Muslim clerics in Syria urge release of kidnapped bishops

By Patrick J. McDonnell – 27/4/13

BEIRUT — In a strong message of solidarity, Muslim clerics across Damascus on Friday denounced the kidnapping earlier this week of a pair of Syrian Christian bishops abducted at gunpoint.

Imams and preachers at mosques throughout the Syrian capital said in Friday sermons that  the kidnappers were  “violating the sanctity of Christian and Islamic clergymen,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim were abducted Monday when gunmen stopped their vehicle near the battleground northern city of Aleppo, where both are based. The deacon who was driving their car was shot and killed in the attack.

The two were on their way back to Aleppo from a “humanitarian mission” to neighboring Turkey, church officials said.

Religious leaders worldwide, including Pope Francis, have called for the release of the bishops. Orthodox communities in the United States and elsewhere have prayed for their safe return.

The two bishops became the most senior church officials targeted in the chaos roiling Syria, where armed rebels are fighting  to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad. Several other priests have previously been kidnapped in Syria;  at least one was later found dead. Muslim clerics have also been targeted in the fighting.

A surge in kidnappings for ransom has accompanied the overall breakdown in law and order in Syria.

The Syrian government has blamed  the kidnappings of the two bishops on “terrorists,” the official designation of armed rebels seeking to oust Assad. But opposition fighters in Aleppo have denied abducting the pair.

The bishops’ abduction has heightened fears among Syria’s Christian minority that its members could be targeted by Islamist rebels fighting to oust Assad’s  secular government.