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
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
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
"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