Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Syria have seized a priest and 20 other Christians in the latest abduction by militants in the war-torn country, the Franciscan Order said on Tuesday.
A statement from the order's Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem said that parish priest Father Hanna Jallouf was seized on Sunday night in the village of Qunyeh, northwestern Syria.
It said that his abductors were "linked" to Al-Qaeda affiliate the Al-Nusra Front, and added that following the incident an unspecified number of Franciscan nuns took refuge with the villagers.
Qunyeh is a village of several hundred people, some eight kilometres (five miles) from the border with Turkey.
Senior Franciscan official Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land, said the 62-year-old priest was seized along with 20 villagers.
"He has been kidnapped," he told AFP in Jerusalem, expressing deep concern over the fate of the priest, a Syrian who has worked in Qunyeh for 12 years after a posting in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
"They are accusing them of being collaborators" with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Pizzaballa said, insisting that this was not true.
"We don't know what to do. We don't know with whom to talk, we're totally unable to get in touch with anyone," added Pizzaballa, the guardian of the Catholic Church's sites in the Holy Land.
- Kidnapping rife in Syria -
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Kidnapping is rife in Syria, with all sides accused of abducting people. Civilians have often been targeted for ransoms, while extremist groups such as Al-Nusra and the Islamic State group have held journalists, aid workers and soldiers, as well as civilians and rival opposition fighters.
In August, rebels on the Syrian Golan Heights, including Al-Nusra, kidnapped more than 40 Fijian UN peacekeepers. They were released two weeks later.
They also clashed with 75 Filipino members of the UN force, who eventually fled to a nearby outpost.
According to a source linked to the Franciscan Order in Aleppo, Al-Nusra rebels forced their way into the convent and "looted everything".
He said the rebels were "angry with Father Hanna because he refused to give them some of the olives harvested from trees on the convent's land".
Pizzaballa could not confirm reports that the convent had been plundered, saying only that the claim was being looked into.
Contacted online by AFP, a local Syrian activist said Al-Nusra had been trying to take charge of part of the Franciscan properties in Qunyeh, prompting Father Hanna to complain to a religious court late last week.
Al-Nusra rebels had seized control of many different Christian and Muslim villages in the area in Syria's three-and-a-half-year civil war, he said.
The Franciscans, a religious order within the Catholic Church, have 19 people working across Syria, where the order has operated for 800 years. They have been working in Qunyeh for 125 years, he said.
The Custody of the Holy Land is made up of 285 members of the Franciscan Order from 39 countries.
Al-Nusra, which fights alongside other rebels battling Assad's regime, is the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda.