To her abductors who wanted to convert her, “I made the sign of the cross,” says ex IS prisoner

AsiaNews spoke to Josephine, one of hundreds of Christians from Al-Hasakah, who spent a year in the hands of the Islamic State group. She talked about psychological suffering, conversion attempts, and separation from her male relatives. She survived thanks to her faith. Her mother Caroline, a Caritas official, is the only one in her family to have been spared the ordeal. She also negotiated their release with IS, and gave a Jihadi copies of the Bible. Now she hopes “to meet the pope” with her entire family.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – Josephine Martin Tamras is a young Assyrian woman. For a year, she was in the hands of the Islamic State (IS). Hers is a powerful story.

"It was a very difficult time, and not only because we lost our freedom,” Josephine told AsiaNews. “We were at risk all the time, victims of their evil thoughts, captive, ready to be killed. They tried to impose on us their strange beliefs. But what was worse was the fact that we were forced to live in an environment where we did not belong. Praying was the only thing that gave us strength to keep our beliefs.”

Josephine was one of more than 230 Christians, including women, children and seniors, who were abducted by IS from Khabur River, near Tal Tamr, in Al-Hasakah governorate, north-eastern Syria.

After the mass kidnapping, the terrorists freed a first group of 19 Christians after a ransom of about US$ 1,700 was paid for each. Later, as a result of mediation, a deal was struck for the release of all the prisoners. However, an ambush against the IS convoy carrying the prisoners – probably by Kurdish fighters – aborted the whole thing.

The abduction of at least 230 Christians, including entire families, occurred when IS carried out an offensive against predominantly Assyrian villages in north-eastern Syria. Although the total number of hostages is unknown, at least three were summarily executed.

The area is of great strategic importance because it is a linchpin between the Caliphate’s Syrian and Iraqi territories and is close to Turkey for weapons, supplies and fighters.

The kidnapped victims included the husband, three children, father-in-law and other family members of Caroline Hazkour, Caritas chief in Al-Hasakah. For months, she lived in anguish and terror, but was supported by her colleagues with the Catholic charity, and her faith.

A few weeks ago, on 22 February, exactly one year after her nightmare began, she was able to hug her loved ones again. Her daughter Josephine spoke to AsiaNews about her experience in the hands of Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State).

"They did not use physical violence towards me but the psychological suffering they inflicted upon us was far worse. For example, one of the leaders came one day and picked one of the young Assyrian girls, who was under 16, as his slave. The man was 25 years older. Even today, we do not know what happened to her. This is just one example of what we saw" in Jihadi captivity. 

Their goal, Josephine explained, "was to convert us" and to do so they used "weapons and tried to weaken us" physically and psychologically. "For them, it was a shock when I said I would never leave my faith and I made the sign of the cross in front of them, invoking the power of the Holy Spirit because to sustain me and give me strength to the end."

For Jihadis, her reaction was "an act of blasphemy" that "deserved execution" but Josephine was not intimidated because "I always felt that God was protecting me."

"It was impossible to know when they would free me,” she added. “When we asked them something, they answered us with more lies. Even on the bus that took us home, we knew nothing of our fate."

However, "this experience has taught me a lot. It taught me to be patient, keep a steady faith in the heart, especially when one is alone. In fact, they separated me from my brothers and father right away because in their view men and women should be separated."

The separation from her family (pictured, after the release) “taught me to be independent in everything, and to ask God for the wisdom to come out unscathed from this storm." This experience "taught me even more the value of unconditional love that I had already experienced through my work with Caritas without distinctions of sex, race, sect or religion."

Despite the terrible experience, “I do not hate anybody. I do not want revenge and I pray that I may always find the path that leads to the Lord."

The experience of the kidnapping has also deeply marked Josephine’s mother, Caroline Hazkour, who heads the Caritas centre in Al-Hasakah, who avoided being kidnapped on the night of 22 February 2015 by sheer luck.

Instead of returning to the village of Tel Jazireh, she accepted her colleagues’ advice to stay in Al-Hasakah. Still, she went through the gut-wrenching experience of knowing that her family was in the hands of the Islamic State whilst having to continue her work with Caritas with a smile on her face and the same enthusiasm as before.

"This experience,” she told AsiaNews, “has made me realise the power of the Gospel" When Jesus is in the stormy sea with his disciples, and they call upon him to save them, Jesus rebukes them for their little faith. "I drew strength from these words and decided to be patient, doing my job with love, sure that God was with me."

"Praying and living the Gospel was the only way to overcome this torment,” she explained. “In spite of the fear and pain, I always felt a deep peace in my heart; I knew I did not have to be afraid, because Jesus was with me."

With the Jubilee of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis in mind, the Caritas official noted, "Mercy is of enormous value for us, because what is happening in Syria is the result of corrupt politics that generated wars and death."

For her, Syria desperately needs mercy “from God, or men. Many asked me if I have feelings of revenge for those who hurt my family,” she said. “They took from me all the childhood memories [her house, like the village church, was destroyed). But I can say that if I met one of them, my goal would not be revenge, because these people know neither God’s law nor the rules of a civil society . . .”

Now that her family is back home, and all the relatives are doing fine, her goal is to ensure a future for her children, starting with education, school, and university.

"I rented an apartment to accommodate all my family,” she said,” because we are now in effect displaced people, like many others in the country who lost their homes."

What matters now is to help the family overcome the trauma they went through, especially her husband "who was among those who wore the orange jumpsuit (which IS reserves for those set to be executed) and saw first-hand the execution of three of his friends."

Remembering that in the past Syria "was an example of coexistence and fraternity between religions," she hopes it can return "as before".

Finally, Caroline is grateful to the pope for his concern and attention for her country and its people. "I hope to meet him,” she said. “This is my dream and my family’s."

"When my family was imprisoned, I personally negotiated their release with one of the terrorists. I struck up a conversation with him about religion, including the Christian faith, and tried to explain what Christianity is. I sent him five copies of the Bible, with explanations, to introduce him to the Christian faith and make him understand our approach based on peace."

For her, what is happening in Syria is a "conspiracy from the outside, to spread chaos, to drive out Christians and eradicate their presence in the region and the role of the Church in the history of this nation."

Until March 2011, when the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad broke out, Syria was home to 40,000 Assyrian Christians, plus 1.2 million other Christians.

Since then, a bloody war has taken hold with 270,000 deaths and more than 11 million people displaced. Like in neighbouring Iraq, half of the country’s Christians have left. (DS)