One of Syria’s oldest mosques and the cradle of the uprising in Daraa was severely damaged in shelling on Saturday, sparking outrage that could deepen the sectarian divide in the country.
Al-Omari Mosque, commissioned by Islam’s second caliphate, Umar bin Al Khattab, in the seventh century, was the gathering point for peaceful protesters calling for the release of teenagers who were detained for scrawling anti-regime graffiti in March 2011. When the Syrian military entered Daraa in April 2011, prayers were halted at Omari for the first time in 1,400 years. Rebels regained control of the mosque a few weeks ago in March.
But the battle of Daraa hasn’t been settled, and the Assad regime sent reinforcements to win back control of the strategic province. The mosque came under heavy fire, and the minaret collapsed (video below). A clearer shot of the stump can be seen here.
Ahmad Abazed, a prominent activist from Daraa (who posted a historic 1917 image with Omari’s minaret towering above the humble city), published a series of fiery comments on Sunday, reflecting the significance of the mosque to Daraa natives, and for the revolution, which has turned into Syria’s deadliest war in centuries.
Some notes used religious and sectarian rhetoric. Here’s a rough translation of one post: “The toppled minaret erased our names, relieving us from the burdens of judgment. There are no sins after today, only absolute revenge. Omar has risen, he has truly risen.”
Just as the bombings of Shiite shrines in Najaf and Samarra in 2006 led Iraq into a spiral of sectarian bloodletting, the destruction of the Omari mosque will likely increase the already inflamed tensions in Syria. The mosque’s imam, an early spiritual leader to protesters who now lives in exile, said the mosque survived many wars and invasions over the centuries, from crusaders, Mongols and the French, but it was ultimately destroyed by Baathists and those who hate the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, a clear reference to Shiites and Alawites.
Most Western media outlets appeared to ignore the event, as did analysts and commentators who are usually quick to point out every alleged crime committed by rebels or potential threat against Syria’s minorities. This pattern was criticized by the novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab:
Another video that was largely ignored this week was fresh footage of the bombing that killed Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti, the most senior Sunni cleric and Assad regime loyalist, along with 48 worshippers. The video below shows a small explosion that didn’t instantly kill Bouti, and didn’t even injure men who were only a few feet away from him.
A man, who came to be known on Twitter as the Man in Black, approached the sheik, who was still alive but obviously shaken, within seconds. It isn’t clear if the man hurt Bouti or was trying to help him, but the sequence is odd, especially for a bombing so powerful that left roughly 50 people dead and dozens injured.
The video quality is poor and is recorded from another screen. A silhouette of the person holding the camera appears at the moment of the blast, and the source of the clip is still unknown.
Pro-Assad social media sites immediately doubted the video’s veracity, and Syrian TV followed suit. But after Bouti’s son verified some aspects of the video in an interview, Syrian TV backtracked and issued a rare apology, verifying that the tape is real. There are many questions about this bombing and others in the secured areas of Damascus, and the answers probably won’t be known for years, if ever.
On a lighter note, away from death and destruction, but not too far, rebels break into a traditional dance in mid-battle in the widely shared video below, shot just feet away from the frontlines of Sheik Maqsoud in Aleppo.