By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BosNewsLife)– Two Syrian Orthodox bishops remained missing Wednesday, April 24, after they were kidnapped by suspected Islamic gunmen who also killed their driver, church officials and local Christians said.
The whereabouts of Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yaziji and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, remain unknown, despite some reports to the contrary, explained Greek Orthodox Bishop Mousa Khoury in a statement.
There have been more kidnappings of clergymen, but the bishops are believed to be the most senior church leaders to be abducted since the beginning of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
The Syriac Orthodox diocese said it received information that an “armed group… (of) Chechens stopped the car” in the strategic city of Aleppo on Monday, April 22, “and kidnapped the two bishops while the driver was killed.”
A fourth person traveling with them reportedly escaped.
Syria’s Ministry of Religious Endowment also blamed “this brutal act” on Chechen mercenaries linked to terror groups Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida. The government did not provide evidence to back up the claim.
However the Free Syrian Army of rebels said the government itself could be behind the kidnappings.
The bishops were on a “humanitarian trip” to negotiate the release of two abducted priests, explained advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), which closely followed the situation.
MEC said Armenian Catholic Priest Michel Kayyal and Greek Orthodox Priest Maher Mahfouz were kidnapped on February 9.
The Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches appealed for the release of the bishops while also expressing concern about kidnappings impacting other communities and called for “renewed efforts to work for peaceful coexistence in Syria”.
The recently elected Pope Francis also told crowds of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the weekly General Audience that he prays for the “rapid release” of the bishops.
He called the kidnapping yet “another sign of the tragic situation in Syria, where violence and bloodshed continue to sow death and destruction.”
The leader of over 1 billion Catholics renewed his appeal for “an end to the violence, for a political solution to the crisis, and for necessary humanitarian aid for the population.”
Amid the tensions, Syrian Christians appealed for prayers Wednesday, April 24, said MEC, citing contacts in the region.
“Syrian Christians request our prayers that the family of the [killed] driver will know the comfort and presence of Jesus [and that] the two bishops will know the presence, peace and protection of Jesus, and be released unharmed soon – and likewise for the two priests kidnapped in February.” MEC said.
PRAYERS FOR KIDNAPPERS
Syrian Christians also asked prayers for protection and wisdom and that “kidnappers and those who murdered the driver will know the Spirit’s conviction of their sin, and seek the Father’s forgiveness and the Son’s new life.”
The statement of Christians also included a prayer that “Syria’s ethnic and religious diversity will be respected and protected.”
The latest kidnappings have underscored reported fears among minority Christians about growing Islamic extremism in the conflict, which began in March 2011 and has killed more than 70,000 people.
More than one million people, including Christians, have fled Syria, according to aid workers and United Nations estimates, but many remain trapped inside the troubled nation.
Fighting has also spilled across the border, with two new mortar rounds reportedly hitting the eastern Lebanese region of Hermel on Tuesday, April 22.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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