Kidnapped, lost and forgotten: On the 9th of February 2013, 27-year-old Father Michael Kayal from Aleppo, Syria, was abducted by Islamic extremist rebels. Two months later he is still missing, yet the world remains silent.
Monsignor Georges Dankaye, Rector of the Armenian College, Rome, and Procurator of the Armenian Catholic Church under the Holy See, reveals to us the facts about the kidnapping of Fr. Michael and about the terrible reality in which Syrian Christians are living. This reality is one of bloodshed, torture and inhumanity at an unthinkable level.
“Fr. Michael was my student in seminary for two years in Aleppo. He was very kind and intelligent,” recounts Dankaye, smiling sorrowfully. “He loved sport and music, and to sing, especially liturgical songs. He was always ready to help.”
The two were also over a year together in the Armenian College in Rome, where Michael studied Canon Law at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, after which he was ordained a priest on the 2nd of November 2011.
By the time Fr. Michael returned to Syria, the uprising had already begun and violence swept through the land, making every movement one of uncertainty for the young priest. But his “spirit, enthusiasm and zeal” captured the hearts of both his parish priest and parishioners. As the situation worsened, and refugees flooded in from the peripheries of Aleppo, Fr. Michael along with three other young priests started up a mission with the migrants. “They went every day to the schools where the Muslim families were taking refuge and took them food to eat, providing both lunch and dinner, and then they brought other aid, and doctors as well.”
It seems that Fr. Michael was walking in the steps of the saints – a man of servitude and compassion: “I remember one of his phone calls to me; he said, ‘what I can always do is serve, and nothing can be greater than this,” recalls Dankaye.
On the 9th of February, Fr. Michael set out from Aleppo. He was scheduled to visit Rome, stopping first in a small city on the way to Beirut before arriving in Italy on the 12th of February. He had not long been travelling when at one of the many blockades that plague the Syrian roads a band of rebels stormed the bus. “There were three priests aboard, two in clerics and one Salesian dressed in plain clothes. They saw the two priests dressed in clerics and made them get down; to the third they said nothing.”
“Half an hour later they had phoned his brother, saying, ‘we’ll be in contact soon to come to an agreement.’” Dankaye continues, “From that moment on the only contact was with his brother, never with the Church itself; then his brother spoke to the bishop … and it seems that the bishop informed the government.” Fr. Michael’s family revealed that they made a request for one million Syrian lire and for the liberation of 15 prisoners. However, after having asked the group which prisoners they wanted releasing, the terrorists renounced the request, asking only for the money. “This makes us think that it is a small armed group rather than the Syrian Liberation Front … because the liberation of 15 prisoners would be considered as a good offer.” He explains that “there are about 2000 of these little groups. They don’t organise or coordinate among one another; each group has their own objectives, their own ideals.” Their disorganisation became apparent when, after the family had agreed to pay the ransom, the group made no further attempt at claiming the ransom money.
So what is the situation now for Fr. Michael? Is he still alive? Dankaye states that “the only information we have is from one phone call on the 20th of February; they let him talk to his mother for less than half a minute, where he said, ‘Mum, I’m OK, but pray for me.’ Then from that date on, there has been no more contact. We don’t know anything. It remains a mystery.”
In reference to what the Church is doing to resolve the issue, sadly Dankaye tells us that for now, “they cannot do anything for Fr. Michael without any contact from him or his kidnappers.” Indeed, silence cannot be negotiated with. So where does this leave the young priest? The harsh reality of the situation is that the future of Fr. Michael does not appear to be hopeful.
Are we witnessing, then, a blatant and merciless persecution of the Christian Church in Syria? The answer, of course, is yes. But the situation is complex; Dankaye explains that “at the beginning of the uprising, the opposition said they wanted to preserve the Christian community. They said, ‘don’t be afraid to go against this system; we will treat you well,’ but obviously, they didn’t get the positive reply that they were expecting.” According to Dankaye, the opposition expected the Christian community to take arms and join their rebellion, “but this Christian community in Syria are not a community that knows how to use arms or enter into war,” he exclaims. “They are normal citizens that love their country, and so it’s difficult for them to take up arms against anyone … So they weren’t involved in the manifestations nor in the bearing of arms, and this angered them.”
The result now is that they are not offering any security to the Christian community, “they no longer say ‘we’ll treat you well,’” Dankaye states, as he echo’s the voice of the opposition. “They say, ‘we’ll take vengeance on you. You Christians didn’t enter into the war, you didn’t join the opposition, and now you have to pay for it; this is your choice.” This is an attack of revenge rather than a specifically religious persecution. Dankaye does, however, refer to other groups such as the “Jihadists and Nasrats, where we can clearly talk of religious persecution.” He also mentions the Alawites, and says “that a good part of the Sunnis are also pro-government and they commit massacres.”
When asked if he saw a way towards peace, Dankaye answered with the heartbreaking reply: “Tragically, I don’t see it.” He refers to the “political pride” of the regimes, which “won’t let it ever go back,” and “even if they wanted to stop it now, they couldn’t, because the initiative is no longer in their hands.” He continues, “Unfortunately, I have to say that the very worst that exists in man has been awoken, and now it’s out of control, and no one can stop it.”
At these piercing words, the soul shudders to think of the fate of the Armenian Catholics in Syria. “The Christian community doesn’t have any way out; it’s surrounded,” exclaims Dankaye, “it is preparing itself for martyrdom … we don’t want it, we don’t hope for it; we fear it, but that’s how it is.” He remembers the haunting words of his father two weeks earlier: “He told me, ‘if you hear of our deaths, do not come to our funeral; we would not take you with us.’”
Dankaye also shares a message that he received from a friend a few days ago, which epitomises the shocking gravity of the situation for Syrian Christians: “The wolf kills those pups that can’t manage by themselves so that they are not eaten alive by the rats and ants. It’s an act of mercy. Don’t judge my words too harshly. Talk with your parents. It’s so that those animals don’t get to them first.” When parents are driven to thoughts of ending the lives of their children, one can only imagine the atrocities that await them a few paces outside their doors.
To the final question as to what Christians round the world could do, his reply was: pray. “Remain always in prayer. It is also a moment that our Lord lived in Gethsemane. There is the temptation to escape, or to cry out to the Lord, ‘save us!’ But then, if it is his will, we have to be ready, as the martyrs were, to face death in faithfulness … it is thus in prayer that we remain welded in faith and strong in hope, and moreover, until the last moment, we remain in love, even in the face of those who know not what they do.”
We thus call out to all Christians of the world: Pray for Fr. Michael; pray for Syria, a bloodstained land ravaged by an inexorable surge of evil; pray for the tortured and mutilated men, the violated women and girls, the persecuted Christians; pray for the lost ones committing these unthinkable atrocities, and most of all pray that the world rouses from its silence, and runs to the aid of its brothers and sisters.
Lastly we cry out a desperate appeal to the humanity of Fr. Michael’s kidnappers: Let him home. Please, let Fr. Michael Kayal home.
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