ISIS releases some Christian hostages – but why?

Updated 2:12 PM EST, Mon March 2, 2015
Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. The death toll in Gaza hit 265 as Israel pressed a ground offensive on the 11th day of an assault aimed at stamping out rocket fire, medics said. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA        (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. The death toll in Gaza hit 265 as Israel pressed a ground offensive on the 11th day of an assault aimed at stamping out rocket fire, medics said. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:00
Analyst: Rare example of ISIS following Islamic law
Now playing
01:01
Fleeing ISIS in Mosul: Their faces say it all
women flee isis to debaga
CNN
women flee isis to debaga
Now playing
01:58
Women recount horror of life under ISIS
CNN
Now playing
01:30
ISIS survivor tells her story
Nick Paton Walsh Mosul ISIS gunfire orig_00004713.jpg
Nick Paton Walsh Mosul ISIS gunfire orig_00004713.jpg
Now playing
01:20
Iraq forces and ISIS exchange gunfire
Iraqi women react as people gather on July 9, 2016 at the site of a suicide-bombing attack which took place on July 3 in Baghdad's Karrada neighbourhood.

The Baghdad bombing claimed by the Islamic State group killed 292 people, according to a new toll issued on July 7, many of whom were trapped in blazing buildings and burned alive. A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden minibus early on July 3, ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi women react as people gather on July 9, 2016 at the site of a suicide-bombing attack which took place on July 3 in Baghdad's Karrada neighbourhood. The Baghdad bombing claimed by the Islamic State group killed 292 people, according to a new toll issued on July 7, many of whom were trapped in blazing buildings and burned alive. A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden minibus early on July 3, ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:24
Majority of ISIS victims are Muslim
ISIS
Now playing
01:23
Is it ISIS, ISIL or Daesh?
Now playing
02:19
ISIS' battle tactics
CNN
Now playing
00:46
Why Libya matters to ISIS
ISIS hates yazidis terrorist group target orig cm_00000923.jpg
ISIS hates yazidis terrorist group target orig cm_00000923.jpg
Now playing
01:57
ISIS hates this religious group the most
iraq isis human shields damon pkg_00013513.jpg
iraq isis human shields damon pkg_00013513.jpg
Now playing
02:44
Iraqis recount horrors of being human shields for ISIS
isis fratricide robertson pkg_00002526.jpg
SITE Monitoring
isis fratricide robertson pkg_00002526.jpg
Now playing
02:43
ISIS calls on Saudi supporters to kill relatives
ISIS released still pictures purporting to show massive parade of their militants in the city of Sirte, Libya
ISIS
ISIS released still pictures purporting to show massive parade of their militants in the city of Sirte, Libya
Now playing
02:30
Why is ISIS heading to Libya?
iraqi town suffering after isis chemical attack damon pkg cnn today_00010115.jpg
iraqi town suffering after isis chemical attack damon pkg cnn today_00010115.jpg
Now playing
02:34
Iraqi town suffering from ISIS chemical attack

Story highlights

ISIS released 19 Assyrian Christians on Sunday and plans to release 10 more

The sudden reversal has puzzled many

(CNN) —  

Igniting a live man in a cage; severing the heads of dozens; kidnapping, raping and selling women and children – ISIS’ shocking maltreatment of its captives has become regrettably predictable.

But that has made their latest decision on the fate of 19 Christian prisoners all the more surprising to some. On Sunday, ISIS released them.

Ten other Assyrian Christians are expected to join them in freedom after a short time in captivity.

All but one of the Christians released were part of a group of 220 Assyrians captured last week during offensives on northern Syrian villages, said the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In the shadow of its sadistic mercilessness, the sudden reversal leaves many asking: Why?

The group has not explained its decision. Here are some possible answers.

Who at ISIS made the decision?

It was not a militant commander but an ISIS Sharia judge, said Osama Edward, who heads the Assyrian Human Rights Network, based in Sweden.

Some of Edward’s family members are among the captured Christians. His rights group keeps contact with local people, via phone and Internet, and has a field team in Syria, he said.

The Sharia judge asked the Christians if they were part of any militia, Edward said. Then he pronounced them not guilty of violating Sharia law and ordered them released.

The Assyrian Christians were all from the village of Tal Goran. They have returned home but are keeping quiet for now.

Can Christianity survive in the Middle East?

“They were so tired,” Edward said. They had a closed meeting with a bishop, and then ate and went home.

“They were treated well,” contacts in Tal Goran passed on to Edward. “Nobody was tortured.”

Was the decision a surprise to those very familiar with ISIS?

Not to Graeme Wood, who published a detailed analysis on ISIS’ religious inner workings this week in The Atlantic.

He was pleased to hear about it, but he felt it fit into ISIS’ plans.

“ISIS has claimed for a long time to follow rules, and it claims that these Sharia courts will impose limits,” he told CNN. “They can attempt to get credibility by showing that they follow rules and that they have some kind of transparent process that follows their particular implementation of Sharia law.”

Could it be a move to impress others?

It’s possible. It did win them points with Assyrian activists. “It’s a good sign to show that ‘we can talk,’” Edward said.

ISIS has taken heat even from other Islamists who accuse it of rogue justice, especially against Muslim civilians they’ve condemned as “infidels” out of hand.

It’s part of the reason al Qaeda has rejected the group, Wood wrote. That reduced some of ISIS’ chances of receiving international moral and financial support, leaving the terror group to make up the gap with other funding.

And it has led to a violent split with another jihadi group in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, according to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Other Islamist groups in Syria have frowned on ISIS for not submitting to decisions from Sharia courts.

Why go easier on a group of Christians?

The main issue drawing anger from other Islamist groups revolves around Muslim civilians, who are ISIS’ most common victims. And the released captives are Christians.

But Christian activist Edward thinks the ISIS Sharia court decision was, in part, a nod to Syrian Sunni Muslim tribal leaders who negotiated for the Christians’ release.

First, the tribes care deeply about their Christian neighbors and don’t want them killed, Edward said. It also makes the Sunni tribal leaders look good and gets a rapport started between them and ISIS.

Why does ISIS target other Muslims most?

ISIS has a very narrow definition of who is a real Muslim and who is an apostate. Foremost, a Muslim must practice Sunni Islam in its eyes.

The group is quick to practice “takfir,” which amounts to the excommunication of a Muslim, for things as seemingly petty as shaving off one’s beard or voting in an election. ISIS is quick to kill anyone it condemns, because it wants to create a fanatically pure caliphate with only the strictest devotees, Wood wrote.

ISIS has executed 125 of its own members for doing things that broke with its strict take on Islam, the Syrian Observatory said.

Could the Sharia judge’s decision to release the Christians be a routine one?

Yes. Even in the strictest interpretation of Islam, there is a provision for sparing Christians, Wood wrote.

Social media posts indicate that ISIS carries out mass killings regularly, but “exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government.” They are required to pay a special tax and acknowledge the new ruling power.

That’s exactly what the judge ruled, Edward said.

The released Assyrian Christians agreed to acknowledge ISIS as their new masters and to pay the tax.

ISIS is still holding two of Tal Goran’s Christian villagers, Edward said. They should be released as soon as the taxes are paid.

He is hoping for the same deal for the other Christian villagers, including for his family.

CNN’s Samira Said and Dana Ford contributed to this report.