22 Syrian Christian hostages released as Vatican recognises martyrdom of beheaded bishop

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by Abigail Frymann Rouch
Islamic State terrorists on Tuesday released 22 Orthodox Christians they had held captive since February, following mediation by tribal leaders, observers said.
The 22 were part of more than 250 Assyrian Christians captured by IS after it overran a string of Syrian villages on the southern bank of Khabur River in the north-eastern province of Hassakeh. Some 3,000 Christian villagers fled their homes in the attack and few have returned.

Until this week 26 hostages had been released at intervals. IS has demanded US$100,000 (£64,000) for each hostage.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said money was paid for the release of the 22.

The Assyrian Human Rights Network said 14 of those released were elderly women, and that the group was taken to the Virgin Mary Church in the city of Hassakeh.

The network posted photos on its Facebook page, showing mostly elderly men and women, some in tears, being greeted by a priest.

Assyrians kidnapped by IS released AHRNLast week, IS abducted about 60 Christians from the central town of Qaryatain, hours after it was captured by the group. Nearly half of them were later released but the fate of the rest remains unknown.

Meanwhile as members of the Syriac Catholic Church face severe persecution in Iraq and Syria, Pope Francis formally recognised the martyrdom of one of their bishops who was killed in the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Signing the decree recognising the martyrdom of Syriac Bishop Flavien-Michel Malke clears the way for his beatification. Pope Francis signed the decree at the weekend.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the early 1900s, there were waves of atrocities against Christian minorities, especially the Armenians and Syrians, in what is now widely recognised as genocide.

Bishop Malke was the Syriac Catholic bishop of Gazireh, which today is the city of Cizre, Turkey. Although advised to flee, the bishop stayed with his people, was arrested and beheaded.

Fr Rami Al Kabalan, postulator or promoter of Bishop Malke’s cause, told Vatican Radio: “He played a fundamental role in encouraging the people to defend their faith during that difficult era, during the persecutions of the Ottoman Empire.

“He lived in extreme poverty and even sold his liturgical vestments to help the poor,” Fr Al Kabalan said.

One hundred years after the bishop’s death on 29 August 1915, “we Eastern Christians are undergoing almost the same persecutions,” the priest said. “For us, the figure of this martyr gives us courage to defend our faith and live our faith; we do not have to be afraid, despite the difficult circumstances facing all Eastern Christians in Iraq and Syria.”

The bishop was born in 1858 in Qal’at Mara in what is now south-eastern Turkey. Although his family was Orthodox, he became a Syriac Catholic and joined the Fraternity of St Ephrem. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1883 and named bishop of Gazireh in 1913.

Photos: AHRN via Facebook