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A Special Report by ICC
5/15/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The kidnapping of Syria’s most senior Christian clerics highlights the severity of the conflict in the war-torn nation, inspiring a Christian exodus and threatening the very presence of the church in Syria.
On April 22, two of the most senior clerics caught up in the Syrian civil war were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen and remain in captivity. Bishop Boulos Yaziji leads the Greek Orthodox Church, and Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim leads the Syriac Orthodox Church, both serving in Aleppo.
The two bishops were traveling near the Turkish border, carrying out humanitarian work in the Aleppo countryside, when armed men intercepted the car they were traveling in, forced them out of the vehicle and kidnapped them at gunpoint.
The driver was reportedly shot in the skirmish. But it was discovered that the shooting which killed him took place in another part of the city after he had driven to inform the archbishop’s office of the kidnapping. He leaves behind a wife and two children. A fourth passenger escaped, whose identity remains unknown.
Cause for Concern
Several prominent Muslim clerics have been killed in Syria’s uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, but the two bishops are the most senior church leaders caught up in the conflict which has killed more than 70,000 people across Syria.
Aidan Clay, ICC’s Regional Manager in the Middle East, said, “ICC is deeply concerned about the kidnappings of two archbishops near Aleppo. While this is not the first time church officials have been kidnapped, Archbishops Boulos Yaziji and Yohanna Ibrahim are the most senior church leaders abducted in Syria’s civil war to date.”
Both their churches – the Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Churches “of Antioch and All the East” – are based in Damascus, belonging to a family of Orthodox churches with followers across the Middle East.
Along with Pope Francis, many Christian and Muslim religious leaders have expressed their deep concern over their kidnapping and openly pleaded for their quick release from captivity. On April 27, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation called for the bishops’ “immediate and unconditional” release, saying that such acts “contradict the principles of true Islam and the (high) status held for Christian clergymen in Islam.”
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that the kidnapping of “two men of peace is a sign of the terrible violence that is destroying the fabric of Syrian society,” according to the Washington Post.
Another Iraq in the Making?
Christians make up less than 10 percent of the country’s 23 million people and, like other religious minorities, many have been wary of the mainly Sunni Muslim uprising against Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. If it succeeds, it could mirror the situation in other parts of the Middle East, where the fall of a dictator is followed by the rule of an extremist-friendly government, leading to increased persecution of Christians.
As it is, the situation in Syria already follows patterns that were first noticed in Iraq, following the U.S. invasion of that country. Both countries witnessed a conflict that led to an increase in violence and crime against Christians. Both countries have seen the church suffer the loss of people, property and possessions. Both countries have seen Christians fleeing their homes to find refuge in neighboring countries.
As Aidan Clay points out, “Syria’s war is increasingly mimicking the war in Iraq where some 200 Christians were kidnapped for ransom between 2003 and 2012, according to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization. If the family is unable to pay ransom, the Christian is often killed.”
The U.S. invasion of Iraq inspired a Christian exodus out of the country, with more than half a million Christians leaving the country following retaliatory attacks against Christians. A similar exodus is being witnessed following the civil war in Syria. In the western region of Homs, one of the areas worst affected by the Syrian conflict, a population of 60,000 Christians has reduced to 1,000.
Clay adds, “The archbishops’ kidnapping only further discourages Syria’s Christian community. Many fear that if the war continues without resolution, Syrian Christians will follow the path of other ancient Christian communities throughout the Middle East such as Iraq where more than half the Christian population has fled and some 900 Christians have been killed following the outbreak of war in 2003.”
Syria’s Christians are fenced in between the warring rebels and the Assad regime, with the rebels seeing them as Assad loyalists and the government unwilling to trust them. The conflict in Syria has affected everyone regardless of class, gender, race or religion. The kidnapping of the Christian clerics raises urgent questions about the safety of Christians in Syria, where the very presence of the church is threatened by a severe and costly civil war.