THE destruction by Islamic State (IS) jihadists on Sunday of the Baalshamin temple in the ancient ruins outside Palmyra, in Syria, is the latest act of cultural barbarity carried out by the group.
The head of Syria’s department of antiquities and museums, Maamoun Abdul-karim, said that IS placed “a large quantity of explosives” in the temple, and then “blew it up, causing much damage”. The explosion brought down the pillars of the temple, which is nearly 2000 years old, and destroyed the inner part of the structure.
A week earlier, IS committed an act of human barbarity in Palmyra, beheading Khaled al-Asaad, aged 81, the self-taught archaeologist who had looked after the town’s ruins for four decades. He refused to leave Palmyra when IS forces occupied it earlier this year, insisting that it was his duty to stay and watch over the site. There are suggestions that Mr Asaad was killed after refusing to reveal to IS where some of the town’s archaeological treasures had been hidden to stop them falling into the wrong hands.
Such is the ruthless and chauvinistic belief of IS fighters in their particular interpretation of Islam that their list of potential targets is endless. Islamic objects that do not conform to their fanatical outlook, as much as Christian or Yezidi ones, are in danger. Thus IS has produced photographs of two Islamic shrines near Palmyra being destroyed, having denounced them as “manifestations of polytheism”.
Christians and Christian buildings continue to be prominent in the IS firing line. One of the latest atrocities involved the use of bulldozers to destroy the Syriac Catholic Mar Elian monastery at the small oasis town of Qaryatain in central Syria. The monastery was founded more than 1500 years ago. French newspapers reported that the monastery’s superior, Fr Jacques Mourad, had been kidnapped.
When IS drove the Syrian army out of Qaryatain this month, it rounded up more than 200 people, including at least 60 Christians (News, 14 August). Since then, about 50 captives have been freed, and 110 transferred to the IS base at Raqqa. The fate of the remaining 70 or so who were detained is unknown.
In a rare piece of good news from Syria, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Gregory III, announced last week that a 50-year-old priest, Fr Antoine Boutros, had been freed by his kidnappers — whose identity is still not known. The priest and his driver were taken while on their way to church in early July. Also released from captivity in eastern Syria were 22 elderly Assyrians who were abducted from their villages six months ago.
Besides Fr Mourad, three churchmen remain missing in Syria: the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Paul Yazigi, who were abducted in April 2013 (News, 3, 31 May 2013); and the Italian Jesuit Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was kidnapped in July 2013 (News, 2 August 2013).
Military intervention has thus far failed to contain, let alone defeat, the IS presence in Syria and Iraq. Nor has the international community yet decided how to react to the spread of IS to North Africa, which resulted in the killing of 30 British tourists on a beach in Tunisia in June.
But the Foreign Minister of the internationally recognised government in Libya, Mohammed al-Dayri, is calling on Arab states to carry out air strikes against IS in his country. IS has established a base in the town of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, midway between Tripoli and Benghazi.
Mr Dayri told The Guardian that “barbaric acts have been perpetrated by IS. We had people beheaded in Benghazi, and what happened in Sirte went beyond imagination. People were crucified and burned. Twelve Libyans were beheaded on 12 August.” In February, 21 Egyptian Copts were murdered by IS jihadists in Libya (News, 20 February).