Are the two bishops missing or martyred? What is Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio's relation to the matter? What about his mission to mediate with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in order to reveal the bishops’ fate? What about his disappearance and possible death?
There are two possibilities regarding the fate of Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim from Aleppo: They are either alive or dead.
Intersecting information points toward the latter possibility: that the two bishops were killed before the end of May 2013, a month after they were abducted near Aleppo. Part of the information comes from investigations conducted by a group calling itself the Supporters of the Caliphate Brigade, or Liwa Ansar al-Khilafa. The group is close to the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) 9th Brigade, which operates in Aleppo. The other part of the information was provided by Turkish intelligence to Arab security agencies.
According to Syrian opposition military sources, the kidnappers killed one bishop days after the kidnapping, while the second bishop was killed in May. The Arab security source said that during a meeting with Turkish intelligence officials two months ago to discuss the issue of the nine Lebanese hostages in Azaz, the fate of the two kidnapped bishops was raised. The answer from the Turkish security official was terse: They were killed.
But some political and security officials in the Syrian opposition and the regime do not discount the possibility that the bishops are still alive. According to an Arab security authority, the head of the National Security Bureau in Syrian intelligence, Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, asserted that they are still alive and being held by the kidnappers in north Syria. The head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) George Sabra accused the Syrian Air Force Intelligence of kidnapping the bishops in Aleppo after the kidnappers handed them over to the regime.
Sabra’s narrative aligns with Michel Kilo's May 8 comments to As-Safir. Kilo accused local militias of kidnapping the bishops, and he also accused Syrian Air Force Intelligence of involvement
Kilo asked himself, “Why would the regime [kidnap them] since the Syrian church stands with the regime and supports it without reservation?” Then he answered his own question by saying: Air Force Intelligence is holding the two bishops to turn the Christians against an opposition that kidnaps [bishops] and that is preparing to attack a mostly Christian neighborhood in Aleppo.
At 3:45 p.m. on April 22, Fouad Eliya was with the bishops in a silver Kia Cerato driven by Fathallah Kabud. Eliya recalls that a blue four-wheel-drive vehicle intercepted the Kia 700 meters after it passed the Mansoura checkpoint manned by the FSA. The FSA soldiers at the checkpoint, who were from the area, greeted the two bishops and allowed them to pass. Minutes later, eight gunmen in a four-wheel-drive vehicle started pursuing the Kia. Then the gunmen stepped out of their car and surrounded the Kia.
Two km away, a Syrian military security checkpoint saw nothing. No army soldiers approached the “neutral” zone separating their positions that begins north of Rashidayn and the FSA locations toward Bab al-Hawa. Near the road are villas, houses and some factories leading up to the northern Rashidayn neighborhood. The army checkpoint was too far away to see what was happening around the bishops’ car. The kidnappers proceeded with their work without rushing.
None of the passing drivers stopped and got out of their cars. It was too risky. Eliya said, “The road got jammed with cars whose [passengers] were observing from afar.” When the Kia stopped, one gunman got out of the car, opened the Kia’s door, removed Fathallah from his seat and took the steering wheel. Fathallah stayed alive for the next half-hour. Fouad saw Fathallah from behind as Fathallah was taken away toward the Rashidayn military checkpoint. Fathallah was found dead in the factories area. It was said that the bullet that killed him came from a sniper in the scientific research center, which is controlled by the regular army.
Fathallah’s body was transported by a friend to the nearby town of Kfardael. The friend called Fathallah’s parents from there. Because of that phone call, it was thought that the two bishops were kidnapped in Kfardael, and not from the neutral zone between the FSA’s Mansoura checkpoint and the regime’s checkpoint in Rashidayn.
The language barrier
Four of the eight gunmen got out of the vehicle. Eliya looked at their exposed faces. He saw in them Caucasian and Chechen features. Dozens of Chechen jihadists have gone to Syria. They had wool hats, long Taliban-like clothing, gray central-Asian pants and long beards. Eliya opened his door. One Chechen pounced on him. None of the kidnappers spoke Arabic. The kidnapper used his Kalashnikov to signal him to get out of the car. “I will not leave. They are men of religion,” Eliya said. There was no dialogue between Eliya and the Chechens. The kidnappers didn’t say a single word.
Sitting in the back seat, Bishop Yazigi seemed calm. Bishop Ibrahim sat in the right back seat. “We are clergy,” he said twice, in a calm voice. One agitated Chechen struck with the butt of his Kalashnikov rifle the glass window next to Ibramin, ending the short conversation between them. After 10 minutes, according to Eliya’s memory, another Chechen grabbed Eliya from his seat and threw him to the ground. They turned the Kia northward, toward to Bab al-Hawa, then six Chechens climbed on the four-wheel drive vehicle and drove off with their weapons sticking out the windows.
Was it a trap?
What happened before the kidnapping? Did the bishops fall into a trap? Was the trap intended for Bishop Ibrahim? Or did the kidnappers come across the two bishops by coincidence and quickly organize a kidnapping operation?
If it was a trap, then the target must have been Bishop Ibrahim because Yazigi decided to join Ibrahim in the silver Kia in the last hours, and only by chance. Bishop Ibrahim’s presence in the area was normal. He has played a role since the war reached Aleppo. He mediated the release of hostages and became the focus of mediations and abduction issues, before being kidnapped himself.
Bishop Yazigi lived in Antakya for more than a month after the inauguration of his brother Yohanna. He decided to return to Aleppo to celebrate Holy Week. On the evening of April 21, he called Ibrahim from Antakya. They agreed to meet at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and then head to Aleppo together. Bishop Yazigi arrived at noon in a Turkish taxi.
The meeting occurred sometime between 12:30 and 1 p.m. Bishop Ibrahim went to the border area for the second time. He was sent by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Damascus and Armenian Catholic Patriarchate to Sarmada to receive two priests kidnapped last February (Armenian Catholic Michel Kayal and Greek Orthodox Isaac Moawad) on the road between Aleppo and Machta al-Helou, near Homs. Ibrahim had more than one year of experience negotiating hostage releases. He participated in more than 20 successful exchange operations.
On April 19, a Syrian mediator in Damascus received 1 million Syrian pounds [about $14,000 at the time] — which he paid to several parties — to have the priests released. After receiving the money through the Patriarchate of Damascus, the mediator set an appointment at a gym in Sarmada one day before the kidnapping. Bishop Ibrahim came out of the meeting empty-handed. At night, the mediator contacted the bishop in Aleppo and asked him to return to the gym to receive the priests.
Many sources said that a group calling itself Jund al-Khilafa, led by Abu Omar al-Kuwaiti, kidnapped the two bishops on April 22, minutes after they crossed the FSA Mansoura checkpoint northwest of Aleppo. According to experts on Syrian jihadists, the kidnappers consist of eight Chechens who belong to Abu Omar’s group, known until a few months ago as Jund al-Khalifa, before it changed its name to the Muslims’ Brigade.
Abu Omar al-Kuwaiti leads a group of jihadists that include 200 Chechen fighters, according to experts on Syrian jihadist groups. Abu Omar’s father switched his sect from Shiite to Sunni. Omar’s true name is Hussein Laari. The inhabitants of the villages close to Bab al-Hawa doubt his Sunni or Salafist credentials. They call him Abu Omar al-Shi’i [the Shiite]. Abu Omar had sworn allegiance to Mohammed Rifa’i as the Muslim Caliph. Rifa’i is a veteran of the Afghan jihad and lives in London.
When the two bishops were kidnapped, Abu Omar was at his headquarters and had his fighters deployed in the villages around the Bab al-Hawa crossing. He was working under the eyes of Turkish intelligence, which coordinates arming and attack operations in the Aleppo countryside via a war room in Antakya. Abu Omar is assisted by Abu al-Banat al-Chichani, who is famous for having slaughtered many.
Abu Omar was in Turkey to coordinate the entry of foreign fighters to Syria, according to Abu Osama al-Iraqi, a close associate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS. Abu Osama al-Iraqi wrote to Baghdadi defending Abu Omar, denying accusations that he was an agent for the regime because his father used to be Shiite. On his website, Abu Osama wrote, “Abu Omar was on the Turkish side and played a major role in the introduction of immigrants to the land of Sham [Syria].”
It is unlikely that the kidnappings happen in an area less than 20 km from the security area of Turkish intelligence without the latter immediately knowing all what happened.
That is not an accusation without support. Turkish intelligence was close to the kidnapping site and was sufficiently aware of its elements, because they know Abu Omar’s Chechen group and because they denied on more than one occasion that the bishops were killed, confirmed that they were alive and said they knew who the kidnappers were.
Two weeks ago, the Turkish Zaman newspaper spoke of three suspects, a Chechen, a Russian and a Syrian, who were threatened with deportation from Turkey because they were accused being involved in kidnapping the bishops. Turkish intelligence was able to confirm their innocence because Turkish intelligence knew who really carried out the operation. The “Arab groups” in the Syrian National Coalition and the opposition don’t have that information.
Church sources said, “Turkish intelligence told us after a review that those accused by the Turkish press were just asylum seekers who returned from Syria, that and the bishops are still alive, but there is no evidence of that. We received no messages from them.” But how can Turkish intelligence know that if it wasn't in contact with the kidnappers?
The FSA was the last to see the bishops in the kidnappers’ hands that day. When the four-wheel-drive and the Kia took off and headed north toward Bab al-Hawa, at 4 p.m. on April 22, they passed the FSA Mansoura checkpoint. The first witness to the kidnapping is Eliya, who said, “When we reached the checkpoint, the Chechens took out hand grenades and explosives and threatened to blow up their convoy and their hostages if the checkpoint personnel tried to stop them.” Along the 20 km toward Bab al-Hawa, the FSA set up four checkpoints, none of which were able to find the kidnappers’ convoy, who quickly disappeared.
There are many gaps in the investigations of all parties. Those gaps will cost the bishops a prolonged detention, loss of contact and further risking the life of Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio by sending him to Raqqa, ISIS’ stronghold. The disappearance of Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit priest of Italian origin and the president of Mar Musa monastery, was due to his mediation in the bishops’ case with ISIS, said one Western source to As-Safir. The source added, “The mission took place with the knowledge and consent of the president of Congregation for Eastern Churches at the Vatican Cardinal Leonardo Sandri.”
An activist in Raqqa said that those close to the “emirs” Abu Luqman and Abu Hamza killed the Jesuit priest, who worked as an intermediary in the kidnapping of French journalists by ISIS fighters a month and a half ago in Raqqa. French authorities have remained silent about the kidnapping.
The bishops’ kidnapping was never subject to a serious investigation. From the outset, the matter was used to politically accuse the Syrian regime without any evidence. And that allowed those trying to collect ransoms to get involved with the church, the National Coalition and the FSA.
This is the conclusion reached by all those who worked on the investigation in its initial days. There is still not a single testimony indicating any meeting between mediators, doctors and bishops, as some officials have claimed.
No one looked into the small message written in Greek and sent by Bishop Yazigi to a friend in Greece and to his brother Yohanna. The message, written in Greek, said, “We are being held by al-Qaeda.”
The regime’s investigation didn’t get far — just two short meetings. One was held by military security with Eliya after his return to Aleppo from a trip looking for the bishops in the city's countryside. Another meeting two weeks later was with Air Force Intelligence to hear what happened.
The investigation by the National Coalition and the unified military council in Aleppo didn’t get far either. Col. Abdul Sattar Tawila, who is in charge of the case, didn’t write a report on the issue to the Security Committee in the SNC or the National Coalition. The Revolutionary Police, led by Col. Adib al-Shallaf in Aleppo “was newly set up and was not organized to [investigate something like that] anyway,” as Sabra told As-Safir.
Sabra, in his capacity as head of the security committee in the SNC, which looked into the abduction issue, returned to square one and rejected all narratives. “We have not been able to contact the direct mediators. We went out to dinner with people claiming to be intermediaries. They demanded a ransom. So we asked for evidence that the bishops were alive. Then we entered into a process of stalling,” Sabra said.
What about the story by oppositionist Michel Kilo, which As-Safir published on April 27? Kilo talked about a security “emirate” where the bishops were kidnapped, then released, only for them to be kidnapped by another “emirate.” “That story is inaccurate and incorrect,” Sabra said.
National Coalition member Abdul Ahad Astifo told AFP on May 25, “Our only certain information is that a doctor visited the two bishops two or three days ago, and they are in good health.” Sabra added, “The matter was no more than sending some medicine with a trusted intermediary, no more.”
Former Lebanese President Amine Gemayel received a message from Sabra on May 8 telling him that the two bishops are being held in Bishqatin. President Gemayel, who is closely following the case, “believes that the case is very blurry.”
What about Bishqatin?
Bishqatin, controlled by the FSA, is located 20 km northwest of Aleppo. Some believe that the bishops were being held there because the bishops’ companion Eliya met two men from Bishqatin in Ainjara. The men told him that the group could request a ransom to release the bishops. The town, according to Eliya, is “controlled by thieves.” The regime has penetrated the FSA in the town, and the groups fighting the regime don’t mind dealing with the regime every so often to conduct their affairs.
The Bishqatin angle of the story seized everybody’s minds because no investigator looked elsewhere. No one is attempting to find the Chechen group to question them. No one is attempting to get the Turkish sponsor to ask the Chechens for information.
Paolo, the Jesuit priest, may have paid with his life the price of trying to find the bishops in Raqqa with the ISIS, the allies of Abu Omar, who disappeared a month ago. He was last seen in Dana, Idlib, with Abu Osama al-Tunisi, the “emir” of the “Islamic state” in the city during a massacre against a demonstration by an FSA battalion.