An Armenian Catholic church in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo has been partly destroyed by shelling widely blamed on Islamist rebels, drawing strong condemnation from Armenia’s government.
The Saint Rita church was reportedly hit by mortar rounds on Friday. Syrian pro-government media as well as local ethnic Armenians said they were fired by one of the Islamist militias fighting Syrian army units loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad. Nobody was hurt in the shelling, according to them.
Photographs posted by AlMasdarnews.com showed gaping holes on the church’s roof and walls and rubble strewn around its altar. The Arab news service claimed that the rebels also shelled surrounding neighborhoods.
The damaged church sits atop water wells used by Syrian Armenians and other Christians remaining in the war-torn city. The continuing civil war in Syria has left many parts of Aleppo without running water.
Zarmig Boghigian, the editor of Aleppo’s Armenian-language “Gandzasar” magazine, accused “terrorist groups” of deliberately targeting civilians and churches. “That area is not a frontline,” Boghigian argued in a phone interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Armenia reacted to the shelling on Saturday. “The international community should redouble its efforts to prevent such crimes against the civilian population, minorities and shrines,” Tigran Balayan, the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a statement.
The statement did not explicitly blame anyone for the attack on the church. But it did decry the “barbaric and savage nature” of the unnamed perpetrators, suggesting that Yerevan, which maintains diplomatic relations with Al-Assad’s regime, also holds rebel forces responsible for the shelling.
The Armenian pointed the finger at the Islamic State (ISIS) militants following last September’s destruction of another Armenian church located in Deir ez-Zor, eastern Syria. The Saint Martyrs’ Church was part of an Armenian genocide memorial complex built in 1989-1991. Its bombing was also strongly condemned by the United States and other Western powers.
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An estimated 80,000 ethnic Armenians, most of them descendants of survivors of the 1915 genocide in Ottoman Turkey, lived in Syria before the outbreak of the bloody conflict there. At least half of them have reportedly fled the country since then. More than 11,000 Syrian Armenians have taken refuge in Armenia.
The Syrian Armenian community was mainly concentrated in Aleppo. Only about 8,000 Syrian Armenians are believed to remain in a city that has been a focal point of heavy fighting between the Syrian army and rebel forces increasingly dominated by radical Islamists.
“The community lives in severe conditions,” said Boghigian. “But despite all this hardship, life goes on. Schools continue to have classes and people are trying to endure these difficulties and adapt to them.”
The shrinking community is a key reason why Armenia is one of the few countries that still have functioning diplomatic missions in Damascus and even Aleppo. While maintaining contacts with the Syrian regime, Yerevan has stopped short of openly supporting it in the conflict. President Serzh Sarkisian stated in April 2014 that Armenians in and outside Syria “must stay neutral.”