BEIRUT

Middle East

Religious buildings caught in Aleppo crossfire

August 23, 2012 photo shows Syrian civilians gathering around the remains of an army tank in front of a bombed-out mosque in the northern town of Azaz, some 47 kms north of Aleppo. (AFP PHOTO/ARIS MESSINIS)

ALEPPO: Syrian churches and mosques, symbols of the diverse fabric of the country's religious communities, are no longer sacred in a struggle which has ravaged the northern city of Aleppo.

On Thursday, rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades through a wall encircling an Armenian Orthodox church in Aleppo in an attempt to push further into the key Midan district, while gunbattles erupted Friday during an army seizure of the nearby Ansar mosque.

The St. Gregory church courtyard was transformed into a battlefield as rebels, coming from their stronghold at Suleiman al-Halabi street, were met by resistance from the army on the other side.

The rebels were forced back into a back street through the damaged wall, while in the courtyard flames from a diesel fuel tank -- hit during the fighting -- burned unattended.

With municipal services paralyzed by the fighting, local residents have given up on the fire department, instead ferrying buckets of water to douse the flames themselves.

Clashes continue to rage in Midan, where fighting first broke out last Saturday, and in the nearby rebel bastions of Bustan al-Basha and Arkoub, where a unit of the elite Republican Guards seized a mosque.

On Friday, the Republican Guards came under fire from inside the Ansar mosque, located at a strategic point in front of the Hanano military base and rebel-controlled Arkoub.

After fierce clashes which killed a number of rebels and saw the arrest of several others, the army took back the mosque, according to a military source.

A local congregant confirmed the operation and said that the rebels had been using the mosque as a shelter since its imam -- the nephew of the Syrian mufti, or spiritual leader -- fled Aleppo 20 days before.

"When the rebels first took the area, they asked the people leave their homes so they could stay and fight from there. But Arkoub is a poor place, so nobody had the money to take his family and leave, and the rebels began to stay at the mosque," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"I've been going to this mosque for more than 10 years, and it means so much to me. Every time I visit this place I feel near to God," the 44-year-old government employee said remorsefully.

"Today I heard the mosque is damaged, that there are bullet holes and windows are broken, but I couldn't go to check."

Battles and shelling in and around religious structures are not new, and sacred buildings have become mere strategic military locations in a conflict whose daily death tolls easily reach over 100 victims per day.

The spokesman of the Armenian Orthodox prelacy of Aleppo told AFP by phone that he did not believe either the rebels or army would attack the church on purpose.

"The Syrian people don't do that. Whatever side they are on, Syrians always have respect for religious centers -- mosques or churches," he stressed.

The spokesman noted that fighting had been raging in the area for the past week, and the building was most likely an unfortunate casualty of the conflict.

Government troops backed by armored vehicles deployed across Midan on Friday and in nearby Suleiman al-Halabi, Bustan al-Basha, and Arkoub, the military source said.

"The arrival of the army to the district calmed people down and helped stem the tide of displacement that we had on Wednesday and Thursday," one Christian woman in Midan said.

But another resident was not about to take his chances amid the clashes.

"The gunmen said they would target security headquarters and that civilians should leave so they wouldn't be wounded by the mortar fire," Mohamed said as he fled the area with his wife and four children.

Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, has for the past two months been the focal point of fighting in the uprising against the Assad regime.

Artisans and mechanics alike had closed down their shops in Midan on Friday, with the local economy paralyzed by the fighting.

Regime forces used helicopter gunships to attack two police stations in Midan, which the rebels had taken over on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In the rebel-controlled Hanano district in the northeast of Aleppo city, air strikes pummeled another police station on Friday and Saturday, the regime preferring its own brand of destruction to the rebels gaining a new base.

Over 27,000 people, the majority civilians, have been killed in Syria since the start of the revolt in March 2011, according to the Observatory.

Houses of worship are merely the latest casualties.

 

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