Syria: Set the abducted bishops free

An urgent appeal for the release of two archbishops kidnapped in Syria is being announced today (Tuesday) by a leading charity for persecuted Christians.

Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi were seized yesterday (Monday, 22 April), while driving back to the city from the Turkish border.

The prelates were kidnapped after trying to negotiate the release of abducted priests.

Fathers Michel Kayyal (Armenian Catholic) and Maher Mahfouz (Greek Orthodox) were kidnapped on 9 February by armed rebels on a road between Damascus and Aleppo.

Reports from that time also stated that Greek Catholic priest Father Hassan Tabara went missing in Damascus while visiting his mother.

Neville Kyrke-Smith, national director of Aid to the Church in Need (UK), said: “We are distressed and saddened by the kidnapping of the two archbishops. We pray to God that they are unharmed and we appeal for their swift release.”

Aid to the Church in Need , which is prioritising pastoral and emergency aid for Syrians fleeing violence, is receiving increasingly dire reports from Church leaders in the country amid concerns about an upsurge in abductions in Syria and Lebanon.

Father Andrzej Halemba, Aid to the Church in Need 's Middle East projects coordinator, who has carried out a series of fact-finding missions to the region, said the abduction of the archbishops signalled that the situation for Christians and others in Syria is now “very grave”.

He said: “We are very concerned not just about the safety of the archbishops and the priests but the hundreds of others who have been kidnapped both in Syria and Lebanon. We ask for people’s prayers and we pray for their well being. We pray that the country does not fall into the hands of fundamentalists.”

Archbishops Ibrahim and Yazigi are the most senior church leaders caught up in the conflict, which is thought to have claimed 70,000 lives since it began two years ago.

News of the kidnapping, which was announced by state media, comes as reports suggest Chechen terrorists were behind the abduction.

Speaking from Syria, Razek Sirlani, ecumenical relations and relief officer for the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo appealed for help for the archbishops’ release.

In an emotional interview with Aid to the Church in Need today (Tuesday, 23 April), Mr Sirlani said: “If anything can be done including pressure on foreign embassies, especially in connection with Turkey, that would help – at least it would help to locate where they are and whether they are safe or not. We have no idea where they are or what their situation is.”

Confirming that the archbishops had travelled to the Turkish border to obtain the release of the priests, he said the prelates were driving home in a vehicle, when eight miles from Aleppo, they were intercepted by an armed group.

He said: “We have no news about where the [archbishops] are and who exactly are the kidnappers.”

The news comes on the eve of today’s Aid to the Church in Need UK's Witness to Faith event at St Mary’s Church, Croydon, with a keynote address given by former government minister and television personality Ann Widdecombe, the charity’s special envoy for religious freedom.

The event takes place today (Tuesday, 23 April) at 7.30pm at St Mary’s Catholic Church, 70 Wellesley Road, Croydon, Surrey CR0 2AR.

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