Once again, Christmas arrives to Raqqa, north of Syria, which was inhabited by about 1000 Christian families before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in the spring of 2011, without being celebrated in the city’s three churches for the sixth year in a row.
The Lady of the Annunciation church of the Greek Orthodox was transformed to a warehouse during the reign of ISIS in 2013. More tragically, it stands now as a pile of rubble, after the Washington-led international coalition raid took place last summer.
The Holy Martyrs Armenian Catholic church, converted by ISIS to a preaching centre in 2013, was also bombarded during the 2017 battle between the terrorist organization and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Raqqa.
Unlike the other church in the city, bells of the small church, based in the Freedom School, an Armenian Orthodox religious institution, were not rung since the opposition factions took control of Raqqa, in March, 2013.
Jamie Shahinian, 30, is a Syrian young man who belongs to the Armenian community in Raqqa. Shahinian currently lives in Germany and works as a project manager for the Citizens for Syria program. He was one of the few Christians who participated in demonstrations against the Syrian regime in Raqqa, early 2011, during which he was arrested three times. The last time he was detained, Shahinian was imprisoned for four months, during the summer of 2012, in the Palestine Branch, the Syrian regime’s intelligence branch in Damascus.
In an interview with Rozana, Shahinian attributed his fellow Christians’ unwillingness to return to Raqqa at the moment, despite the departure of ISIS, to the lack of security and poor living conditions. He noted: "No more than 100 Christians live currently in Raqqa. Most of these people have a limited income and they are financially dependent on their small shops in the city to make a living, so they are forced to return as they were forced in the past to stay for the same reasons during the reign of ISIS."
Shahinian also talked about the violations committed by ISIS against Christians at that time. He stated: "I was present in Raqqa during the emergence of ISIS in 2013, when ISIS fighters took over the city churches and transformed them into the organization’s headquarters,; after erasing all their Christian features. In January 4, 2014, I escaped from the city in an ambulance because I was wanted by ISIS for being an activist. This happened particularly, during the armed clashes between ISIS and the opposition factions, which ultimately led to the fall of Raqqa under the control of the terrorist organization.”
Shahinian considers that the Christians who remained in Raqqa were subjected to the same violations that Muslims had to endure under the extremist ISIS. He added: "There were dozens of Christian families in Raqqa during the rule of the extremist organization, and I Kept in touch with my mother and my relatives who stayed there. In 2016, only 34 Christian families were living in Raqqa, all of whom were forced to pay the tribute of jizyah, a tax levied on non-Muslim subjects, to the organization and abide by its provisions.”
At the beginning of 2014, ISIS established a treaty and called it "the protection agreement with the Christians of Raqqa". The terrorist organization presented Christians with three options: first, to convert to Islam; second, to choose to stay Christian, pay certain amounts of money, and obey the rules of the organization; and third, to reject the other two options and engage in war with ISIS fighters who will only deal with whoever chooses such an option using the edges of their swords.
Christians living in Raqqa chose then to pay the jizyah. The tax imposed on the Christians of Raqqa was estimated at 13 grams of pure gold per year for every rich Christian family, half of that amount for those who belong to the middle class, and a quarter of that sum for the poor.
The agreement also forbade Christians from showing their religious symbols in public places and in front of Muslims, and prevented them from using speakers during prayers, or organizing rituals outside the churches, that ISIS took charge of,; in addition to subjecting them to dress codes and prohibited them from owning arms.
It is noted that no party has indicated any intention to rebuild the churches of Raqqa.
Radio Rozana contacted a number of Christians in Raqqa, but all of them refused to talk, even in the case of anonymity, and considered it dangerous for them to exchange with press as to their families who are still living in areas controlled by the Syrian regime.