A Franciscan priest serving in northern Syria has gone missing and is feared to have been kidnapped by Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front, his religious superiors and monitoring groups said Tuesday.
The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, with which he is affiliated, said it lost contact on Saturday with Father Dhiya Aziz, a parish priest at Yacoubieh, in the northwestern Idlib province.
"Some militants of an unknown armed brigade, perhaps connected with (Al-Nusra), came to take him away for a brief interview with the emir (leader) of the place.
"From that moment we do not have any more news and we are unable to trace his whereabouts at the present moment. We are doing everything possible to locate the place of his detention and secure his release."
The account was corroborated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group monitoring the war.
Director Rami Abdel Rahman said "the local Al Nusra 'emir,' an Egyptian, summoned Aziz for consultations, but he never returned home."
And the Assyrian Observatory for Human Rights, another monitoring group, said on Facebook that the 41-year-old priest was taken from the "convent of the Immaculate Conception, where he was living," in the majority-Christian village of Yacoubieh.
The village is in Idlib, most of which is under the control of Al Nusra and its allies since a large-scale operation earlier this year to expel the regime.
The Custody said Aziz was born at Mosul, Iraq, where he studied at the medical institute before joining the order.
After taking religious vows in 2002, he was sent to Egypt. In 2010 he was sent to Amman before transferring to Syria.
Christians made up some five percent of Syria's population before the war, but many have fled since the conflict began, particularly with the rise of jihadist groups.
Several Christian religious figures have been kidnapped in Syria. Among them are two senior Aleppo clerics – Archbishop Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The pair was kidnapped in April 2013, and Italian Jesuit Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, went missing three months later.
None have been heard from since.
Christians in both Syria and Iraq have been in the crosshairs of jihadist groups, particularly ISIS. Tens of thousands have been forced to leave their homes, threatening an already embattled ancient community with extinction.
In some areas of both countries, Christian militias have formed to fight back against the Islamists.