Scenes of destruction: Syrian mosques leveled after months of combat

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

The civil war in Syria has taken its toll on mosques, with most of the damage coming from regime bombing, according to Dr. Cheikhmous Ali, the head of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, who’s based in Strasbourg, France, and has advised the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights. Here are some examples.

DARAA

One of the greatest losses in the war so far was in Daraa, a city of fewer than 100,000 in southwestern Syria, where the revolution began. The Omari mosque there was an imposing edifice of black basalt with a large, square minaret. Built in the seventh century on the site of an ancient Roman temple by Umr Bin al Khattab, a revered Islamic leader and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, it was the starting point in 2011 for the first major protests against the government of President Bashar Assad.

The first big Friday demonstration, on March 18 that year, saw thousands gather in front of the mosque to demand political freedoms, an end to widespread corruption and the release of political prisoners. Security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing four people. The resulting nationwide protests prompted a harsh crackdown that soon descended into all-out war that’s claimed the lives of almost 100,000 people and left the country in ruins.

Security forces invaded Daraa’s old city in April 2011. According to opposition activists, paratroopers used three helicopters backed by tanks to seize the mosque. Videos posted online at the time show them in the courtyard, chanting, “God, Syria, Bashar and nothing else.”

The army used the mosque as a base until March of this year, when opposition fighters with the Liwa al Tawhid brigade retook the area after two weeks of fierce battles. A video dated March 23 and posted on YouTube showed opposition fighters apparently in the mosque cheering, “God is great! Our master is Muhammad, our leader forever!”

The narrator announces: “The Omari mosque has been liberated.”

But as has happened often, after regime forces withdrew, they pounded the area with artillery and airstrikes. For two days, they fired shells at the mosque. A series of videos on YouTube show explosions against the minaret as they score direct hits. A YouTube video dated April 13 shows the top half of the minaret topple in a cloud of dust.

HOMS

The Khalid Bin al Walid Mosque in Homs, named for a seventh-century Islamic leader, was the starting point for anti-Assad demonstrations in Homs, a city of 1 million people in central Syria. Mohammad Abu al Fedaa, a spokesman for the local opposition media office, interviewed by Skype, said it became a daily target of government snipers and eventually, “for their safety, people stopped praying there.”

The Ottoman-era building, which sits on the site of an earlier mosque, housed a small museum of Islamic art and rooms for Quranic study. Now it’s badly damaged after months of mortar, rocket and machine-gun fire, videos posted on the Internet show. One wall has been destroyed and the mosque’s domes are filled with holes, apparently caused by shells. Fedaa said mortar rounds and heavy machine guns had caused most of the destruction.

“This is revenge against the heritage and history of the country,” he said.

DOUMA

In Douma, a city of 500,000 just northeast of Damascus, the Grand Mosque was a gathering place for anti-Assad demonstrators. On April 1, 2011, as worshippers emerged from Friday prayers, security forces shot eight people, some at the main entry to the mosque, others on the streets, according to Souhad Khibiyh, a former journalist in Douma who now lives in Egypt. In the months that followed, almost-daily protest rallies began in the main square, adjacent to the mosque.

Then, in May 2012, the military sent tanks into Douma and attacked the mosque and other targets in central Douma. Last November, fighter jets fired missiles at the mosque, burning it down. “The library of the mosque was burned down, and all the ceilings destroyed. The walls of the mosque turned black,” Khibiyh told McClatchy. Combat jets returned three more times, she said.

Twenty other mosques also have been destroyed in Douma, Khibiyh said. The Manfoush mosque “was turned into ashes, a pile of stones,” last November. The Rawda mosque – targeted in January, April and May of this year – is “completely destroyed,” as is the Haand Nasan mosque, which was attacked in October and December.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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