Father Dhiya Aziz is reported to be unharmed
The Franciscan priest who was abducted from his monastery in northwest Syria July 4 has been released, the Custody of the Holy Land announced.
A statement at the website of the Custody, the Franciscan organization that oversees the Catholic pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land, said that Father Dhiya Aziz was “allegedly treated well during his kidnapping.”
According to Marie-Armelle Beaulieu, Jerusalem-based editor in chief of Terre Sainte Magazine, Father Aziz asked his superior for permission to stay in the same village where he was kidnapped "because the people need a priest."
"He said that he ‘physically felt the benefit of the prayer of all the people who prayed for him,’" Beaulieu added.
She said that no other information could be communicated because of security concerns for Father Aziz and 13 others Franciscans still living in Syria.
It is still unclear who was responsible for his abduction. Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, said in an interview with the Christian Media Center, that it was a "cell of Islamists or simply criminals."
“Conflicting news had…led people to believe that he had been taken by jihadists affiliated to Al-Nusra Jabhat, which administers the emirate in the sector” of Yacoubieh in Idlib Province, the statement from the Custody of the Holy Land said. “This group has denied any involvement in his kidnapping and allegedly led the police investigation in neighboring villages which led to his liberation. Father Dhiya was allegedly abducted by another group jihadists eager to profit on his release. In the region, there are a plethora of groups that operate with varied interests."
The 41-year-old friar was born in Mosul, Iraq, and has worked in various places in the Middle East. He chose to work in Yacoubieh in spite of known dangers. In June 2013, another Franciscan from the region where Father Aziz worked, Father Francois Murad, was abducted and killed. In 2014, a Dutch Jesuit who served in Syria for more than 40 years, Father Frans van der Lugt, was murdered in Homs.
The Greek Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, told Aleteia last week that the "peaceful Christian village" of Yacoubieh was "already entirely abducted two years ago; many people left the place and the remaining inhabitants are living very hard times under the Islamic Regime (Emirate)."
"The whole area is under the control of different Islamic armed brigades, among whom Jabhat al Nusra, which is affiliated with al Qaeda, is considered the most powerful and predominant force," said Michel Constantin, Beirut-based regional director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Last October, the al-Nusra Front abducted another Franciscan, Father Hanna Jallouf, pastor of the Church of St. Joseph in the nearby village of Knayeh, along with several parishioners. But all of them were released within a few days.
The whereabouts of several other priests and bishops, including Bishops Boulos Yazigi and Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, and Fathers Paolo Dall’Oglio and Jacques Mourad, are still unknown.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.