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Palmyra: only a small part of IS’s campaign of religiously motivated destruction

01 April 2016


NEWSPAPERS and other media worldwide have been busy reporting the damage inflicted by Islamic State (IS) on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, in Syria. Once the capital of an ancient empire and a symbol of resistance to imperial Rome, the ancient city used to attract more than 100,000 tourists a year, before the Syrian civil war.

In terms of the deliberate campaign of iconoclastic destruction by IS, however, it represents only a small percentage of the damage done by the organisation to the Middle East’s cultural and religious heritage. In Syria, Iraq, and Libya, as well as ancient pagan temples and art, scores of churches, mosques, Muslim shrines, and tombs have been targeted.

Relatively little reported, the campaign to destroy churches and (usually Shia) mosques has been one of the largest series of religiously motivated iconoclastic acts of recent centuries. The destruction of Christian places of worship by IS appears to have started in July 2014, when the group blew up the Church of the Virgin Mary in Mosul, Iraq.

In late summer of that year, it destroyed one of the oldest Christian buildings in the world — the sixth-century Monastery of St Elijah, near Mosul. Then, in late September 2014, IS blew up the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. A few days later, it also destroyed the seventh-century St Ahoadamah’s in Tikrit, Iraq. It had belonged to Assyrian Christians.

Then, in February 2015, it blew up another ancient Christian building: the seventh-century church of Al-Tahira in Mosul. This was followed by the flattening of a Chaldean Catholic church, the tenth-century St Markourkas’s, also in Mosul.

On Easter Day 2015, IS destroyed the Assyrian Christian Church of the Virgin Mary in Tel Nasri, Syria. Another church in Mosul was blown up by IS in July 2015. Some sources report that four children were killed by the explosion. A month later, IS destroyed the ancient monastery of St Elian, near Al-Qaryatayn, in Syria.

Shia Muslim places of worship that are reported to have been destroyed by IS include four mosques in Mosul; two in Tal Afar, Iraq; and one in Tikrit, Iraq. Many other shrines and tombs — including Sunni Muslim ones — have also been destroyed by IS.

In addition, ancient pagan places of worship and works of art destroyed by IS include two large temples in Palmyra, Syria, and numerous large religious statues in Iraq.

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