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Islamists in Syria force Christians to pay protection levy

07 March 2014


In quieter times: a residential area in Raqqa

In quieter times: a residential area in Raqqa

MINORITY communities in Syria, in the country and abroad, have been shocked by the news that Islamists in the eastern city of Raqqa are forcing the remaining Christians there to pay a levy for their protection. The move is being interpreted as another sign that the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime could herald rule by fiercely anti-Christian Islamists.

Battles for Raqqa have raged for more than a year; the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [Arabic for Syria] (ISIS) finally retook it in January. The group has pledged to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region as the first step towards taking over Syria and imposing its rule further afield.

ISIS sprang out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but its actions in Syria have led to fierce fighting with other Islamist groups, not least the al-Qaeda-backed Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as secular opponents of the current government.

ISIS says that Christian and other non-Muslim males in Raqqa will be required to pay a jizya tax which, under Islamic law, requires them to subject themselves to their rulers in return for their protection, and conditional freedom to worship. The tax will be levied according to income, the wealthy paying four dinars (the equivalent of about £430), those on middle income two, and the poor one - handed over in two annual instalments.

Although the payment of the tax ensures the Christians' physical safety, it also means that they have to accept the status of dhimmis [second-class citizens], the state of affairs that existed before the decline of the Islamic Caliphate in the 19th century, and its abolition in 1924.

But the Christians of Raqqa have been told that worship and other rituals will not be allowed in public, nor can churches be built or restored. Crosses have already been removed by Islamist fighters, and a ban imposed on the ringing of bells. Non-Muslims are also forbidden to carry arms. ISIS reports that a group of 20 Christian leaders - remnants of the minority community in what was once a Sunni-dominated city - have agreed to the new terms.

While ISIS has a clear agenda to re-establish a caliphate based on Raqqa, it finds itself at odds with almost all other anti-government armed groups in Syria. Its appearance in Raqqa is another sign of the chaos into which the country has sunk.

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