American Interest

Falling for ISIS Propaganda about Christians

Nina Shea
Nina Shea
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Religious Freedom
The graffiti tagged on the wall of a house in the Iraqi city of Mosul, July 26, 2014. It reads in Arabic : 'Real estate property of the Islamic State (IS)'. (AFP/Getty Images)
The graffiti tagged on the wall of a house in the Iraqi city of Mosul, July 26, 2014. It reads in Arabic : 'Real estate property of the Islamic State (IS)'. (AFP/Getty Images)

That Middle Eastern Christians—along with Yazidis and others—face genocide by ISIS was officially recognized earlier this year in a designation of the U.S. Secretary of State, and in resolutions of both Houses of Congress. Yet, a prominent international voice is now denying this, asserting that ISIS, rather than aiming to eradicate Christians, offers to protect and respect them through a traditional Islamic tax option, or jizya. These findings seem preposterous to anyone familiar with ISIS’s worldview—recall the 2015 ISIS videos of its beheadings of the Coptic Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Libya. Nevertheless, they are gaining traction to the detriment of the affected Christian communities and to the world’s understanding of ISIS’s ideology.

In a June 15 report concerning ISIS’s genocide in Iraq’s Nineveh Province, a small but highly influential international group, the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, insists that ISIS does not intend to destroy the Christian community, which would mean that, under the genocide convention, the terror group has not waged genocide on that minority. The report confidently declares that ISIS unconditionally recognizes Christians’ “right to exist as Christians,” including those within its territory, “as long as they pay the jizya tax,” because, it suggests, the terror group respects Christians (and presumably Jews) as “People of the Book.” Another unsubstantiated and insupportable claim is that there are “Christian communities still living in ISIS-controlled territory.” The report even denies that the ISIS attacks against the Christian minority are religious, asserting instead a political motivation for its violence against that minority—to punish them for getting too close to “non-aligned forces.”

Apart from its footnote-free, summary conclusion, the Commission report, entitled “They came to destroy”: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis, is silent on the Christians. Here is the conclusion in its entirety:

While the Christian communities still living in ISIS-controlled territory live difficult and often precarious existences, are viewed with suspicion, and are vulnerable to attack if ISIS perceive they are seeking protection from non-aligned forces, their right to exist as Christians within any Islamic state existing at any point in time is recognised as long as they pay the jizya tax: Under ISIS’s radical interpretation of Islam, however, it is impermissible for Yazidis to live as Yazidis inside its so-called caliphate because they are not People of the Book.

As it pertains to the Christians, this conclusion is demonstrably false. No one denies that the Yazidis face ISIS genocide but the idea that “Christians and Jews” do not because they have ISIS’s respect as “People of the Book” first surfaced in a report by the U.S. Holocaust Museum genocide prevention office during the debate leading up to the official U.S. genocide designation last winter and was refuted by the evidence then. Its adoption by the Commission now gives what is essentially unexamined ISIS propaganda new currency in international circles, with significant implications.

Internationally, the Commission is considered a highly respected authority. It was established in 2011 by the United Nations Council on Human Rights to advise the world’s preeminent human-rights body. It counts among its four commissioners such notables as Karen Koning AbuZayd, an American who served for as Deputy Commissioner General of UNRWA, a controversial UN body for Palestinian refugees with a reputation, including under her leadership, of abetting Holocaust denial and Hamas terror, but which allowed her to obtain the rank of UN Under Secretary General of the UN.

Already the research library of the British Parliament has cited the Commission as its principal source on the plight of Christians in ISIS’s territory, and adopted the Commission’s conclusion in the library’s July 15, 2016 briefing paper on “Religious Persecution in the Middle East.” If allowed to stand unchallenged, the Commission’s conclusion can be anticipated to influence policymaking within and outside the United Nations.

A review of the evidence and interviews with the Christian leaders directly involved reveals that ISIS’ claims of a jizya option are a deception and a propaganda ploy. ISIS’s demands for payments, which it calls "jizya," are actually examples of extortion. Under traditional Islam, there was a conceptual distinction between the two that made an enormous difference for the survival non-Muslim minorities.

Under what is called the Pact of Omar (named after a 7th-century Caliph), there was an arrangement for coexistence with Jews and Christians as respected “People of the Book.” Men or their community paid a progressive tax, or jizya, in exchange for the protection of their families’ lives and property and for their religious rights. They did not have religious freedom, were harshly discriminated against, and were compelled to adhere to Muslim mores in ways would be seen today as flagrant human-rights violations. Yet for 1,300 years, from the Muslim conquest of the region in the 7th century until the mid- 19th, Christianity was practiced and perpetuated in this region under such arrangements.

ISIS has never offered a traditional jizya option to any of these Christians, at any time. Neither protection nor religious rights are assured under the pseudo-caliphate of the Islamic State. Today there is a complete absence anywhere in ISIS-controlled territory of functioning churches, active clergy, and intact Christian communities. As shown below, in the three major areas—Nineveh, Raqqa and Qaryatayn—where ISIS claims to have “offered a jizya option,” the offer has always, within a short time, been followed by the rape, murder, kidnapping, enslavement, and dispossession of Christians—all acts evidencing the crime of genocide.

Nineveh Province, Iraq

On July 17, 2014, twelve days before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his caliphate from Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province, ISIS first raised the jizya issue in Iraq. The group summoned Mosul’s Christian leaders to the city’s civic center purportedly to set out its demands. The Reverend Emanuel Adelkello, a priest with the Syriac Catholic Church (the largest in Northern Iraq) had direct dealings with ISIS on behalf of the Christian community. He wrote to me that the Christian leaders throughout Nineveh consulted among themselves and decided it was a “trap.” Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Moshi wrote that it required too great a leap of faith: They could “never trust Daesh [members] no matter how many good intentions they try to show.”

Reverend Adelkello states they were specifically fearful that ISIS intended to “keep women there so that they could be taken freely by the ISIS fighters [since they] had made public statements that according to the Koran it was their right to take the Christian women as they pleased.” He writes that the Christians also “believed they would likely be killed if they showed up.” None did.

ISIS then broadcasted from mosque loudspeakers an ultimatum to the Christians: Leave by July 19 or face death or forced conversion to Islam. The Archbishop says that ISIS also spread the “lie” that he had signed a jizya agreement with ISIS. He believes this was done to deceive Christians into staying in order to hold them for ransom and sexual abuse.

Virtually all the Christians who could do so fled. In Mosul, ISIS destroyed or shut all 45 churches, confiscated Christian homes—which they had already marked with the red letter “N” for Nazarene—and manned checkpoints to steal possessions and cars from the fleeing Christians. A Sunni imam of Mosul who protested their treatment was killed.

Following an ISIS blitzkrieg, the terror-driven mass exodus of Christians was repeated less than three weeks later throughout the rest of Nineveh Province. ISIS made no further jizya announcements in Iraq. The Holocaust Museum report recounts an interview with one Nineveh Christian man, who said he tried to pay jizya so that he could stay with his businesses but ISIS refused, confiscating his businesses after he fled.

The Commission of Inquiry characterized those Christians who didn’t make it out of Nineveh as having chosen to live under ISIS and pay jizya. The Christians on the scene refute this and describe a dire situation.

Only 25 to 50 Christians, nearly all reported to be elderly or suffering from infirmities that prevented them from making the trek out, remained behind in Mosul. They are now barred from leaving. Church leaders are adamant that these Christians don’t pay jizya; ISIS has robbed them of all their wealth and otherwise fails to protect or respect them.

The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, who was among those deported from Mosul, is categorical in asserting that no Christian community, or even family, remains in Mosul to pay jizya, and disputes Kurdish media reports that families remain in the city and are paying an annual jizya of $170. On May 11, 2016, the Patriarchate said:

There are no more Christian families in Mosul…only a few individuals who were unable to escape…. Fifty disabled Christians are left at a medical facility because they were unable to escape…[and] it has been impossible so far to rescue them. Some Christians abducted by Daesh [ISIS] are still being held, but no family.

Assyrian Iraqi parliamentarian Yonadam Kanna agrees and adds that elderly Christians who stayed were forcibly converted. The Iraqi Chaldean priest Reverend Douglas Bazi, who aids refugees in Erbil, says that one Mosul family with disabled members was told they could remain Christian if each family member paid $8,000, each month, which was so exorbitant they could not exercise the “option.” Other exiled Church leaders report that the Mosul Christians are now destitute, starving and dying from neglect, isolated in their houses. Needless to say, they can’t go to church, since none remains.

When in the first two weeks of August 2014 ISIS stormed the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain, there were several thousand Christians who didn’t evacuate in time and they were shown no mercy.

An unknown number of the very young and very old died during this escape and, in the panic, were left where they fell. Others, ISIS killed outright. Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told me that he spoke with an Iraqi Christian woman, now displaced in Kurdistan, who witnessed jihadists crucifying her husband on their home’s front door. A Sunni tribesman told of the fate of one senior left behind, an 80-year-old Nineveh Christian woman whom ISIS burned alive last year for not following its sharia.

Aggregate numbers have yet to be collected for any ISIS depredations. Nineveh’s Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Amel Nona estimates that a “huge number of Christians” who could not get out when ISIS invaded his diocese were killed. Syriac Catholic Patriarch Younan reported that ISIS killed over 500 Christians, all civilians, but the number could be much higher.

Using a State Department questionnaire from the Darfur genocide, the Knights of Columbus interviewed several hundred (out of 120,000) Christian refugees in Kurdistan. As its March 9, 2016 Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East Report documents, survivors reported that their sons, cousins, fathers, or brothers went missing after being led away by Isis jihadists. Based on relatives’ testimony, KofC lawyer Scott Lloyd says: “Dozens and perhaps hundreds of Christians, mostly men, were demanded as hostages in exchange for their families’ [freedom] to leave. They haven’t been seen since.”

While ISIS’s practice of sexual slavery mostly targeted the Yazidis, Archbishop Moshi states that over 20 Christian girls and women were captured and remain held, despite Church ransom offers of $30,000—far above the slave prices on the ISIS-published list. One was three-year-old Christina, whom, her mother learned from a cell phone call from another captured Christian woman, was sold at a Mosul slave market. In another case, three months after being kidnapped, a daughter called her mother to say that she had been “converted” to Islam and “married” to a Muslim man.

A Christian mother who managed to escape told of horrific abuse at a sex-slave detention center, under the direction of a sheikh who performed “marriages,” in accordance with ISIS’s strict rules. She told Minority Rights Group International:

That night I was married to eight different men and divorced eight times. Each man raped me three or four times. When all this was over, we were taken back to the room where all the girls were being held. They made us walk naked through the big room where all the men were sitting. We were barely able to walk. This scenario was repeated every week—it was like a nightmare.

Author Mindy Belz interviewed several Nineveh Christians escapees. She relates: “One father described being tortured while his wife and two children were threatened after the family refused to deny their faith.” ISIS militants raped the mother and 12-year-old daughter of another family, causing the father, who was forced to watch, to commit suicide. Father Bazi says that many Christian women and girls were raped but are too shamed to reveal it.

Forced conversion to Islam was so prevalent that special ministries were established in Kurdistan to counsel escapees burdened by the guilt. In September 2014, a family of 12 Assyrian Christians who spent a month under ISIS in Bartella reported being robbed, forcibly converted before a sharia court, and put under house arrest for 17 days without food. They told of seeing a badly beaten Assyrian man who refused to convert being bound and driven off in a truck—to be killed, they assumed. In another report, 14 men in a group of 48 Christians who had been held hostage for two weeks converted to Islam after ISIS militants tried to rape the girls, including a 9 year old.

By August 2014, Patriarch Younan had begun pronouncing the Christian situation a “genocide.” Virtually the entire Christian population, and every trace of its unique 2,000-year-old civilization, has been eradicated from the ISIS-controlled Nineveh Province, the historic homeland of Iraqi Christianity. The vast majority of Nineveh’s Christians—like the vast majority of Yazidis—has been completely dispossessed and driven from their homes into Kurdistan or across the borders.

Raqqa and Qaryatayn, Syria

Raqqa is upheld as the prime example of an ISIS-controlled area implementing a jizya arrangement with Christians, due to a dhimmi contract posted on the Internet in February 2014 that set out the purported jizya terms. But, as evidenced by the blurred-out signatures of some 20 Raqqa Christians at the bottom, only a few dozen Christians had survived the prior seven months of ISIS occupation and al-Nusra’s before that. As in Mosul, when ISIS raised the jizya issue, the Christian community was already virtually extinct. Their numbers have dwindled since, and now the dozen or so left are all elderly, held as captives, and used as human shields.

The dhimmi document presumed the existence of churches with its detailed list of forbidden things to do involving them: bans against ringing bells, displaying crosses, and making repairs. Yet ISIS had destroyed all the churches and none was open. The last cleric left when ISIS arrived. It is in Raqqa where the Italian Jesuit Reverend Paolo Dall’Oglio was presumably murdered by jihadis the year before.

The State Department’s former counterterrorism expert Ambassador Alberto Fernandez describes the Raqqa jizya document as essentially a pathetic “Salafi Caliphate publicity stunt”:

[T]here are no images whatsoever of what could be described as normal Christian life in ISIS-controlled territory—no functioning churches, no monasteries or working priests, and no Christian families or Christian schools—all of which had existed throughout Islamic history.

Reports in spring 2016 state that the few remaining Christians were under house arrest. Voice of America mentions the dhimmi contract but then states:

IS has also confiscated their land and used them as human shields to deter international coalition and Syrian warplanes from hitting its positions in Raqqa and elsewhere.

Fernandez explains that ISIS’s leader raised the jizya issue in Raqqa to appear more “Caliph-like.”

The pact seems more aspirational, and more about preparing the stage for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s assuming the mantle of the Caliph, which happened only four months later, than a real document regulating the life of an actual community. Just as the Caliph Omar in the 7th century produced an agreement to regulate the life of a protected minority, so would the Caliph-in-Waiting do the same. The only thing missing were actual Christians.

The respected outlet “Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered” that monitors ISIS in its “capital” also repeats the jizya terms but makes clear that these payments did not spare the city’s Christian minority from ISIS’s brutal bigotry. “Christians are the most vulnerable group in the country,” observes the group’s Hussam Issa.

John was a college-age Christian whose family agreed to the "jizya" arrangement. He related that he survived for 18 months by carrying an official ISIS protection document obtained by extortion payments, which, using ISIS’s terminology, he called "jizya." John described living in “constant fear,” forced to conform to ISIS haircut and dress codes and behavior rules. While he was able to meet socially with other Christians, he was unable to go to church or receive the sacraments. He relates how he once watched a street demonstration with crowds shouting “Allahu Akbar”: “But when an IS [Islamic State] man saw me being silent, he stopped the car. I had to say ‘Allahu Akbar’ too.” He made his secret escape one night in early 2016—the last young Christian to leave.

Raqqa’s female Christians faced an even tougher fate. ISIS defectors report that the rape of Christian “infidels” was common and approved by the ISIS sharia court. Some were girls as young as 12 years old.

The touted Raqqa "jizya" arrangement proved to be a deception. Last October, ISIS made a similar propaganda show in Qaryatayn. ISIS’s publicity campaign surrounding the dhimmi contract signing there was extensive, as detailed by MEMRI. In an ISIS video of the signing, the narrator proclaims:

The Caliph of the Muslims displayed kindness and generosity, and agreed to accept their jizya tax, and to allow them to live under the rule of the Caliphate as part of the dhimma contract.”

There, too, ISIS claims were false.

That fall, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Jean Kawak attested that the Qaryatayn Christians were being “treated like slaves.” He said they were held there against their will. The facts revealed in April 2016, after the town’s liberation, support those assessments.

As reported by Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, the 300 Christians remaining in the city after ISIS captured it were immediately subjected to abuse and violence by the jihadists. He said 21 were killed trying to escape, or refusing to convert to Islam or submit to the “caliphate’s” rules.

In October 2015, with Muslims’ help, Qaryatayn’s Christians set up an underground railroad and began escaping in small groups to Homs. They sent out the young girls first after being warned that jihadi leaders desired them as “wives.” Their priest Jacques Mourad was imprisoned and tortured and the town’s 5th-century Mar Elian monastery and churches were demolished. The bishops continue to try to ransom a group of the town’s Christians, whom ISIS imprisoned elsewhere last fall.


The Commission takes ISIS propaganda at face value and asserts, without evidence, that “Christian communities” are living under ISIS today and paying jizya. It mistakenly credits the terror group with making an exception from its standard ultra-violence for the Christian minority, out of respect for “People of the Book,” and seeking to coexist with them through traditional jizya arrangements. It accepts as fact that ISIS does not intend to destroy the Christian community. It offers unfounded reassurances that ISIS attacks against “vulnerable” Christians are not religiously motivated. And its unsupported summary conclusion, laden with such false premises, precludes any finding that ISIS is waging genocide against Middle Eastern Christians. It only refrained from repeating the ISIS video’s praise of al Baghdadi’s “kindness and generosity.”

In truth, there is a complete absence of intact Christian communities in ISIS territory, which is prima facie evidence that there was no jizya option for the Christians. Testimony and reports from the Christian survivors and their clergy confirm this.

What ISIS refers to as "jizya" is extortion and ransom from a few disabled or elderly individuals, and others who did not escape in time. Those who did not escape have been killed or forced to become jihadi “brides,” human shields, slaves, hostages, or Muslims against their will. They are barred from practicing their Christian faith.

ISIS not only intends to destroy the Christian communities under its control, it has done so, and should be held accountable for the genocide against the Christians, as well as for that against the Yazidis. The Commission of Inquiry needs to answer why, in its conclusion on the Christians, it obscured the dangerous ideology of the Islamic State and served as an echo chamber for its propaganda.