For the last two years, the so-called Islamic State and it’s soldiers have been all over the news. We’ve heard about their brutality – the public executions, forced conversions and horrendous treatment of anyone who doesn’t agree with their strict view of Islam. Christians have been specifically targeted, threatened and killed, so could anyone actually survive, let alone live, as a Christian in a region controlled by Islamic State?
You’d think not – thousands of Christians an minority groups fled towns and villages as Islamic State approached. Churches have been burned, destroyed or converted for other purposes. Life as a Christian would be impossible. But recently, Open Doors workers met John*, a Christian who recently left Raqqa in Syria, the capital of Islamic State.
For more than a year John lived as a Christian in Raqqa. He and his father signed the jizya document, with which they agreed to pay the yearly tax to continue living as Christians in the so-called caliphate. But after two years he realised he couldn’t take it anymore, and he fled from Raqqa.
Since 2014, IS has controlled Raqqa and proclaimed it the capital of the Caliphate. “The same week they declared Raqqa the capital, they destroyed the interior of the three churches.” All of a sudden John and his family were living in the capital of the Caliphate. Nobody was forced to stay, people were allowed to leave. Many did so.
Soon after, the new rulers of the city gathered the Christian leaders. “We could become Muslims and live a normal life in Raqqa, we could leave, or we could stay and pay the Jizya, a kind of tax.” They paid and stayed. “I could continue my studies and my parents their business.”
“I saw a lot of cruelties. Every Friday they executed people. I was there when they beheaded the first man in public. I got really sick because of what they did with the hundreds of soldiers of the Syrian Army base in Raqqa.”
For John the IS members were like monsters who could attack at any moment. “For lots of reasons they kill. You have to be constantly aware of that. When I talk with them, I have to know what words to use. Any wrong word could offend them. Seeing all these atrocities, they don’t seem like people, they seem like monsters to me.”
As soon as Islamic State took control in Raqqa, the only priest living there left the city. Most of the 1,500 pre-war Christian families left in the first few days. Some fifty Christian families stayed behind without leaders and without a church building. According to John, they stayed because they knew they would lose their houses and property if they fled.
How did he and others manage to live there? “I got used to all of it. I think it has something to do with how we grew up as Christians; we’re strong people. And, yes, you can live as a Christian in the Islamic State, when you pay the tax.”
In my opinion what IS is doing and teaching isn’t real Islam. I have lived with Muslims my whole life; we respected each other, we lived peacefully together.
He tells how men with a ‘Western’ haircut and men with ‘skinny jeans’ were all forced into a bus and taken to a big hall. Those with the jeans needed to sign a document that saying they wouldn’t wear these jeans anymore, and the ones with western haircuts all had their heads shaven. For women the change was more radical. All women, Muslim or not, have to cover themselves completely when they leave the house.
“We never imagined that this could happen to our city. Raqqa was a normal Syrian city, like all other cities. We as Christians were respected by the rest of the population. It was not a radical Islamic population. In my opinion what IS is doing and teaching isn’t real Islam. I have lived with Muslims my whole life; we respected each other, we lived peacefully together.”
When John couldn’t continue his studies in Raqqa, he left for another city in Syria: “I feel safer, inside I have peace. Where I am living now I don’t have to be afraid of the people I meet in the streets.”
As a Christian he has grown in his faith in Raqqa. “Yes, I trust God more. A few times explosions happened very close to where I lived and worked. I really saw God’s protection over my life. I saw His hand in how he protected me with some others when we had to flee from Raqqa in the middle of the night. Normally people can travel out when they have a good justification to do so. I didn’t have such a reason, so I had to leave illegally.”
John was asked how Christians around the world can pray for Raqqa: “The only thing that would help the people of Raqqa is if IS leaves the city. Pray for a solution for those who want to go leave, but don’t want to lose all they have. Pray for the two or three Christian families who said they converted to Islam since IS came. Pray for those who want to stay because they don’t want Raqqa to be empty of Christians.”
Source: Open Doors
*Name changed for security reasons
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