The head of the United Nations’ cultural agency strongly condemned the Islamic State group’s demolition of an ancient Christian monastery and exhumation of a saint’s tomb in Syria.
The monastery’s razing came amid new reports that more Syrian Christians had been abducted by Islamist fighters and were being forced to convert to Islam or pay off their captors with a so-called tax.
Images circulated by jihadists online showed Islamic State bulldozers destroying the Mar Elian Monastery. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, reported that Islamic State fighters claimed that “the monastery is worshiped beside Allah.”
The destruction of the ancient religious site as seen from the inside. A top U.N. official blasted the Islamic State group for engaging in the "cultural cleansing" of Syria. (Islamic State group photo)
Construction of the monastery, also known as St. Elian, began in the 5th century A.D. Christian groups said the photos showed the dug up remains of St. Elian.
“The cultural cleansing underway at the hands of ISIL/Daesh must stop,” Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, said in a statement Friday, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “The persecution of communities reflecting the great diversity of Syria, combined with the systematic destruction of some of the most iconic representations of Syria’s rich heritage, testifies to an ideology of hatred and exclusion."
The monastery in Qaryatain in central Syria was seized by the Islamic State earlier this month.
The Syrian Observatory reported that the Islamic State had abducted 110 civilians from the same town, among them dozens of Christians. According to the report, the captives were moved to the area of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, where the jihadists were telling Christians to choose either conversion to Islam or to pay a minority tax called “jizya.”
Prior to the Islamic State group’s military advances in Syria, the monastery was a major pilgrimage site for the Syrian Christian community. St. Elian, after whom the monastery, is named is believed by Christians to have died as a martyr, killed by his Roman father after refusing to renounce his Christian faith.
The senior U.N. official described the attacking of minority groups and their heritage sites as “war crimes.”
UNESCO noted that that main structure of the monastery was built in 1938; however, its foundations housed the 5th century tomb of St. Elian.
Rev. Jacques Mourad, the head of the monastery, was kidnapped in May.
Mourad was known in the area for extending aid to displaced Syrian Christians and Muslims at the monastery.
According to the Catholic Herald’s tally, there are currently six kidnapped Christian clergy in Syria whose fates are still unknown.