Local Orthodox community concerned for safe return of bishops in Syria

By Canan Tasci
Rev. Father John Saif leads prayer at St. Elias Syriac Orthodox Church in Upland on Wednesday for the two prominent Syrian bishops who have been kidnapped on Monday by armed rebels. ( (Thomas R. Cordova/Staff Photographer))

Photo Gallery: Concern for the missing bishops

With Orthodox Easter less than two weeks away, local members of the Christian-based church anxiously await the safe return of two prominent Syrian bishops who were recently kidnapped in Syria.

Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo, Yohanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi, were taken hostage at gunpoint Monday while traveling outside of Aleppo, Syria.

“Our community is feeling sad and they’re all praying for him (Ibrahim),” said the Rev. John Saif, of the St. Elias Syriac Orthodox Church in Upland. “He is a man of God, he loves everyone and he’s always trying to bring Muslims and Christians together. Everyone is feeling sad, including me.”

On Tuesday evening, the church hosted an hour-long Lent prayer, the last fasting prayer before Orthodox Easter on May 5. During the mass, Saif included a separate prayer for the missing bishops and the bishops’ driver who was killed during the incident.

“Allah yerhamo,” Saif said to his parishioners, which means “to have mercy” on a person who has passed away.

They all repeated the words.

“We all worry the bishops will be killed but we all pray that knowing how faithful they are I also believe nothing bad will happen to them,” said Amalie Greer, a St. Elias parishioner from Rancho Cucamonga.

As a civil war tears apart Syria, there has been a spike in kidnappings in recent months in the northern part of the country, much of which is controlled by the rebels, and around the capital of Damascus.

Residents blame criminal groups that have ties to both the regime of President Bashar Al Assad and the rebels for the abductions of wealthy residents traveling to Syria from neighboring Turkey and Lebanon.

In Rome, Pope Francis called for the rapid release of the two bishops. In his appeal Tuesday, the pontiff called the abduction “a dramatic confirmation of the tragic situation in which the Syrian population and its Christian community is living. ”

Officials from the nonprofit social cultural Syrian Arab American Association said the kidnappings come at a obvious non-peaceful time in Syria.

The damage is just part of the wider devastation caused by the country’s crisis, which began more than two years ago with largely peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war as the opposition took up arms in the face of a withering government crackdown. The fighting has exacted a huge toll on the country, killing more than 70,000 people, laying waste to cities, towns and villages and forcing more than a million people to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad.

“What happened to the bishops is one accident among hundreds of thousands, and what is going on in Syria is unacceptable,” said Tariq Alsamaan, president of SAAA.

“Our country is facing a huge challenge and I believe we’re in the process of changing the face of world.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said these reports are deeply distressing.

“Much like journalists, who over the past year in the Syria have become targets themselves, religious leaders used to be off-limits “” that may no longer be the case,” Schiff said. “Along with the possible use of chemical weapons, these developments may signal a wholly new, and even more bloody chapter ahead. ”

Syriac and Greek Orthodox Churches belong to the largest Christian communities in the country. Until the war started, the Christians constituted 2.3 million of the national population. Now hundreds of thousands of Aramean (Syriac) Christians are fleeing war-torn Syria, according to the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs).

“No matter what happens, no one is safe. (Syria) is not a safe ground for anyone, civilian or men of cloth,” said Sam Khalil, a St. Elias parishioner from Rancho Cucamonga. “We all hope the bishops are released safely and they are able to continue with their mission … and I hope this is all a nightmare and it will all be over soon.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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