Moscow is helping Syrian Jews renovate their holy sites in the war-torn country, Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week, despite the fact that no Jews are known to live there and there is no formal community.
“We also help representatives of Judaism, we help Jews also in the restoration of their shrines in Syria, and we are in fact cooperating with them on an ongoing basis,” he said during a press conference in Budapest. He was responding to a reporter’s question about what the Kremlin is doing to improve the situation of Christians in the Middle East.
Once home to a thriving Jewish community, most Jews left Syria after the founding of the State of Israel. Some Syrians still remember how in the years before the outbreak of the civil war, a handful of Jews gathered for services in the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in downtown Damascus. But today, it is unclear if there are any Jews left in the country.
Last year, a resident of Qamishli, a town in the north of Syria, told The Times of Israel that they would openly embrace any Jews who chose to return.
“I don’t understand the problem,” a local shoemaker said. “The neighbors of our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, were also Jews, so I see no reason why we should not have Jewish neighbors. Years ago, there were many Jewish families that used to live with us in peace.”
It is unclear what exactly Putin was referring to when he spoke about cooperating with local Jews about restoring their shrines.
Earlier this year, Russia transferred to Israel the remains of late IDF tank commander Zachary Baumel, allowing them to be returned to the Jewish state nearly 37 years after he went missing in the First Lebanon War’s Battle of Sultan Yacoub in 1982.
“Russian Army soldiers found the body in coordination with the Syrian military,” Putin said on April 4 during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In June 2016, Netanyahu, during a visit to Moscow, formally received on Israel’s behalf an IDF Magach-3 tank captured by Syria in the same battle in which Baumel fell.
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 the city’s 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 received permission which occurred with the commencement of Middle East peace talks in the 1990s.
AP and Ziv Genesove contributed to this report.