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.