The Case of the Missing Syrian Orthodox Christian Bishops

It has been seven years since Metropolitan Boulos (Paul) Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and Archbishop Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church were abducted by Salafi/Wahhabi jihadists just outside of Aleppo, Syria. Despite the time that has passed, and the work that has been done by the Syrian government, church organizations, and individuals to locate the two Christian hierarchs, seemingly little has been accomplished. The tragic reality is that the bishops’ whereabouts, like many of the details of the case itself, still remain shrouded in mystery.

However, we know that Metropolitan Boulos and Archbishop Yohanna were abducted during Holy Week on April 22, 2013, while on their way to negotiate the release of two kidnapped Christian priests, Fr Maher Mahfouz (Greek Orthodox) and Fr Michel Kayyal (Armenian Catholic), who had been taken captive in Syria by anti-government terrorists in February of the same year. According to a report by Mansur Salib—a Syrian American who has led an investigation team on the case—the two bishops were picked up on the day of their abduction from the Cathedral of St Ephrem in Aleppo by Deacon Fatha’ Allah Kabboud, with the intention of driving towards the Syrian-Turkish border in order to secure the release of the priests. The bishops and the deacon were apparently also joined by an Islamist militant, who was there to ensure them safe passage, since they were about to enter areas under the control of revolutionary forces. However, when entering one such area, their truck came under attack by jihadists, in what was clearly a setup. The terrorists had seemingly used the false hope of freeing the priests as bait to lure two higher ranking church officials into a trap. In fact, it should be noted that Metropolitan Boulos is the younger brother of Patriarch John X Yazigi, the current head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. Thus, he had a major target on his back.

While many of the details of the episode still remain unclear, we know that the jihadists murdered Deacon Fatah’ Allah before taking Metropolitan Boulos and Archbishop Yohanna captive. Moreover, the initial reports indicated that the militants involved in the horrific attack were Chechen, but Salib believes that the operation was actually carried out by the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a Salafi jihadist organization founded in Aleppo. In fact, his investigation was apparently able to gain information about the abduction from a member of Nour al-Din, Yasser Muhdi. The former militant, who was captured by Syrian government forces after the liberation of Khan Sheikhun, confirms that it was indeed Nour al-Din that kidnapped the two bishops. Muhdi even claims to have personally guarded the clerics after their abduction, but states that the two men were executed at some point by Abu Hassan, a field commander in the organization.

For those unfamiliar with Nour al-Din, it should be understood that it was not some “rogue” group on the fringes of the Syrian revolution. In actuality, at the time of the abduction, Nour al-Din was a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council. Moreover, the terror group had been funded by a number of nations looking to tear Syria asunder by overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The Americans had even provided Nour al-Din with anti-tank missiles. However, the group would fall out of favour with the US in 2017, when video footage of its public beheading of a 12-year-old Palestinian refugee, Abdullah Tayseer al-Issa, became known via the internet to enough of the general public in the West.

It also seems that the initial confusion over the bishops’ kidnappers being from Chechnya stems from the North Caucasian involvement in the abduction of the two priests the men were on their way to rescue that fateful day. From what we know, the lead captor in Fr Maher and Fr Michel’s kidnapping was Magomed Abdurakhmanov, who is also known as “Abu Banat.” Abdurakhmanov is a Dagestani terrorist who was working with the ISIS affiliate Katibat al-Muhajireen: a group that consisted mainly of foreign fighters, many of whom hailed from the North Caucasus. According to Salib, the terror group was able to coordinate the abduction that day with the help of the Turkish National Security Service. Moreover, he believes that Turkey’s role in the plot was given the green light by George Sabra, a key opposition leader in Syria, who had allegedly been urged by US and Turkish officials to stoke the fires of sectarian violence in order to destabilize the secular Arab nation. Nevertheless, while Abdurakhmanov’s role, if any, in the bishops’ abduction is still unclear, he is believed to have murdered both Fr Maher and Fr Michel upon learning of the successful targeting of Metropolitan Boulos and Archbishop Yohanna.

As has already been mentioned, Salib presents in his report the claim that the bishops have already been executed by Nour al-Din. He says that the two hierarchs had been tortured for a period by the terrorists with the aim of converting them to Islam. Yet, the bishops remained steadfast in their Christian faith. Furthermore, due to the gains being made by the Syrian military in Aleppo during 2016, Nour al-Din is said to have felt in danger, and because of that decided to rid themselves of the “burden” of the bishops. Thus, after being kept prisoners for three grueling years, the two bishops were shot and buried in an unknown location by the militants.

News of Salib’s claims went viral, and even received a response from the Middle East Council of Churches. The council released an official statement, in which it speaks of the “worrying reports and claims” made about the bishops’ fate. It further reveals that both the Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox patriarchates of Antioch have been “closely monitoring” independent reports on the subject. While the churches expressed their gratitude to those working to help find the bishops, they refused to take a position on the men’s current status, and made clear their intention to “leave no stone unturned” in their ongoing search for them.

Despite all the uncertainty surrounding Metropolitan Boulos and Archbishop Yohanna’s abduction, there is still hope that they, as well as Fr Maher and Fr Michel, will one day be found alive. But whatever the outcome, the clerics have already become symbols of all the Syrian people, regardless of religious affiliation, who have suffered beyond measure from a war thrust upon their nation by foreign powers.  

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