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Pope appeals for release of Syrian bishops

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives for his weekly general audience in the Vatican on April 24, 2013
Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives for his weekly general audience at St Peter's Square in the Vatican on April 24, 2013. Pope Francis called Wednesday for the release of two Syrian bishops kidnapped by gunmen near Aleppo, after a Christian gro

Pope Francis called Wednesday for the release of two Syrian bishops kidnapped by gunmen near Aleppo, after a Christian group appeared to retract its claim that the clerics had been freed.

Aleppo's Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yaziji and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim were kidnapped on Monday by armed men en route from the Turkish border.

Speaking to an audience of around 100,000 at the Vatican, Francis said there were "contradictory reports" about the fate of the bishops and asked that "they be returned quickly to their communities".

On Tuesday, the "Oeuvre d'Orient" Christian association announced that the bishops had been released, but on Wednesday it backed away from the claim.

"Yesterday evening we received information from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate questioning the release of the two bishops," said Catherine Baumont, spokeswoman for the group, which works to help Middle Eastern Christians.

Syrian Bishop Boulos Yaziji, head of the Greek Orthodox church in Aleppo, in Damascus on February 10, 2013
Syrian Bishop Boulos Yaziji, head of the Greek Orthodox church in Aleppo, at the enthronement in Damascus of his brother Yuhanna X Yazigi as the Patriarch of Antioch on February 10, 2013.

"Unfortunately no tangible proof of the release has been obtained. The situation remains unclear, and we still don't know who took them," Baumont told AFP.

And a source in Aleppo's Greek Orthodox archdiocese told AFP it had no news on the fate of the bishops.

"We have no new information," said Ghassan Ward, a priest at the archdiocese.

"We can say that (as far as we know) they haven't been freed," he added.

Ward said there had been "no contact with them," adding that "efforts are continuing" to secure their release.

"We are very worried," he said.

The two men were travelling from the Turkish border when armed men intercepted the car they were in, forcing them out of the vehicle, Syrian state media and church sources reported.

Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo, seen in December 2012
Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo, seen in December 2012, in a handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on April 23, 2013.

The kidnappers were believed to be Chechen fighters, who stopped the car in an area outside of Aleppo, the church sources said.

"The news which we have received is that an armed group... (of) Chechens stopped the car and kidnapped the two bishops while the driver was killed," an official from the Syriac Orthodox diocese said in a statement posted online.

A source in the Greek Orthodox church said the kidnappers had described themselves as "Chechen jihadists."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said Wednesday that the bishops had been kidnapped "in the region west of Aleppo, where a brigade of fighters from Dagestan is active."

"Four members of this brigade were killed in confrontations with rebels from the Free Syrian Army," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The Syrian opposition has condemned the kidnapping, saying the rebel Free Syrian Army was not involved and pointing the finger at the Syrian regime.

"Efforts... to uncover the identities of the clerics' kidnappers and to liberate them indicate that the Syrian regime is responsible for the kidnapping, and (the) killing of Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim's driver," the opposition National Coalition said.

Christians account for around five percent of Syria's population, and have become increasingly vulnerable to attack and abductions in the lawlessness that has engulfed much of the country since March 2011.

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