Syrian Christians are rejoicing today in the news that 13 Greek Orthodox nuns and their three attendants were released overnight and returned to Damascus this morning (10 March) in a prisoner exchange deal. The nuns and attendants are understood to be tired but otherwise well, and report that they were generally treated well by their captors.
These nuns and their attendants were abducted on 2 December 2013 after Jabhat al-Nusra and four other armed groups attacked Ma'aloula, a historic Christian town north of Damascus. It is understood that most of the 40 nuns at St Thecla Convent and the orphans in their care were relocated to a safer location before the outbreak of violence. However, the Mother Superior, Pelagia Sayyaf, and some other nuns chose to stay at the Convent. It is these that were abducted when the armed groups took control of the upper part of the town including the ancient quarter in which the convent and several churches are located.
The release follows extensive discreet negotiations between the Syrian government and Jabhat al-Nusra mediated by Lebanese and Qatari officials. The government is releasing 153 Syrian women detained without trial.
Mother Superior Pelagia Sayyaf, head of Maaloula convent, told a press conference: “God did not leave us. The (Nusra) Front was good to us...but we took off our crosses because we were in the wrong place to wear them.” The group of mainly Syrian and Lebanese nuns has been held since December 2013, when forces from Jabat Al-Nusra and other jihadi militias overran the ancient Christian town of Maaloula and abducted the women from the Mar Takla Greek Orthodox Convent. Reports indicate the group was subsequently taken to the town of Yabroud, a rebel stronghold that is currently the target of heavy government bombardment.
Christians have been increasingly targeted by Islamist jihadi groups, including in the Christian city of Sadad last November, where 45 were reported to have been killed. Last month, Christians in the town of al-Raqa were ordered by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to pay a ‘jizya’ tax and to conduct religious services behind closed doors, and Christian community leaders were obliged to sign an agreement to this effect. Despite many Islamic scholars and local Muslim residents decrying this tax, it nevertheless has been implemented and published on several extremist websites.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) remains concerned by the disappearance of Archbishop Boulos (Paul) Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who were abducted by gunmen in April 2013 as they returned from a humanitarian mission near the Syria/Turkey border. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: "We are delighted to learn of the release of the nuns and their helpers. We are particularly pleased to hear they were released unharmed and were treated well. CSW continues to call for the release and safe return of Archbishops Boulos (Paul) Yazigi and Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, who remain missing, and we urge the Lebanese and Qatari authorities who facilitated the prisoner exchange to use their good offices to secure their release as well."
Syrian Church leaders have requested prayers for peace and stability in their country. The kidnappings are continuing and militias are denying access to aid convoys, attacking aid convoys using of siege tactics in several areas.