SYRIAN CHURCH OFFICIALS SAY 2 ALEPPO-BASED BISHOPS WHO WERE KIDNAPPED REMAIN MISSING
Author: Barbara Surk, 24 April 2013
The whereabouts of two bishops kidnapped in northern Syria remain unknown, Syrian church officials said Wednesday, a day after telling reporters that they had been released.
Bishop Tony Yazigi of the Damascus-based Greek Orthodox Church said Tuesday that the bishops, both working in the northern city of Aleppo, had been released. But later on Tuesday, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate in the capital said in a statement on its website that it had not received “any official document indicating the (bishops’) release.”
Gunmen pulled Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church from their car and killed their driver on Monday while they were traveling outside Aleppo. It was not clear who abducted the priests and who is holding them.
But Bishop Tony Yazigi, who is related to one of the abductees, said the gunmen are believed to be Chechen fighters from the al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group, one of the most powerful of the myriad of rebel factions fighting in Syria to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad. Yazigi declined to say what made it appear that Nusra Front was involved.
The main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned the kidnapping and blamed Assad’s regime.
However, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, reported that foreign fighters had abducted the bishops near a checkpoint near Aleppo. The Observatory’s chief, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said Wednesday that activists in the area where the bishops were kidnapped say the gunmen were foreign fighters from the Caucasuses.
Pope Francis called for the rapid release of two bishops. In his appeal Tuesday, the pope called the abduction “a dramatic confirmation of the tragic situation in which the Syrian population and its Christian community is living.”
There has been a spike in kidnappings in northern Syria and around Damascus in the past months. Residents blame criminal groups that have ties to both the regime and the rebels for the abductions of wealthy residents traveling to Syria from neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon.
Opposition forces control large areas of land in the north and control whole districts inside Aleppo, Syria largest city.
The government still holds large parts of the northern city and its forces daily clash with the opposition fighters, who also control several border crossings with Turkey.
Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as peaceful uprising against Assad’s rule. It turned into civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a harsh government crackdown on dissent.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in fighting, the United Nations says. Nearly 5 million Syrians fled their homes, seeking shelter in neighbouring countries or in other parts of Syria where fighting has temporarily subsided.
KIDNAPPED ORTHODOX BISHOPS ‘STILL BEING HELD’
Contradicting earlier reports that the two Orthodox bishops kidnapped in Syria had been released, church officials say the clerics are still being held. The bishops were kidnapped at gunpoint on Monday in northern Syria. Their driver was reportedly killed during the abduction.
Two Orthodox bishops kidnapped in Syria by gunmen on Monday are still missing, Syrian church officials said on Wednesday, contradicting a report that the men had been freed.
The Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus said in a statement that it had not received “any official document indicating the (bishops’) release.” The statement was posted on the Patriarchate’s website.
At the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, a source also said there was no indication they had been freed.
A Syrian church official on Tuesday said that the two Orthodox archbishops had been released.
“The two are on their way to the patriarchate in Aleppo,” Bishop Yazigi told Reuters in the capital Damascus.
He added that the two archbishops were abducted by armed rebels late Monday from the village of Kfar Dael, and their driver was killed by the gunmen.
Greece’s foreign ministry did not confirm the news, saying that it is “continuing to follow developments closely”.
Greek Orthodox Bishop Tony Yazigi says the kidnapped clerics – Bishop Boulos (Paul) Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church – were released on Tuesday and have arrived safely in the city of Aleppo.
The Greek government had earlier called for the release of the two Syrian clerics, who were seized by “a terrorist group” in the village of Kfar Dael as they were “carrying out humanitarian work”, Syria’s official new agency Sana said.
A Syriac member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Abdulahad Steifo, said the men were kidnapped on the road to Aleppo from the rebel-held Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey.
In Athens, the foreign ministry set up a crisis management team to work for the clerics’ release.
CHURCH SOURCES SAY SYRIAN BISHOPS IN HANDS OF ‘CHECHENS’
By Naharnet Newsdesk
The kidnappers of two Orthodox bishops seized in northern Syria are Chechen fighters, sources in the Syriac and Greek Orthodox dioceses in Aleppo said on Tuesday.
“The news which we have received is that an armed group… (of) Chechens stopped the car and kidnapped the two bishops while the driver was killed,” an official from the Syriac Orthodox diocese who declined to be named said in a statement posted online.
Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, head of Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox diocese and Boulos Yaziji, head of the Greek Orthodox diocese in the same city, were kidnapped on Monday near the Turkish border, the statement said.
Syrian state news agency SANA had reported the kidnapping on Monday night, saying an “armed terrorist group” kidnapped the men in the village of Kafr Dael in Aleppo province.
A source in the Greek Orthodox diocese, speaking to Agence France Presse on condition of anonymity, said Ibrahim “was on a humanitarian mission to free two priests kidnapped two months ago.”
Ibrahim was known for his role in mediating the release of kidnap victims, particularly in cases involving the snatching of Christians, the source said.
He was returning from an area along the Turkish border, where he had picked up Yaziji, when an armed group stopped their car in Kafr Dael, he added.
The kidnappers forced the driver and another person out of the car, he added, saying the driver was subsequently shot in the head.
“According to this person, the kidnappers spoke classical Arabic and appeared to be foreigners. They told them that they were Chechen jihadists,” the source said.
In the statement, the Syriac Orthodox official said there had not been any contact with the kidnappers so far.
“We are working and doing our best for the release of the two bishops and (their) return,” he said.
Syria’s religious affairs ministry (Waqf), meanwhile, issued a statement on Tuesday saying “there is evidence that those who kidnapped the bishops were Chechen mercenaries working under the leadership of al-Nusra Front.”
Al-Nusra, a jihadist group fighting alongside Syrian rebels, has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Christians account for around twenty-five percent of Syria’s population, and have become increasingly vulnerable to attack and kidnappings in the lawlessness that has engulfed much of the country since March 2011.
ALEPPO BISHOPS’ ABDUCTION DRAWS LEBANESE IRE
BEIRUT: The kidnapping of two archbishops in Aleppo drew strong condemnation Tuesday from Lebanese political and religious figures. President Michel Sleiman said the abduction of Yohanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi, the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo respectively, would not yield the desired results.
“These methods don’t achieve the goals of those [those behind the kidnapping] and doesn’t help them achieve the democracy they are striving for,” Sleiman said according to the National News Agency. The president also called for the release of all hostages currently being held captive and for them to be returned to their families, the NNA added.
Nine Lebanese pilgrims were kidnapped in Aleppo, north Syria, last year while returning from Iran. The families of the kidnapped pilgrims have staged various protests to demand their release.
Similarly, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri described the kidnapping as an act of terrorism. “This regrettable incident, which we strongly condemn, contradicts basic human and moral values,” Hariri said in a statement. The abductions also disagree with the principles of the Syrian revolution and coexistence, Hariri added.
Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani also denounced acts that “harm any religious authority figure regardless to which sect he belongs” and called for the bishops’ release.
Ibrahim and Yazigi were kidnapped by armed gunmen in Aleppo Monday evening, the state-run SANA news agency said. SANA said the bishops were dragged from their car by “terrorists” after carrying out humanitarian work in the village of Kfour Dael in Aleppo province. Their driver, also a priest, was killed during the attack. The incident marks the most first time senior Christian figures have been targeted in Syria’s civil war.
Qabbani believed there were “attempts to ignite sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians in Syria that would lead to Christian-Muslim conflict in the region.” He expressed concerns that such attempts aimed at distorting Islam’s image.
For his part, Shiite scholar Sayyed Ali Fadlallah said both Christian and Muslim authorities must condemn the kidnapping “which is a direct assault on the freedom of two figures that have long worked toward unifying ranks and rejecting strife.” He also called for combining Christian-Muslim efforts to secure their release.
Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra condemned the bishops’ abduction, saying that only the Syrian regime has an interest in the intimidation of Christians. Assad’s regime, Zahra said in a statement, “wants to tell Christians that the alternative is a Takfiri authority that does not recognize the other.” “This is misleading because the Syrian Revolution is not Takfiri,” he added.
The Kataeb party’s Ashrafieh Branch condemned the incident in a statement. The party slammed, “the acts of kidnapping that include clergymen who work for peace and toward alleviating the suffering of their people.”
(Source: The Daily Star, 23 April 2013)
SYRIAN BISHOPS REMAIN MISSING DESPITE CONTRADICTING REPORTS
Church sources in Aleppo and Damascus said the two bishops abducted on Monday remain missing, despite reports they had been freed. Armed militants reportedly seized Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo and Boulou Yaziji, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, in a contested area of northern Aleppo. Syrian officials have blamed a “terrorist group” while opposition fighters have denied any involvement, claiming they are working to find the bishops who are the most senior Christian figures yet to be caught up in the Syrian war. A Christian advocacy group and Al Jazeera reported Ibrahim and Yaziji were released on Tuesday, however later on, Abdel-Ahad Steifo, a Syriac member of the Syrian opposition, told Al Jazeera the bishops were still being held by their abductors. A source from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus also said there was no indication of their release. Meanwhile, U.S. officials said that investigations have yet to produce conclusive evidence to confirm Israel’s claims that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons. Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, Israel’s senior military intelligence analyst, has cited photographic and other forms of evidence of the use of chemical weapons. However, White House spokesman Jay Carney stated, “We have not come to the conclusion that there has been that use.” The Syrian regime has prevented a U.N. investigation into the alleged chemical weapons use. Soil samples were reportedly smuggled into Britain and suggested “some use of chemical weapons,” however there was no evidence of who might have employed them.
(Source: http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/ )
STRUGGLE OF THE MIDDLE EAST REFUGEES
António Guterres, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs
“Ravaged by the most complex and devastating of the world’s current crises, Syria has itself a long and generous history of providing refuge to people in need of sanctuary, including Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. This makes the current suffering the Syrians have to endure all the more heartbreaking. The horrendous bloodshed that is now entering its third year has displaced over four million Syrians internally, many of them uprooted again and again as the fighting spreads and the entire country is engulfed in violence and chaos. Their situation is extremely precarious, and without unrestricted humanitarian access to those in need, it is getting worse every day. For more and more people, becoming refugees is the only way to survive; over 1.3 million people have already fled across borders to seek safety abroad. Since the beginning of 2013, nearly 50,000 people have been fleeing Syria every week to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Growing numbers go even farther, to North Africa and Europe. But too many do not make it to safety, and end up trapped in war zones or dying during the perilous journey to the border.
… This conflict must stop, and a political solution must be found so as to bring peace back to Syria and its people, although in the current scenario there is little reason to hope that day is near. In the meantime, all we can do as humanitarians is to continue our appeals for civilians to be spared, and for the help we can provide to be allowed to reach those in need. Humanitarian access to the displaced, regardless of their location, continues to be the biggest challenge in the response inside Syria, along with that of finding adequate financial resources. Delivering assistance in some areas of the country is highly challenging, and the majority of humanitarian agencies were for a long time unable to access people displaced in northern Syria and other contested regions. Only in late January, was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) able to start delivering emergency winter relief to areas north of Aleppo. Getting there requires constant close consultations with all parties to the conflict and strict adherence to humanitarian principles. The risks involved are high, but the price of not trying is even higher.”
(Source: http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/ )
MORE HELP FOR SYRIAN REBELS
The Editorial Board, The New York Times
“…Eager to find ways to speed Mr. Assad’s fall, or at least change his calculations, President Obama is edging, cautiously but appropriately, toward greater support for the rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Washington would double aid to the opposition’s military wing by providing an additional $123 million in “nonlethal” assistance like body armour and night-vision goggles. Some $385 million in humanitarian aid had already been committed.
The president has wisely resisted calls to supply American weapons and to intervene directly. He should continue to do so. Nevertheless, in recent months, the C.I.A. has helped Arab governments and Turkey airlift arms and equipment to the rebels and provided training. The agency also vetted rebel groups to ensure that only moderates receive those supplies.
…Assisting the rebels is not the whole answer. Mr. Obama and Europe should keep trying to persuade Russia to abandon its unconscionable support for Mr. Assad and to work cooperatively to stabilize the region.”
(Source: http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/ )
“TERRORIST GROUPS BECAME THE US ARM IN REGION”
Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi said the armed terrorist groups became “an arm” for the US in the military and political field, adding “The US has attempted to overthrow Syria through the Iraqi or the Lebanese gate, or through direct tools like Israel.
“The US successive administrations recognize that Syria is not a playground for their policies,” the Minister said during a meeting with leadership and activities of the Syrian-Russian Friendship Association in Moscow on Monday.
He added that the Arab League decision regarding Syria contradicts its convention, affirming that any decision at the UN will not be legal, even if Syria’s membership at the international Organization will be suspended, they will not be able to abolish the recognition of it.
“The real partner to Syria in all developments will be Russia, this opinion is not mine.. it is the opinion of the Syrian people and leadership,” the Minister said. Al-Zoubi added that the goal of conflict in the world has never changed.. all historic events stress that there is a conflict among the interests of superpowers, but besides this conflict there is another between good and bad.
For his part, the Syrian Ambassador in Moscow Riad Haddad talked about the political and diplomatic war against Syria and about Qatar’s destructive role aiming at killing the Syrian citizens.
He said that they gave Syria seat at the Arab League to the so-called opposition and they want to repeat this at the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, then at the UN.
Alexander Dzasokhov, Chairman of the Syrian-Russian Friendship Association said that Russia, as people and leadership, has a unified stance to support Syria in its struggle against this global war.
At a lecture delivered in the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Minister al-Zoubi pointed out to the strong relations between Syria and Russia throughout history.
“Syria is a secular state which has been always a target for extremism and extremists.. Syria is facing Arab and western mass media which do not know what is really going on the Syrian land,” The Minister said.
He added that Syria is paying the price of that secularism, coexistence and religious diversity where it gathers 18 languages including the Aramaic language of the Christ.
“Syria has documents revealing that US officers are training, photographing and giving aids to the mercenaries who belong to the culture of al-Qaeda of Jabhat al-Nusra, Liwa al-Tawhid and many others,” the Minister went on saying.
He added “we are confident that the crisis in Syria will come to an end due to the awareness of the Syrian people and through the help of the Russian people and leadership led by President Vladimir Putin.
In a televised interview with ITAR TASS, the Minister affirmed that the Syrian government was the first who called for the political internal dialogue since May, 2011, this political dialogue has to be among the Syrians and there no relation to al-Qaeda or Jabhat al-Nusra.
He affirmed that the political program presented by President Bashar al-Assad on January 6th, 2013 is a comprehensive political, social and economic program, saying “this program is not a mere political vision, but there is a timetable for implementing it… the US, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hinder and obstruct any dialogue or carrying out this program.”
On the possibility of sending petroleum from regions in northern Syria to the EU countries, al-Zoubi said “there are main countries in the EU like France and Britain which are involved in the events in Syria..Their intelligence work in Syria and the neighboring regions.. They are involved in shedding the Syrian blood since the outbreak of events, so the EU decision is not surprising.