Syrian Christians cling to hope kidnapped clerics will return
Syrians generally consider themselves to be a resilient people, but the last nine years have been epically destabilizing by any measure. Tragic events seemed to precipitate further catastrophes and, on too many occasions, just as people thought things could not get any worse, they were proven wrong. It is difficult to pinpoint certain developments as worse than others, but for a number of reasons the year 2013 was a particularly frightening time for many Syrians. It was the year in which militants under the banner of “the Islamic State of Iraq” moved to Syria and declared themselves as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” the acronym for which in Arabic is Daesh. To many Syrians, who had been all too familiar with the human suffering Iraq had been facing for a good decade by that point, this move signaled the start of a new phase of uncertainty.
It was not only the proclamation of an alleged Islamic caliphate by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in April 2013 that signaled bleak times for Syrians. Many concurrent events were sufficient to terrorize all swathes of the population. While Daesh fighters paraded in the main square of Raqqa, declaring the city as their new base in Syria, Syrians hastened to flee the area or hide inside their homes, not knowing what this new group had in store. People knew that Daesh was made of the same essence as the increasing number of extremist groups that were using force to propagate an intolerant understanding of Islam. Still, many Syrians could not predict what was to come, and few feared the worst. Daesh eventually terrorized all Syrians, including Sunnis, who were suddenly no longer at home even in the intimacy of their own faith. And, for smaller groups, the consequences were detrimental.
For Syrian Christians, 2013 was a year of great fear, especially around Aleppo. Random killings and kidnappings were rampant in areas that were heavily contested and in which an unidentified number of groups operated. Christian communities, being small in size and unarmed, felt particularly exposed to danger. Ordinary citizens were not able to identify who was searching them when traveling vehicles were stopped by random checkpoints on the intercity highway. It seemed like the Wild West, and trading in humans became lucrative business. Ordinary citizens were abducted for ransom even on small roads.
But, for criminals, the big fish were foreign journalists and, tragically for Syrian Christians, local clerics also became a prime target. Two priests, Greek Orthodox Maher Mahfouz and Armenian Catholic Michael Kayyal, were abducted in February 2013 while traveling on a public bus through a contested area. Two archbishops of Aleppo, Syriac Orthodox Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Boulos Yazigi, also disappeared in April, somewhere in the border zone with Turkey; their driver was killed. The Italian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, who had made Syria his home, did not return after crossing willingly into a rebel-controlled area in the northeast.
Following tragic developments in previous cases of cleric abductions, the bishops and Dall’Oglio risked their lives to negotiate the rescue of others, never to be heard from again. They were betting on their negotiating skills, and on their belief in the essential goodness in all human beings that they often preached about. These clerics’ actions followed their teachings. Thousands of Christians continue to pray for their release every day.
These abductions dealt a serious blow to the Christian community in Syria, especially in the churches where the much-loved clerics had worked. Aleppo was heavily contested at the time and bad news was coming out every day. The loss of their leaders was symbolically alarming to Aleppine Christians, especially when minority groups and Christians in particular were sounding the alarm about their very existence in their native land. Community leaders called on global powers, wrote letter after letter to international leaders, and even tried to find contacts through local intermediaries, to no avail.
A few days ago, in a surprising development, the US Department of State issued a new announcement under its “Rewards for Justice” program. The call for information on Daesh kidnapping networks identified the priests and bishops by name and, while their pictures appear on the same web page as those of the department’s most-wanted terrorists, a reward of up to $5 million is on the table for information on the people responsible for their disappearance. Meanwhile, Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan last week urged international organizations to increase their efforts to secure the release of Ibrahim and Yazigi.
A reward of up to $5 million is on the table for information on the people responsible for their disappearance.
These calls came months after sources in the Syrian Orthodox community had given indication that the bishops were in Baghuz, only for silence to shroud their fate after the fall of the last Daesh outpost. The recent discovery of a mass grave in the town raised new speculation, and fear for the clerics’ safety has been reignited.
I am one of the fortunate people who have worked with Ibrahim. He was most welcoming to me as a graduate student trying to find her way in studying the chant of the Syrian Orthodox Church. He is an expert on his church’s cherished musical tradition. Continuously sung in the literary form of Aramaic, Syriac chant is one of the oldest types of religious song in living practice in the region. Ibrahim is a remarkable musician and an avid enthusiast for this human treasure.
Ibrahim’s church members certainly cherish his liturgical expertise. But, most of all, his warm character and infectious energy make his loss all the more destabilizing to his flock. Whenever I have imagined Ibrahim in captivity over the past six years, I have pictured him singing, even in silence, because that is what musicians do. For the many who await his safe return, there is a fear that the intensification of calls for information about the two bishops’ whereabouts might be too little, too late. But, because faith saves room for hope, this could also be a step toward their safe release.
- Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo” (OUP, 2018). She is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of Pierson College at Yale.