Plundered Syrian Torah scrolls said held by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels

Looters demand the release of prisoners held by Assad in return for Judaica stolen from ancient Damascus synagogue

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Inscription on the Jobar Synagogue, near Damascus, Syria (photo credit: screen capture YouTube)
Inscription on the Jobar Synagogue, near Damascus, Syria (photo credit: screen capture YouTube)

Torah scrolls and other Judaica plundered from an ancient Damascus synagogue are being held by an Islamist group inside Syria, which is demanding the release of prisoners captured by the Assad regime in return for the items, The Times of Israel has learned.

Reports on the destruction and looting of the millennia-old Jobar synagogue in Damascus emerged as early as March, but those responsible for the theft have never been clearly identified, as government and opposition forces traded accusations.

The Jobar synagogue — said to be 2,000-years-old — was built on the site where the prophet Elijah is said to have concealed himself from persecution and anointed his successor, Elisha, as a prophet. It was badly damaged in March by mortars reportedly fired by Syrian government forces; some reports say the building was destroyed.

A source involved in negotiating for the release of the Judaica items and their extraction from Syria, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the objects were being held inside Syria by a group affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front, an Islamist organization associated with al-Qaeda and defined as a terrorist organization by the US. He said the stolen items include at least three or four Torah scrolls as well as ancient Jewish scrolls and silverware.

“They took everything they could get their hands on,” the source said. “They want prisoners held by Assad [in exchange for them].”

Only a handful of Jews remain in Syria as a remnant of an ancient community which numbered 4,000 as late as 1992.

Syrian rebels accused the government in March of looting the synagogue before burning it to the ground, allegations the regime vehemently denied.

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. The rabbi died in 375.

Another inscription, in Arabic, said it was the tomb of Al-Khidhr, held in some Islamic traditions to be a prophet who traveled with Moses.

JTA and Yoel Goldman contributed to this report.

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