On February 23, 2015, ISIS forces fell upon 35 Christian towns at the same time, kidnapping thousands.
With no armies, countries or even their own government offering help, an unlikely hero was forced to take matters into his own hands.
Bishop Mar Afram Athneil lost much of his flock when ISIS descended upon his town.
His people were not taken on February 2015 – they were taken over a year ago and the Islamic State demanded a ransom for each person.
When no money was sent, the group began to record and release videos of the hostages being killed.
Knowing the terror group would use any ransom money to kill more people, he was morally trapped but eventually decided to pay the ransom that would save the lives of his people – so he turned to Aneki Nissan, who helped raise money for ransoms in Canada.
Nissan shared: “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 [but] to us, we’re such a small minority that we have to help each other.”
Abdo Marza, a man who survived an encounter with ISIS, was one of many in his village to be collected by the terror group. Jihads returned men to their homes, where they were forced to destroy all symbols of their Christian faith.
He later admitted, “There was no way you could resist.”
Though they destroyed icons of the Holy Virgin and tore their religious art, none were willing to convert.
Everyone was held hostage for a week until 17 men taken from Tal Goran were offered their freedom under the condition they deliver a message to their bishop in Hassakah and return with an answer.
The message was a demand of $50,000 per person or the hostages would be slaughtered like cattle.
Marza admitted he was frightened but he volunteered for the mission and was determined to see the freedom of his fellow villagers.
He believes the militants were impressed with his courage so they kept his 6-year-old daughter Maryam and his elderly aunt. The rest of the Tal Goran hostages were freed.
Marza was given a piece of paper signed and stamped by the Islamic State to grant him free 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.”
When Marza delivered the note to Bishop Mar Afram Athneil, he took the whole of the three days to consult with other churches around the world. When a conclusion was reached, he gave Marza a sealed envelope to return to the Islamic State.
When the ISIS leader read it, he simply smiled and said, “Your bishop is a very smart man,” then he freed Maryam.
Paying a ransom for hostages is illegal in the United States and most other western countries but Bishop Athneil did what he felt was right in the eyes of God.
The militants were demanding a total of over $11 million for the group but Bishop Athneil refused to be discouraged.
He knew all Assyrians lost someone they loved to the Islamic State and the Bishop banked on their help – which came in the form of Canadian Assyrians pooling about $100,000 to help save the Christians.
Meanwhile, in California, filmmaker Sargon Saadi decided to return to the Middle East to see what had become of the Khabur villages. When he discovered them deserted, save for a few desperate and weak Assyrian fighters, he knew he had to act.
“We didn’t know why they took them, we didn’t know where they took them, what they wanted to do with them,” Saadi explained. He didn’t know if his fellow men were to be sold, traded or ransomed – until he heard of Bishop Athneil.
“There’s no easy way to give them money,” Saadi stated. “It’s very dangerous, ti’s also illegal in many countries. And the money they were asking for, no one could afford that kind of money.”
Meanwhile, Nissan was hard at work with Assyrians in Canada. “Every Assyrian I know knows somebody that was either kidnapped or directly affected by the kidnapping,” he explained.
Bishop Athneil freed a few Assyrian Christians and once news broke on Twitter, suddenly more people became interested in funding his efforts.
In Germany, Charli Kanoun was able to persuade the government to accept the freed hostage, then he began working on a plan to raise more money.
“Everyone contributed; the church opened an account in Irbil, Iraq, and announced it on the internet so everyone can donate,” Kanoun explained.
In London, Andy Darmoo, of the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization, joined forces with Bishop Athneil to raise money to save the entire group.
In Australia, Nicolas al-Jeloo, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, gave a slide presentation on the history of the Khabur at a local church hall. Much of the audience, over 500 people, was touched and donated that very night.
With cousins who were abducted, al-Jeloo worked hard to reach more people willing to donate, desperate for any news of his family.
Soon, more and more hostages were freed from the Islamic State.
In September last year, ISIS released footage of hostages being killed. No one knew why the hostages were suddenly being killed but it spurred rescuers into further action.
“When that happened, everybody went crazy and money started flying in from all over,” Saadi described. “Churches, and donations, Assyrians, non-Assyrians, just donating to the churches and funneling it to the bishop.
“We can’t fight them, 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. And everybody was so fearful that the rest of the hostages were also going to be killed.”
Efforts were rewarded with more Christians freed until December 2015, when a United Nations resolution no longer allowed governments “to prevent kidnapping and hostage-taking committed by terrorist groups and to secure the safe release of hostages without ransom payments or political concessions.”
Assyrians claimed the governments were not stopping their fundraising, nor did they openly acknowledge the ransom payments.
Over a year and three murder tapes later, Bishop Athneil continues to save more and more hostages and has successfully saved a total of 226 Assyrian Christians.
How much money the Islamic State collected from the Bishop so far remains known only between the terror group and Bishop Athneil, neither of whom has released that information – but regardless of the money spent, many who saw the safe return of their loved ones have hailed the Bishop a hero.
“Honestly, this man should go down as a saint, the things that he’s done, the sacrifices he’s made to help these people,” Nissan stated. “He’s refusing to leave Syria until all his flock is secured.”
People on Twitter have responded well to Bishop Athneil’s efforts, with many tweeting pictures of the bishop greeting released hostages.
The pictures of hostages continue to be released via social media as they are rescued from the evil extremist group.
Please pray God favors Bishop Athneil’s efforts and enables the freedom of all hostages from ISIS’ poisonous grasp.