“The war in Syria is not yet over. We continue to feel the presence of ISIS”. This was the view expressed by Armenian Catholic Archbishop Boutros Marayati of Aleppo, in a telephone conversation with the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International, following the tragic murder of Father Hovsep Hanna Bedoyan, parish priest of the Armenian Catholic parish of Saint Joseph in Qamishli.
According to the Archbishop, Father Hovsep had been on his way to Deir ez-Zor to supervise the re-building work on the Church of the Martyrs there. “We are trying to rebuild the church and the houses of the Christians who used to live there, so that they can return to the city”, the Archbishop explained. The priest, aged 43, was travelling by car together with three other people: his father, Ibrahim Hanna Bedoyan, a deacon at the church and another layperson. “Shortly before they arrived at Dei ez-Zor, two armed men on a motorcycle overtook their car and opened fire. The father of the priest was killed instantly, while Father Hovsep Hanna died later, outside the hospital in Hasaka.” The deacon travelling in the car was also wounded, while the fourth person, a layman was able to escape uninjured.
The incident is still being investigated. “So far we don’t know who killed him, although it appears that Isis has claimed responsibility for the attack. What we do know is that Father Hovsep was dressed in his priestly attire and was consequently recognisable as a priest, in addition to the fact that his car was clearly marked, in large letters, with the words “Armenian Catholic Church”. Hence it is entirely plausible that Father Hovsep was murdered because he was a priest and because of his efforts to re-establish the Christian presence in Deir ez-Zor. “This is a very important town for us”, Archbishop Marayati explained,, “because it is here that many of our martyrs were killed as they fled the Turkish genocide of 1915. Today there are no Armenian Catholics left there , but undoubtedly the Turks don’t want us to return, because our presence would be a reminder of the Armenian genocide.”
At midday local time, today, the funeral of Father Hovsep Hanna was celebrated in Qamishli. The entire community was present, including many Muslims, everyone wishing to demonstrate the unity and solidarity of the entire town. It is a town that is now threatened by powerful tensions, owing to the clashes between Turks and Kurds. “The situation is chaotic. There are Turks, Kurds, Americans and Russians. Just yesterday there were three explosions. The Christians are afraid; with every new outbreak of violence, many families are deciding to emigrate.” Before the war, there were some 5,000 Armenian Catholics and five churches. Today there are just 2,000 and only two churches remain open.
Archbishop Marayati issued an appeal through ACN to the international community: “All we are asking is that this war should end, but that will not be possible if people continue to help the terrorists and send arms to Syria.” The Archbishop also appealed to Christians all over the world: “I beg you to pray for us and for our people, because at present we are living through extremely difficult times.”