BEIRUT: Two archbishops were kidnapped by armed gunmen in Aleppo province Monday evening, marking the most senior Christian figures to be embroiled in Syria’s civil war, while the new head of the opposition claimed more than 500 people had died in a “massacre” in Damascus.
Syrian state news agency SANA reported that Yohanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi, the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo respectively, were dragged from their car by “terrorists” after carrying out humanitarian work in the village of Kfour Dael in Aleppo province. Terrorists is the term the regime gives to rebel groups who are fighting to topple Bashar Assad’s government.
Their driver, also a priest, was killed during the attack, SANA said.
A Syriac member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Abdel-Ahad Steifo, said the men had been kidnapped on the road to Aleppo from the rebel-held Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey.
Ibrahim, who had crossed there several times before, had gone to collect Yazigi and the two men were driving to Aleppo when they were kidnapped, Steifo said.
Asked who had kidnapped them, Steifo said: “All probabilities are open.”
Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea condemned the kidnappings in a phone call with Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi, the brother of Paul, as reported on his website.
The Christian party is a member of the opposition March 14 coalition, which opposes Assad’s regime.
Ibrahim has publicly called for a cease-fire and a negotiated solution to the 2-year-old civil war.
In an October interview with Huffington Post, he said that opposition groups were calling for democratic change: “The main problem in our country is a lack of freedom. We are seeking to have at some point in the future a democracy which is realized and freedom is practiced.”
Christians account for about 5 percent of Syria’s population, and they have remained largely neutral or supportive of the regime since the outbreak of the uprising against the government in early 2011.
But the opposition also includes prominent Christian members, including George Sabra, a long-time dissident who was named interim head of the Syrian National Coalition Monday.
Following the resignation of Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, Sabra “was assigned today to carry out the functions of the head of the coalition until elections for a new president,” one of the coalition’s main constituent groups, the Syrian National Council, said in a statement.
Sabra, who until now led the Syrian National Council, will be the caretaker leader until at least May 10, when the Coalition is scheduled to meet for leadership elections.
Sabra is a respected veteran dissident, who was jailed for eight years under the rule of Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez, and detained twice – once for a month and then for two months – after the uprising began in March 2011. Sabra was freed in September 2011, and immediately went into hiding before secretly leaving Syria in early 2012. On the ground Monday, six days of fighting around the capital killed at least 100 people and possibly many more, activists said Monday, in what both sides say may be a dramatic spike in the Syria’s death toll. The exact number killed in the Jdeidet Artouz and Jdeitet al-Fadl districts could not be confirmed.
At a news conference in Istanbul, Sabra put the number of those killed at “more than 500” and said more than 1,000 were wounded. He did not give a basis for those numbers. “What is happening in the suburbs of Damascus are war crimes and genocide.”
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, put the death toll at 483. It said most of the victims were killed in Jdeidet Artouz.
However, Rami Abdel-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said his group had only documented 101 dead, including three children, 10 women and 88 men, but he thought the toll would be much higher. The dead included 24 rebels, he said.
A government official in Damascus told AP that rebels were behind the deaths in Jdeidet al-Fadl.
Elsewhere in the country, heavy fighting raged near the Lebanese border around the town of Al-Qusair in Homs province, where activists said government troops backed by gunmen linked to Hezbollah captured the villages of Radwaniyeh and Tal al-Nabi Mando. – With agencies