Dispatch: Syria rebels ‘burned down churches and destroyed Christian graves’

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By Ruth Sherlock, Kessab
When insurgents stormed Kessab, they posted pictures of themselves protecting ancient churches. But a visit to the Syrian town tells a different story.
Rain seeped into the tombs through shattered flagstones. Nearby, marble crosses lay in pieces. Plastic flowers, once lovingly placed on a grave, were torn and stamped into the earth.
Beside the desecrated graveyard in the Syrian town of Kessab stood the Holy Trinity Armenian Evangelical church. Its library, pews and altar had all been burned by arsonists.

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The perpetrators had shown both purpose and glee in their destruction of Christian sites in this ancient Armenian town. Statues were riddled with bullets and Islamist slogans were scrawled across the walls of homes and shops.
Once a haven from Syria’s civil war, nestled in the hills of Latakia province, Kessab gained international fame when it was captured by rebels last spring in a surprise offensive that forced the town’s 2,500 Armenian Christians to flee.
Turkey was widely accused of helping the insurgents to capture Kessab, despite the participation in the attack of Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

But the Syrian armed forces took back the town in June after it had endured three months of rebel occupation. The Telegraph travelled to the area on a facility trip with the Syrian regime to witness the aftermath of the battle.

The desecration of Kessab’s churches contradicts the claims of Syrian rebels that their fighters are non-sectarian protectors of Christian residents and heritage.

The evidence also fails to support counter-claims by pro-government groups that Armenian Christians were “massacred” during the rebel offensive.

When this assault began last year, Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was facing a general election and his rebel allies in Syria were losing ground to regime forces. The offensive on Kessab was intended to bolster both the insurgents and their Turkish backers.

During weeks of planning before the assault, rebel fighters were given strict orders to use the offensive to show themselves as “moderate Muslims” and natural allies of the West.

Kessab is protected by a mountain range, acting as a natural fortress against invasion, and the Turkish border almost surrounds the town. It was only when Turkish troops allowed free movement across the frontier that the rebels were able to storm and capture Kessab.

In the first hours, all appeared to be going according to plan. Insurgents, including those from the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, posed for pictures showing them protecting churches and talking gently to local people.

About 30 Armenians, who had been too elderly or frail to escape the offensive, were placed on minibuses and driven to Turkey, where they were given a warm reception that was covered in minute detail by state television.

Ignoring the participation of Islamist extremists in the offensive – including a large number of foreign jihadists – Ahmed Jarba, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, travelled to Kessab and claimed a victory.

But immediately after the media spotlight fell away, residents of Kessab told the Telegraph that the desecration began.

“They took photographs to show they were looking after the churches, and then set them alight,” said Father Miron Avedissian, priest of the Armenian Apostolic church that was largely destroyed. “It all still happened in the first day.”

If Western-backed rebels tried to stop the rampage by their extremist allies, there was little evidence of a struggle.

Doors, walls and shopfronts on the town’s narrow streets are covered in scrawled messages declaring “There is no God but Allah”.

The white paint is still fresh on the walls of Father Avedissian’s church as he tries to repair the damage.

Tufts of burned carpet on the staircase, and partly melted air-conditioning units on the walls, show the intensity of the fire that wrecked its interior.

The priest flicked through photographs on his iPhone: one image showed himself inside the church, pointing to a vandalised painting of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Outside, the crosses carved into the stone over the wide arch doors were riddled with bullet holes.

Nearby, the Holy Trinity Armenian Evangelical church was little more than a burned shell. Walls were blackened by smoke; wooden pews, tapestries, Bibles and kneeling cushions had all been incinerated in a fire that appeared to have raged until there was nothing left to burn.

Inside the Holy Trinity Armenian Evangelical after it was burned during the rebel offensive on Kessab last spring (Ruth Sherlock/The Telegraph)

Writing, ostensibly by the rebels, covered the church’s walls. The names of the rebel groups who participated in the attack appeared to be listed. The graveyard was little more than a field of smashed masonry, its headstones individually defaced.

The Telegraph cannot independently confirm that all of the damage was inflicted by the rebels.

Zavinar Sargdegian, a 58-year-old resident, said that she witnessed the churches being set alight.

“I was at home with my husband when they raided the house,” she said. “They broke down the front door. They pushed us on to the street. We were on our knees and they put a gun to our heads. From the road I saw the Angelic Church burning. Fire was coming out of the doors and windows.”

The rebels included men from Chechnya, Tunisia and Libya, she said.

Other residents, who said they returned to their homes when Syrian forces recaptured the town, described finding the churches and the graveyard destroyed.

Tweets dating from the days after the rebels stormed the town on 21 March include pictures of jihadists destroying crosses in the churches.

Soldiers patrolling in Kessab in front of one of the burned buildings (Ruth Sherlock/The Telegraph)

Others show them setting fire to shops selling alcohol and smashing glass bottles in the streets.

For the past two years, rebel-held areas of Latakia province have been the domain of some of the most hardline extremist groups.

Christians have not been their only targets. In 2013, jihadists swept into several villages in Latakia inhabited by the Alawite minority. They murdered dozens of civilians and kidnapped hundreds of women and children, some of whom are still missing. Extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isil) are believed to have joined these attacks.

Across Syria, hardline Islamists have gained dominance over the rebel movement fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Joshua Landis, an expert on the conflict, estimates that non-Islamist rebels now control less than 5 per cent of Syria, with the rest of the country divided between the regime, Isil or Jabhat al-Nusra.

Most of Kessab’s people were able to escape before their town fell to the insurgents. There is no evidence of the “massacre” of civilians claimed by regime loyalists – at one point supposedly “proved” with images that were later identified as shots from a horror film.

But the fall of the Armenian town summoned bitter memories of persecution. In 1909, tens of thousands of Armenians were killed during the Adana massacre under the Ottoman empire.

Then in 1915, a further 5,000 residents of Kessab were killed by the Ottomans during what some historians consider the “genocide” of the Armenian minority.

Today, Kessab is coming back to life, but the lives of those people who have returned to their homes seem far from secure. Turkish soldiers can be seen on hilltops near the town, manning the border checkpoints through which the rebels crossed to carry out the attack.

The occasional explosion of tank shells served as a reminder that the civil war is still close by.