In the wake of the liberation of al-Shaddadi in Syria's north-eastern al-Hasakeh province, allied forces and local residents are speaking out against the systematic abuses perpetrated by the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) against Christians in the area.
Leading up to and following the liberation of al-Shaddadi in Februrary 2016, the town has witnessed heavy fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) on one side and ISIL on the other.
Despite the severity of the battles, fighters from the moderate opposition forces have taken it upon themselves to preserve the diversity of the area and uphold its values of religious harmony and co-existence, local residents tell Diyaruna.
Ending ISIL's tyranny
As part of these efforts, YPG fighters recently re-affixed a cross atop one of the churches that ISIL had destroyed, said Syriac Military Council fighter Fadi Daoud.
"Non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religion goes without saying for the forces battling ISIL in the al-Hasakeh region in northern Syria," he told Diyaruna.
The Church of Virgin Mary in the village of Tal Nasri, al-Rayyan church in the village of Tel Hermez and St. George church in Qabr Shamiyeh are among the most prominent churches vandalised or destroyed by ISIL, Daoud said.
These churches and many others date back to ancient Christian eras and are in need of extensive repairs after ISIL's vandalism, arson and destruction, he said.
A majority of the area's Christians fled ISIL's persecution for al-Qamishli and other areas of al-Hasakeh, he said.
"Christians in the al-Shaddadi area have suffered greatly under the tyranny of ISIL and were subjected to kidnappings, taxes and zakat," he said.
In addition to destroying area churches, ISIL elements forced Christian residents to wear Islamic dress and abducted about 300 people, a large number of whom were released in recent months, he said.
"The aim of the current battles is to put an end to ISIL's tyranny against the region’s residents, whom the group banned from fulfilling their religious obligations," he said.
"Ever since ISIL seized control of northern Syria and other Syrian areas it has heaped abuses on Christians under the pretext that they are infidels," YPG officer Farhad Khoja told Diyaruna.
ISIL forced churches to remove religious symbols such as crosses, images and icons, he said, as the group's elements deemed them "forbidden by Islam".
"Bear in mind that the area never experienced religious tension among its residents who hail from all ethnicities and religions known in the Mashreq region," Khoja said. "It is only very natural that the units fighting ISIL restore religious symbols to the way they were."
Co-existence: Syria's past and future
"The outcomes we see on the ground, such as the freedom of thought and religious belief, are a good example of what Syria of the future ought to be like," said Sheikh Moaz Abdul Karim, a former preacher at al-Omar mosque in Aleppo who now resides in Cairo.
"Syria has for hundreds of years been known for its ethnic and religious diversity," he told Diyaruna.
"It is impossible to wipe out this beautiful mosaic that characterises this country, and it does not make any sense or logic that the Syrian people would make all these sacrifices in lives and property to live in the dark ages, to which ISIL wants to take them back," he said.
The destruction of churches and turning them into ISIL bases cannot be associated with Islam, he said, adding that there is no religious text or interpretation of sharia that endorses these actions.
"On the contrary, the true teachings of Islam call for the preservation of the buildings of non-Islamic divine religions and the protection of those who espouse those religions," Abdul Karim said.