BEIRUT: The release of nine Lebanese pilgrims held hostage in Syria has raised hopes for the freedom of two Greek Orthodox bishops kidnapped by Syrian rebels in April, two caretaker ministers said Sunday.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel denied earlier reports the bishops had died, telling The Daily Star: “The two bishops are alive and are held in an area around Aleppo.”
Asked which group in the Syrian opposition was holding them, he said: “We don’t know yet who is holding the two bishops. We are trying to determine the group that has kidnapped them before launching moves to secure their release.”
Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim were kidnapped on April 22 by armed men while en route to the northern city from the Turkish border. They are reportedly being held by a small group of rebels in the town of Bshaqtin, 20 kilometers northwest of Aleppo.
However, Charbel struck an upbeat note about freedom for the two bishops following the release of the nine Lebanese pilgrims, who Saturday returned home from Turkey after spending 17 months in captivity with Syrian rebels in the Aleppo region town of Azaz near the Turkish border.
“The release of the kidnapped Lebanese in Azaz gives hope for the release of the two bishops,” he said.
Caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was similarly optimistic about the release of the two bishops following the three-way swap deal that also involved the release of two Turkish Airlines pilots who were kidnapped in Beirut in August and dozens of Syrian women detained by President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“There is hope for the release of all detainees and kidnapped people in Syria. The release of the Lebanese hostages in Azaz could be a prelude toward releasing all the kidnap victims in Syria, including the two bishops,” Mansour told The Daily Star.
Noting that Lebanon was playing “a humanitarian role” to help secure the freedom of the two bishops, Mansour said: “Local and international efforts should be combined, especially with the Syrian authorities and countries that wield influence on the kidnappers, to secure the release of the two bishops.”
He added that the kidnappers had so far not announced the reasons for holding the two bishops or any demands in for their release.
“ Lebanon has nothing to do with the kidnapping of the two bishops because the abduction took place on Syrian territory and the two bishops are Syrian citizens. Lebanon is only playing a humanitarian role in helping to secure the release of the two bishops,” Mansour said.
Caretaker Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn said serious efforts were underway to secure the two bishops’ freedom.
“Serious efforts are ongoing toward eliminating all obstacles in the way to secure their release,” Ghosn said in a statement. He expressed hope that these efforts would be crowned with success so that “we can see the two bishops safe among us.”
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, head of General Security, who shuttled to and from regional capitals to follow up negotiations on the release of the Lebanese, promised to continue efforts to secure the two bishops’ freedom.
“We have a lot of work to do because the two bishops and others are still [kidnapped]. The case is not finished. Only part of the case has been done,” he told reporters after arriving with the nine freed Lebanese at Beirut airport Saturday night.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai voiced hope that the two bishops would be freed following the release of the pilgrims.
“We thank God for the release of the nine Lebanese kidnapped in Syria. We congratulate their families over the joy of their safe return,” Rai said during Sunday’s Mass in Metn.
“We particularly pray for the release of the two bishops Paul Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim ... We pray in order for this human tragedy to come to an end,” he said.