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2 kidnapped Syrian bishops remain missing

From Saad Abedine, CNN
April 24, 2013 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)
Enthroanment in Damascus of Yuhanna X Yazigi as the Patriarch of Antioch, on February 10, 2013.
Enthroanment in Damascus of Yuhanna X Yazigi as the Patriarch of Antioch, on February 10, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two prominent Syrian Orthodox bishops have been missing for two days
  • The opposition and the government each blame others for the kidnapping
  • Another bishop tells the Vatican news service that money, not politics, is the motivation

(CNN) -- Two Syrian Orthodox bishops remain missing two days after being kidnapped, with each side in the civil war blaming others for the snatching.

The whereabouts of the two prominent clergymen, Greek Orthodox Bishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Bishop John Ibrahim, remain unknown, despite some reports to the contrary, Greek Orthodox Bishop Mousa Khoury told CNN.

There have been several kidnappings of Christian clergymen in Syria but the two bishops are the most senior church figures who have been abducted since the beginning of the uprising.

The Syrian regime's Ministry of Religious Endowment issued a statement blaming "this brutal act" on Chechen mercenaries operating under the mantle of Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. The government did not provide evidence to back up the claim.

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A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army said the government itself could be behind the kidnappings.

"The timing is very suspicious and we believe the Assad regime is behind the kidnapping," Louay Almokdad told CNN.

Another opposition figure, Rami Abdurrahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, elaborated, saying they believe that non-Arab foreign fighters are behind the kidnappings.

"We know that there are foreign fighters who are infiltrated by the regime and the Assad regime is well known for being a ventriloquist of proxy groups that they set up in order to spread chaos, strife and to divide the ranks of the opposition," he said.

CNN cannot independently confirm the claims by either side.

Earlier, there were conflicting reports about the status of the bishops.

"The bishops were supposed to be released by the armed group yesterday evening; then we expected them to head back to their churches. But they didn't, so we are still carrying out all efforts to figure out what happened," Abdel Ahad Steifo, a prominent Syriac member of Syria's main opposition group, told CNN.

Steifo, who is in charge of the negotiations for the release of the clergymen, says he does not know the identity of the kidnappers. But they are not part of the opposition, he said.

In an interview with the Vatican's Fides News Agency, the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, said that at the root of the "scourge of kidnapping" is not politics, but "the pursuit of money on behalf of armed gangs."

Recent incidents of clergymen being kidnapped ended with their release after ransoms of thousands of dollars were paid, he said.

On Tuesday, the director of the Holy See press office, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Pope Francis is closely following the events in Syria.

The pope is "praying for the health and the liberation of the two kidnapped bishops," Lombardi said.

A number of Muslim clerics have also been killed and kidnapped in Syria, including a top Sunni cleric and longtime supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti, who was killed in a suspicious blast while teaching religious class in Damascus. Rebels and regime officials blamed each other for the assassination of al-Bouti.

READ MORE: Israel says Syria used chemical weapons; Russia warns of 'Iraqi scenario'

READ MORE: Rights group accuses Syrian military of targeting civilians

READ MORE: Syria rebel group's dangerous tie to al Qaeda

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