Syrian opposition leader does not know whereabouts of missing bishops
Syrian opposition leader does not know whereabouts of missing bishops
Syrian opposition leader Sabra now says he doesn't know of bishops'
whereabouts, after giving more certain account two weeks ago
Published 24 May 2013 | Nuri Kino, World Watch Monitor
The leader of the Syrian opposition coalition is backing away from
previous reports that he is certain of the location and condition of two
Syrian Orthodox bishops kidnapped April 22.
George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Coalition, told World
Watch Monitor on May 21 he is not informed of the movement of the
bishops from day to day, or of the identity of the captors. This is a
change from May 7 statements attributed to Sabra during a meeting of
Middle East leaders in Beirut.
Sabra also told World Watch Monitor the coalition is "doing our best" to
expel the handful of Muslims who have come from Europe at the urging of
jihadist groups with al-Qaeda links who count themselves among the
broader Syrian opposition movement.
Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo, was
kidnapped alongside his counterpart from the Greek Orthodox Church,
Boulos Yaziji, after travelling to the Turkish border in an attempt to
secure the release of two priests kidnapped in February. Their driver,
Fathallah Kaboud, later was killed.
Apart from an early flurry of erroneous reports that the clerics had
been released, little was heard about their whereabouts, who snatched
them, or why.
That changed May 7 when Amin Gemayel, former president of Lebanon and
current leader of its Kataeb Party, held a meeting in his Beirut office,
according to the Lebanon Star.
"The bishops are in good health and are being held by a small group in a
town called Bshaqtin, 20 kilometers northwest of Aleppo," Sabra told
Gemayel by phone during the meeing, according to the Star.
Attending the meeting were Deputy Bishop of Aleppo Joseph Shabo, Mount
Lebanon´s Syriac Orthodox Bishop George Saliba, Beirut´s Bishop Daniel
Koriyeh and Syriac League President Habib Afram.
Afram told World Watch Monitor the group had sought the meeting with
Gemayel to seek his help securing the bishops' release. Instead, he
said, they heard Sabra tell them he was powerless to help.
"During our meeting, Syrian opposition leader George Sabra spoke with
both Cheikh Gemayel and Bishop Saliba over the phone. Sabra claimed that
he knows where the abducted bishops are and who the kidnappers are. I
find it outrageous that one of the most powerful leaders of the Syrian
opposition says he knows where they are but can´t do anything to release
Afram, Secretary General of the Union of Lebanese Christian Leagues and
a prominent defender of the fate of Christians in the Middle East, said
Sabra's inability to secure the release of the bishops has troubling
implications for the future of Christians in Syria.
"Sabra said things like 'This is not giving a good impression of our
revolution and we promise to take all possible actions to get them
released'. But that is only words," Afram said. "We emphasised that if
he can´t control his own area — the place where the bishops were
kidnapped — then how can he claim that he can change Syria for the
better? And how will he be able to make Christians remain in Syria?"
Contacted May 21 by World Watch Monitor, Sabra gave a less certain
accounting of the bishops than he was reported to give May 7.
"You know that the bishops are moved always day by day or from week to
week. So therefore we don't know the place exactly," he said.
He also said the coalition isn't sure who is behind the kidnappings.
"About this we have different information, we have new news that we will
check. We have news that they are in Aleppo. We can't say that this
information is real, we have to check."
When asked how he knows the bishops are moved, if anyone has spoken to
them, and if there is any evidence they are alive, he replied, "you
know, by our people inside Syria that interrogated the groups."
"Really we believe that they are alive," he said. "But there is no clear
picture of that. We are doing our best, but right now we didn't succeed."
Thousands of Christians have fled the violence in Syria, and church
leaders say the abductions have accelerated the exodus. Sabra said he
wants Syrian Christians to remain courageous.
"We are aware of the impression these gives to our revolution," he said.
"But we are doing our best. Syrian Christians have been living in the
country for thousands of years. And they should be courage enough to
stay in their homeland."
Sabra, himself a Christian, insisted there is no evidence Syrian
Christians are under pressure because of their religion, despite
testimony to the contrary from Christians inside Syria and those that
have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
"Maybe there are some small events here and there," he said, "but we
have not the right to exaggerate with these events to tell it as a fact,
as a truth, of the life in Syria. Really it is not true. And the only
way to protect Christians, as to protect other Syrians, is to push
Bashar al-Assad's regime out of power and start a new era in Syria with
(a) civil state, democratic state, with elections, constitution, a law.
This is the only thing which (will) help all people in Syria to be
protected in their country."
Sabra also rejected any comparisons of the impact of Syria's drawn-out
civil war on Christian nationals to the flight of Christians from
"We have here two major principal differences here in Syria," he said.
"Iraq was occupied by foreign troops, and also they have a neighbour
considered an enemy to Iraqis for many years, I mean Iran. So the effect
of the occupation and the effect of Iranians inside Iraq caused the
situation. In Syria we have something different. I'm sure that
Christians will stay and live in Syria as they did for hundreds of
years. It's their country. In Syria we have thousands of churches and
nobody can prove or give one example of a church being persecuted by
Still, when pressed, Sabra acknowledged one similarity to Iraq of grave
concern to resident Christians: the presence of imported Islamist
militants, some of them aligned with al-Qaeda. An April report by the
International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, at London's King's
College, estimates that somewhat less than 10 percent of the opposition
fighters are from outside Syria, and that between 7 percent and 10
percent of that fraction come from Europe.
"We are sorry to hear about that," Sabra said. "We were informed about
two young people from Belgium. Believe me, we are doing our best to
contact these people and to operate with the European community and the
European governments to save their lives and send them back home to
their countries safely."
Meanwhile, Afram said he meets with Christians that have fled Syria
every day in his office in Lebanon. "People are kidnapped on a daily
basis for ransom or just to scare them to leave," he said. "Christians
are systematically targeted by kidnappings."
He said if the bishops are alive, Sabra should employ the power of his
position to win their release.
"George Sabra should act and he should show leadership capability, or
leave" Afram said. "He should exercise direct involvement, even take
risks to go himself with (the) army of the opposition to negotiate the
release of the bishops. Make (a) clear statement regarding his
(objection) that bishops were treated like this."
Source: World Watch Monitor