DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A historic Jewish synagogue in Damascus has been damaged and looted as clashes have consumed the surrounding neighborhood, a Syrian official and an anti-government activist said Monday.
Damage to the synagogue, believed to be hundreds of years old, is the latest example of Syria's rich cultural heritage falling victim to the civil war between the regime of President Bashar Assad and rebels seeking his ouster.
The synagogue, built in honor of the prophet Elijah, has long been considered an important pilgrimage site.
Maamoun Abdul-Karim, head of the Antiquities and Museums Department of the Syrian Culture Ministry, said objects from the Jobar Synagogue were stolen last year, but that officials haven't been able to visit the building for months because rebels control the area.
Rebel forces established footholds in a number of Damascus suburbs and last year pushed into Jobar, a neighborhood on the city's northeast corner. Since then, they have been clashing with government troops.
Abdul-Karim said there was no way for the government to protect all of Syria's historical sites because there are thousands of them across the country. He called the looting "a crime" and "a big loss for us."
"It's the heritage of the homeland regardless of religion, whether it's Jewish, Muslim or Christian," he told The Associated Press by phone. "It's the Syrian mosaic and the heritage of the people."
An activist video posted online on March 1 showed a simple metal door on the building with a pile of rubble in front of it. One wall had a hole in it and part of a short wall around the roof was missing. It showed two plaques near the door. One, in English, read: "Shrine and synagogue of prophet and Eliahou Hanabi, 720 B.C."
A second video posted on March 10 showed the building's door ajar and damage to what appeared to be adjoining buildings, including shattered windows and hole in a ceiling. It was not clear if the synagogue's main sanctuary had been damaged.
The videos appeared authentic and corresponded to other reporting by the AP.
An anti-government activist in Jobar reached via Skype on Monday said the synagogue had been looted continuously during recent months and was damaged by shelling conducted by regime forces.
He said he visited the facility in early March and found damage to adjoining buildings but not to the main sanctuary.
"There had been lots of theft," he said. "I don't know what was there originally, but we know there were lots of old books and artifacts that are not there anymore," said the activist, who goes by the name Abu Hassaan al-Damishqi.
Like many rebels, he spoke on condition that he would be identified only by that nickname, by which he is widely known among his comrades, fearing that publication of his real name could endanger his family.
He said local rebels thought government forces had looted the site, although he acknowledged that the looting also could have been the work of thieves taking advantage of a lack of security.
"This is the history of the city, and it doesn't matter if you are a Muslim or not," he said. "This is the history of our country so we all want to protect it."
Hubbard reported from Beirut.