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23 Apr, 2013 00:02

Two Orthodox bishops kidnapped in Syria still captive

Two Orthodox bishops kidnapped in Syria still captive

Two Syrian Orthodox bishops who had been kidnapped on the outskirts of Aleppo have not been released yet, according to the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. Their driver, who was also a deacon, was killed during the attack.

“His Eminence Metropolitan Philip spoke by phone this morning to His Beatitude John X, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East (pictured), who said that these reports are false, and that the release of these two hierarchs has NOT taken place,” reads the statement on the official website of Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

Earlier a number of reports emerged that the bishops had been freed. 

"The two are on their way to the patriarchy in Aleppo," Bishop Tony Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church told Reuters in the capital Damascus.

Syrian Orthodox bishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo Paul, who also happens to be the brother of Patriarch John of Antioch and All The East were abducted en route to Aleppo from a town on the Turkish border where they were carrying out “humanitarian work.”

As they neared the city, they were met by an armed group in the village of Kfar who forced them out of the car. The assailants killed the bishops’ driver before taking them hostage.

The Greek Orthodox diocese of Aleppo declined to comment on the incident. The Russian Orthodox Church has condemned the act.

Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo. (Image from facebook.com)

The Russian Orthodox Church had previously expressed condolences, calling on the international community to join efforts to free the two bishops who were abducted in the Syrian province of Aleppo, said Metropolitan Hilarion, chair of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.

"We are now taking steps to find out where they are, to help them and get them early return from captivity," he said, according to the department’s official website.

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking Moscow to take every measure to ensure the early release of the Syrian bishops, the Church's website said.

Earlier, Metropolitan Hilarion noted that his close contact with the bishops of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, made him believe that “in those places where the authorities are replaced by the rebel groups, Christianity is being exterminated  to the last man: Christians are expelled, or physically destroyed,” quotes Itar-Tass.

He recalled that “Syria has taken more than two million Iraqi refugees, thousands of whom are Christians.”  But now the Metroplitain says “thousands of militant extremists under the guise of opposition forces unleashed a civil war in this country. Extremist groups armed and trained by means of foreign powers are deliberately killing Christians, ” Metropolitan Hilarion said.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the act but members of the National Coalition, Abdulahad Steifo, told Reuters that the clergy were abducted on the road to Aleppo from the rebel-held Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey and that “all probabilities are open” as to who could have kidnapped the bishops.

In North America, where Patriarchate of Antioch has about 250 parishes and 400 priests,  Bishop Basil, Secretary of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America has asked for prayers from the followers.

In May 2011, International Christian Concern group suggested that the Christian minority in Syria are more afraid of the opposition forces than of the government, because under the Assad regime there has been tolerance towards religious minorities.

Abductions have become common in Syria as the country is locked in a two-year internal conflict. Ten days ago the home of bishop Paul was attacked by rocket fire.

Syria's 10 percent Christian population is particularly vulnerable to such attacks especially from the opposition groups as they have remained largely neutral or supportive of the government.

Archbishop of Aleppo Paul has been given a mission to minister the parishes of the diocese of Antioch, where a large part of the Arab Orthodox population is located. This came despite the fact that the road connecting Aleppo and Antakya is extremely dangerous: it is constantly shelled and there are frequent cases of kidnappings, Syria-based RT correspondent Nadezhda Kevorkova reported.

Antioch, which is located in Turkey, is the ancient capital of the Antiochian Patriarchate. Its ruins lie near the modern city of Antakya. The territory was annexed by Turkey in the early 20th century.

Currently, it is the only Christian community in Turkey. There, the oldest Christian holy places – the Cave Church of St. Peter and the St. Simeon’s Monastery – are located.

The Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch was established about 2,000 years ago, and is the largest and the most ancient Christian church in the East, founded by apostles Peter and Paul. Its traditional territory includes Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and also parts of Turkey. Church services there are conducted in Arabic.