Hundreds of protesters attended a rally in Toronto on Thursday to voice concerns over Turkey’s role in the destruction of the ancient Armenian village of Kassab in Syria, whose residents have fled after rebels seized control.
The Armenian Youth Federation of Canada (AYF Canada) said more than 600 people were at the demonstration.
The group organized the protest in front of the Consulate of Turkey, demanding Turkey stop facilitating attacks by extremist foreign fighters. Turkish officials refute claims that Turkey is providing support to opposition forces.
On Thursday, protesters spilled across the sidewalk in front of the building at Lower Spadina Avenue and Queens Quay West, holding cardboard signs with slogans such as “Stop aiding terrorists” and “Hands off Syria.”
Harout Kassabian, AYF Canada Central Executive member, said Turkey’s actions are “unacceptable” in a statement the group released Thursday.
“Turkey, a member of NATO, has and continues to aid and abet extremist terrorist organizations. The official al Qaeda organization of Syria has freely entered the country through the Turkish border,” Kassabian said.
The group is calling on the international community to intervene, to keep Christian and other ethnic minorities from being persecuted. Ethnic Armenians account for about 70 per cent of Kassab’s population.
“As a Christian, it angers me to know that a group of people can lead 3,000 innocent civilians out of their homes,” Roubina Sarkissian, whose parents were born in Kessab, wrote in a statement.
Sarkissian’s relatives living in Kessab were deported last week. She said that Armenians will not stay silent as Turkey facilitates the destruction of Kessab in her speech.
Located near the border with Turkey, the predominantly Armenian town had avoided major battles until recently, AYF Canada wrote in a statement.
For decades, the town had served as a safe-haven for Armenians fleeing from the war-torn Syrian cities of Yacubiye, Raqqa and Aleppo.
On March 23, an attack was launched in Kassab, forcing residents to flee to nearby Latakia and Bassit. Attacks resulted in the looting and desecration of residences and churches in the area, the statement said.
Syrian rebels have pressed their offensive deeper into the heartland of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect. More recently, opposition fighters with reported ties to hard-line Islamic groups, including the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, launched an offensive on the northern stretches of Latakia province along the Turkish frontier.
The protesters gathering in Toronto on Thursday called upon Turkey to take steps to secure its border and prevent intruders from entering Syria near Kassab.
Ottawa issued a statement expressing concern on March 25.
“Canada is deeply concerned by the recent attacks by al Qaeda affiliated armed groups on the ancient Armenian town of Kessab in the Latakia district of northern Syria during which Armenian churches were reportedly desecrated and Armenians driven from their homes,” Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, said in a statement.
“The continued attacks against Christians, including Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians and Armenian Catholics, in Syria are unacceptable.”
Bennett went on to say that Canada stands “determined that the perpetrators be brought to justice for such acts and to stem the rising tide of sectarian violence.
“Canada remains deeply concerned by the suffering of the Syrian people from all communities and by widespread reports of violations of human rights, including reports of churches and mosques being destroyed or used for military purposes.
Recently, Armenia’s President Serge Sarkisian said Armenians in Kassab were forced to flee for their lives in 1909 when the village was attacked by Turkish militants. Then in 1915, the Armenian population was deported by the Turks, and thousands died as they marched across the desert.
“This is the third expulsion of Armenians from Kassab and it represents a major challenge to modern mechanisms for the protection of ethnic minorities,” Sarkisian said in a statement last month.
Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks.
In 2006, the Harper government recognized the Armenian genocide, a move that angered Turkey, a NATO ally.
Online, the hashtag #SaveKessab is being used to draw attention to the cause.