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Life under ISIS: Raqqa’s Christians tell their story

The ruins of the Church of the Forty Martyrs is checked for explosives

The handful of Christians remaining in Raqqa tell me what life was like under ISIS - and how they still need help to survive.

The churches of Raqqa lie in ruins following the defeat of ISIS. But remarkably the city’s Christian community has survived.

Before the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Raqqa was home to hundreds of Christian families. Today there are a mere 30 or so individuals, almost all men.

It’s not just the churches that have been reduced to rubble. The rest of the city was largely destroyed in the operation to oust ISIS. In October 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by Western air power, seized Raqqa from the militants. Although the fighting has ended, the atmosphere remains tense. The Kurdish-led SDF remains in charge, and reconstruction is slowly underway, though ISIS still operates underground.

Anyone who has followed the news over the last few years will be familiar with the crimes of ISIS. They include beheadings, crucifixions and the subjection of non-Muslim women to sexual slavery. Throughout this reign of terror, a small number of Christians remained in the city. They did their best to avoid incurring the wrath of ISIS.

Raqqa’s Christians tell me that, before ISIS took over, the city had been an ideal place to live. They had good relations with their Muslim neighbours. Unlike in other cities in Syria, such as Damascus and Aleppo, Christians did not live in separate neighbourhoods from Muslims, but were spread throughout the city and were fully integrated into the social fabric. They spoke Raqqa’s unique dialect of Arabic. Some of the Christian presence in Raqqa dates to the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, when Arab residents of the city protected Armenian Christians from the Ottoman government, and others moved from other parts of Syria as the city grew during the 20th century.

After ISIS took over, the Church of the Forty Martyrs – used by both the Armenian Catholic and the Syriac Orthodox communities – became an Islamic court and a centre for the hisbah, or morality police. Just around the corner, the Greek Catholic Bishara Church became a field hospital. Residents say that both churches were deliberately destroyed by ISIS. But an air strike also hit the Bishara Church, leveling it entirely.

An empty shell of cement and rebar is all that remains of the Church of the Forty Martyrs. It looks out on Harun al-Rashid park, a sad reminder of the city’s recent history.

When ISIS took over, Christians went from being equal citizens to lower than zero, as one Christian from Raqqa told me. (Everyone interviewed for this article – five Christians currently in Raqqa and two living elsewhere in Syria – asked that their names not be used, as the security situation remains uncertain.) When ISIS first seized power, about 100 Christians – mostly men whose families had fled elsewhere – remained. Over the next four years that number steadily decreased.

ISIS viewed the Christians as infidels and repeatedly tried to convert them to Islam. Their approach was strikingly different from that of the first Muslim rulers of Raqqa in around 640 AD. In one version of the conquest of Raqqa, told by the 9th century historian al-Baladhuri, an agreement was reached guaranteeing the safety of the Christian community’s members, churches and money, albeit with certain restrictions. These were, by today’s standards, fairly stringent and included the payment of a jizya tax (levied on non-Muslims) and a ban on displaying crosses or building new churches.

ISIS most certainly did not read this agreement – which might have theoretically bound them as Islamic rulers of Raqqa – when they destroyed the city’s churches. ISIS members would visit the homes of Christians and talk to them about Islam. They would also gather Christians for meetings every month or so and provide lectures by converts from Christianity. (One was French and one a former Coptic Christian, recalled one resident.) ISIS reinstated the jizya tax, which had long ceased to be imposed. The amount paid differed depending on the family’s economic situation.

Christians could not – and did not dare – celebrate feasts such as Easter and Christmas. One resident said people would sometimes discreetly pass by their Christian neighbours’ homes and wish them a happy holiday. But even this was not common as people wanted to avoid attracting attention.

So if you were a Christian from Raqqa, why stay? Most of the people I interviewed said that they knew ISIS’s rule would end soon. They were simply waiting for the storm to pass, and noted that if Christians left, then their homes and businesses were stolen by ISIS. Those who fled risked losing everything they had.

Christians who stayed, however, were allowed to leave for short visits to other areas. They had to present a request to an ISIS official who would approve a visit for a specific length of time. If they overstayed, their possessions would be confiscated.
One resident said he received a call while outside ISIS territory telling him not to bother coming back: the group had taken his house and he would not be able to go back to it, even though he had not exceeded his allotted time.

While the Christians of Raqqa were doing their best to keep their heads down and survive, an international military campaign was underway to defeat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, as well as Libya and other countries where the group had established a presence. As the campaign to liberate Raqqa moved forward, air strikes intensified and became more unpredictable.

One resident said that for the first few years of ISIS’s rule, air strikes were generally directed at specific targets and were limited in scope. But as the Western-backed SDF approached, they became more frequent and less accurate. It was difficult to distinguish ISIS members from civilians, because the terrorists avoided large crowds, and because all residents were required to follow ISIS’s strict dress codes: beards and Islamic robes for men, full covering for women with no skin or hair showing.

As coalition forces approached, the Syriac Military Council, a Christian-led unit of the SDF, began using its networks within the community to identify how many Christian residents were left in the city and where they were located. As circumstances allowed, they were smuggled to safety. The Syriac Military Council saved many Muslim civilians too.

ISIS was keen to use civilians as human shields, so those working to rescue civilians would wait until coalition airplanes were flying overhead, which usually sent ISIS fighters into hiding to avoid getting hit by bombs. Civilians would then run to safety with the SDF.

Now, more than a year after ISIS’s defeat in the city, a handful of Christian residents have returned to Raqqa. Everyone I spoke to in the city said the security situation is good thanks to the efforts of the SDF. The main barrier to more Christians returning is the destruction of homes and businesses, not the remaining ISIS cells which have attempted to upset the improving security situation in the city.

Local Christians complain there has been no support for the community from inside Syria or abroad. They say that they have received little help from the respective churches which have congregants in the city or from international organisations which have worked to help Christian communities elsewhere rebuild in the wake of ISIS.

More than anything else, this prevents more Christians from returning to the city and rebuilding their lives alongside their Muslim neighbours. Will that support be forthcoming? Will the global Christian community help their brethren in Raqqa to rise from the rubble?

Samuel Sweeney is a former US congressional staffer and is now a writer and translator based in the Middle East. He has a master’s degree in Islamic-Christian Relations from l’Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut