Bishops ‘kidnapped by Syrian rebels’
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Syrian rebels kidnapped two prominent bishops in the northern province of Aleppo on Monday, according to reports by state media. SANA news agency said the two men were seized in the village of Kfar Dael while "carrying out humanitarian work".
Armed rebels in Syria have kidnapped two of the country's most prominent bishops, according to reports by state media. The two men had previously warned of the threat to religious tolerance and diversity arising from the two-year conflict in the country.
The Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo, Yohanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi, were seized by “a terrorist group” in the village of Kfar Dael in the northern province of Aleppo as they were “carrying out humanitarian work”, said the government-owned SANA news agency.
A Syriac member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Abdulahad Steifo, said the men had been kidnapped on the road to Aleppo from the rebel-held Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey.
Although several well-known Muslim clerics have been killed in the conflict between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, the two bishops are the most senior church leaders to have been caught up in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
Despite limited political rights, religious freedom had been relatively assured under Assad, himself a member of the minority Alawite religion - an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Religious intolerance fears
But the rebel uprising has led to fears that, should the rebels succeed in overthrowing Assad, tolerance of minority religions could come to an end - both for non-Sunni Muslims and the country’s Christians, who make up less than ten per cent of Syria’s 23 million people.
Such fears have recently increased with the growing strength of Islamists within the uprising and a pledge of allegiance to al Qaeda by the hardline Nusra Front rebels two weeks ago.
Speaking to Reuters last September, Ibrahim said that Christians in Aleppo had been caught up in the battle for control of the city between rebels and government soldiers.
"Christians have been attacked and kidnapped in monstrous ways and their relatives have paid big sums for their release," he said.
The bishop added that several churches and Christian centres had been damaged in fighting in the central city of Homs, which saw some of the conflict’s heaviest bloodshed earlier this year,
Writing in January, meanwhile, Yazigi warned it was important that the Arab Spring should not jeopardise centuries of religious diversity in the Middle East.
"What is the spring without the diversity and richness of colours in comparison with the haze...of winter? Diversity is richness while monochromatic uniformity is a ticking bomb that kills its owner," he said.
The news of the bishops’ kidnapping came after a decision by the European Union on Monday to ease its oil embargo on Syria to allow the rebels to exploit the resources under their control
Under the new measures, European companies will be allowed to import Syrian crude and export oil production technology and investment cash to areas held by the rebel forces.
However, EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg stopped short of lifting a ban on supplying the rebels with arms and other military aid.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)