(CNSNews.com) – Two months after two senior church leaders in Aleppo were kidnapped by rebels, their whereabouts and condition remain unknown at a time when Christians in Syria’s largest city are increasingly fearful about the future.
The Obama administration announced last week that it will begin arming the Syrian rebels.
On Saturday, Aleppo’s St. Elias Greek Orthodox church will hold a “cry for prayer and sit-in” vigil to mark the April 22 abduction by armed men of Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi and another Aleppo church leader, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim. Neither has been seen since.
Attempts to reach officials at the two affected dioceses were unsuccessful this week.
At the time of the kidnapping, the two churchmen reportedly were on a humanitarian mission. Their driver, a church deacon, was shot dead.
Why they were kidnapped remains unclear, although different theories have circulated.
Holding a synod in Lebanon this week, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John Yazigi said the church was in touch with “all concerned parties” but had not been in direct contact with the kidnappers, the Beirut Daily Star reported.
While the patriarch declined to speculate about a motive for the abduction, the paper quoted a source close to him as saying the kidnapping was seen as intended to pressure Christians to support the anti-Assad opposition, deter them from supporting the regime, and send the message that “Christians are no longer welcome in the Middle East.”
Because of the Greek Orthodox connection, the Greek foreign ministry has been involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to secure information about the bishops.
Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos last month discussed with E.U. officials in Brussels “Greek actions and initiatives aimed at [securing] their release,” the foreign ministry said at the time, without elaborating.
In the days immediately following the kidnapping there were conflicting reports about their status.
On April 23, State Department spokeswoman Patrick Ventrell welcomed word that they had been released, but the following day he acknowledged there had been “contradictory information,” saying “we understand the Syrian opposition coalition is condemning their capture and urging their release.”
On April 26, four days after kidnapping, Ventrell again called for their release.
On April 27, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him “to immediately call for and actively work towards” the release of the two men.
By the time the bishops had been missing for almost a month, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chair Katrina Lantos Swett in a statement said the U.S. and international community “must leave no stone unturned” in securing their freedom.
“These two religious leaders put aside their own safety by traveling to one of the worst areas of fighting to help those Syrians left with few basic necessities after more than two years of war,” she said.
Several days later, 72 members of Congress signed a bipartisan letter to Kerry on May 21, asking him to make the bishops’ “immediate release and safe return to Aleppo a priority in our efforts in the region.”
‘No way out’
Meanwhile, amid new fighting in and around Aleppo – different parts of which are held by rebel and regime forces – international organizations that are involved in relief efforts there are drawing fresh attention to the Christians’ plight.
“After the opposition fighters in Syria in the beginning of June lost their stronghold in the city of Al-Qusayr, many in Aleppo fear that this biggest city of Syria will be the next battlefield,” said Open Doors USA. (The strategic town of Qusayr fell to Syrian regime and Hezbollah forces early this month, after being held by rebels for more than a year.)
The organization quoted a contact in the city as saying, “Aleppo is under siege by gangs and fanatic rebels.”
Rebel fighters at times prevent food from entering government-held parts of Aleppo or levy taxes that push up the prices drastically, according to a church volunteer. Open Doors is partnering with churches to help the neediest people.
“People talk a lot about the war and expect more war is coming,” said the contact, named Samuel.
“People are afraid. Especially now the head of church isn’t here; there is still no news about our kidnapped bishop. People want to leave, but there is no way out. People are afraid of being kidnapped when they think of leaving the city by car or bus.”
Barnabas Fund, a U.K.-based charity working with Christians in Islamic societies, said a senior Christian leader in Aleppo reports that Islamist militias have taken over mosques in the city and “use Friday sermons to stir up hatred, calling for the killing of anyone who does not follow Islam.”
“Christians are terrified by these militias and fear that in the event of their victory they would no longer be able to practice their religion and that they would be forced to leave the country,” it quoted him as saying.