Nuns yet to reach Syria after reported release by rebels

BEIRUT Sun Mar 9, 2014 6:09pm EDT

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - An operation to release about a dozen nuns held by rebels in Syria for more than three months began on Sunday, security sources and church officials said, but hit an unexplained delay.

A Lebanese security source had said the nuns had been taken to the Lebanese town of Arsal earlier in the week and would head

to Damascus on Sunday accompanied by the head of a Lebanese security agency and a Qatari intelligence official.

By late Sunday, however, they had not arrived at the Syrian border. The reason for the hold-up was not immediately clear.

The nuns went missing in December after Islamist fighters took the ancient quarter of the Christian town of Maaloula north of Damascus.

After being held in the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Thecla in Maaloula, they were reportedly moved to the rebel-held town of Yabroud, about 20 km (13 miles) to the north, which is now the focus of a government military operation

Speaking to reporters at the border, Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop Louka al-Khoury welcomed the reported release of the nuns. "What the Syrian army achieved in Yabroud facilitated this process," he said.

Shortly after the nuns disappeared, Islamist rebels said they had taken them as their "guests" and that they would release them soon.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group identified the rebels who took the nuns as militants from the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria.

The Observatory and a rebel source in the area said the release of the nuns had been agreed as part of a swap in which the government would free scores of women prisoners.

"The deal is for the release of 138 women from Assad's prisons," the rebel source said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In December, the nuns appeared in a video obtained by Al Jazeera television, saying they were in good health, but it was not clear under what conditions the video had been filmed.

Syrian state television devoted significant coverage to the expected release on Sunday, but made no mention of any prisoner exchange agreement. It broadcast live footage from the Lebanese border and interviews with church officials, including one who denounced the West as only believing "in the dollar".

A montage of Christian imagery including churches, a statue of the Virgin Mary and murals of Jesus was set against music and described Syria as a "cradle of the monotheistic faiths."

Syria's Christian minority has broadly tried to stay on the sidelines of the three-year-old-conflict, which has killed over 140,000 people and which has become increasingly sectarian.

But the rise of hardline Islamists among the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim opposition has alarmed many. Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has portrayed himself as a bulwark against militant and intolerant ideologies.

(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Kinda Makieh and Mariam Karouny; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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Comments (4)
shaqqqq wrote:
hope they are not all pregnant !!!

Mar 09, 2014 11:09am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Archangel123 wrote:
Assad maybe a dictator/tyrant but rebels are no better, maybe worse. Why the Europeans and Americans are supporting them is a great wonder. Even if the rebels(hardcore Islamists) win, Syria will be no different than Afghanistan post Soviet departure.

Mar 09, 2014 4:23pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
RobertFrost wrote:
“The nuns went missing in December after Islamist fighters took the ancient quarter of the Christian town of Maaloula north of Damascus.”

Went “missing”?

They were abducted, just as their coreligionists, the two Greek Orthodox bishops by an Al-Qa’ida group. The bishops have been in captivity for more than a year, although one cannot tell whether they are dead or alive – like several other clergy, let alone ordinary people targeted because of their religion.

Amazingly, the freeing of the nuns, if that is the case, is devoid of any reference, let alone condemnation of the group, an Al-Qa’ida affiliate who kidnapped them.

This accords with the vigorous on-going campaign to rehabilitate these groups, Al-Qa’ida affiliates or not, into the ranks of ‘moderate’ fighters for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’

Small wonder that the public amputation of the hand of a man accused of stealing on Thursday last, announced by the same group, went unreported, as theses groups strenuously strive to be faithful in application of the laws that prevails in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sheikhdoms!

But then these barbaric acts never impacted the tightly-knit relations with these erstwhile US allies.

As to the statement that:

“Syria’s Christian community has broadly tried to stay on the sidelines of the country’s three-year-old-conflict”

well, one need not comment on it, since it is not factual, and is a part of the political slant of the ‘news item.’

The Christian community in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, are far from being on the side line. Their clergy frequently appear on Arab TV networks condemning the terror that threatens their lives from the Islamist armed groups. And that is not in the least surprising. The last such a statement was on Wednesday last, by the Bishop of the Damascus diocese.

Mar 09, 2014 5:14pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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