JERUSALEM – Torah scrolls plundered from an ancient Syrian synagogue are reportedly being held hostage by an Islamist group seeking to exchange them for prisoners held by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
A source involved in negotiating the return of the scrolls told the Times Israel that they are being held inside Syria by a group affiliated with the al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al Qaeda and designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. The large diaspora of Syrian Jews, particularly in the United States, is reportedly involved in the talks.
The synagogue in the Damascus suburb of Jobar was one of the oldest in the world. Its history on the site is said to trace back 2000 years. It commemorates the biblical prophet Elijah who, according to tradition, hid from persecution at the site.
The suburb became a stronghold of the opposition in the current civil war and was subject to frequent attacks by government forces. The building, which had been a Jewish pilgrimage site in the past, was badly damaged last March by shellfire. A YouTube video from the opposition’s military council showed the roof blown off and other extensive damage.
The synagogue was said to have been looted by elements within the opposition forces before the March attack. Among the items currently being negotiated for are three or four Torah scrolls as well as other scrolls and silver religious implements. “They took everything they could get their hands on,” an anonymous source told the Times. “They want prisoners held by [President Bashar] Assad in exchange for them.”
The once sizeable Syrian Jewish community dwindled sharply in the wake of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 when anti-Jewish rioting broke out. There were still some 4,000 Jews as late as 1992 but Assad’s predecessor—his father, Hafez—then lifted the ban that had been enforced against further emigration of Jews. It has been estimated that about 20 Jews still live in Damascus.
Some 80,000 Jews of Syrian descent live in the United States, particularly in Brooklyn, and a similar number in Israel.
After the shelling of the synagogue, the head of the Antiquities Department of Syria’s Culture Ministry, decried the building’s loss. “It’s the heritage of the homeland regardless of religion, whether it’s Jewish, Muslim, or Christian,” Maamoun Abdul-Karim told the Associated Press.