Pope calls for release of Syria bishops

Pope calls for release of Syria bishops

Pope calls for release of Syria bishops

Bishop Yaziji of the Greek Orthodox Church (L) and Ibrahim of the Syrian Orthodox Church were kidnapped in the northern province of Aleppo. AP photo

Pope Francis called yesterday for the release of two Syrian bishops kidnapped by gunmen near Aleppo after a Christian group appeared to retract its claim that the clerics had been freed.

Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yaziji and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim were kidnapped on April 22 by armed men en route from the Turkish border. Speaking to an audience of around 100,000 at the Vatican, Francis said there were “contradictory reports” about the fate of the bishops and asked that “they be returned quickly to their communities.”

On April 23, the “Oeuvre d’Orient” Christian association announced that the bishops had been released, but it backed away from the claim yesterday. “Yesterday evening we received information from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate questioning the release of the two bishops,” said Catherine Baumont, a spokeswoman for the group, which works to help Middle Eastern Christians.

“Unfortunately no tangible proof of the release has been obtained. The situation remains unclear, and we still don’t know who took them,” Baumont told Agence France-Presse. A source in Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox archdiocese also said it had no news on the fate of the bishops. “We have no new information,” said Ghassan Ward, a priest at the archdiocese.

 “We can say that [as far as we know], they haven’t been freed,” Ward said, adding that there had been “no contact with them” and that “efforts are continuing” to secure their release.

The two men were traveling from the Turkish border when armed men intercepted the car they were in somewhere outside of Aleppo, forcing them out of the vehicle, Syrian state media and church sources reported. Initial reports also suggested their driver had been shot and killed.

The kidnappers were believed to be Chechen fighters, the church sources said.

İskenderun Orthodox Bishop Dimitri Yıldırım said Yaziji attended a ceremony in an İskenderun church on April 21, Anatolia news agency reported.

The Syrian opposition has condemned the kidnapping, saying the rebel Free Syrian Army was not involved and pointing the finger at the Syrian regime.

Christians account for around 5 percent of Syria’s population and have become increasingly vulnerable to attacks and abductions in the lawlessness that has engulfed much of the country since March 2011.