The 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital of Damascus — the country’s holiest Jewish site — was looted and burned to the ground.
The Syrian army loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel forces were blaming each other for the destruction of the historic synagogue, according to reports on Sunday.
The synagogue was said to be built on the site where the prophet Elijah concealed himself from persecution and anointed his successor, Elisha, as a prophet. It had been damaged earlier this month by mortars reportedly fired by Syrian government forces.
The rebels said the Syrian government looted the synagogue before burning it to the ground, Israel Radio reported Sunday.
The government said the rebels burned the synagogue and that so-called Zionist agents stole its historic religious items in an operation that had been planned for several weeks, the Arabic Al-Manar Television reported, citing the Arabic Syria Truth website.
The news came as Jews around the world marked the final days of Passover, the festival of freedom.
One of the oldest synagogues in the world, the shul was partially destroyed by Syrian government shelling four weeks ago, according to a video posted to YouTube.
The video, uploaded by the Syrian opposition’s military council, appeared to show that portions of the building and roof were blown off, with debris seen on the ground in front of the synagogue.
An inscription in English at the synagogue reads, “Shrine and synagogue of prophet Eliahou Hanabi since 720 B.C.,” although the actual date of founding is disputed. One of the earliest mentions of the synagogue is in the Talmud, which states that Rabbi Rafram bar Pappa prayed there.
Another inscription, in Arabic, said it was the tomb of Al-Khizr, held in some Islamic traditions to be a prophet who traveled with Moses.
The synagogue served a large Jewish community in the medieval period, but by the mid-1800s only one Jewish family lived in the area. Still, Jews came from across the city to pray there, and there was a tradition of leaving the sick in the building in the belief that Elijah’s spirit might heal them.
On Monday, people from both sides of the conflict said they were sad to see the site ruined.
“It’s the heritage of the homeland regardless of religion, whether it’s Jewish, Muslim or Christian,” Maamoun Abdul-Karim, head of the Antiquities and Museums Department of the Syrian Culture Ministry, told The Associated Press. “It’s the Syrian mosaic and the heritage of the people.”
Abdul-Karim said some objects from the synagogue had been stolen last year, but that officials hadn’t been able to visit the building in about four months because rebels control the area.
After establishing footholds in a number of Damascus suburbs last year, rebel fighters sought to push into Damascus through Jobar, where they now clash daily with government troops.
An anti-government activist in Jobar reached via Skype on Monday said the synagogue had been looted continuously during recent months and was damaged by government shelling meant to push rebels from the area.
He said he visited the facility in early March and found the main sanctuary undamaged.
“I don’t know exactly what was there originally, but we know there were lots of old books and artifacts that are not there anymore,” said the activist, who goes by the name Abu Hassaan al-Damishqi.
He said the site had been looted by government soldiers or thieves taking advantage of a lack of security.
“This is the history of the city, and it doesn’t matter if you are a Muslim or not,” he said. “This is the history of our country, so we all want to protect it.”
Syria’s Jewish community faced rampant discrimination after the establishment of Israel. With Jewish property rights severely limited, the synagogue was taken over and converted to a school for Palestinian refugees.
Only some 20 Jews are believed to live in Syria today, all of them in the capital.
In early 2011, Assad announced plans to rebuild about a dozen synagogue across Syria, including in Damascus — a move that was regarded in part as an effort to gain some support from American Jewry.
The nearly two-year-old civil war in Syria has caused damage to six World Heritage sites, according to Al Arabiya. UNESCO called for the protection of the country’s cultural heritage sites last March, expressing “grave concern” at the time.
The UN estimates that 70,000 people have died in the fighting between Assad regime forces and Syrian rebels.
Associated Press contributed to this report.