ISIL turned churches into prisons but now they are coming back to life and Santa Claus is working overtime
Santa Claus helps Raqqa to begin healing
For years, the name Raqqa has been associated with horror and death. Nothing good came out of Raqqa after ISIL occupied the Syrian city in 2013 and declared it the capital of their so-called caliphate.
But since liberation in October, different images.: Santa Claus - two of them, in fact - walking among the ruins, ringing bells and handing out toys to the children. Indeed, Santa Claus is working overtime in Raqqa this year, staying for several more days into the new year.
His prolonged visit was organised by Action on Behalf of Persecuted Christians, or AVC, a worldwide Christian organisation, with the help of Sout Al Raqqa radio station.
"There's a lot to accomplish before life can get back to normal but we wanted to send a message to the world and to the people here that terrorism has ended in this town and the black colour that took over their surroundings is gone for good," said Stair Joly, a Kurdish Syrian activist who, with several colleagues from Raqqa's cultural scene, organises children's events such as face-painting, art sessions and rides..
Local Christians lead prayers and singing , always emphasising peaceful co-existence. Santa Claus gives presents to all the children he meets, whatever their faith.
Raqqa has two Armenian Catholic Churches but today they are unrecognisable. In 2014 ISIL turned one of the churches into a prison and warehouse. The militants burned all the crosses, bibles and books and then dug tunnels underground so they could move around undetected.
Najat Mathla, coordinator of AVC international, said, " ISIL persecuted everyone and destroyed mosques as well as churches. Our purpose now is to try and take the horror from inside the people and to rebuild everything we can. When we distribute toys and candy to the children, we can see the joy on people's faces."
As they retreated, ISIL planted booby-traps all around the churches. but they are being de-mined and will "come back to life again," said Ms Mathla.
Not everyone appreciates the efforts to bring some cheer to Raqqa. Mohammed Haj Saleh, a writer from Raqqa said, "The city needs a better approach than just Santa Claus walking down the streets. People here have been removed from their towns and cities. Let them first remove the bodies from under the rubble.”
Mr Joly agrees it will take more than Santa Claus on an extended visit to restore Raqqa, but added, “The war has ended and now it’s time to rebuild this city. We hope we regain all the happiness and colour this city used to have when people from all different backgrounds and religions lived and celebrated together. This year was just a start.”