyrian priest who is assisting Assyrian Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Assyrians in Syria prior to the conflict numbered around 50,000 and are now down to roughly 5,000. These figures are unofficial statistics collected by the local Assyrian churches and communities in Syria.

The Assyrian Christians living in Syria trace their roots back to Mesopotamians and speak a modern descendant of Aramaic. They were persecuted by the Baath Party when Saddam Hussein was in power and many fled to Syria after 2003, with the flaring of the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiite majority in Iraq. They are divided among three main churches: the Syriac Orthodox Church (Jacobite), the Assyrian Church of East (Nestorian) and the Chaldean Church of Babylon (Roman Catholic).

The woman cried during the interview as she explained her feelings of anguish at the moment of separation from her family. Her daughter, who had been living in Lebanon for years prior to the beginning of the conflict in Syria and was present at the interview, cried with her for her sister and nephews’ fates. Georgio, who was also present, interjected with his own personal account of what the Assyrian Christian community is undergoing.

Below is the text of the interview:

Al-Monitor: What happened when IS reached your town? Was there any resistance? Where were you and your family when you were abducted?

Assyrian: We were at home. There had been no time to run away. They stormed in the door, their faces not covered. They put a gun to my chest and threw an image of Christ hanging on the wall on the floor. They asked me to step on it. I had no choice. My daughters and grandchildren were there. They took all of us to the river. I have broken legs [a physical condition present prior to the IS attack] so I cannot walk, my daughter had to carry me on her back. No one posed any resistance. We knew what had transpired in the village of Tel Tamer, where attempts to resist were made. Anyone who resisted there was killed, the church was bombed. They burned our house, too, but that I am aware of no one who was killed. From our village alone they took 85 people. Anyone they found they took.

Al-Monitor: Where did they take you afterward, and how were you treated?

Assyrian: They threw us into a boat that was half full of water and we crossed the river. Then they put us on trucks to Shaddadeh, another town in the Hasakah governorate. The first thing they did was to separate the men from the women. Children under 11 years old would stay with the women. From that moment on, we never saw the men and boys again. We were allowed, however, to send letters over to the men and receive theirs. They crammed all of us into a room with a single window. There was so little room we would take turns lying down to sleep. We would take turns by the window to breathe better.

Al-Monitor: You spent over four months in these conditions. How did you and the other women survive? Did you suffer physical abuse by IS while in captivity?

Assyrian: I am an elderly woman. What I feared, what we all feared, was abuse to the girls. Fortunately, that did not happen. We lived in the constant fear of it but while I was there we were not beaten, nor were there other forms of physical abuse. The psychological fear was tremendous. We were all held together in the same room: all women and children up to age 11. We slept very little and were constantly trying to cover our faces from the captors. We prayed six times a day. This gave us hope.

There were many children in the group. The youngest was only 2 months old. I remember there was a pregnant woman who went into labor and delivered her baby there. We don’t know much about how the men and boys were being treated. We were kept in a separate building. We could not hear any noise or see anything through the only window we had access to. We could only see IS men outside. During the entire period I was there, we never left the building. We lived in the same clothes and were allowed to wash a little once a week.

Al-Monitor: Where you able to learn anything about your captors?

Assyrian: I did not recognize their faces, which I could see because they were not covered. But I could recognize their accents. They were local Syrians from Hasakah. There must have been roughly 100 men who took over our village. Initially they seemed to be many more, but it was probably just the shock effect of seeing them arrive and the fear we felt. When we reached Shaddadeh, I heard some men who did not speak Arabic and a few foreigners. By foreigner I mean not Syrian. An IS jihadist would come to the room where we were kept hostage every Saturday and tell us that if we agreed to convert, we would be set free. It became a ritual, every week on Saturday. One day a jihadist directed this offer to me and, debilitated and exhausted, I answered, “Look at me, I could be your mother. You stay with your religion and I stay with mine.”

Al-Monitor: Most news coverage of treatment by IS of Christians or other minorities, such as the Yazidi, is rife with brutality, shocking not just the direct victims but everyone reading about it or watching their images. Comparatively, in your case, the level of brutality appears to have been contained. Why do think this is the case?

Assyrian: Our lives were destroyed. I don’t know why we were not beaten or worse, but I can tell you that for the entire time we lived in extreme fear. We were constantly threatened verbally. They would say to us, “We know everything about you. You speak and you are dead.” In our group no one accepted the IS “offer” to convert to be freed. But we knew that those who put up physical resistance from other villages were killed.

Al-Monitor: Why were you released and how did you feel having to leave the rest of your family in captivity?

Assyrian: The living conditions in that small room caused my physical condition to deteriorate rapidly. My legs, which were broken before I was kidnapped, swelled up. I lost weight, I was very weak. I think they thought I was going to die. I am not aware that a ransom was paid but I cannot be sure. They took me to the town of Hasakah by car. The person who drove me there was the same IS member who would usually bring us food. They left me at the church in the care of the priest. The priest offered the man who drove me some money for having taken me there. At first he refused, and then he took it. From there I was taken to the nearest hospital to check my physical condition.

I did not want to leave without them. The moment when they separated us to take me away, we were both crying.

Al-Monitor: Do you have news about your family since your release and who is negotiating for the group to be freed?

Assyrian: I have received very little news about their condition. An Assyrian priest is trying to negotiate for the release of the entire group of hostages. From what I am told they are alive.

Al-Monitor: The European Union has been criticized for not doing enough to help civilians who are fleeing, among other countries, war-torn Syria seeking refuge in Europe. Lebanon, for example, has been overwhelmed by the number of civilians crossing its borders and struggling to manage the number of refugees. What do you think Europe and its institutions should do to help civilians fleeing war zones?

Georgio: We receive no support. We feel completely abandoned. I try to support the Assyrian refugees with my church but there were a total of 1,400 families at a time, between those who fled from Mosul in Iraq and from Syria. It was impossible to provide the needed support to everyone. Europe is silent, not hearing our pleas for help. For many Assyrians, this is not the first time we have been displaced — first from Iraq to Syria, due to persecution under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, and now to Lebanon.

Al-Monitor: How are you able to live here in Lebanon? Do you have family here, or do you have the help of the Assyrian community here?

Assyrian: I am lucky to have one of my daughters here. She moved to Lebanon years ago and lives here with her family. I live with her at her house. We receive some help from the Assyrian community. Father Georgio, an Assyrian priest based in [the Beirut suburb of] Hadath, helps us. We do not receive any help from the government or from other institutions dealing with refugees.

Source: Al-monitor

Christian Mother of 3 Kidnapped, Forced to Convert to Islam and Marry Muslim Landlord Who Raped Her

BY SAMUEL SMITH (Christian Post)

A young Pakistani Christian mother of three has been abducted and raped by her 55-year-old Muslim landlord who forced her to convert to Islam and enter into Islamic marriage. Her family has demanded her return.

Fouzia Sadiq, a Christian woman who is believed to be in her mid-20s, was kidnapped last Thursday from a field located in the Pakistani town of Burj Mahalam in the Punjab province by a Muslim landlord named Muhammed Nazir. Nazir tricked Sadiq’s father into agreeing to have his family work as bonded labourers on his land with no pay and only the provision of a run-down housing accommodation.

Although details of the abduction have not been made public, early reports state that Sadiq’s family was told by Nazir’s brother on the day of the abduction that their daughter would be returned.

As their daughter was not returned the next day, the family went to the landlord’s house and demanded the return of Sadiq, but were told by Nazir that Sadiq had converted to Islam and entered into a marriage with him.


(Photo: British Pakistani Christian Association) Fouzia Sadiq’s family

The British Pakistani Christian Association said the family was told by the landlord their daughter is now “his property” and threatened the family not to say anything or make this a legal issue.

“The pain felt by our sisters in Pakistan wounds the heart of our community,” BPCA Chairman Wilson Chowdhry said in a statement issued to the The Christian Post.

“The Latest victim, Fouzia Bibi, was a mother of three yet she may still be forced to remain in the forced Islamic marriage, despite existing legal precedents from Lahore High court which clearly state a ‘married Christian woman cannot be remarried to a Muslim even if converted.'”

Chowdhry told CP Sadiq’s family attempted to file an information report with the local police department but a senior police officer refused to file the report and now the family is terrified.

Even if the family’s charge does finally get submitted, Chowdhry explains that sexaul abuse against religious minorities is covered under “Hadu’d laws,” which do not distinguish rape from adultery. Chowdhry stated that such cases are heard in Islamic Shariah courts, which have no problem handing out punishments to non-Muslims but don’t allow non-Muslim attorneys to appear and also don’t hold the testimonies of non-Muslims to the same credibility of testimonies coming from Muslims.


(Photo: British Pakistani Christian Association/ Mehwish Bhatti) The family of Fouzia Sadiq meet with BPCA officer Bhatti at the family’s living quarters in the Punjab province of Pakistan.

BPCA will be helping the family to find a trusted Muslim solicitor to represent them in Shariah court and will also be providing the family with housing and shelter inside of BPCA’s safehouse in Pakistan.

“I fear for Fouzia and will pray endlessly for our sister as she has to fight a system set up to undermine Christians,” Chowdhry said. “When courts make judgements in these cases more often than not, they forgo the age limit allowing forcible marriages of girls under the legal age of 14, discounting family objections and basing decisions on the testimonies of weeping victims.”

Chowdhry also argued that there is very little hope for the family to secure the return of their daughter. Even if Sadiq were to say she was forced to convert and marry Nazir, it’s likely that Nazir’s word will be believed over Sadiq’s. BPCA will also push for the authorities to force Nazir to give up custody of Sadiq during the trial so Sadiq can give an honest testimony without threats from Nazir.

“Victims who claim to be consenting to the marriage and having adopted Islam, when the girls have never been removed from the custody of the assailants and are threatened with violence to them and their families if they dare to speak the truth,” Chowdhry asserted. “In such cases the authority of a Muslim man’s words significantly outweighs that of Christians, so they have little hope of ever retrieving Fouzia from a life of pain, brutality and debauchery.”

An April 2014 report by “Movement of Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan” revealed that over 1,000 girls — 700 of them being Christians — are kidnapped, raped and forced into marriages every year. The abductions and conversions of the girls sometimes lead them to be victims of forced prostitution and other forms of sex trafficking.

“Christian girls — usually between the ages of 12 and 25 — are abducted, converted to Islam, and married to the abductor or third party,” according to the report. “The victim’s family usually files a First Information Report for abduction or rape with the local police station. The abductor, on behalf of the victim girl, files a counter FIR, accusing the Christian family of harassing the willfully converted and married girl, and for conspiring to convert the girl back to Christianity.”

BPCA established a petition calling on the Pakistani government to ensure that religious minority families receive fair and proper investigations into rape and abduction cases. The petition also calls on the British government to encourage Pakistan to provide true justice for religious minority abductees.

“These injustices have been allowed to continue unchecked by a government insouciant to the concerns of their largest minority,” Chowdhry stated. “While the west continues to fund Pakistan through large foreign aid subsidies, they make themselves more complicit in the ongoing genocide of minorities living there.

“The BPCA has so often called for a cessation of Britain’s foreign aid budget to Pakistan or use of the budget as a lever for change in the poor human rights record of Pakistan. But realpolitick based on intrinsic trade agreements and ostensible ally status of Pakistan in the war against terror have created little appetite in our heartless politicians for such action.”

Source: Christian Post

Somalia blast: Mogadishu hotel rocked by bomb


At least 10 people have been killed in a huge bomb explosion at a hotel in the Somali capital Mogadishu.
A BBC correspondent in the city says a lorry was used to attack the Jazeera Palace Hotel near the airport.
Ambulances have been collecting the dead and wounded in what he describes as one of the worst scenes of destruction he has seen in Mogadishu.
Somali militant Islamist group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The al-Qaeda linked group said it was responding to assaults by an African Union force and the Somali government.
The blasts came as President Barack Obama was leaving Kenya for Ethiopia, at the end of a trip during which he had discussions about dealing with the threat from al-Shabab.


Soldiers from the African Union mission patrol the Somali capital


International diplomats often stay at Jazeera Palace Hotel, which has been targeted in the past. It also accommodates several embassies including those of China, Qatar and Egypt.
“A suicide car bomb exploded at the gate of Jazeera Hotel,” Major Nur Osoble, a police officer, told Reuters news agency.
A government security officer was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying hotel security guards were among the dead.
Al-Shabab is battling Somalia’s government for control of the country. While security in Somalia has improved, the group still attacks Mogadishu regularly.
On Saturday, a member of the Somali parliament and an official from the prime minister’s office were killed in separate attacks in the capital claimed by al-Shabab.
In recent days the group has lost two of its remaining strongholds – the south-western town of Bardere and the south-eastern town of Dinsor. Both had been under al-Shabab control since 2008.
The militants have also targeted neighbouring countries, killing almost 150 people in an assault on Garissa University College in Kenya in April.

Source: BBC News

Dozens killed as bomb blasts rip through Nigerian bus stations.


Reports from Nigeria say at least two bombs ripped through two bus stations in the northern city of Gombe last night. At least 29 people have been killed in the blasts, a Red Cross official told the Reuters news agency.

Earlier in the day, suicide bombers killed at least 11 people in neighbouring Cameroon.
At least 49 people were killed in blasts at a market in Gombe last week. That attack was blamed on Boko Haram militants. The Islamist group, which often targets northern Nigeria, has stepped up attacks since President Muhammudu Buhari took office in May. No group has said it is behind Wednesday evening’s attacks, although Boko Haram has targeted bus stations in the city before.

It is feared that the Gombe death toll will rise with reports of dozens of people injured.
One witness told the AFP news agency that he had counted 30 dead bodies at one of the bus stations.

Last year, Boko Haram took control of a large area of north-eastern Nigeria and declared a caliphate (a state governed in accordance with Islamic law).
Nigeria’s military, backed by troops from neighbouring countries, including Cameroon, has recaptured most of the territory, but in recent weeks there has been an upsurge in suicide attacks.

Cameroon attack


Security forces transport with a blanket the remains of some of the eleven victims of a double blast in the northern Cameroonian city of Maroua 22 July 2015. Bombers targeted a market in the heart of Maroua.

Hours before the attack in Gombe, suicide bombers targeted Maroua in northern Cameroon. The attack left at least 11 people dead and injured dozens more. A local source told AFP news agency the bombers were two young girls who had disguised themselves as beggars. One of the bombers detonated the explosives at the city’s central market, in what is the second such attack in the past week. The authorities have now extended a ban on wearing burkas to include the commercial capital Douala. Previously the ban had only been in place in the country’s Far North region, after two suicide bomb attacks there earlier this month.

The Cameroonian army uses the town of Maroua as the headquarters for its operations against Boko Haram, as part of a multinational force battling the militants in neighbouring parts of Nigeria.
President Paul Biya has described the attacks as “cowardly and ignoble”.

According to Amnesty International, at least 17,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since Boko Haram launched its uprising in 2009. The group is still holding many women, girls and children captive, including 219 schoolgirls it kidnapped from a school in Chibok in April last year.

Source: BBC

Priest says situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate

By Paul Jeffrey Catholic News Service

Palestinian baby receives medical attention in Gaza City

A baby looks around while the mother talks to a doctor in Gaza City. The clinic serves Palestinian refugees and is supported by the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (CNS) — One year after a war with Israel that turned daily life here into a nightmare, a Catholic priest in Gaza said the situation in this besieged Palestinian territory has deteriorated even further.

“Compared with a year ago, we’re worse off. Although a truce stopped the war, the blockade of Gaza by Israel has grown more intense. This has direct consequences for the population,” said Father Jorge Hernandez, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Parish in Gaza City.

The priest said the war also served as a recruiting tool for Hamas, the Islamic party that has controlled Gaza since 2007.

“The war generated new activism throughout Gaza. The number of people willing to fight has multiplied, whether on behalf of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or the Salafists, and now even with the Islamic State. Despite that, the great majority of the people of Gaza is not aligned with one party or another. They just want to live a normal life,” Father Hernandez, an Argentine missionary of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, told Catholic News Service.

The 50-day war cost the lives of more than 2,250 Palestinians, 65 percent of whom were civilians, according to a June report from a U.N. investigation. The report said “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented.” It said the Israeli military launched more than 6,000 air strikes, 14,500 tank shells and 45,000 artillery shells into Gaza between July 7 and Aug. 26, 2014.

The war also “caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of Israeli civilians,” the U.N. said, reporting that nearly 4,900 rockets and more than 1,700 mortars were fired by Palestinian armed groups during that period. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers were killed, along with six civilians.

The report also cites as possible war crimes the conduct of Israeli operations in residential neighborhoods, as well as the killing of 21 suspected collaborators by Hamas’ armed wing.

Father Hernandez said militants came to his church compound twice looking for alleged spies among some 1,400 civilians who took shelter there. Church buildings were damaged when Israel bombed a neighboring house. At one point, Father Hernandez and several members of the Missionaries of Charity shepherded a group of 29 disabled children and nine elderly women into the open.

“We put them in the patio in front of church, a place that’s far from any homes. And then we prayed that Israel wouldn’t bomb the church,” he said.

Gaza’s children continue to be affected by the war, the priest said. Besides thousands who remain in temporary shelters, he said the overwhelming violence of the conflict has created discipline problems, with normal tensions in the family and on the street more quickly escalating into physical violence. And lingering stress generates health problems.

“Some kids continue to have problems with speech or bed-wetting, and now that there are rumors of another war — some are even talking about specific dates — one child’s hair has started to fall out again,” he said.

One Catholic leader in the region said that Gaza’s Christians have nonetheless adjusted to their perilous situation.

“When I came here immediately after the war, everyone I talked to pleaded for a one-way ticket out of Gaza. But I no longer hear that. They are resilient, this is their home, and they’re resolved that they’re going to make a contribution to society. They are proud to be both Christian and Palestinian, no matter the difficult conditions,” said Sami El-Yousef, regional director for Palestine and Israel of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Of Gaza’s 1.8 million population, only about 1,300 are Christian. Catholics number fewer than 200. Relations between this small minority and the Muslim majority have been marred by discrimination.

“When one looks for work here, the first thing they ask is if you are a Muslim. If you are, then they ask if you support Hamas or Fatah. If neither, they ask which mosque you go to, because they want to know who you’re loyal to,” Father Hernandez said. “But if you’re a Christian, you won’t get asked those questions because you won’t get the job. The only way Christians can get jobs is through a Muslim friend who serves as an intermediary. No store or school or bank will give them a job, so they come to the church asking for help.”

There are occasional episodes of harassment of Christians on the street, Father Hernandez said, which is one reason he maintains good relations with Hamas officials.

“It’s important for me to have good contacts, because if there’s a problem I just call someone at a high level and immediately they respond and grab the responsible person. If I had to go to the police to file a report, and the police officer had a long beard, then nothing would happen,” he said.

Vatican support for Palestinians, which has strengthened under Pope Francis, has helped ease tensions on the ground, Father Hernandez said.

“We are treated by Israel as Palestinians, but at times other Palestinians don’t want to recognize us as Palestinians. What the pope has done has helped us a lot within our community. We are just as Palestinian as Hamas. And if they forget that, we remind them of what the pope has said and done,” he said.

Source: Catholic News Service