Sunday, 31 July 2011
A Sunni mosque in the eastern Syrian city of Homs was recently targeted by heavy bombing from Syrian armed forces. This is one of the first times authorities have openly attacked a religious building. The event shocked residents and drew attention to the growing inter-religious tensions underlying the popular revolt against president Bashar al-Assad and his government.
Syria is composed of a number of different religious and ethnic communities. Since 1971, the country has been run by the al-Assad family, which belongs to the Alawi Muslim minority (less 10% of the Syrian population). Sunni Muslims are the majority (70% of the population). Kurds represent 10% of the population, and there are also Christian, Druze and Shiite minorities. The Homs mosque bombed by Syrian forces on July 21 was located in a Sunni neighbourhood.
Since the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria in March, protesters have vigorously defended the unity of the country and denied the existence of tensions between the different communities. This is in stark contrast to the ruling regime, which has brandished the spectre of a civil war and warned of the country being partitioned along ethnic and religious lines.
Members of the opposition have accused Assad of stoking religious unrest by cracking down especially hard on Sunnis, and attempting to pit them against other minorities.
This sentiment is made particularly clear in the following video, shot in Homs on July 21. As the the minaret of the city’s al-Za’afran mosque is being bombed, shocked residents can be heard in the video speculating that Syrian forces targeted the mosque because it was Sunni. The video was posted on YouTube under the title The war that the Ba'athists and communitarian regime of Bachar al-Assad is waging against Islam.
Majdi Amer is 45 years old. He is a teacher in Homs. His home is located less than 2km from the al-Za’afran mosque.
The bombardments started on a Wednesday night and lasted until Thursday evening. The shots were undoubtedly being fired from armoured vehicles belonging to the Syrian Army, which were stationed in the al-Qal’a citadel, in the centre of Homs. This is the highest point of the city and from here they were able to see all the districts of the city. The damage was considerable. All along Al-Wadi street (where the mosque is located), houses were destroyed, shops were vandalised, and cars were torched.
Because of the intensity of the shots being fired by the heavy weapons as well as the bombardments, I did not leave my house for the whole day. It was only in the evening, when we were about to go out to get food supplies, that we learned that the mosque had been bombed.
Personally, I don’t think that they deliberately targeted the mosque. It was more the result of blindly bombing the entire neighbourhood. But people here are convinced that it was a deliberate attack on the Sunni community. The Sunni neighbourhoods have been surrounded and there is no means of communication with the outside world. Security forces are everywhere. There are checkpoints in many streets. The Sunni community is living in fear. In the last few weeks, I would say that 70% of the residents have left Bab al-Siba’i and taken refuge with relatives in other neighbourhoods, in order to escape persecution and the arbitrary arrests.
The regime is trying to fuel sectarian tensions by pitting Sunnis against Alawis. Recently, several Sunni families who were living in Alawi neighbourhoods were attacked and forced out of their homes. The businesses of Sunni shopkeepers were ransacked. These acts of aggression were carried out by the Chabbihas, Alawi militiamen who are dedicated to the cause of Bachar al-Assad.
The Sunni community is outraged but will not respond to these acts of provocation. This would detract attention from the real struggle, which is against Bachar al-Assad’s regime.
The regime is also manipulating the Christian community, for them not to support the protest movement. By brandishing the spectre of Sunni domination and an Islamic state, it hopes to frighten Christians into sticking by the governments. In Homes, certain influential Christian lawyers and doctors support the Assad regime.
But this is not the case of all Christians: fortunately, many do not co-operate with the authorities. I have seen young Christians spending Thursday night with their Muslim friends so that they can go and protest together after Friday prayers.”
The Al-Za’afran mosque after the bombing. Video posted on YouTube.
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