Al-Qaeda group abducts Catholics on the day the Pope calls summit

A Catholic priest and about 20 of his parishioners have been abducted by Islamic extremists in Syria on the day that Pope Francis called for a summit on the Middle East.

Fr Hanna Jallouf was taken from St Joseph Convent in the village of Knayeh in the north-west of the country by militants of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front on Sunday, according to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. It is the same group that overran the Christian village of Maaloula last September and held a number of nuns hostage for several months.

Senior Franciscan official Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land, told the AFP news agency that the Christians had been accused of being “collaborators” with the Syrian government. Nuns inside the convent at the time of the abduction managed to escape.

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He said: “We don’t know what to do. We don’t know with whom to talk, we’re totally unable to get in touch with anyone.”

Fr Hanna is Syrian and has worked in the convent for 12 years, and has become one of numerous priests and bishops to be kidnapped or murdered in the three-year civil war.

Aleppo’s Archbishop Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church were kidnapped in April 2013, followed in July by Italian Jesuit Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio. None of them have been seen since. In April Dutch Jesuit Frans van der Lugt was beaten and shot dead by unidentified gunmen at his monastery in Homs, where he had ministered to people in the old city who had endured a siege for almost three years.

Although the Christian minority, who comprise 10 per cent of the country’s population, have largely tried to stay neutral in the conflict, they have increasingly come to be seen as favouring Bashar al-Assad’s regime, especially as Sunni militant groups such as ISIS have come to dominate the opposition. Although affiliated with al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front is seen to be marginally less extreme than ISIS, and has even criticised the latter for beheading western hostages. This week ISIS has been engaging in fighting with Kurdish forces in northern Syria along the border with Turkey.