Raqqa: Church Has Returned, While the Christians Did Not
One of Raqqa's Churches Looks Empty on Christmas Day (Rozana)
"If they build a church worth millions of dollars, and put a huge cross of gold for it, I will not go back to Raqqa now," Harotiyon Madarjian, 24, a young Christian who hails from Raqqa, said when we asked him about his intention to return to his hometown in the city of Raqqa.
Harotiyon fled to Qamishli after ISIS had taken over the city of Raqqa between 2013 and 2014.
The young man does not hide his longing for his birthplace, but he cannot return to a city whose features have changed for him. His home along with the homes of his relatives were destroyed, and most of those that he knew emigrated, he says: "Even if our house and shops are rebuilt, I will not go back. How can I go back to a country where I do not feel safe?"
Harotiyon, who works as a broadcaster on a local station in Qamishli, is currently pessimistic about the idea of returning. He says: "I read hundreds of comments that hurt my soul, and even if we assume that the extremist group that ISIS affected is few, this is a dangerous matter for us, and hinders our return to our homes. We are sticking to the hope of returning, but after the situation changes, we have real estate there that we will not sell, even for millions of dollars. We hope to return after the situation changes and after diminishing these extremist ideas."
A church in Raqqa Appears Empty on Christmas Day (Rozana)
Currently, less than 60 Christians live in the city of Raqqa most of them men, and there are only two or three families in the city, compared to about 400 families who lived there before 2011. The same is in Tabqa in the western countryside of Raqqa, and dozens are in Tal Abyad in the northern countryside.
On Christmas, most of those whom Rozana met said that they will spend Christmas holiday with their families who are living in regime-controlled areas in Aleppo, Latakia and elsewhere.
Rozana tried to communicate with several Christian figures, but most of them refused to speak. George, a nickname of 46 years old man, revealed the reason for that, he preferred to hide his identity. He said that Everyone fears a possible persecution by the security forces of the Syrian regime in the event that they speak to media that are unofficial and unaffiliated to the regime.
The Joy of Christmas Disappeared
George says that he no longer feels the atmosphere of Christmas as before, he no longer has a home. He and his brother live in one room left of his family home, he says: "Our families are far from us, so how do we feel the joy of Christmas in these circumstances? In the past, these homes were filled with delight, there was a Christmas tree, and Santa Claus roaming for children, but today there is nothing but rubble."
George indicates that the roughest Christmas he experienced was in 2015, at that time, ISIS prevented the people from traveling to the areas of the Syrian regime, and he was obliged to spend Christmas alone with his brother at home without any religious and ceremonial rituals.
He remembers with sadness and bitterness the fines imposed by ISIS on them, where he was paying 17 grams of gold to ISIS as a "tribute" every year. The tribute represented a humiliation for him, how he pays this tribute although he is the son of this city? As he put it. He and his peers were also subjected to harassment by members of ISIS, as he says.
"I had an ISIS neighbour, whenever he sees me, he says (for slaughter, for slaughter), once one of them called his sheikh and told him 'I caught an infidel', of course I used to tell them that I pay the tribute and you have no right to approach me, it was a great humiliation that we got rid of but after it broke our souls ".
What About the Church’s Mass?
Previously, there were three churches in the city of Raqqa, namely the Church of the Martyrs for the Armenian Catholics, the Church of Freedom School for Armenian Orthodox, in addition to the Church of the Lady of Annunciation for the Roman. The two churches of Martyrs and Lady of Annunciation were destroyed as a result of the bombing by the international coalition in 2017.
Recently, the Church of the Martyrs was reconstructed at the end of September of 2019, it was completed about a month ago by the Raqqa Civil Council and funded by the Free Burma Guards Organization.
One of Raqqa's Churches (Rozana)
For his part, Montaser Fahmy, a member of the Social Affairs Committee of the Raqqa Civil Council, says that the church was reconstructed to be exactly as it was before, in order to motivate Christians returning to their church, which has returned as it was before, as he put it.
"The reconstruction period of the church was prolonged for several reasons, such as closing the crossings and the curfew as a result of the Corona pandemic. We worked slowly to be exactly the same as the previous design, after that the church was handed over by the Council and the Free Burma Guardians Organization to the Christian community currently residing in Raqqa." Montaser Fahmy added.
For her part, Sabah, a nickname for 60 years old woman who belongs to the Armenian Orthodox sect in Raqqa, says that most Christian homes were destroyed as a result of bombing during the war years, she returned with her family because her house is still standing, while it is difficult for the rest to return now, as she put it.
"A large part of Raqqa’s Christians have migrated to Europe and Armenia since the start of the war. Another part is committed to their children's study or their new businesses in the governorates controlled by the regime. In case they return here, the living cost is expensive. The rent for the house in Raqqa today is about $100, while in Aleppo, Homs, Qamishli and others the churches support them and provide them with assistance. Here no one helps them, so they will not return."
She explains that she will not perform any religious rituals with her family this year. Despite the opening of the church, its worshipers have not returned, and there is no priest or pastor to pray them. She will spend Christmas with her family at home.
Is there any hope for a reverse Christian migration to Raqqa?
Samir, a nickname of a 29 years old man, intends to spend Christmas at home with his mother alone, where they were satisfied with decorating the Christmas tree, but he hopes that a priest will come to carry out the ceremony at the church, but he does not expect that.
Samir points out that the war that ravaged Raqqa negatively affected the Christian youth group, as marriage has become more difficult for them. He says with a laugh: "Today, if I want to marry, I must convert to Islam. There are no Christian girls here."
He added that Christian girls who live in regime-controlled areas do not accept to live in Raqqa, "I wanted to marry one of my relatives who is currently residing in Aleppo, but her condition was that I come to settle with her there, and I cannot leave Raqqa, my work is here, my mother and my friends!"
So far, no rites or church masses have been held, due to the absence of a priest or pastor in Raqqa, and no rites have been announced in the church on Christmas holidays till the date of writing this report.