In northeast Syria, a Christian community fights for survival

Why We Wrote This

“Do not go gentle into that good night” just might be the mantra of the ancient Assyrian Christian community. It is ravaged and displaced by war, but its mostly elderly members are clinging to their ancestral home.

Dominique Soguel
Somo Suleiman (l.), an Assyrian Christian, was held hostage by ISIS for eight months. She suffered no ill treatment despite her refusal to convert to Islam. Here she is pictured with her cousin Yuniya Salaka on March 18 in Tell Tamer, Syria.

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Before the start of Syria’s crisis in 2011, Assyrian Christians who trace their roots to the Assyrian Empire of ancient Mesopotamia numbered about 30,000, concentrated in the northeast. In 2015, ISIS attacked multiple Christian villages, taking some 257 women hostage and destroying several churches in their path.

What remains today in the region is a small core of dedicated but mostly old or aging Christians who have stayed put or returned to ensure the community’s survival. They face difficult odds. While the immediate threat from Islamic State jihadists has diminished, other challenges remain: a lack of youth, an exodus of thousands to foreign countries that is unlikely to be reversed, and an Assad regime that poses a threat.

Marlen Kalo’s cheerful smile contrasts sharply with her negative predictions. “Christians have no future in Syria,” she says. “The majority have been displaced. Those who stayed are a tiny minority. We hope that those living abroad consider coming back here and help us rebuild our country so that it is better than before. If the Christians come back, we will have a future. Otherwise we won’t. I don’t think they will come back.”

Sunset plunges the village of Tell Tamer into total darkness on this March evening. In this remote area of northeast Syria, power cuts can drag out for days.

In the windows of the local church, the somber light of candles is reflected as Assyrian Christians gather to bid farewell to yet another member of their dwindling community.

Every member counts.

Before the start of Syria’s crisis in 2011, Christians made up 10 to 12% of the country’s 18 million people. Assyrian Christians – an ethnic as well as a religious community that traces its roots to the Assyrian Empire of ancient Mesopotamia – numbered about 30,000, concentrated in the northeast, primarily here in Tell Tamer and Qamishli.

What remains today in the region is a small core of dedicated but mostly old or aging Christians who have stayed put or returned to ensure the community’s survival.

They face difficult odds. While the immediate threat of the Islamic State jihadists has diminished, other challenges remain: lack of youth, an exodus of thousands to foreign countries that is unlikely to be reversed, and an Assad regime that poses a threat both direct and indirect, as a catalyst to Sunni fundamentalism that has targeted Christians in Syria and Iraq.

A swirl of hope and pessimism

Marlen Kalo is a middle-aged woman whose cheerful smile contrasts sharply with her negative predictions.

“Christians have no future in Syria,” she says outside the church. “The majority have been displaced. Those who stayed are a tiny minority. We hope that those living abroad consider coming back here and help us rebuild our country so that it is better than before. If the Christians come back, we will have a future. Otherwise we won’t. I don’t think they will come back.”

Inside, Rev. Boghos Ichaya presides over the candlelit wake that has gathered dozens of elderly Christians. They sit quietly along two rows of wooden chairs, exchanging the occasional whisper.

His parish, Reverend Ichaya says, does not exceed 400 individuals, mostly natives of Tell Tamer and other villages flanking the Khabur River, where Assyrians have long raised livestock and tilled the land.

“The majority of the people from this area have left,” he confirms. “After the ISIS attacks, almost everybody left. Some of those who stayed in Syria have returned. Of those who went abroad, no one is back.”

In 2015, ISIS attacked multiple Christian villages, taking some 257 women hostage and destroying several churches in their path. The captives were later released in exchange for hefty ransoms – to the tune of “millions” according to several accounts – to which the expat community generously contributed.

‘An original people of Syria’

Among those kidnapped by ISIS was Somo Suleiman, a stately woman who describes the entire experience with the casualness of someone with nerves of steel. While others recall the deafening gunfire of the militants’ arrival, she simply remembers making tea in her native village of Tel Shamiran when she “stumbled upon” three bearded militants in her courtyard.

First they searched her house, unconvinced that she was living alone. Then they ushered her to another house, from which she was driven off with other captives southward to Al-Shadade.

“We were all women,” she recalls. Multiple times ISIS floated the idea of conversion. Multiple times she declined.

“We spent eight months in Al-Shadade,” she continues. “They dealt with us honorably, always knocking on the door and telling us to cover up.”

The day of their release came as a complete surprise, marked by acute disbelief followed by tears of joy and prayers of thanks. Like many others, including her cousin Yuniya Sulaka, she settled in Tell Tamer, determined to keep the community alive on its ancestral land.

“Assyrians are an original people of Syria,” the cousins stress.

With most of their relatives now living happily in Australia, Ms. Sulaka, 55, second-guesses their decision to stay put. “There is nothing for Christians here,” she says glumly. “We are not even living in our own homes.”

Many of the Christian youth have fled this part of Syria, unwilling to risk conscription into the Syrian army or the Kurdish military factions that have fought ISIS and who have the upper hand in the region. Some have joined Christian forces such as the Sutoro, which is aligned with U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, and the Sotoro, which has a foothold in the city of Qamishli and is allied with the Syrian regime. Others are self-organized as village watchmen.

No place like home

Shadiya Maroghe fled the area in 2013 when Jabhat al-Nusra – an Al Qaeda-inspired group that laid the foundations for the rise of ISIS in Syria – kidnapped a number of Assyrian girls, sparking an exodus to Germany and Sweden as well as to Kurdish-held cities like Hassakeh and Qamishli. She lived with her in-laws in a regime-controlled, predominantly Christian suburb of Homs city until five months ago, when she decided to return.

“There we had better services,” she says, drinking tea in her kitchen, where the only light comes from a phone screen and a small lantern. “But no matter how tough it is, your land will always be the prettiest. Every day we hold prayers at the church, and every Sunday we observe mass. The problem is that Christians have nothing to come back to here.”

She works as a cleaner to provide for her sick husband, a former driver who has suffered three heart attacks in the course of the war, her blind sister-in-law, and her five children who are still too young to work.

“I have no adult boys who could help move this family forward,” Ms. Maroghe explains just as the lights come back on, revealing Christian motifs on her wall and a porcelain Virgin Mary on the shelf.

While ISIS sleeper cells are likely to remain a problem in Syria for a long time, Ms. Maroghe says she now feels relatively secure in the region. “No one has bothered us after ISIS,” she notes.

‘We were asking for a new Syria’

Gabriel Gawrieh, a prominent Assyrian Christian based in the nearby city of Qamishli, believes the safety of his community – and indeed of all ethnic and religious components of Syrian society – can be guaranteed only through secular governance. He was an early backer of pro-democracy movements and nonviolent protests against the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

“We were asking for a new Syria, but the regime and its allies consider all opposition to be terrorists,” he says, sitting in the same office from which he was arrested, along with a brother and a colleague, in December 2013. He credits pressure from the international community for his release. “We were terrorized by ISIS but have also been terrorized by the regime.”

The Syrian regime, he notes, has long presented itself as a protector of Christian and other minorities, securing the loyalty of parts of the community by preying on their fears of ISIS and other jihadist groups or co-opting them into formal institutions to give them a semblance of religious freedom in exchange for staying out of politics.

The reality, he says, is that the minority has had little room to maneuver, well aware that the price of dissent runs the gamut from enforced disappearances to detention and outright death. While some Christians might welcome the regime and its army, he believes forces loyal to Damascus are just one militia among many.

“I sincerely believe that most Christians are not with the continuation of a dictatorial regime,” he says. “But there is fear of an even more negative alternative. If the regime stays in place, you will see even more radical groups rise, especially in the absence of reconstruction.” 

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