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Reconstructing the nation, one dome at a time

As sites like the Armenian Bethel Church and the Great Mosque of Aleppo undergo renovations in formerly rebel-held territories, narratives of the Syrian government’s victory are reinforced.

6 February 2020

AMMAN — Hammers strike steel and cameras pan across a group of menone in military fatigueshustling through a busy construction site. As blaring horns reach a crescendo, the camera comes to rest on a shot of the Syrian flag waving in the wind. But the theatrical video is not the launch of Damascus’ latest landmark project, it’s the repair of the Armenian Evangelical Bethel Church in the city of Aleppo. 

“Reconstruction is not just a slogan for us, it’s a challenge, it’s our path,” Rev. Haroutune Selimian of the Bethel Church, told al-Sooriya TV channel in November 2019. “The church is a result of local expertise […] The West won’t help us build. Everyone will do what they can, hand-in-hand,” Selimian said. 

In a country like Syria, even something as seemingly benign as repairing a church or a mosque takes on political dimensions. As sites like the Armenian Bethel Church and the Great Mosque of Aleppo undergo renovations in formerly rebel-held territories, narratives of the Syrian government’s victory are reinforced while the revolution is relegated to the past. 

“It’s only natural that minorities in Syria, such as Christians, show gratitude to the government and the army for helping them restore their lives,” said an independent researcher from Damascus who runs Rebuilding Syria, a Twitter account dedicated to monitoring reconstruction projects in Syria, told Syria Direct. “The restoration of these religious sites goes to show that Syria will continue to be a country of co-existence.” 

The majority of the reconstruction is concentrated in the city of Aleppo; in September, the head of Islamic Antiquities in Aleppo’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, Wasila Sammani, stated that around 50% of the city’s religious sites have either been or are being repaired. However, renovations are also underway in Raqqa, Reef Dimashq and Homs provinces. 

Aleppo was the site of one of the most important battles of the Syrian civil war. Ending in 2016, the battle split the city down the middle, with opposition fighters creating a stronghold in the historic, eastern part of the city. The old city and its antiquities sustained heavy damage as they were caught in the crossfire of the four-year-long battle between rebel and government forces. 

In particular, the most severe damage was created by the Islamic Front—a coalition of Islamist rebel groups active prior to 2015and its placement of “tunnel bombs [placed] under major historic buildings, [which] created thirteen immense craters across the ancient city,” according to Ambassador Ross Burns, the former Australian ambassador to Syria and the author of several works on the archaeology of Syria. 

Thus the rebuilding of Aleppo’s historical religious sites holds particular salience, not only for the city’s heritage but also for plastering over the scars of Syria’s revolution, much of which was fought in the cramped streets of eastern Aleppo.

Destruction of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, 22/12/2018 (SANA) 

Reviving the community or misallocating resources? 

As Damascus reasserts its control over Syria, with the exception of large swathes in the north, reports suggest that some refugees are returning home—though these numbers are highly contested. The restoration of religious sites, “along with the restoration of services, could encourage citizens to return to previous conflict areas and is obviously an important stimulus to a return to normal life,” Burns noted. However, he acknowledged that returns “so far seem to have been minimal and there are many impediments.”

For his part, the researcher from Damascus said that the reconstruction of religious sites could “greatly affect the morale of local communities,” since they hold significant symbolic value for residents. Churches and mosques “offer a meeting place for the community and go beyond mere prayer, often providing education and funds,” something he has witnessed in his own neighborhood in Damascus. 

Further, he noted that the restoration of religious sites helps make religious minorities, such as Syrian Christians and Jews, feel as if “their heritage and history will remain,” something that is critical for both groups after their mass exodus from the country during the civil war. 

However, not all residents share similar sentiments about the restoration of religious sites in Syria. 

Yasmeen, a 28-year old living in the city of Aleppo, speaking under a pseudonym for security reasons, is less excited about the restoration projects currently underway in her city. While the rebuilding of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, Roman Orthodox Churches, and Maronite Churches are of importance to religious communities, “they are spiritual and moral reflections only,” Yasmeen told Syria Direct. “What do people care about religious symbols when they can’t find food to eat, heat, or meet their daily necessities?” 

With a deteriorating economic situation, exacerbated by a rapid decline in the value of the Syrian pound, Yasmeen ridiculed the priorities of the reconstruction process. “If only the gigantic amounts [of money] spent on these restoration [projects] were spent on rebuilding the country, or Aleppo in particular, then it would have more positive effects on job opportunities, housing, and shelter for people!” 

Both Burns and the Damascus researcher, however, disagreed that the restoration of religious sites constitutes a priority for the government. “It just happens that so many of the major monuments are of a religious nature and religious organizations have historically held prime responsibility for their upkeep,” Burns said. 

The Chechen connection

For an increasingly cash-strapped government, outside funds are crucial for successful restoration projects and also serve as a source of foreign currency. International organizations funding the reconstruction of religious sites in Syria include missionary organizations, such as the UK-based Aid for Churches, and UNESCO

However, a key player in the rebuilding of mosques is Chechnya. The Akhmad Kadyrov Foundation, connected to the Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been spearheading some of these efforts. 

According to Neil Hauer, an independent analyst focusing on Russia, the Caucasus, and Syria, Kadyrov’s heavy involvement in the rebuilding of important mosques throughout Syria is highly symbolic, part of a broader Russian and Chechen political strategy in Syria. “The building of such mosques fits into the greater pattern of Russia’s Muslim outreach, conducted primarily by Chechnya but with some involvement of Moscow and other Muslim regions of Russia,” he told Syria Direct.

The foundation helped fund the reconstruction of Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque in the city of Homs, which was retaken by government forces in 2013 after sustaining damages from government shelling. Chechnya’s chief mufti, Salah Mezhiyev, cut the ribbon during the mosque’s reopening in February 2019 alongside Homs governor, Talal Barazi.

In September 2017, the mufti of Aleppo, Mahmoud Akkam, announced that the Kadyrov Foundation had transferred $14 million to help rebuild the Great Mosque of Aleppo. “And they will transfer more,” if that amount is not sufficient, Akkam told a group of journalists on a tour of Aleppo organized by the Russian military. 

The rebuilding of mosques in Syria is also part of Chechnya’s broader ambitions to cultivate a certain brand of Islam globally with political implications. In August 2016, Kadyrov sponsored an international Islamic conference in Grozny, attended by some of the most famous and influential religious figures, such as Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Egypt, and Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the grand mufti of Syria. Following the conference, Syrian religious authorities visited Grozny several times in 2017 and plans were even discussed to open a branch of Damascus University in Grozny.

In addition to promoting the Chechen state version of Islam—largely based upon the Sufi Naqshbandi tradition—the conference delivered a scathing critique of Salafism; proposed establishing a TV station to “convey to people a truthful message of Islam and fight against extremism and terrorism” and counter Al-Jazeera; and recommended establishing a scientific center in Chechnya to “refute and scientifically challenge extremist thought.” 

But these religious and humanitarian relations have been accompanied by military efforts as well. In December 2016, Chechnya deployed military police to the city of Aleppo. Drawn mostly from “Kadyrovtsy,” security forces loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov himself, they occupied a range of positions, from providing convoy security to aid distribution projects in Aleppo. Many of the Kadyrov Foundation’s humanitarian initiatives are carried out in conjunction with the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria at the Russian Hmeimim Airbase, meaning that humanitarian and military arrangements often overlap.

It is likely that Kadyrov’s brand of Islam is amenable to Assad’s conception of “secular Islam” and will support his efforts against the Syrian opposition, which he has long branded as terrorists. According to Hauer, Kadyrov’s sponsorship of such efforts go “alongside his own experience with crushing a domestic Islamist insurgency,” with a whole host of countries “set to send counterterrorism forces to Chechnya for training.” 

As for Russia itself, it has styled itself as the protector of both Christians and Jews in Syria. In particular, it claims to be helping “Jews in the restoration of their shrines in Syria,” according to Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2019. However, it remains unclear what this means in practice, as to date, Russian funding of synagogue restoration in Syria has not been reported and there are less than 20 Jews left in Syria, according to the BBC Arabic.

Contracts going to regime affiliates

Beyond the geopolitical implications of international funding for reconstruction of religious sites, the sizable amounts of money flowing into Syria have an immediate financial impact on the country. For example, the $14 million donated in 2017 by the Kadyrov Foundation for the restoration of the Great Mosque of Aleppo was equivalent to Syria’s entire tourism revenue in the same year.

Much of the Chechen funding has been used to employ a regime-affiliated construction company, the Military Housing Establishment. Currently under EU and US sanctions, the company officially operates under the purview of the Syrian military, but is directed by Riyad Shalish—Bashar al-Assad’s first cousin. 

Further, the reconstruction and expansion of the Armenian Evangelical Bethel Church in Aleppo were carried out by Yamhad contracting, a company under the Qamh Group umbrella owned by Muhammad Jassim al-Moussa. Al-Moussa’s companies, including Yamhad, have carried out several government infrastructure contracts in Aleppo, including the repair of bridges, and construction of grain silos and a central bank branch. 

Though some major religious sites receive international funding for their restoration, there are many projects commissioned by local councils or local branches of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf). The funding of the ministry, however, is controversial, as a 2017 law allows the ministry to form corporations and secure its funding through other commercial means. 

The lack of transparency around international funding and the winning of construction-related contracts for religious sites leaves the door open for the same issues which plague other reconstruction projects in the country. 

Whether these religious sites are rebuilt in a timely and effective manner, in line with the aspirations of ordinary Syrian citizens, remains an open question. What is certain, however, is that religious restoration in Syria cannot escape the machinations of political and business actors who are rushing to cash in on the nation’s reconstruction.

This article reflects minor changes made on 06/02/2020 at 2:46 pm.

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