War on ISIS: U.S. Bombing Pushes Final Christians Out of Raqqa

A damaged building is seen in Raqqa city, Syria, on July 28. REUTERS/ Rodi Said

Intense bombing by the U.S-led coalition fighting to liberate Raqqa and deadly clashes in the de facto Syrian capital of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) have pushed some of the last remaining Christians out of the city.

The harsh subjugation of minorities such as Christians is one of ISIS's calling cards throughout the Middle East. The United Nations has called the group's systematic destruction of the ethnic Yazidis in Iraq a genocide. The militants' repression of other religious faiths it considers heretical has varied by degrees in the territory it controlled.

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In Raqqa, ISIS gave the Christian population the choice of converting, paying a Christian tax known as jizya, a concept that dates back to the time of Islamic conquest, or fleeing under threat of death.

According to Agence France-Presse, however, the last remaining Christians, the vast majority of them Armenian and Syriac, have been forced from the city by the violence of the U.S.-led coalition's offensive on Raqqa rather than the yoke of ISIS's rule.

One Christian family, forced to flee on foot with precious few personal possessions and nothing more than the clothes on their backs, told AFP the bombardment had become too much to bear. "I didn't want to leave, but there was so much bombardment around us that we fled," 45-year-old Sawsan Karapetyan, one of the family members, said. "When Raqqa was bombed, we'd gather together to pray to the Lord so things would be calm," she added.

Karapetyan and her three male and female relatives escaped Raqqa Tuesday through a route created by the Christian Syriac Military Council (SMC). The brigade is fighting alongside the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the offensive to liberate Raqqa that began two months ago.

In the offensive on Raqqa, the SMC's goal is to facilitate the safe escape of as many Christians as possible. Matay, a 22-year-old Christian fighter, told AFP his forces had secured the route in recent days to help civilians flee. "We got a Christian family out yesterday.... This is our goal in the campaign to liberate Raqqa."

Before ISIS overran Raqqa in 2014, Christians made up some 1 percent of the city's population. Most fled in the face of the militants' advance.

The group, which is famed for its iconoclasm, destroyed and vandalized the city's Christian places of worship. "When Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] entered, they burned the churches, all the prayer books, the angels, the statue of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus the Messiah," Karapetyan's relative Alexey said.

The militants desecrated the city's Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs and the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation.

"Daesh blew up all of the churches, which devastated us. I haven't prayed inside a church since 2013," Kirdian, another escapee, explained.

In July, the SDF announced they had liberated half of Raqqa from ISIS. The forces, supported by U.S. air power and special forces, launched their offensive to liberate the city on June 6. They have made quicker gains than the Iraqi forces who earlier this month wrested the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS after a protracted nine-month operation.

The operation has been slowed by ISIS sniper fire, booby traps and suicide car bombs. The jihadi group has had a significant amount of time to prepare for battle, planting explosives, digging escape tunnels and building berms around the city.

The SDF, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, now controls much of northeastern Syria after its successes against the militant group.