The Islamic State terrorist group has released 19 Assyrian Christians they captured last week during offenses in Northern Syrian villages, but are refusing to reveal the fate of the hundreds still captive, including a 6 year old girl.
The Assyrians, from the village of Tel Goran in Syria's al-Hasakah province, were released on Sunday after local Arab leaders negotiated with ISIS for three days, according to reports from the region.
"I can confirm the release of 19 persons (17 men and 2 women) who were captured by the Islamic State in the Khabur region," said Fr Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Programme Northern Iraq, CAPNI.
According to the Assyrian International News Agency, all those released were around 50 years of age or older, and have arrived safely at St. Mary's Church in Hasakah. Ten more Christians are expected to be freed within a few days, the official revealed.
However, fears remain for the Assyrians who remain captive, including a 6-year-old girl, who experts believe may be used by ISIS as a "bargaining chip." Currently, Assyrian leaders and Sunni tribal sheikhs are reaching out to the terrorist group to try to negotiate the release of the hostages, activists said.
"We pray and hope for the others to be released," said Youkhana, adding that the Christians have likely been transported to the nearby area of Mount Abdul Aziz.
On Saturday, the Catholic Herald reported that the ISIS militants have already killed 15 of those captured-and are likely planning to kill more.
"Around 15 young Assyrians are martyred. Many of them were fighting to defend and protect the villages and families," it quoted Youkhana as saying. "It is believed there are casualties and many Assyrians have been killed in the village," he added.
Over 3,000 Christian Assyrians have been forced to flee their villages since last June, when ISIS declared a "caliphate," or state ruled by Sharia law, in the region. Currently, only Christian militia fighters who are fighting alongside Kurdish troops remain in the once heavily populated area.
"This is genocide -- there is no other word for it," Peter BetBasoo of Assyrian International News Agency, wrote. "This is the erasure of a nation from the land which it has inhabited for 6764 years."
Meanwhile, at the Vatican, Pope Francis called on everyone to help the people of Syria and Iraq as persecution continues to escalate.
After emphasizing his sorrow of the ongoing "dramatic" events taking place in the region, including "violence, kidnappings and oppression to the detriment of Christians and other groups," the Pope said the Church has not forgotten those suffering.
"[We are] praying urgently that the intolerable brutality" they are suffering "may end as soon as possible," he said on Monday during a gathering at St. Peter's Square.
"I ask everyone, according to their means, to work to alleviate the suffering of all those who are afflicted, often just because of their faith," he added.