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

Jazra (Syria) (AFP) – 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.”

– Celebrating holidays in secret –

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…

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