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Activist priest feared dead in Syria

BEIRUT — An Italian Jesuit priest who spent decades promoting religious dialogue in Syria and championed the uprising against President Bashar Assad embarked recently on a new mission: persuading an extremist Islamic group to release its prisoners and halt the battles that had spread violence across the country’s northeast.

That was a few weeks ago. He has not been heard from since, and unconfirmed reports that he has been killed have become common.

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The disappearance of the Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio has worried Catholic leaders all the way up to Pope Francis, who has called for his release and offered prayers for his well-being. It has also struck many in the Syrian opposition as a dark symbol of where the uprising against Assad stands and how far some of its principal actors have deviated from the movement’s original aims.

“He kept saying to the people in the revolution that we can’t lose our goal of building a free, democratic Syria,” said Fawaz Tello, an opposition activist based in Germany who knows Dall’Oglio. But Tello said the priest had gone too far by seeking a cease-fire between Kurdish militias and a group linked to Al Qaeda.

Dall’Oglio, in his late 50s, stood out among his peers for supporting the uprising against Assad.

Last month, he traveled to Raqqa in northeastern Syria, the only provincial capital that is completely under rebel control, where activists cheered his arrival.

At the time, Syria’s most radical militant group, the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was battling Kurdish militias across a wide area of northern Syria and had detained activists who opposed its agenda.

Dall’Oglio decided to try to engage the group to ask it to release the detainees and negotiate a cease-fire with the Kurds, said Friedrich Bokern, chairman of Relief and Reconciliation for Syria, based in Brussels.

On July 29, Dall’Oglio entered the group’s headquarters in Raqqa and has not been heard from since, Bokern said.

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