For a group known for grotesque brutality, beheadings and even medieval-styled burning particularly to those who do not practice their style of Islam, ISIS’ action of releasing some Christian captives remains a stunning action to all.
On Sunday, ISIS released them.
Ten other Assyrian Christians are expected to join them in freedom after a short time in captivity.
All but one of the Christians released were part of a group of 220 Assyrians captured last week during offensives on northern Syrian villages, said the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The group has not explained its decision.
It was not a militant commander but an ISIS Sharia judge, said Osama Edward, who heads the Assyrian Human Rights Network, based in Sweden.
Some of Edward’s family members are among the captured Christians. His rights group keeps contact with local people, via phone and Internet, and has a field team in Syria, he said.
The Sharia judge asked the Christians if they were part of any militia, Edward said. Then he pronounced them not guilty of violating Sharia law and ordered them released.
The Assyrian Christians were all from the village of Tal Goran. They have returned home but are keeping quiet for now.
“They were so tired,” Edward said. They had a closed meeting with a bishop, and then ate and went home.
“They were treated well,” contacts in Tal Goran passed on to Edward. “Nobody was tortured.”
One analyst, Graeme Wood feels ISIS’ show of mercy is part of another plan, saying “ISIS has claimed for a long time to follow rules, and it claims that these Sharia courts will impose limits,” adding further that the group may “attempt to get credibility by showing that they follow rules and that they have some kind of transparent process that follows their particular implementation of Sharia law.”
ISIS has taken heat even from other Islamists who accuse it of rogue justice, especially against Muslim civilians they’ve condemned as “infidels” out of hand.
It’s part of the reason al Qaeda has rejected the group, Wood wrote. That reduced some of ISIS’ chances of receiving international moral and financial support, leaving the terror group to make up the gap with other funding.
And it has led to a violent split with another jihadi group in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, according to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Other Islamist groups in Syria have frowned on ISIS for not submitting to decisions from Sharia courts.
The main issue drawing anger from other Islamist groups revolves around Muslim civilians, who are ISIS’ most common victims. And the released captives are Christians.
But Christian activist Edward thinks the ISIS Sharia court decision was, in part, a nod to Syrian Sunni Muslim tribal leaders who negotiated for the Christians’ release.
First, the tribes care deeply about their Christian neighbors and don’t want them killed, Edward said. It also makes the Sunni tribal leaders look good and gets a rapport started between them and ISIS.
ISIS has a very narrow definition of who is a real Muslim and who is an apostate. Foremost, a Muslim must practice Sunni Islam in its eyes.
The group is quick to practice “takfir,” which amounts to the excommunication of a Muslim, for things as seemingly petty as shaving off one’s beard or voting in an election. ISIS is quick to kill anyone it condemns, because it wants to create a fanatically pure caliphate with only the strictest devotees, Wood wrote.
ISIS has executed 125 of its own members for doing things that broke with its strict take on Islam, the Syrian Observatory said.
Social media posts indicate that ISIS carries out mass killings regularly, but “exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government.” They are required to pay a special tax and acknowledge the new ruling power.
That’s exactly what the judge ruled, Edward said.
The released Assyrian Christians agreed to acknowledge ISIS as their new masters and to pay the tax.
ISIS is still holding two of Tal Goran’s Christian villagers, Edward said. They should be released as soon as the taxes are paid.
He is hoping for the same deal for the other Christian villagers, including for his family.