Construction work to significantly expand the Sayyida Zeinab shrine south of Damascus is nearly complete. The area of the shrine — a site of major religious importance to Shia Muslims, particularly from Iran — has been doubled to three hectares.
The town of Sayyida Zeinab, where the shrine is located, sits some 10 kilometres from the Damascus city centre, near the airport highway. Most residents before 2011 were Syrian Shia Muslims, and the town later became an area of Iranian influence due to the Sunni-Shia polarisation over the course of the war. Shia Muslims have historically been a tiny minority in Syria, centred in rural Daraa, Aleppo and Idlib provinces, as well as in Sayyida Zeinab and around the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in Damascus.
Hezbollah maintains a direct presence in Sayyida Zeinab, in addition to affiliated groups of Syrian Shia militants who, along with Shia Muslims from abroad,now represent a sizable portion of the town’s population. Although the town is heavily populated with civilians, Hezbollah has set up arms depots, intelligence centres, operations rooms and prisons there, while the Lebanese militia alone is in charge of protecting the shrine.
The expansion project in Sayyida Zeinab is focused on the real estate area Qabr Al-Sitt. The area under construction has 48 properties adjacent to the shrine, which were expropriated to the benefit of the Ministry of Endowments in accordance with Decree No. 995 of 1979. However, the Ministry of Endowments itself is not the sole authority meant to benefit from the expropriation. Rather, there is the Shrine Administration Committee, established by a Ministry of Endowments decree in 1964, as the ministry does not directly administer the affairs of non-Sunni Islamic sects.
The Ministry of Endowments mandated the Shrine Committee in 1980 to secure expropriation compensations, in order to pay off the original owners of the seized properties. At the time, the commission claimed that the Iranian embassy in Damascus had paid the expropriation compensations. The Qasioun newspaper, which is affiliated with a branch of the Syrian Communist Party close to the regime, subsequently revealed in 2004, via former Damascus Provincial Council member Adnan Darwish, that it was a Shia Kuwaiti businessman with private commercial projects in Sayyida Zeinab who had paid the expropriation compensations.
The commission continued its encroachment into surrounding properties that had not been expropriated by the Ministry of Endowment, constructing a local commercial market on real estate plot 239 in 2003. It also built a park, a parking garage and a restaurant on neighbouring properties at the expense of the Sayyida Zeinab municipality and the Ministry of Tourism. The park, garage and restaurant were later annexed to the commission’s properties by a decree from the municipal council, according to Mr Darwish. In 2005, the commission was able to add the properties it had acquired to the municipality’s zoning plan and allocate it to establish investment projects that contradicted the decree’s original goal of expanding the shrine.
The current expansion project is being conducted by the Reconstruction Organisation of the Holy Shrines (ROHS), an Iranian group that describes itself as a non-governmental, non-profit organisation with international reach, based in Tehran. The group, which works to restore and rebuild religious shrines, was established by order of Iranian leader Ali Khamenei after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, with the aim of rebuilding Shia shrines in Iraq. It appears that the organisation has formed a new branch, the Committee for Reconstructing Holy Sites in Syria, headed by Ali Reza Akbari, an Iranian citizen. It is not yet clear how exactly the Syrian branch differs from the one operating in Iraq, although the US Treasury Department placed the Iraqi branch on its sanctions list in March 2020, describing the group as being under the authority of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force.
The expansion project on the Sayyida Zeinab shrine was announced in 2017. At the time, ROHS said that the project was coordinated with UNESCO, the UN’s culture and education agency, as the area is home to historic buildings. However,The Syria Reportcannot confirm this claim.
The Sayyida Zeinab shrine has gained traction in recent years as a religious destination for Shia Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon, and has garnered attention from the Syrian government to stimulate religious tourism. The municipality, meanwhile, has taken advantage of wartime conditions to seize new properties, some of which belonged to the neighbouring town of Hujeira, where its residents were displaced and unable to return home.