In Syria, the Islamic State causes the exodus of minorities who are under attack, and threatens the existence of ancient sacred places of worship

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:21:44

We publish lengthy excerpts from an article published on Œuvre d’Orient, n. 781 (October-November-December 2015), pp. 335-343, which not only explain the situation of the Christian communities in Syria threatened by the extremism of the Islamic State, but also the conditions and the threat to sacred sites and Christian architecture in that country. (…) In Aleppo, the second most important city of the Ottoman empire after Istanbul, a Christian neighborhood, developed in the sixteenth century, hosted numerous churches. The bombings, which from 2011 and then, more intensely in April and May 2015, especially targeted this part of the city, seriously damaged the Maronite, Melkite, Armenian and Catholic cathedrals, and completely destroyed the Armenian Forty Martyrs Church which preserved beautiful icons. The evangelical church was destroyed by explosives. The numerous kidnappings of Christian citizens have reduced this community to 50,000 people. The Syrian non-chalcedonian and Greek-orthodox bishops were kidnapped two years ago along with hundreds of parishioners. Since then, there has been no further news about the whereabouts or wellbeing. Homs was for a long time a pilgrimage destination to St. John the Baptist who was dedicated a shrine. In Homs, until the fourth century, non-chalcedonian Syriacs possessed a church where the belt of the Virgin was said to be kept, and at the beginning of the twentieth century the patriarch of this community still resided in Homs, before taking office in Damascus. The Church of the Virgin was rebuilt in the nineteenth century in “Seljuk” style, characterized by the “Ablaq” alternation of black and white stones. Unfortunately, this basilica collapsed under recent bombings. Jabhat al-Nusra militants occupied Kassab, a small mountain city in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border, where Armenian families and descendants of the 1915 genocide had settled. The city’s inhabitants fled to Lattakia. […] Ma’loula, 55 kilometers north of Damascus, has a mixed population, two thirds are Christian and a third is Muslim. The Melkite convents of St. George and St. Bacchus, which overlook the city from above, conserve a fourth century altar and some valuable icons; just below, the Orthodox convent of Saint Tecla is a destination of the traditional pilgrimage of all Arabic speaking Orthodox Christians. The Jabhat al-Nusra militants, who occupied Ma’loula starting in the beginning of September 2013, have ransacked the two convents, decapitated the statue of the Virgin, kidnapped eighteen nuns bringing them to Yabroud, who were only released in March 2014 in Lebanon following the release of one hundred and fifty Islamist prisoners. Three young Christians were executed for refusing to apostatize. The Syrian army took back the city on September 11, and the places of worship have been rebuilt. Mar Mus (Saint Moses), near Homs, is a Syrian-Catholic monastery. The monastery had been abandoned until Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio took up residence there in the 1980s and, with the help of some Italian restorers, he brought to light beautifully colored sixth century frescoes. This gave rise to a community that has taken the name of al-Khalil (Abraham) and organized highly successful Islamic-Christian dialogue. Unfortunately, when Father Paolo Dall’Oglio disappeared in Raqqa in 2013, during an alleged exchange of prisoners, the community, due to insecurity in the region, was unable to survive. […] Saidnaya, 80 kilometers north of Damascus, in the Qalamun Mountain range, has long been a pilgrimage site of the Virgin of which a church keeps an ancient icon, though it is hidden from sight. The pilgrims came from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The Orthodox nuns, also known as “hajja,” like the Muslims of the city, welcomed many Christian and Muslim families who went to pray to the Virgin. […] In the Medieval Age, the Saint Simeon Church was a pilgrimage site devoted to the style and miracle worker Simeon, who lived atop a pillar from 419 to 459. This sanctuary, which remained the largest in the East until the construction of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, covers an area of 12,000 square meters. The Itinéraire, drawn up by an anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux in the fifth century, shows that Western pilgrims came by sea to Alexandria, then to Sinai before reaching Jerusalem, and made their return through the Church of Saint Simeon, a building equipped with three guesthouses and the famous cruciform church built by Emperor Zeno around the base of the holy stylite column. Jabhat al-Nusra militants have occupied and looted the site. Yabroud, which is and has long been the birthplace of Melkite intellectuals and scholars (Nicolas Sarkis, oil expert, Boutros Hallaq) was the site of beautiful historic churches. Al-Nusra militants have occupied the city, making it their general headquarters, chasing away the majority of its inhabitants and causing extensive damage to the churches and their furnishings. The icons have been sent to Damascus for repairs. Eastern Syria, occupied by ISIS, has seen its population flee towards Turkey or Western Syria in inhumane conditions. Religious building have been ransacked if not totally demolished. On September 22, 2014, in Deir Ezzor, ISIS militants blew up the mausoleum of the Armenian Genocide Memorial (…). Al-Hasakah has been besieged for many months now in the attempt to “empty the city of Christians,” as announced every day by ISIS mercenaries from the loudspeakers. The inhabitants are descendants of Assyrian Iraqis who were massacred by the Iraqi army in 1993 and welcomed in Syria by the French generals, including one which would become General Pierre Rondot. Two cities were created to welcome them: Al-Hasakah and Al-Qamishli. The thirty-four Assyrian villages which stand in the vicinity, along the Euphrates and the Khabur rivers, have been abandoned by their residents due to the insecurity generated by the takfiristis (islamists). Turkey has closed its borders to Christian refugees making their escape difficult. […] As for the Christians in Raqqa, they are prohibited from ringing church bells and they are forced to pay the jizya, equal to 17 grams of gold per head for the wealthiest and 4.5 grams of gold for the poor. Unlike the Christians in Mosul, those in Raqqa have not yet been expelled and for the moment seem to have kept their property.