The ISIS hostage crisis
Christians forced to live for years under Islamic State tell of forcible conversions, torture, and sexual slavery. Will their lives ever return to normal?
by Mindy Belz
May 13, 2017
On the outskirts of Mosul, the streets are full of families on the move.
Six months into a grueling campaign led by the Iraqi army with U.S. military support, nearly all the surrounding area of Nineveh—and nearly two-thirds of the city itself—have been liberated from control by ISIS, or Islamic State. The militant group took over the region in 2014 and from Mosul declared a global caliphate. It continues to control territory in strongholds near Iraq’s border with Syria and up the Euphrates River toward Raqqa, its headquarters there.
Where fighting remains intense, so is steady foot traffic. Some Iraqis forced from their homes nearly three years ago by ISIS are eager to return. At the same time, Iraqi residents who lived under the jihadist group, now freed of its control, are eager to get out of what many testify had become a hellhole. Military convoys kick up walls of dust as they dodge families of three, five, or more along the roadways, parents carrying their belongings on their backs while holding children or an elderly parent by the hand.
Lost in the coming and going is what’s happening to those particularly traumatized by life under ISIS—the non-Muslims labeled infidels, largely Iraqi Christians and Yazidis.
Of more than 100,000 Christians forced to flee, church leaders believe at least 500 Christians went missing in the summer of 2014, presumed killed or enslaved by the militants and forced to convert to Islam.
Global attention has focused on the thousands of Yazidis whom ISIS enslaved and killed, but little has come to light about Christian hostages. A study released in April from the University of Notre Dame on Christian responses to persecution states, “Almost no Christian has remained in IS-held territory.”
In reality, hundreds may be held. Dozens of Iraqi Christians in recent weeks have managed to escape—with the Iraqi army’s advance—from a long and cruel captivity, telling harrowing stories of brutality.
“All have been tortured, all have been threatened with beheading, all the women and girls were made sex slaves if they did not convert,” Charmaine Hedding, executive director of the Shai Fund, said of escapees she interviewed. Her U.S.- and German-based relief organization works to support those displaced by ISIS.
Hedding spoke to freed Christians in Iraq in April and believes many more may have suffered as they have. Their accounts here are based on her reporting, plus collaboration from other Iraqi sources. Due to the extent of the families’ trauma, the uncertainties they continue to face, plus ongoing danger ISIS fighters may pose, some of the victims’ names are changed, and only first names are used.
Most of the Christian hostages were released into custody of the Kurdish peshmerga, the controlling military force in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, and underwent hours of debriefing. They are now receiving medical and psychological care via church and humanitarian aid groups. Under a new Iraqi law, they could face prosecution for returning to Christianity. For now, they face resentment from some of their fellow Christians, particularly those who fled ISIS rather than submit to its control.
They also face ongoing danger: Some victims have seen and can identify foreign fighters for Islamic State—including Australian, British, and American jihadists—making their stories important to tell and their identities important to protect. Beyond being victims of violence, their stories show the extent of targeted brutality against non-Muslims—in short, genocide.
JASMIN IS AN IRAQI WOMAN in her mid-30s, a Christian living with family in Nineveh Plain when ISIS overran her town in August 2014. When the militants abducted Jasmin, they also took captive her two sisters and several female Christians, including a 3-year-old named Christina.
Jasmin’s sisters were released in December 2014. Christina remains a captive, with ISIS operatives posting a photo of her on Facebook last year. Jasmin barely survived more than two years of ISIS abduction: The jihadist group dragged her first to Mosul, then to Tel Afar (currently an embattled ISIS stronghold), and then to Raqqa, ISIS headquarters in north-central Syria. At each stop she was sold to a succession of ISIS fighters, and raped each time she was sold. Jasmin has recounted 16 or 18 times the Islamic militants sold her off and raped her.
Last November church leaders working with the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, an Iraq-based group, learned of Jasmin’s whereabouts. They used smugglers to send a letter to her in Aramaic—the language still used among Iraq’s Chaldean and Orthodox churches but not taught or known among Muslims—and asked her to respond in Aramaic. When she did, it was proof of life, explained Yohanna Towaya, who manages Hammurabi’s office in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, and also is a displaced Christian from Nineveh.
“We were forced to pay [a smuggler] to secure her release,” said Towaya, “but it was the only way.” Absent military action and a concerted international effort to protect vulnerable populations living in ISIS-held territory, smugglers have become a shady but integral part to freeing captured Christians and Yazidis, a non-Muslim sect largely wiped out in Iraq by militants.
Jasmin was brought to Iraqi Kurdistan, where she lives now under supervised medical care. Towaya said his organization has documented at least 100 cases involving similar atrocities. The organization also believes hundreds may have been killed: In recent months, eyewitness accounts from Mosul have emerged of at least one Christian burned alive in her home and others killed when ISIS submerged them in nitric acid.
ISMAIL AND HIS MOTHER remained in their Nineveh town of Bartella in the summer of 2014 while other Christians fled. His mother has epilepsy and was ill at the time. Neither of them realized militants had taken over their town, said Ismail, then 14 years old. When they did, they tried to leave but were stopped at a checkpoint. Identifying himself as a Christian, Ismail was hit over the head, blindfolded, bound, and taken with his mother to Mosul. There they would be held for more than two years, moved from house to house and subject to threats and beatings.
Ismail said his captors early on put a gun to his head and told his mother he would be killed if the two did not convert. She hesitated. The ISIS gunmen went next door and murdered a Shiite Muslim hostage. The gunmen forced Ismail and his mother to look at the corpse, again threatening them. At that point, the two recited the shahada, the one-line profession of Islamic faith, to save their lives.
Reciting the shahada is the first of five pillars of Islam: “La ilaha illallah, Muhammadun rasulullah,” in Arabic, meaning, “There is no other god but Allah, and Muhammad is God’s messenger (or prophet).”
But for Christians like Ismail and his mother, troubles didn’t end with a shahada. Some received nightly visits from ISIS recruiters, pressuring males and even young boys to become suicide bombers. According to Hedding, ISIS sent at least 20 young men, mostly teenagers from families she has interviewed, to a training school where they learned how to carry and use weapons, how to carry out bomb attacks, and even how to conduct beheadings. Ismail managed to avoid such training and still survive.
Christian boys and teenagers living under ISIS also had to attend the mosque for Friday prayers and risked beatings if they failed to show. Ismail said he received 25 lashes for not reciting a verse from the Quran correctly.
“Everyone had phones but no internet,” Ismail said. An informant once turned him in to ISIS, accusing him of using his phone to call the Kurdish peshmerga for help. He was put in prison then taken to an ISIS judge, who threatened him with beheading before releasing him.
Ismail can recount daily threats and weekly punishments. On Fridays, the accused were dragged into public squares in Mosul. Ismail watched on one occasion as men in red jumpsuits were forced to kneel before a row of boys with guns. ISIS said the men were army informants. The children, upon orders, shot them. Ismail also saw a woman stoned to death, accused of adultery. Forced to watch, he said he could only think of the woman caught in adultery in the New Testament and Jesus’ admonishment, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone.”
Unlike many young men forced into ISIS activities, Ismail appears to have held steadfastly to his faith. Throughout his captivity he kept a small cross hidden beneath his shirt and took risks to protect his mother. ISIS guards beat him regularly, and many times he was forced to watch his mother beaten or poked with needles until she bled.
When Ismail learned the Iraqi army was advancing on Mosul, he and his mother managed to escape the home where they were being held. Gunmen fired on them, but they ran to the army with a white sheet tied to a stick.
“I was in disbelief,” Ismail told a reporter after they escaped. “I saw the army’s faces, they had no beards, their faces were clear like a shining light.”
Forced to watch a woman accused of adultery be stoned to death, Ismail said he could only think of the woman caught in adultery in the New Testament and Jesus’ admonishment, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone.’
THE ISIS PLATOONS that captured Mosul two years ago broadcast a decree from pickups and mosque speakers just for Christians: They must convert to Islam or pay a tax to live under ISIS. Anyone who refused these options, militants announced, “will have nothing but the sword.”
Almost every Christian fled, many assuming ISIS would soon be routed and they would be allowed to return to their homes. But no military action occurred for more than two years, leaving the Christians, no matter where they went, in limbo and destitute. For those who stayed, paying the tax, called jizya, turned out to be no option, either.
The jizya traditionally has been paid by non-Muslims in exchange for protection and preserving religious rights. Historically, and certainly under the Islamic State caliphate in Mosul, jizya at best became a form of extortion.
One family deciding to pay jizya to stay realized its members would be living as second-class citizens under the new Islamic State rules. But when the father went to the mosque to pay the tax, ISIS authorities told him it was no longer an option. He was threatened with beheading and his girls with being sold into slave marriages. To protect his family, he converted.
“These families found themselves in a situation where they had no option but to recite the shahada and become Muslims,” said Hedding.
Ismail says of his conversion, “I did not mean it in my heart.” But under Islamic law, and apostasy laws in Iraq, the Christians who have “converted” to Islam may now be committing a crime to declare themselves Christians again.
Iraq’s constitution, drafted under close supervision with the United States and passed in 2005 by voter referendum, appears to prohibit laws against conversion and to protect citizens against “religious coercion.” But last year’s passage of a National Card law undermines those protections. Article 26 of the new law states, “Children shall follow the religion of a parent converted to Islam.” The law applies to children whose non-Muslim mother marries a Muslim man or if either parent converts to Islam.
Christian, Yazidi, and other non-Muslim members of parliament walked out to protest Article 26, but the measure passed unchanged. When the U.S. State Department raised questions about the provision, Iraqi officials said it likely would not be implemented. The State Department did not respond to questions on Article 26 in time for publication.
Because of Article 26, many Christians forced by ISIS to convert to Islam fear returning to their communities. “If someone wants to implement the law, then they and their children would have to be identified as Muslims going forward,” said Hedding.
In other words, Christians forced to convert under ISIS could now, under the Iraqi law, be declared apostates for returning to their Christian faith. Their children, and children women gave birth to in forced marriages and sexual slavery, would remain Muslims. The state, in effect, would be aiding the Islamic extremists in wiping out non-Muslim populations.
Even if officials don’t apply Article 26, its existence makes Christians who converted vulnerable. “They can never be sure who to trust if they want to go back to their home, and that’s especially true if people find out they converted to Islam,” said Hedding.
THE DEFINITION OF GENOCIDE, according to the United Nations, includes “forcibly transferring children of [a national, ethnic, racial, or religious] group to another group.” It’s on that basis human rights advocates argue for outside intervention to protect non-Muslims brutalized by ISIS. Without such protection, Yazidis, Christians, and other groups in the areas under ISIS control could disappear in a single generation.
Just weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Obama administration announced plans to resettle permanently hundreds of Iraqis returning from Islamic State slavery and said Christians and Yazidis would qualify. So far the Trump administration has not indicated whether it will implement such a program. Trump’s revised executive order on immigration allows Iraqi refugees but keeps an overall ceiling on refugee numbers that likely means fewer victims of genocide actually enter the United States this year.
Hedding, who has worked on some of the referral cases, said of those surviving ISIS enslavement, “The dream for me is to move them out. But the reality of working in this area is there are very few quotas for taking them in elsewhere, and there has been no political will to offer protection for them.”
This article first appeared in World Magazine: https://world.wng.org/2017/04/the_isis_hostage_crisis, and is writtien by Mindy Belz (senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels).
Photo Credit: Clay Cook with Nadus Films and Unseen