Former Islamic State hostages have revealed that 226 Christians were released through a year-long ransom intervention, launched by a Syrian bishop who rallied the Assyrian Christian diaspora around the world.

Kidnapped in February 2015 in their villages in northern Syria’s Khabur River valley near Hassaka, the Assyrian Christians were handled roughly and harassed repeatedly to convert to Islam. They expected to die, but within a week the IS militants sent 17 Assyrians back to their bishop in Hassaka with a ransom demand: $50,000 per person, or be killed.

More than $11 million for the whole abducted group sounded impossible, but Bishop Mar Aphrem Athniel of the Assyrian Church of the East made the demand known, while beginning secret negotiations for the remaining hostages.

Despite international laws against paying ransoms, as well as moral objections to funding terrorists, nearly every member of the small communities of Assyrians worldwide knew someone who was either kidnapped or directly affected. Calls for donations went out across social media, primarily on Facebook, and networks spread the financial appeal. A trickle of releases happened; in May two elderly women were freed, another man in June, and then 22 more people in August.

But then in September 2015, IS released a video of the execution of three Khabur men. “When that happened, everybody went crazy and money started flying in from all over,” an Assyrian filmmaker in California said.

“Assyrians don’t have an army to go rescue them… 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,” he said.

By Easter Sunday 2016, all of the 226 Khabur Christians had been set free. How much was ultimately paid for their freedom remains a mystery. But Bishop Athniel is credited with rescuing 226 of his abducted parishioners from slavery, forced conversion and death.

Source: Associated Press