Islamist rebels said to forcibly convert Syrian Druze

Residents of 14 villages in isolated northern region reportedly ordered by al-Qaeda-linked group to publicly embrace Islam

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Druze resident of the Golan Heights looks out onto Syria in July 2012 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
A Druze resident of the Golan Heights looks out onto Syria in July 2012 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

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.

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