Iran chides criticism of Syria elections plan

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The Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, meeting with UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, criticized international objections to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad running in new elections, and suggested that the UN role in Syria is less than neutral.

Ali Shamkhani, in a two-hour meeting with Brahimi in Tehran Sunday, “expressed strong worry” that the UN was being influenced by the “will of certain countries that are opposed to the restoration of stability in Syria,” the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. “The SNSC secretary said he was surprised that some countries are worried lest democracy would prevail and the peopleˈs choice would be respected in Syria.”

Brahimi, speaking to reporters at the UN last week, warned if Assad ran in new elections, the Syrian opposition would likely refuse to return to reconciliation talks.

But Syria–and its Iranian patron–seen intent on pressing ahead. “Syria plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab who served as Minister of Defense in the Khatami administration, was expected to play a key role in Iran’s handling of the Syria crisis, Ali Hashem reported at Al-Monitor in September.

Brahimi, on a two-day visit to Iran, also met with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Afffairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Monday.

“Illusions have cost 150k lives in Syria,” Zarif wrote on Twitter Monday after meeting Brahimi, before he traveled to Vienna for talks with the P5+1. “Reality check=progress.”

Amir-Abdollahian, according to IRNA, said that Iran has proposed a four-point plan for resolving the Syrian crisis. “The details of the plan have not been publicly announced but we are following up on it through negotiations and diplomatic consultations,” IRNA cited Amir-Abdollahian, who published an article on the plan at Al-Monitor (March 5).

Separately, the State Department on Monday announced that Daniel Rubenstein will succeed Robert Ford as the US Special Envoy for Syria, as Al-Monitor previously reported.

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Former Obama officials propose talking with Iran on Syria aid

Amid deepening US-Russia strains over Ukraine, two former Obama administration officials say it may be time for the US to explore trying to develop a channel with Iran to discuss Syria, beginning with humanitarian relief.

While Iran, like Russia, doesn’t want to see Bashar al-Assad forced out, “its broader attitude toward the United States is cautiously warming,” and its leverage on Assad is far greater than Russia’s, Jonathan Stevenson, a former Obama National Security Council official, wrote in the New York Times this week (March 12, 2014). “This puts America and Iran somewhat closer on Syria than they may appear.”

“My bottom line sense with the Iranians is there’s hope for a US-Iran conversation [on Syria humanitarian aid] that is a serious and potentially productive one,” Frederic Hof, a former senior US diplomat advising the Obama administration on Syria and the Levant, told Al-Monitor.in an interview last week.

In track 2 conversations with Iranians that Hof has been involved in, “the people I talk to are blunt:  they are not interested in talking about a [Syria] political transition,” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “They need Assad and regime support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s first line of defense against Israel and the possibility of an Israeli air assault on their nuclear facilities.”

“Humanitarian aid is where to start—establishing localized ceasefires, facilitating aid access,” Stevenson, a former director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Friday. Focusing on humanitarian issues initially makes sense, he said, especially given reluctance by both sides to hold “major political discussions,” and with both the US and Iran focused in the near term on the imperative of trying to reach a nuclear deal.

When Secretary of State John Kerry raised Syria at a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month, Zarif told Kerry that he was not authorized to discuss Syria, the State Department said. That may not be a feint, some Iran analysts suggest.  While Iran’s Supreme Leader has authorized Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif to try to negotiate a nuclear deal, “I think it’s been clear from day one that Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran research at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview last month. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness. .. The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”

That may be the case, Stevenson acknowledged. “The point, though, is to tease out just how resistant they are to putting Syria on the table,” said Stevenson, who left the NSC last May and is now a professor of strategy studies at the Naval War College. “That is why it doesn’t make sense to try to do this through Geneva.”

Stevenson recommended that the US and Iran “keep strictly separate tracks”  between the nuclear talks and any prospective Syria discussions. “It should be made clear by our side, and reciprocated, that there can’t be any linkage,” he said. “For optics, you would want to keep the nuclear track the top priority, and to designate for the Syria conversation a senior State Department official not involved in the nuclear talks.”

“On Syria, the challenge on our side is always bureaucratic stove-piping,” Hof agreed. Those “in charge of the US role in the P5+1 will absolutely oppose any kind of cross -pollination or discussion about Syria. So it takes a decision almost at the highest level,” at the Kerry-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns level, to try to pursue a Syria channel with Iran.

One official who might make sense to tap for such exploratory US Iran talks on Syria, a former official suggested, would be Puneet Talwar, who until recently served as the Obama NSC Senior Director for Gulf affairs, and who has been involved in US-Iran back channel talks to establish a bilateral diplomatic channel to advance a nuclear deal. Talwar was confirmed on Thursday as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, and is no longer expected to be part of the US team involved in the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations.

Other possible officials to consider include Salman Ahmed, a counselor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice involved in the recent Syria talks in Geneva, who previously advised Rice at the UN, and before that served as a senior official in the UN Department of Political Affairs; or Rob Malley, Talwar’s successor as the NSC Senior Director for Gulf Affairs, who previously served in the Clinton White House and as Middle East director for the International Crisis Group; or Daniel Rubenstein, the former US Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan who will be tapped to succeed Robert Ford as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor reported..

Hof said he raised with Iranian interlocutors in track 2 talks the prospect of a scenario in which a “Srebrenica-style moment” occurred in Syria, as the Iran and the P5+1 were advancing a nuclear deal. A scenario in which “your client does something so outrageous, that it inspires POTUS to do what he declined to do in August or September,” Hof said. “To the extent you guys are serious on the nuclear front, what does that do to that progress?” Hof asked his Iranian interlocutors. “And they looked at one another and shrugged, because their attitude is, Assad is not the most reliable guy in the world.”

Iranians in the track 2 discussions have also expressed some problems with the UN role in Syria, Hof said, suggesting that any US-Iran channel on Syria not be through UN auspices.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, writing at Al-Monitor March 5, 2014, proposed a four-part plan for resolving the Syria crisis. In it, Amir-Abdollahian wrote that the “the provision of immediate humanitarian aid is a religious and humanitarian duty,” and that the “UN’s neutral role is significant,” perhaps hinting that Iran found the UN’s role on Syria to be less than neutral.

Amir-Abdollahian, a former Iranian ambassador to Bahrain, was among the Iranian officials who in 2007 met with US diplomats in Iraq. The trilateral US-Iran-Iraq talks on Iraq were led on the US side by then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who found them unproductive. Was Amir-Abdollahian’s piece this month a signal of Iran interest in discussing Syria?

“Reinforcing the political track and facilitating comprehensive talks is the most appropriate method to achieve a political solution,” Amir-Abdollahian wrote. “Alongside national talks inside Syria, boosting genuine talks at both the regional and the international level is very important.”

(Photo of then US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker meeting with Iranian and Iraqi officials in Iraq in 2007 posted by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s official website March 14, 2013.)

UN Syria envoy Brahimi said to consider resigning


UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the Russians last week and threatened to resign if they did not get the Syrian regime to seriously negotiate.

Russian diplomats in the meeting said they would like to have another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, a western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Brahimi responded, what’s the point, if the Syrian regime delegation is only going to insult the opposition delegation, as it did at the last two rounds of talks, the western official, speaking not for attribution, said. The Russians said they did not have as much influence over the Syrian regime as some observers think, and Brahimi said that he thought they did have some, and that they should use it, the official described.

“I would not hold my breath for Geneva,” the western official said, referring to another round of Syria peace talks anytime soon.

The deadlocked Syria diplomatic process comes amid a deepening rift between its chief cosponsors, the US and Russia, over Russia’s de facto occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Brahimi met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday. But Brahimi did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and the State Department said it did not yet have information on what was said. Update: Kerry and Brahimi discussed the status of the Geneva talks at their meeting Wednesday, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Thursday. “The talks are still on recess,” the official said. “We look forward to JSR Brahimi’s briefing to the Security Council in closed consultations on March 13.”

Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and they were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters after his day of meetings in Paris.

“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe..any of us are served by greater or further confrontation.  And also, we met today to discuss these issues because we cannot and will not allow the integrity of the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and for those violations to go unanswered.”

If Brahimi quits as the UN/Arab League special envoy, a possible candidate to succeed him is former Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Sabah, Gulf News reported Wednesday.

Brahimi is already the second joint UN/Arab League special Syria envoy to consider resigning. His predecessor Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, quit in frustration in the summer of 2012, shortly after the first round of Geneva talks was held.

“Yes, he has threatened to resign, but that isn’t new,” a U.S. official told Al-Monitor Wednesday of Brahimi. “But I suspect he will persist.”

“I don’t want to speak to what his intentions may or may not be,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department Wednesday about whether Brahimi is resigning.  “Obviously, we have confidence in him and he has done a great job convening the beginning of the Geneva process.  There are many paths and many routes that we are pursuing at the same time as it relates to diplomacy in Syria.”

Separately, the United States informed Syria’s mission to the United Nations last month that Syrian diplomats posted there will be confined to within 25 miles of New York, the State Department said Wednesday. A U.S. official said the decision to restrict Syrian diplomats’ movement to the New York area had been in the works for several months, and was not related to the breakdown in talks in recent weeks.

Meantime, Brahimi’s deputy in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, resigned on Monday, Al-Arabiya reported.

US Syria envoy Robert Ford also retired last week after serving thirty years as a US diplomat, the State Department announced last Friday (February 28). Daniel Rubenstein, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan and US Consul General in Jerusalem will be tapped to succeed him as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor previously reported.

“I am very, very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi told journalists in Geneva last month after the second round of Syria peace talks concluded with no future meeting set, as the Syrian regime side refused to discuss a political transition. The Syrian peoples’ “hopes .. were very, very high here, that something will happen here.”

(Photo of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in January by Reuters.)

Syria envoy Robert Ford retires, Rubenstein to be named successor

US Syria envoy Robert Ford retired on Friday after 30 years distinguished service, the State Department announced Friday.

Ford’s “extraordinary leadership has guided our response to one of the most formidable foreign policy challenges in the region,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists Friday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Lawrence Silverman will temporarily serve as his replacement until a permanent successor is named, Psaki said.

US officials tell Al-Monitor that US diplomat Daniel Rubenstein will be named as Ford’s permanent successor working with the Syrian opposition. Rubenstein, described by colleagues as an “outstanding Arabist,” currently serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Intelligence and Research bureau (INR).

Rubenstein previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Jordan (2005-2008), as the US Consul General  in Jerusalem (2009-2012), and as chief of the Civilian Observer Unit in the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, Egypt. Rubenstein, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and Portuguese, also served in earlier postings in Damascus, Tunis, Tel Aviv, and Brasilia. He couldn’t immediately be reached Saturday for comment.

US, Russia consult on stalled Syria aid


Amid halting progress at Syrian peace talks in Geneva, the United States and Russia held several levels of consultations on Wednesday to try to advance stalled Syria humanitarian relief efforts.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday to push for progress in a UN plan to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged Syrian city of Homs, the State Department said. The UN plan, presented by Russia to the Assad government last week, has still not received approval from the Assad government, US officials said.

“We expect there will be many paths, many parallel processes, as we all work to pursue an end to this conflict,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press conference Wednesday (January 29). “And that means yes, the regime and the opposition talking… That means engagement through the UN.  That means Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov continuing to engage. “

In the call with Lavrov, “Secretary Kerry pressed for Russia’s help in providing humanitarian assistance and making progress on that,” Psaki said.  “There are 12 trucks waiting outside of Homs with over a hundred tons of food.  These trucks are a hundred yards away from people that are in desperate need of assistance, and they must be granted permission by the regime into the old city of Homs.”

“He also talked about the importance of continuing to press the regime to move forward with the necessary steps on the chemical weapons process,” Psaki said.

US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, in Moscow to attend a meeting with G-8 political directors, met on Syria Wednesday with Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported.

The Voice of Russia cited a source on the Russian-US consultations in Moscow: “We have discussed in detail the current situation at the inter-Syrian talks and agreed that we need, first, to strengthen cooperation between ourselves and step up pressure on the negotiating parties to interact more actively in searching for a compromise.”

The US Syria diplomatic team in Geneva, led by US Syria envoy Robert Ford and including National Security Council counselor Salman Ahmed, also met with Russian counterparts in Geneva on Wednesday, as it has done several times during the Geneva talks, the official said.

Talks between the two Syrian parties are expected to continue until Friday and then resume after a week or so, UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahim said Wednesday.

“I do not expect that we will achieve anything substantial” by the end of week, Brahimi told a press conference in Geneva Wednesday. The “ice is breaking slowly, but it is breaking.”

US sources on Wednesday denied Arabic media reports that the US was meeting with Russian and Iranian officials about Syria.  Iranian media reports on Wednesday also cited Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian denying an Arabic media report alleging a secret meeting between Iran and the Syrian sides in Bern, Switzerland.

(Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a joint press conference in Moscow. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA.)

Satterfield to temporarily helm US embassy Egypt

Veteran US diplomat David Satterfield will serve as temporary charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt following the departure of ambassador Anne Patterson to Washington in a couple days, US officials tell the Back Channel.

Satterfield, head of the Multinational Force & Observers mission in Egypt, has previously served as deputy chief of mission in Iraq, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, at the NSC, and was confirmed as ambassador to Jordan.

He will be temporarily in charge of the US embassy in Cairo until the nomination and confirmation of Syria envoy Robert Ford, diplomats said.

President Obama last month nominated Patterson to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs.

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Beyond US strikes, signs of intensifying UN diplomacy on Syria

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Even amid mounting signs the U.S. will soon conduct strikes in Syria, the White House made clear Tuesday that the purpose of the intervention would be limited and narrow, to uphold the universal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. There were also signs of intensifying UN diplomacy behind the scenes to make way for a Syria peace conference in Geneva this fall.

“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at a White House press conference Tuesday. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.”

While “it is our firm conviction that Syria’s future cannot include Assad in power,” Carney continued, “this deliberation and the actions that we are contemplating are not about regime change.”

“We believe…that resolution of this conflict has to come through political negotiation and settlement,” Carney said.

Indeed, even as the U.S. advanced its public case for a limited air campaign in Syria, there were signs of intensifying United Nations preparations for a Geneva 2 Syria transition talks conference.

UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former top US diplomat, met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Monday on Syria, and reportedly urged Iran to be calm if there is US-led action on Syria.

“Mr. Feltman shared the U.N. position that Iran, given its influence and leadership in the region, has an important role to play and a responsibility in helping to bring the Syrian parties to the negotiating table,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Tuesday, Reuters reported.

Feltman, in his meetings in Iran, discussed “the worsening situation on the ground in Syria, including the U.N.'s grave concerns about the potential use of chemical weapons and how the U.N. can work together with Iran and other states to end the bloodshed and suffering of the Syrian people,” Haq said.

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, meantime, is scheduled to give a news conference from Geneva on Wednesday. (Brahimi has reportedly reportedly moved his base to Geneva to prepare for the conference.)

Following Feltman's visit, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, notably, issued a strong call for the international community to uphold the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

“Iran gives notice to international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in Syria,” Rouhani wrote on his official Twitter account Tuesday, after noting, twice, that it is his only official English language Twitter feed, and that Iran has itself been the victim of chemical weapons attack, by Iraq in the 1980s.

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Appointments: Econ, Syria, NEA

Who will oversee US Syria diplomacy, if Robert Ford, as we first reported, is tapped to succeed Anne Patterson as US Ambassador to Cairo?

US officials told us, as far as they know, the decision on that has not yet been finalized. Ford, in any case, “will do Syria for a few more months,” as he prepares to go to Egypt, one official, speaking not for attribution, said Tuesday.

“I think serious thought should be given to moving the position out of the Department and to the field, along with 'team Syria' currently cloistered in NEA”–the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, one former senior U.S. official told us. “A difference can be made in Turkey and Jordan with the opposition and in interacting with partners. Hard to do anything useful in Washington from inside the NEA bureaucracy.”

Syria needs a US government point of contact, who can “manage the whole inter-agency Syria process,” another current official said. That, in addition to “a seasoned diplomat who speaks Arabic and knows the region and could engage the Syrians.”

Meantime, US officials told the Back Channel that former Clinton White House Middle East advisor Rob Malley has been offered the job of National Security Staff Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs, but as yet has not agreed to take it. (The Back Channel previously reported that the current NSS Senior Director for Iran/Iraq and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar may be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.)

One possibility is that Malley may instead become a senior advisor on Syria to Secretary of State John Kerry, working out of the front office, a US diplomatic source told the Back Channel. Malley did not respond to numerous queries. He is said to be very close with Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s deputy Middle East envoy.

Meantime, the Back Channel has learned of several other diplomatic appointments in the works:

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (NEA) Elizabeth Jones may move to become the deputy to US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) James Dobbins, after her successor Patterson is in place, officials, speaking not for attribution, said. Secretary of State John Kerry last week named deputy SRAP James Warlick, a former US ambassador to Bulgaria, the next US envoy to the OSCE Minsk Group.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for NEA Elizabeth Dibble will become Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London, US officials tell us. (She didn’t respond to a query.)

US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein is expected to become the next PDAS in the NEA bureau, officials said. Feierstein, who met with Yemen’s president in Sanaa on Tuesday, the State Department said, is expected to serve a few more months there before returning to Washington.

US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin is expected to be nominated Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, succeeding Robert Hormats, officials tell the Back Channel. “It’s a done deal,” one official said Tuesday, adding the nomination is expected to be announced the first week of September.

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Ambassador to Egypt

U.S. Syria Envoy Robert Ford is likely to be nominated the next U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, two senior U.S. officials tell the Back Channel.

A State Department official said Thursday he had no information to provide on that.

The Back Channel previously reported that current U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is expected to be nominated the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. The unrest in Egypt the past month following the ouster of Egypt's Mohamed Morsi may have slightly delayed the announcement, but it is expected to proceed, maybe even before August recess, the officials said.

The Back Channel first reported that Ford has asked to step down from the Syria job, saying he is exhausted.

Ford, one of the preeminent Arabists in the US foreign service, previously served as U.S. ambassador to Algeria, as deputy US ambassador in Iraq, and as deputy chief of mission in Bahrain. A fluent Arabic speaker, Ford has previously served in Cairo, on the Egypt economics desk in Washington, and in the Peace Corps.

He could not be reached for comment Thursday. It's not clear who will be tapped to serve as the top US diplomat on Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry has wanted Ford for Cairo, but Ford was previously said to be hesitant due to fatigue, one former official said, adding he assumes fatigue will have given way to Secretarial persuasion.

Update: President Obama late Thursday announced his nomination of Anne Patterson to be Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.

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Envoy: US 'appalled' by reported killing of priest in Syria

A top US diplomat has strongly condemned the reported killing by rebels of a Catholic priest at a monastery in Syria's northwestern Idlib province earlier this week.

“We are appalled by reports that extremist rebels killed Father François Mourad earlier this week when they looted a monastery in Idlib province,” US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said in a statement posted Saturday to the US Embassy in Syria’s Facebook page. “This unprovoked violence against civilians is completely unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

“We call on all Syrians to protect and respect the rights of all civilians, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion,” Ford’s statement said.  “No matter how depraved the Asad regime is, committing atrocities under the guise of fighting is unjustifiable.”

Father François Mourad died June 24th at the Franciscan monastery of St. Anthony of Padua, in Ghassanieh, Syria, “where he had sought refuge some time ago,” the Pro Terra Sancta website, affiliated with his Franciscan of the Holy Land order, wrote June 25th.

The circumstances of his death are still not very clear,” the website said. “According to one version a bullet entered the monastery and struck the priest, while other sources maintain that the homicide took place while the monastery was being looted by rebels.” Continue reading