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Tipsheet

Why Did ISIS Release 19 Christian Hostages?

By now, the Islamic State’s brutality has become as predictable as the noonday sun. Rarely, if ever, have we seen the group show mercy toward captives—until now.

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On Sunday, 19 Christian hostages were released, according to multiple reports. All but one were part of a group of 220 Assyrians that were captured last week.

The news provided a modicum of relief to a Christian Assyrian community that has been devastated by the abductions, which saw Islamic State fighters haul off entire families from a string of villages along the Khabur River in Hassakeh province. But fears remain over the fate of the hundreds still held captive.

Bashir Saedi, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Organization, said the 16 men and three women arrived safely Sunday at the Church of the Virgin Mary in the city of Hassakeh. He said the 19 -- all of them from the village of Tal Ghoran -- had traveled by bus from the Islamic State-held town of Shaddadeh south of Hassakeh.

While this is certainly welcome news, many are wondering why they released them. Some speculate that age played a role in the decision, as those released were middle aged and older. Others, however, point to the Islamic State’s justice system.

According to the Assyrian Human Rights Network, the 19 Christians were released because a Shariah court ordered they be freed after paying a tax for being non-Muslims.

"ISIS has claimed for a long time to follow rules, and it claims that these Sharia courts will impose limits," Graeme Wood, author of the recent hit piece in The Atlantic on ISIS, told CNN. "They can 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."

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Even in the strictest interpretation of Islam, there is a provision for sparing Christians, Wood wrote.

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.

Meanwhile, there are still 200 Christians in captivity whose fate is uncertain. The release of the others, however, has sparked a sense of hope among Assyrian leaders and Sunni tribal sheikhs that the Islamic State may be more willing to negotiate a deal to release the remaining captives. 

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