Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Syria have reportedly seized a priest and 20 other Christians as persecution of believers and abductions by militants in the war-torn country continues to rise, the Franciscan Order said on Tuesday.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Senior Franciscan official Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land revealed that 62 year old parish priest Father Hanna Jallouf was seized on Sunday night along with 20 others in Qunyeh, a village of several hundred people located in northwestern Syria.
His abductors, the Father Pizzaballa added, were "linked" to Al-Qaeda affiliate the Al-Nusra Front, and added that following the incident an unspecified number of Franciscan nuns took refuge with the villagers.
"He has been kidnapped," he told AFP in Jerusalem, expressing deep concern over the fate of the priest, a Syrian who has worked in Qunyeh for 12 years after a posting in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
"They are falsely accusing them of being collaborators" with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Pizzaballa 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," added Pizzaballa, the guardian of the Catholic Church's sites in the Holy Land.
"Among those kidnapped there are young people, both boys and girls."
This is the latest of multiple abductions carried out by extremists in Syria. Terrorist groups such as Al-Nusra and the Islamic State group have held journalists, aid workers and soldiers, as well as civilians and rival opposition fighters, reports Yahoo News.
According to a source linked to the Franciscan Order in Aleppo, Al-Nusra rebels forced their way into the convent and "looted everything," angry at Father Hanna "because he refused to give them some of the olives harvested from trees on the convent's land".
A local Syrian activist told the Associated Press that Al-Nusra had been trying to take charge of part of the Franciscan properties in Qunyeh, prompting Father Hanna to complain to a religious court late last week.
Al-Nusra rebels, who fight alongside other rebels battling Assad's regime, had seized control of many different Christian and Muslim villages in the area in Syria's three-and-a-half-year civil war, he said.
The Franciscans, a religious order within the Catholic Church, have 19 people working across Syria, where the order has operated for 800 years, and have been working in Qunyeh for 125 years.