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Iraqi priest freed after Syria kidnapping

Fr Dhiya Aziz

An Iraqi Franciscan priest kidnapped in Syria for the second time, reportedly by Islamist militants, has been released.

The Custody of the Holy Land, the Franciscan authority of the Holy Land, released a short statement confirming Fr Dhiya Aziz, who disappeared after setting out from Lattakia, a city in Syria, to return to his parish in Idlib province on December 23 in time for Christmas, has now been freed.

“Today we received the communication that Fr Dhiya Aziz has been liberated and that he is doing well,” the statement said.

The Custody of the Holy Land also “thanked all those who helped us to liberate him”, but the statement added that “due to confidentiality reasons” no further details could be given about Fr Aziz’s release.

However, ACN has reported that the priest, who was released late on Monday, is reported to have suffered extreme cold while he was being held and when freed was in a state of severe exhaustion.

Speaking to ACN, Fr Aziz’s fellow Franciscans in Aleppo, northern Syria, said they had yet to establish if he had been tortured but that the priority for him now was sleep and rest.

ACN’s Middle East projects coordinator Fr Andrzej Halemba said that Fr Aziz was now recovering at an undisclosed location.

“The Franciscans told me that in this Year of Mercy they were giving thanks to God for showing his mercy through the release of Fr Aziz,” he said.

“We are just so grateful to God that Fr Aziz has been freed.”

Fr Halemba explained that Fr Aziz has a pre-existing back condition dating back to an earlier kidnapping in July and a planned operation on his spine will now be rescheduled.

The kidnapping was the second time that the priest has been kidnapped in Syria. He was abducted last year on July 4 by Islamist militants in Yacoubieh and released after five days.

The latest kidnapping took place while he was making his way back from Turkey to his parish.

Fr Aziz had been visiting family who took refuge in Turkey after ISIS took over their hometown of Qaraqosh in Iraq.

He volunteered to serve the parish of Yacoubieh, in Idlib province, two years ago. The area has been in the hands of ISIS for years.

While most priests and religious of other Christian communities have left the area, the parish, and neighbouring village of Knayeh, are being looked after by the Franciscans.

In October 2013, Franciscan priest, Fr Hanna Jallouf, who looks after the parish in Knayeh, was taken by jihadists with parishioners. They were all returned after a few days.