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Rights group: Attacks on Syria worship sites hike sectarian fears

January 23, 2013|By Emily Alpert

As violence escalates in Syria, armed rebels appear to have attacked Christian churches and a Shiite place of worship, a rights group warned Wednesday after visiting the Syrian countryside.

The attacks underscore fears that the conflict is becoming a sectarian battleground, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. In the past, the group has also documented the destruction of an Idlib mosque at the hands of Syrian government forces.

Witnesses said armed opposition fighters set a Shiite worship site ablaze in December as they took control of the village of Zarzour, according to Human Rights Watch. Investigators found broken windows, burned walls and what appeared to be a charred prayer rug on the floor. The video above, provided by Human Rights Watch, shows some of the damage.

The rights group also pointed to a video spread on YouTube last month that shows rebels celebrating before a blazing building, one declaring the “destruction of the dens of the Shiites and the Rafida,” a slur for Shiites. Some residents told Human Rights Watch that government forces had used the building, but the damage appeared to occur after the army had fled.

Elsewhere in the Syrian countryside, two churches were ransacked, one of them hit with gunfire, village residents told the rights group. Both attacks happened after the Latakia villages fell under opposition control, though rebels said they were not involved in one of the incidents.

Whitson said the opposition had failed to back up its claims that it would protect the rights of religious minorities. The group called on rebels to address such attacks and protect religious sites under their control. It also reiterated its call for the Syrian government to halt indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

The reports add to long-standing fears that the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad could inflame religious antagonisms as Islamic extremists join the rebels. Assad and many other government leaders are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam; the rebels are largely Sunni. Last month, the U.N. bemoaned that the conflict had become “overtly sectarian.”

The bloodshed continued Wednesday, according to both opposition activists and state media. The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist network, said at least 89 people had been killed in Syria on Wednesday, including six children.

Syrian state media did not report on any children being killed but said government forces had killed an unspecified number of “terrorists,” its term for the armed rebels.

U.N. officials estimate that more than 60,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict, which has now lasted nearly two years. Thousands of refugees are fleeing the country daily, a outpouring expected to exceed 1 million people this year.

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