Syrian Bishops Captive, Pressure Mounts for Release

By Carl Wicklander
As the US and the West investigate claims that chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian civil war, both sides in the conflict are blaming the other for a recent abduction.

On Monday of last week, two Christian Syrian bishops were kidnapped on their way to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, after a humanitarian trip to Turkey. The abducted individuals are Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim.

According to the Daily Star, an English language newspaper in Lebanon, the two Christian leaders:

“were snatched by foreign gunmen – allegedly Chechens fighting with the Islamist opposition Nusra Front – after returning from a humanitarian mission to retrieve two other kidnapped priests.”

The US State Department designated the Nusra Front a terrorist group in late 2012. Earlier this month, al Qaeda in Iraq announced that it had merged with the Nusra Front fighting in Syria.

No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

“The Syrian government has blamed the kidnappings of the two bishops on ‘terrorists,’ the official designation of armed rebels seeking to oust Assad. But opposition fighters in Aleppo have denied abducting the pair.”

Al Jazeera and other media sources reported that the bishops had been released, but those reports have been retracted.

Pressure is increasing for whoever is holding the bishops to release them. An online petition to the White House was created last week. So far it has nearly three thousand signatures.

The Greek Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodox Church have each issued statements calling for the release of the bishops. There has also been a joint statement from the church bodies directly affected by the kidnappings, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.

On Saturday, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) joined in by announcing its support for the “unconditional” release of the Syrian bishops. The OIC is an intergovernmental association with members in 57 countries. Its stated purpose includes “promoting international peace and harmony among various peoples of the world.” A statement from the OIC secretary general called for the:

“immediate and unconditional release because such [sic] act contradicts the principles of true Islam, and the [high] status held for Christian clergymen in Islam.”

Violence against Christians in the Middle East has increased after the US-led invasion of Iraq ten years ago and during the so-called Arab Spring. Many of these uprisings have swept away old regimes that tended to safeguard Christian populations. Now the world watches as the Syrian bishops remain captive in perhaps the most high profile episode of antagonism directed at Middle Eastern Christians.