Leaders urge caution over reports of priests’ fate

By Lauren Williams
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Religious leaders urged “prudence” amid swirling rumors over the fate of three Christian priests reportedly kidnapped in Syria. Italian Jesuit Priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, a prominent critic of the Syrian regime and advocate for inter-religious dialogue, has been missing since July 29 after he traveled to the northeastern city of Raqqa to attempt negotiations with Islamist leaders there for the release of other kidnapped Christian figures.

It is understood he was detained by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, a militant group, after he went to meet with its leadership at the city’s headquarters. There has been no word from him since.

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim were abducted and their driver killed, allegedly by members of a foreign Islamist group, as they traveled to northern Aleppo, also for kidnap negotiations, in April.

With the fate of the priests remaining mired in mystery, religious leaders sought to quash speculation that they have all been killed.

On Monday, a French-based opposition figure with the Syrian National Front, Lama Atassi, said on her Facebook page that Dall’Oglio, 59, had been executed by the group.

“It’s with deep sorrow that I inform you that I was told by a reliable source that Father Paolo has been executed. May God have mercy on his soul,” she wrote, but offered no further details.

The Italian Foreign Ministry has said it had no intelligence to confirm the claim.

Separately, Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper reported Tuesday that Yazigi and Ibrahim had also been killed as early as May.

It quoted Syrian opposition military sources and Arab security sources involved in talks with Turkish intelligence officials following reports the bishops were in Turkish territory.

“Arab security sources are saying that during a meeting with Turkish intelligence officials two months ago to discuss the issue of nine Lebanese hostages, they tackled the kidnapped bishops case, and the Turkish security official outlined they had been killed,” the report said.

That prompted a denial from the Turkish Foreign Ministry Monday that the men were on Turkish soil.

The Vatican ambassador in Damascus, Mario Zenari, also said he had nothing to confirm any of the deaths and urged caution.

“As an Italian citizen, the Italian government is trying very hard to get more information [on Dall’Oglio],” he said.

“We should be prepared for anything, even the worst, but we must also be very prudent with the information we have,” Zenari said.

“Anything is possible in such a tormented region.”

On the bishops more specifically, the Vatican ambassador said: “I am in touch with the patriarchs in Damascus, including his brother [Orthodox Patriarch of the Antioch John X Yazigi] and they repeat that there has been no contact.”

“Until this day there is no news and no confirmation.”

Mount Lebanon’s Syriac Orthodox Bishop George Saliba condemned the As-Safir report of the bishops’ deaths as false.

“We believe they are still alive,” he told The Daily Star.

He said he had received information that the bishops had been moved in the last three days to Kilis in Turkey and claimed Turkish authorities were involved in the kidnap, through facilitating the transfer of the kidnappers – believed to be Chechen Islamists without a connection to the opposition Free Syrian Army – into Syrian territory.

“Until at least two or three days ago they were in Turkey,” he said, adding that the men had been moved at least four times during their incarceration.

Those movements, also confirmed by Christian opposition figure Michel Kilo shortly after the bishops were kidnapped, have fueled accusations Syrian intelligence have been involved in the kidnap, or at least facilitated the Chechen groups’ operations in northern Syria.

“What we know about this case is that they are being held by a criminal gang, and there are claims it has been penetrated by the Syrian regime,” said Louay Safi, a Syrian-American member of the Syrian National Coalition and advocate of American Muslim rights.

“We have multiple reports indicating that this group in particular is not interested in fighting Assad but is merely interested in making trouble between opposition groups in liberated areas.

“They are a mixture of foreigners, criminal and ideological-driven Islamist elements.”

He said information gleaned from Free Syrian Army groups from captured members of the group indicated that “some of the leadership had served as shabbiha [pro-Assad militia] in the past.”

Prominent exiled Syrian businessman Firas Tlass, the son of long serving former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, said of the Chechen group, “They act as a kind of wedge [between opposition fighting groups]. Changing the regime is not their priority.”

“And the wedge is doing what a wedge does.”