Syrian rebels attack Shiite shrines and threaten Christian monasteries

Christian monasteries and Shiite shrines live under constant threats in Syria. Is it time to rethink policy towards the Syrian rebels? Photo: Shrine of Sayyeda Zainab after the attack AP photo

WASHINGTON, July 22, 2013 — Mortar shells struck the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab, the granddaughter of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, in Syria on Friday. The attack ignited tensions throughout the Middle East and renewed calls from experts to reexamine the nature of rebel forces in Syria.

During the attack, the caretaker of the holy site, Anas Roumani, was killed and several others were wounded. The site is revered by Shiite Muslims and is a top destination for adherents to the faith. 

The incident is merely the latest in a series of attacks on ancient gravesites, including a shocking incident during which Syrian rebels attacked the grave of the revered Islamic leader Hujr ibn Ady. The rebels exhumed and stole the body for unknown reasons.

While no faction of the Syrian rebels has claimed responsibility for the attack on the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab, previously the Nusra Front claimed responsibility, by posting pictures of the attack on the tomb of Hujr ibn Ady and the subsequent removal of the body on its Facebook account. In a post on the Nusra Front Facebook page, the group then vowed to carry out a similar attack on the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab.

Also under constant threat by rebel forces is a Christian monastery, called the Convent of Our Lady of Sednaya. The monastery is a nearly fifteen hundred year old structure believed to have been constructed by an early Byzantine emperor who reported to have received visions of the Virgin Mary. Residents living near the monastery fear attacks on other nearby Christian churches and monasteries within the region.

The attack on the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab drew worldwide condemnation. The Pakistani government summoned the Syrian envoy to express its strong concerns over the attack. In response to nationwide protests, the government also released a statement condemning the attack: “The trend of desecration of the holy sites has hurt the sentiments of Muslims in Pakistan as indeed the world over. Such violations, which also fan sectarian strife, are most reprehensible.” Notable political parties in Pakistan also condemned the attack, including both MWM and MQM.

England blacklisted the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization on Friday, following in the footsteps of the United Nations this past May, and the United States in December 2012.

Despite the Nusra Front’s public commitment to serving Al Qaeda, the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution has called for the U.S. to withdraw its designation, drawing further concerns about the nature of the rebel groups.

Congressman Peter King (R-NY), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Sub-Committee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence stated, “My concern with the rebels now is that al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda affiliates, the al-Qaeda supporters, are right now in a very strong position within the rebel movement.

“There are foreign fighters coming from Europe through Turkey and you have jihadists from all over the region coming out to fight. And whether or not they are in the majority, they are the best trained and the best organized.” 

Congressman King’s concerns were supported by the discovery of U.S. Passports amongst the Nusra Front fighters, as reported on the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) official Twitter account. According to PYD, the passports showed nationals from various countries entering Syria, and all displayed Turkish visa stamps.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been monitoring the fighting in Syria, issuing a call for “United Nations Security Council to refer the Syria situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to ensure accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

HRW’s statement was released in response to a particularly disturbing incident where a Syrian rebel fighter killed and mutilated a Syrian pro-government fighter by removing and eating the fighter’s heart and liver. The rebel fighter then posted a video of the incident on the internet.

Nadim Houry, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch, issued a stern rebuke of the rebels: “It is not enough for Syria’s opposition to condemn such behavior or blame it on violence by the government. The opposition forces need to act firmly to stop such abuses.”

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Rahat Husain

Rahat Husain has been working as a columnist since 2013 when he joined the Communities. With an interest in America and Islam, Rahat is a prolific writer on contemporary and international issues.


In addition to writing for the Communities, Rahat Husain is an Attorney based in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. He is the Director of Legal and Policy Affairs at UMAA Advocacy. For the past six years, Mr. Husain has worked with Congressmen, Senators, federal agencies, think tanks, NGOs, policy institutes, and academic experts to advocate on behalf of Shia Muslim issues, both political and humanitarian. UMAA hosts one of the largest gatherings of Shia Ithna Asheri Muslims in North America at its annual convention.


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