ISIS Preventing Remaining Christian Families From Leaving Raqqa

ISIS in Raqqa
A fighter waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, in June 2014. A monitoring group says that ISIS leaders have banned football referees as they implement the "laws of FIFA" and "not Sharia." Reuters

Several Christian families remain in the Syrian city of Raqqa and are being prevented from leaving by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), activists say.

The activist group Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered, which uses a series of sources inside the city, tweeted on Tuesday: "ISIS issued a new decision to prevent any Christians or Armenian people who remain in Raqqa to leave the city under any condition #Syria." The activist group did not elaborate on the new ISIS order and did not respond to a request for comment.

Raqqa is ISIS's de-facto capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate and the decision to prevent Christians leaving, if genuine, comes at a time when the U.S.-led coalition and Russian air force are conducting airstrikes on the city and Kurdish forces and the Syrian army is recapturing territory from the group in close proximity to Raqqa Province.

#ISIS Issued a new decision to Prevent any Christians or Armenians people who Remain in #Raqqa to leave the city under any condition #Syria

— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) March 29, 2016

It was previously thought by many that the entire Christian population of Raqqa had fled the city or had been killed by ISIS after it ousted Syrian troops in January 2014. Yet, several families remain in the city after paying a jizya (tax) and signing a dhimma (sharia social contract) that prevents them being killed by the radical Islamists.

"There are a couple of families left in Raqqa. I was surprised," says Nuri Kino, founder and president of A Demand For Action, a group advocating the protection of ethnoreligious minorities such as Assyrians and Yazidis in the Middle East.

"I spoke to a Syriac man who only left Raqqa about six weeks ago. He turned up at an association in Germany. It turns out that some families actually are in Raqqa, paying jizya and are being protected by their former neighbors, Sunni Muslim neighbors, as long as they follow the Sharia laws."

Muslims who lived in the city prior to ISIS's arrival are protecting the Christians—who have been the subject of some ISIS propaganda releases in the city; for example, having the Quran read to them—from death at the hands of the radical Islamists.

"They have a document that they have with them wherever they go, that says they are protected by the Sharia, by the court, that they have been to the court, that they are paying jizya and that they also have some kind of sponsor or protector."

The jizya and the dhimma allows minorities protection from a brutal death as dictated by the group's radical strand of Islamic law. The group has implemented it in other areas of Syria, such as the Christian town of Al-Qaryatayn. The ultra-conservative group considers ancient religious minorities, such as Syriac Catholics, Assyrians and Yazidis, to be kafir (disbelievers) and infidels.

Such rules in the social contract include prayers being forbidden in public, prayers at home not being loud enough so that others can hear them, the outlawing of renovations to churches, not showing religious symbols and the outlawing of the ringing of church bells.

Rami Abdelrahman, the director of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the Syrian civil war through a vast network of sources, cast doubt on the new order, saying that ISIS has in fact prevented the entire population of Raqqa from leaving, including Muslims, and not just Christians.

"ISIS stopped everybody leaving Raqqa. Muslims, not only Christians," he says. "There are a few [Christian] families left. A few hundred people, seven or eight families."