In Syria, Assyrian Christians Cling On After ISIS Onslaught : Parallels In northeastern Syria, Christians are mourning those killed by ISIS when the militants tore through a band of Assyrian villages a year ago. The towns were recaptured, but the community is scarred.

In Syria, Assyrian Christians Cling On After ISIS Onslaught

In Syria, Assyrian Christians Cling On After ISIS Onslaught

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An Assyrian Christian man kisses a cross after taking communion in Tell Tamer, Syria. A photograph shows one of at least three people killed after ISIS took about 300 people captive in March 2015. Alice Fordham/NPR hide caption

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Alice Fordham/NPR

An Assyrian Christian man kisses a cross after taking communion in Tell Tamer, Syria. A photograph shows one of at least three people killed after ISIS took about 300 people captive in March 2015.

Alice Fordham/NPR

On a sky-blue Sunday morning in the little town of Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria, sunlight pours through olive trees, dappling the path to a church that has for almost a century been the center of an Assyrian Christian community.

In Syria, Assyrian Christians cling on after ISIS onslaught

But inside the Church of Our Lady, the sound of sobbing mixes with the ancient Aramaic chants. Photographs of three people are on display at the front, propped up on white cloths embroidered with roses, next to silver crosses and golden bells; the mass is in their memory.

On a sky-blue Sunday morning in the little town of Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria, sunlight pours through olive trees, dappling the path to a church that has for almost a century been the center of an Assyrian Christian community.

An Assyrian Christian woman prays at a church service in Tell Tamer, Syria. The service is to remember members of the community killed after about 300 people were taken captive by ISIS in March 2015. Alice Fordham/NPR hide caption

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Alice Fordham/NPR

An Assyrian Christian woman prays at a church service in Tell Tamer, Syria. The service is to remember members of the community killed after about 300 people were taken captive by ISIS in March 2015.

Alice Fordham/NPR

A year ago, ISIS fighters staged an offensive from the nearby Abdelaziz mountain, pouring into a string of small villages along the Khabur River Valley. The hamlets were mainly populated by Christians from the ancient Assyrian ethnicity, which traces its roots in the Middle East back more than 6,000 years, and which is now Christian.

But inside the Church of Our Lady, the sound of sobbing mixes with the ancient Aramaic chants. Photographs of three people are on display at the front, propped up on white cloths embroidered with roses, next to silver crosses and golden bells; the mass is in their memory.

Georgette Melki and her surviving children hold a picture of her son, who was one of at least three people killed after ISIS overran a string of Assyrian Christian villages last year. Alice Fordham/NPR hide caption

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Alice Fordham/NPR

Georgette Melki and her surviving children hold a picture of her son, who was one of at least three people killed after ISIS overran a string of Assyrian Christian villages last year.

Alice Fordham/NPR

"At 4 in the morning, we heard clashes," says Georgette Melki, speaking after the service. "Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak." After four years of Syria's civil war they were used to sporadic fighting. But as it got louder she got out of bed to see Islamic State fighters overrunning her tiny village of Tell Shamiran — "like ants," she says.

A year ago, ISIS fighters staged an offensive from the nearby Abdelaziz mountain, pouring into a string of small villages along the Khabur River Valley. The hamlets were mainly populated by Christians from the ancient Assyrian ethnicity, which traces its roots in the Middle East back more than 6,000 years, and which is now Christian.

Melki says the extremists destroyed the church, looted houses and captured about 300 people from several villages. The extremists separated their captives into men and women and drove for miles to the town of Shadadi, where they were held. Some prisoners were later moved to the Islamic State's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

"At 4 in the morning, we heard clashes," says Georgette Melki, speaking after the service. "Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak." After four years of Syria's civil war they were used to sporadic fighting. But as it got louder she got out of bed to see Islamic State fighters overrunning her tiny village of Tell Shamiran — "like ants," she says.

Melki says the extremists destroyed the church, looted houses and captured about 300 people from several villages. The extremists separated their captives into men and women and drove for miles to the town of Shadadi, where they were held. Some prisoners were later moved to the Islamic State's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

She says they were imprisoned but their treatment was not cruel. ISIS has raped, injured and killed thousands of people from the Yazidi religious minority and Shiite Muslims, whom it considers infidels. But they do not usually subject Christians to the same treatment.

Women at a service in the Church of Our Lady in northern Syria. The women sit at the back, and cover their heads with scarves — a selection of colorful headscarves are kept at the back of the church. Alice Fordham/NPR hide caption

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Alice Fordham/NPR

Women at a service in the Church of Our Lady in northern Syria. The women sit at the back, and cover their heads with scarves — a selection of colorful headscarves are kept at the back of the church.

Alice Fordham/NPR

She says they were imprisoned but their treatment was not cruel. ISIS has raped, injured and killed thousands of people from the Yazidi religious minority and Shiite Muslims, whom it considers infidels. But they do not usually subject Christians to the same treatment.

After months of negotiations between Assyrian clergy and representatives of the militants, most of those captured were released. No one will confirm the terms of the deal but several people close to the negotiations say ransoms were paid.

After months of negotiations between Assyrian clergy and representatives of the militants, most of those captured were released. No one will confirm the terms of the deal but several people close to the negotiations say ransoms were paid.

But at least three people were killed, among them one of Melki's sons. She doesn't know why he was killed.

But at least three people were killed, among them one of Melki's sons. She doesn't know why he was killed.

"I don't know why they treated us like this," she says. "We didn't do anything. We were in our village, in our houses."

"I don't know why they treated us like this," she says. "We didn't do anything. We were in our village, in our houses."

Front rows of the Church of Our Lady in Tell Tamer, Syria, are filled with Assyrian Christians. In uniform, left, is Kino Gabriel, spokesman of an armed Assyrian militia formed to protect from ISIS. Alice Fordham/NPR hide caption

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Alice Fordham/NPR

Front rows of the Church of Our Lady in Tell Tamer, Syria, are filled with Assyrian Christians. In uniform, left, is Kino Gabriel, spokesman of an armed Assyrian militia formed to protect from ISIS.

Alice Fordham/NPR

The ISIS assault was the latest shock to a community which has struggled to cling to this verdant — if remote — area. Although Assyrians have lived for millennia in an area now divided between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, there were none in the Khabur River Valley a century ago.

The ISIS assault was the latest shock to a community which has struggled to cling to this verdant — if remote — area. Although Assyrians have lived for millennia in an area now divided between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, there were none in the Khabur River Valley a century ago.

But after an Assyrian community was attacked in Iraq, they came here as refugees, resettled when Syria was under the French Mandate in the 1930s. According to research by former U.S. diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez in the 1990s, many of their children emigrated, meaning the villages remained tiny, with just a few hundred people in some of them. Miniature mud-built churches were only gradually replaced with cinderblock ones.

But after an Assyrian community was attacked in Iraq, they came here as refugees, resettled when Syria was under French control in the 1930s. According to research by former U.S. diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez in the 1990s, many of their children emigrated, meaning the villages remained tiny, with just a few hundred people in some of them. Miniature mud-built churches were only gradually replaced with cinderblock ones.

In Tell Tamer, the largest settlement, the larger Church of Our Lady was built in the 1980s. It became these Assyrians' focal point, even as the Muslim — mainly Kurdish — population of the town grew and the Assyrians became a minority there.

Still, hundreds of families remained. But the ISIS threat has brought the community to the brink of extinction, says priest Bekos Ishaya.