This priest spent Christmas abducted by terrorists—for the second time in a year

by Kelly Ledbetter |

(Custody of the Holy Land)Father Dhiya Aziz

LATAKIA, Syria (Christian Examiner) – Father Dhiya Aziz was traveling through a violent area of Syria on Dec. 23 when he was abducted by a jihadist group.

The priest was returning to his parish of Yacoubieh, Syria, [village's spelling differs] after visiting relatives in Turkey—they were displaced by ISIS and live as refugees—when contact was lost with his taxi, said the Custody of the Holy Land, a Franciscan order of priests serving in the Middle East.

Asking for prayer for the situation and for others who are serving in the region, the Franciscans said the "chaotic situation" prevents them from being able to find out from "various factions on the ground" about Fr. Aziz' whereabouts.

The priest was recovered on Jan. 4, after about two weeks of uncertainty. The Custody said they could not release any details because of confidentiality.

"It is reasonable to assume that he has been kidnapped by some group. We are doing all that is possible to understand who could have kidnapped him," they said in the initial announcement.

ONGOING VIOLENCE AGAINST CHRISTIANS

The reason they assume this is likely because of the number of kidnappings in the area in recent years, including Fr. Aziz himself, who was kidnapped on July 4, 2015.

The Islamist group al-Nusra Front, active in the area of Yacoubieh, where Fr. Aziz had volunteered to minister, denied kidnapping him in the summer and claimed to have helped the police investigation, according to Catholic News Agency.

A litany of violence has been executed against individuals belonging to religious orders in Syria, CNA points out:

  • Greek Orthodox nuns, a priest, and Greek and Syriac Orthodox bishops of Aleppo were kidnapped by militants in 2013.
  • A Dutch priest was murdered in Homs and a Franciscan priest and parishoners was kidnapped in Qunaya (a village less than a mile from Yacoubieh) in 2014.
  • About 90 Christians in northeast Syria were kidnapped by Islamic State in February 2015, and a priest was kidnapped from a monastery near Homs in May 2015.

"The last contact by telephone was registered on 23 December at 9.00 a.m.," the Custody announced. "From that moment nobody knows where he is. He should have arrived at Yacoubieh during the early hours of the afternoon of the same day, 23 December. There is absolutely no news regarding Fr. Dhiya and the other passengers."

"We realize that someone took him," said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa to AsiaNews on Jan 30, when Fr. Aziz' whereabouts were still unknown, "but we cannot say who did it or even if he is still alive. If we knew who abducted him, at least we would have confirmation, but until now, we do not know even that. We have tried some contacts, but there is not much more to say."

PRAYERS URGENTLY REQUESTED FOR SYRIAN CHRISTIANS

The Idlib province where the priest serves has been a site of violence since 2011.

His previous kidnapping was likely an attempt at collecting ransom, but this more recent one caused even more concern. "We know where he was taken," said Pizzaballa, referring to the taxi's route from Latakia. "It is an area of heavy fighting, on the border between government- and rebel-held territories."

Fr. Aziz' kidnapping and recovery illustrates the need for continuous prayer for those whose lives are endangered by violence as they try to serve in a dangerous region.

"We invite all to pray and show solidarity with Father Dhiya, with his parishioners, with his confreres in Syria, with the spiritual leaders and pastors and all those who are still dedicating their lives and energies in that country to do good to all."

The Franciscan missionaries group added, "We thank all those who helped us to liberate him."