Syrian rebels have looted and burned minority religious sites in Northern Syria, US-based Human Rights Watch says. The attacks highlight the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict as the bloodshed continues unabated.
The three incidents took place in November and December of last year in religiously mixed areas.
Rebels looted two Christian churches in separate villages in the relatively peaceful western governorate of Latakia, local witnesses told the rights watchdog.
They also destroyed a Shiite ‘husseiniya’ – a religious site devoted to Hussein, a martyr in Shiite tradition – in Idlib governorate.
In all three cases, Human Rights Watch found evidence showing the attacks on the religious sites were directly connected to the areas coming under the control of the armed rebels.
After rebels took control of Jdeideh village in Latakia on December 11, a local resident told the group gunmen broke into and stole from the church, letting off multiple rounds inside which caused structural damage. Damage to the sealed-off church, including broken windows and evidence of forced entry, were observed by the group a week after the attack.
The priests’ quarters next to the church were also appropriated by rebel gunmen, who used it as a base to fire upon government forces in a neighboring village. A resident said medicine had been stolen from a clinic belonging to the church, homes had been looted and civilians were kidnapped, at times for ransom.
In the village of Ghasaniyeh, gunmen broke into another church, stealing gas and diesel fuel in late November. A cross had been left on the floor, but apart from the forced entry, no other damaged was observed.
"While the motivation for the church break-ins may have been theft rather than a religious attack, opposition fighters have a responsibility to protect religious sites in areas under their control from willful damage and theft," Human Rights Watch said.
The destruction of the Shia holy site was carried out on December 11 after rebels took control of Zarzour village.
A video published on YouTube the following day purportedly showed armed rebel celebrating the expulsion of government forces from the village as a fire rages in the Shia mosque.
One rebel, identifying himself as a member of the Amr bin Ma’ad Yakrib al-Zubaydi Brigade, proclaims the "destruction of the dens of the Shiites and Rafida," a derogatory term used against the Muslim denomination.
Rebel fighters claimed government forces torched the mosque before leaving, but two local residents said anti-government forces set the fire upon seizing the town.
Human Rights Watch independently confirmed that the damage to the site had been deliberate, lending credence to the video’s authenticity. The investigators witnessed that the windows at the site had been shattered, prayer stones were strewn across the floor, religious posters had been ripped off the walls, and charred items lay in a pile on the floor, indicating “they were piled on top of one another and deliberately set on fire.”
“The destruction of religious sites is furthering sectarian fears and compounding the tragedies of the country, with tens of thousands killed,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“Syria will lose its rich cultural and religious diversity if armed groups do not respect places of worship. Leaders on both sides should send a message that those who attack these sites will be held accountable,” she continued.
Multiple reports of attacks on minority religious sites have surfaced in Syria as the armed conflict to out Syrian President Bashar Assad has killed more than 60,000 people and driven over 650,000 out of the country, according to UN estimates.
The 22-month-old rebellion has taken on increasingly sectarian dimensions, as primarily Sunni Muslim rebels have battled pro-government Alawites – an offshoot of Shiite Islam – and many Christians who link their survival to that of the Assad government.
Christians have increasingly viewed the current government as a guarantor of their religious freedoms. Religious persecution faced by Egyptian and Iraqi Christians in the wake of regime change has only increased fears that religiously tolerant Syria will be transformed by Islamist elements of the opposition.
Such sentiments have put them in the crosshairs of rebel fighters.
In August, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported a massacre in nearby Jandar village which left 16 civilians, mostly Alawites and Christians, dead.
In June, at least 9,000 Christians from the western Syrian city of Qusayr neighboring Homs were reportedly forced to seek refuge after an ultimatum from a local military chief of the armed opposition.
In March, sources inside the Syrian Orthodox Church have claimed the systematic “ethnic cleansing of Christians" by the Free Syrian Army was taking place in Homs.
A letter sent to Agenzia Fides – the Vatican’s press agency – by Orthodox sources in Syria said that “Militant armed Islamists…have managed to expel 90 per cent of Christians in Homs and confiscated their homes by force.”
Agnes Mariam, a local Christian leader in Syria, told RT in September that the persecution of Christians was a reflection of how their faith had excluded them from Islamist elements within the opposition.
“The Christians have been discriminated against not because they are Christians, but because by being Christians they couldn’t participate in Islamist demonstrations. Sometimes, this led to severe violence against them. You know, we had more than 200,000 Christians that had to flee out [of Syria] because of this ambiguous position.”