The organization of Franciscan missionaries serving in the Holy Land announced that Father Dhiya Aziz, who had been kidnapped early last week in Syria, was liberated. “The Custody of the Holy Land thanks those around the world who prayed for a successful outcome to this trial that Fr. Dhiya endured, as well as the faithful of Yacoubieh, of which he is the pastor, his religious family and his family in Iraq,” the group announced July 9. “The Custody does not forget that other religious are still missing in Syria and it invites everyone to continue praying for peace in this country.” The group had lost contact with Fr. Aziz on July 4. He is a Franciscan priest of the organization, and was parish priest at Yacubiyeh, a village in Syria's Idlib province, more than 56 miles northeast of Latakia. He had been taken by unknown militants, who were suspected to be from al-Nusra Front, which has a strong presence in Idlib province. However, “this group has denied any involvement in his kidnapping and allegedly led the police investigation in neighboring villages which led to his liberation,” the Custody of the Holy Land stated. “Fr. Dhiya was allegedly abducted by another group (of) jihadists eager to profit on his release,” they added, noting that there are large number of rebel groups operating in the area. The Custody also stated that Fr. Aziz “was allegedly treated well during his kidnapping.” Fr. Aziz was born in Mosul, Iraq, in 1974. He studied medicine, and then entered religious life, making a first profession of vows in 2002. The following year he was transferred to Egypt, and in 2010 to Jordan. Fr. Aziz was later moved to Latakia, and he then volunteered to come to Yacubiyeh, a predominantly Christian village. Fr. Aziz' kidnapping was the latest in a series of attacks on Christian religious since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. In 2013, militants kidnapped a group of Greek Orthodox nuns, Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, S.J., and the Greek and Syriac Orthodox bishops of Aleppo. The nuns were eventually returned to their convent unharmed, but Fr. Dall’Oglio and the bishops remain missing. In 2014, Dutch priest Fr. Frans van der Lugt, S.J., was murdered in Homs. The priest served in Syria for more than four decades. He was involved in interreligious dialogue and had built as spirituality center that housed children with mental disabilities. The same year, another Franciscan priest, Fr. Hanna Jallouf, was kidnapped together with as many as 20 people from his parish in Qunaya, a neighboring village of Yacubiyeh — the two are less than a mile apart. In February, the Islamic State kidnapped at least ninety Christians from villages in northeast Syria. And in May, Fr. Jacques Mourad was kidnapped at gunpoint from a monastery southeast of Homs. The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 with demonstrations against the nation's president, Bashar al-Assad. The war has claimed the lives of more than 230,000 people, and forced 4 million to become refugees. Another 8 million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced by the violence.
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