On Tuesday Syrian Democratic Forces (primarily consisting of Kurdish Peshmerga and some smaller Arab forces) announced that they had finally defeated Islamic State in Raqqa after a five month siege. Raqqa was the capital of the global caliphate which IS declared.
Most of Raqqa’s Christian residents fled when IS seized it in 2013. IS imposed dhimmi status on those Christians too poor to flee. Although some western commentators have claimed dhimmitude is a form of ‘toleration’ in fact, it is anything but.
It amounts to a form of humiliating servitude where Christians and Jews, who are termed Ahl-i-Kitab (‘People of the Book’) are allowed to live provided they keep a set of strict rules known as the dhimma including paying jizya. They have no legal rights and can be immediately executed if they are alleged to have broken any of the rules set out in the dhimma.
Those who could not pay the 60,000 Syrian pounds (US$116) jizya IS demanded were forced to convert to Islam or be killed. In 2015 IS brought more Christian hostages to Raqqa after it seized areas with significant Christian populations such as the town of Qaryatain.
These have been used as human shields, which amounts to a war crime. There are thought to have been 43 Armenian and Assyrian Christian families living there at Easter last year when IS reportedly issued an order banning them from leaving. During the actual seige of Raqqa IS shot any civilians caught leaving. However, some Christians have been recused during the siege.
In August Christian units within the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had freed seven Christians who were being held in Raqqa and were urgently seeking to determine the whereabouts of other Christians
We are likely to find out in the coming weeks stories of atrocities committed under IS. The liberation of Qarayatain from IS last year provides some insights into the sort of atrocities likely to have been committed against Christians in Raqqa.
Shortly after Qarayatain’s liberation church leaders reported that 21 Christians had been executed by IS either for trying to escape or for breaking the terms of the dhimma, while IS had been planning to sell some of the Christian girls as slaves.
Martin Parsons is Head of Research for the persecuted church relief agency, Barnabas Fund.