The Armenian Holy Martyrs Church in Der Zor, located in the Syrian desert 280 miles northeast of Damascus, was constructed in memory of the victims of the 1916 Armenian genocide and consecrated in 1991.
The site was chosen because Der Zor is believed to have housed death camps in which an estimated 150,000 to 400,000 Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks 100 years ago. The destroyed church included a museum housing the remains of some of the genocide victims.
News of the destruction of the church was met with outrage by ecclesiastical and political officials.
“We strictly condemn the explosion by terrorists of Der Dzor’s Holy Martyrs Armenian Church that is dedicated to the memory of the Armenian Genocide victims and contains remains of many martyrs of the Genocide,” Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandyan said in a statement released by the Armenian Foreign Ministry.
“This horrible barbarity committed against the sacred place shows once again the savage nature of the so-called Islamic State terror group. The international community must immediately stop and eradicate this plague posing a threat to civilized humanity,” he added.
"This crime committed on the threshold of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and on the 23rd anniversary of the Independence of the Republic of Armenia, we consider to be a barbarian act,” said Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who released a statement Monday upon learning about the church’s destruction.
Aram I had proclaimed the church as a national pilgrimage site in 2002.
“Let the hands behind this terrorist act know that Deir ez-Zor, this sacred place of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, commemorating the memory of our martyrs and symbolizing the fight of our people for justice, cannot be demolished from the memory of our people,” he said.
Edward Sharmazanov, deputy speaker of the Armenian Parliament, called the destruction of Holy Martyrs Armenian Church “cultural genocide” during a Monday meeting with Czech Republic Senate Vice-President Miluse Horska in Prague.
Sharmazanov reportedly emphasized that the church’s destruction by ISIS was a continuation of the destruction of other Armenian monuments in Turkey and Nakhichevan, an autonomous region in Azerbaijan.
The UK Ambassador to Armenia, Katherine Leach, also condemned the destruction of the church, calling it a “great tragedy.”
A century after the Armenian genoicide, some Armenians suspect Turkish involvement in the ISIS attack, especially in light of the recent release of 49 Turkish diplomats by ISIS.
“If Turkey is not behind the terrorism, having exploded this unique church, which is of great importance to the Armenians, it will immediately issue a condemning statement,” Vigen Sargsyan, head of staff of the president of the Republic of Armenia, reportedly wrote on his Facebook page.
However, according to Armenian Public Radio,“while authorities in Armenia have severely condemned the attack on the Saint Martyrs Church, Turkey... has yet to comment on the attack.”
Armenian Public Radio spoke to Andranik Ispiryan, an expert in Turkish studies, who speculated that “through cooperation with the Islamic State, Turkey is trying to overthrow [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s regime and bring Sunni Muslims to power, to neutralize the Kurdish element in Syria, destroy the large Armenian community formed in Syria after the Armenian Genocide and erase its cultural heritage.”
The Armenian Genocide has long been a contentious issue for Turkey and Armenia. Turkey refuses to admit it occured even though Argentina, Germany, Russia and many other countries have acknowledged it, with the notable exclusion of the United States.
Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate to recognize the Armenian Genocide most recently by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who sponsored a resolution in April that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but was ultimately shelved.
“The Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923, resulting in the deportation of nearly 2,000,000 Armenians, of whom 1,500,000 men, women, and children were killed and 500,000 survivors were expelled from their homes, and the elimination of the over 2,500-year presence of Armenians in their historic homeland,” the resolution stated. (See Armenian Genocide resolution.pdf)
“The Government of the Republic of Turkey has continued its international campaign of Armenian Genocide denial, maintained a blockade of Armenia, and continues to pressure the small but growing Turkish civil society movement for acknowledging the Armenian Genocide,” it continued.
The resolution was introduced “to remember and observe the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2014,” and so that “the President should work toward an equitable, constructive, stable, and durable Armenian-Turkish relationship that includes the full acknowledgment by the Government of the Republic of Turkey of the facts about the Armenian Genocide.”