Fathallah Kabud climbed behind the wheel of the car, keenly aware of the danger that lay ahead. Perhaps he thought only of the task immediately before him, the drive through the checkpoints of war-ravaged Aleppo, which might distract him from contemplating the stark reality that he and his passengers were going, unarmed, to negotiate with ruthless murderers. Or perhaps he thought of his family. Or perhaps Fathallah, a devout Christian and deacon, simply prayed. One can only speculate as to his thoughts, for these were his last moments on earth.
In the car with Fathallah were Bishop John Ibrahim and Bishop Boulos Yazigi. Bishop Yazigi, brother of the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, had decided only hours before to join Bishop Ibrahim on this trip, an attempt to secure the release of two priests who had been kidnapped. Over the previous year, Bishop Ibrahim had negotiated the release of nearly two dozen hostages. Clergy had frequently been successful in Syria (as elsewhere in the Middle East) in negotiating the release of kidnapping victims — not only Christians but also Muslims, who often have as much to fear from the Islamist militants as do Christians.
The year before this fateful car ride, in the summer of 2012, the battle of Aleppo began. Foreign jihadists were already flocking to Syria, many of them war-hardened men from Central Asia and the Caucasus — among them Chechens who found in Syria a familiar maelstrom of blood and chaos in which they could thrive. The predominantly Islamist rebel factions are affiliated, ideologically if not organizationally, with al-Qaeda. These fighters are supported by the Sunni Gulf Arab states, which are eager to overthrow the Alawi regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad, an ally of Iran. They bring with them a new breed of barbarism.
By way of fear and a reputation for success, they have attracted young fighters to their ranks, frightening entire Free Syrian Army (FSA) units into abandoning their posts and weapons, which have now fallen into the hands of Islamists. The FSA commander fled the country altogether. The latest American experiment, which the FSA most assuredly was, has now failed abysmally. The U.S. subsequently made overtures to the Islamic Front, not yet designated a terrorist organization, only to be rejected by the Islamists. Assad’s government has called the overtures “reprehensible.” Ruthless sociopathic butchers who make Osama bin Laden appear civilized by comparison now dominate the rebel faction. Behind black masks, with affected religiosity and Arabic pseudonyms, they daily terrorize Syria’s civilian population, Muslim and Christian alike.
It was into the hands of such men that Fathallah and the bishops were traveling. Unarmed, they went bound only by a sense of duty to the helpless kidnapping victims — an act of extraordinary courage that is difficult to comprehend.
According to one report, at the first checkpoint, manned by Syrian rebels from Aleppo, Fathallah and the bishops were permitted to pass. But moments later, a Suburban descended on them, cutting them off. Fathallah brought the car to a halt. Several men dressed in Central Asian attire got out and approached, brandishing Kalashnikov-series rifles. According to one account, none of the gunmen, allegedly all Chechens, even spoke Arabic. After several minutes, Fathallah was taken at gunpoint from the scene to an abandoned factory nearby. There, he was executed at gunpoint: another civilian casualty in Syria’s brutal war. The fate of Bishop Ibrahim and Bishop Yazigi remains unknown.
The murder-kidnapping is another example in a pattern of systematic violence against Christians by Islamist militants that began in earnest in 2003. Human-rights advocate Nina Shea, who has served on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, has thoroughly documented this pattern. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, while many in Washington celebrated what seemed a sweeping victory, Shea issued a dire warning about Iraq’s politically precarious situation and the danger to Iraq’s vulnerable Christian minority. She has written since of the systematic “obliteration” of Iraq’s Christians, especially the clergy. Last month, on Christmas day, nearly three dozen Christians were killed and dozens more wounded in an attack, part of the campaign in which approximately 800,000 Iraqi Christians have been driven out of the country over the past decade. (Iraq was home to more than a million Christians in 2003.) The pattern in Iraq is now being replicated in Syria, in what Shea has called “Syria’s shadow war against Christians.” It has been escalating since 2011.
Much as the historic Christian communities of Egypt, Iraq, and Syria share a common threat, so Muslims and Christians alike are targets of the extremists. As Egypt saw its churches and defenseless faithful targeted, so were Muslim faithful targeted by extremists in Iraq just years before. The sectarian violence continues to this day. The more that Christians and Muslims perceive this threat and unite in solidarity against it, the greater the challenge will be for the extremists. But the worst may still be ahead.
On December 1, 13 Greek Orthodox nuns were taken from Mar Takla Monastery in Maaloula, Syria, a Christian village near the Lebanese border north of Damascus, after it was overrun by the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra. “Most of the fighting is just over those mountains,” says Kamal, a Lebanese man, pointing east toward the mountains, which separate Syria from Lebanon. “On the other side there is Maaloula and Yabrud and Aleppo.” The nuns reportedly have been moved to the rebel-held town of Yabrud and are being held by al-Nusra there. Patriarch Yazigi has implored the international community to press for their release. A senior Lebanese official expressed optimism that the nuns might be released in the near future; there is little such hope for the bishops. “These are my friends,” says Michel Constantin, director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s regional office, which oversees the care of more than 16,000 Syrian Christian families. “We do not know if they are alive or even who has them.”
Toward the conclusion of his recent book The Global War on Christians, reporter John Allen recounts the 2012 murder of a Syrian priest, Jamil Hadad. Father Hadad risked his life — not for the first time — to try to ransom a doctor from his village who had been kidnapped. On encountering the kidnappers, Father Hadad was, like the bishops in Aleppo, kidnapped and held for ransom. He was then tortured at some length, his eyes gouged out, before he was shot in the head. The doctor Father Hadad risked his life to save was a Muslim.
The name Fathallah means “open to God” and is common to Christians and Muslims alike. Also common to Christians and Muslims is the danger posed by the militant extremists of the Middle East. Many face down this threat with astounding fortitude. “There is a courage one derives from being in the presence of the Christians of the Middle East,” a Catholic archbishop remarked to me last year. He himself had been targeted and nearly killed by terrorists and understood well the danger faced by clergy in that part of the world. He also understood well the courage of men like Fathallah — a courage that leaves the rest of us in awe.
— Andrew Doran served on the executive secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State. He’s working to raise awareness about the conditions of Christian communities in the Middle East.