Tag Archives: abduction

Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II Karim

Today I saw the “welcome home” party for the new Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II Karim at his cathedral, which he left two weeks ago as a metropolitan archbishop going to participate in the late patriarch’s funeral and the selection of his successor.  (The archdiocese has posted a bunch of information about him here.)  Understandably, the cathedral was crowded, and I wouldn’t have gotten a seat had a friend not saved space for me, although in the event I was seated right next to the central aisle, so I had an excellent view of the patriarch-elect (technically, he isn’t patriarch until his enthronement, which I think will be later this month), but stupidly I forgot to bring my camera.

The altar area was flanked not only by the episcopal throne (to the left, as is customary in Middle Eastern churches), but also by seats placed for hierarchs from many other churches who came to congratulate and felicitate the new patriarch-elect.  Included were (among others; I didn’t have a program and am now writing from memory): Mor Titus Yeldho (Malankara Archbishop of the US), Metropolitan Tikhon Mollard (OCA Metropolitan of North America), Bp. Nicholas Samra (Greek Melkite Catholic Eparch of Newton), Bp. Gregory John Mansour (Maronite Bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn), Bp. Yousif Habash (Syrian Catholic Eparch of Newark), Bishop David of New York and New England (Coptic), and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian (Armenian Orthodox Primate of North America), as well as representatives of Archbishop Demetrios (Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the USA), of Metropolitan Silouan (Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchal Vicar of All North America), and of the Knanaya Christian community.

Phew.  That’s a lot of names and titles.  It was certainly interesting to see all these hierarchs, and their various different vestments.  In a previous century, they would almost certainly not have been seen on the same platform, and certainly not speaking encouragingly to each other.  Even more interesting where the various surprising statements (surprising due to their transgressions of canonical norms, primarily).  Pope Francis wrote a letter congratulating Mor Ignatius Ephrem II on being elected “Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East” without any qualification upon that title to indicate it only applied to Syrian Orthodox.  (Of course the Syrian Orthodox do not insert “Syrian Orthodox” before “Patriarch,” any more than the Roman Catholic Church uses the adjective “Roman”; both adjectives are qualifiers applied by external interlocutors for the sake of clarify and sanity.)  Another of the Catholic bishops said that he was asked why he was here (being Catholic, not Orthodox), and he reported his response was that this church was his home, and that he was here as both an Orthodox bishop and a Catholic bishop.  That’s a challenging canonical tangle.  He also attempted to kneel to Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II, who prevented him and embraced him.

The Chalcedonians were generally more circumspect in their congratulations, as is to be expected.  But even a Chalcedonian metropolitan referred to the late Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas (the predecessor of the newly elected Syrian Orthodox patriarch) as “thrice-blessed,” the language used by the Syrian Orthodox but certainly inappropriate for a “heretic.”  Another Chalcedonian metropolitan expressed confidence that the selection of this patriarch was God’s choice, and prayed that the new patriarch would be guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Armenian, Coptic, and Malankara bishops were all unstinting in their praise of the new patriarch, as may be expected from within the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, although good relations between the different branches cannot be taken for granted historically (in the twelfth century the Armenians and Syrians cast mutual anathemas at each other, for example).

All acknowledged the very difficult times facing Middle Eastern Christians both in their home countries and in the diaspora, and the names of the abducted bishops of Aleppo were mentioned frequently.  The new patriarch mentioned Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim as a mentor, and specifically asked for everyone’s prayers for the abducted bishops.  But perhaps the difficult times are also encouraging multiple Middle Eastern Christian groups to build bridges across ancient divides.  This is not a necessary result of difficult times (thinking of the original Islamic conquests, of the Turkic conquests of the eleventh-century Anatolia, and of the plague years and instability in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), so it is interesting to speculate whether the difference today lies in the nature or severity of the difficulties, in the surrounding culture (perhaps Western liberalism or secularism), or in the character of the participating hierarchs themselves.

Found: A New Patriarch of Antioch

The head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, one of five claimants to the ancient title Patriarch of Antioch, passed away on March 21, and was soon buried in Saydnaya outside Damascus.  (“Mor” is an honorific title meaning “my lord,” given to all Syriac bishops.)  The council of bishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church selected on March 31 his successor (official announcement), the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop of the Eastern United States, Mor Cyril Karim, who will take the regnal name Mor Ignatius Aphrem II Karim.  The new patriarch was born in Qamishli, on the Syrian border with Turkey, according to an article published on the archdiocese website, and as patriarch he intends to move back to Damascus, which has been the seat of the patriarchate since the mid-20th C (before that is was briefly in Homs, and from 1293 to 1915 it was at Dayr al-Zafaran outside of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, although until 1445 there was a rival Syrian Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus).

Of course, there is still a civil war going on in Syria, though the statement by the Patriarch-elect that “I believe [that] me moving to Damascus will give Syriac-Orthodox and other Christians hope to remain in our beloved Syria, a country that is named after our nation” indicates he hopes to help the Christians in Syria rebuild after the violence.  Nevertheless, since he has been the metropolitan of the eastern USA, it would not be surprising if the Syrian government were to view him with some suspicion.  This disjuncture may be one of the factors which underlie the fact that out of 41 votes from the council of bishops he only received 23 (56%), a small majority.  He will certainly need to build bridges with sectors of the episcopate which favored other candidates if he is to lead the Syrian Orthodox Church effectively through this crisis.

The council of bishops was also noticeably missing a key voice: Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, who along with the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji of Aleppo was abducted a year ago.  Before his abduction, some were saying that Ibrahim might make a good patriarch some day, and I have even heard speculation that Ibrahim’s abduction was orchestrated by a group outside the church which wanted to prevent him from becoming patriarch!  (Middle Eastern expats are great for generating conspiracy theories.)  In any event, it is unclear whether the election of a new (and comparatively young) Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch will affect the attempts to locate and release the abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo.  But I expect it will be on the new patriarch’s list of goals.

Still Looking: Abducted Bishops

The Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star reported today that efforts to release the two bishops of Aleppo who were abducted in April 2013 are, according to the Lebanese intelligence chief seeking their release, “complicated” but “on the right track.”  Due to the sensitivity of the situation, he said, he could not give any details.  The same intelligence chief helped secure the release of the abducted nuns of Maaloula earlier this month, so he could be in the know.  I have previously questioned the veracity of leaked reports about the whereabouts of Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji by people who clearly stood to gain from the publicity, and some news reports have simply “stirred the pot.”  But I must confess I don’t know Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim’s profile and where he might fit in Lebanese (and Syrian) politics.  So I can only hope that this news is real, and may lead to the end of these bishops’ captivity.

Found: Rumors and Suppositions of the Aleppo Bishops

There is still no solid news of the two metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo who were abducted on 22 April, the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox metropolitan Boulos Yaziji, but there are more rumors.  Al-Monitor yesterday published a long article on the subject translating and expanding an Arabic article published on 13 August by the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir (for an English translation of the original al-Safir article, see the blog Notes on Arab Orthodoxy).  The al-Monitor article especially is very detailed, but it is not at all clear what the sources of these details are.  The Lebanese Daily Star also published an article disputing most of those details and suggesting other ones.

If the play-by-play account of the abduction of the bishops by Chechen jihadis working for Abu Omar al-Shishani has any validity, it must have ultimately come from Fu’ad Eliya, the only passenger of the vehicle not abducted or killed, but it is not clear whether the al-Monitor journalist interviewed Eliya.  The detailed account is not in the al-Safir article, and the details disagree with what Hurriyet reported second-hand from Eliya back in May.  Particularly curious is the al-Monitor article’s unsourced reference to “the small message written in Greek and sent by Bishop Yazigi to a friend in Greece and to his brother Yohanna. The message, written in Greek, said, ‘We are being held by al-Qaeda.'”  Where did that information come from?  In light of the obscurity of the information’s provenance, these details must be regarded as unreliable.

Particularly interesting to me was the last portion of the al-Monitor article, which quoted various people who have made pronouncements in the past about the fate of the bishops, including George Sabra, all saying that there is no real knowledge about their fate.  That still seems to be the end of it.

For those feeling that the saga of the kidnapped bishops has dragged on with no real resolution, that is just a microcosm of the Syrian Civil War in total.  Meanwhile, although we still hope the victims will be able to say with Mark Twain, “the report of my death was an exaggeration,” that seems decreasingly likely.

The Difference Between Pragmatism and Loyalty

The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor.  But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty.  This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.

The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses.  This is true of political parties.  Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians.  Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties.  The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales.  Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure).  Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.

This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War.  On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’idaFree Syrian Army commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend.  In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free Syrian Army with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime.  The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime.  This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War.  On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.

On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime.  This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups.  This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them.  They have reason to be alarmed.  Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup.  When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria.  That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces.  Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.

The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted.  The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights.  This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important.  If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable.  Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them.  It is an interesting proposal.

The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way.  Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force?  Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society?  If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime?  Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?

With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side.  But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime.  The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers.  When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle.  This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces.  If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime.  On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support.  The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.

Found: New non-News on Abducted Bishops

Hürriyet Daily News, a Turkish news outlet, ran an article two days ago with the headline “Three suspects who allegedly killed Syrian bishops captured in Turkey” which made me think that perhaps there was some news about the abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo, Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji.  The two were abducted three months ago on April 22 and no solid news has been heard of them since.  Unfortunately, it seems this article got a little muddled as to why three foreigners (a Chechen, a Russian, and a Syrian) were briefly arrested in central Turkey between Konya and Ankara.  It mentions a video depicting the beheading of a priest and other Christians one month ago, and indicates that none of those victims were either of the bishops, but we knew that.  Were these three detained and released on suspicion of being in the video, which has nothing to do with the bishops, or were they arrested out of some suspected connection to the bishops, which has nothing to do with the video?  In any case, they were swiftly released, so the upshot is that there is still no news about the abducted bishops.

Two Interesting Reads on Syria

I came across two interesting articles today on the situation in Syria, one from CNN on the experience of Syrian refugee women, and one from the Arab Orthodoxy blog giving highlights from the United States House of Representatives Joint Subcommittee Hearing on Religious Minorities in Syria.  I of course do not endorse what is expressed in others’ testimony during the hearing, but I share these links for their interest and representation of less frequently heard viewpoints.

Lost: Syrian Rebels’ Strategy

In war, some tactics work and others don’t.  Some tactics are very satisfying to our human desires for power or revenge, but actually hurt the cause for which the tactic is nominally carried out.  Two significant mistakes on the part of the rebels appeared this week, ahead of US government deliberations whether to arm the rebels.

The first is the Syrian rebel shelling of Shi’ite villages in Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah involvement in Syria (reported in the bottom half of this NYT article).  While it is all too natural to want to strike back at those who have wounded you or killed the people you care about, I do not see how this tactic will do anything but mobilize greater Hezbollah involvement in Syria on the side of the regime.  In an age before rockets, when fighting was more local and attacks could be repulsed, then a sensible tactic to draw an enemy away from a location was to attack a place they cared about more, so that they would race to protect the second place and abandon the first.  But with indiscriminate rocket fire, if Hezbollah fighters were still in Shi’ite towns in Lebanon, they would not be able to protect anyone there.  No doubt the Syrian rebels are hoping to discourage further Hezbollah attacks on the theory that any attack from Hezbollah will result in further attacks on the Hezbollah fighters’ families.  I suspect the Hezbollah fighters will view these attacks, even apart from the personal desire for revenge stirred up by casualties, as further evidence that they need to support the Assad regime against rebel groups that would shell their villages and kill their families.  This tactic is more likely to confirm Hezbollah involvement than diminish it.

The other rebel misstep comes from Aleppo, where jihadi rebels abducted, tortured, and then publicly executed a fifteen-year-old boy for blasphemy against Muhammad.  (The Telegraph reported that the particular group was the Islamic State of Iraq, while al-Jazeera (Arabic) blamed the execution on Jabhat al-Nusra.  Both groups are affiliated with al-Qa’ida, and according to al-Jazeera the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq declared the two groups unilaterally merged, until overruled a few days ago by al-Qa’ida’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.)  Al-Jazeera (English) reported that the alleged “blasphemy” occurred in a phrase commonly used in colloquial Syrian Arabic, and that the executioners were mostly composed of foreign fighters speaking other dialects.  While one can understand the religious reasoning that goes into this decision, it is also easy to see that criminalizing a local idiom (on pain of death) will quickly breed widespread popular resentment, and executing a fifteen-year-old boy will make parents with younger children wary of the group.  After last week’s re-capture of al-Qusayr by the regime, everyone is expecting a regime battle for Aleppo in the near future, and this summary abduction, torture, and execution will make the populace of Aleppo much less inclined to support the jihadi rebels during that battle.  Indeed, the execution of the teenager might provide the Assad regime with enough additional support to enable it to regain Aleppo itself.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described the act, as paraphrased by al-Jazeera, as “a gift to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” and that is what it is.

Both the loyalists and the rebels in Syria have committed innumerable criminal acts during the war, in an attempt to capitalize on Machiavelli‘s famous dictum in The Prince that rulers can rule through fear or through love, but it is “safer” and easier to rule through fear.  Perhaps the Syrian Civil War is giving the lie to the Renaissance Italian political theorist.

 

Found Again: Rumor of Abducted Bishops’ Good Health

Yesterday the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar reported that, according to ‘Abd al-Ahad Steifo of the Syrian National Coalition, the Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji and Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim are in good health after being abducted a month ago.  The original Arabic article is here, and an English translation was posted here.  The Lebanese Daily Star reported the same: Syria opposition says kidnapped bishops ‘in good health’.

Evidently ‘Abd al-Ahad Steifo and the Syrian National Coalition have not had any direct contact with either the bishops or their kidnappers, so it is unclear on what basis Steifo made the announcement of the bishops’ health.  He was even uncertain when the doctor reputedly saw them, indicating that his informant was not the doctor himself.  Steifo was, however, quoted as acknowledging that abductions have occurred on all sides in the civil war: “These kidnappings are sometimes carried out by criminal gangs… other times by the regime (of President Bashar al-Assad) and sometimes by the brigades of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army, who use kidnappings as a way to exchange prisoners.”  At the time of the kidnapping Steifo had ruled out any opposition group according to CNN, but according to the Daily Star two weeks ago, George Sabra told Amin Gemayel of the Lebanese Kataeb (or Phalange) Party the bishops were being held by “a rebel group” without specifying which.  A month after the kidnappings, it is still the case that nothing is clear.

I very much hope that this report his correct, and that the abducted bishops of Aleppo will be released safely and soon.  But in the absence of additional details, the reports of “good health” sound like bland reassurances.

The Chechen Connection

On Friday, Time published some remarks by Andrei Klimov, a leading Russian legislator (and not to be confused with the undefeated lightweight boxer of that name), which indicated why Russia is going ahead with supplying anti-aircraft and anti-naval (“ship-killer”) missiles to the Assad regime, despite requests from the US and Israel to halt the shipments.  In sum, Klimov presented the move as an attempt to ensure that outside force is not used to end the Assad regime in Syria without a political solution freely chosen by Assad and his allies (Russia and Iran most notably among them).  Klimov signaled distrust of the US particularly and regret over the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya which turned a “no-fly zone” into direct attacks on Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi‘s forces.

President Obama’s recent decision to rule out unilateral US involvement in Syria probably speaks to Moscow’s concerns.  But commentators have criticized Obama for this move, and have criticized Secretary of State Kerry and others for their failure to budge Moscow’s policy of arming the Assad regime (as if it were in their power to do so).

One additional aspect of the ongoing civil war in Syria which may worry Moscow, which was not mentioned by Klimov, could either prompt additional military support for the regime or hesitancy about pouring more weapons into Syria.  That is the Chechen element in the jihadi Syrian rebel groups.  The commander of the Muhajireen Brigade is Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen Islamist who has previously fought against Russia in his native Chechnya, and other Islamist groups are employing Chechen fighters.  It was even rumored that the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo were abducted by Chechens.  A month ago Mark Galeotti documented other instances of Chechen involvement in Syria, and the potential Russian government concern over the subject, in a post which deserves to be more widely known.

The effects of the Chechen concern may turn on how confident Russia is that the Assad regime can ensure that the Russian weapons do not fall into the hands of rebels.  Rebel forces have captured weapons and ammunition, even tanks, from the regime in the past, and used them against Assad’s own forces.  Especially with Israel openly threatening Assad with additional air strikes, the possibility of Assad’s forces spreading themselves thinner in order to respond to further Israeli attacks raises the possibility for further rebel gains against the regime forces, and thus for capturing Russian missiles.

While any captured anti-aircraft weapons would mostly likely stay in Syria to be used against the regime (and the Russian navy need not fear any “ship-killer” missiles launched from mountainous Chechnya), after the end of the war (whether jihadis take over Syria or are forced to withdraw) any captured weapons might make their way out to be used in Chechnya against Russian government forces there.  Just as the US has been wary of supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army which might make their way into al-Qa’ida‘s hands, thence to be used by al-Qa’ida in attacks against the US, so the Russian-supplied arms to Assad might be captured in battle by jihadi militants with Chechen connections.

Russia might respond to this possibility in various ways.  It might decide to intervene more directly in Syria to prop up the Assad regime against the Chechen jihadi rebels, for example.  Or it may decide that future weapons shipments to the Syrian regime should not contain more powerful weapons that, if removed to a Chechnyan context, could threaten its own forces.  Mark Galeotti suggested that the existence of Chechen jihadi fighters moving from one hotspot to another may mean that Russia will consider the prolongation of the conflict in its own domestic best interest.  But the Chechen connection certainly complicates both Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War and Western attempts to sway Russian support away from the Assad regime.