27 June 2016

Syrian Christian from Raqqa describes life inside IS stronghold

Two years after the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) declared a caliphate on 30 June 2014, a Christian man who lived under the rule of IS in Raqqa, Syria, after paying a special tax to enable him to remain there as a Christian, has spoken to persecution charity Open Doors about his life there.

John* is a student in his early 20s. He was in Raqqa on 13 January 2014 when IS took control of Raqqa and declared it the capital of their caliphate. "They were coming from Iraq with tanks, military vehicles, and even a big rocket that was at least five metres in length. It was very intimidating."

Soon after this, the new rulers of the city gathered the Christian leaders, he says. "They told them what options we as Christians had. We could become a Muslim and live a normal life in Raqqa, we could leave, or we could stay and pay the jizya [a tax on non-Muslims]. The first year the tax was 54,000 Syrian pounds per man, last year the rate went up to 164,000 Syrian pounds per man. For women and children no payment is needed. The money depends on the price of gold. In the Islamic tradition the payment is 16-18g of gold per year per man."

While most of the 1,500 Christian families that had been living in Raqqa decided to leave, John's family decided to stay and pay the tax. "I advised my parents that we should leave, but they didn't want to. They have their business in Raqqa and didn't want to leave it behind and lose everything." Around 50 Christian families chose to stay for similar reasons. "They cannot sell or rent their properties, it's forbidden to do that. They have to stay to try to protect their homes, shops, and businesses."

The week IS arrived in Raqqa the militants destroyed the churches and Shia mosques. "One church building is a now a centre for IS," John says. As soon as Islamic State took over Raqqa, the only priest living there left the city. The remaining Christians were left without leaders and without a church building. "We visited each other," he says.

In some ways, life returned to normal fairly quickly. "The shops opened again and restaurants were functioning normally again," he says. There is food, electricity and water, which is better than in some other parts of Syria.

But John is traumatised by some of the things he experienced under Islamic State rule. "I saw a lot of cruelties. Every Friday they execute people. I was there when they beheaded the first man in public. The man suffered, they couldn't behead him with the first cut. The man suffered so much they finally killed him with a gunshot.

"But I got really sick because of what they did with all the hundreds of soldiers of the base of the Syrian Army in Raqqa. They killed all the men and beheaded them. They pinned their heads on a long fence alongside a road I had to pass daily on my way to work. Almost all these soldiers were young men. Two of them were Christians. The men of IS hang their crosses on their ears when then put their heads on the fence. What shocked me too was that I saw people taking selfies with the heads of soldiers."

John had to carry a document proving that he had paid the jizya to keep himself safe. "Because we paid, they couldn't harm me. I could show them the paper stating that I paid, and no one could touch me."

On one occasion, having this paper may have saved his life, after an IS soldier saw that John's hair was cut in a ‘Western' style. "I was standing on the pavement in front of the place where I worked. All of a sudden a car stopped and one of the IS men came out of the car and started shouting at me. ‘Who are you? Why are you cutting your hair like this?' I tried to explain to him, but he went back to the car to get his gun. I grasped for the paper declaring that I was a Christian and was paying the tax. Several people had already gathered in the street to see what was happening. When I showed him the paper he took it in his hands, read it, and gave it back to me. He looked into my eyes, turned around, and left."

John finally left Raqqa after living under IS rule for more than a year; he had to leave to continue his studies. He now lives in another city in Syria. "I might not have water and electricity every day as I did have in Raqqa, but 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."

He asks for prayers for the people of Raqqa. "The only thing that would help the people of Raqqa is if IS leaves the city. You could also pray for a solution for those who want to go out 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."

*name changed for security reasons

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Note to Editors

For more information contact Open Doors Press Office on 01993 777377

A longer version of this interview is available on the Open Doors website.

Syria is number 5 on the Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the severity of persecution faced by Christians in 50 countries. Open Doors is partnering with local partners and churches in Syria to care for and provide relief aid to tens of thousands of displaced Christians, distribute Bibles and Christian books, provide discipleship and leadership training for church leaders and youth leaders, and provide trauma counselling and debriefing.

Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for 60 years. Last year supporters in the UK and Ireland raised over £11.7 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources, in over 60 countries.