Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, both based in Aleppo, are among at least five Christian leaders kidnapped this year in the Syrian civil war, in which minority Christians have been targeted by anti-Assad Sunni rebels who consider them to be supporters of the regime.
An Armenian Catholic priest, Michael Kayyal, and a Greek Orthodox priest, and Maher Mahfouz, were abducted when gunmen stopped the public bus they were traveling on near Aleppo on February 9; and an Italian Jesuit priest, Paolo Dall’Oglio, went missing on July 29 in a rebel-held city about 100 miles east of Aleppo.
Greek and Syriac Orthodox officials have expressed frustration at the failure of attempts to find out where the bishops are, who is holding them, and for what purpose – or even if they are still alive.
Syrian rebels and the Assad regime’s intelligence agencies have pointed fingers at each other, while some unsubstantiated reports claim Turkish involvement and others say the kidnappers were Chechen fighters, several hundred of whom are believed to be among the jihadists fighting against the regime.
In a rare media interview last May, Syrian President Bashar Assad told an Argentine newspaper that the two bishops were being held near the Turkish-Syrian border and that attempts were underway “to free them from the terrorists groups who abducted them.”
Lebanese media meanwhile have reported claims that they were killed shortly after the abduction, prompting appeals by church leaders for an end to distressing speculation.
Last week the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying allegations in media reports that the bishops were being held in Turkey, and saying such claims only “serve some circles’ own interests and aim to leave Turkey in a difficult situation.”
In a recent statement marking the 100th day since the kidnapping, the Committee of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate noted that those responsible “have not indicated the whereabouts of the two Archbishops and have not announced their identity and what are their demands or the purpose behind their inhuman act.”
“The two sister churches have publicly and in private and continue today to exert every effort at local, regional and global levels,” it said. This has included communication with government ministers, lawmakers, ambassadors, the United Nations and church leaders, in a bid to leave “no stone unturned to secure their release” – but without success.
The committee voiced particular concern about the bishops’ health, citing unspecified medical conditions. Yazigi is 54, while Ibrahim turned 65 on Sunday.
Congressional initiatives include a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry by 72 members last May, urging him to make the bishops’ “immediate release and safe return to Aleppo a priority in our efforts in the region,” while Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) raised the matter with U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford in June.
Their plight was also discussed during a hearing last June of two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees on religious minorities in Syria.
Last Friday the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly met with the Lebanon-based Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John Yazigi – brother of the kidnapped Aleppo bishop – and repeated the United States’ call for the immediate release of the two.
Earlier a church source close to the Patriarch was quoted by the Beirut Daily Star as saying the kidnapping was viewed as an attempt to pressure Syrian Christians to support the opposition, to deter them from backing the regime, and to send the message that “Christians are no longer welcome in the Middle East.”
Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. Main denominations include Greek and Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Maronite.
Religious freedom advocates say hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled their homes to escape the fighting and harassment and worse by jihadist rebels. From Aleppo and Homs in particular, Christians have moved in large number to Damascus or across the border into Lebanon.
According to some accounts Dall’Oglio, the missing Jesuit priest, went missing while on a mission aimed at trying to secure the release of the two bishops. Other reports suggested he was on a quest to negotiate a truce between Kurdish and jihadist rebels.
Last week the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported claims from Syria that the priest had been killed by al-Qaeda-linked rebels – a group known variously as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
But on the Monday the Observatory said it now believed that he may still be alive, citing sources from the same group, and urged those holding him to provide proof of life.
During a mass last week for members of the Jesuit order, Pope Francis voiced his concern for Dall’Oglio’s safety. The priest, who has lived in Syria for three decades, has been an outspoken critic of the Assad regime.