The Greek Orthodox Church denied Tuesday circulating reports that the two archbishops abducted in Aleppo, Syria, had been released.
The fate of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim remained mired in mystery after the two clergymen were abducted and their driver killed in Aleppo Monday night.
The news prompted global concern that the incident risked escalating regional hostilities.
John Yazigi, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Levant and a brother of one of the kidnapped, denied reports of the bishops’ release.
In a phone call to Metropolitan Philip of North America, he said, “these reports are false and the release of these two hierarchs has not taken place,” said a statement on Philip’s website.
Tuesday afternoon, the pair were reported to have been released, a senior church figure told Reuters.
“The two are on their way to the patriarchate in Aleppo,” Bishop Tony Yazigi said.
But by Tuesday evening, with no word on the bishops’ arrival, it was not clear whether they had reached the city.
Details about the circumstances and location of the initial abduction were also unclear.
State news sources initially reported that the two were abducted by gunmen while carrying out humanitarian work in the village of Kfour Dael in Aleppo province.
However, a source in the Greek Orthodox diocese later told AFP the men were in the rebel-held Bab al-Hawa area, near the Turkish border.
Italian Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, who ran an interfaith monastery in Syria and was involved in hostage release negotiations in Idlib before being expelled from the country in June, told The Daily Star he had doubts about the story.
He questioned why the priests would be crossing front lines into rebel areas given the current security situation in the north of the country.
“I am not astonished that they were kidnapped, but I am astonished that they were traveling to rebel areas given that the church has been in solidarity with the regime,” he said.
Government and opposition officials traded accusations throughout the day over who was responsible for the kidnapping. The government’s Endowment Ministry, which is responsible for religious affairs, described the capture as a “terrorist act,” according to state news agency SANA.
It added that the attack was carried out by Chechen mercenaries working for the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-aligned organization the U.S. has designated a terrorist group.
An official from the Syriac Orthodox diocese echoed the government, saying, “the news which we have received is that an armed group ... [of] Chechens stopped the car and kidnapped the two bishops while the driver was killed.”
Dall’Oglio told The Daily Star he was skeptical of the details. “I would be very prudent with the information we have been given. How do they know they are Chechens?” he said.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition placed blame for the bishop’s capture firmly in regime hands.
“Initial investigations conducted by the Syrian Coalition regarding the kidnapping and killing of Father John Abraham’s bodyguard implicate the Assad regime in this crime,” a press release from the group read. “The Free Syrian Army categorically denies any responsibility for this kidnapping.” “The Assad regime was angered by Father John [Archbishop Ibrahim’s] latest statement, in which he stated that the survival of Christians in Syria is not linked to the survival of the regime,” the SNC added. The statement refers to an interview Ibrahim gave to the BBC on April 13 when he indicated that the death toll in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war was 100,000, higher than the U.N. official figure of 70,000.
Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, who resigned as head of the coalition Sunday, also suggested the regime may be involved.
“While Syria has seen thousands of its sons and daughters kidnapped ... the latest kidnapping aims at igniting an unprecedented conflict that we should avoid. The kidnapper might be an external intelligence apparatus that’s pouring oil on the fire,” he said in a post on his personal Facebook page.
While confusion reigned over the fate of the bishops, Lebanese and world figures rushed to condemn the kidnappings.
The Vatican said Pope Francis was praying for the bishops’ “well-being and liberation” while Russia’s Orthodox Church called for the release of the men.
President Michel Sleiman said the abductions would not yield the desired results, but did not speculate on who was behind the attacks.
By Nadia Massih and Lauren Williams