Questions Remain Regarding Fate Of Kidnapped Syrian Archbishops

Although there have been reports that two kidnapped Syrian archbishops were released, questions remain and their patriarchates avoided making political statements, writes Ghassan Rifi.

al-monitor Syrian Bishop Boulos Yaziji, head of the Greek Orthodox church in Aleppo, attended the enthronement in Damascus of his brother Yohanna X Yazigi as the patriarch of Antioch on Feb. 10, 2013.  Photo by AFP/GETTY IMAGES/Louai Beshara.

Topics covered

violence, syrian, sectarianism in syria, sectarianism, christians, aleppo

Apr 24, 2013

The bells of Our Lady of al-Balamand did not ring out of joy or gratitude yesterday despite notices, in the media and social networking sites, reporting the release of Boulos Yazigi (the Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo and Iskenderun) and Yohanna Ibrahim (the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo), who were kidnapped by an armed group in Aleppo on Monday [April 22].
The Orthodox Patriarchate said it was not officially informed of the release. Patriarch Yohanna X Yazigi was trying to call his kidnapped brother on the latter’s phone but kept receiving an out-of-service message, which raised concerns in al-Balamand and all Orthodox churches in and outside Lebanon about the archbishops’ fate.

Patriarch Yazigi contacted the heads of influential Arab and non-Arab countries, prime ministers, and religious leaders to secure the release of the two archbishops. He refused to speak to the media and did not receive most visitors. He asked everyone to avoid making statements and prayed for the archbishops’ release.

Church sources recounted the kidnapping to As-Safir and said the two archbishops may have been captured in an ambush because for months they have been following up on the fate of two priests kidnapped by armed groups.

Church sources said the two archbishops made a fruitless visit to Turkey to follow up on the affair of the two kidnapped priests. The two archbishops then returned to Syria in private cars with their drivers. They passed through the Bab al-Hawa crossing and when they reached al-Mansoura they were intercepted by an armed group that took them to an unknown destination after killing Archbishop Ibrahim’s driver, who is a deacon with the last name Fattouh. The armed group then told Archbishop Yazigi’s driver to contact the Syriac Orthodox diocese in Aleppo to pick up the dead driver’s body lying on the side of the road. Sources said the armed group included Chechens and Syrians.

The Orthodox and Syriac patriarchates were keen to not point fingers at anyone, especially since no one claimed responsibility for the archbishops’ kidnapping or set conditions for their release. There was, however, an isolated report that certain parties contacted the Syrian regime and requested that it release 500 detainees in exchange for the two archbishops. That report turned out to be false.

The two patriarchates also sought to deal with the issue calmly without making any demands in order to avoid prejudicing efforts being made at the highest levels to secure the archbishops’ release. The patriarchates issued a joint statement in which they expressed their regret about the kidnapping and about any similar act that affects citizens, regardless of their affiliation. They also asserted that the Christians in this region are part of the fabric of the societies to which they belong, that the Christians suffer alongside whoever else suffers and that the patriarchates work toward lifting injustice from anyone who is oppressed.

The two patriarchates regretted the violence that is tearing the citizenry apart and endangering the lives of innocent people. They said the practice of kidnapping is one of the worst facets of that violence. They called on the kidnappers to respect the hostages’ lives and called on everyone to refrain from taking any action that sows sectarian discord among the sons of the one nation.

The two patriarchates called on the world to “strive to end the ongoing tragedy in our beloved Syria so that it returns to being an arena of love, security and coexistence, and so that politics does not come at the expense of the people. We also call on the churches of the world to take a principled stand, witness to their faith, and take steps that reject all forms of violence, which the people of the Levant are suffering from today.”

They also called on Muslim partners to “join forces with us and declare and work on condemning the use of people as human shields or as a commodity to be used for financial or political compromises.”

They concluded by addressing the kidnappers and said, “Those whom you kidnapped are messengers of love in the world as testified by their religious, social and national work. So we ask you to deal with this painful incident apart from any tensions, which only serve the enemies of the homeland.”

Before the kidnapping, the Lebanese Change and Reform Bloc was scheduled to hold its weekly meeting in al-Balamand under the chairmanship of Gen. Michel Aoun. But given the developments, patriarchal circles said that contacts were made to turn the visit into a show of solidarity free of any any political statements in order not to politicize the issue and harm the release efforts.

Indeed, Aoun came accompanied by Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil and members of the bloc and they met with Patriarch Yazigi without making a political statement. The bloc then announced that their visit was for solidarity.

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