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Archbishops still missing, as refugee crisis deepens

by
03 May 2013

by Gerald Butt, Middle East Correspondent in Amman

REUTERS

Under fire: fighters from the Free Syrian Army in action in the Salaheddine area of Aleppo on Sunday

Under fire: fighters from the Free Syrian Army in action in the Salaheddine area of Aleppo on Sunday

MUSLIM leaders have joined prominent Christians around the world in demanding the release of two Syrian archbishops who were kidnapped in Syria last month ( News, 26 April).

The Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Paul Yazigi, were seized by gunmen in northern Syria while on their way back to their home city from the Turkish border. Their driver was killed.

Reports on Wednesday of last week that the two churchmen had been freed turned out to be incorrect. The Greek Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, Mgr Jean Clement Jeanbart, told the Roman Catholic Asia News agency: "At present, no one understands the reasons for this act and who is behind these criminals."

The secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Co-operation, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlhe, last weekend called for the "immediate and unconditional release" of the two archbishops, because their seizure "contradicts the principles of true Islam, and the status held for Christian clergymen in Islam".

Shortly after the kidnapping, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the RC Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, said in a joint statement that the kidnapping of the two churchmen was "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."

The Bishop of Warwick, the Rt Revd John Stroyan, who has met the two Syrian archbishops in the past, urged people to pray for their release and for the end of the conflict in a way that would "honour Christians and other minorities in the country".

Special services have been held in churches throughout Syria for the missing archbishops. Elsewhere, leaders of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Churches have urged international politicians to do whatever they can to free the churchmen. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia contacted the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to ask for help.

As the search for the kidnapped men continues, violence in Syria is intensifying. Four people died on Monday, when mortar-rounds hit a Christian area of Aleppo, prompting Archbishop Jeanbart to say: "The situation in the city is terrible. No one is safe."

Large bombs have also exploded in Damascus. One narrowly missed its intended target, the Prime Minister, Wael al-Halqi. The erosion of central government authority and the breakdown in security are forcing thousands more to seek shelter in neighbouring countries.

The arrival of so many refugees is putting the resources of these countries under intense strain. The economy of Jordan was struggling before the Syrian crisis began, but it is having to cope with at least half a million homeless Syrians. On Monday alone this week, 1800 more crossed the border into Jordan. Providing shelter, food, and water is becoming increasingly difficult, in a country where so much, including nearly all food, oil, and gas, has to be imported.

Anglicans in Jordan are working through the Middle East Council of Churches to help refugees. The Pastor to the Arabic-speaking congregation at the Redeemer Church, Amman, the Revd Fadi Diab, said that Anglicans had been "making financial donations and sending food and clothing for refugees sheltering in the Zaatari camp in the north of the country".

An increasing number of Christians are among the Syrians seeking shelter abroad, an issue raised in the House of Lords last week by the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish.

He said that the Christian element of the Syrian population had "fallen dramatically to around ten per cent, and Christians are continuing to haemorrhage from the area under the perceived threat of militant Islam. The spread of jihadist groups within the Syrian opposition and the growth of the mantra that 'Islam is the solution' are only exacerbating this flight."

Bishop Langrish said that one estimate suggested that some 90 per cent of the 150,000-strong Christian community of Homs had moved to Jordan. "Where Christians do remain, once-cohesive communities, marked by peaceful co-existence and co-operation, are beginning to fragment, as those of different religious traditions increasingly draw apart." Syria, he concluded, looked as if it was following Iraq down the route of religious fragmentation.

Bishop Langrish asked Baroness Northover, a government spokeswoman in the House of Lords, if she had a message for the fleeing Christians, who were contemplating a Middle East in which they might no longer be secure or welcome.

Lady Northover agreed that the system for dealing with refugees in the Middle East as a whole was near breaking-point, and that several states, including Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt, were straining to cope. "As numbers increase," she concluded, "so, too, does the need for the international community to respond".

Question of the Week: Is it time for other countries to intervene militarily in Syria?

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