Dispatch: Syria rebels ‘burned down churches and destroyed Christian graves’

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From the Telegraph

Rain seeped into the tombs through shattered flagstones. Nearby, marble crosses lay in pieces. Plastic flowers, once lovingly placed on a grave, were torn and stamped into the earth. Beside the desecrated graveyard in the Syrian town of Kessab stood the Holy Trinity Armenian Evangelical church. Its library, pews and altar had all been burned by arsonists.

The perpetrators had shown both purpose and glee in their destruction of Christian sites in this ancient Armenian town. Statues were riddled with bullets and Islamist slogans were scrawled across the walls of homes and shops.

Once a haven from Syria’s civil war, nestled in the hills of Latakia province, Kessab gained international fame when it was captured by rebels last spring in a surprise offensive that forced the town’s 2,500 Armenian Christians to flee. 

The Telegraph travelled to the area on a facility trip with the Syrian regime to witness the aftermath of the battle. The desecration of Kessab’s churches contradicts the claims of Syrian rebels that their fighters are non-sectarian protectors of Christian residents and heritage. 

During weeks of planning before the assault, rebel fighters were given strict orders to use the offensive to show themselves as “moderate Muslims” and natural allies of the West. . . 

In the first hours, all appeared to be going according to plan. Insurgents, including those from the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, posed for pictures showing them protecting churches and talking gently to local people.

About 30 Armenians, who had been too elderly or frail to escape the offensive, were placed on minibuses and driven to Turkey, where they were given a warm reception that was covered in minute detail by state television.

Ignoring the participation of Islamist extremists in the offensive – including a large number of foreign jihadists – Ahmed Jarba, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, travelled to Kessab and claimed a victory. But immediately after the media spotlight fell away, residents of Kessab told the Telegraph that the desecration began.

“They took photographs to show they were looking after the churches, and then set them alight,” said Father Miron Avedissian, priest of the Armenian Apostolic church that was largely destroyed. “It all still happened in the first day.” 

Doors, walls and shopfronts on the town’s narrow streets are covered in scrawled messages declaring “There is no God but Allah”.

The white paint is still fresh on the walls of Father Avedissian’s church as he tries to repair the damage.

Tufts of burned carpet on the staircase, and partly melted air-conditioning units on the walls, show the intensity of the fire that wrecked its interior.

The priest flicked through photographs on his iPhone: one image showed himself inside the church, pointing to a vandalised painting of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Outside, the crosses carved into the stone over the wide arch doors were riddled with bullet holes.

Nearby, the Holy Trinity Armenian Evangelical church was little more than a burned shell. Walls were blackened by smoke; wooden pews, tapestries, Bibles and kneeling cushions had all been incinerated in a fire that appeared to have raged until there was nothing left to burn. 

Writing, ostensibly by the rebels, covered the church’s walls. The names of the rebel groups who participated in the attack appeared to be listed. The graveyard was little more than a field of smashed masonry, its headstones individually defaced.

The Telegraph cannot independently confirm that all of the damage was inflicted by the rebels.

Zavinar Sargdegian, a 58-year-old resident, said that she witnessed the churches being set alight. “I was at home with my husband when they raided the house,” she said. “They broke down the front door. They pushed us on to the street. We were on our knees and they put a gun to our heads. From the road I saw the Angelic Church burning. Fire was coming out of the doors and windows.” The rebels included men from Chechnya, Tunisia and Libya, she said. 

Tweets dating from the days after the rebels stormed the town on 21 March include pictures of jihadists destroying crosses in the churches. 

Christians have not been their only targets. In 2013, jihadists swept into several villages in Latakia inhabited by the Alawite minority. They murdered dozens of civilians and kidnapped hundreds of women and children, some of whom are still missing. Extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isil) are believed to have joined these attacks. 

Most of Kessab’s people were able to escape before their town fell to the insurgents. There is no evidence of the “massacre” of civilians claimed by regime loyalists – at one point supposedly “proved” with images that were later identified as shots from a horror film.

But the fall of the Armenian town summoned bitter memories of persecution. In 1909, tens of thousands of Armenians were killed during the Adana massacre under the Ottoman empire. Then in 1915, a further 5,000 residents of Kessab were killed by the Ottomans during what some historians consider the “genocide” of the Armenian minority. I don’t think there is any doubt about it being a genocide – the first of the 20th century and Hitler’s inspiration. 

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