Why ISIS released 22 Assyrian Christians

If captured Christians are willing pay a tax known as 'jizya,' they may be spared. 

Omar Sanadiki/Reuters/File
An Assyrian woman attends a mass in solidarity with the Assyrians abducted by Islamic State fighters in Syria in February, inside Ibrahim al-Khalil church in Jaramana, eastern Damascus, March 1, 2015.

The Islamic State has freed 22 Assyrian Christians abducted from villages in northeastern Syria, Agence France-Presse reported. Their release marks a largely unnoticed trend in IS (also known as ISIS) – comparative safety for Christians.

Why would IS, a group known for its gruesome beheadings of civilians and its vision of a purely Islamic world, allow Christians to go free?

Graeme Wood, a political scientist at Yale University, suggests that Islamic law protects them. In The Atlantic, Mr. Wood writes it appears that Christians who don’t resist the new IS government are permitted to live as long as they pay a special tax known as "jizya."

"The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews 'until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued,' " writes Wood.

Other scholars point out that Jews and Christians are known to many Muslims as "People of the Book," who Mohammed instructed his followers to treat with respect

Some conservatives are concerned that IS is slaughtering Christians with little repercussion. In a recent opinion article for Fox News, Johnnie Moore reported that 60 Assyrian Christians had been captured, part of what he calls "Syria’s quiet Christian genocide" and a "Christian holocaust."

While comparisons to the Holocaust exaggerate the scale of the human rights crisis, IS has not spared Christians from their violent control of the region. In February, 150 Assyrian Christians were abducted from northeastern Syria, as the Monitor’s Paula Rogo reported

A June report by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that IS had executed more than 3,000 people in Syria since declaring a caliphate, including an unknown number of Christians and at least 900 Arab Sunni civilians.

IS executes a large number of Muslims, writes CNN's Ben Brumfield, because the terrorist group has an inflexibly strict definition of Islam. Not only do they recognize only their own version of Sunni Islam, but they have executed 125 of their members for actions that break with their strict interpretation of Islam, according to SOHR.

That inflexibility is key to understanding IS's treatment of their victims, whether Muslim or Christian, say experts. In the New York Times, Eliza Griswold writes that, while the Islamic State group offers Christians options – convert or pay the jizya tax – they will ultimately be killed if they refuse to comply with either request.

"How much longer can we flee before we and other minorities become a story in a history book?" asked Nuri Kino, a journalist and founder of the ethnoreligious minority advocacy group Demand for Action.

The release of the Assyrian Christians suggests that these minorities may have found a foothold. Osama Edward, the director of the Assyrian Network for Human Rights, told the AFP that negotiations to secure the release of the additional 187 hostages being held by ISIS were ongoing.

"There is a positive atmosphere around the negotiation," he said. 

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