Al-Qaeda fighters in Syria forced residents of 14 Druze villages located in an isolated area to convert to Islam, The Times of Israel was told Monday.
The villagers, from the northern Syrian province of Idlib, were forced by members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, known as ISIL or ISIS, to announce that they had accepted the Islamic faith, according to Syrian opposition sources.
In recent weeks, ISIL has gained increasing control over villages in the isolated northern region.
Upon seizing them, it sent villagers messages threatening to massacre them unless they converted to Islam and announced their conversion publicly.
ISIL is considered one of the most extremist and intolerant groups currently involved in the fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad, even in comparison to the other rebel group linked to al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra.
The group’s gains have underscored growing infighting among rebel factions seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. A recent takeover of opposition warehouses by ISIL members spurred the US and UK to announce they would suspend the nonlethal aid they had been providing to Syrian rebels.
ISIL, which proclaims as its goal the creation of an Islamic state under Sharia law, has been targeting non-Muslim minorities in areas under its control, even announcing that it would turn Druze houses of worship into mosques by building minarets over them, according to rebel reports.
Druze community leaders in Israel told The Times of Israel Monday that they were well aware of the forced conversion their coreligionists were being subjected to in Syria.
They said the villagers had converted against their will and that members of the Druze community in Israel were striving to assist them in every possible way.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.