It's been more than five years now since the two most important figures in Syria's Christian communities were kidnapped in a no-man's land between rebel and regime-held territory, whisked away without a trace - and not heard from since.
It was broadly assumed Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Archbishop Boulos Yazigi - respective heads of the Syriac and Greek Orthodox Churches in Aleppo – were captured by ISIS or al-Qaeda, both of whom have a vicious history of persecuting Christians. But some of those who have investigated the case are now questioning the validity of that long-held theory, and asking if the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad might have been involved.
“I do not think ISIS is behind the kidnapping. There were no terrorist methods used. They were taken in a very professional manner,” Jamil Elias Diarbakerli, executive director of the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights, told Fox News. “No terrorist organization that can hide such important bishops as Ibrahim and Yazigi for five years without any real information leaking out.”
The archbishops were abducted on April 23, 2013, near the Syrian-Turkish, border while en route to negotiate with rebels on the release of two other missing priests – fathers Michael Kayyal and Maher Mahfouz. Those two were kidnapped that February, and have also not been heard from.
“Archbishop Boulos Yazigi was finishing a pastoral visit and they had agreed to travel back together in Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim’s car,” recalled Jeff King, President of International Christian Concern (ICC).
As the car neared Aleppo, their vehicle was stopped by four armed insurgents. They were forced out of their cars while their driver, Deacon Father Allah Kabboud – was immediately killed by assailants bearing "Caucasian" features, according to witnesses.
“Because the car and driver belonged to Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, it is widely believed that he was the primary target,” said King.
As the Syrian war was escalating at that time, Ibrahim had reportedly become the only high-ranking Christian prelate to call for Assad to step down. Just 10 days before his abduction, on April 13, he conducted a BBC interview in which he chastised the Assad government’s brutality in the then year-long conflict.
“I had at first hoped that this regime would be wiser than they are currently acting and that they would do something just to end the bloodshed,” Ibrahim said.
One Syrian political figure, who was once involved in Damascus religious matters before defecting, echoed a growing - but unverifiable - notion the government had good cause to "silence" Ibrahim, but make it appear as though militiants were responsible.
The questions of who took the archbishops, and why, have gone unanswered since no ransom demands were ever made - despite the fact radical groups captured and released other Christian officials during that time.
In December 2013, 13 nuns were abducted by masked al-Qaeda rebels in the ancient Christian Syrian town of Maaloula. The nuns appeared in a video shortly thereafter, claiming to be in good health. They were released three months later in a prisoner exchange, brokered by the Syrian government, which in turn freed more than 100 women associated with rebel families.
Other clergy were also captured and released, with the “going rate” for a priest reported to be around $200,000.
Numerous activists have expressed concern – and suspicion – over why more isn’t being said publicly by the Syrian government, given the high-ranking status of the archbishops. One church investigator, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said “no one gets a clean bill of health” until the priests – who the church believes to be alive – are found.
A spokesperson for the Syrian Government and UN Mission in New York did not respond to a request for comment.
Archpriest Thomas Zain, Vicar General of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Dean of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral of Brooklyn, New York, said that while there has been absolutely no news since the abductions, Syrian Church officials have continued to painstakingly raise the matter with Western intelligence. They remain “hopeful” some evidence may be revealed as the Syrian government captures more opposition-held areas.
John Newton, Senior Press Officer for the British organization Aid to the Church in Need, contended there is little doubt the archbishops were taken by extremists. But he also acknowledged that by now ISIS would have likely “made some propaganda use” of their hostages.
One Middle East expert said he believed the archbishops may have been passed around a number of groups over the years, pawns in a game of political warfare.
“It is believed Yazigi and Ibrahim were taken by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, and Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiya was reported to be mediating with al-Nusra for their release,” said Kyle Orton, an expert on the Middle East. “Al-Attiya’s efforts reportedly came to nothing when the bishops fell into the hands of ISIS. And if that is true, there is little reason to suppose they are alive at this stage.”
The continued silence has many of Syria’s Christian faithful pondering who might be able to tell them more about what happened, and fearful of the fate of others who have gone missing.
In July, 2013, Italian Jesuit Priest Father Paolo also vanished from alleged militant hands, without any known ransom demands having been made. Paolo had entered what would later be deemed the ISIS “caliphate” capital of Raqqa, Syria in an effort to negotiate the release of two kidnapped French journalists. He, also, was never heard from again.
But some activists insist Paolo’s case is different than that of the archbishops.
“He was kidnapped in an area under the control of the ISIS terrorists,” Diarbakerli said, noting that the information – while still unconfirmed – that they have received from ISIS dissidents was that he was killed, and the body discarded.
Numerous reports have suggested Paolo was killed in the immediate days after entering Raqqa. But it is now approaching one year since Raqqa was liberated, and and to date, there has been no sign of the three Christian leaders.
Nonetheless, bodies and mass graves are still frequently being unearthed from the rubble. And those involved in the investigations are calling for more support from the U.S. and international community.
“Forced disappearance is a crime against humanity,” Rev. Father Samuel, who heads up the investigation committee run by the Syriac Orthodox Church, said. “We need international pressure for their safe release. This was not an opportunistic act or a coincidental kidnapping, but a strategically calculated one.”
Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said the matter is indeed one of “deep concern.”
“We continue to hope for the safe return of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, Archbishops Paul Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim, and all those targeted for abduction based on their religious identity,” he added. “Heart-wrenching cases like these underscore the pressing need for the U.S. government to continue supporting international efforts to investigate gross violations during conflict and hold perpetrators accountable.”