On Tuesday, the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and all the East denied that it circulated reports that kidnappers released the two archbishops abducted in Aleppo in Syria. The fate of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Youhanna Ibrahim remained mired in mystery after gunmen abducted the two clergymen and killed their driver in Aleppo Monday night. The news prompted global concern that the incident risked escalating regional hostilities. Patriarch Youhanna Yazigi, the First Hierarch of the Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, and a brother of one of the kidnapped, denied reports of the bishops’ release. According to the official AOCANA website, in a phone call to Metropolitan Philip Saliba of North America, he said, “These reports are false, and the release of these two hierarchs hasn’t taken place”.
Tuesday afternoon, Bishop Tony Yazigi told Reuters that reports claimed that the kidnapped bishops were now free, saying, “The two are on their way to the patriarchate in Aleppo”. However, by Tuesday evening, with no word on the bishops’ arrival, it wasn’t clear whether they’d reached the city. Details about the circumstances and location of the initial abduction were also unclear. State news sources initially reported that gunmen abducted the two whilst they were carrying out humanitarian work in the village of Kfour Dael in Aleppo Governorate. However, a source in the Greek Orthodox diocese later told AFP the men were in the rebel-held Bab al-Hawa area, near the Turkish border.
Italian Fr Paolo dall’Oglio SJ, who ran an interfaith monastery in Syria and participated in hostage release negotiations in Idlib before being expelled from the country in June, told The Daily Star that he had doubts about the story. He questioned why the bishops would be crossing the frontline into rebel-held areas, given the current security situation in the north of the country, saying, “I’m not astonished that they were kidnapped, but I’m astonished that they were travelling to rebel areas given that the church has been in solidarity with the régime”.
Government and opposition officials traded accusations throughout the day over who was responsible for the kidnapping. According to state news agency SANA, the government’s Endowment Ministry, which is responsible for religious affairs, described the capture as a “terrorist act”. It added that Chechen mercenaries working for Jabhat al-Nusra carried out the attack; that’s an al-Qaeda-aligned organisation the USA designated a terrorist group. An official from the Syriac Orthodox diocese echoed the government, saying, “The news which we have received is that an armed group … [of] Chechens stopped the car and kidnapped the two bishops while the driver was killed”. Dall’Oglio told The Daily Star he was sceptical of the details, saying, “I’d be very prudent with the information we have been given. How do they know they’re Chechens?”
The opposition National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces placed blame for the bishop’s capture firmly in the régime’s hands. A press release from the group stated, “Initial investigations conducted by the Syrian Coalition regarding the kidnapping and killing of Father Youhanna Ibrahim’s bodyguard implicate the Assad régime in this crime. The Free Syrian Army categorically denies any responsibility for this kidnapping. The Assad regime was angered by [Archbishop Ibrahim’s] latest statement, in which he stated that the survival of Christians in Syria isn’t linked to the survival of the régime”. The statement refers to an interview Ibrahim gave to the BBC on 13 April, when he indicated that the death toll in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war was 100,000, higher than the UN official figure of 70,000.
Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, who resigned as head of the coalition Sunday, also suggested the regime might be involved. In a post on his personal Facebook page, he said, “Whilst Syria’s seen thousands of its sons and daughters kidnapped … the latest kidnapping aims at igniting an unprecedented conflict that we should avoid. The kidnapper might be an external intelligence apparatus that’s pouring oil on the fire”. Whilst confusion reigned over the fate of the bishops, Lebanese and world figures rushed to condemn the kidnappings. The Vatican said Pope Francisco Bergoglio was praying for the bishops’ “well-being and liberation” whilst the Moscow Patriarchate called for the release of the men. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said the abductions wouldn’t yield the desired results, but didn’t speculate on who was behind the attacks.
24 April 2013
The Daily Star