By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BosNewsLife)– An Iraqi Franciscan priest abducted by Islamic militants in northwest Syria has been released, but Christian leaders cautioned that persecution of minority groups continues in the war-torn region.
Dhiya Aziz was captured July 4 in the the town of Yacoubieh in Syria’s Idlib province, according to Franciscan missionaries familiar with the situation.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible. Initial reports suggested he had been taken by fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra who control the area and have ties to the al-Qaida terror group.
Yet Custody of the Holy Land, a well-informed Franciscan authority and mission group, said the group “has denied any involvement in his kidnapping and allegedly led the police investigation in neighbouring villages which led to [Priest Azziz’s] liberation.”
In a statement seen by BosNewsLife, Custody added that the priest was “allegedly treated well during his kidnapping”. More details were not immediately provided apparently amid security concerns.
However the Franciscan group “urged prayers” for other Christians and minority groups still missing in Syria.
The kidnapping of the priest added to concerns among the Christians still remaining in the area amid advances by the Islamic State group who have tried to capture the northeastern Syrian city of Hasaka.
Earlier this month Islamic State suicide bombers blew up an explosive- laden truck near a power plant that serves the northeastern city of Hasaka, the latest attack after their expulsion from most parts of the city, the Syrian army said.
“This has resulted in further mass displacement of refugees, including Assyrian Christian families who had sought refuge in the city just this past February,” confirmed Voice Of the Martyrs Canada (VOMC), a major advocacy group.
The number of people fleeing the civil war in Syria has now passed four million, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
Most of them, including Christians, have fled to neighbouring countries, with Turkey hosting nearly two million alone, according to UNHCR estimates.
“This is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.
Christian leaders in the Middle East said they feel frustrated by what they perceive as lack of support from Western churches for Christians in Syria and neighboring Iraq, where many Christians have been forced to flee as well.
Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad reportedly said: “We feel forgotten and isolated.”