BEIRUT—Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) set fire to an Armenian church in Tal Abyad on Syria's northern border with Turkey before dawn on Tuesday, activists and a human rights watchdog said.
"ISIS set fire to the Armenian church in the city of Tal Abyad. They also forcibly took down the cross from the church building," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, strongly condemning the attack.
Raqqa fell from regime control in March, a moment of hope for local activists–including Christians. But in recent months, Al-Qaeda branch ISIS has grown increasingly brash, raising their flag over the Armenian church and torching the Catholic one–a telling prelude to Tuesday's attack.
The Britain-based watchdog, which has tracked rights violations throughout the conflict, pointed out that the Syria al-Qaida branch previously "desecrated both the Armenian and the Roman Catholic churches in Raqqa city, forcibly taking down the crosses, sculptures and artwork and burning them."
Video footage posted to YouTube by local media activists showed the inner walls of the church foyer charred black and smoke emanating from inside. The structure was still intact.
The Twitter account Rabia Jihad (Jihadi Spring), known as a reliable source for ISIS news, said that ISIS had broken the cross of Tal Abyad church and seized the building after its congregants had "failed to adhere to their compact of dhimma."
In Islam, dhimma are the terms that can be imposed on non-Muslim religious communities. These may include payment of jizya, a tax collected in return for security.
Jimmy Shahinian, an opposition activist from Raqqa city, said that the Tal Abyad Armenian community had dwindled to only a few impoverished families. The church complex itself was being used to house refugees at the time of the attack.
"The Armenian school, which is attached to the church, was being used as a shelter for three displaced Muslim families. Now they have no place to live," Shahinian said.
While the Christian communities of Tal Abyad and Raqqa city are tiny, activists and analysts said that does not preclude extremist groups from asserting their dominance and sending a message to the broader society.
"This is a classic ISIS message of Islamic supremacy," said analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi.
"In Iraq, the [Islamic State] would demand the jizya tax on Christians. They would extort money from most businesses and any churches in the town. If a bishop refused for his congregation to pay, he's kidnapped and killed.
"When you have a marginal Christian presence, almost unseen, then you move on to asserting Islamic supremacy by desecrating a church, or raising your flag," he said.
Reckless Sectarianism Goes Unchecked
In better days, Raqqa activists paused during a city cleanup for a photo at the Armenian church. The tolerance of the local civil society contrasts sharply with the recent actions of the foreign-dominated ISIS.
The brash, sectarian attacks on Christians have set ISIS apart from other rebel factions. Even Jabhat al-Nusra, the fellow al-Qaida affiliate from which ISIS split, has distanced itself from attacks on Christians.
According to Tamimi, ISIS has lost any reservations about sectarian attacks since the local Syrian leader of al-Nusra broke ties with them in July.
"When Abu Saad al-Hadrami declared allegiance to ISIS … his status translated into a degree of restraint on the part of ISIS. Thus the churches were still protected in Raqqa while he was in command. After he defected, ISIS behavior became increasingly harsh, leading to more arrests of local rivals culminating in the clashes with Ahfad al-Rasoul in August and the desecration of two churches in Raqqa in September.
"Both groups are quite happy to target Alawites, but you don't see al-Nusra rhetoric targeting Christians," said Tamimi. "But knowing the roots of ISIS and how many times they bombed churches in Iraq, it is no surprise they regard Christian symbols as something to be destroyed."
When Jabhat al-Nusra entered the ancient Christian town of Maloula in September, a directive from its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, was circulated, outlining a code of conduct to abide by when dealing with Christians in rebel-held territories.
"No crosses shall be broken and there shall be no violation of Christian holy sites. No Christians shall be abused, unless they are fighters, who shall be treated as enemy combatants," read the statement.
Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist fighting force that controls the gates to the town, distributed food baskets to local Armenians and Christians in August. Activists said the charity was intended to "prove to the world that this revolution is for all Syrians."
In the wake of the church attack, the Hamza Battalion—the sole Free Syrian Army force in Tal Abyad—quickly issued this statement following reports that the arsonists had used one of their vehicles:
"Christians are our brothers and have the same rights as other citizens … We ask anyone with information on this incident to inform us, and we, God willing, will bring them to justice," it said.
But while the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham movement holds sway in Tal Abyad, bolstered by alliances with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Hamza Battalion, none are interested in picking a fight with ISIS, despite differences in ideology.
Tamimi noted that even the insignia of the Hamza Battalion, which is affiliated with the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, features both the three-starred flag of the revolution and the black jihadist flag. "It's like playing it both ways," he said.
"Part of the reason tensions are not big between these local Tal Abyad battalions and ISIS is because of the common enemy of the YPG. The Kurdish militias were expelled in August and confined to the rural peripheries, but they're still trying to get rid of them," he said.
Tamimi said that while al-Nusra had made veiled references to the abuse of its banner when it returned to ISIS-dominated Raqqa city in September, there was no explicit criticism of its fellow al-Qaida affiliate.
Shahinian says an atmosphere of fear reigns in ISIS strongholds, where the group has employed violence, kidnappings and intimidation to sideline opposition activists, journalists and even other rebel factions.
"No one likes ISIS, not the civilians, or the activists, or the FSA, or even Jabhat [al-Nusra], but no one wants a problem with them either," the activist said.