The churches of two prominent Syrian Orthodox bishops reportedly kidnapped in northern Syria were unable to verify a claim that the pair had been released by their armed rebel captors.
BBC News reports that Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, both leaders of their churches in Aleppo, are still missing and their families remain concerned about their well being. The two men were seized and their driver killed on Monday by an "armed terrorist group" according to Syrian state television, which routinely describes all rebels as terrorists.
The French Oeuvre d'Orient Christian association claimed yesterday that Bishop Yazigi and Bishop Ibrahim had been freed and returned to Aleppo, but members of Bishop Yazigi's archdiocese told Agence France-Presse that they had no evidence of that.
"We have no new information," Ghassan Ward, a priest at the archdiocese, told AFP. "We can say that (as far as we know) they haven't been freed," he added of Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yaziji and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim.
....Ward told AFP on Wednesday that there had been "no contact with them," adding that "efforts are continuing" to secure their release.
"We are very worried," he said.
The Oeuvre d'Orient Christian association backed away from its claim on Wednesday, telling AFP that "no tangible proof of the release has been obtained. The situation remains unclear..."
According to a Syriac member of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) rebel group, the bishops were grabbed by the gunmen while traveling to Aleppo from the rebel-held Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey. Bishop Ibrahim has reportedly traveled the route several times before, Reuters reports.
Bishop Tony Yazigi, a relative of the kidnapped Bishop Boulos Yazigi, told the Associated Press that the gunmen are believed to be Chechen fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadist rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The bishops' kidnapping has been roundly condemned, reports AFP. Pope Francis on Wednesday called for the pair to "be returned quickly to their communities," while the SNC blamed the Assad regime for their kidnapping and said the rebel Free Syrian Army was not involved.
"Efforts ... to uncover the identities of the clerics' kidnappers and to liberate them indicate that the Syrian regime is responsible for the kidnapping, and [the] killing of Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim's driver," the SNC said.
Bishop Ibrahim told Reuters in September that the ongoing conflict in Syria had been devastating for Aleppo and its Christian population, which has fled the city in droves. "In its modern history Aleppo has not seen such critical and painful times ... Christians have been attacked and kidnapped in monstrous ways and their relatives have paid big sums for their release," he said.
In an extensive look at Syria's Christian population, the BBC notes that the minority makes up about 10 percent of the country's 22 million people. Syria's Christians have "long been among Syria's elite," though "they are generally not seen to have any real power compared with their Alawite and Sunni colleagues," who make up most of the country's Muslim population.