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Deliberate attacks on churches by rebels in Syria condemned as war crimes

Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Syria

Human Rights Watch has condemned opposition groups in Syria for “unjustified attacks against minority places of worship”, saying that these amount to war crimes.

Numerous churches in Syria have been destroyed
Numerous churches in Syria
have been destroyed

The leading human rights organisation released on 23 January the findings of investigations it carried out in Latakia and Idlib governorates in November and December 2012.

It found evidence that opposition fighters had “deliberately destroyed religious sites” and that the attacks had been carried out after the areas had fallen to opposition control and government forces had left.

Churches were raided by armed gunmen after they seized control of the Christian villages of Jdeideh and Ghasaniyeh in Latakia.

They took control of the former on 11 December and, once the government troops had fled, broke into the village church; they stole items and fired numerous shots inside, causing structural damage. The rebels also used the minister’s quarters next to the church to fire at a neighbouring village, where government troops were present.

One resident told Human Rights Watch that opposition fighters stole medicine from a church-run clinic, looted homes and kidnapped civilians.

Events in Ghasaniyeh followed a similar pattern. Rebels entered the village in late November, broke into the local church and stole petrol and diesel fuel. They looted homes and kidnapped one resident.

The violence and dire humanitarian conditions in Jdeideh and Ghasaniyeh drove Christians to flee the villages in large numbers.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said:

The destruction of religious sites is furthering sectarian fears and compounding the tragedies of the country… Syria will lose its rich cultural and religious diversity if armed groups do not respect places of worship.

The opposition in Syria should back up its claims that it will uphold minority rights by protecting places of worship, and more generally ensuring that gunmen acting in its name respect civilians and civilian properties.

The group said that, under international humanitarian law, parties in an armed conflict have a responsibility not intentionally to attack religious buildings that are not being used for military purposes, adding, “Deliberate attacks on religious sites that are not military objectives are war crimes.”

Barnabas Fund has been reporting deliberate attacks on churches and other Christian targets, as well as the kidnap and murder of Christians, by opposition forces in Syria for many months. We have compiled a categorised timeline of anti-Christian incidents that dates back to almost the very beginning of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.  

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