One dozen Greek Orthodox nuns and three women, who had been kidnapped from their convent by the Al-Qaeda affiliated rebel organization Al-Nusra Front, have been returned to safety after being held in captivity in the nearby town of Yabrud for three months. They were brought through a rebel-held border crossing to Arsal, a Lebanese border town, and released to Lebanese officials. Then they were driven to Syria, where they were taken to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus.
On December 2 the nuns were abducted from the St. Thekla Convent when the town of Mal’oula, located 35 miles north of Damascus, was overtaken by al-Nusra Front during fighting against the Syrian army for control of the strategic Damascus Homs highway. The rebels first overtook Ma’loula for three days in September, resulting in the deaths of twelve people, including the death of three men who refused to renounce their Christian faith.
Syrian officials claimed that the nuns were abducted to intimidate Syrian Christians. Meanwhile, al-Nusra has maintained that it was protecting the nuns from government gunfire. Their kidnapping inspired worldwide attention, with Pope Francis calling for prayers in his general audience on December 4. The BBC reported that the officials from Qatar and Lebanon negotiated the deal. According to Abbas Ibrahim, a Lebanese general involved in the talks, the nuns’ release was part of a deal with the Syrian government, which agreed to release around 138 female prisoners. Bashar al-Assad’s regime’s information minster, Omron al-Zoubi, was quoted as saying that only 25 prisoners were released in exchange for the nuns’ freedom.
The nuns have maintained that they were treated well during their captivity. “As God is my witness, I tell you the al-Nusra Front treated us well”, stated one of the nuns. They explained that they were not forced to remove their crosses but did so “because we were in the wrong place to wear them.”
Many view this development as a sign of hope that the Syrian conflict, which has claimed the lives of as many as 130,000 people and which is now entering its third year, will end soon. Syria’s Christians make up 10% of the population and have tried to remain out of the conflict, but the city of Yebrud has become a target for its suspected sympathies with President Bashar al- Assad’s secular regime. The nuns’ release has renewed hope for the release of Bishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi of Aleppo, which were abducted early in 2013 and whose fate remains unknown.
Gregorios III, Melkite Greek Patriarch of Antioch, remarked that the nuns’ emancipation was “a sign of hope in this time of crisis.” The Syrian civil war began on March 15, 2011 when demonstrators began to protest Bashar al-Assad’s rule and his Ba’ath Party. In April, the Syrian Army attempted to repress the uprisings by firing on protestors. Currently, 2.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in nearby countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and 6.5 million people have been displaced by the conflict.