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Taken Syrian nuns are shown on video

13 December 2013

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Ancient: the town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, which has several churches and monasteries, including the convent of Mar Takla. It is known as one of the three places where Western Aramaic is still spoken

Ancient: the town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, which has several churches and monasteries, including the convent of Mar Takla. It is known as one...

THE 12 Greek Orthodox nuns who last week were taken at gunpoint by Islamist fighters from their convent in the small town of Maaloula, north of Damascus (News, 6 December), are alive and well.

The nuns have appeared in a video, in which they spoke of being in good health. They also denied that they had been kidnapped. Islamist fighters, after recapturing the town from the Syrian army, took the nuns and three other women from the Mar Takla convent to the town of Yabroud near by.

Arab media reports towards the end of last week suggested that the group of women were being held hostage, and that the Islamist rebels were demanding the release of about 1000 female detainees in government custody. But the video, broadcast by al-Jazeera television at the weekend, showed the Mother Superior of Mar Takla, Pelagia Sayaf, along with other nuns, sitting on sofas around a room.

One of the nuns said that it was untrue that they were being held hostage: they had been escorted out of Maaloula to escape the fighting. Another nun said that the Islamist fighters were treating the Sisters well: "They brought us from the convent, out from under the shelling. . . They rescued us, and we're very happy with them."

It was not clear from the video whether or not the women were speaking freely or under duress.

A further question mark hangs over the fate of about 15 young female orphans who had been cared for by the nuns at Mar Takla. Nicola Caines, from Kinver, in Staffordshire, contacted the Church Times this week to say that she visited the convent in April 2011, just as the violence in Syria was beginning, as part of a pilgrimage group. The pilgrims met Mother Pelagia and some of the nuns.

Ms Caines recalls that "they received us with great hospitality, and also took us around the orphanage they ran for girls with no means of support. These girls had not much of a chance in life, some of them being simply . . . rejected by their families.

"I am obviously worried about the safety of Mother Pelagia and her nuns, but I am also deeply concerned about what has become of the girls they were caring for."

The fate of Christians in Syria as a whole was highlighted on Tuesday - International Human Rights Day - by a petition organised by the advocacy group Open Doors, which was delivered simultaneously in New York to the missions of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and to many of their embassies abroad - as well as to 10 Downing Street, and the Foreign Office in London.

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