Top Iraqi Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani demands release of kidnapped 18 Turkish workers

Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shia religious authority, slammed on Saturday the recent abduction of 18 Turkish workers in Baghdad by an armed group, which, he said, "hurts the prestige of the state and weakens the elected government's authority".

Al-Sistani made the remarks in a Saturday statement issued one day after a video emerged online purportedly showing the 18 Turkish nationals-who were abducted on Sept. 2 in Iraq’s Sadr City-kneeling before their captors.

“The abduction of these innocent workers who have no role in the political events of the region is immoral, illegitimate and illegal,” he said.

He went on to call for the workers’ immediate release and an end to practices, which, he said, “hurt the image of Islam”.

He also urged Iraq’s government and various political actors to “support the security forces and work to end practices that disturb the country’s security and stability”.

In the video, the abducted workers appear to be kneeling in front of five black-clad, masked men holding guns.

In the background, a banner bearing Arabic script reads “Death squads” and “Labbayk ya Hussein”-the latter of which refers to an operation by Iraqi government forces and supported by Shia militias.

The video, which has subtitles, also includes a call to the Turkish government to meet the kidnappers’ demands in order to secure the hostages’ release.

The workers were abducted on Sept. 2 by unknown perpetrators wearing army uniforms from a construction site in Sadr City, a majority-Shia suburb of Baghdad.

They are all employees of Nurol Holding, a Turkish construction firm.

One year ago, 49 Turkish hostages were released by their captors in Iraq after having been captured by the Daesh militant group when the latter took over the northern city of Mosul in mid-2014.