JERUSALEM, Israel – As the death toll continues to climb in Syria's bloody civil war, a lesser-known casualty recently came to light in a new report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) – churches and Christian places of worship.
The watchdog group reports that President Bashar Al-Assad's Regime and other major factions in the Syrian Civil War have intentionally damaged or destroyed at least 124 churches since the war began in 2011.
The ‘Main Threat’
Islamic terror groups, factions of the Armed Opposition, and other parties have all deliberately attacked churches, but SNHR analysts accuse Assad's regime of being responsible for 61% of the assaults on churches – making the dictator one of the biggest threats to Syria's Christian heritage.
These violations by the Assad regime include dropping bombs on civilian places of worship with no military headquarters or equipment nearby, turning places of worship into military headquarters, and repeated attacks on churches.
The deliberate destruction of houses of worship is a direct violation of international law, and according to the SNHR report, Assad's forces have assaulted Christian churches seven-times more than ISIS has.
Islamic Extremism vs. a Dictator
SNHR chairman Fadel Abdul Ghany told reporters on Monday in a conference call that while Islamic extremists are targeting Christians simply because they are Christians, the Assad regime is targeting anyone who opposes his dictatorship.
Assad's forces justify repeated attacks on churches by saying they were being used by opposition forces, Erica Hanichak of Americans for a Free Syria told reporters on Monday.
Ghany said Assad is the "main threat" to Christians because he has better weapons to use against their churches than any of the other parties fighting in the war.
The SNHR report contained photos of gaping holes left in church roofs, crumbling buildings, and shattered glass windows.
The report said that some churches suffered from multiple attacks. For example, the Church of the Lady of Peace in Homs was attacked seven times by the Syrian Regime, and the Church of Saint Takla in Damascus was attacked four times.
The Armed Opposition forces attacked the Roman Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Damascus four times, along with churches in Aleppo in 2012 and 2013.
The report challenges Assad's claims that he leads a secular government with a desire to protect and preserve Syria's Christians and religious minorities.
"While the regime claims that it has not committed any violations and that it is keen on protecting the Syrian state and the rights of minorities, it has carried out qualitative operations in suppressing and terrorizing all those who sought political change and reform, regardless of religion or race, and of whether this causes the destruction of the heritage of Syria and the displacement of its minorities," said Ghany on Monday.
The Dilemma Among Christians
Despite accusations of war crimes, there are those – among them many Christians – who support Assad's rule. One big reason is that they do not see a better option for Syria any time soon.
"The big fear of the Christians—the majority—is if he [Assad] goes, who will come in? And that is the big, big fear," Bishop Nicholas James Samra of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton told the Catholic News Agency.
"I doubt very much if the regime of the Assad regime is responsible for the bombing of any churches and religious sites," Samra added. "I don't believe the president is that radical."
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is a distinguished senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and specializes in Syria. Hof previously served as the special coordinator for regional affairs in the US Department of State's Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. He was also appointed by the Obama administration as special advisor for transition in Syria.
He shared with the Christian foreign policy journal Providence why Assad is a dilemma for so many American Christians.
"Some regional powers took advantage of an uprising that was initially entirely non-sectarian and pro-Syria to support Islamists; these regional powers wanted stooges and employees. They ended up helping Assad enormously by all-but-erasing respectable alternatives to his rule, by helping Assad militarize the conflict, and by helping the dregs of Syrian society become the key actors on both sides. Assad has been the big beneficiary. His behavior has contradicted every element of the Christian Gospel. But it is understandable that many Syrian Christians, fearing jihadist alternatives, have continued to back the devil they know," said Hof.
But SNHR believes the world shouldn't let "the devil" off so easy and is calling on the United Nations and the broader international community to confront Assad through sanctions and other means.
"Targeting Christian places of worship is a form of intimidation against and displacement of the Christian minority in Syria. The Syrian regime has always invoked positive slogans painting itself as 'protector', but on the ground, it has done the opposite," said Ghany. "Syria will not become calm without transition to democracy and respect for human rights."