Damascus -The Syrian government on Thursday accused Israel of conducting a clandestine operation, together with Turkey, to remove ancient artifacts from a synagogue near Damascus.
In a formal complaint sent to the United Nations Security Council, Syria’s Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari accused the two countries of cooperating with “terrorist groups” to remove valuable items from the 2,000-year-old Jobar temple.
“[My] Government wishes to transmit highly credible intelligence to the effect that the terrorist groups that are active in the area of Jobar, near Damascus, cooperated with the Turkish and Israeli intelligence serves to loot artifacts and manuscripts from the ancient synagogue there,” Ja’afari’s letter states.
The Syrian ambassador went on to write that “the items were then smuggled through local and foreign intermediaries to Istanbul, where they were received by antiquities experts who certified that they were extremely valuable antique objects. The items were subsequently smuggled to New York.”
In response provided exclusively to The Jerusalem Post, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon called the letter a distraction aimed at focusing the world’s attention away from the Syrian Civil War, which has left more than 500,000 people dead over seven years.
“This is yet another attempt by the Syrian regime to distract attention from the atrocities it is inflicting on its own people,” said Danon.
“The fact is, that while Assad mercilessly butchers women and children, Israel continues to provide humanitarian aid to wounded and displaced Syrians who arrive at our border,” Danon concluded.
In May 2014, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Jobar was reportedly destroyed in a vicious battle fought between the Syrian army and rebel factions in the area.
According to the Daily Beast, the Jewish synagogue was raided for precious, historical artifacts in the aftermath of the bloody skirmishes while nearly 70% of the complex was leveled in numerous mortar attacks.
The synagogue is thought to have been built atop a cave that experts believe may have served the prophet Elijah in hiding.
Mamoun Abdulkarim, the head of Syria’s antiquities department, said at the time that “Jewish authorities” tried to go in and recover artifacts inside the temple but “were prevented from entering due to the presence of fighters.”
“Local community officials say the place’s sanctity has been violated and there were thefts but I cannot verify the nature of the thefts without investigation,” Abdulkarim told Reuters by telephone.
Jobar was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds of years until the 1800s.
Rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad began moving into Jobar in July 2013 and the area has suffered heavy shelling from government air strikes and artillery since then.
Pro-Assad groups blame rebels for damage to Syria’s heritage, while the opposition blames the government. Documentary evidence has shown both sides destroying ancient castles and shrines with shelling, gun battles and targeted explosions.
Other Jewish sites remained unharmed and in government hands, according to the Syrian official Abdulkarim.
“We deal with these [synagogues] in their archaeological value as we are dealing with a mosque or church, no differently. It is part of our heritage. Jewish culture is preserved,” he said.