Saturday, December 21, 2013

as-Safir on the Destruction of Chruches in Syria

Arabic original here. A partial list of churches in Syria that have been damaged or destroyed, compiled by the Greek Catholic Patriarchate, can be found here.

Syrian Christmas... And the Systemic Destruction of Civilization

By Ala' Halabi

Christian clergy do not believe that the terrible damage wrought by the Syrian crisis is limited to Christians alone. "Syrian society is being affected in all its constituent parts," says the head of the Evangelical church in Aleppo, Rev. Ibrahim Nasir, adding that "What is happening is not Syrian culture. It is an imported culture, behind which are interests seeking to destroy the edifice of Syria."

There are no exact figures for the damage caused by current events in Syria and how it has affected Christians in particular. However, unofficial estimates indicate that more than 30 churches have been destroyed or damaged in various areas of Syria since the outbreak of the crisis in March 2011, while the destruction of more than 1400 mosques, around 3000 schools, and 37 hospitals has been registered. Perhaps the most striking effect of the crisis, which is continuing today, is the emigration of Christians, who before the start of the events constituted around 10% of the population. With the ongoing emigration of Christians, it is difficult to make a clear or official estimate of what proportion of the emigration is due to acts of violence.

Sources following the case of Christians in Aleppo, for example, say that a third of the city's Christians are now outside Syria and another third of them have fled to other regions within Syria, while a third steadfastly remain in Aleppo. They state that, "the destination of those who left the country varies between Lebanon and some European countries," which, according to the source, "encouraged the emigration of Christians, which was met with rejection from Christian religious leaders within Syria, who are striving to keep the Christian element in Syria."

Most Christians have fled to safe districts within the cities of Damascus and Aleppo and the area of Wadi al-Nasara outside of Homs, as well as areas of coastal Syria. In light of the difficult humanitarian situation, their situation is like the situation of other Syrian refugees, with various Christian and charitable organizations attempting to provide them with the necessities for life.

"At the beginning of the acts of violence in Syria, Christians distanced themselves," says the observer, "except that with the increasing frequency of incidents and the increase of Wahhabi takfiri voices penetrating into Syria, Christians became a target for expulsion, murder, theft, and kidnapping. Their factories and homes were robbed (as happened in Aleppo), they were deprived of their sources of livelihood, and their monuments were looted and plundered." The source gives examples of this, "Christian monuments in the region of Jebel Siman have mostly been looted and some reports coming from there state that looted antiquities have been transported outside Syria via Turkey, where they were sold on the black market."

For his part, the abbot of the Monastery of Saint Peter in Marmarita, Father Walid Iskandafi, who is also the general episcopal vicar for the Greek Catholic diocese of Lattakia and Tartus, stresses that "the ongoing war in Syria has shown that it not only targets humans and humanity. It also destroys history, civilization, and heritage." He continues in his discussion with as-Safir, "There is no doubt that the first and last party to benefit from what is happening is Israel."

Among the monasteries and churches that have been severely damaged by the events is the Monastery of Seidnaya, which is considered the most famous monastery in Syria and was targeted by mortar fire at the beginning of 2012 and which is once more threatened by the approach of armed groups from the city of Seidnaya, which for a long time had been relatively safe. The city, outside Damascus, is witnessing waves of refugees with the intensification of the frequency of battles and their nearing the city.

While the damage suffered by the Monastery of Seidnaya was minor, the oldest church in the world was completely destroyed when the Church of Our Lady's Girdle, which is said to be the oldest church on the face of the earth as it was built in 59 AD, since it was burned and destroyed. Similarly, the Church of the Forty Martyrs in Homs, which is one of the oldest churches in that governate. The same applies to the Church of Saint Elias in Qusayr, which was also destroyed.

In Aleppo, the Arab Evangelical Church in Aleppo was destroyed when armed rebels filled it with explosives and detonated it. Likewise, the Armenian Church of Saint Kevork and the Bethlehem School attached to it were destroyed.

The head of the Evangelical Church in Aleppo, the Rev. Ibrahim Nasir says that five churches have been destroyed in the Old City of Aleppo. This was after terrorists entered the historic Jdeideh neighborhood. He adds that armed men also destroyed a church in of Meidan, before the Syrian Army was able to regain control over the neighborhood populated by Christians, mostly Armenians who were expelled when armed men stormed the neighborhood.

Neighborhoods in the Old City of Damascus, which is populated by Christians, have been targeted with mortar fire that has damaged some churches. The same is the case for Christian neighborhoods in Aleppo, which are also targeted by mortar fire.

With the approach of Christmas and New Year's, there appear to be no signs of joy or preparation for the holidays. Since last year, celebrations have been limited to prayers seeking mercy and an end to violence in Syria. Recently, there have also been prayers for those who have been kidnapped, most prominently bishops Boulos Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim, who were kidnapped by armed extremists outside Aleppo last April, as well as the nuns who were kidnapped from the Monastery of Saint Thekla in Maaloula, who were kidnapped after extremist factions stormed the historic town.

Salafi jihadist organizations in Syria see Christians as an enemy that should be fought and expelled. Sometimes they occupy churches and monasteries, destroying their symbols and turning them into bases for Salafi jihadist propaganda. This recently happened at the Armenian church in Raqqa, which was taken over by several extremist groups, most prominently Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. However, Rev. Ibrahim Nasir insists that Christians will remain in Syria, stressing that the Christian in Syria "is a Syrian first." He continues, "They think that Christians are a weak element in Syria. The Christians are an episode of a series called Syria and so they will not be able to end the Christian presence unless they end Syrian civilization, which is impossible for them."

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