The MiG warplane circled high over this small Syrian town before locking onto its target, and then, in one instant, unleashed at least five missiles, one of which scored a direct hit on a building in the town center – the Hossein mosque.
The explosion brought down a wall and part of the roof on the structure, built in 1992 to hold 1,000 worshippers. Eighteen people in the vicinity were killed, residents said.
Ma’arat Hurmah, in the northern governorate of Idlib, not far from the Turkish border, is a little-known place close to a front in Syria’s civil war that reporters rarely visit, but Syrian warplanes pounded it for five days last October, according to videos posted at the time on YouTube. Townspeople say they think the mosque was a major target.
Rebel military forces were nowhere near when the mosque was bombed, they say, so there was no obvious military purpose. Instead, they think the mosque was targeted to prevent its use in organizing opposition to the regime.
“The mosque was a target because that’s where the demonstrations would begin” against the regime of President Bashar Assad, said Ibrahim Hamzi, 46, who describes himself as a poet and writer.
Two months later, a Syrian fighter jet returned to this town. Its target appears to have been a second, bigger mosque that was still under construction, though it missed. A third mosque was slightly damaged in another bombing run in late January.
There’s no way to know for certain what the warplanes were targeting, and it’s impossible to verify townspeople’s claim that no military objective was nearby. But the attacks in this small town appear to be part of a concerted targeting of Sunni houses of worship by the Assad regime.
The pattern seems evident in Syrians’ postings on social media – YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. In a 14-week period, from March 15 to June 27, McClatchy found contemporaneous videos showing 62 mosques attacked, on average one every two days. At least eight of the mosques had been targeted more than once.
Assad opponents say at least 1,451 mosques have been attacked since March 15, 2011, by the count of one group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Of those, 348 were destroyed, the group said.
A prominent Syrian archaeologist said he judged the group’s figures of damage and destruction “close to reality.” The vast majority of these mosques “were damaged due to regime bombing,” said 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.
The U.N. High Commission for Human Rights expressed astonishment at the dimensions of the reported attacks.
“We knew a lot of mosques have been damaged or destroyed, some deliberately and some through reckless positioning of military positions,” spokesman Rupert Colville said. “But, if verified, this is a colossal figure.”
The targets have included some of Syria’s most historic Sunni mosques, among them the UNESCO-listed Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, and some of the most symbolic for the revolution, such as the Omari mosque in Daraa, the town where the first anti-Assad protests were held.
The destruction of religious shrines is an especially fraught issue in a sectarian contest such as Syria’s civil war, where the rebels – almost uniformly followers of Sunni Islam – are pitted against a government dominated by Alawites, who follow a faith related to Shiite Islam. The rebels draw their backing largely from Sunni countries in the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while the Assad government’s support comes largely from Shiite-ruled Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Both sides have claimed that the other has targeted their worship spaces, and sectarian rhetoric is common. Hezbollah fighters and Shiite troops from Iraq reportedly have taken up positions around the Sayyida Zaineb shrine in southern Damascus, revered by Shiites, allegedly to protect it from rebel incursions, while rebels say pro-Assad forces often occupy mosques, using the minarets – with their high view of the surrounding area – as sniper nests.
In Azaz, in northern Aleppo province, the army set up a temporary base in an enormous mosque under construction in mid-June 2012, stationed armored vehicles around the perimeter and put riflemen in the two minarets, residents told a McClatchy reporter, to whom they showed videos that backed their claim. The snipers sometimes killed two civilians a day for the months the army was in control, the townspeople said. In mid-July, rebels attacked and forced the army out. Destroyed tanks now litter what was to have been sacred property.
Rebel groups have attacked Shiite mosques, but the Syrian Network for Human Rights says they compose only a fraction of the number attacked by the government and that in the cases it was aware of the government had used the minarets as sniper positions.
One such assault occurred last December in the village of Zarzour in the Idlib governorate, a mainly Sunni village with a small Shiite population. Rebels set the Shiite house of worship on fire, broke windows and burned posters. In a video made as the rebel forces celebrated their conquest, a fighter is shown announcing the “destruction of the dens of the Shias and the Rafida,” an insulting term for Shiites. A Human Rights Watch team that visited the mosque a week after its desecration found sandbags on the roof, indicating that Syrian forces had stationed a sniper there.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights also accuses the government of targeting Sunni clerics, claiming that 48 imams have been killed, including 15 who died while in regime custody and 11 who died in the course of fighting.
The latest to die, the group said, was Mohammad Yasin Akkash of Madaya in the Damascus countryside, who was killed by regime fire May 15 on his way to dawn prayers. Then there was the case of Yousef Khalid al Hallaq, from Al Madiha in the Damascus countryside, who was killed last Aug. 12 when regime troops invaded the al Dalati mosque. A video posted on YouTube showed that he’d been brutally beaten before he died.
McClatchy sought comment from the Syrian Ministry of Information, but received no response to emails or text messages.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect figure for the number of mosque attacks McClatchy found in its 14-week survey. The correct figure is 62.