Syrian opposition urges release of Catholic priest

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's main opposition coalition on Saturday urged the release of a Catholic priest who disappeared earlier this week while visiting a rebel-held city in the country's northeast.

Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest, went missing on Monday in the city of Raqqa.

Raqqa in February became the first city to fall entirely under opposition control. Since then, there have been tensions between hard-line militants linked to al-Qaida and more moderate rebel groups over how to administer the city.

Both rebels and pro-regime forces have abducted political foes, members of rival sects and wealthy families around Syria and others, including foreign journalists, to settle scores or for ransom.

The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said it was "deeply concerned" over the disappearance of the priest.

"We urge all parties involved in the disappearance of Father Paolo to immediately come forward and release him," the coalition said in a statement.

It described the priest as a "wise man of peace and compassion" who engaged in interfaith dialogue with Muslims and forged close ties with people all over Syria.

Dall'Oglio is a critic of the regime of President Bashar Assad, which the rebels are fighting to overthrow. The government expelled him last year from Syria, where he had lived for 30 years.

Activists said Dall'Oglio went to Raqqa to meet with al-Qaida-linked militants.

Dall'Oglio is the third Christian cleric believed to have been kidnapped in northern Syria this year.

In April, two Orthodox bishops were abducted. They have not been heard of since.

Gunmen pulled Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Assyrian Orthodox Church from their car and killed their driver on April 22 as the group was traveling near the northern city of Aleppo. It was not clear who abducted the priests. No group has publically claimed it is holding the clerics.