Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Who destroyed the Armenian genocide memorial church in Syria?

This was originally published in the Armenian Reporter on September 22, 2014 and since updated.

Report: Armenian memorial blown up amid fighting in Der Zor
by Emil Sanamyan

Syrian government forces blow up a bridge in Deir Zor in mid-September 2014
WASHINGTON – Forces loyal to the group known as the Islamic State (or ISIS) have rigged and dynamited the Armenian Holy Martyrs church and memorial in Der Zor, Syrian government news agency claimed on September 21. The Armenian foreign ministry condemned the reported destruction as a “horrible barbarity” and urged the international community to “eradicate” ISIS.

Since 2011, Syria has been devastated by a war that over the past year transformed into a four-sided conflict that includes, in addition to the regime of Bashar Assad, anti-regime alliance of Western-backed Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front, anti-Western Islamic State and Kurdish forces in Syria’s northeast. With fighting reaching major community centers of Aleppo and Kessab, much of the Armenian population has fled and dozens if not hundreds of Armenians are believed to have been killed.

Throughout  2014 reports have come in of fighting between Syrian regime forces surrounding the city of Der Zor and ISIS and other rebels holed up in the city center (see map). A Syrian army helicopter reportedly dropped a 500-pound bomb on rebel positions in Der Zor in early September. Last week, Iranian state TV reported that the Syrian army attacked ISIS positions in Der Zor, including just blocks away from the Armenian Church and memorial. On September 15 videos surfaced reportedly showing the destruction of a bridge over Euphrates River blown up by government forces a day before in the effort to interdict ISIS supply line into Der Zor.

Fighting between the government and Islamist opposition forces first began in Der Zor three years ago. In November 2012, opposition forces released a video of a damaged but generally intact Armenian memorial building. By 2014 ISIS forces were reportedly fighting other anti-government Islamist groups in Der Zor area and apparently gaining ground.

Since its growth in strength in the past two years, ISIS is known to have blown up dozens of Islamic (primarily Shiite), Christian and Yezidi religious shrines throughout Syria and Iraq. In the Syrian town of Raqqa, ISIS converted an Armenian Catholic church into an Islamic center. Remnants of the Armenian community in this part of Syria have taken refuge in Kurdish-controlled Hassaka and Qamishli, which are now bearing a brunt of an ISIS offensive with tens of thousands of local residents fleeing to Turkey.

In August, for the first time since their withdrawal from Iraq three years ago, U.S. forces launched airstrikes focused on stemming of an ISIS offensive in northern Iraq, and Washington warned it may launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria as well. In apparent response, ISIS released videos of beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker.

UPDATE: From late September, the United States launched air strikes in Syria that have helped prevent ISIS capture of a Kurdish enclave of Kobane* in northern Syria, but had not at year's end substantially reversed ISIS gains in either Syria or Iraq.

ISIS never claimed responsibility for destroying the Armenian memorial and it remains unclear if it was in fact ISIS that did it, with Syrian government artillery or air force - which has destroyed much of the rest of the city - being the other likely culprit. But Armenian organizations around the world unanimously blamed ISIS.

However, on November 6, the Armenian Weekly published an interview with the Archbishop of Armenian Church in Aleppo Shahan Sarkisian, who noted: "who destroyed the Der Zor Holy Martyrs Memorial and Church, and why? There is no verified evidence about it. It’s the analysis that makes you think that on this date this happened, or that on this date this was said, and so that means that these groups were responsible for it. This is one side of it. [...]

"The images that emerged from Der Zor—if the perpetrators belonged to a group that prepares images in order to shock the world, it would have been very easy for them to disseminate footage of the destruction [of the church] on YouTube. They didn’t disseminate anything. There is one photograph, maximum two. [...]

"We know the groups we’ve had conflicts with, and they know us. But those that we have not had issues with, why should I name them [as culprits]? That would only turn their attention to us. Because of that, this group that has invaded large parts of two countries has had no direct conflict, relation, or communication with us. Absolutely none. [...]"

On November 10, the Independent of London published a report from its veteran Beirut-based correspondent Robert Fisk, who earlier flew on the Syrian air force plane from Damascus to Qamishli in Syria's northeast, where he met with Monsignor Antranik Ayvazian of the Armenian Catholic Church. Ayvazian put the blame for destruction on Jabhat al-Nusra, rather than ISIS. 

According to Fisk's report "Msr Ayvazian suffered his own personal loss in the Syrian war when Islamist fighters broke into the Mediterranean town of Qassab on 22 April this year. “They burned all my books and documents, many of them very old, and left my library with nothing but 60cm of ash on the floor.”" Ayvazian emphasizes his close relations with the Syrian military and refusal to collaborate with the Islamists who he claims reached out to him. Fisk's article also hints at potential role of Turkey as the backer of Nusra and a country that continues to deny the genocide.

In March 2014, the mostly Armenian-populated Qassab (or Kessab) was captured by Jabhat al-Nusra attacking from across the Turkish border, before being recaptured by the Syrian government in June. Kessab's Armenian churches were partly ransacked but not destroyed.

But as has been pointed out by Sam Hardy in his report for Hyperallergic on November 11, by September ISIS had already overrun Nusra forces in Deir Zor and Nusra could not have been responsible for the memorial church destruction. That leaves ISIS as the main culprit, Hardy concluded.

Certainly, neither ISIS nor Al Qaida-affiliated Nusra have offered Syria's Christian communities, including Armenians, any compelling reasons not to dread their overrunning the rest of the country. Syrian Christians are left clinging to the Assad regime for security. But it is well documented that the Syrian government forces have not held back in their indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and aerial bombing, and it is quite likely their shelling of Deir Zor also did not spare the Armenian Genocide memorial church.

At the year's end, Syrian government forces managed to recapture most of the city of Deir Zor, but the remains of the Armenian church located in the central district of al-Rashdiya were still under ISIS control, according to this map.

A comparison of features in before and after photos of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor (analysis by Sam Hardy for

* Kobane is another place in Syria with an Armenian story; it was founded as an Armenian refugee settlement after the genocide, but most of its Armenians moved to Soviet Armenia in the 1960s. See Viken Cheterian's October 2013 
interview with Syrian Kurdish leader and Kobane native Saleh Muslim Mohammed.

UPDATE2: After six years of fighting, Syrian government forces regained full control of Deir Zor in November 2017 and fresh photos of the damaged Armenian genocide memorial church made available, courtesy of Al Masdar News.

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