Syria (MNN) — “Pay up or die.” It’s an ultimatum that sounds like it came out of a mobster movie, but it’s happening today in Syria.
Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, explains, “One of the particularly radical Islamic groups, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is also known by the acronym ISIS, has established the tax and the subjugation of Christians in the city of Raqqa.”
The ultimatum left Christians in this town with one of three options: “They’re given the option of ‘Convert to Islam;’ they’re given the option of paying this ‘jizya’ tax and coming under this agreement; the third option was ‘face the sword.’”
Given the choice, it seems like the true aim of ISIS is to rid the city of Christian influence. Nettleton agrees. “This is a city of about 300,000 people. The original population before the conflict started was about 3,000 Christians–about 1% of the population. Many of them have fled as the conflict has risen, so we don’t know exactly how many Christians are still in the area that would come under this agreement.” The city was the first and only provincial capital to be completely in the hands of rebels. Nettleton gives this description of them: “This particular radical Islamic group, ISIS, is sometimes at odds with some of the other rebel groups that are fighting the Assad regime, so they’re known to be extra radical.”
ISIS said it would give Christian residents “protection” if they agreed to the list of conditions, Nettleton says, clarifying, “Some of the things they agreed to: pay a tax for every adult male; they also agree not to display any religious Christian symbols like crosses in public; their women are required to veil, and they’re required to hold services: only in church and quiet enough that a Muslim standing outside the building cannot hear it.”
Many Christians fled after ISIS started attacking and burning churches. Nettleton wonders, “How will Christians survive in this setting? How will they reach out? How will they be able to share their faith? Those are huge questions.” More than 2,000 people are believed to have been killed since Western-backed and Islamist groups attacked ISIS strongholds in early January.
Nettleton says while their teams are providing assistance to refugees and bringing spiritual help, “One of the big things, though, is to deliver the message to them that they’re not forgotten, that people are praying for them, that people know what’s going on, and to encourage them to stay strong in their faith.”
Given the new set of restrictions in the occupied territory, it will be especially difficult for Christians to blend into the new social order. “Pray for protection, and I think even more importantly: pray for their encouragement. Pray that the Lord will empower them and strengthen them to stand up under the pressure that they’re facing.”