By Ali Al-Bassam
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East
DAMASCUS, Syria — Last Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported three incidents in which rebel groups appeared to have intentionally destroyed or allowed the looting of minority religious sites in northern Syria during the months of November and December of 2012. HRW believes that such actions indicate that the Syrian conflict is becoming more sectarian.
“The destruction of religious sites is furthering sectarian fears…,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director of HRW.
Local witnesses had reported that rebels looted two Christian churches in the western governorate of Latakia, a relatively peaceful province of Syria. Rebels were also accused of destroying a Shi’ite “husseiniya,” a religious site constructed in honor of Hussein, a martyr in Shi’ite tradition, in Zarzour, a village located in the Idlib governorate. Its windows had been shattered, prayer stones were found all over the floor, walls were charred from flames, and what appeared to be remnants of a burned prayer rug lay on the floor. HRW found evidence that linked the attacks on the religious sites to areas that were falling under the rebels’ control.
Footage which was posted on YouTube on December 12 showed rebels celebrating a victory as the husseiniya burned in the background. In the video, a fighter is seen yelling “The destruction of the dens of the Shi’ites and the Rafida,” a derogatory term used to describe the minority sect of Alawites, from which President Bashar Al-Assad is a member of.
Sunni residents of Zarzour said that the burning of the husseiniya prompted their Shi’ite neighbors to flee from the village.
On December 11, in Jdeideh, a village in the Latakia governorate, a local resident reported to HRW about how gunmen broke into the church and looted it. During the looting, they shot off multiple rounds within the church, causing heavy structural damage. HRW confirmed the attack after inspecting the church. Local rebels denied that they attacked the church. “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,” HRW said.
Gunmen also broke into the church in the village of Ghasaniyeh, where they stole gas and diesel fuel. Apart from a cross on the floor, there were no indications that the building was damaged.
International humanitarian law prohibits parties involved in armed conflicts from attacking religious buildings which are not used for military purposes. Parties cannot seize, destroy, or willfully damages religious buildings or any other cultural property. Such attacks are recognized as war crimes.