August 20, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1112

The Islamic State's Treatment Of Christians

August 20, 2014 | By M. Khayat*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1112


Since its seizure of large areas in Iraq and its proclamation of a caliphate, the Islamic State (IS) has stepped up its efforts to enforce the Islamic shari'a in the areas under its control. In Mosul in the Ninawa (Ninveh) Governorate, Iraq's oldest and second-largest city, Christians fled their homes after the IS gave them three days to leave the caliphate's territory. According to the IS, it issued this order after the heads of the Christian community in the city refused a summons to discuss their status and respond to the organization's demand that they either convert to Islam, pay the jizya (poll tax), or "face the sword." The Christians' exodus from the city, which has 13 churches and monasteries, is said to be the first case in Iraq's history where an entire Christian community has fled en masse. Reports also claim that the IS has burned down an ancient church in Mosul,[1] and that its men have seized Christians' property, sometimes with the cooperation of their Muslim neighbors. Other sources report that churches in the city have been converted to mosques.[2]

Mosul church on fire (image:, July 19, 2014)

It should be mentioned that, in Syria, Christians living in IS-controlled have not been expelled, but have been forced to pay the jizya tax. In February 2014, the IS signed a "dhimma agreement" with the Christians of Al-Raqqa, under which it undertook to protect them and their property in return for their paying the jizya and complying with various restrictions. According to reports, each Christian is required to pay between $178 and $715 annually, depending on income.

Responding to the events in Mosul on social media, IS supporters defended the organization's treatment of the Christians, offering religious and political justifications for expelling them from the IS’s territory. One even said that the presence of Christians in Iraq is undesirable, just as the presence of Jews in Germany and Poland was undesirable during World War II.[3]

The following is a review of the IS's treatment of the Christians under its rule in Iraq and Syria, and of statements made about this issue by the organization and its supporters:

IS Expels Mosul Christians

The IS issued its three-day ultimatum to the Christians on July 17, 2014, and clarified that its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was being generous in allowing them even this much time.[4] According to reports, the city's Christians fled en masse, many of them to the neighboring autonomous region of Kurdistan.[5] Sara Yousef, a Christian from Mosul who was forced to flee with her family to the nearby town of Ankawa (near Irbil), said that Muslims from her neighborhood had led the IS to their house. Other Christians report that the IS seized their money, possessions, passports, and in one case even the medication of a sick young girl, and then sent them scurrying from the city on foot.[6] The IS has reportedly been transferring stolen Christian property from Mosul to its Syrian stronghold in Al-Raqqa, ostensibly in order to redress inequality between the people living under its rule in Syria and Iraq.[7]

There were also reports of attacks on Christian holy sites; according to, the IS burned an ancient church in Mosul.[8] In the Al-Khadhir area southeast of Mosul, IS reportedly took over the Mar Behnam monastery, driving out the monks, who were eventually picked up 10 kilometers away by a Peshmerga patrol unit.[9]

In the city of Sinjar in the Ninawa Governorate, IS fighters reportedly placed the organization's flag on top of a church. [10]

IS fighters place their flag on a Sinjar church

It has also been reported that, in the city of Tel Afar west of Mosul, the IS captured 100 Christian and Yazidi[11] families, killed the men, and then sold the women and girls as slaves.[12]

Christian Homes In Mosul Branded "Property Of The Islamic State"

Prior to the expulsion, IS marked the homes and properties of Christians with the Arabic letter N for Nasara ("Christian") and the text "Property of the Islamic State." [13], July 17, 2014

Meelad_Qaseera, July 18, 2014

IS Levies Jizya On Al-Raqqa Christians After Signing "Dhimma Agreement" With Them

In Syria, where the IS controls large parts of the Al-Raqqa Governorate, Christians apparently cooperated with the organization and thus avoided expulsion from their homes. In February 2014, the IS reported that the city's Christians had accepted the dhimma (protection) laws and signed a "dhimma agreement". Under the agreement, the Christians' lives, property and places of worship are protected, but they are required to pay jizya and are subjected to many restrictions, including a ban on building new churches or rebuilding damaged ones, ringing church bells, displaying crosses and religious texts, reading religious texts out loud in the presence of Muslims and making any display of worship outside a church, and carrying weapons. They are also forbidden to prevent any member of their community from converting to Islam, and are required to honor Islam and Muslims and to refrain from offending them in any way. The agreement states that, if they violate these terms, they will be treated as enemies, and that Christians who have fled Al-Raqqa may return only if they convert to Islam or accept the conditions of dhimma; otherwise they will face war.[14]

Dhimma Agreement between IS and Al-Raqqa Christians

IS Supporters Campaign For Imposing Jizya

Following the events in Mosul, IS supporters online began campaigning for the imposing of the jizya upon Christians. The Al-Battar Media Foundation, associated with the pro-IS jihadi forum Shumoukh Al-Islam, released a poster in Arabic (which was later translated into English)[15] explaining the meaning of the dhimma agreement and of the jizya tax, and detailing the sums of money Christians must pay each year., July 21, 2014

Below are excerpts from the English-language poster:

The Nature Of The Dhimma Agreement:

"It is a material proof of non-Muslims' acceptance to subjection to the state and its laws, it's contracted by the Imam or the one he has delegated."

Who Is Bound By The Agreement:

"They are the people who pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued, from the people of the book i.e. the Jews and Christians."

Amount Of Jizya Tax To Be Paid:

"[The amount] is determined by the Imam or the one he has delegated, in accordance with poverty and opulence, from gold, silver or money. One of the examples is what the caliph of the Muslims, [IS leader] Imam Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi – May Allah protect him – obliges on the Christians of [Al-]Raqqa..."

The poster gives the sums as following: the wealthy must pay "4 Dinars from the fine gold," or about $715 annually; people with average income must pay "2 Dinars," or about $375; and the poor must pay "[One] Dinar," or about $178.

The issue of jizya also triggered some criticism of the IS from jihad supporters. Though jihadis generally support the levying of jizya on non-Muslims (since it is part of shari'a law), some members of the Al-Fida forum, which in recent months has allowed considerable criticism of the IS to appear on it, questioned the timing of the IS's introduction of the tax, suggesting that it may be premature, especially since organization has not yet achieved full tamkeen (i.e., the ability to exercise total power over its territory).[16] For example, a forum member calling himself "Al-Somali" wrote: "The Islamic State's haste in this matter [i.e. the enforcement of jizya] came at the wrong time, and is considered a mistake and an ill-considered move, carried out without planning or a goal, which may even reflect [poorly] on the statehood of the [Islamic] State in the near future."[17]

Sheikh Hussein Bin Mahmoud: Allah Decreed That Christians Be Humiliated; The Christians’ Flight Is Result Of Conspiracy Against The Islamic State

Responding to the uproar sparked by the IS’s actions, Sheikh Hussein bin Mahmoud, a prominent writer on jihadi forums, wrote an article in support of the IS's enforcement of the jizya and expulsion of the Christians from Mosul. He argued that, since Mosul's Christians were living under the IS's rule, they were obliged to pay the jizya, and expressed surprise that some Muslim scholars opposed this: "We thought that the [Muslim] ummah would be overjoyed at the revival of a legitimate tradition that had disappeared for decades [i.e., the imposing of the jizya on non-Muslims]… but we were surprised that some people of [Islamic] knowledge[18] denied the mujahideen [their right to] impose the jizya upon the people of dhimma."

To emphasize the legitimacy of the jizya, bin Mahmoud quoted the "jizya verse" (Koran 9:29) – "Fight against those who believe not in Allah... among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), until they pay the jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued" – and added: "This is a clear divine text [that is] seen by anyone reading the Koran. So can a Muslim object to the imposing of the jizya on Christians...?!" He pointed out that the Prophet Muhammad and all caliphs that succeeded him had collected jizya, and concluded that all Muslims opposing this tax should be regarded as apostates.

Bin Mahmoud added that the Mosul Christians' refusal to pay the tax, and their subsequent flight from the city, were part of a conspiracy by the enemies of Islam intended to trigger a regional and international outcry against the IS: "What the Islamic State did to those Christians is [only] a small portion of what [the Muslims] must do to the unbelievers. The [Islamic] State [actually] spoke with the Christians and their priests, and [they] agreed to pay the jizya, [but] some of the enemies of Islam persuaded those priests not to pay the jizya and to leave their homes, in order to spark an outcry in the Arab and international media against the [Islamic] State…"

He also claimed that the tax was lenient and was for the Christians' own good: "[It was only] $80, which is a tiny portion of what they paid [in taxes] to the Rafidites [i.e., the Shi'ite Iraqi authorities]. Moreover, it is [levied] in return for their own safety and protection, which they did not have under the Rafidites' rule. [Therefore,] it is to the benefit of those Christians to live under the [Islamic] State's rule in safety. But the hatred and jealousy of some of them, and their hostility towards Islam, was a barrier [that prevented them from seeing this]. Therefore, those Christians destroyed their homes with their [own] hands and by the hands of the believers [i.e. Muslims], so their homes and money became booty for the Muslims…"

He explained further: "The [state of] degradation that Allah imposed upon the people of dhimma is due to their unbelief. The unbeliever is lowly and despicable, and must be treated as such. This does not mean that the non-combatants [among them] should be treated unjustly…"

Sheikh Ahmad Bawadi: The Christians Of Mosul Were Rightly Punished For Refusing The Tax

Another sheikh, Ahmad Bawadi, who is very active on his blog ( and Twitter account (@a_bawadi), likewise wrote in an article that the Christians of Mosul deserved being punished for refusing to pay the jizya tax. He added that determining what punishment they deserved was a matter of ijtihad, namely independent jurisprudential reasoning, so Muslim clerics had no basis for criticizing the IS for the specific punishment it decided on: "It is improper for any of the preachers to cite episodes and events from [Muslim] history [where] Christians or Jews were treated by the caliphs according to the norms of that era, and [then try to] apply this to [the present] reality, since... what was proper in that era might not be proper now, and vice versa. [Therefore] the matter of the punishment of those rebelling [Christians, who] opposed paying the jizya, is an ijtihadi one, for the caliph to decide as he sees fit, as long as it [i.e. caliph's ruling] does not clash with any of principles and duties of Islam…"

*M. Khayat is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1], July 19, 2014.

[2], July 22, 2014.

[3], July 22, 2014.

[5], July 18, 2014;, July 18, 2014.

[6], July 25, 2014.

[7] (Iraq), August 5, 2014.

[8], July 19, 2014.

[9], July 21, 2014.


2207520000.1407263199./742477895798303/?type=1&theater, accessed August 5, 2014.

[11] The Yazidis are members of an ancient religion related to Zoroastrianism.

[12] (Iraq), August 5, 2014.

[13], July 17, 2014.

[16] The issue of tamkeen has also been brought up in the larger context of the IS's decision to proclaim a caliphate and appoint a caliph.

[17], July 27, 2014.

[18] Bin Mahmoud may be referring to Saudi clerics Dr. Khalid Al-Mosleh and Dr. Walid Al-Huweirini, both of whom denounced the expelling of the Mosul Christians.

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