Kidnapped Archbishops and priest still missing after 5 years
Five years have gone by since two leading Syrian Archbishops were kidnapped in no-man’s land between rebel and regime-held territory. There is still no trace of them, nothing has been heard of them since and no ransom demands were ever made. The questions of who abducted the two most important figures in Syria’s Christian communities remains unanswered.
Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Archbishop Boulos Yazigi – respective heads of the Syriac and Greek Orthodox Churches in Aleppo — were assumed to have been captured by IS or al-Qaeda, both of whom have an established history of persecuting and kidnapping Christians. The two archbishops were abducted on 25 April 2013 near the Syrian-Turkish, border while en route to negotiate with rebels for the release of two other missing priests – Fr Michael Kayyal and Fr Maher Mahfouz who were kidnapped in February 2013 and have also not been heard from. Archbishop Yazigi was finishing a pastoral visit so they agreed to travel back together in Archbishop Ibrahim’s car. As the car neared Aleppo, their vehicle was stopped by four armed men who forced them out of their car. Their driver, Deacon Allah Kabboud, was immediately killed by assailants bearing “Caucasian” features, according to witnesses. Because the car and driver belonged to Archbishop Ibrahim, it is widely believed that he was the primary target..
The abduction of the Archbishops remains a mystery, especially as other Christian officials kidnapped at that time were eventually released. In December 2013, 13 nuns who had been abducted by masked al-Qaeda rebels in the ancient Christian Syrian town of Maaloula, appeared in a video shortly afterwards claiming to be in good health. They were released three months later in a prisoner exchange brokered by the Syrian government, which in turn freed more than 100 women from rebel families. Other kidnapped clergy were also released after ransoms had been paid, with the “going rate” for a priest reported to be around $200,000.
Kyle Orton, an expert on the Middle East, thinks the archbishops may have been passed around a number of terrorist groups over the years. “It is believed Yazigi and Ibrahim were taken by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, and Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiya was reported to be mediating with al-Nusra for their release,” said Orton. “Al-Attiya’s efforts reportedly came to nothing when the bishops fell into the hands of ISIS. And if that is true, there is little reason to suppose they are alive at this stage.”
Some investigators have begun to doubt the long-held theory that the Archbishops were captured by terrorists and are wondering if Assad’s government might have been involved. “I do not think ISIS is behind the kidnapping. There were no terrorist methods used. They were taken in a very professional manner,” said Jamil Elias Diarbakerli, executive director of the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights. “No terrorist organization that can hide such important bishops as Ibrahim and Yazigi for five years without any real information leaking out.” Numerous activists are also saying it appears suspicious that the Syrian government has not said much publicly about the abduction, given the high-ranking status of the Archbishops.
A Syrian political figure, who had been involved in Damascus religious matters before defecting, believes the government had good cause to “silence” Ibrahim, but make it appear as though militants were responsible. Archbishop Ibrahim was the only high-ranking Christian prelate to call for Assad to step down in the first year of the Syrian war as the violence escalated. Only 10 days before his abduction, Ibrahim had condemned the Assad government’s brutality saying: “I had at first hoped that this regime would be wiser than they are currently acting and that they would do something just to end the bloodshed.”
Archpriest Thomas Zain, Vicar General of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Dean of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral of Brooklyn, New York, said that Syrian Church officials have continued to raise the matter with Western intelligence. “Forced disappearance is a crime against humanity,” said Rev. Father Samuel, who heads up the investigation committee run by the Syriac Orthodox Church, said. “We need international pressure for their safe release. This was not an opportunistic act or a coincidental kidnapping, but a strategically calculated one.”
Another mysterious disappearance is that of Italian Jesuit Priest Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio who vanished in July 2013 without any known ransom demands having been made. Fr Paolo had gone to the ISIS “caliphate” capital of Raqqa, Syria to negotiate the release of two kidnapped French journalists. He was never heard from again. However, his case may be different from that of the Archbishops as he was abducted in an area under ISIS control. Unconfirmed reports from ISIS dissidents was that he was killed a few days after entering Raqqa., and the body discarded.
A year has gone by since Raqqa was liberated, and to date there has been no sign of the two missing Archbishops and Fr Poalo, though bodies and mass graves are still being unearthed from the rubble. Those involved in the investigations of their disappearance are calling for more support from the U.S. and the international community.
Dr Tenzin Dorjee, Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said the matter was of “deep concern.” He added “We continue to hope for the safe return of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, Archbishops Paul Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim, and all those targeted for abduction based on their religious identity, Heart-wrenching cases like these underscore the pressing need for the U.S. government to continue supporting international efforts to investigate gross violations during conflict and hold perpetrators accountable.”