The St Georges Assyrian Church of the East in Sed El Baouchrieh, a working class suburb of Beirut, has been the heart of the Assyrian Christian community in Lebanon for decades. But in the last month alone, the community has received hundreds of families fleeing from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in northeastern Syria.
More than 300 families have arrived in Beirut from the al-Hasakah governorate in Syria since March, according to Bishop Yatron Koliana, head of the Assyrian community in Beirut. Al-Hasakah, in the far northeastern corner of Syria, is home to 33 Assyrian-Christian and Kurdish communities. These families join the nearly 1,200 Assyrian refugees already in Lebanon, in addition to the approximately 1.2 million other Syrian refugees registered with the UN.
Since January, ISIL has been steadily sweeping across the northeastern province, a fertile and oil-rich region in which Christian communities have thrived for generations.
“Daesh [the Arabic name for ISIL] has taken control over 11 of the 35 villages in the district, but all of the other villages have been totally deserted,” Koliana, who is facilitating refuge for Assyrian refugees in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera. “No one is left. They’re filled with fighters. Kurds, the Free Syrian army, Daesh… There are people in their houses, but not the home owners.”
On February 23, ISIL staged a coordinated raid across the province, taking more than 300 people hostage. While a total of 23 prisoners have been released to date under unclear circumstances, the group is demanding some $30m in ransom.
ISIL fighters have desecrated Christian communities across Syria and Iraq. On Easter Day, they bombed an Assyrian church in Tel Tamr, an Assyrian-Kurdish village in al-Hasakah, according to the watchdog group Assyrian Network for Human Rights.
“It’s tragic, really. We are witnessing the end of Christianity in the Middle East,” Koliana said.