Christians and Tyrants

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by Aryn Baker,

from TIME Magazine,

Why the Middle East persecuted minority is making unholy choices.

Half an ounce of gold. In the 7th century, that’s how much Christians in what is now Syria had to pay for the privilege of living under the protection of the Caliphate. If they didn’t want to pay, they had two other options: they could convert or, as some interpretations of the pact between Muslim rulers and their Christian subjects suggest, “face the sword.”

In February, the 20 or so Christian families still living in the northern Syrian town of Raqqa were given the same choice. The cost of protection is now the equivalent of $650 in Syrian pounds, a large amount for people struggling to make ends meet in a war zone. The other two options remain unchanged. This time the offer came from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an extremist antigovernment group that seized Raqqa in May 2013 from more-moderate rebel brigades and declared the town the capital of its own Islamic state.

Most of Raqqa’s 3,000 Christians had already fled the fighting, leaving just a few families in a place suddenly run by a group known for its violent tactics in both Iraq and Syria, including beheadings and floggings–tactics so ruthless that even al-Qaeda has disowned the group. The number had fallen even further by the time ISIS commanders promised the Christians that as long as they paid the levy, the one church that had not already been destroyed in the fighting would be left untouched and the Christians would not be physically harmed. They would have the right to practice their religion as long as they didn’t ring bells, evangelize or pray within earshot of a Muslim.

Church leaders urged Raqqa’s Christians to pay the militants.

When ISIS arrived in town, it warned Christians to stay out of sight and hide their crucifixes.

There are no reported instances of ISIS militants physically harassing Christians, but the threat is palpable, says George, who asked to go by a pseudonym out of fear of reprisals. “They don’t need to hit you,” he says, speaking via Skype from his home in Raqqa. “They wound you with their words.

The choices and compromises faced by the remaining Christians of Raqqa are extreme versions of the choices and compromises Christians have increasingly faced over the past decade across a Middle East roiled by an unprecedented period of war and revolution. Although now defunct regimes like those of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak presided over nightmarish human-rights abuses, they tended to protect Christian minorities and kept much of the region relatively stable. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the upheavals of the Arab Spring, some Arab countries have experimented with democracy, and without exception, Islamist parties have been successful at the polls. In Syria, a bloody civil war has resulted in conflict between many from the Sunni Muslim majority and the minority Christians, who have tended to side with the regime of Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite Muslim minority. The turmoil in these countries has made many of the Middle East’s Christians feel deeply concerned for their safety.

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