Jerusalem has returned centuries-old scrolls after they were removed by an Israeli rescue team after an earthquake-wrecked synagogue was destroyed in Turkey.
The ancient scrolls, known as the Book of Esther, had been stored in the Antakya Synagogue. Antakya was one of the hardest-hit cities in Turkey and has just been hit by another 6.4 magnitude quake today.
The scrolls were reportedly taken to Israel by members of the state’s ZAKA rescue team who say they had been asked to keep them safe, according to local media.
The Book of Esther is part of the Jewish Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and it also later became part of the Christian Old Testament.
But the move reportedly provoked fury on Turkish social media when the disappearance of the scrolls emerged.
One social media user named as ‘mortifera’ said: “It is obvious that the team that took it to Israel did not take it by asking the Turkish Chief Rabbinate.”
Another – identified as ‘pentahelixx’ – added “As a Muslim, I say that the Turkish Jewish community is not at fault here anyway, the reaction should not be directed at them.
“Why Israel took them to their own country should be held accountable. If the photos hadn’t come out, maybe these guys wouldn’t have given them.”
Local media reported that the head of the Antakya Jewish community Saul Cenudioglu and his wife, Tuna, died in the quake.
One of their family members is said to have handed the scrolls to the Israeli rescuers and told them: “I am afraid that the scrolls will fall into the wrong hands because of our closeness to Syria.
“Please protect them and make sure we are remembered.”
But Israel has now reportedly rapidly changed course, with Major Haim Otmazgin, the head of the ZAKA search and rescue team, pictured holding the scrolls, handing them over to the Jewish Chief Rabbinate in Istanbul.
Otmazgin said: “I am honoured to save such an important historical document and to ensure that the legacy of the Jewish community in Antakya remains intact despite the destruction caused by the earthquake.”
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, the leader of Turkey’s Ashkenazi Jewish community, said: “The Esther Scrolls were given to them by the family for safekeeping, and at the first opportunity it was returned.”
And the Jewish Chief Rabbinate in Istanbul said: “The scroll of Esther was delivered from Israel and is kept in our Chief Rabbinate. It will return to its home after the renovation of our Antakya Synagogue.”
The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism said: “Our works belonging to all kinds of beliefs and cultures that have existed for centuries within the borders of our country will continue to be carefully protected in these lands.”
It added: “We will restore our Antakya Synagogue, along with all other damaged registered works, and reopen it to the worship of our citizens.”
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