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Friday prayers cancelled in Aleppo for ‘first time’ amid heavy fighting

Despite carnage, Aleppo has been excluded from fresh 'freeze' in fighting due to start tonight
Syrian civil defence volunteers remove body of man from rubble of destroyed buildings after air strikes on Wednesday (AFP)

MARDIN, Turkey - Friday prayers were cancelled in Aleppo for the first time since the war began, after days of air strikes that led to scores of deaths and left mosques in ruins.

The city’s legal council on Friday asked mosque guardians to keep places of worship shut on the eighth continuous day of fighting in the northern city.

It recommended that people pray in private homes because of the risks posed by “God’s enemies” to public gatherings.

Friday is normally the most significant day of the week in the Islamic calendar, when thousands of people attend mosques to listen to imams’ sermons and worship collectively.

“We are sorry for this and our heart is sad,” read the notice from Aleppo’s Maijlis al-Sharia. “But this is to save our people.”

It was not clear if the recommendation was aimed at mosques across the city or only in areas held by non-government forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that government bombing killed at least 17 people, while rebel shelling killed at least 13 on Friday. 

But this week in Syria’s largest city, public gatherings were deemed unsafe.

On Friday, Russia said a partial truce would come into force in parts of Syria at 01:00 local time on Saturday morning (22:00 GMT), but that Aleppo would be excluded. A Syrian security source said Moscow had refused a request by Washington to include the northern city in the deal. 

Middle East Eye understands that today was the first time Friday prayers had been cancelled in the centuries-long history of Islam in Aleppo.

The announcement asking Aleppo residents to stay away from mosques was confirmed by a joint statement published by religious councils across Aleppo, which said: 

"For the first time in the oldest city in the world, the Islamic city of Aleppo, the religious councils have decided to cancel Friday prayers because of the brutal war on human life. This is to save people who have become a target for the regime [government] and to save others in this massacre." 

The move came as damage was reported at a number of mosques. In rebel-held areas, Hamza mosque in al-Mashhad and the Omar ben al-Khatab mosque in Kalasa, were both damaged. Opposition media also on Friday posted a picture of the al-Qarani mosque in the southern al-Sukkari district, showing its blue dome surrounded by partially collapsed stone walls.

Syria’s government news agency, SANA, meanwhile, said that rebel fire killed three people and wounded 25 in a mosque in the government-held Bab al-Faraj neighbourhood.

Bakri Sandi Said, an Islamic teacher from Aleppo, criticised three mosques for defying the call for closure and opening for prayers. He said 10 people were killed when an air strike hit near a mosque. 

"They should have respected the decision of the religious councils, as it was aimed at actually protecting civilians and making sure they survive," he told MEE by phone. 

The cancellation illustrates the extent of dangers facing civilians in the city, particularly in public places. On Friday, an air strike hit a clinic providing dental services in the rebel-held al-Marja district to the south of the city.

More than 230 people have been killed in attacks in Aleppo over the past week, and more than 100 were wounded.

"Today [Friday] the regime aircraft and helicopters didn't leave the sky of Aleppo at all this morning ... most of the attacks targeted mosques or were near mosques," a member of the Civil Defence Team in Aleppo told MEE, while also accusing pro-government forces of dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas of the city. 

The al-Quds hospital, backed by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), was hit by two missiles on Wednesday night. It is believed that 50 people, including one of the city’s few remaining paediatricians, were killed in this attack.

“The sky is falling in Aleppo," said Muskilda Zancada, MSF head of mission in Syria. "The city, consistently at the frontlines of this brutal war, is now in danger of coming under a full offensive, no corner is being spared. Attacks on hospitals and medical staff are a devastating indicator of how the war in Syria is waged, one of numerous brutal ways in which civilians are targeted."

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Thursday night said escalating violence was putting millions of displaced civilians living close to the frontlines at “grave risk and without a chance of getting much-needed aid”.

“Islam says that Friday prayers should take place in mosques, and not at home like on other days,” a former Aleppo resident told MEE. “As far as I am aware, there has never been a reason to cancel Friday prayers.”

Dozens of places of worship have been damaged and destroyed in Aleppo over the five-year conflict in Syria, sometimes in apparently targeted attacks.

Strikes blamed on Russian warplanes and surface-to-air missiles have hit mosques dating back to the 16th century. Heritage sites have been damaged and destroyed, include the Ottoman-era Agha Jaq mosque, in the Qadi Askar district near the Old Town, which was shown bearing significant signs of damage in a video published by local opposition media in January.

IFrameIn December, Amnesty International accused Russia of covering up deliberate attacks on civilian areas, including mosques, markets and hospitals in other Syrian cities. Russia has repeatedly said it only targets “terrorists”.

The violence currently gripping Aleppo is believed to be part of an assault by the Syrian government to retake the city, which is divided between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a number of rebel groups. A ceasefire agreed in February has been largely been ignored for weeks. 

Russia, a key Assad ally, has denied conducting any sorties over Aleppo in recent days or any involvement in the strike on the al-Quds hospital.

But prominent Syrian journalist Hadi al-Abdallah on Friday criticised Russian media for manipulating his video footage of the al-Quds attack.

He said that the Arabic wing of news outlet RT Arabic had taken his footage and published it with quotes that place blame for the attack on Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

He said it was “Russia trying to justify its and Assad’s atrocities in Aleppo".

“I call upon lawyers / specialists to press charges in my name against @RTarabic & follow up with their falsification of facts in Syria” he wrote on Twitter.