Rosary in hand, Christians flee IS-held Raqqa

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‘We tried to stay but we couldn’t take it anymore’

Displaced Syrian women and children who fled from the Islamic State (IS) group’s stronghold of Raqqa arrive in the village of Hawi al-Hawa, less than two kilometres (one mile) west outside the city, on Aug 8. US-led coalition raids on Raqqa in northern Syria have killed 29 civilians over the past 24 hours as American-backed forces battle the Islamic State group, a monitor said Tuesday. (AFP)

JAZRA, Syria, Aug 9, (AFP): Sawsan Karapetyan and her family lived in fear for years as some of the only Christians in the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold Raqqa.

On Tuesday she fled, clutching her rosary. Under the cover of darkness, the 45-year-old Syrian Armenian and six other family members left IS held territory in the northern city on foot.

They were rescued by Christian fighters participating in the battle to oust IS from Raqqa and taken to the safety of the western suburb of Jazra in the back of a truck. “I didn’t want to leave, but there was so much bombardment around us that we fled,” said Karapetyan, 45, still clad in the black robes mandated by IS.

Like many of the thousands who have fled IS control, they escaped with virtually nothing. But Karapetyan could not bear to leave behind her rosary, or her pet parrots, “Lover” and “Beloved”. “It would have been a shame to leave these birds in Raqqa. I left everything except them,” she said. As she spoke, she sipped a cup of tea handed to her by fighters from the Syriac Military Council (SMC), a Christian unit battling alongside the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to oust IS from Raqqa. The anti-IS fighters have captured more than half of the city from IS since first penetrating it two months ago.

The offensive has ravaged the city, leaving civilians caught in the crossfire of mortar rounds, sniper fire, and US-led coalition air strikes. “When Raqqa was bombed, we’d gather together to pray to the Lord so things would be calm,” Karapetyan said, fiddling with her greenish-grey rosary. Along with three female and three male relatives, she fled Raqqa at 3:00 am on Tuesday using an escape route the SMC opened two days ago. “We lived through the hardest moments these last three days because of the fierce bombing. I was terrified for my husband and my family.”

Thousands of Armenians and Syriac Christians once lived in Raqqa, making up around one percent of the city’s population, which is predominantly Sunni Arab. Armenians in Syria are the descendants of those who fled mass killings in Anatolia at the peak of World War I, massacres the Armenians see as a genocide, though Turkey rejects the term. When IS seized Raqqa in 2014, most of the city’s Christians, as well as its Kurdish population, fled.

Under IS rule, Christians face the choice of converting to Islam, paying a sectarian tax called jizya, or fleeing under threat of death. The group has regularly destroyed religious symbols and houses of worship, and Karapetyan’s relative Alexey told AFP she had haunting memories of IS’s oppression of Christians. “When IS entered they burned the churches, all the prayer books, the angels, the statue of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus the Messiah,” she recalled.

The city’s famed Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs and the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation were both ravaged by jihadists. “We used to celebrate our holidays in secret, spending them at home in fear,” Alexey, 50, said, still dressed in the headscarf and robes required by IS. “We would light a bit of incense just to feel that it was a religious holiday.”

Alexey presses the palm of her hand against her worn face, exhausted by the terrifying journey to Jazra and missing the home she left behind. “We all left Raqqa and all of our things stayed behind. It’s a painful feeling. We tried to stay but we couldn’t take it anymore.” From Jazra, she and her relatives planned to head west to Aleppo to be reunited with Armenian family members they lost touch with about a month ago.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced from Raqqa by the escalating fighting. Matay, a 22-year-old Christian fighter, told AFP that his forces had secured a 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.” Kardij Kirdian, 50, fled on Tuesday after his brother escaped the day before. “I can’t describe the feeling when we saw the Christian fighters welcoming us,” he said. He told AFP he had chosen to stay in his native Raqqa even if it meant paying exorbitant taxes.

“The first year, they took 55,000 Syrian pounds (more than $100) per person as jizya. The next year it was 66,000, and this last year it was 166,000 pounds each (more than $300),” Kirdian said. To afford the levy, he would rent out and farm fertile land around the city. The 50-year-old was wearing a loose charcoal grey robe and had thick, jet-black eyebrows and an unruly salt-and-pepper beard. “Daesh blew up all of the churches, which devastated us. I haven’t prayed inside a church since 2013,” Kirdian lamented, using the Arabic acronym for IS. But he remained hopeful. “If we rebuild them, we will pray again in Raqqa.”

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