Churches and mausoleums destroyed as religious tensions mount in Syria

Screen grab of a Human Rights Watch video showing a ransacked church in a village in Lattakia.
 
Syrian rebel groups have been accused of destroying religious sites in the north of the country over the past few months - incidents which have sparked concern for various religious denominations caught up in the Syrian conflict. Shiite and Christian Observers describe the fear in which they live.
 
Two churches were stormed and ransacked in the villages of Ghasaniyeh and Jdeideh (in the region of Lattakia) in November and December 2012, according to Human Rights Watch. According to statements from witnesses, the attacks happened after the villages fell into the hands of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
 
In Zarzour, a village in the state of Idlib, a Shiite mausoleum was torched in December. According to witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch, the rebels apparently set the mausoleum alight on purpose.
 
In these three villages, religious minorities have fled in high numbers. In Zarzour, which is a majority Sunni village, the Shiites left for fear of being targeted by the rebels who accuse them of supporting the regime.
 
Human Rights Watch has urged the Free Syrian Army to protect places of worship and religious minorities in Syria, and warned against raising religious sectarianism.
 
A number of amateur videos show places of worship being destroyed.
 
This video shows rebel soldiers from the Free Syrian Army celebrating the capture of the village Zarzour, in the Idlib area, while in the background a Shiite mosque is burning.
 
In these images posted on YouTube, we see a man destroying the minaret of a Shiite mausoleum. We hear someone ask him “are you Shiite? Go on, destroy it. But be careful that it doesn’t fall on your head.” The man then says he wants to build a mosque in its place. These images were reportedly filmed in Zarzour.
 
Numerous churches have also been destroyed by regime bombing in rebel-held areas, notably in the region of Homs. The soldiers do not hesitate to target religious sites when they suspect rebels have taken refuge there.
 
Sunni places of worship are not immune to the war either. In September 2012, we published this video, which shows the minaret of a Sunni mosque in the centre of Aleppo collapse during an attack from the Syrian state army.
 
Syria is comprised of several religious and ethnic communities. Since 1971, the country has been ruled by the Assad family, themselves members of the Alawite minority - a branch of Shiism which represents 10 percent of the Syrian population. The country is also home to Kurdish, Christian Druze and Shiite minorities.
 
Video from Human Rights Watch showing a church stormed in a village controlled by the Free Syrian Army in the Lattakia area.
 
It is very difficult to talk to Christian and Shiite witnesses in Syria because they fear the repercussions of speaking out. Since the beginning of the revolt, the opposition has denied the existence of tensions between the different religious communities, while the regime has warned of an ethnic and religious divide. It has emerged that Jihadist Sunnis are operating in the country.

“They don’t understand why we want to remain neutral”

George B., 25, lived in the province of Homs, but had to seek exile in another region of the country.
  
We haven’t directly encountered any pressure because of our Christianity. But I can confirm that the Christian community feels targeted and in danger. We often heard slogans like “Those who aren’t with us are against us”.
 
“Some neighbours were forced to leave and threatened with guns”
 
After we left, we heard that Christian families in our town, neighbours of ours, had been forced to leave and threatened with guns. They said to them, “Either you fight with us or you support the revolution financially – or you leave”.
 
I don’t think anyone knows who is behind the church bombings. Three quarters of Homs is destroyed. Both sides are bombing. The fighting is incessant there.
 
We had a very good relationship with the Sunnites before the conflict. There were even real friendships. I cannot say that today our relationship with Sunni families are bad, but we have been left out in the cold because of the revolution. The majority of them are for it and don’t understand that lots of Christians want to remain neutral because they’re scared.
 

“I don’t dare go to Aleppo anymore because I am Alawite”

Fateh Jamous is a communist activist who is Alawite. He lives in Lattakia.
  
I am supposed to go to Aleppo regularly for my political activities. As I am Alawite, I haven’t dared go in a few months because Islamist groups have erected barriers on the road from Lattakia to Aleppo. And they wouldn’t hesitate beating up Christians and Alawites. They believe we are in favour of the regime just because of our religious beliefs [Editor’s Note: Syrian identity cards carry information about an individual’s religion]. A few weeks ago, they stopped a bus carrying teachers and kidnapped all the Christians and Alawites. They then contacted their families and demanded a ransom.
 
Most villages found on the fringe of the Lattakia area are in the hands of armed groups. I’ve met people who live in the Christian village of Al-Qasab who had come to seek refuge in Lattakia. They told me that when the rebels arrived two months ago, their priest was beaten up, the church was ransacked and the cross was thrown to the floor. Even their houses had, according to them, been ransacked. A few of them were punished because the armed group thought they were agents being paid by the regime, without having any proof.
 
 
“Thousands of Sunni families came to seek refuge in Lattakia”
 
For now, there are no tensions between civilians here in Lattakia. There are lots of Sunni families from the Aleppo area who have come to seek refuge in Lattakia, the majority of them Alawite.
 
 
 

“My father was kidnapped because he’s Shiite”

Humma lives in Noubl, a Shiite village in the suburbs of Aleppo.
  
 
Al Zohra and Noubl are two majority Shiite villages located north of Aleppo. They are surrounded by Sunni villages under the control of the Free Syrian Army rebels. The state’s army retreated from the region seven months ago. Since then, our villages have been encircled by forces from the Free Syrian Army. People who live in the Sunni villages under the power of the rebels are free to move about, but not us. They think we are with the regime, and that we’re potentially chabbiha [pro-regime militiamen] just because we are Shiite.
 
Some people have dared to venture outside the walls of these two villages, but many of them have been kidnapped. Today, we live in a catastrophic humanitarian situation. Supplies arrive infrequently because of the blockade. My own father was kidnapped a few months ago in Damascus because he’s from Noubl. But he has nothing to do with the war – he is even married to a Sunni woman.
 
 
  

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