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Gunmen force nuns to leave convent

06 December 2013

AP

Taken: the Christian town of Maaloula, in Syria

Taken: the Christian town of Maaloula, in Syria

CHRISTIANS in Syria are seeking news about the fate of 12 Greek Orthodox nuns, and three other women, who were seen being taken away from their convent by Islamist rebel fighters, after the latter captured much of the small town of Maaloula, north of Damascus. The anti-government forces took Maaloula in September (News, 13 September), but the Syrian army subsequently recaptured it.

On Monday, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) re- ported that the Mother Superior of Mar Takla convent, Pelagia Sayaf, and five nuns, were trapped inside by the rebel fighters. The Minister for Social Affairs, Kinda al- Shammat, demanded that countries supporting the rebels should pressure them to allow the nuns to leave safely.

Later that day, as the anti-government forces took control of the town, witnesses saw gunmen forcing 12 nuns to leave the convent. They were said to have been taken to the nearby town of Yabroud, which is under rebel Islamists' control.

Vatican Radio quoted the Apostolic Nuncio to Damascus, Mgr Mario Zenari, as saying that Mar Takla convent was stormed by jihadist Islamist rebels, who subsequently led away Mother Pelagia and the other nuns living there. He told Vatican Radio that he "didn't know if it is a kidnapping, or if they were removed by the rebels because they wanted to have a free hand in the monastery for fighting purposes".

The convent was the only inhabited building in Maaloula at the time, he said. "All we can do is pray for those nuns, pray that those people who have them in their hands treat them well and that this is not a kidnapping."

The early indications were that the nuns were being well treated. The Mother Superior of the nearby Saidnaya convent said that she had spoken by telephone to Mother Pelagia, who reported that all the nuns and the other women were "fine and safe".

Pope Francis at a general audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday called for prayers for the nuns and for all hostages held in the war-torn country. "We pray for these nuns and for all kidnap victims in the conflict," he said.

While the fighting continues as intensely as ever in various regions of Syria, with the fortunes of each side ebbing and flowing, international attention is focusing on the long-delayed Geneva 2 peace conference, which is intended to broker a deal to end the fighting. A date - 22 January 2014 - has finally been agreed on. But numerous other issues relating to the meeting await clarification. The Syrian government has said that it will attend, but it is by no means certain that opposition and rebel leaders will agree to take part.

The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said that one aim of the conference was "the establishment, based on mutual consent, of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities".

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