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As Orthodox Christians around the world celebrated Easter this week, the Orthodox communities in Syria and neighboring Lebanon postponed festivities. Instead, they gathered in churches to pray for the safe return of two bishops kidnapped outside the Syrian city of Aleppo last month.
While the Syrian opposition and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad continue to trade blame for the abduction, the bishop’s whereabouts remains a mystery. NPR’s Susannah George has our story from Beirut.
SUSANNAH GEORGE, BYLINE: On the edge of Achrafieh, Beirut’s traditionally Christian neighborhood, worshippers are gathering at St. Ephrem’s Church for a special prayer meeting.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)
GEORGE: Inside, Bishop Daniel Kourieh(ph) leads prayers and songs in Arabic and Syriac. A few dozen worshippers follow along with paper prayer books – the Syriac’s transliterated in an Arabic alphabet.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)
GEORGE: The Syriac Church’s roots date back thousands of years. The Syriac language was once commonly spoken in what’s now Iraq, southeast Turkey and Syria. Kourieh says his message to the bishop’s kidnappers during the holy season is simple.
BISHOP DANIEL KOURIEH: To correct their mistake and to give us back our two bishops. We will pray to God to leave our bishops free.
GEORGE: The two bishops were abducted more than two weeks ago. Archbishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yuhanna Ibrahim were taken by unknown gunmen outside of Aleppo as they were carrying out humanitarian work. Their driver was killed by the gunmen. Sam Ghannoum grew up in Aleppo’s Christian community. But after he was briefly detained by Syrian government forces, he fled to Beirut.
SAM GHANNOUM: (Foreign language spoken)
GEORGE: Sam says Syria’s Christians have mainly stood on the sidelines of the anti-government uprising, who are fearful of what could replace the Assad regime than of the regime itself.
GHANNOUM: (Foreign language spoken)
GEORGE: He says the regime made Christians believe the Islamists would come and slaughter them or force their women to wear the veil. And now, with Islamist groups taking on a more prominent role in the conflict, a lot of Christians feel like the regime’s fear-mongering is coming to pass. But Sam says Syria’s Christians won’t leave the country.
GHANNOUM: (Foreign language spoken)
GEORGE: Christians have been in Syria long before Islam, he says. No sect or force will be able to eliminate us. That’s for sure. But not everyone is so confident at the St. Ephrem Church service.
Larger-than-life photo of the kidnapped bishops sits up front beside the altar. Teenagers snap pictures of it with cellphones. One woman stops and mouths a silent prayer. Nabil Selman is an English professor, who has attended St. Ephrem’s his whole life. He gestures to the photo of the bishops.
NABIL SELMAN: It’s a very sad time. They are messengers of love and peace and yet, you know, look what is happening. They are abducted for no reason, it seems.
GEORGE: William Mansour wears a lapel pin calling for the bishops’ release. He says what’s happening in Syria reminds him of the mass killings and forced relocations his ancestors suffered at the hands of Ottoman Turks almost a hundred years ago. William says his people’s history haunts him today.
WILLIAM MANSOUR: We feel something is going on and we are not feeling well about it.
GEORGE: William bows his head as he recites the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac. He says it reminds him to be patient and trust God.
MANSOUR: (Foreign language spoken)
GEORGE: But Bishop Kourieh, the head of the Syriac Church in Beirut, admits the time for patience is quickly running out.
KOURIEH: We said quiet, silent, don’t do anything, but now we have to move. We will see what we will do.
GEORGE: Susannah George, NPR News, Beirut.
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