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    'Responsible for Peace': Syrian Priest Reveals Captives Rescue Ops Drama

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    BEIRUT (Sputnik) – Syrian priest George has been engaged in rescuing captives captured by militants since the onset of the conflict in the Arab republic, feeling personal responsibility for the reconciliation efforts in the home country.

    Seven years ago, he took part in the first such operation, rescuing soldiers abducted by terrorists. Since then, he has been making every effort, so that peace could return to his country.

    Priest George told Sputnik about how the crisis in Idlib province had broken out and also shared the details of the rescue of kidnapped Christians and representatives of other religions.

    In Right Place at Right Time

    Father George became a priest in 1977 and began his service in Latakia. He was also in charge of the parishes in the city of Jisr al-Shughur in the neighboring province of Idlib.

    According to the priest, at that time neither Christians nor Muslims could even imagine that, 40 years later, this small town in the west of Idlib would become one of the main strongholds of terrorist and radical armed groups.

    For many years, the priest headed the parishes in Aleppo, Turkey, and even in southern Lebanon, after the Israeli military withdrew from it in 2000. But eventually, he asked to be sent back to his home province of Latakia, where he has been serving at the Antiochian Orthodox Church to this very day. Thus, parishes in Jisr al-Shughur once again came under his responsibility.

    How it All Began

    When the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011, Priest George was in Idlib province. He noted that there was close cooperation with the government in a bid to stabilize the situation in the region.

    "There were a number of events in which I had the opportunity to participate, in particular, in the rescue of those abducted in the area. We managed to negotiate the lifting of the blockade of the servicemen, who were besieged in the area of Ad Dana," the priest said.

    As a result, the 27-strong unit led by Col. Saker was rescued and evacuated to the neighboring village of Halluz.

    "We sheltered them in our church. At that time, militants were everywhere around. Then we managed to save Capt. Kanaan with nine soldiers. It turned out that we always succeeded in efforts to de-escalate tensions between the guys who sided with militants and those who supported the state," Father George went on.

    The situation started spinning out of control after the massacre in Jisr al-Shughur in June 2011, when militants attacked a state security building and killed 80 security officials. The Christians and government supporters living in the area realized that it was time to leave, otherwise they risked becoming victims of extremists.

    In Charge of Reconciliation Process

    In 2012, after the massacre in another Christian village, the Christians finally left the area.

    "As part of interaction with the government, I received an assignment while I was still in Jisr, to fulfill a number of tasks from the security services and directly from the leadership of the country," the priest said.

    US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles are designed to conduct airstrikes in Syria and Iraq
    © REUTERS / U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Handout
    In Latakia, the priest was officially appointed to be in charge of the reconciliation process. After a meeting with representatives of the country’s leadership, the priest began regular negotiations with people of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur. The priest and his associates used all their old contacts to this end.

    The reconciliation efforts were focused on residents who turned out to be locked in the areas seized by militants, on those whose parents or children periodically cooperated with militants. The task however became more challenging after foreign mercenaries and extremists starting coming to Idlib from other provinces.

    New Tactics

    Under new circumstances, Priest George has decided to organize negotiations between the families of militants and the families of those abducted. The priest believed that relatives could convince the militants to lay down their arms.

    "We, of course, interact with several sheikhs in certain areas, they help us a lot. Now we have some positive developments that we are trying to build on. You know that Christian villages have suffered a lot, as well as the villages of other religious groups. At the same time, we serve in the army, in line with law. Christians served in Jisr al-Shughur and Idlib. Several of our Christian guys were captured, and the doctors who worked in Jisr were abducted," the priest pointed out.

    After Priest George found militants, who were holding Christians hostages, he began negotiating with them their release for ransom or prisoner exchange.

    The issue of exchange, according to the priest, is extremely difficult. There were more than 20 Christians among the captives in the province of Idlib. Most of them were abducted during the capture of Abu Adh Dhuhur in the southeast of Idlib province and the attack on the hospital in Jisr al-Shughur.

    Some Christians were abducted in Aleppo, Raqqa and in the south of Syria, but everyone was eventually transferred to Idlib. According to the priest, there are seven prisons in Idlib, where the captives are held.

    "There has to be a connection between the younger generations, and we must convince those who are there that the guys in captivity are their brothers. We explain to militants that just as their families and relatives live with us and we take care of them, they should act likewise with our people there, on their territories, show restraint, understand that the country welcomes them back," the priest continued.

    Appeal to Russia

    Another issue Father George is dealing with is mass emigration of Christians from Syria. According to the priest, the number of those who left is catastrophic, with Christian settlements getting almost uninhabited.

    "I want to address Russia, the mother of all Christians. Help us a little please so that we can stay in this country. Perhaps, there should be more attention to the protection of Christians. Maybe, Russia will be able to help us recover those abducted Christian guys," the priest said.

    He finally added that the Syrian government urges all its fellow citizens to realize their mistakes and return to peace, "no matter whether we are Christians or Muslims, we have one God."

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