Migrant Lives

Syrian And Iraqi Christians Flee ISIS 'Extermination' Threat

Recent beheadings highlight an ongoing exodus of Christians from territories targeted by ISIS. Some have taken refuge in Lebanon.

Iraqi Assyrian families took refuge in the mountaintop Mar Matta Monastery, 30 miles east of Mosul, to flee ISIS.
Iraqi Assyrian families took refuge in the mountaintop Mar Matta Monastery, 30 miles east of Mosul, to flee ISIS.
Laure Stephan

BEIRUT — Despite the war, 53-year-old Syrian Khami Haydo was obstinately clinging to her dream to "stay on my land."

She thought her only son was safe with her in the village of Tall Nasri, in northeastern Syria, after he dropped his studies at the University of Aleppo because of the fighting. An Assyrian Christian, she didn't want to concern herself with politics or be influenced by the threats.

"ISIS was occupying the mountain south of our villages," she says. "But we felt protected by the Khabur River that was separating us from them, and by the Kurdish and Christian militias in the area."

But in the wee hours between Feb. 22 and 23, her plan fell apart. First, there were "bombings, getting louder and louder," she recalls from the Saint George Assyrian Church in Beirut"s eastern suburbs, where she fled in early March. Then came the "militiamen's orders" to the people living along the Khabur River to leave because ISIS jihadists were marching forward. Leaving everything behind, Khami Haydo took refuge with her sick husband and her son in the neighboring town of Al-Hassakah. There, she learned that Sunni extremists had abducted one of her cousins and the rest of her family back in her home village.

In just a few days, ISIS kidnapped almost 220 Assyrian Christians in the Khabur valley. About 20 of them were released in exchange for a ransom. "The abductors can make all the claims they want, but they should release our loved ones," says Khami Haydo, who is still in a state of shock.

ISIS knew that attacking Christians would provoke Western outrage. The assault took place two days after an offensive from the Kurdish People's Protection Units against the jihadists. The villages in the Khabur valley occupy a strategic position close to Turkey and Iraq, on the road from Aleppo to Mosul.

The ISIS attacks mark a turning point. "It’s the first time since 2011 when the Syrian uprising began that our region has been affected," says 35-year-old Syrian Roland Icho, who fled with his children. "I didn't see the assailants' faces. I can't be certain they were from ISIS. But these raids are in keeping with what the jihadists have been inflicting on minorities in Iraq since last summer, reducing Yazidi people to slavery, submitting Christians from Mosul to their law and forcing them to flee."

Fear of mass murder

All Syrians are in danger, Icho says, and Christians feel threatened by extermination in Syria and Iraq. This storekeeper swears he will never again set foot in his home country.

ISIS militants parade through the Syrian city of Raqqa on June 30, 2014, after they take it over — Photo: Medyan Dairieh/ZUMA

The fate of the hostages is still unknown to this day, but fear of mass extermination haunts everyone, especially after ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. The latest ISIS assault is forcing Christians to exile, once again. The Iraq villages where survivors settled after the 1933 anti-Christian massacre of Simele are empty now. Many thousands of Assyrians have fled to Al-Hasakah, the Syrian region's capital.

Some 15 families have been taking refuge in Lebanon since early March. A small Assyrian community now calls this home, and more are expected to arrive. Beirut closed its borders to Syrian refugees in January, but it has made an exception for the Assyrians and has been granting them short-term visas.

To cross the Lebanese border, Roland Icho showed a baptism certificate. His journey took him to Qamishli, where he boarded a plane to Damascus with his family before making for Beirut by road. Since he left, his Syrian village of Tall Tamer has been at the heart of violent fighting between Kurdish militiamen and ISIS jihadists. The Assyrian refugees in Lebanon don't want to talk about it, but Christian militiamen are also fighting with the Kurds to defend their villages. "Since a little more than a year ago, when ISIS grew in power and took control of Raqqa southwest of Al-Hassakah, self-defense groups were created to protect our houses," Icho says.

At that time, there was already an influx of Christians scared by ISIS expansion, coming from northeastern Syria to Lebanon, says Monsignor Yatroun Coliana, an Assyrian religious dignitary. In the Saint George Church, together with other Syrian priests, he tries to help the displaced who lack everything. But most of the refugees want to see Beirut only as a way station before going to Europe or America. In the past year, dozens of families have left for the West. Others live sparingly in small buildings near the church, waiting to emigrate.

Young Chaldean Iraqis are also attending the Assyrian school. Indeed, the exodus of Iraqi Christians heightened after ISIS took Mosul in June 2014. Baghdad native Rafa el-Nawfali is 35, though she looks much older. Since the chaos created by the U.S. invasion of her country in 2003, her life has been a never-ending struggle: Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon. She cries when she talks of her "destroyed country." She doesn't know either whether she'll stay in the Middle East. "ISIS people have no religion," she says. "They eradicate other people, people who are different, whether they're Christians or Muslims."

Monsignor Coliana would like to keep these Christians in Lebanon, but he can't. "For them to stay, they need to be helped, to feel protected," he explains. "Not a single Western embassy in Beirut came to ask us what the Assyrians needed. The West support the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, so why don't they do the same for the Christians?"

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!