BEIRUT -- Father Fadi Haddad was the pastor of a Roman Orthodox Church in Qatana, a suburb of the Syrian capital. He stayed out of politics, but would chant for freedom alongside mourners at funerals. Whenever a Muslim neighbor lost a loved one to the violence that has ravaged Syria for more than a year and half, Father Haddad showed up to give his condolences. And this weekend, it is the Muslims, the Christians and the Druze of Qatana who are paying their respects to the slain Father. He, too, may have become a victim of the civil war.

“We’ve had so many losses in our community,” said a Qatana-based activist, a Sunni man who goes by the nom de guerre Al Khal. “But now we’ve lost a prominent member, a leader. Someone who touched many lives.”

One could say that Father Haddad, who had turned 43 last month, was killed in the line of duty. But he was not murdered while delivering a sermon, or performing a baptism. He was killed while doing something than not many priests would find themselves doing outside of the bizarre, violent world that is Syria under a civil war. He was delivering a ransom.  

Father Haddad was accompanying an elderly member of his flock, Jihad Mreish, on a special mission. It was October 18, and they were to deliver a ransom equivalent to $20,000. Kidnappers had said they had in custody Mreish’s son-in-law, Dr Shadi Khoury, an eye doctor, who had disappeared about a month ago. People who knew Father Haddad said he hoped his presence at the ransom exchange would ensure the safe return of Dr Khoury, and Mreish, to their anxious family.

But the captors had something else in mind.

They kidnapped both Father Haddad and Mreish. In the early morning hours on Thursday, October 25,Thursday, the body of Father Haddad was found. It had been dumped in Drousha, a farm village about a 15-minute drive from the priest’s home and church in Qatana.

“There were no burns on him, so the body was easy to identify,” said Al Khal. “It’s a small community, so someone at the morgue or among those who first found him must have recognized him right away, and called the church.” By late afternoon, Father Haddad’s body had been  prepared for burial, and a funeral procession delivered his remains to his final resting place at the local Christian cemetery.

The story of Father Haddad highlights what has sadly become a common occurrence in Syria. According to Avaaz, an international human rights group that has been  investigating the situation in the country, between 28,000 and 80,000 Syrians have been forcibly "disappeared" by the Assad regime over the past nine months alone.

Just Like Argentina

Avaaz said the sense of terror that the Syrian regime has instilled in its people today is comparable to the chilling period of junta rule in Argentina in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when approximately
30,000 people disappeared.

According to the report, people can disappear from anywhere, at check points or on their way to buy groceries, in broad daylight or in the middle of the night. They are not always political dissidents. Sometimes they are ordinary civilians, and they are never heard from again.

To complicate matters, kidnappings for ransom have also become a phenomenon in Syria over the past year. Sometimes the loved ones are released when a ransom is paid, and sometimes they are not. In the absence of a functioning state, it is difficult to know exactly what happened to a disappeared person, and families often give up trying, for fear of reprisal.

In the high-profile case of Father Haddad, the Syrian government has already issued a statement blaming what it called armed terrorists and  Islamists for the crime. But many Qatana residents say the facts on the ground put the responsibility of murdering Father Haddad mainly on  government thugs.

Qatana is a small farming suburb west of Damascus. It is home to about 20,000 people, including the small Christian community that Father Haddad oversaw. The suburb has long been fortified, given its sensitive location. In the 1960s, it was considered a first line of defense for the Syrian capital in case of an Israeli attack.

Surrounding the town today are apartment complexes that house some 200,000 government security personnel and their families. They include army and intelligence officers as well as regime thugs who have come to be known as Shabbiha. On a recent trip to Damascus, Shabbiha could be seen everywhere. They strut around in civilian clothing, sometimes with steroid-pumped biceps and visible tattoos of Syria’s president Bashar al Assad. They carry concealed weapons, like a handgun in the back of their jeans visible only when they move, or they openly walk around with a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulder.

The Shabbiha Rule The Streets

There is an air of impunity about them. On at least one occasion in central Damascus, a handful of Shabbiha leaned against a wall, staring at random pedestrians. One of the Shabbiha was playing with the security latch on his machine gun, repeatedly causing an eerie, metallic click sound audible to anyone who passed him.

According to Al Khal, Qatana has an even more intense presence of these Shabbiha. He says the town is home to one of the largest Shabbiha centers in Syria. “Even teenage sons of Shabbiha strut around with guns here,” he said. “They and their families outnumber us 9 to 1.”

In recent months, at least 25 checkpoints have appeared throughout Qatana, which on a good day can be driven from one end to the other in about ten minutes. He said two check points guard his small street alone. “So it’s very difficult for anyone to move around in Qatana without being noticed,” he said, adding that he himself does not dare to leave his home because he believes he will get arrested for his political activism. And that's why he thinks it's government thugs who killed Father Haddad: “We’re certain the culprits are gangs within the Shabbiha, because they’re the only ones who can move around easily and freely.”

When Father Haddad and Mreish went to deliver the ransom, they were under instructions by the kidnappers to show up at a meeting point close to Shabbiha housing, according to Al Khal. It was there that they both disappeared.
The Syrian regime has always dismissed claims of a legitimate uprising, and continues to deny that it deliberately kills civilians. Damascus says it is fighting so called armed terrorists and Islamists.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 30,000 people have been killed in Syria over the past 19 months. More than two out of three of them were civilians, including women and children, according to the organization’s report.

One Voice

George Sabra is a member of the Syrian National Council, a mainly exiled group of political dissidents calling for regime change in Syria. He is also Christian, hails from Qatana, and knew Father Haddad personally. In a recent interview on Al Jazeera Arabic, Sabra looked visibly shaken at the news of Father Haddad’s murder. Though he
did not explicitly accuse the Syrian government of the murder, he dispelled the notion that it may have been religiously motivated.

“The hands of Muslims raise him higher even than the Christians,” he said, referring to Father Haddad. “He was a true patriot, and they (the Muslims) knew him as a hero.”

Minorities in Syria, a Muslim-majority country, have shown reluctance at fully embracing the uprising, an issue that has sometimes created tension with the revolting Sunni majority. An overwhelming fear that a post-Assad Syria might turn Islamist continues to give pause to many people among the country’s religious minorities. But many among the opposition accuse the Assad regime of cynically cultivating this fear. “The regime wants to create sectarian tensions so as to tarnish the face of the revolution,” said Sabra, echoing a common sentiment among dissidents.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Qatana, at Father Haddad’s funeral procession, only one call could be heard, as hundreds of people chanted:

Oh Syria, shudder your homes
The martyr is in the coffin
Oh Syria, shake your homes
The priest is in the coffin.