Incident Report Feature: Intentional Destruction of Religious Sites in Afrin

By Jamie O'Connell

 

Turkish and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) armed forces intentionally damage Yezidi sites in Afrin. 

 

In January 2018, the Turkish military (TAF) and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters launched an air and ground campaign (known as Operation Olive Branch) in the Afrin region of Aleppo Governorate in order to oust the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters from the area. By late February, the YPG had been pushed back from most of the border with Turkey, allowing for a larger incursion into the Afrin region.

By March 9, TAF and FSA fighters had reached the outskirts of the city of Afrin. The full capture of Afrin was announced on March 18. Turkish and Free Syrian Army fighters engaged in vandalism and looting throughout the city, including defacing and tearing down statues of Rafiq al-Watani, a Kurdish political figure, and Kawa the Blacksmith. Kawa is a mythical figure in Iranian and Kurdish mythology who plays a large role in the story of the New Year, or Nowruz. The destruction of the statue occurred three days before Nowruz, which fell on March 21, 2018.

 

 

FSA fighters celebrate in front of the defaced statue of Kawa before using ropes to pull the statue to the ground. (Hasan Kirmizitas/AP; March 18, 2018)

Additionally, the Turkish air campaign conducted as part of Operation Olive Branch has damaged a number of cultural heritage sites in the region, including cemeteries in Jindaris and Kafr Safra, a mosque in Jalame, an Alawite shrine in Mabatli, and the archaeological site of Ain Dara.

Beginning in March 2018, reports emerged of Turkish-backed FSA fighters allied with Operation Olive Branch vandalizing and looting religious sites in the Afrin region. To date, these include two Yezidi shrines, four Islamic shrines, and a mosque. Turkish forces reportedly also bulldozed a cemetery containing an Alawite shrine in order to build a military installation. ASOR CHI remains committing to monitoring the condition of heritage sites locating in areas subject to military activity.

Islamic Shrine of Kara Jorna, Mesh’ale

The Shrine of Kara Jorna is an Islamic shrine located a cemetery west of the town of Mesh’ale. The shrine is popular with both Yezidis and Muslim Kurds in the area, who tie ribbons to the branches of a nearby trees in order to have their appeals granted.

 

An undated, pre-damage photograph shows worshippers entering the Shrine of Kara Jorna (Lokman Afrin)

Video footage published on Youtube on March 17, 2018 shows FSA fighters vandalizing the shrine. A fighter is seen removing ribbons tied to a tree near the shrine, while others set another tree on fire.

 

Video stills show FSA fighters removing ribbons tied to a tree outside of the Shrine of Kara Jorna and setting another tree on fire

(Ezdina News; March 17, 2018)

For more information, see ASOR CHI Incident Report 18-0071 in the March 2018 Monthly Report.

Islamic Shrine of Sheikh Zaid, Afrin

The Shrine of Sheikh Zaid is an Islamic shrine in located in a cemetery in the city of Afrin. On May 18, 2018 a Private Twitter Account reported that Turkish-backed FSA fighters damaged and vandalized the shrine. Photographs indicate that the contents of the shrine were removed and strewn around the shrine exterior and the grave within was dug up and removed.

FSA fighters reportedly ransacked the Shrine of Sheikh Zaid, removing its contents and exhuming the remains within 

(Al Etihad Press; May 18, 2018)

For more information, see ASOR CHI Incident Report 18-0105 in the May 2018 Monthly Report (Forthcoming).

Islamic Shrine of Nebi Houri, Cyrrhus

The shrine of Nebi Houri is dedicated to an Islamic saint. It was built in 1303 CE in the interior of a pyramid-roofed, hexagonal Roman-era mausoleum [1].

 

A pre-damage photograph of the exterior of the Shrine of Nebi Houri, with an FSA fighter at center-left (ASOR CHI in-country source; March 2, 2018)

 

On March 19, 2018 a Private Facebook Account published video footage of the shrine interior. The footage shows that the table representing the grave of Nebi Houri was turned on its side and garbage was strewn about the shrine. According to an ASOR CHI in-country source, FSA fighters allied with Operation Olive Branch ransacked the shrine looking for treasure.

 

A video still of the interior of Shrine of Nebi Houri, with upended shrine table (Private Facebook Account; March 19, 2018)

 

For more information, see ASOR CHI Incident Report 18-0073 in the March 2018 Monthly Report.

Shrine of Ali Dada and Cemetery, Sinara

The Shrine of Ali Dada is one of approximately 10 Alawite shrines located in the Afrin region. On June 20, 2018 Rok Online Newspaper reported that residents of the village of Sinara had expressed concern for the nearby Alawite Shrine of Ali Dada.

 

A pre-damage photograph of the Shrine of Ali Dada in Sinara (R-Enks.net; June 20, 2018)

 

Turkish forces reportedly bulldozed sections of the cemetery surrounding the shrine, apparently in order to make way for a Turkish military installation. This report is confirmed by satellite imagery, which indicates that the destruction of the southern half of the cemetery containing the shrine occurred between February 23 and April 24, 2018.  A large rectangular structure in the cemetery, possibly the Shrine of Ali Dada, was removed during this time. Bulldozing of the cemetery reportedly began again on June 19.

 

A pre-damage photograph of the cemetery of Ali Dada in Sinara (R-Enks.net; June 20, 2018)

Yezidi Shrine of Sheikh Junayd, Qarabash (Feqiran)

The Shrine of Sheikh Junayd is dedicated to a Yezidi figure who died in 1934 CE. The shrine is visited every Friday evening by local Yezidis [2].

 

A pre-damage photograph of the exterior of the Shrine of Sheikh Junayd (Ezidi Press; May 21, 2018)

 

On May 21, 2018 Ezidi Press reported that Turkish-backed FSA fighters had looted and vandalized the shrine and surrounding cemetery in the village of Qarabash. Photographs and video footage show the sign bearing the dedication on the exterior of the shrine has been thrown to the ground. The gravestone in the shrine interior has been smashed and the grave has been exhumed.

Video stills show damage to the exterior and interior of Shrine of Sheikh Junayd, including the exhumed grave 

(Ezdina News; May 27, 2018)

For more information, see ASOR CHI Incident Report 18-0108 in the May 2018 Monthly Report (Forthcoming).

Henan Mosque, Mesh’ale

Henan Mosque is located in a cemetery south of the village of Mesh'ale in the Afrin area [3]. It is a major pilgrimage site, believed to be the resting place of one of David's brothers. Today it is one of the largest cemeteries in the region. Local sources report that the site was at one time Yezidi but was converted into a mosque in the mid-20th century.

 

A pre-damage photograph of Henan Cemetery, which also contains a Yezidi shrine (right) (Afrin Region Photos/Facebook; March 31, 2015)

 

On May 21, 2018 Rudaw published video footage of the interior of Henan Mosque. The mosque appears to have been emptied of its contents but for a few furnishings, which have been scattered around.

 

A video still shows the looted interior of Henan Mosque (Rudaw; May 21, 2018)

 

Turkish or Turkish backed-FSA fighters also destroyed the grave of Kurdish revolutionary Nuri Dersimi, located in the cemetery. Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat reported the destruction of the grave on March 28, 2018.

For more information, see ASOR CHI Incident Report 18-0116 in the May 2018 Monthly Report (Forthcoming).

Islamic Shrine of Sheikhmous, Gawando

According to an inscription on its exterior, the Shrine of Sheikhmous dates to 1882 CE. It is visited by devotees hoping to recover from illnesses.

A pre-damage photograph of the Shrine of Sheikhmous (ESyria; April 17, 2014)

 

On June 16, 2018 Bas News reported that “pro-Turkish militias” associated with Operation Olive Branch damaged and looted the contents of the Shrine of Sheikhmous, located in a cemetery near the village of Gawando in the district of Rajo.

 

A photograph shows the exhumed grave in the interior of the shrine (Bas News; June 16, 2018)

Yezidi Shrine of Sheikh Rukab, Shidere

On June 21, 2018 Bas News published video footage of a damaged Yezidi shrine in the village of Shidere. The shrine was identified by a Private Twitter Account as belonging to Sheikh Rukab. According to local monitors, militias associated with Operation Olive Branch vandalized the shrine while searching for “gold and antiquities,” as valuable are sometimes placed in such shrines by devotees. Along with damage to the interior and contents of the shrine, the video footage also shows a large hole in the shrine’s roof.

Video stills show damage to the Shrine of Sheikh Rukab, including a large hole in the shrine’s roof 

(Bas News; June 21, 2018)

Sources:

[1] Ball, W. (2016) Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire, 2nd ed. Routledge.

[2] Maisel, S. (2016) Yezidis in Syria: Identity Building Among a Double Minority. Lexington Books.

[3] Maisel 2016: 68.

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