Al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sacked a Melkite Greek-Catholic Church in the Syrian town of al-Raqqa.
The Melkites follow the Roman Catholic pope but use the rituals of the Greek Orthodox. They have remained loyal to the Assad regime out of fear of heightened persecution by Islamic extremists.
Footage shown on al-Aan TV shows the rebels systematically disassembling the church. They tear down the cross on top of the church and replace it with a black jihadist flag. They chant “Allahu akbar!” and sing hymns throughout the operation.
The video also shows young children desecrating the cross taken from the church.
A Saudi militant is heard saying of the cross, “The ‘Nazarenes’ (Christians) worship it.” And a child is heard saying, “This is the ‘Messiah’ (Christ) they worship.”
An Armenian Orthodox church was also attacked.
Christian leaders such as Melkite Patriarch Gregory III have warned Syria’s Christian population could be a major casualty should Assad fall and Syria descend into chaos.
“Enough with the intervention,” Gregory told the Catholic News Service in August. “It is fueling hatred, fueling criminality, fueling inhumanity, fueling fundamentalism, terrorism–all these things are the fruit of intervention. Enough!”
A study by IHS Jane’s found that nearly half of the 100,000 rebel fighters seeking to oust al-Assad are either jihadists or hardline Islamists. Of them, 10,000 fighters belong to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.
Rebels around al-Raqaa, located in north-central Syria, professed their allegiance to al-Qaida on Sept. 21, according to a video posted on social media and released by the Daily Mail. The rebels had been aligned with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
According to the BBC, the FSA is an umbrella group that includes numerous groups that act independently. Estimates suggest there are 1,000 bands of fighters in the conflict.
Concerns have been raised about funding the FSA due to lingering questions about connections to al-Qaida.
“It is no secret that we have ties with everybody, even the brothers in the Nusra Front, and we cooperate in many places,” FSA Gen. Abd Al-Baset Tawila said in a June 13interview with Al-Jazeera Arabic translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). “In all candidness, I would like to see a civilized state, with Islamic law. Let me give you an example. We would like our army, in the future, to have a clear Islamic nature.”
More than 40 Syrian Islamist groups recently announced they had formed an “Army of Islam” to fight against Assad on Sunday.
Thirteen rebel brigades previously announced they were disaffiliating with the FSA and the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is recognized by the Obama administration as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, and uniting into an “Islamic Alliance.”