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Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria to be protected from Western air strikes 

January 21, 2021 at 4:08 pm

Dame Helen Hyde, chair of the UK-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage (FJH), 29 November 2015 [Dame Helen Hyde DBE/Facebook]

British, American and Israeli researchers have identified more than 2,000 “nationally and important Jewish heritage sites” in Europe, Iraq and Syria that have been added to Western military protection lists so as to be avoided during conflicts.

The list was put together by the UK-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage (FJH), the Centre for Jewish Art (CJA) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), who collaborated on the project. The trio said that the list had been sent to “trusted military partners representing European and western powers, including the UK Ministry of Defence, who are known to operate in good faith and to uphold the principles of international law.”

“We are delighted that these important Jewish heritage sites will receive this protection in the event of war,” said FJH chair Dame Helen Hyde. “It is another example of how our unprecedented Jewish heritage research work has demonstrated its value.”

Intentional damage to cultural property and buildings dedicated to religion can constitute a war crime. Such actions could and should be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court.

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Last year the Times of Israel reported that over 350 Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria had been identified by the research project. However, almost 90 per cent of the Iraqi sites are either in ruins or nearly so, due to neglect or redevelopment work. Over half of those in Syria are beyond repair or in a very bad condition.

Among the sites are the Bandara Synagogue in the Syrian city of Aleppo, and the 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in Damascus. Although the latter is believed to be the burial site of Prophet Elijah, it was looted and burned during a battle in the Syrian civil war. The Syrian government and rebel factions accused each other of being responsible for the destruction. Syria’s then envoy to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, claimed that there was “credible evidence” that “terrorist groups” cooperated with Turkish and Israeli intelligence agencies to smuggle ancient artefacts and manuscripts out of the country.

The oldest and most important Jewish site in Iraq is said to be the Shrine of Prophet Ezekiel in the town of Al-Kifl (named after the Arabic-Islamic name of Eziekiel, Dhul-Kifl). From the 1300s to the present-day it has served as Al-Nukhailah Mosque, a revered Shia shrine which lies on the main road linking the important shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.

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