By Waleed Abu al-Khair
For more than a year, Syrian churches in areas under the control of al-Qaeda-linked groups such as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) have been attacked and desecrated, in a growing phenomenon condemned by Christians and Muslims alike as alien to Syrian society.
An ISIL field commander in Aleppo going by the name Abu Abdullah said in December that his group seeks to ban the building of churches and the raising of the cross, and to use churches for other purposes, Lebanon’s El-Nashra news website reported.
The ISIL commander said Christians should instead abide by the group’s own interpretation of Sharia law.
“The majority of Syrian churches in areas controlled by Islamists have been vandalised and occupied, and performing religious rites in them has been banned,” said the Rev. Makarios Atta of the Church of St. Anthony the Great in Beni Suef, Egypt.
Atta came to Egypt in late 2012 from the Church of the Virgin Mary in Homs, Syria.
Attacks began regularly after al-Qaeda-affiliated organisations such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and ISIL began to spread, he told Al-Shorfa.
They were not confined to a specific area, but rather became a widespread phenomenon in all areas out of the control of the regime, he added.
In September in al-Raqa, the Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation and the Church of the Martyrs were desecrated and converted into military headquarters for ISIL, Atta said.
“Before the takeover, Christians were warned [by ISIL] to stop the age-old custom of ringing the church bells as the Muslim call to prayer echoed across the city, which al-Raqa residents observed as a symbol of Muslim and Christian co-existence,” he said.
Al-Qaeda deliberately turns churches and monasteries into military headquarters, especially on the front lines and in areas that come under heavy aerial bombardment by regime forces, Atta said.
This practice has completely destroyed a number of churches in which Islamist fighters took positions, he said, including al-Jadeeda district church in Aleppo; the Virgin Mary Church in Bustan al-Diwan; and the Our Lady of Peace Church, Umm al-Zennar Church and the evangelical church in Homs.
In Deir Ezzor, the Syriac church, the Latin church and the Capuchin Franciscan friars church and monastery were all destroyed, he added.
Attacks on churches and monasteries are also archaeological and historical losses, Atta said. “Many of Syria’s churches and monasteries date back to the early Christian centuries.”
The 5,000 square-metre Church of St. Simeon Stylites, located around 40 kilometres from Aleppo, dates back to the fourth century AD and “is one of the most beautiful and largest churches in the world”, he said.
The church, designated along with its surrounding village as a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2011, was vandalised by JAN fighters some time ago, Syria Now news website reported in November.
“There is also Maaloula and its religious buildings, in particular the Mar Takla monastery, in addition to the ancient church in al-Hamidiyeh district of Old Homs,” Atta said.
‘Attacks do not reflect true nature of Syrian society’
Syrian Christian Emile Rizk said that what is being done to monasteries and churches in Syria does not reflect the true nature of Syrian society or the beliefs and creed of Muslims in Syria.
Rather, these acts are carried out by groups that “have no connection to Islam whatsoever and that fabricate rulings and fatwas that only serve their own interests”, he told Al-Shorfa.
“I cannot believe what is happening to the monasteries and churches in Syria,” said Rizk, who was born in Yabrud in the Qalamoun region of Syria and currently lives in Cairo.
“The relationship between Muslims and Christians in Syria has always been strong and built on mutual respect and brotherhood, and some areas in Syria have beautiful customs such as the ringing of church bells in sync with the call for prayer, and the announcement of the death of Christians over minaret loudspeakers,” he said.
These actions will not damage relations between the two religions, Rizk said, because “the people behind those actions are known. They are either non-Syrian al-Qaeda elements or Syrians who have been brainwashed and follow al-Qaeda for money”.
“In either case, they do not represent the Syrian people,” he said.
Sheikh Abdul Zahir Shehata, lecturer at Al-Azhar faculty of sharia and law in Egypt, said churches are desecrated and vandalised in Syria “purely for political purposes”, and that those who carry out such acts use Islam as a cover.
“Takfiri groups, al-Qaeda especially, use this modus operandi not only in Syria but in Egypt and Iraq as well, for they are known to carry out unacceptable acts as they implement aberrant fatwas,” he told Al-Shorfa.
“Islam does not consider Christians to be infidels, as takfiris and al-Qaeda followers claim,” he said. “On the contrary, it refers to Christians as people of the book and calls for cordial relations with them.”
“Even the Qur’an addressed this matter in Surat al-Maeda (82): ‘Thou wilt find the nearest in friendship to the believers to be those who say we are Christians. That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are not arrogant’,” Shehata said.
Fatwas such as the one issued by Egypt’s Dar al-Iftaa in 1999 guarantee the right of Christians to build churches and practice their own religious rites in Muslim countries, he said.
In 2011, Dar la-Iftaa issued a statement reaffirming this right, emphasising that places of worship must be protected, must not be vandalised and must be allowed to be built or rebuilt if destroyed or vandalised.
‘No connection to Islam’
“Attacks against churches have become commonplace in some Arab countries, and are promoted by some who espouse destructive ideas,” said the Rev. Hegomen Hany Tawadros of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.
The church’s relationship with Muslims is built on mutual respect, he said. “The calls for the destruction of churches have no connection to the Islamic religion and those behind them are not real Muslims but rather people whose primary aim is to sow strife and distort all divine religions in general.”
For example, those protecting churches and monasteries in Egypt are army and police personnel, and most of them are Muslims, he said, adding that many young Muslims head to churches during security tensions in a bid to protect them from potential attacks.
“Those people are the real Muslims,” Tawadros said.