Concern mounted yesterday over two kidnapped bishops from Aleppo after reports of their release were contradicted.
Bishop Boulos Yazgi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Yuhanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Orthodox Church were seized on Monday while on a mission to free two priests held hostage by rebels for the past two months.
The Greek and Syrian Orthodox churches called on the kidnappers to respect the lives of the bishops and “end all acts that create confessional and sectarian schisms” among Syrians.
Pope Francis and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew appealed separately for the release of the two bishops. According to Damascus-based Bishop Tony Yazgi, they are being held by Chechen fundamentalists affiliated to al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that foreign jihadis from the Caucasus had abducted the bishops.
Concern was also expressed that Christians are being targeted, after mortars killed seven in Damascus’s Jaramana district, a largely pro-government Christian and Druze suburb repeatedly under rebel attack.
Orthodox Christians begin Easter observances this weekend with Palm Sunday.
In Aleppo, the distinctive minaret of the 12th-century Umayyad mosque, a Unesco world heritage site, was totally destroyed during fighting in the Old City. State news agency Sana charged rebels from radical Jabhat al-Nusra, who occupy the mosque, of blowing up the minaret, while opposition activists accused the army, deployed 200m away, of bringing down the minaret with tank fire. The mosque was damaged in fighting last October.
The attack on Aleppo's Umayyad mosque took place a week after the minaret of the Omari mosque in the southern city of Deraa was brought down. This 7th-century mosque, the first in Syria, served as the headquarters of the rebels in the southern city of Deraa when the revolt began in March 2011.
The warring sides also accused each other of being responsible for this destruction. The Jabhat was charged by the government with mounting cameras around the mosque to record the collapse of the minaret.
Fierce clashes continued inside Minnigh military airbase near Aleppo, the Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said his government is fighting a war against terrorism which should have the support of the international community.