This is the story of a young Christian man in his early 20s whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
John shares what his and his family’s life was like in Raqqa before the arrival of IS and how it changed drastically.
“Life in Raqqa carries on as usual in many ways. Shops and restaurants are open. There is food, electricity, and water. People are more fortunate than those living in a city like Aleppo.”
“But you’re constantly alert, never looking into someone’s eyes when walking on the street; always aware of what to say and not to say.”
IS conquered Raqqa after a week’s fighting in 2014. After conquering the city, they declared Raqqa the capital of their state.
John watched from the side-lines as the streets filled with people shouting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest).
“I didn’t shout it – I am a Christian. But when an IS man saw me being silent, he stopped the car. I had to say ‘Allahu Akbar’ too.”
As soon as IS conquered the city, in order to destroy symbols of other religions, they destroyed the interiors of three churches.
“They broke everything inside – the icons, the altar, everything. One church building is now a centre for IS.”
Soon after IS declared Raqqa their capital, Christians were told how they could live under IS rule.
“We could [convert and] become Muslims and live a normal life in Raqqa, we could leave, or we could stay and pay the jizya tax. The first year the tax was 54,000 Syrian pounds [about US$300] per man – women and children are not ‘taxed’ – but last year the rate went up to 164,000 Syrian pounds per man.”
John soon witnessed how IS dealt with those who didn’t obey their rules.
“I saw a lot of cruelty. Every Friday they executed people. I was there when they beheaded the first man in public. They couldn’t behead him with the first cut. He suffered so much they finally shot him.”
John described how sick he felt when IS beheaded hundreds of soldiers from Raqqa’s Syrian Army base and then pinned their heads on the fence he passed daily on his way to work.
“When I talked with them, I had to know what to say. A wrong word could offend them. Seeing all these atrocities, they don’t seem like people, they seem like monsters to me, especially after what they did to those soldiers. This traumatised me. It was too much.”
“IS hung their crosses from their ears when they put their heads on the fence. What shocked me too was that I saw people taking selfies with the heads. I believe they do this to scare people, to show them what happens when you do something wrong.”
Despite the horrors he witnessed, John stayed in Raqqa because he wanted to work and continue his studies, and paying the jizya gave him some freedom.
“Because we paid the tax and had the declaration [confirming the tax was paid] always with us, no-one could harm us for being a Christian.”
However, John knows of only 50 Christian families left there. The only priest left as soon as IS took over. There is no church remaining – Christians visit each other for fellowship.
John has now left Raqqa illegally to continue his studies. We urge all our readers to please pray for people living under the constant threat of these monsters called IS.