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.
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In Syria, Assyrian Christians Cling On After ISIS Onslaught

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In Syria, Assyrian Christians Cling On After ISIS Onslaught

In Syria, Assyrian Christians Cling On After ISIS Onslaught

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In many parts of the Middle East, minority Christian communities have become targets in civil wars. Many have gone underground. But in one corner of northeastern Syria, NPR's Alice Fordham met a group of Assyrian Christians who found themselves right in the path of ISIS, and it made them more determined to stay.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Aramaic).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's a pure, sky-blue Sunday morning in the quiet town of Tell Tamer. Sunlight pours through olive trees and dapples the churchyard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in Aramaic).

FORDHAM: The church is full, maybe a couple hundred people - women in colored headscarves at the back, men at the front, children skittering in the nave. But even as they celebrate mass together in the ancient Aramaic language, this congregation is full of sorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Crying, speaking foreign language).

FORDHAM: One year ago, ISIS fighters invaded a nearby string of villages largely populated by Christians from the Assyrian ethnic minority. The extremists held about 300 villagers captive for months, killing at least three. Their photographs are propped up next to silver crosses and golden bells at the front of the church in Tell Tamer, a neighboring town never taken by ISIS, which has long been a center of the Assyrian community.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Crying).

FORDHAM: Afterwards, there's an emotional crowd outside leaning on each other's shoulders, holding hands. Among them is an older woman in a black skirt suit named Georgette Melki. She remembers the day ISIS came into her village.

GEORGETTE MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: It was 4 in the morning, and she heard clashes.

MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: It got louder and louder, so they went outside and saw ISIS fighters overrunning the village...

MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: ...Like ants.

MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Melki says the extremists looted her house and destroyed the church. Then, they drove their prisoners to another town and held them captive.

MELKI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: She was treated OK, but her son was killed. Still, she doesn't know why. After long negotiations between the Assyrian clergy and ISIS, which no one will discuss in detail, most of the captives were released. With the help of local Kurdish fighters, their villages were retaken from ISIS, but the community is scarred. I ask one of Melki's surviving children, Fadi, if he thinks they will stay.

FADI: (Through interpreter) If there is safety, maybe. But now, everything is destroyed - churches, houses, villages. So I think if - the people that have money, they will leave.

FORDHAM: Many have already left. But others swear to remain, including the priest, Father Bekas Ishaya.

BEKAS ISHAYA: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He says God compares priests to light in the darkness. And there are also young men in uniform with weapons here. To protect their area, they have formed a militia which is supported by the U.S. in its fight against ISIS. Their spokesman is Kino Gabriel - tall, broad-chested, 26 years old. He tells me they decided to arm themselves when they looked to the Christians of Iraq who have been brutally targeted but never formed organized armed groups. I ask how it felt the first time he put on uniform.

KINO GABRIEL: You feel strong (laughter). It is, I think, something cultural that when you wear a uniform, take up arms, you feel stronger.

FORDHAM: He says he urges people not to leave these villages.

GABRIEL: Staying in our land, that is the only way that we can preserve our life, our culture, our everything that - our identity in general.

FORDHAM: He also urges people living abroad to come back and help rebuild the villages. He believes people should return to their roots and their homeland.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Tell Tamer, Syria.

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