Armed rebels in Syria destroyed religious sites in Latakia and Idlib provinces in recent months, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
According to the New York based rights group the rebels destroyed a Shia mosque and looted two Christian churches in November and December last year.
“The destruction of religious sites is furthering sectarian fears and compounding the tragedies of the country, with tens of thousands killed,” stated Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. It is estimated that 60,000 people have been killed in the 22-month-long conflict.
She added, “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.”
In Syria, around three-fourths of the population are Sunni Muslims, while there are notable pockets of Christians, Alawites, and Shia Muslims around the country. Assad’s family, members of his government, and many of the pro-regime militia forces are Alawites, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam.
However, most of the rebel fighters—some of whom came from other countries to fight Assad’s forces—are believed to be Sunni.
In a video that was viewed by Human Rights Watch, an opposition fighter in front of a burning Shia mosque in Zarzour claimed it was part of the “destruction of the dens of the Shias and the Rafida,” a derogatory term used to call Shia adherents.
In the Latakia towns of Ghasaniyeh and Jdeideh, opposition fighters looted two churches “in the name of the opposition,” the organization said.
Human Rights Watch said that while many of the opposition forces have claimed they would protect the interests of members of all religions, they have not addressed attacks against minority places of worship.
“The opposition also has failed to rein in gunmen engaging in looting and other criminal activities, like kidnappings,” the rights group said.
The rights group pointed out that international humanitarian law stipulates that parties involved in an armed conflict should not intentionally attack places of worship that are not being used for military reasons. They cannot loot, destroy, or damage such buildings.
“Deliberate attacks on religious sites that are not military objectives are war crimes,” the group said.
Residents in the towns of Ghasaniyeh and Jdeideh told Human Rights Watch that armed opposition gunmen kidnapped two villagers as well.
The rights group’s latest report is yet another indication that the civil war is becoming ever more sectarian as it almost enters its third year. In December, the U.N. said that rampant rights abuses carried out by rebels and soldiers, are becoming “ever more violent and unpredictable” as well as “overtly sectarian in nature.”
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