VATICAN CITY — Acknowledging "conflicting reports" about two Orthodox archbishops kidnapped in Syria, Pope Francis prayed for them and for an end to the war in their country.
Speaking at the end of his general audience April 24, the pope offered special prayers for Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna of Aleppo and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo, who were kidnapped April 22 in northern Syria while on a humanitarian mission.
Some news agencies reported April 23 that the two had been freed, but the patriarchates of the two archbishops' churches said later in the evening that they had no proof the archbishops had been released.
At his audience, Pope Francis said the kidnappings were "another sign of the tragic situation the dear Syrian nation is living through with violence and weapons continuing to sow death and suffering."
"While I keep the two bishops in my prayers so that they would return quickly to their communities, I ask God to enlighten hearts," he said.
Pope Francis said he wanted to renew the appeal he made on Easter that the bloodshed in Syria would end, that humanitarian aid would reach the Syrian people and that a political solution to the crisis would be found.
The Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox patriarchates of Antioch, the churches to which the two archbishops belong, said in a statement that the bishops were on a humanitarian mission, a mission of "love that is the foundation and principle" of the way Christians have participated in Syrian life for centuries.
Syrian Christians "suffer with every person who suffers," they said. "The Christians of the Middle East are deeply pained by all the violence their countries face, violence that creates division" among peoples.
They appealed to all Syrians -- including Sunni, Shiite and Alawite Muslims -- to work together "to demonstrate that we refuse to consider the human person a product to be bought or sold, a useful shield during war or a piece of political or financial merchandise."
While the patriarchates acknowledged how the kidnapping of the archbishops could add to Christians' fears about remaining in Syria, they pleaded with their people to be patient and to stay to build a nation of peace and coexistence.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, had said April 23 that Pope Francis was informed of the kidnapping of the Orthodox leaders and was praying for their safety and freedom.
The kidnapping of the two archbishops and the reported killing of their driver was "a dramatic confirmation of the tragic situation in which the Syrian population and its Christian communities are living," Father Lombardi said in the statement.
He said the pope was following the situation and that the kidnapping of the bishops was a further sign of the "growing violence in the past few days" and the "humanitarian emergency of vast proportions" afflicting all Syrians.
Pope Francis, he said, was praying that "with the commitment of all, the Syrian people can finally see an effective response to the humanitarian drama and see the dawn of real hopes for peace and reconciliation."
In an interview with Vatican Radio April 23, Franciscan Father Georges Abou Khazen, administrator of the Latin-rite vicariate of Aleppo, confirmed that the two Orthodox archbishops had been on a mission to secure the release of two priests -- an Armenian Catholic and a Greek Orthodox -- kidnapped in February.
"Their kidnappers had promised to turn them over to them," he said. Asked if that meant the archbishops were in contact with the kidnappers, Father Khazen said such arrangements are always done through the Red Cross or Red Crescent.
"You never know" who the kidnappers were, he said.
The Franciscan said no one knew where the archbishops were or who was holding them. "Some say it is a group of Chechen jihadists, but the one thing that is certain is that the Syriac Orthodox bishop's driver, who was with them, was shot to death. His body has been given to us and tomorrow at 11 local time we will celebrate his funeral."
According to the United Nations April 22, more than 70,000 people -- mostly civilians -- have been killed and more than 4.2 million Syrians have been displaced inside the country since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. In addition, some 1.3 million people have taken refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.