Although Raqqa’s Christians residents have fled, Christmas was still celebrated in the city as Christian believers who helped liberate the city from ISIS gathered together in the ruined remains of the Church of the Martyrs to celebrate. Although no priest was present, hymns were sung as the congregants gathered together to worship the Lord. Raqqa was once the capitol of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, and Christmas service there was impossible under there rule. Having a Christmas service in Raqqa was a powerful statement that the faith of Middle Eastern Christians remain strong despite the intense persecution suffered at the hands of ISIS.
12/28/17 Syria (The Straits Times) – Amid the grey ruins of Syria’s devastated city of Raqa, three boys stopped and stared as two Father Christmases walked by with black sacks slung over their backs.
The two men in red outfits and fake white beards rang their bells as they marched through the war-ravaged city on Tuesday (Dec 27), much to the disbelief of a dozen residents following them.
Not since 2013, when war came to their northern city, had they seen such a parade.
In 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group seized Raqa, making it their de facto Syrian capital and imposing its strict interpretation of Islam on everyone.
Leaning on a handcart loaded with electrical cables, the boys grinned as they watched the Santas make their way through streets strewn with rubble and twisted metal.
US-backed forces expelled the militants in October after a months-long battle.
Stopping by what remains of an Armenian Catholic church in the city centre, the Father Christmases handed out toy cars and dolls to those few families present.
After they left, a boy came running.
“Where’s Father Christmas?” he asked. “I wanted to see him.”
Most Christians fled after ISIS arrived to avoid the choices offered by the militants – converting, paying a tax or death.
The Church of the Martyrs has been reduced to a concrete shell and rubble, but it was more than enough on Tuesday for the city’s first Christmas in years.
Dozens of people – mostly Muslims – milled around inside, curious to see the celebrations put on by the US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance that had ousted ISIS.
There was no priest and the only congregants were Christian members of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Loudspeakers belted out hymns as some set up a large wooden cross on a pile of rubble, near a Christmas tree decorated with red and yellow balls.
“There are no words to describe how we feel right now,” said Christian SDF member Harou Aram.