Who Blew Up the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir el-Zour?

by Sam Hardy

Bohjalian, 2014, syria deir ez-zor saint martyrs church destruction 140924

The first photos of Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Der Zor blown up by ISIS emerged on September 24 (image via Armenian Weekly and Chris Bohjalian, 24th September 2014)

Fifty days after the destruction of the Armenian Genocide Martyrs’ Memorial Church in Deir el-Zour, Robert Fisk has reported it in the Independent, but his article is riddled with peculiarities, mistakes, and historical inconsistencies.

Peculiarities and mistakes

For one thing, the report feels strangely timed. It declares that the “act of sacrilege willcause huge pain” to Armenians around the world — seven weeks after the attack was lamented by political and religious representatives of the aggrieved community.

For another, Fisk writes searingly of Armenian suffering during the Ottoman genocide and its exacerbation by Turkish state denial ever since, then misplaces Armenian Genocide memorial day, saying that, every year, “thousands of Armenians … gathered at their church in Deir el-Zour on 25 April,” when it was on April 24.

Most unsettling, though, one gonzo narrative within Fisk’s new Independent story concerns his exhumation of human remains. Moreover, it directly contradicts another narration of the story that he published in the Independent less than a year ago. This November, he wrote:

When I investigated the death marches in this same region 22 years ago with a French photographer, we uncovered dozens of skeletons in the crevasse of a hill at a point where so many Armenian dead were thrown into the waters of the Khabur that the river changed its course forever. I gave some of the skulls and bones we found to an Armenian friend who placed them in the crypt of the Deir el-Zour church – the very same building which now lies in ruins.

And last December, he wrote:

Just over 30 years ago, I dug the bones and skulls of Armenian genocide victims outof a hillside above the Khabur River … It was difficult to find these bones because the Khabur River … had changed. So many were the bodies heaped in its flow that the waters moved to the east. The very river had altered its course. But Armenian friends who were with me took the remains and placed them in the crypt of the great Armenian church at Deir ez-Zour.

Confusingly, Fisk dates the building itself to 1846. Vartan Matiossian, an historian and director at the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, told Hyperallergic that there was a church, St. Hripsime, at the site in 1931 and a preliminary Armenian Genocide monument in 1936, but no apparent evidence of a 19th century structure on the site. The Armenian National Institute in Washington, DC dates the current complex’s construction to the 1980s and its dedication to 1990.

Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State?

At the time of the attack, Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia and the Holy Sees of Etchmiadzin and Cilicia blamed the Islamic State, as did others who investigated the attack independently. Thus, the centrepiece of Fisk’s report is his apparent scoop that the al-Nusra Front, “Jabhat al-Nusra [JaN] rebels appear to have been the culprits.” (Many thanks to a Syrian archaeologist and to the CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, Lynda Albertson, who drew my attention to the Independent article.)

Fisk also notes that, “since many Syrians believe that the [JaN] group has received arms from Turkey, the destruction will be regarded by many Armenians as a further stage in their historical annihilation by the descendants of those who perpetrated the genocide 99 years ago.”

Again, it feels as if it were written seven weeks ago. An Armenian Turkologist Andranik Ispiryan and Arabist Armen Petrosyan had already blamed Turkey indirectly, and refused to rule out the possibility that “Turk[ish] soldiers, who are among the terrorists, played a huge [direct] role,” within two days of the attack.

Even the scoop itself is somewhat confused and confusing. Fisk variously attributes the attack to “Jabhat al-Nusra” and “the Islamists,” where the generic term most immediately refers back to “Isis and its kindred ideological armed groups,” while he explicitly acknowledges that the attack occurred in an “Isis-controlled area.”

The report details that Deir el-Zour district priest Monsignor Antranik Ayvazian “revealed to [Fisk] that before the explosions tore the church apart … he received a message from the Islamists promising to spare the church archives if he acknowledged them as the legislative authority in that part of Syria. ‘I refused,’ he said. ‘And after I refused, they destroyed all our papers and endowments … [and] destroyed the church.’”

Fisk then adds that “Ayvazian later received a photograph taken in secret and smuggled to him from the Isis-controlled area, showing clearly that only part of the central tower … remains.”

Who was in control of the territory at the time of the attack?

As I have discussed on Conflict Antiquities after the verification of the attack, Islamist organizations had long fought over Deir el-Zour. But, through MayJune and July, the Islamic State subjugated or expelled Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, such as the Jaysh Al Qasas Brigade, and Islamist paramilitaries such as Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front) and Ahrar al-Sham. They were forced to pledge loyalty to IS or withdraw from the city.

Since then, Deir el-Zour has remained “part of the Islamic State” — in August, by which time JaN was “nowhere to be seen,” throughout September and into October, when the Islamic State battled over territory with the Assad regime, but not with Jabhat al-Nusra. The only authorities in Deir el-Zour before, during and after the destruction of the church were the Islamic State and the Assad regime. And Assad’s forces were only in two neighbourhoods — al Qusour and al Joura — while the church was in al Roshdeyah neighbourhood. So, though weaker groups may have remained in the city under Islamic State authority, the territory was under Islamic State control when the church was destroyed. (Furthermore, rival Islamist coalitions have split up — it is unlikely that they achieved an effective momentary resurgence and dedicated it to the destruction of the church.)

It is possible, and intriguing, that the agents who implemented the attack may have been subjugated former Jabhat al-Nusra fighters who served under the flag of the Islamic State. But they would still have been Islamic State fighters. It seems unlikely that Jabhat al-Nusra itself snuck into IS territory, extorted Antranik with the demand that he recognise their sovereignty over the territory from which they had had to withdraw themselves, then destroyed the church and snuck out.

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