WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. State Department has issued a statement deploring what it calls “continued threats against Christians and other minorities in Syria” from militant Islamists at war with both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and fellow Islamic militants.
According to a March 3 statement from State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL) announced last week in Raqqa it will force Christians in the city to “convert to Islam, remain Christian and pay a tax, or face death.”
“These outrageous conditions violate universal human rights,” Psaki said. “ISIL has demonstrated time and again its disregard for Syrian lives, and it continues to commit atrocities against the Syrian people. Although ISIL claims it is fighting the regime, its oppression of and senseless violence against Syrians, including the moderate Syrian opposition, demonstrates that it is fighting for nothing except the imposition of its own brand of tyranny.”
The State Department’s condemnation of ISIL comes as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the group — a branch of al-Qaida also known as ISIS — had given Christians in Raqqa an ultimatum to accept a “dhimma,” a protection agreement much like those between mafia families and businesses. If the agreement was not signed, the villagers would have to convert to Islam or “face the sword.”
Haaretz reported Christians in the city had signed the agreement, which commits them to a biannual tax of “four gold dinars” — about $500 per person. Those deemed middle class Christians by Islamic clerics are only required to pay half the tax, while those who are poor will be required to pay one quarter of that amount.
The average annual income in Syria is only $4,800 (US), and much less since the civil war began. That means many Christians will be unable to pay the tax and will be forced into conversion or worse.
In addition to being required to practice Christianity behind closed doors, Christians in Raqqa must now follow 11 other conditions in order to keep the agreement with their Muslim overlords. Among those conditions are prohibitions on building new sanctuaries or restoring those damaged in the civil war, aiding any faction or government opposed to ISIL, and discouraging conversions to Islam from within the Christian community, according to the Israeli newspaper.
The dhimma is a type of agreement that has existed in Islam since the mid-7th century. The opportunity to pay the tax or “jizya” for protection was offered to Christians and Jews during the Islamic conquests because Islam’s founder, Muhammad, regarded Christians and Jews as “people of the Book,” partly because Islam claimed Abraham, Moses and Jesus as prophets and partly because the religion’s founder believed Christians and Jews living among Muslims would seek conversion in order to stop paying the tax.
Under such an agreement, “dhimmis” were and still are considered defeated and humbled foes of Islam.
In the Koran (Surah 9:29), followers of Islam are instructed to “fight those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and his messenger have declared unlawful — those who do not practice the religion of truth though they were given the Book — until they pay the tribute willingly and have been humbled.”
Muslims, according to Islamic teaching, are required to protect the lives and property of dhimmis, but they can be killed without trial if they violate the agreement.
Psaki said in her statement the dhimma between the ISIL and Christians in Raqqa is a departure from the “long history of tolerance and co-existence” between Muslims and Christians in Syria. But she also said that Christians were not fairing any better under the assault of the Assad regime.
“Both the regime and ISIL are fueling sectarian strife to justify their brutality. We strongly condemn these abuses and urge all parties to protect and respect the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion,” Psaki said.
Raqqa, however, is not the first Christian settlement to be subjected to mistreatment by Islamic militants when caught between rebels and the Assad regime. In fact, it is not the first time ISIL has forced Christians to make a decision between faith, property or life.
In March 2013, nearly two years into the Syrian uprising prompted by the so-called “Arab Spring,” the town of Yacoubiyeh, comprised of nearly 2,500 Christian residents, was subjected to the same treatment. The commander of militant Islamist forces there said he would implement Islamic law, forcing Christians into a type of second class citizenry.
The rebel commander, using the pseudonym Hakim, said Christians could practice their freedoms, but in private. “Personal freedom stops where the freedom of others begins,” Hakim told the Associated Press.
The Christians in Yacoubiyeh who could flee fled, and militants moved on to capture the villages of Judeida and Quniya, home to thousands of other Christians. Those who remained met with Islamic clerics and expressed their desire to avoid the status of dhimmi. But the Lebanese Daily Star reported that Muslim clerics noted the absence of a legitimate government as a reason for the “service” provided by Islamic courts practicing Sharia law, to which the Christians would be subject.
The specter of ill treatment under Sharia law has caused many Christians, at first sympathetic with the rebels, to again support the Assad regime. In fact, several Assadist strongholds are among the ancient Christian communities that have been attacked by jihadists.
In September 2013, for instance, rebels comprised mainly of militant Islamists attacked the ancient town of Maaloula, the last town on earth where ancient Aramaic is the primary language. Jihadist fighters overran a Christian monastery in the town but did not harm the few remaining nuns there. They stated they were looking only to cleanse the town of supporters of the Assad regime.
However, churches in Maaloula were reportedly destroyed and Christian relics smashed in the fighting. Rebels also executed more than 20 people in the town square, many of them reportedly Christians loyal to the Assad regime.
News organizations such as Arutz Sheva, a national Israeli news agency, said the attack on Maaloula was led by the al-Nusra front of al-Qaida. It is this group, taking direction from al-Qaida’s spiritual leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, which is in a battle of its own with ISIL. Al-Nusra has accused ISIL leaders of assassinating some of its leaders to gain greater control over the Islamist revolution.
“The paradoxical result is that the al-Qaida stand-in — Al-Nusra — is now considered a more desirable ally of the rebels than ISIS because it relies largely on Syrian support, while ISIS [ISIL] has recruited many volunteers from Arab and Western countries,” Haaretz reported.
“Al-Nusra has also been ‘kinder’ to civilians. True, the group’s militants decapitated civilians suspected of supporting the Syrian regime, but it also is better at keeping order and maintaining the food supply to the civilians under its control. In addition, Al-Nusra and the Islamic Front — an umbrella organization for several Islamist groups — are currently cooperating in an effort to create a united front against ISIS [ISIL].”
According to Haaretz, al-Zawhiri, who assumed command of al-Qaida after the death of Osama bin Laden, told ISIL to stop resisting al-Qaida’s leadership or it would face “a dreadful battle.”
Fighting between the two groups, which has left Christians with little options in a three-way struggle between Assad, al-Qaida’s al-Nusra and ISIL, reportedly has resulted in 3,000 deaths. The pushback from al-Nusra also reportedly forced ISIL to hold up in Raqqa, where the dhimma agreement was signed.
In December 2013, political leaders in neighboring Lebanon denounced the first attacks on Christian sites in Syria, in particular the Church of the Annunciation and Martyrs in Raqqa.
Amine Gemayel, who was president of Lebanon during its own civil war from 1982-88 and is now head of the Kataeb Party largely comprised of Maronite Catholics, said the attacks “show the irresponsibility and ignorance of those who committed these crimes.” Gemayel called for militants to respect the freedom of those from other civilizations and religions.
According to CNN, ISIL’s agreement with the Christians of Raqqa has since come under fire from other radical clerics as well. Louay Safi, spokesman for the Syrian Coalition fighting the Assad regime, said the group’s treatment of non-Muslims was “un-Islamic.”
The radical cleric Abu Qatada, who is standing trial in Jordan for terrorism, told CNN the militants could not impose such an agreement on Christians yet — because they were not yet “empowered to govern Syria.” Presumably then, whichever branch of Islamic militants completes its conquest of the nation could then force Christians to submit as dhimmis.
Gregory Tomlin is a writer in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).