Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim is all thumbs navigating his way around his new iPhone. This modern device contrasts sharply with the traditional cassock he is wearing, but it helps him stay in touch with his community in Syria and the wider diaspora. After an impromptu hour-long interview in London during what was supposed to be a short coffee visit, he reminds me that I can email him if I need anything more. Then he mumbles that he is sleepy.
Ibrahim is an ordinary man—an ordinary man who believes wholeheartedly in the message that he promotes tirelessly, one of tolerance and unity. Ibrahim is also an advocate of dialogue. At the time of the meeting, in early December, he was optimistic for the newly formed Syrian coalition.
Whoever carried it out, the senseless kidnapping at gunpoint of Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yaziji in the village of Kafr Dael on the outskirts of Aleppo on Monday evening has hit Syria’s Christian community hard. During the country’s chaotic descent into violence, they have leaned heavily on their religious leaders for guidance, strength and assistance due to concern over the future of their community in Syria. False reports circulated by major global news channels that the bishops had been released Tuesday night, has only compounded their turmoil.
In December, Bishop Ibrahim spoke of the rising spate of kidnappings in the city of Aleppo—a devastating development in the city that has been little acknowledged in the Western media. When captured, the bishops were reportedly on a humanitarian mission to release two priests who were kidnapped months ago by an unknown gang. Many Aleppine families, at home or in the diaspora community, have experienced the inexplicable disappearance of at least one relative or former neighbor. Most have never learned the fate of their loved ones. Bishop Ibrahim said he had heard of hundreds of such cases, and in his capacity as a community leader would go from neighborhood to neighborhood offering solace to the families.
The humanitarian work that Ibrahim was undertaking when he was captured was to an extent just another working day. His work required him to travel across Syria as well as around the world frequently. In recent times, this had put him, and others who carried out similar work, in constant threat of danger, although he did not seem fearful and carried out his business as usual.
Ibrahim and Yaziji’s kidnapping could mark a turning point for Syria’s civil war in terms of the treatment of the country’s Christians. The abduction of the men and killing of their driver, who was Ibrahim’s deacon, marks the first time such senior Christian figures have been targeted in Syria’s civil war. Significantly, Boulos Yaziji’s brother is the recently enthroned John Yaziji, who leads the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All The East, the largest Arab Christian Church in the Middle East. If it should transpire that the kidnappers were affiliated with a known rebel group, it could seriously hurt the reputation of the opposition movement.
There was widespread condemnation of the kidnapping from Lebanon’s Sunni and Shi’ite religious leaders, including the grand mufti, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, who said, “We denounce [acts] that harm any religious authority figure regardless to which sect he belongs.” George Sabra, who was assigned on Monday as the interim head of the Syrian National Coalition, is reportedly working to secure the release of the bishops.
The Antiochian Chritian Orthodox Diocese issued a statement on Tuesday saying that their release had not yet taken place. Members of the community close to Ibrahim stress that no contact has yet been made with the bishops or with the kidnappers.
Ibrahim is an ordinary man. Yet there is something extraordinary about how he has been facing the crisis in his homeland. There remains an unwavering optimism in his perspective on the conflict. On that wintry day in London five months ago Ibrahim ended the conversation on a hopeful note, “as a man of God or as a religious leader I see that still at the end of this tunnel there is light.”