The Restoration of Armenian Churches in Syria

The Restoration of Armenian Churches in Syria

What happened to the Armenian heritage in Syria after the war? Some are destroyed, some – like the Church of the Holy Mother of God – are saved and restored.

Text : Emilio Luciano Cricchio


War has been raging in Syria since 2011, and although much of the fighting has abated, the conflict still hasn’t ended. The Armenian community in Syria, which some have estimated to be 100,000 strong, has felt the impact of this conflict, with many fleeing to Lebanon or other Arab nations, Europe and Armenia. Moreover, Turkey’s intervention in Idlib province and its widely condemned attack on Kurdish-led forces in Northeastern Syria have reignited worries amongst the Armenian community that threats remain to their longtime existence in Syria.

Once again Armenians found themselves in the midst of another Middle Eastern conflict, with many cities and towns inhabited by Armenians being embroiled in fighting, with some even overrun by fighters of the Islamic State.
As war dragged on, much of Syria’s cultural sites and places of worship were damaged, looted or even destroyed during the war, including many which are Armenian.

Regional Post got in touch with Bishop Armash Nalbandian of the Armenian Apostolic Church Diocese in Syria’s capital of Damascus to understand the situation regarding many of the Armenian cultural sites and churches in Syria, and whether any work is underway to restore these beacons of Armenian culture in Syria. 

Bishop Armash started by telling us that nearly 200 Armenian fatalities have been confirmed throughout the war. Moreover, 450 people suffered injuries as a direct result of military conflict.

1,200 houses were bombed or partly destroyed, 200 were totally destroyed, 900 sustained damage, 15 Armenian community centres were damaged, 19 schools were attacked, and 3,300 businesses and workshops were either damaged or looted.

Bearing in mind these grim figures, it’s easy to understand why the fate of many of the Armenian churches in Syria would be spotlighted, especially as many Islamist fundamentalist groups have and are operating on the ground, including the infamous Islamic State which is known for its persecution of Christians and other minorities. 

Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs in Raqqa

 

Probably the most iconic example is the Armenian Catholic Church of the Holy Martyrs which is located right in the centre, in what was the capital of the Islamic State. When IS took over the city, the church was converted into a headquarters of the religious morality police, known as the Hisba; later it became a military HQ. During the 2017 Battle of Raqqa, when Kurdish-led SDF forces took the city, the structure was completely destroyed, rendering it almost beyond recognition. In late 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces de-mined the church and its surroundings.

However, Raqqa’s Civic Council announced in early 2020 that restoration work on the Armenian church would begin, with its reopening to the public being scheduled for early 2021. This church has been described by some as a metaphor for Raqqa itself, moving from the Islamic State to complete destruction, then to reconstruction. 

Some other Armenian places of worship have met even less fortunate fates. In 2014, the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir Ez Zour was reportedly blown up by Islamic State fighters when they took over the majority of that region.

 

Armenian Genocide Martyrs’ Memorial in Deir Zour

 

The memorial church was constructed to commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide, as Deir Ez Zour was once the site of a death camp where Armenians were marched to after Ottoman Empire officials ordered the mass-deportations of Armenians from Anatolia. 

Since then, the region of Deir Ez Zour has remained one of the most volatile parts of Syria and remains split between the SDF and pro-Assad forces. It is also known to have IS sleeper cells, Iran's IRGC and US troops operating on its territory. 

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has vowed however to reconstruct and restore the memorial church, but as of yet no concrete steps have been taken to do so. 

Apart from these two examples which received widespread international attention, there are many less famous cases of Armenian churches that have been restored since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. 

The Forty Martyrs Cathedral is one of the oldest active churches in the northern city of Aleppo, which was the site of major battles between the Syrian Army and rebel forces.

In 2015, as the Battle of Aleppo raged on, the church came under artillery fire. Later, in what many suspect was a targeted attack by Jabhat Al Nusra fighters, explosives were laid under the cathedral, which destroyed 70% of the structure. 

In 2019, the Armenian community of Syria funded a complete restoration of the cathedral, once the Syrian Army had gained full control of Aleppo. This was one of the most notable restoration efforts in the city of Aleppo. 

In 2019, another major Armenian church in Aleppo, the Church of the Holy Mother of God, had its belfries and dome restored after gunfire and artillery shells had caused damage. The church did not sustain significant damage but has been fully restored and is now in good condition and open to worshippers. 

Armenian Catholic Cathedral of Our Mother of Reliefs was bombed in 2015 in Aleppo. Fighters of the Islamic Front fired mortars at the cathedral in the early hours of the morning, creating a gaping hole in the dome. The bishop responsible for the diocese stated even that in case the attack took place two hours later, the cathedral would have been filled with churchgoers. 

Forty Martyrs Armenian Cathedral of Aleppo

 

In 2019 however, the cathedral was fully restored, and the reopening was attended by interfaith leaders, including the Grand Mufti of Syria and the Papal Ambassador. 

The Surp Khach Church is located in the town of Tel Abyad along the Syrian-Turkish border. In 2014, Tel Abyad fell into the hands of the Islamic State which set the church on fire. Later, Kurdish-led forces retook the town and repaired the damage which was inflicted by IS.

In 2019, Turkey launched an invasion of Northeastern Syria. Turkish-backed rebels took control over Tel Abyad and vandalized the Armenian church there. Pictures of the damage were posted on social media by journalist Jenan Moussa.

Turkish media then reported from the church showing that the damage had been repaired and that religious services were once again taking place. Turkey’s offensive into Syria, and the groups they back in Syria, have been questioned by many who hold concerns for minorities. This may well have been an apparent camera op to show that Turkey’s invasion of Syria would not result in the persecution of minorities. 

These are but some notable examples, even speaking to Bishop Nalbandian, it still proves difficult to conjure all the information needed to ascertain the situation of all the Armenian churches in Syria. We know other restoration works have taken place in places like Kessab, but the details remain murky.

Having said this, some analysts see the war as drawing to a close, so the Armenian churches of Syria can now look to restoring rather than worrying about projectiles, mortars and barrel bombs.

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