IS campaign of terror intensifies

Islamic State militants in Syria have stepped up their onslaught on the country’s religious diversity and history with the destruction of an ancient pagan temple and a Christian monastery.

The first-century AD temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra was destroyed on August 23, according to Syria’s head of antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim, although the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights believes the temple to an ancient sky god was destroyed a month ago.

The militants placed a large quantity of explosives in the temple, Prof. Abdulkarim told AFP news agency, and then blew it up, destroying the temple’s inner area and causing the surrounding columns to collapse. 

“We have said repeatedly the next phase would be one of terrorising people and when they have time they will begin destroying temples,” he told Reuters, adding that the militants had also begun digging for gold in the ruins and allowing illegal excavation of the city.

“I am seeing Palmyra being destroyed in front of my eyes. God help us in the days to come”, he said.

The destruction of the temple comes barely a week after the militants beheaded 82-year-old scholar Khaled Asaad, who had served for decades as head of antiquities in Palmyra. Accused of having “represented Syria at infidel conferences” and being “director of idolatry” at Palmyra, he was held and interrogated for more than a month before being killed and having his body hung in the town’s main square.

Just days earlier, militants bulldozed parts of the fifth-century Christian monastery of Mar Elian in the town of al-Qarytain which they captured from government forces earlier this month, kidnapping about 250 people including dozens of Christians.

The remains of St Elian have been removed from the monastery and desecrated, and the monastery’s abbot Fr Jacques Moraud has been kidnapped.

The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo Antoine Audo has told Vatican Radio that IS were trying to send a message of “violence and intolerance” by destroying this symbol of Christianity and encourage Syria’s Christians to flee their homeland.  

“As usual for us Christians, it is a message of violence and intolerance, a message to spread fear everywhere”, he said, explaining that IS had two aims in taking so many prisoners. 

They sought, he said, to obtain ransom money for those who would be released, but secondly, he added, they aimed to “spread a message of terror” and demonstrate how “powerful” they were.

Arguing that IS don’t believe in a political solution, Dr Audo said that the hostages might be killed, and that IS could do anything as the militants have “no conscience or morality”.