Center for Strategic Communication

Warning: The video below includes extremely graphic content. Three men, including a Catholic priest, are beheaded, and their heads are then displayed atop their corpses.

Jihadists in Syria kidnapped a Catholic priest in the Idlib area and beheaded him as scores of onlookers, including children, cheered and recorded the event on their cell phones. The Vatican reported last week that the priest was captured by fighters “linked” to the Al Nusrah Front for the People in the Levant, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

The Vatican confirmed that Father François Murad was killed on June 23 after jihadists affiliated with the Al Nusrah Front overran his monastery in Gassanieh, a town in the countryside in the northern province of Idlib.

“According to local sources, the monastery where Fr. Murad was staying was attacked by militants linked to the jihadi group Jabhat al Nusrah [the Al Nusrah Front],” said the Fides News Agency, the Vatican’s official media outlet.

Video that purported to show Father Murad’s execution has emerged on the LiveLeak video sharing website.

In the video, Father Murad and two other men are seen kneeling on the ground with their hands bound behind their backs. A crowd of armed men as well as young boys watch as a bearded jihadist makes a speech.

The crowd then begins to chant “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest”), and another bearded jihadist dressed in black takes out a knife and begins to behead one of the men. People in the crowd press close and scramble to take video.

The same jihadist proceeds to behead the other two men. The heads of the murdered men are then placed on top of their corpses.

The jihadists claimed that two of the slain men were linked to Syria’s military establishment, according to Steven Miller, a research analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Miller said that the jihadist who made the opening speech is speaking in “broken Arabic.”

“I would guess that the man handing out the sentence is a foreign jihadi, though I can’t tell from where,” Miller said.

The man making the speech claimed that at least one of the men “had the phone numbers of Syrian military officers in Aleppo stored on his cellphone,” Miller told The Long War Journal. “In addition, the foreign jihadist alleged that some of the men were stopped with weapons and ammunition issued by the Syrian military.”

The Al Nusrah Front, the Islamic State in Iraq, and the Muhajireen Army are all known to have numerous foreigners in both leadership positions and in the rank and file. Idlib is considered to be a stronghold of the Al Nusrah Front.

Kidnapped archbishops still missing

Christians in Syria have increasingly been targeted by Islamists, who believe Christians are colluding with government forces in the Syrian civil war. On June 28, a suicide bomber detonated his vest outside a church in a Christian neighborhood in Damascus, killing four people. It is unclear if the bomber was targeting the church or a nearby pro-government militia.

On April 22, two senior Christian leaders in the region, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop John Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yagizi, were kidnapped near the Turkish border, and their driver was killed. They were on their way to Aleppo to arrange the release of two kidnapped priests, Fathers Michael Kayyal and Maher Mahfouz, who had been abducted on Feb. 9, the Catholic News Agency reported.

It appears likely that the two senior clerics are being held by al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Al Nusrah Front. According to an April 24 report in the Christian Science Monitor, Bishop Tony Yazigi, a relative of kidnapped Bishop Boulos Yazigi, said the kidnappers were believed to be Chechen fighters from the Al Nusrah Front.

On May 8, Acting Syrian National Council President George Sabra told Lebanese officials and Syriac clerics that the archbishops were being held by a “small group” of rebels in the town of Bshaqtin outside Aleppo and were in good health, according to the Daily Star. A Lebanese Syriac Orthodox bishop said at the time: “I don’t know whether the Christians would leave the region because of this or stay and react to this kidnapping in a way that we do not want.”

In early June, Pope Francis commented on the case, asking for the release of the captives and for prayers for the two men and for all victims of the Syrian conflict.

According to a recent report on the website of Sat-7, a Christian news outlet for the Middle East and North Africa: “An officer in the Free Syrian Army suggested that the leader of Al-Nusra Front who resides in Al-Mashhad village, known as Abu Al-Banat, is the one behind the kidnapping of the Aleppo archbishops, noting that they were held hostage at Al-Mashhad village, and one of them might have been murdered.”