After second abduction, Franciscan priest freed in Syria

Fr Aziz Courtesy of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land CNA Fr. Dhiya Aziz, who was liberated by his captors Jan. 4, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

Franciscan priest Fr. Dhiya Aziz, who had been briefly kidnapped by unknown jihadist militants in Syria in July and was abducted a second time just before Christmas, and has again been set free by his captors.

"Today we received the communication that Fr. Dhiya Azziz has been liberated and that he is doing well," a brief Jan. 4 statement from the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land read.

The statement reported that the Custody is unable to provide further details of Fr. Aziz' abduction and release due to reasons of confidentiality, but thanked all those who helped to liberate the friar.

Fr. Aziz, 41, is currently in Damascus. He is the parish priest at Yacubiyeh, a village in Syria's Idlib province, more than 56 miles northeast of Latakia. The Islamist rebel group al-Nusra Front has a strong presence in the province.

According to a Dec. 28 statement from the Custody, Fr. Aziz disappeared Dec. 23. He was travelling by taxi from Latakia to Yacubiyeh. He had returned from Turkey, where he was visiting family members who took refuge there after the Islamic State seized Bakhdida, Iraq in August 2014.

The Custody said all contact with the priest had been lost after a 9 a.m. phone conversation, and that he was supposed to have arrived to his parish in the early afternoon.

In their statement, they expressed the belief that Fr. Aziz had been "kidnapped by some group," but that the "chaotic situation" of the country made it difficult to find out who was behind the kidnapping.

His Dec. 23 abduction marks the second time Fr. Aziz has been kidnapped. On July 4 he had been taken by unknown militants, who were suspected to be from al-Nusra Front.

However, the group denied that they had any role in the abduction, and claimed to have led police in the investigation that led to the priest's liberation a few days later.

Fr. Aziz was born in Iraq's Nineveh province in 1974. He studied medicine and then entered religious life, making a first profession of vows in 2002. The following year he was transferred to Egypt, and in 2010 to Jordan. Fr. Aziz was later moved to Latakia, and he then volunteered to come to Yacubiyeh, a predominantly Christian village.

Fr. Aziz' December kidnapping is the latest in a series of attacks on Christian religious since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

In 2013, militants kidnapped a group of Greek Orthodox nuns, Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, S.J., and the Greek and Syriac Orthodox bishops of Aleppo. The nuns were eventually returned to their convent unharmed, but Fr. Dall'Oglio and the bishops remain missing.

In 2014, Dutch priest Fr. Frans van der Lugt, S.J., was murdered in Homs. The priest served in Syria for more than four decades. He was involved in interreligious dialogue and had built as spirituality center that housed children with mental disabilities.

The same year, another Franciscan priest, Fr. Hanna Jallouf, was kidnapped together with as many as 20 people from his parish in Qunaya, a neighboring village of Yacubiyeh – the two are less than a mile apart.

In February 2015 the Islamic State kidnapped at least ninety Christians from villages in northeast Syria.

And in May of that year, Fr. Jacques Mourad was kidnapped at gunpoint from a monastery southeast of Homs. He has since been set free, and has spoken publicly about his time in captivity after making a pilgrimage to Lourdes, which he promised he would do if he was ever released by his captors.   

The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 with demonstrations against the nation's president, Bashar al-Assad. The war has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people, and forced 4.1 million to become refugees. Another 8 million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced by the violence.

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