ISIS has released 16 more Assyrian Christian hostages in Syria, activists working in the region have confirmed.
The Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation (ACERO) today said the 16 were released after being held in north-eastern Syria since February 2015. Photos posted on Facebook show that at least nine of the freed are children.
The hostages were among more than 200 people abducted from villages along the Khabour River in northern Syria on February 23 last year. ISIS militants undertook raids on a number of Assyrian villages near Tel Hmar, burning churches and forcing hundreds of families to flee.
ISIS has now released more than 160 captives in total, and A Demand for Action (ADFA), a campaign group for minorities in the Middle East, previously told Christian Today that the Church is working "day and night to make sure all are returned to their families safely".
"Obviously we are very grateful more are freed," ADFA spokeswoman Diana Yacqo said today. "This with no doubt has been one of the most difficult periods in the church's history and very challenging to many, but thankfully the church leaders have not given up at all and have pursued this from the beginning.
"However it makes us question if there ever will be a safe environment for our people to live there again. We have always lived in harmony but this is proving difficult as time goes by. We don't know what the future holds for us in the Middle East. Our history and churches have been destroyed, our people fleeing and kidnapped. It's literally a nightmare situation and yet still nobody wants to help."
She continued: "The United Nations has neglected the situation, our pleas to our respective governments have gone unnoticed, we just seem to be the forgotten people of those lands."
ACERO previously said it "will not cease" until all hostages are freed.
In October, ISIS released a video showing the execution of three of the hostages, and threatened to kill those still in captivity if a multi-million dollar ransom was not paid.
Initially, militants demanded a ransom of around $100,000 per hostage, totalling $23 million. When it became clear that the Assyrian community could not afford it, the amount was lowered to between $12-$14 million.
Since the attacks in February, ISIS has besieged several ancient Assyrian sites, including the Iraqi city of Nimrud, the village of Khorsabad, and Hatra, a 2,000-year-old city.
An ancient branch of Christianity, the Assyrian Church of the East has roots dating back to the 1st century AD. Assyrian Christians speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and have origins in ancient Mesopotamia – a territory which spreads across northern Iraq, north-east Syria and south-eastern Turkey.