Over 120 churches attacked since start of Syria's civil war: report

Displaced Assyrians, who fled from the villages around Tel Tamr, sit outside the Assyrian Church in al-Hasaka city, as they wait for news about the Assyrians abductees remaining in Islamic State hands March 9, 2015. Islamic State released 19 Assyrian Christian captives in Syria on March 1 after processing them through a sharia court, a monitoring group which tracks the conflict said. More than 200 Assyrians remain in Islamic State hands, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. |

At least 124 attacks on churches in Syria have occurred since the beginning of the Syrian civil war with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad being responsible for 60% of those attacks, a new report from an opposition-associated monitoring group claims.

The Qatar-based Syrian Network for Human Rights — a nongovernmental organization that monitors the Syrian conflict — released a new report on Sept. 5 titled “Targeting Christian Places of Worship in Syria is a Threat to World Heritage."

The report draws upon the organization’s daily monitoring of news and developments as well as its network of sources in several towns and communities that it has built up since it launched in 2011.

The report’s record of attacks includes bombings that targeted civilian places of worship with no military headquarters or equipment nearby as well as instances in which places of worship have been turned into a military headquarters. 

The record of attacks also includes places of worship that have been subject to more than one attack, in some cases carried out by different parties. 

The report finds that the Syrian regime “bears the primary responsibility” for just over 60% of the “targeting of places of Christian places of worship in Syria” between March 2011 and September 2019.  

The report claims that the Assad regime is responsible for at least 75 attacks against 48 churches in the eight years since the civil war began.

According to the report, attacks attributed to the Assad regime were carried out by the army, security forces, local militias or Shiite foreign militias (such as those backed by Iran to support Assad). 

The report also shows that factions of the armed opposition are responsible for 33 attacks against 21 churches, while the Islamic State extremist group was responsible for 10 attacks against eight churches. The al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (an alliance between the Fatah al-Sham Front and other opposition groups) are responsible for two attacks on two churches. 

Four attacks were attributed to “other parties.”

“Despite places of worship being designated as cultural and religious properties that should be protected, heavy and continuous aerial bombardment across Syria has resulted in the partial or total destruction of a large number of places of worship,” the report reads. 

“Targeting of Christian places of worship is a form of intimidation against and displacement of the Christian minority in Syria. The current regime bears direct responsibility for the destruction, displacement, and collapse of the Syrian state at various levels because it is the main cause of Syrian state institutions … being used to launch a systemic war against the popular uprising…”

Many across Syria desire to see the country embrace a democratic system of government and escape from the authoritarian rule of Assad and his family. 

While the Assad regime has claimed to be “a protector” of Christians in Syria and many Christians in the country support the president, the NGO report suggests that Syrian forces will attack any community it perceives to be against Assad. 

“The Syrian regime has always invoked positive slogans painting itself as ‘protector,’ but on the ground, it has done the opposite,” SNHR Chairman Fadel Abdul Ghany said in a statement. 

“While the regime claims that it has not committed any violations and that it is keen on protecting the Syrian state and the rights of minorities, it has carried out qualitative operations in suppressing and terrorizing all those who sought political change and reform, regardless of religion or race, and of whether this causes the destruction of the heritage of Syria and the displacement of its minorities.”

Erica Hanichak, director of government relations for Americans for a Free Syria, a group that promotes secular democracy for the Syrian people, told reporters on a press call Monday that violence in Syria has coincided with a mass exodus of Christians from Syria. 

Before the war began, Christians made up 7.3% of the Syrian population, or 1.7 million among a total population of 23 million. But today, Christians make up an estimated 1.9% to 2.5% of the population, she said, which is fewer than 450,000 people.

“Most Syrians that I speak with actually credit the downturn to the Assad regime,” Hanichak said, adding that the rise of the Islamic State in northeast Syria also played a role. “But that said, it also comes down to the deliberate persecution of Christian areas by the Syrian government.”

Ghany told reporters that the attacks against churches come as many vital civilian centers have been targeted also.

“The hospitals are more targeted than the churches but that may be because the amount of hospitals in Syria is more,” he said. “The schools have been targeted more than the churches. In the church context, this is very sensitive. For me personally, and to the Syrian minority, [we need] to prevent a threat to the minority [that forces] them to be migrants.”

Hanichak further contended that the Assad regime has a habit of accusing the civilian centers of being rebel military operation bases. 

“It is a pattern that they have used with hospitals. It is a pattern that they have used with centers operated by the White Helmets [volunteer aid associations that operate in rebel-controlled areas], that they will claim they are terrorist cells and things like that,” she said. “It is the [modus operandi] of the regime to justify the targeting broadly.”

Asaad Hanna, a journalist and human rights activist who recently visited five churches in the Idlib countryside in northwestern Syria, told reporters that there are still hundreds of Christians living there. 

“They are doing their prayers every day during the evening. They are praying in the churches for one hour every day and also on Sundays,” he said, explaining that there are a lot of displaced families living in or nearby the churches. 

“There are a lot of damages on some of the churches but the damage was because of the shelling and the attacks on the area from earlier in 2011 when the regime started to attack the churches.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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