YEREVAN—The Armenian government has condemned the murders of two Armenians, including a priest, on Monday in Syria’s Der-El-Zor province. Father Hovsep Bedoyan, the parish priest for the Armenian Catholic community in the northern Syrian city of Qamishli on the Turkish border, and his father Apraham Bedoyan have died. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility almost immediately after the deadly attacks.
According to the deacon from the nearby town of Al-Hasakeh, who survived with minor injuries, the car was ambushed at a checkpoint by unidentified gunmen and shot at point-blank range before the assailants fled on motorcycles. The elder Bedoyan died instantly, while his son succumbed to his wounds during transit to a nearby hospital.
The pair had been traveling with the deacon to the city of Der-El-Zor to inspect the reconstruction efforts of an Armenian Catholic church.
These attacks mark the first targeted assassinations of Christian priests since the 2014 murder of Father Frans van der Lugt—a Dutch Jesuit—by the Al-Nusra Front terrorist group. Another Armenian Catholic priest, Father Michel Kayyal, has been missing since his abduction in 2013.
The murders were followed by a series of bomb blasts in Qamishli on the same day, targeting the Armenian Catholic church, an Assyrian Christian-owned business and a Catholic school, killing at least six people. No Armenians appear to be among the victims, according to Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, the Armenian MP who chairs the Standing Committee on Diaspora Affairs.
The church which Fr. Bedoyan was scheduled to visit had been vandalized and substantially damaged by members of IS during that terrorist group’s occupation of most of the city of Der-El-Zor from 2015 until a series of offensives by the Syrian Arab Army and the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces drove them out of the region in 2017. Der-El-Zor’s Armenian population, which had been present there since the city became the final destination for victims of the Armenian Genocide, had mostly fled.
The church, as well as other properties owned by the local Armenian community, is being renovated with the support of l’Œuvre d’Orient, a Catholic charity which has been assisting Christian communities in the Middle East since 1856. Vincent Gelot, who heads the Œuvre d’Orient’s mission in Syria explained to the francophone Catholic news portal La Croix, that the current project was aimed at reconstructing infrastructure to “facilitate the return of the city’s historic Christian community.” He also condemned the murders as a “premeditated, calculated, despicable act.”
Œuvre d’Orient’s global head Monseigneur Pascal Gollnisch went even further, pointing at Turkey’s recent invasion of Northern Syria for exacerbating the security situation. “It is the responsibility of all occupying forces to protect the safety of the local Christian minority,” insisted Gollnisch.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry’s statement also squarely placed the blame on the Turkish military occupation of the region for “the subsequent resurgence of terrorist groups” targeting the civilian population, including particularly vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities.
Last month, the Turkish military launched its invasion into northeastern Syria, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” with the stated goal of pacifying the region and resettling Syrian refugees. However, most observers suggest that Turkey is using this pretext as a smokescreen for an attempt to create a cordon sanitaire along its border and eliminate the Kurdish-dominated autonomous government there.
The United Nations (UN) estimates that almost 200,000 people have been displaced by the Turkish invasion, while eyewitness accounts of summary executions, beatings, torture, unlawful detention and kidnappings by the Turkish military and their proxies have received widespread attention. Kurdish groups have warned that Turkey is engaged in the ethnic cleansing of the area’s Kurdish population and replacing them with Arabs.
Critically, the fate of 12,000 IS terrorists and their families held in detention camps across Kurdish-controlled northern Syria remains uncertain as Kurdish fighters concentrate their efforts on halting the Turkish invasion. Kurdish General Mazloum Kobani told the New Yorker last month that an estimated 10 to 20 thousand IS fighters remain hidden in cells across the region, some having exploited the Turkish invasion to free their comrades from captivity.
The Catholic Church announced it will be dedicating masses in Fr. Bedoyan’s memory across France this week. In a prayerful tweet, Pope Francis wrote, “I am close to Armenian Catholics of Qamishli in Syria, as they gather for the funeral of their parish priest, Father Hovsep Bedoyan, who was killed yesterday together with his father. I pray for them, their family, and for all Christians in Syria.” A memorial service for the slain father and son was held at the Saint Joseph Church in Syria on Tuesday. The Armenian government, for its part, pledged to continue its humanitarian assistance to the Syrian Armenian community.
While some sources initially reported that both father and son were priests, the Holy See has since confirmed that only Father Hovsep was an ordained Catholic priest. The practice of addressing deacons and acolytes in Eastern Catholicism as “Father” may have contributed to the confusion of the elder Bedoyan as a member of the clergy. While Roman Catholic tradition requires priests to take a vow of celibacy in order to become ordained, the Armenian Catholic Church has been known to accept married men into the priesthood.