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Father Thomas's Church at Syria

Syria

Summary

Father Thomas's Church reveals the story of the Damascus Blood Libel (or Damascus Affair) which haunts Syria's Jewish history. In 1840, anti-Jewish sentiments had become prominent among the Christian and Muslim communities of Syria motivated, in part, by economic rivalries.  On February 5, the Italian Capuchin friar Thomas, who was known to have participated in suspicious activities, disappeared with his Muslim servant Ibrahim ʿAmāra. The two were most likely murdered by tradesmen from friar Thomas's business engagements. However, this incident sparked the Damascus Blood Libel when the Capuchins began reporting that Jews had murdered Thomas and his servant in order to use their blood for Passover. The investigation of Thomas's death was conducted by the French Consul Ratti-Menton and the governor-general Sherif Padia, and the two eventually attained a "confession" by torturing the barber Solomon Negrin until he stated that Thomas had been killed by seven Jews in the house of David Harari. These Jews were then arrested: two of them dying from torture, one of them converting to Islam, and the remaining others "confessing" to the murder of Father Thomas. Eventually, some bones were discovered in a sewer of the Jewish quarter, and the accusers determined that they were Thomas's. These bones were then buried as Thomas's remains and his tombstone marked his grave as that of a saint tortured by Jews. Although the exact location of Father Thomas's Church is uncertain, it stands as a testament to Syria's history of the Damascus Blood Libel [1]. 
Note:  the Google Earth location marks the Jewish Quarter in Damascus, the focal point of the event that became an international cause celebre.

Description

Christianity in Syria: Syria's Christian community dates back to before 636 when the population of Syria was largely Christian and Jewish. Throughout the seventh century, Christians staffed the Islamic bureaucracy by following former Byzantine customs. Historically, Christians were forced to abide by the "dhimma" (non-Muslim) laws which Muslim rulers imposed, at first only lightly enforced and later rigidly obeyed. Following the medieval period, Christians were treated worse than Jews even though they greatly outnumbered the Jewish population. Treatment of religious minorities shifted throughout Syrian history, depending on the ruling power, with Christians at some times tolerated and at other times discriminated against. In the 1800s, Jews and Christians were granted equality to Muslims, yet Christians continued to be attacked, particularly during the anti-Christian pogroms of 1850 in Aleppo and 1860 in Damascus. During the First World War, Amīr Fayṣal ibn Ḥusayn promised Jews and Christians equality, and although many Jews fled Syria for the State of Israel, a Christian community remains in Syria to this day [2].

Judaism in Damascus: The capital city of Syria, Damascus's Jewish community has an ancient and biblical history. It is believed that Jews settled in Damascus as early as the First Temple period, while evidence from the Second Temple period points to Jewish settlements arriving in the first and second centuries. Following the Umayyad conquest of Damascus, the Jewish community was forced to abide by "dhimma" (non-Muslim) rules; yet the community continued to prosper economically. The Jewish community continued to prosper between the tenth and mid-twelfth centuries, during the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods; however, the Mamaluk period saw an increase in anti-Jewish violence and discriminatory laws. Damascus's Jewish community began to recover towards the end of the fifteenth century, and the following centuries saw a spiritual and economic revival for Damascene Jews: new synagogues were constructed, religious studies spread, and Jews achieved positions of prominence in commerce. Eventually, Damascus's Jewish community began to dwindle, and in the eighteenth century the Karaite community sold its synagogue. The nineteenth century saw the rise of class divides between Damascus's wealthy and poor, which in turn led to divided opinions and beliefs. Throughout the century, the Ottoman Empire sought to bring equality to religious minorities and integrate Jews into the political system, and though these reforms were implemented slowly initially, the Jewish community and Ottoman authorities eventually became more involved with each other. Meanwhile, tensions rose between Christians and Jews, and Christians began to level blood libels against Damascus's Jews while religious violence increased. During the early 1900s, new tensions rose in Damascus as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Syrian Arab kingdom was established, the French mandates for Syria were established, and the Arab nationalist and Zionist movements began to grow. Through the 1940s, Jews attempted to emigrate from Damascus into Palestine, until 1949 when Syria and Israel went to war--trapping the Jewish community. Anti-Jewish violence and harassment continued, and Jews were increasingly attacked and controlled. Under Ḥāfiẓ al-Asad, Syria's remaining Jews were finally allowed to leave the country in 1992 [3].

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