BEIRUT: The abduction of two Christian bishops in Aleppo earlier this week has heightened Christian fears and deepened sectarian tensions in Syria and the region, senior Christian leaders told The Daily Star Thursday.
As The Daily Star went to press, there was still no news of the fate of Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo respectively, who were kidnapped late Monday.
The two were snatched by foreign gunmen – allegedly Chechens fighting with the Islamist opposition Nusra Front – after returning from a humanitarian mission to retrieve two other kidnapped priests, according to church sources and Syrian state media.
Yazigi’s brother, Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi, was visiting Beirut from Damascus Thursday to meet with other Christian leaders amid heightened efforts to secure the bishops’ release.
But until now, their precise location and the exact identity of their captors remain shrouded in mystery.
Fearing the rise of an intolerant form of Sunni Islam, Christians, who make up 10 percent of Syria’s population of 23 million, have remained largely loyal to Syrian President Assad’s regime.
The regime, led by the secular Baath party, has in turn pitted itself as a bulwark against extremism and a protector of minorities.
Christian alignment with the regime has been reinforced by the formation of Christian civilian militias. The Popular Committees were formed to “defend’ Christian neighborhoods in Damascus and elsewhere, and recently appear to have been absorbed into the regular army and given military uniform and weapons.
Fears have also been raised by the increasing presence of the Nusra Front and a recent announcement by its leadership pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Pointing to figures that suggest some 30,000 Christians have fled the violence and hundreds of churches been damaged, church leaders have made comparisons to the persecution of their community in Iraq during the fallout of the last decade’s bloody sectarian wars.
Antioch Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, spiritual leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, issued a statement in Lebanon on April 8 warning: “There is no safe place left in Syria.”
“The future of Christians in the Middle East is closely bound up with that of Syria’s Christians,” he said.
“Many Christians from Lebanon fled to Syria between 1975 and 1992 and again in 2006. Similarly, the majority of Iraq’s Christians fled to Syria, where many still are.”
Laham said the threat to Christians was caused “not by Muslims but by the current crisis, because of the chaos it causes and the infiltration of uncontrollable, fanatical, fundamentalist Islamist groups. They may be provoking attacks against Christians.”
Some Christians have attempted to remain neutral, while others have sided with the opposition, claiming the regime itself has deliberately fostered sectarian tensions and is capitalizing on minority fears to legitimize its position and shore up loyalty bases.
The Syrian National Coalition, which recently appointed George Sabra, a Christian, as its leader, placed blame for the archbishops’ capture firmly in regime hands.
Respected former coalition leader and moderate Sunni cleric, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, meanwhile, said that the kidnappers were “pouring oil on the fire.”
Meeting with a Lebanese delegation that included Christian leaders in Damascus Sunday, Assad vowed to step up a fight against Al-Qaeda.
“Syria and Lebanon have always been pioneers in promoting unity and cohesion, particularly through nationalist, pan-Arab and Nasserite parties, which contributed greatly to spreading and bolstering pan-Arab nationalist sentiments,” Assad said in statements carried by state news agency SANA.
Some Christian leaders have gone further, criticizing the church itself for failing to take a stronger stand to prevent politicizing Christians earlier on in the crisis.
Italian Reverend Father Paulo Dall’Oglio, who ran an interfaith monastery in Syria before being expelled from the country in June 2012, has been active in promoting interfaith dialogue since the outbreak of the uprising. He told The Daily Star that whoever was responsible for the kidnappings, the incident served to legitimize an oppressive regime.
“The [church’s] recognition of the right of the Syrian people to democratic change was incoherent,” he told The Daily Star Tuesday following news of the kidnap.
Whatever the origin of those fears – or the extent to which they are justified – none doubt the effect such incidents will have on the region’s Christians.
“It is difficult to know who did this or who’s agenda it is serving. ... But we do know the outcome: It’s a setback for the revolution,” Dall’Oglio said.
Laham told The Daily Star Thursday the incident was an “escalation” and would heighten fears and dampen any hopes for urgently needed dialogue. “It’s a strike against the courage of the people,” he said. “They are really afraid now, wondering if they might be next.”
Describing it as a “setback,” Laham said: “Because of this fear, we need to become even more engaged in contact and dialogue, to come together in order to build a trusting atmosphere.”
“We are all affected, not just Christians, by the situation in Syria ... but the Christians are particularly affected by these acts.”
“We are all Syrian citizens and we are all affected as citizens.
He said he feared the regional fallout, particularly in Lebanon.
“It is a very dangerous scenario, especially in Lebanon, because we are small and have such diversity,” he said. “We are very concerned.”