Torah scrolls are lost in chaos of Syria civil war

MEMORIES: File pictures of prayers in a Damascus synagogue 10 years ago

JEWISH artefacts, including ancient Torah scolls from one of the world's oldest synagogues, have gone missing from Damascus amid the civil war.

Some precious items have reportedly surfaced abroad.

Activists say the artefacts — moved from the now-destroyed Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital’s eastern Ghouta suburb when it was taken by rebels — were allegedly put into safe keeping to avoid theft and damage in 2013.

But twice since then, local officials have discovered some are missing.

The main missing cache, they say, contained Torah scrolls written on gazelle leather as well as tapestries and chandeliers.

They were given to a militia by a local council for safekeeping when rebels surrendered the area to government forces earlier this year.

That group, the Islamist-inspired Failaq al-Rahman brigade, later said that it was not in possession of the items after the council arrived at a new rebel base in Syria’s north when evacuating earlier this year.

Another set of objects appears to have been stolen by a Syrian guardian entrusted by the local council to hide the items in his home.

The man, who officials involved declined to name, disappeared with the items in 2014 before some allegedly resurfaced in Turkey.

“Some of the items that went missing in 2014 and this year have started surfacing now in Turkey,” said an activist who lived near the synagogue his whole life until fleeing the area in March after a crushing government offensive.

The man, who goes by the name of Hassan al-Dimashqi, said the ensuing government airstrikes and bombardment destroyed most of the synagogue and the surrounding area, although some of the pillars remain standing.

The synagogue — also known as Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) — is one of the few Jewish places of worship in Syria that was functioning until shortly before the conflict began in March, 2011.

Residents of the area remember how fewer than a dozen Jews — most of them over 50 — came quietly once a week to pray.

In September, 2016, there were believed to be only 18 Jews left in Syria.

Videos and photographs from the synagogue taken before the civil war show a main hall of arches lined with seats and tapestries.

Chandeliers and lanterns hang from the ceiling as well as a marble stone with writing in Hebrew, Arabic and Latin.

During a visit by an Associated Press photographer to the synagogue in January, 2000, Youssef Jajati, a Jewish community leader in Syria at the time, showed the Sifrei Torah stored in a silver container inside a cupboard.

Al-Dimashqi said that for months after rebels seized the area in 2013, the synagogue was protected by the main local force in Jobar, known at the time as the Haroun al-Rashid Brigade. Later that year, local officials formed a committee that decided to empty the building and hide its contents, he added.

Some local officials say the man who disappeared in 2014 reached Europe and the artefacts he took ended up in Israel, according to al-Dimashqi, although his ultimate fate and that of the antiquities remain unknown.

The whereabouts of the items entrusted with Failaq al-Rahman have not been verified, although al-Dimashqi and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — a war monitor — say some of the pieces, including historical scripts, have surfaced in Turkey.

Turkish state media reported last month that authorities had detained five people in the country's north-west who were trying to sell two old Torahs for eight million Turkish lira (£1.28 million). It said the manuscripts were written on gazelle leather.

Maamoun Abdul-Karim, who until recently was Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums, has publicly urged the Turks to verify the manuscripts’ authenticity. In the 1990s, rumours circulated in Damascus that the originals had been stolen, switched with copies, and smuggled to I srael, he added.

Failaq al-Rahman has denied having any role in the artefacts' disappearance, challenging accusers to present proof that would show otherwise. Meanwhile, two officials from Jobar's local council, which had initially organised the hiding away of the holy objects, refused to speak to the Associated Press, fearing for their safety.

In the Middle Ages, Syria was home to one of the largest Jewish settlements in the world, with most living in the Damascus area.

The community dates back to Elijah’s Damascus sojourn nearly 3,000 ago, but Jewish life really blossomed in the city after 1099, when Christian armies conquered Jerusalem in the First Crusade and massacred inhabitants.

Historians say 50,000 Jews fled to Damascus, making almost one in three Damascenes Jewish almost overnight.

Some became government ministers and advisers, and the community grew to around 100,000 by the turn of the 20th century.

Tens of thousands of Jews fled following Israel’s creation in 1948, while others held in Syria against their will finally emigrated once they were allowed to when Middle East peace talks began in the 1990s.

Syria has accused Israel of stealing the artefacts with the help of Turkey. Israel denies involvement and accuses Syria of trying to distract world attention away from the civil war, where the Jewish state has intervened with strikes that have killed Syrian troops.

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