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Two Archbishops abducted by unknown forces in Syria

26 April 2013

JIM HOLDEN

Happier time: the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Yohannna Ibrahim (right), in Chichester Cathedral last November, for the enthronement of Dr Martin Warner (left) as Bishop of Chichester

Happier time: the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Yohannna Ibrahim (right), in Chichester Cathedral last November, for the enthro...

THE kidnapping of two Syrian archbishops earlier this week has highlighted even more starkly than before the dangers facing the country's small Christian community during these days of intense civil conflict. The fate of the two churchmen is uncertain: reports on Tuesday that they had been released were later denied, and an unconfirmed story early on Wednesday suggested that they might have been released, but their location was not known.

The official Syrian news agency reported on Monday that the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Paul Yazigi, had been seized by "a terrorist group" in the village of Kfar Dael in northern Syria, while they were "carrying out humanitarian work". Some reports suggested that the Archbishops were seeking a meeting with an armed group, to try to secure the release of other kidnapped Christians.

Confirmation of the abduction came from a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition. A member of the Syriac community, Abdulahad Steifo, said that the two Archbishops had been captured on the road leading from the Turkish border to Aleppo. Reports said the Archbishops' driver, a deacon, had been shot dead. The government blamed the rebels for the abduction; the rebels blamed the government.

On Tuesday, the Anglican Communion Office in London called on Anglicans worldwide to pray for an end to the violence in Syria, mentioning "the massacre of many women and children in a besieged town near Damascus", as well as the kidnapping of the churchmen.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide said that Syrian Christians must have been "deeply disturbed and discouraged" by the abduction of the Archbishops. It also called on all parties to the Syria conflict "to adhere to humanitarian standards with regard to the treatment of civilians".

The Vatican said on Tuesday: "Pope Francis is following the events with deep participation and he is praying for the health and the liberation of the two kidnapped bishops."

Speculation in Syria centred on the possibility of the Archbishops' having been captured by members of the Nusra Front rebel group, which earlier this month pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Other suggestions are that the gunmen were Chechens. In any event, the kidnapping represented by far the highest profile single incident targeting Christians in Syria.

Hundreds of Christian families have already left Aleppo because of the fierce battles there between the Syrian army and rebel fighters. In September, Archbishop Ibrahim told Reuters: "Christians have been attacked and kidnapped in monstrous ways, and their relatives have paid big sums for their release."

The director of the Awareness Foundation in London, the Revd Nadim Nassar, who was born in Syria, told The Guardian on Tuesday that Archbishop Yazigi "believes in diversity like we all do, that the fabric of Syria is diverse, and we should all respect and protect this diversity."

Before the anti-government uprising began two years ago, Christians represented about ten per cent of the Syrian population. The figure today is impossible to estimate, given that, according to UN figures, 70,000 Syrians have been killed and more than one million have fled the country.

Over recent decades, Christians have been allowed to live and worship freely in Syria, leaving many of them ambivalent about the outcome of the civil war, and leading to accusations from Islamist rebels that they are supporters of the al-Assad regime. After more signs of Islamist involvement in the rebellion, the prospects for Syrian Christians look less promising.

On Thursday, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster said in a joint statement that they unreservedly support the Christian communities in Syria, and that the kidnapping was "another telling sign of the terrible circumstances that continue to engulf all Syrians." They also call for urgent humanitarian aid to reach those suffering in the country.

The full statement reads:

"Since the very first days of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, we have prayed as we watched in horror and sorrow the escalating violence that has rent this country apart. We have grieved with all Syrians - with the families of each and every human life lost and with all communities whose neighbourhoods and livelihoods have suffered from escalating and pervasive violence.

"And today, our prayers also go with the ancient communities of our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria. The kidnapping this week of two Metropolitan bishops of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Paul Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, and the killing of their driver while they were carrying out a humanitarian mission, is another telling sign of the terrible circumstances that continue to engulf all Syrians..

"We unreservedly support these Christian communities, rooted in and attached to the biblical lands, despite the many hardships. We respond to the call from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, urging churches worldwide to remain steadfast in the face of challenging realities and to bear witness to their faith in the power of love in this world.

"We both continue to pray for a political solution to this tragic conflict that would stem the terrible violence and also empower all Syrians with their fundamental and inalienable freedoms. We also call for urgent humanitarian aid to reach all who are suffering. We pray that Syria can recapture its tradition of tolerance, rooted in faith and respect for faiths living side by side."

+ Justin Welby          + Vincent Nichols

 

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