On a sky-blue Sunday morning in the little town of Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria, sunlight pours through olive trees, dappling the path to a church that has for almost a century been the center of an Assyrian Christian community.
But inside the Church of Our Lady, the sound of sobbing mixes with the ancient Aramaic chants. Photographs of three people are on display at the front, propped up on white cloths embroidered with roses, next to silver crosses and golden bells; the mass is in their memory.
A year ago, ISIS fighters staged an offensive from the nearby Abdelaziz mountain, pouring into a string of small villages along the Khabur River Valley. The hamlets were mainly populated by Christians from the ancient Assyrian ethnicity, which traces its roots in the Middle East back more than 6,000 years, and which is now Christian.
“At 4 in the morning, we heard clashes,” says Georgette Melki, speaking after the service. “Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak.” After four years of Syria’s civil war they were used to sporadic fighting. But as it got louder she got out of bed to see Islamic State fighters overrunning her tiny village of Tell Shamiran — “like ants,” she says.
Melki says the extremists destroyed the church, looted houses and captured about 300 people from several villages. The extremists separated their captives into men and women and drove for miles to the town of Shadadi, where they were held. Some prisoners were later moved to the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
She says they were imprisoned but their treatment was not cruel. ISIS has raped, injured and killed thousands of people from the Yazidi religious minority and Shiite Muslims, whom it considers infidels. But they do not usually subject Christians to the same treatment.
After months of negotiations between Assyrian clergy and representatives of the militants, most of those captured were released. No one will confirm the terms of the deal but several people close to the negotiations say ransoms were paid.
But at least three people were killed, among them one of Melki’s sons. She doesn’t know why he was killed.
“I don’t know why they treated us like this,” she says. “We didn’t do anything. We were in our village, in our houses.”
The ISIS assault was the latest shock to a community which has struggled to cling to this verdant — if remote — area. Although Assyrians have lived for millennia in an area now divided between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, there were none in the Khabur River Valley a century ago.
But after an Assyrian community was attacked in Iraq, they came here as refugees, resettled when Syria was under the French Mandate in the 1930s. According to research by former U.S. diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez in the 1990s, many of their children emigrated, meaning the villages remained tiny, with just a few hundred people in some of them. Miniature mud-built churches were only gradually replaced with cinderblock ones.
In Tell Tamer, the largest settlement, the larger Church of Our Lady was built in the 1980s. It became these Assyrians’ focal point, even as the Muslim — mainly Kurdish — population of the town grew and the Assyrians became a minority there.
Still, hundreds of families remained. But the ISIS threat has brought the community to the brink of extinction, says priest Bekos Ishaya.
With Kurdish forces helping the Assyrians, Islamic State fighters were pushed out of the string of villages along the river. They never entered Tell Tamer, which was better protected.
But the experience, and subsequent attacks including a devastating bombing, drove hundreds to leave the area or the country, says Ishaya. “There were only 450 [Assyrian] families in Tell Tamer before the crisis,” he says. “Now there are 100.”
But the grey-bearded priest, who remembers when the church that he lives behind was built, swears he will remain. He says God compared priests with light in the darkness.
“The priest must be an example for the people, and he must be first in everything,” he says.
He adds that the people who left Syria “are not comfortable. I talk to them every day on the phone, our people. They are not happy.”
They will only be happy, he insists, if they return to their roots.
There are also young men in uniform with weapons here. To protect their area, they have formed a militia, which is now part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance supported by the U.S. in its fight against ISIS.
Their spokesman is Kino Gabriel: tall, broad-chested, 26 years old. He says the community 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 a uniform.
“You feel strong,” he says, laughing. “It is l think something cultural that when you wear a uniform, take up arms, you feel stronger.”
Gabriel urges people not to leave these villages and tells people living abroad to come back and help rebuild. He believes people should return to their roots and their homeland.
“Staying in our land — that is the only way that we can preserve our life, our culture — our everything.”