AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Militant fighters should not impose an Islamic tax on Christians in Syria, a radical Jordanian preacher facing terrorism charges said Thursday, days after an al-Qaida breakaway group in Syria claimed Christian leaders under its control agreed to pay the tax in return for protection.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant said in a document that its first "Aqed al-Thima," Arabic for protection pact, was reached in a meeting last Thursday with 20 Christian leaders in the northern province of Raqqa, a bastion for the Islamic State.
The authenticity of the two-page document circulating online since Wednesday could not be independently verified, but such issues have stoked fears in Syria's Christian minority community that they are being targeted by extremists among the fighters seeking to oust President Bashar Assad.
The document bore a stamp the group uses in other statements posted on militant websites and the signature of 20 people it said were the Christian leaders. The signatures were blotted out on the request of the signers, according to the document, and were signed by a representative of its leader, called the emir.
It said the Christian leaders opted for paying the tax when they were asked to choose one of three options: convert to Islam, remain Christian and pay the tax or "refuse and be considered warriors who will be confronted with the sword of the Islamic State."
Abu Qatada, the radical Jordanian preacher deported from Britain who is on trial for terrorism charges at home, said Syria's militants should not collect the tax.
"They can't promise full protection to Christians because they are in a state of war and not in full control of the areas they are in," he said. "Therefore, the conditions for them to pay for a Muslim state is not fulfilled and any agreement based on that is null and void."
The 52-year-old cleric, who is described as a senior al-Qaida figure in Europe with ties to the late Osama bin Laden, made the comments to reporters during a break in his trial on Thursday.
Syria's minorities, including Christians, mostly have sided with Assad or remained neutral in Syria's civil war, which is into its third year. They fear for their fate if the rebels, increasingly dominated by Islamic extremists, come to power. Christians as well as human rights groups have accused radicals among the rebels of abusing residents and vandalizing churches after taking Christian towns.
Al-Qaida-linked militants, who seized control of Raqqa last March, have set fires to churches and knocked crosses off them, replacing them with the group's black Islamic banner.
Islamic extremists among opposition fighters also have abducted 12 nuns, two bishops and a priest.
Before the Islamic State takeover, Christians made up about 10 percent of Raqqa's 500,000 inhabitants. Most have fled since.
Under the strict Islamic Sharia doctrine, non-Muslims living under the sovereignty of a Muslim caliphate-style state must pay a special tax — known as the "Jizyah" — in return for the ruler's protection, known as Thima.
The Islamic State document said the tax could be paid in two annual installments by all "adult" Christians in Raqaa.
It set the amount to be levied from the rich at "four golden dinars," saying each is worth 4.25 grams (0.15 ounce). It said the middle class would pay half the rich, while the poor would pay only "one golden dinar."
In return for the ruler's protection, the Christian leaders agreed to 12 other conditions, which include refraining from refurbishing churches or monasteries in Raqqa, holding back all religious symbols, such as displaying crosses in public or using loudspeakers in prayer, adhering to a "modest" dress code and refraining from trading in pork meat and alcohol and drinking it in public.
"If they adhere to these conditions, they will be close to God and receive the protection of Muhammad, his prophet," the document said.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.