Once again, the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo ventured into the dangerous maze of checkpoints manned by competing forces along Syria's border with Turkey.
The goal, three years ago, was for Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church to help negotiate the release of two priests who had been kidnapped weeks earlier. Then, west of Aleppo, a pack of unidentified armed men attacked.
The bishops' driver was killed in the gunfire. A fourth passenger escaped and then testified -- consistent with other reports -- that the kidnappers did not speak Arabic and appeared to from Chechnya.
The bishops simply vanished. According to a new World Council of Arameans report: "No one has ever claimed responsibility for the abduction, neither has there been a clear sign of life of the bishops since April 22, 2013." Later reports were "all based on unverified rumors, hearsay and false reports which often contradicted each other."
This kidnapping never inspired global news coverage. For some reason, tweeting out #BringBackOurBishops never caught on with hashtag activists inside the Washington Beltway or in Hollywood.
But millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians -- especially those with Syrian and Lebanese roots -- are still praying for the bishops of Aleppo. These prayers escalated with the three-year anniversary of the kidnappings and then, this week, with the sobering rites of Holy Week leading to Good Friday, Holy Saturday and, finally, Pascha -- Easter -- this Sunday (following the ancient Julian calendar).
On April 21, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, Patriarch John X, and the corresponding Syriac Orthodox leader, Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, released a joint statement urging their flocks not to lose hope.
"If the intention of the kidnapping event (was) to intimidate us, however, we, Christians, are the descendants of those who, two thousand years ago, put on the name of Christ in this particular land," they wrote. "We mold our bread from this land, and from the strength of our belonging to it. Thus, we preserve our identity as Antiochian Easterners, through whatever difficulties or tribulations. …
"We shall continue to live in this East, ringing our bells, building our churches and lifting up our Crosses."
This kidnapping has, from the beginning, created a whirlwind of unanswered questions. Who kidnapped the bishops? Were the kidnappers linked, as would seem logical, to radical Islamists? If so, what group? What were their motives, since there have been no confirmed ransom demands? Are the bishops alive and, if so, where are they? What about the reports that one has been killed?
If undercover agents with governments linked to the fighting have answers, they have not been communicating with the Orthodox.
Some of the most disturbing news came early, noted the World Council of Arameans report, since multiple sources say the kidnappers were associated with "the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda branch in Syria. This terrorist-listed group has been identified more than once as the perpetrator behind Christian massacres such as in the ancient Aramean town of Sadad -- locals testified that Al-Nusra cooperated with the Western-backed rebel group of the Free Syrian Army."
Christians in this battered region have been distressed by the silence surrounding this case, stressed the statement by the two patriarchs. But they said their flocks have been even more troubled by the assumption that it's time to flee their homes and ancient altars to risk "perilous sea travel and ship wreckage" abroad.
"We remain in this land. … We were not a minority, and will never be," proclaimed Patriarch John X and Patriarch Aphrem II. "We appreciate every humanitarian effort of governments or organizations. However, let us put it bluntly: we cannot be protected through facilitating the migration of refugees. We are not petitioning for protection. Rather, we are seeking peace."
Thus, they appealed -- once again -- for the release of the bishops of Aleppo.
"This land of the East is now bleeding, but shall, without doubt, rise again. … Our prayer goes to the Lord of the Resurrection and the Master of Lights to surround with His comforting Light and divine protection all those who are defending their land, and give eternal rest to all the martyrs, and to bring back all the abducted people safe to their beloved ones."