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10/17/17 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have liberated the majority of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a city central to ISIS’s activities in the Middle East. ISIS had fully captured the Syrian city in January 2014.

Raqqa’s liberation three years later carries significant symbolic weight in the fight against ISIS. After the city’s capture in 2014, it quickly evolved into the extremists’ headquarters where they put their brutal vision into practice. The militants’ merciless battlefield tactics extended into their management of the city. Mass executions and terror became the norm as religious police patrolled the streets.

Before the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, an estimated 10 percent of Raqqa’s population was Christian. Most abandoned the city while ISIS was still establishing their headquarters. A few thousand, however, choose to remain. Raqqa’s three churches were destroyed and closed. The largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, was converted into an Islamic center that screened videos meant to attract new recruits. Christians were forced to register with the militants and pay a jizya tax in exchange for their safety.

In December 2014, ISIS released a set of rules restricting the behavior of Raqqa’s remaining Christians. Christians were banned from engaging in public acts of worship, repairing damaged churches, and reading the Bible aloud. Breaking any one of these rules was potentially punishable by death.

In March 2016, ISIS militants issued a decree banning Christians and Armenians who remained in the city from leaving. It was estimated that the Christian families who remained in Raqqa at this time numbered in the dozens.

John, a Christian who chose to remain in Raqqa, told World Watch Monitor last year, “You’re constantly alert, never looking into someone’s eyes when walking on the street; always aware of what to say and not to say.” He continued, “I saw a lot of cruelty. Every Friday they executed people. I was there when they beheaded the first man in public. They could not behead him with the first cut. He suffered so much they finally shot him.”

The liberation of Raqqa has been heavily anticipated since the liberation of Mosul from ISIS four months ago. In anticipation of ISIS’s defeat, some Christians managed to successfully escape with the help of coalition forces. According to reporting from the National, a Christian soldier who was part of the coalition said, “We got a Christian family out… This is our goal in the campaign to liberate Raqqa.”

Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager, said, “The cruelty with which ISIS captured and administered Raqqa has left deep scars on the entire Middle East region. ISIS intended Raqqa to serve as an example of the goals for their so-called caliphate, and it was from here that they planned their terror across the region. Raqqa was once home to a thriving Christian community, most of whom fearfully fled because of ISIS’s efforts to eliminate all signs of Christianity. Those Christians who became entrapped inside Raqqa experienced indescribable suffering because of their faith. The liberation of Raqqa is a much-needed step in the war against ISIS; however, the broader violence in Syria continues to create a dangerous situation for Christians. There is much healing and rebuilding that is needed before Syrian Christians will consider returning to their homes.”