Rosary in hand, Chris­tians flee Syria’s IS-held Raqa

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Sawsan Kara­petyan and her fam­ily lived in fear for years as some of the only Chris­tians in the Is­lamic State group’s Syr­ian strong­hold Raqa. 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 Raqa 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 Raqa. 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 Raqa. 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 Raqa 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 Raqa 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 Raqa, 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 Raqa 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. — AFP

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