SAT-7 and partner organisation LFAN were the first to film in the Syrian city of Raqqa after its liberation from so-called Islamic State (IS). Here, some of Raqqa’s residents share their stories of hope after destruction.
“Ninety percent of this place is filled with landmines. It’s not safe here.” Khalil is speaking to Maysaa Saloum, part of a Christian film crew who were the first to visit the Syrian city of Raqqa, less than two months after it was retaken from IS.
Four years of IS control, thousands of air strikes, and weeks of relentless fighting between IS and Kurdish-led forces left a city in ruins and its remaining residents in trauma. Khalil is one of a group of volunteers risking their own lives to clear mines from the city.
THE LIGHTS OF RAQQA
But amidst the devastation and even the smell of death, Maysaa said, the film crew had come to pray. Their aim as they made two films for SAT-7 and Toronto-based ministry Light for All Nations (LFAN) was to bring hope and encouragement to a Christian remnant who had stayed and “to show the world that amidst darkness, there’s light here”.
Those whose lights were still burning after four years of repression shared their stories. “They put us under siege; we couldn’t move,” remembered Naeema Antar. “My husband was outside and I called him to come in. At that moment we were suddenly covered with dust and realised that the backyard of our house had been struck by a missile.”
“One mistake could cost you your life,” Abou Saleem recalled. “They’d ask me why my garment is short. I’d tell them that I’m Christian. Some of them wouldn’t object; others would and asked for proof. We feel that we are in heaven now they have left. They caused so much destruction that whole families left.”
TERROR IN TABEKA
In the town of Tabeka, Abou Roubeen shared how successive radical opposition groups overran the city and 500 Christian families dwindled to just nine as they fled the months of terror. Eventually IS invaded and came to his home at dawn.
“They put a gun in my mouth, took me to their car and told me to point out the houses that belonged to Christians,” he said. After he identified them, they beat him and took him captive to Raqqa. There, with three Christian neighbours he was given a choice: to be killed, to pay jizya (tax) or convert to Islam.
Abou Roubeen told them he “was ready for jizya or to be killed for Christ’s sake”. But miraculously, God intervened. Upon explaining that his name ‘Roubeen’ derived from the biblical Reuben, one of the sons of Jacob, the tax was waived.
Two years later, however, Abou Roubeen faced more intense interrogation, threats and this time a jizya tax of 53,000 Syrian pounds.
Today, Abou Roubeen’s faith remains strong, but the siege has taken its toll. The continuous air bombardments have given him panic attacks and he was injured by shrapnel from a missile strike only four days before Raqqa was liberated.
Despite this, the message that he and other Christian residents shared was one of resilience and hope. “We want our churches renovated and the Christians to return to their homes. It is safe now,” Abou Roubeen said.
“It’s a difficult situation. Services aren’t back to normal,” said another Tabeka resident, Abdel Hakeem. “Even though the situation isn’t good, at least we are free and living in dignity. We are living in freedom and waiting for our friends and loved ones to return to live together as before. There’s compassion and love… life is returning to Tabeka.”
Today, as we consider the almost seven years of warfare inflicted upon Syrian people, let’s join with Maysaa and the “lights of Syria” she spoke to. We can thank God for their faith and His faithfulness in sustaining them against all odds. Let’s pray for their healing and their joy to be returned. Pray that their voices would be heard around the world. Pray that Syria’s bitter war will soon end and her people be able to live together respectfully and – with the outside help they undoubtedly need – rebuild their battered country.
Below: Watch Abou Roubeen’s story
- Thank God for the Christians of Raqqa who risked everything, even their lives, to remain faithful to Him.
- As Syrian believers make their voices heard through SAT-7, pray that the world would listen and respond.
- Thank God for the liberation of Raqqa, and pray that further towns and cities would be rescued from the grip of IS.
- Pray, as Abdel Hakeem asks, that Raqqa residents’ friends and loved ones would be able to return and live together in peace.
- Pray for peace for Syria, and an end to the bitter conflict that has all but destroyed it. Ask God to bring His joy and life back to its people.