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Turkey: The Case of the Missing Priests
By Uzay Bulut
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Bishop Yuhanna Ibrahim (left) and Bishop Paul Yazici.
It has been six years since two archbishops and other members of the Christian clergy went missing in Syria (AINA 2013-04-24); their whereabouts still are unknown. Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Aleppo, and Boulos Yazigi, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, also in Aleppo, were abducted from their car in 2013. Their driver was later found killed.

Erkan Metin, an Istanbul-based Assyrian human-rights lawyer who has been following these cases and written about them extensively, told Gatestone:

"Prior to the kidnapping, the bishops were on their way to Aleppo to secure the release of two other abducted priests -- Father Michel Kayyal, an Armenian Catholic, and Father Maher Mahfouz, a Greek Orthodox -- who are also still missing. When Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest, went to Raqqa to secure their release, he too was kidnapped, and is still missing. I believe he was murdered."

Metin said that the terrorist who is believed to have killed the two clergymen -- Magomed Abdurakhmanov (Abu Banat), is currently in jail in Turkey.

"While fighting in Syria, Abu Banat was the leader of the jihadist Katibat al-Muhajireen brigade. He was also a member of Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa'l-Ansar, affiliated with the Kavkaz Center, the official website of the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz), a pro-jihad, Chechen internet news agency. Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa'l-Ansar was initially aligned with ISIS and then pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Banat was also a right arm of Abu Omar al-Shishani, who was once one of the most senior commanders of ISIS."

Metin added that Abu Banat was first detained in 2013 for entering Turkey illegally, but was then released. However, Metin continued:

"After a police officer thought he recognized Abu Banat from an ISIS beheading video on YouTube, Turkish police raided his home in Istanbul, where they found weapons and ammunition. During his criminal investigation, police discovered that it was Abu Banat who had kidnapped the clergymen, and that he was a jihadist leader in Syria. They also learned that it was indeed Abu Banat who appeared in the decapitation video. 'The people whose heads I chopped off were spies of Assad,' he said during his interrogation. But the police did not ask him whether the men he beheaded in the video were the abducted archbishops, Ibrahim and Yazigi. It was an odd, careless investigation."

Meanwhile, Metin said, international condemnation of the beheading videos spurred the Kavkaz Center, with which Abu Banat was affiliated, to distance itself from Abu Banat and clean up its image. This is why, Metin explained, the Kavkaz Center "published an article accusing Abu Banat of having been a Russian spy before his arrest in Turkey; of having kidnapped Ibrahim and Yazigi, and of then having 'executed' them by detonating bombs strapped to their bodies."

Related: Turkey's Role in the Kidnapping of the Syrian Bishops

Metin explained to Gatestone that the Turkish Justice Ministry has not allowed prosecutors to try Abu Banat and others for crimes committed against the archbishops. Abu Banat was tried only for "membership in al-Qaeda and for possessing weapons and explosives."

According to Metin:

"A prosecutor's office in Istanbul requested permission from the Turkish Justice Ministry to investigate Abu Banat for committing a crime against humanity. But the ministry rejected the request, on the grounds that the crime was committed in Syria, a foreign country, and thus it would be difficult to collect evidence there."

Had such an investigation been launched, Metin said, "it would have exposed the Syria policy of then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, which can be summed up as a 'strategic swamp,' which defines everyone from outside of Syria who commits savage acts inside Syria as 'opponents of the Assad regime.'"

Furthermore, according to Metin:

"Abu Banat testified during his trial that his jihadist organizations were supported by the Turkish intelligence organization (MIT). Although there is no concrete evidence of this, Abu Banat claimed that he received weapons, money and vehicles from the MIT, and that he and the MIT were on the same side against Assad. Abu Banat complained that after he was imprisoned in Turkey in July 2013, he wrote letters to the MIT, with which he claimed to have been in constant touch while he was in Syria, but received no response. Currently, Abu Banat is in the Maltepe prison in Istanbul, but he has filed an appeal with the Turkish Supreme Court. If he wins the appeal, he could be set free."

According to Metin:

"Unlike Turkey, which has failed to investigate the crimes committed against the clergymen, there is an ongoing investigation in the U.S. on their kidnappings and another is being conducted by Russia on the terrorist leadership of Abu Banat, and the U.N. is investigating the financing of terrorism in Syria."

Metin noted that the Assyrian and other Christian peoples indigenous to the region are still awaiting justice for the kidnapped priests and other Christian victims of persecution in Syria.

"The abductions have shaken our people at their core," Metin said. "We want the truth to be revealed, and Abu Banat, the person possibly best able to reveal it, is in a Turkish jail. The government of Turkey should finally do what is required, and get to the bottom of these crimes."

Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute and is currently based in Washington D.C.

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