A Syrian bishop has been hailed as a saint after leading efforts to save hundreds of Assyrian Christians from Islamic State captivity.
The Assyrian Christians were abducted from the Khabur River valley in Syria’s north, one of the last parts of the country housing the persecuted minority.
During the night of 23 February, 2015 IS fighters attacked 35 Christian towns and villages and took 226 men, women and children.
The residents were made to destroy any signs of their faith but they refused to convert to Islam.
Some managed to make quick calls to relatives living overseas, many of whom had left Syria many years earlier.
With IS beheading 21 Coptic Christians in Libya earlier that month and seizing the largest Christian town in Iraq in August 2014, they must have known that their chances of safety were not good.
But after weeks in captivity, Abdo Marza and 16 other men taken from the village of Tal Goran were offered freedom – on condition that they deliver a message to the bishop in the town of Hasakah, about 40 miles away, and return with an answer.
Mr Marza volunteered to take the message if the rest of the people taken from his village could be freed. The militants kept just his six-year-old daughter and elderly aunt along with the hostages from other towns.
The bishop, Mar Afram Athneil, spent three days consulting other church leaders around the world, before returning a message to IS through Mr Marza.
Mr Marza never saw the message but when he returned it, IS set his daughter free.
The bishop then began negotiations for the safety of more than 200 others still being held – but Islamic State demanded $50,000 (£39,500) per person – more than $11m for the entire group.
All over the world, well-wishers and those with connections to the Assyrian Christian community, set up fundraising projects and donated money to buy the group’s freedom.
Nicholas al-Jeloo, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne in Australia, had cousins among the hostages.
“For the Assyrians, the Khabur was one of their last cultural strongholds in a sea of hostility in the Middle East,” he told Associated Press.
“If they didn’t help these people, it was the end.”
In May, two elderly women were set free and in June a man was released.
With the release of 22 people in August, it seemed as if the ordeal might almost be at an end.
But in September last year a video was published showing three of the men from Khabur in orange jumpsuits being shot dead by their captors.
Syrian filmmaker Sargon Saadi, who lives in California, said: “Everybody went crazy and money started flying in from all over.
“Churches, and donations, Assyrians, non-Assyrians, just donating to the churches and funnelling it to the bishop,” he said.
Despite the payment of ransoms being illegal in many countries, Mr Saadi said that, with no government to speak on their behalf, the Assyrians had no choice.
“We can’t fight them, Assyrians don’t have an army to go rescue them. They don’t have SWAT teams, they don’t have SEAL 6. The only option they have is to pay the ransom. And everybody was so fearful that the rest of the hostages were also going to be killed,” he said.
Aneki Nissan, who helped raise funds in Canada, said: “You look at it from the moral side and I get it – if we give them money we’re just feeding into it, and they’re going to kill using that money.”
But, he told AP: “We’re such a small minority that we have to help each other.”
Armed with the fresh influx of donations, Bishop Athneil resumed negotiations for the hostages, who had by now been moved to Raqqa.
Thirty-seven were freed in November with more released every few weeks into the new year.
Mr Nissan said: “Honestly, this man should go down as a saint, the things that he’s done, the sacrifices he’s made to help these people.
“He’s refusing to leave Syria until all his flock is secured.”