Categories Orthodox News

Journalistic Inquiry: Who is behind the kidnapping and brutal killing of the bishops from Aleppo?

by Mansur Salib

This investigation sheds light on the events that occured six years ago but are shrouded in mystery so far and occasionally appear in the world media headlines.

Back story

In early 2013, two men in simple clothes were riding in the back seat of a new Toyota pickup truck that ran from Aleppo towards the Syrian-Turkish border in 2013. Few people know the details and purpose of their trip.

According to a cover story, on April 22, 2013, Paul Yazigi, a Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo (who is the younger brother of Patriarch of Antioch John X Yazigi) and John Ibrahim, Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, went to Turkey in order to collect humanitarian aid for the Christians of Aleppo. Syria had fallen on hard times, and the disclosure of their real mission could hinder the previously reached agreements

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The abducted and tortured Metropolitans of Aleppo, Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim

But where did Bishop Paul Yazigi and Bishop John Ibrahim go? Our team of investigative journalists has been collecting and analyzing information for almost a year in an attempt to figure out the events related to the kidnapping and martyrdom of the two Syrian bishops. We have also studied information from the media, from our sources in Syria, and opinions from religious communities.

We concluded that the true mission of Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim was to release from captivity the Greek Orthodox priest Maher Mahfouz and the Armenian Catholic priest Michel Kayal, who had been kidnapped on their way to the monastery of the Sacred Heart Sisters in the town of Al-Kafrun about 30 km from Aleppo and detained in the town of Kafr Dael.

The priests abducted in February 2013, Michel Kayal and Maher Mahfouz

The events that followed are shrouded in mystery. It turned out that the expectations of the Metropolitans were not destined to come true. An unidentified gunmen stopped Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim’s car on a road between Aleppo and Kafr Dael and forced the passengers to get out of the car. Then the criminals killed the deacon Fathallah Kaboud (driver of Bishop John Ibrahim) and kidnapped the hierarchs.

The bishop’s martyrdom was predetermined when the Syrian opposition leader George Sabra met with representatives of American and Turkish intelligence services. The Orthodox churches supported the legitimate Syrian government, especially regarding a political settlement of the counflict in the country. In addition, Aleppo was still fighting the spread of extremist ideas and this could hinder the plans of the United States and the Syrian opposition to destabilize Syria.

This is why the Americans called on Sabra to take decisive actions and provocations, and increase pressure on Syrian society to exacerbate the contradictions between religions. At the meeting, there was formed a plan to kidnap with the help of the Katibat al-Muhajirin group two ordinary priests who would become a bait for the bishops.

Luring the bishops into the trap was easy because they were deeply concerned with the increasing attacks on the priests of their churches, of which there were already more than two thousand, and the kidnappers played on the patriotic and religious feelings of Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim.

It seems that the officer of the Turkish intelligence (MIT) also known as Abu Jaafar (as we found out, this name is fictious) became a supervisor of the first stage of the operation (we named it “Deprived of Christ”). The media wrote that Abu Jaafar had to do with the kidnapping of the bishops, but it’s most likely not true because he was only responsible for communicating with the Katibat al-Muhajirin organization. He assisted the group in kidnapping the priests Michel Kayal and Maher Mahfouz. We did not find confirmation of Abu Jaafar’s participation in George Sabra’s subsequent plans.

Magomed Abdurakhmanov, known as Abu Banat, a citizen of the Russian Republic of Dagestan played a crucial role in the first kidnapping. After the abduction of the bishops, Abu Banat killed Kayal and Mahfouz because he did not consider them necessary. Abu Banat fled to Turkey in late 2013, where he was arrested and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on charges of terrorism.

The second stage of the operation was complicated and involved the deception of high clerics, Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim. The militants of Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki carried out this task and persuaded the bishops through their agents that they were ready to release two priests in case Yazjgi and Ibrahim participated in the discussions personally. Then, the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki kidnapped and tortured the two bishops. The question appears: How did we find it out?

Jamil Diarbakerli, a nephew of John Ibrahim and director of the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights, whom we contacted during the investigation, confirmed our conclusions. He said that there was few information in the media and that ordinary terrorists could not carry out the kidnapping. According to him, the area of the kidnapping was filled with foreign intelligence. Jamil Diarbakerli called this situation mysterious and said he does not hope for the salvation of the bishops.

The email from Jamil Diarbakerli (a nephew of Archbishop John Ibrahim)

We began our investigation with analyzing known information about the kidnapping and possible motives of criminals. This became one of the most difficult stages of the investigation. There is few information on the disappearance of Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim and it’s contradictory; and there are quite a few versions of their kidnapping and the identity of the people responsible for it is not yet known. But thanks to this information, one of the most likely scenarios was restored.

Assumptions about the kidnappers and the fate of the bishops

News about the bishop’s fate appeared immediately after news of their kidnapping. For example, the Christian Relief Association for the Middle East announced that the Archbishop of Aleppo and the Metropolitan of the Syriac Orthodox Church had arrived at Saint Elijah Cathedral and nothing threatens their lives.

Fake news was spread by the Roman Catholic news agency ZENIT located in the United States. The Mid-East Christian Relief Fund also stated that the United Nations envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi and the Department of External Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church participated in the discussions on the release of the bishops. The Patriarchate of Antioch and the non-governmental organization The Syriac League later renounced this information.

Then, the head of The Syriac League, Habib Afram, told the Spanish EFE news agency that the bishops were not released and that no organization took responsibility for their kidnapping. The criminals seemed to fear a punishment for such a crime.

Politicians and officials also commented on this situation. For example, the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in 2013 that the bishops were held in Turkey by armed groups related to the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The situation regarding the kidnapping of the two Syrian religious leaders remains hazy and mysterious until now. Fr. Samuel Gumus, the representative of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Germany, said in his interview to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar that the two bishop had been “captured by ISIS in the Baghouz area of the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor.” However, no other information was provided and there followed no confirmation.

We studied the path of the two bishops from Aleppo and the goals of their journey according to open sources, and then we identified possible places of their kidnapping. But we did not have sufficient information about the kidnappers and their intention. Which opposition group is responsible for the crime and what were their motives?

Three motives for the crime

The situation was complicated by the fact that we faced a lack of requirements from the kidnappers, which made it difficult to find out the motives of the crime. High-ranking officials and clerics could only guess about the reasons for the crime. “The Orthodox and Catholic Churches are exerting their efforts to communicate with the kidnappers, but no one understands their motives and leadership,” said Jean-Clement Jeanbart, Archbishop of Aleppo for the Melkite Roman Catholics.

We assumed that the kidnappers planned to use the bishops to exchange them for high-level Syrian opposition members. The terrorists chose them because of their missionary and humanitarian activities, which disturbed the opposition in the region. However, we did not find any evidence of motivation.

After that, we studied another version. It is possible that the clerics were kidnapped for ransom, which was frequent in the territory under opposition control in 2013. The clerics could be confused with officials from the Syrian government who were using the same road while going to the north of the country.

After sneaking to government-controlled areas, militants ambushed to kidnap politicians for ransom, but kidnapped clerics. Then they sold the high priests to the larger group fearing a reprisal of Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence.

The bishop of Aleppo diocese of the Chaldean Church Antoine Odo agrees with this version and says in an interview to the Catholic news agency Fides that the primary motive for the criminals who kidnapped the bishops in Syria was money, not religion. For example, priest Fr. Hassan was kidnapped in southern Syria and liberated after the criminals received a ransom, which equaled $100,000 and was collected by his family with great difficulty. However, this motive does not seem real due to the lack of requirements by the kidnappers.

This leads to a more probable motive – using the bishops for ideological reasons and the attempt to compel Paul Yazigi and John Abraham, who were calling for dialogue with the Syrian authorities, to abdicate from the Orthodox faith. An abdication and conversion of the high-level priests during Holy Week before the greatest of Christian holidays – Easter might have lead to undermining confidence of Orthodox Christians in their church, which played an important role in combating terrorism in Syria since 2011. The “deprivation” operation could force Christians to leave Syria and stop supporting the president Bashar al-Assad, which would profit the US intelligence. A number of experts support this motive.

The email from Jamil Diarbakerli (a nephew of Archbishop John Ibrahim)

According to the news agency Israel News, human rights activists claimed that the kidnappers from the Free Syrian Army had two goals: first, to fuel a war between Muslims and Christians, and second, to spread extremist Islamic ideas.

We can not reveal all our sources for obvious reasons, but we thank the Syrian Orthodox community in Turkey for its help in finding the truth.

An anonymous spokesman said on behalf of the community that the two bishops were important figures for Christianity in Aleppo and have weight and respect in the Orthodox community in Syria in particular and the Middle East in general. They were kidnapped with the aim of intimidating the Syrian Orthodox and forcing them to leave the country.

Thus, the militants knew that Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim played a major role in the Syriac and Antiochian Churches. The militants tried to convert the bishops but failed and then killed them.

The message from the Syrian Orthodox community in Turkey

After analyzing all possible motives, we uncovered some details of the crime that helped us to restore the sequence of events related to the kidnapping.

A militant Yasser Mahdi, who guarded Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim in captivity, said that the names of the bishops were changed, and only few knew the truth. Yasser joined the ranks of the group Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki and then fled from it, and during the liberation of the city of Khan Sheikhoun he was arrested by the Syrian Army. So far, the official investigation is not over yet because bodies are still missing. We learned this information from anonymous sources in the Syrian Arab Army.

We also thank the member of the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac Association in Sweden Ozcan Kaldoyo who gave us the contact information of Jamil Diarbakerli, a nephew of Archbishop John Ibrahim.

A message from Ozcan Kaldoyo

Chronology of events

In April 2013, the situation in the city of Aleppo remained strained and hostilities continued between the government forces and opposition groups there.

Kafr Dael was under control of the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki movement at that time. It is proved by the group leader’s statement (possibly Abu Hassan, who was responsible for the assassination of the bishops) recorded in January 2013. Thus we noticed the movement’s banner on the wall of a bakery building in the same town in a propaganda video of August 2013.

It should be noted that the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki movement was considered one of the most powerful units of the Free Syrian Army, and it is known that this group received funding from the United States under a CIA program, which supported the alleged “moderate opposition”.

The Amnesty International confirmed the results of our investigation in its report. The report also claimed that the groups Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki, 16th Division, Levant Front and Ahrar al-Sham are involved in crimes (kidnapping, tortures and executions) against journalists and members of humanitarian organizations during the period from 2013 to 2016 in the Aleppo area.

The Amnesty International report

What happened on April 22, 2013:

16:07: Toyota pickup truck parked at the gate of the office of the Patriarchate of Antioch and the entire East of the Greek Orthodox. Inside the car was a driver of Archbishop Paul Yazigi of Aleppo, Deacon Fr. Fathallah Kaboud.

The office was located next to the Prophet Elias Cathedral and the Monastery of the Annunciation, close to the St. Ephraim Cathedral of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the heart of the government-controlled areas. This helped restore the chronology of events on April 22, 2013.

The location of the office of the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Syriac St. Ephraim Cathedral

16:10: Bishop Paul Yazigi left the church and told the deacon to move towards the St. Ephraim Cathedral to Bishop John Ibrahim (presumably the deacon had to prepare a pickup for the trip whose goal was unknown to him).

16:20: The Toyota pickup parked at the St. Ephraim Cathedral, and the bishop was met by John Ibrahim at the entrance. Then they entered the cathedral to pray for a prompt release of the priests from captivity (apparently two bishops had agreed to leave on the joint voyage from the cathedral after the prayer).

Bishop Paul Yazigi’s way to the St. Ephraim Cathedral (800 meters, about 10 minutes)

16:21: The pickup driver stayed outside waiting for the clergymen. As it became known, a fourth person, a representative of the militants, was involved in the operation to save the pastors. His mission was to ensure that checkpoints in areas not controlled by the Syrian government could be passed without impediment. In addition, the militant was responsible for transporting the priests to the two bishops if the operation succeeded.

17:04: One of the cathedral priests claimed that two bishop exited the cathedral with another person unknown to him (the representative of the militants who had previously arrived at the cathedral) and sat in the back seat of the Toyota pickup.

The representative of the gunmen sat next to the driver and showed the way. However, according to the extremists’ plan he had an additional task of remitting the vigilance of the clergy.

17:06: The car left the cathedral.

17:26: The car reached the outskirts of Aleppo.

The road from the meeting place to the ambush location (15 km, 30 minutes)

18:00 (approximately) Toyota pickup arrived at a checkpoint under the control of the extremists near Kafr Dael, where the terrorists collect “road toll”. The representative of the armed men got out of the car and the terrorists started their attack.

It should be noted that the checkpoint is located on a hill, which gave an advantage to the terrorists.

Site of the checkpoint located on a hill

A crossroad where the checkpoint is located

Proximity to the line of contact helped the terrorists hide the use of firearms while bad weather reduced chances for their potential discovery.

According to Weather History, on April 22, the weather in Aleppo was rainy and cloudy

During the interrogation, Yasser Mahdi told the Syrian intelligence what happened after the bishops were captured. The representatives of Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki moved them to the village of Mashad to the northwest of Aleppo (23 km from Kafr Dael).

The path of the terrorists with the hostages, from Kafr Dael to Mashad

It is worth noting that the extremists did not use their famous prison in Al Qasimia, but rather transferred the clergy to the area from which the movement stems. They also could take extra precautions.

The formation and expansion of the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki movement

In captivity

The clergy were severely tortured. Initially, the terrorists cut the tendons on the legs of their victims so that they would not flee. Extremists deprived the bishops of sleep, food and water, and beat them constantly. One day, after another torture, they were at death’s door, and the terrorists had to transfer their captives to Turkey for hospitalization.

Yasser Mahdi said this is Antakya Devlet Hastanesi Hospital in border province of Hatay . The Free Syrian Army Commander Jamil Radon was also moved to this hospital after the assassination attempt against him in August 2015.

Antakya Devlet Hastanesi Hospital in Antakya

After a long search on social networks, we were able to contact an employee of this hospital who agreed to disclose some details for a small fee and on condition of anonymity.

An email from an Antakya Hospital employee

It also turned out that in early 2015 an old man was delivered to the hospital and was held in a separate room on the top floor. Armed people permanently stayed at the room entrance. The patient was delivered in a very serious condition and needed an urgent blood transfusion. The man’s body had bruises and burns, the two fingers on the left hand were amputated and the knee joint of his right leg was damaged. After two weeks, the patient was transferred in secret at night, and the hospital employee does not know anything about his fate yet.

It became clear to us after contacting the hospital employee that the Supreme Mufti of Syria Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun provided true information in his 2015 sermons. The Mufti said that the bishop of Aleppo, Paul Yazigi, was transferred from Syria to Turkey in secret.

The tragic end

The kidnappers sensed danger in late 2016 when the Syrian Arab Army liberated the areas of Aleppo and most fighters fled to the northwest of the country. The two bishops had been in captivity for more than three years by then. The liberation of Mashad Ruhin could have severe consequences for the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki movement and their sponsors in the West. Syrian intelligence services searched for the bishops, and if they were found in this village, the militants would be killed immediately.

Yasser Mahdi said that one of the field commanders known as Abu Hassan decided to kill the two bishops and hide their bodies in a secret location in early December 2016. They were searched for a long time in all parts of Syria from Aleppo to Baghouz and even in Turkey. No one knew that the bishops were located about 35 km from the areas of Aleppo controlled by the Syrian Arab Army.

Talking with Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos in 2013, George Sabra promised to make every effort to release the bishops. But he already wasn’t going to provide any assistance to the Greeks because the opposition had the other plan for the hierarchs.

Bishops Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim were martyred for Christ and killed by the militants of Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki (a Free Syrian Army unit), an opposition group sponsored and supported by the Western countries during the Syrian crisis. The steadfastness of the bishops puts them on par with all the Syrian national heroes who sacrificed their lives for the good of the homeland.

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