Crosses on churches and pealing church bells are a thing of the past in Raqqa, Syria, as long as extreme Islamists remain in power there.
After seizing it last March, militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS, control the province of Raqqa, a region that was until recently at least 10 percent Christian. The militants have torched churches, and destroyed their crosses, replacing them with the group's black Islamic banner.
ISIL recently issued a list of rules it planned to impose and gave Christians three choices: convert to Islam, remain Christian and pay a “jizya tax” for protection, or "refuse and be considered warriors who will be confronted with the sword of the Islamic State."
According to Todd Daniels of International Christian Concern, ISIL is so extreme, al-Qaeda has distanced itself from the group, declaring Jabhat al-Nusra its official representative in Syria.
ISIL claims Christian leaders agreed to pay the protection tax. The group released a document called “Aqed al-Thima,” Arabic for “protection pact,” which it claimed it finalized during a meeting with 20 Christian leaders in Raqqa. The militants intend to impose Sharia law there, including a strict dress code, a ban on public alcohol consumption, and prohibitions on the display of Christian symbols, according to Al Shorfa, a Middle East news website maintained by the U.S. Defense Department.
The authenticity of the two-page document circulating online could not be independently verified, but such issues have stoked fears in Syria’s Christian minority community that they are being targeted by extremists among the fighters seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
The document bore a stamp ISIL uses in other statements posted on militant websites. The signatures of the 20 Christian leaders who allegedly signed it were blotted out at their request, according to the document, which was signed by a representative of ISIL’s leader.
This is the most formal call for dhimmitude, a system of classification for non-Muslims, in years, according to Daniels. “This is unique is recent history, but there is historical precedent of a system of dhimmitude that stipulates Christian’s second-class status under an Islamic government as early as the seventh century,” Daniels said.
Al Shorfa reported that both Christians and Muslims in Raqqa were upset by ISIL’s demands, and that Islamic scholars condemned the attempt to collect “jizya” taxes.
“I never imagined that I would one day be subjected to what they call the provisions of Islamic sharia in this manner, which is more like imprisonment, suppression of personal freedoms, and prohibition of the expression of religious beliefs,” Semaan al-Mallouhi, a retired Christian resident of Raqqa, told Al Shorfa.
The almost three-year old civil war in Syria has not only killed more than 100,000 people, it has displaced 400,000 Syrian Christians. The initial protests against Assad’s regime quickly devolved into a mix of groups fighting for power, from the secularists to extreme jihadists like ISIL. The BBC reported in February that infighting between rival anti-Assad groups claimed more than 3,000 lives in just two months. Syrian peace talks failed in January.