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The desperate search for Syria’s kidnapped clergy

Fr Dall'Oglio was asked to leave Syria but couldn't bear to desert the count country he loved. (CNS)

Syria may be the most dangerous place in the world to be a priest today. But even that war-battered nation occasionally produces good news.

On Monday media reported that Fr Dhiya Azziz, an Iraqi cleric seized by jihadists earlier this month, had been released unharmed.

The Franciscan order, to which Fr Azziz belonged, thanked those who had prayed for the priest’s liberation but urged well-wishers not to forget other clerics missing in Syria.

Fr Azziz’s release brings the number of captive clergy in Syria to six. But there is an ever-present danger that that number will increase. The going rate for a kidnapped cleric is said to be $200,000. After four years of the war, the Syrian flock has been scattered far and wide.

Priests cannot remain underground: many have to serve several villages and risk their lives making the hazardous journey between them. They never know if the Islamists who are determined to drive Christians out of the country lie in wait for them. It’s true that priests are far from the only ones in danger in Syria. Some 250,000 people have died in a civil war that has widened into a proxy regional conflict.

An estimated 2,600 people have gone missing. Armed groups are known to have kidnapped another 1,200. Many of the nation’s ancient cities lie in ruins. And much of the land where the name “Christian” was first used is in the hands of black-clad warriors dedicated to establishing an Islamic state on seventh-century lines.

Nevertheless, the Syrian conflict has created a significant number of clerical casualties. In October 2012, for example, Fr Fadi Haddad, a Greek Orthodox parish priest in Qatana, 12 miles south-west of Damascus, was kidnapped. His badly disfigured body was discovered later on the roadside.

In June 2013, 49-year-old Fr François Murad was killed by a gunshot inside his church in the Christian village of al-Ghassanieh, in north-west Syria. Before the true cause of his death was discovered, a video purportedly showing jihadists beheading Fr Murad was shared on the internet and even covered by the mainstream media. It turned out to be fake.

Perhaps the most famous slain cleric is Fr Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit who lived in Syria for 40 years. He spent the last three years of his life in the besieged Old City of Homs, suffering severe privations alongside the mainly Muslim population.

Fr van der Lugt led many Christians to safety at the Lebanese border. But when he was given the chance to escape himself he chose to remain in Homs, where he was shot dead on April 7, 2014.

In some ways, the kidnapped priests are the lucky ones, because at least there is some hope – however faint – that they may one day return to their flocks. The first clerics to be seized were the Armenian Catholic Fr Michel Kayal and the Greek Orthodox Fr Maher Mahfouz on February 9, 2013. The two men were travelling with a third priest on a bus from Aleppo, in northern Syria, to the Lebanese capital Beirut.

Fr Kayal, described by a former teacher as “kind and intelligent”, had helped to start a mission for migrants, providing food and water for them. He planned to travel on to Rome from Beirut. Fr Mahfouz was, like Fr Kayal, wearing clerical attire that day.

The third priest was not. The bus stopped at a blockade outside Aleppo and some rebels jumped on board. They took the two priests in clerical clothing off the bus. The third was allowed to go, along with the other passengers. Half an hour after the incident the kidnappers phoned Fr Kayal’s brother, saying they would be in touch again, and he passed the information on to the Church authorities.

The kidnappers were believed to be part of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, a rather disorganised Islamist militia that has since been subsumed into another. The kidnapping did not seem part of any coherent plan. Eleven days after the incident the rebels allowed Fr Kayal to speak by phone to his mother for half a minute. He said to her: “Mum, I’m OK, but pray for me.”

That was the last time she heard his voice. The double kidnapping triggered one of the most devastating blows to Syrian Christians to date. Two months later, on April 22, 2013, Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi set off out of the city. With them in the car was a driver, a minder and $500,000 in cash. They were on their way to negotiate the release of the two priests. A group of foreigners stopped the archbishops at a checkpoint.

One witness said they were probably Chechens, on account of their accents, fairer skin and paler eyes. They seized the money and the archbishops. Then they murdered the driver and let the minder go. The group handed Archbishop Ibrahim and Archbishop Yazigi over to al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing.

The kidnapping of the two archbishops was tremendously demoralising for the Syrian faithful. If this is how jihadists treated their shepherds, what could the flock expect? Fr Abouna Shafiq Abouzaid, who ministers to the Melkite Greek Catholic community in London, says: “It is a very clear message to Christians to leave: ‘You have no future here.’”

The Church has heard nothing since on the whereabouts of the two archbishops. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X of Antioch, the brother of Archbishop Yazigi, is desperately trying to publicise the plight of the two prelates. But recently he has sounded despondent. “We hope that the bishops are alive,” he said in April, “but unfortunately the world is silent.”

Syria’s best-known captive cleric is Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, a charismatic Italian Jesuit seized two years ago this month. His last public appearance can be seen on YouTube, the video-sharing site on which the Syrian conflict has been chronicled in horrific detail. Fr Dall’Oglio is shown speaking at a rally in Raqqa in eastern Syria. The footage isn’t very clear, but he is easily identifiable by his distinctive trimmed beard and metal-rimmed glasses.

A few days later he was snatched by the militia that had conquered the city, a then obscure outfit calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Nothing has been heard of him since, but by now, of course, the whole world knows of the group that became ISIS.

The last of the six missing priests to be kidnapped was Fr Jacques Mourad, prior of the Monastery of Mar Elian, a branch of a religious community founded by Fr Dall’Oglio. His monastery was home to hundreds of refugees, including 100 children. He was abducted on May 21 this year by two armed men who turned up on a motorbike at the monastery. Fr Mourad had been working alongside a Sunni lawyer as a mediator between the Syrian army and rebel militias in the nearby town of al-Qaryatayn. He had successfully spared the town centre from bombardment for a while. With little or no accurate information about the six missing clerics, many fear the worst.

But even when dealing with the most barbaric kidnappers Christians must never give up hope. Last October al-Nusra Front released Franciscan Fr Hanna Jallouf, who had been accused of co-operating with the Syrian government when jihadists sought to ransack his village in Idlib province. (The same group is thought to be behind the kidnapping and release of Fr Azziz, though
it denies it.)

Al-Nusra Front also handed over 11 nuns it kidnapped when it briefly conquered the Christian village of Maaloula in 2013. This suggestss that some Islamists in Syria, at least, are potentially open to negotiations. Another reason for hope is that there are back channels between the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and some of the rebel groups prowling around Syria. Last September Qatar’s foreign minister Khalid al-Attiyah suggested that he had information that the two archbishops might still be alive. Qatar has previously been successful in negotiating handovers, including of 11 Lebanese Shia kidnapped by Sunni gunmen.

Christians all over the world, meanwhile, are ensuring that the missing priests are not forgotten. They have organised regular vigils, including a simultaneous prayer gathering across Europe in January.

The Holy See has repeatedly called for the release of the archbishops and other clerics. Last July Pope Francis celebrated the feast of St Ignatius of Loyola with his brother Jesuits and spent the evening with Fr Dall’Oglio’s family to show his solidarity with the kidnapped priest. Rumours have abounded since Fr Dall’Oglio disappeared on July 29, 2013. Some suggest he is being held near Syria’s largest dam or that his body lies in a pit outside Raqqa called Al-Houta, where the bodies of Syrian government soldiers are thrown when ISIS is finished with them. Others claim that he died in detention, killed by his jailors without the permission of their superiors.

Given the bleakness of the Syrian conflict, it might actually be a consoling thought that, if ISIS had planned to execute Fr Dall’Oglio, it almost certainly would have done so by now, in the grotesque, theatrical style the world has become accustomed to.

The irony is that Fr Dall’Oglio actually sympathised with the rebels who rose up against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in March 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring.

That year he wrote an article calling for a peaceful political transition in Syria, based on what he called “consensual democracy”, which was never going to go down well with the government.

He also met opposition activists and spoke at the funeral of the 28-year-old Christian filmmaker Bassel Shehadeh, who was killed in Homs during a crackdown by Syrian government forces. Damascus responded by expelling the priest, saying he had “overstepped the boundaries of his church mission”. He ignored the order.

Eventually Patriarch Gregory III Laham, leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, ordered Fr Dall’Oglio to leave, for his own safety as much as any other consideration, and he headed to Iraqi Kurdistan. But the Jesuit could not bear to desert the country he loved.

And so in the summer of 2013 he smuggled himself into Syria from Turkey with the help of Kurdish fighters. That’s when Fr Dall’Oglio made his fateful journey to Raqqa. The force that would become ISIS had just captured the city.

The militants were still relatively unknown in the West, even though they were connected to the church massacre in Baghdad in 2010, in which some 50 Christians were murdered at Mass. Fr Dall’Oglio’s opposition to the Baathist regime clearly counted for nothing with them. In fact, ISIS leaders reportedly suspected that his expulsion from Syria was a ruse by Assad to plant a Christian spy in their territory.

As we prepare to mark the second anniversary of Fr Dall’Oglio’s seizure, Christians around the world must increase their efforts on behalf of Syria’s missing priests. We need to keep the faces of these brave, selfless men in the media. We should also hold more rallies and prayer vigils so that, if any of the six survive their ordeal, they will know that their fellow Christians who enjoy peace and prosperity never abandoned them.

Ed West is the author of The Silence of Our Friends: the exctinction of Christianity in the Middle East

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (17/7/15).

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