The bishop that Syria still goes without

Four years ago, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim was kidnapped along with his Greek Orthodox confrere. Our correspondent remembers his last meeting with him shortly before.

This article was originally published in German on April 20, 2016 by Die WELT. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger Correspondent for WELT

ALEPPO – Safia wears a bulletproof vest and carries a nine-millimeter gun in her holster. A bullet hangs from a chain around her neck. “The last one,” she says, “for if there is no more way out.” Safia, who aspires to be a journalist, loves Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad more than anything. The 28-year-old leads us in high speed through the narrow alleys of Aleppo’s Old Town, that part of the city which is controlled by the government. She is walking much too fast for us, because even in September it is still unbearably hot. “Here we are,” she finally says. It is one of those impressive buildings, with walls made of rough-hewn light-colored stones, which are typical of Syria and the entire Middle East. Inside, it is cool and pleasant. Water is provided for while we are waiting in a spacious study. And then suddenly he comes through the door, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Aleppo.

He slides easily into a chair next to his desk, crosses his legs. He is dressed in his everyday robe, wears a black cassock with a red sash around his stomach. A heavy cross dangles from his chest. The black hood, which is called “eskimo” in the Syriac language, is said to go back to Saint Anthony and is adorned with 6 crosses on the left and the right, meant to purify the mind. “Forgive me,” says the bishop kindly, “there is a lot to do in these difficult times.” There was another kidnapping that he had to take care of. “If we do not pay, the victim is dead.”

We had our interview back in September 2012, when, the Syrian civil war was only eighteen months old. No one expected the bishop himself would soon be kidnapped.

Were the kidnappers from the Caucasus?

As a man of the Church who preached interreligious tolerance and dialogue, archbishop Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim believed he was on the safe side. Mar Ibrahim was much more than just a clergyman. He publicly advocated a new, democratic Syria, called for a ceasefire, peace negotiations, a new government and constitution, and free elections. Today [2016] these goals are being negotiated, at least at the international level – after more than 250,000 people have died and eleven million were forced to flee. But at that time, 3 years ago, such demands would become fatal for the Syriac bishop.

Three weeks after Easter on April 22, 2013, Mar Ibrahim, accompanied by his assistant Fuad Eliya and a driver, travels by car from Aleppo to the Turkish border. They pick up Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yaziji at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in Syria. After the trip abroad, they want to give the spiritual brother from the other church safe passage home. 20 kilometers from the border they pass a checkpoint of the opposition Free Syrian Army. They pass this checkpoint unhindered. But then, less than 2 kilometers on, disaster strikes: at 3:45 PM. 8 armed men stop the clergy’s car. The driver is shot on the spot, assistant Eliya is released, and the two bishops are kidnapped.

“The kidnappers were definitely not Syrians,” says Eliya later. He is convinced that the men came from the Caucasus and belonged to a radical Islamist group. They had deliberately ambushed the two clergymen because two Syrian bishops guarantee worldwide attention and a huge ransom. Especially when one of them is called Mar Ibrahim, who is well known and has traveled all over the world to make peace. But strangely enough, to this day no demands have been made and there is no sign of life of the two hostages.

Trinity: military, party, regime

A few months before his kidnapping, in our interview in his official residence in Aleppo, the archbishop had elaborated about his trips abroad. “I am invited to conferences and give lectures,” he said. He also meets regularly with Western politicians. One of them was CDU-politician Volker Kauder, who assured him that President Assad would be overthrown. Kauder later protested vehemently against the “cowardly kidnapping” and described the bishop as a man “who calls for peace and reason”. During a stay in Washington, Mar Ibrahim meets members of the US political establishment. “High-ranking personalities” whose identity he was not allowed to make public. “Everything was unofficial.”

“All foreign powers interfering in Syria must understand that there is no military solution to the conflict.” Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim.

During these discussions it became clear to him what future was considered for Syria in the higher US political echelons: “Assad can go quietly, but the holy trinity of party, regime, and military must remain intact.” This was how the plans in the American capital were to be understood, said Mar Ibrahim. Creating stability and avoiding the chaos that followed the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein are priority. Perhaps it was these considerations that prevented President Barack Obama from intervening in Syria after the regime used chemical weapons, crossing the red line set by the White House. Bombing the Syrian army would have destabilized the regime. A power vacuum would have been the ideal breeding ground for the radical Islamists who had usurped the Syrian revolution.

“I am on the side of the peaceful demonstrators,” said Mar Ibrahim. “All foreign powers interfering in Syria must understand that there is no military solution to the conflict.” Only when all the Syrian parties to the civil war sit down at one table can anything move forward. “I just hope that President Assad will join in and not continue to bet on war.” Safia the journalist can no longer sit still in her chair. She plays nervously with the bullet around her neck. Assad is her idol, the opposition a bunch of evil terrorists. But she does not say a word out of respect for the bishop.

“We keep praying”

To this day it is not known where the two bishops are being held and which group is exactly responsible for their kidnapping. Evidence suggests the two were killed. The Austrian Pro Oriente Foundation, however, reported in July 2015 that at least Mar Ibrahim was still alive. Pro Oriente cited Syrian sources. The coordinator of the Syriac Orthodox Church in charge of the kidnapping case confirmed this at a Church synod in Damascus. The bishop would return soon, it was said. “But to this day there is no news,” said Archdeacon Emanuel Youkana to WELT. “We continue to pray for the safe return of the bishops and all other people who have been kidnapped.”

After our visit to the bishop, Safia was provoked to thought. Mar Ibrahim was unable to completely convince the ardent supporter of the Syrian Arab regime. At that time, hundreds of thousands of deaths, unspeakable misery and suffering could have been avoided. Many things could have turned out differently. If only the bishop had been allowed to help,

Alfred Hackensberger is correspondent for WELT. You can follow Alfred Hackensberger via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.

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