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.
“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 Lebanon 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 them.”
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 emphasized 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 this 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 courageous 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, a 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 neighboring Iraq.
“We have 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 Muslims.”
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.”
By Nuri Kino
Nuri Kino, of Assyrian (Syriac Orthodox) background, is an award-winning TV/radio journalist now living in Sweden. In January 2013 he wrote a report, ‘Between the Wire’, in which he conducted more than 100 interviews with Syria’s minority Christian community. He is co-author of the independently published political thriller, ‘The Line in the Sand.’