The 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital of Damascus — the country’s holiest Jewish site — has been looted and burned to the ground.
The Syrian army loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces are blaming each other for the destruction of the historic synagogue, according to reports on Sunday.
The synagogue is said to be built on the site where the prophet Elijah concealed himself from persecution and anointed his successor, Elisha, as a prophet. It had been damaged earlier this month by mortars reportedly fired by Syrian government forces.
The rebels said the Syrian government looted the synagogue before burning it to the ground, Israel Radio reported Sunday.
The government said the rebels burned the synagogue and that so-called Zionist agents stole its historic religious items in an operation that had been planned for several weeks, the Arabic Al-Manar Television reported, citing the Arabic Syria Truth website.
The news came as Jews around the world marked the final days of Passover, the festival of freedom.
One of the oldest synagogues in the world, the shul was partially destroyed by Syrian government shelling four weeks ago, according to a video posted to YouTube.
The video, uploaded by the Syrian opposition’s military council, appeared to show that portions of the building and roof were blown off, with debris seen on the ground in front of the synagogue.
An inscription in English at the synagogue reads, “Shrine and synagogue of prophet Eliahou Hanabi since 720 B.C.,” although the actual date of founding is disputed. One of the earliest mentions of the synagogue is in the Talmud, which states that Rabbi Rafram bar Pappa prayed there.
The synagogue served a large Jewish community in the medieval period, but by the mid-1800s, only one Jewish family lived in the area. Still, Jews came from across the city to pray there, and there was a tradition of leaving the sick in the building in the belief that Elijah’s spirit might heal them.
Syria’s Jewish community faced rampant discrimination after the establishment of Israel. With Jewish property rights severely limited, the synagogue was taken over and converted to a school for Palestinian refugees.
Only some 20 Jews are believed to live in Syria today, all of them in the capital.
In early 2011, Assad announced plans to rebuild about a dozen synagogue across Syria, including in Damascus — a move that was regarded in part as an effort to gain some support from American Jewry.
The nearly two-year-old civil war in Syria has caused damage to six World Heritage sites, according to Al Arabiya. UNESCO called for the protection of the country’s cultural heritage sites last March, expressing “grave concern” at the time.
The United Nation estimates that 70,000 people have died in the fighting between Assad regime forces and Syrian rebels.