Who are the Assyrian Christians?

ACERO

Islamic State militants have abducted at least 90 Assyrian Christians in north-eastern Syria, sources have confirmed, though the number could be as many as 200.

Jihadists undertook dawn raids in a number of villages near Tel Hmar, south of the Khabour river, on 23 February. 

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 is now spread over modern day northern Iraq, north-east Syria and south-eastern Turkey.

They are not in communion with the Orthodox Church communities, nor with the Catholic Church, and mainly follow East Syrian Rite liturgy.

The ethno-religious group has suffered extreme persecution in the past. In the 1890s, the Assyrian genocide wiped out around half of the population, an estimated total of between 275,000 and 300,000 deaths. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 then forced many Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks and Georgians to emigrate, with most settling in Europe.

At least 400,000 Assyrians fled Iraq between 2003 and 2009, and many more left when IS began its insurgency last year. Campaigners now fear that those who remain are facing another genocide at the hands of the Islamist group.

"Unfortunately, I have to say so," Ninson Ibrahim, Senior Syria Advisor for A Demand for Action (ADFA), a group campaigning for the protection of religious minorities, told Christian Today.

"ISIS have been in this territory for quite some time, for several months, and they have been trying to get inside the big cities but have failed, so it seems they are trying to occupy the villages surrounding those cities instead.

"It started in Iraq and now it's also happening in Syria, and the Assyrian people have their roots in Iraq and Syria, but most have now fled the Middle East. So maybe they won't be extinguished, but they will definitely not be living in their home countries."

ADFA is calling for greater support for minority groups most vulnerable to IS militants. "If nothing is done, I think there won't be any Christians left in Syria, or Assyrians at all, unfortunately that's the truth," Ibrahim said.

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