(Photo: Reuters/Nour Fourat)
A well-known Italian Jesuit priest, who has previously voiced his support for the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, went missing in Syria earlier this week, causing activists in the region to suspect he has been kidnapped by rebel forces.
The Reverend Paolo Dall'Oglio, 58, was reportedly walking the streets of Raqqa, a Islamist rebel-controlled city in northern Syria, on Monday when he disappeared. Activists told Reuters that the Jesuit priest had been kidnapped by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a militant Islamist group that has been linked to al-Qaeda.
Abdelrazzaq Shla, an opposition activist in Razza, said that the Islamic State had been angered by recent comments Dall'Oglio made regarding the harassment of Kurdish residents living on the border of Turkey, in a city called Tel al-Abiab. Dall'Oglio has long advocated the importance of peace between minority Kurds and majority Arab Sunnis. A civil war is currently ongoing in the country between those loyal to the al-Assad regime and those attempting to oust it.
"Father Paolo was received in Raqqa with open arms but the Islamic State appears not to have taken well to his position regarding Tel al-Abiad," Shlas said.
The reports of Dall'Oglio's kidnapping have yet to be confirmed, however, and the Vatican's nuncio to Syria, Archbishop Mario Zenari, cautioned activists on making assumptions.
"Here in Syria news has often been reported that has later been proven false or inaccurate," the Archbishop said on Vatican radio.
A source close to Dall'Oglio told the Religion News Service that it is possible the priest purposely went off the grid in Raqqa to help mediate the release of two hostages being held by Islamic rebels. The source pointed to an email received July 26 in which Dall'Oglio said he was traveling into the country to participate in "difficult mediation."
With the priest's whereabouts unknown, many, including writer Stephanie Saldana and Pope Francis, are voicing their concern and hope for his safe return.
Saldana, a writer living in Jerusalem and the author of The Bread of Angels, wrote in a recent Op-Ed for The Wall Street Journal that she believes Dall'Oglio dedicated his life in Syria to unifying all the different religious minorities in the country, including Muslims and Christians.
"Father Paolo's dream-one that he might have given his life for-is that our circle of belonging might expand to include not only Christians and Muslims but everyone, until there is no one left standing outside it," Saldana wrote for the WSJ.
Pope Francis also made a reference to Rev. Dall'Oglio while celebrating a mass for St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, on Wednesday, saying that he is remembering all the Jesuit priests who have given their lives for their faith.
"I'm thinking of Padre Paolo," Pope Francis said.
Dall'Oglio has been a peace activist and outspoken critic of President al-Assad in Syria for the past three decades, although he had been exiled from the country in 2012 for allegedly meeting with members of the opposition.
The priest has made a name for himself as a peacemaker among the many minorities in the country, including Christians, Muslims, and Kurds. Prior to his exile last year, he worked at a 6th Century monastery in the Syrian desert north of Damascus. After his exile, he was living in Turkey.