Wednesday, April 24, 2013

al-Akhbar on the Bishops' Kidnapping and the Plight of Syrian Christians

Today is the 98th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. Arabic original here.

Two Bishops Kidnapped... The War is Closer than was Thought

by Ghassan Saoud

On a tray in the sitting-room of his home, Habib Afram displays some stones which are all that remain of his village, Ayn Ward, and a handful of soil that he says comes from the grave of one of the saints of his Syriac Church. When you see his joy over the manuscripts of his people or books in Aramaic, Assyrian, Syriac, Chaldean, Armenian, and Arabic and hear his sorrow when he recalls the ruins of the villages that he visited in the Nineveh Plain in Iraq and the Armenian Highland, you might think him trapped in the wrinkled face of his grandfather after he was expelled from Tur Abdin (now in Turkey) at the beginning of last century.

Afram is not there without there also being present the words "Eastern Christianity" and dozens of stories from Turkey, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria of forced expulsion after forced expulsion. If you hear him you might say that he is exaggerating. Is former Deputy Prime Minister Elie Ferzli not exaggerating when he says that the goal is destroying Eastern Christians so that the Vatican will be the capital of Christians, Mecca the capital of Muslims, and Jerusalem will remain for the Jews? But rapidly, an event is occurring that makes one reconsider the president of the Syriac League [Afram]'s close to the chapter entitled "Rahbani's Youths" in his new book Christians of the Middle East, when he says, "The war was closer than we had thought." The was was closer than the Christians of Syria had thought, when they had assumed, like the Christians of Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon before them, that the storm would exempt them from its repercussions. However, the kidnapping of the Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox metropolitans of Aleppo, Boulos Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim has lifted the veil from the suffering of the second-largest Christian population in the Middle East, after Egypt. The CIA World Factbook says that Christians represent 10% of Syrian society. Church sources indicate that they are generally centered in the most troubled governates: Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Hassake, Aleppo, then Damascus and the Ghab Plain in Hama. The abbess of the Monastery of Saint James the Mutilated in the village of Qalamoun in the Damascus countryside, Mother Agnes-Maryam Salib, recounts that as soon as armed men took control of the city of Ras el-Ayn on Syria's northern border, Christians were expelled from their homes with abusive threats. As for the twenty Armenian families of Tell Abyad, now only two families remain in that village in the governate of Raqqa. In the Zarqa governate of Jordan, the Latin Patriarchate has established a special camp for the victims of Syrian "freedom". Maryam Salib says that the number of refugees from Homs alone is more than 150 thousand Christians, while some church sources estimate that the number of refugees, whether to the coast and Wadi al-Nasara or abroad, has reached 400 thousand. One observer notes that European embassies have made Assyrian immigration easier, while American authorities have made visas easier for those with relatives in the United States. Despite all that has occurred, the Syrian church deters its flock from enrolling in the popular commttees [i.e. pro-Asad local militias], alongside the commitment of Church authorities to emphasizing the necessity to work first of all to return stability to Syria and to adhere to political dialog as the sole solution to the crisis. On the other hand, the smear campaign against the Syrian church has not stoppe, arguing that the cause of Christians' fears is the regime and that their interests are not with it: Is not the one leading the opposition coalition today a Christian? Is not a Christian from Aleppo appearing on the "revolution's" televisions?

Despite this, Metropolitan Yazigi continued to give the impression to all he met in Beirut when he would visit or who would call him in Aleppo that morale was high. This "white lie" had the purpose of getting those who remained to stay. In the past few months and weeks, voices were trying to encourage themselves, as constant interruption of telephone service allowed them to vent what they were holding in. But the day before yesterday, everything changed. They know that their Orthodox bishop's influence extends beyond the borders of their city, not only to the archdiocese's dependency in Alexandretta, but also to Greece, whose European Orthodox Church has long treated him like a spoiled child. They know that the kidnapping of Yazigi, Brother of the Patriarch of Antioch John X Yazigi who is now almost residing at Balamand Monastery in Lebanon, and himself a favored candidate only confirms that there are no great men in the crisis. No cover-- spiritual or otherwise-- protects anyone.

Yesterday and the day before, the Syrian people's frustration has surpassed the bounds of despair. Metropolitans Yazigi and Ibrahim are numbered among the kidnapped. Orthodox church sources indicate that Yazigi had been working for months to secure the release of two priests-- one Armenian and one Orthodox, kidnapped by units of the Syrian opposition. The Church had been committed to keeping quiet about its captives in order to ensure their release. Making use of Metropolitan Ibrahim's relationships with various parties of the conflict in Aleppo, Yazigi was travelling with him from the Bab el-Hawa border crossing with Turkey in order to meet an intermediary in what appeared to be the conclusion of the negotiations. But they were surprised by an ambush, whose elements quickly threw Yazigi's companion and Ibrahim's driver from the car because they were civilians and kidnapped the two bishops. The opposition did not waste time in placing responsibility with the Syrian regime for the killing of one of the bishop's companions who-- to state it again-- were kidnapped by Islamic extremists in a region completely under opposition control. Later, the surviving companion affirmed that the appearance and language of the kidnappers gave the impression that they were not Syrians. Until yesterday evening, Syriac and Greek Orthodox Church sources were confirming that many had offered their services, along the lines of the leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea, the leader of the new opposition the Syrian National Coalition Georges Sabra, and opposition figures Samir Nachar and Abdalahad Istifo, amidst confirmation from regional and international authorities that they were closely following the issue. The patriarchate wished all of them success in their efforts. However, as of yesterday evening none of them notified the patriarchate of the kidnappers' identity, despite some speculation that the bishops were in the custody of the "Nureddine Zengi Brigade" which includes foreign fighters among whom are Chechens. Monday evening and yesterday afternoon two intermediaries suggested to Patriarch Yazigi that the time of the bishops' release was near, without adding any detailed information that would explain the reason for optimism. One observer notes the coinciding of the press conference that Geagea held with the purported time of their being freed, in order to give the impression if it happened that it had been thanks to him. Here it is clear that Christians who support the Syrian opposition, with Geagea naturally first and foremost, are expending great effort to exploit the event, whether by knocking on the doors of the Church whose leaders had closed it in their face, or by convincing Christian public opinion that their being present on the other side is beneficial for their community. One observer thinks that if the bishops were kidnapped simply because they are bishops, especially given the positive relations that one of them [i.e. Ibrahim] has with presumed revolutionaries coinciding with the "achievement" of Christian leadership in the opposition coalition, it represents a new blow to this coalition, and a message to the world that those who are described as liberating revolutionaries are nothing but extremist gangs who secure nothing but expulsions, murders, and kidnappings.

In remembrance of the massacres of Syriac Christians, Afram called once more on those concerned, Muslims even more than Christians, to be alert in the face of "the slow extermination of Syria's Christians because it will be the greatest catastrophe for the Christians of the Middle East since the Sayfo" (the Turkish massacres of  Syriacs, Assyrians, and Chaldeans). Mount Ararat is not very far from Aleppo. Tur Abdin overlooks it.

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