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Greek Orthodox nuns released

14 March 2014


Displaced: a Syrian boy who fled with his family from violence in their village carries a bag in a camp in Atma, near the border with Turkey, on Saturday

Displaced: a Syrian boy who fled with his family from violence in their village carries a bag in a camp in Atma, near the border with Turkey, on Sat...

THE joy among Syrian Christians at the release and safe return of 13 Greek Orthodox nuns and three helpers, who had been held by Islamist gunmen since December last year (News, 6 and 13 December 2013), has been tempered by growing concern about the fate of two abducted Archbishops who have not been seen for nearly a year.

The nuns were freed after Lebanese and Qatari officials spent weeks in talks with the Islamists and the Syrian government. The rebels were initially demanding the release of about 1000 women prisoners, and the payment of £2.4 million.

In the end, a deal was reached under which the nuns would be released in return for 150 women held in government jails. It is not known whether money was paid.

The nuns, who were taken away from the Mar Takla convent at Maaloula, north of Damascus, when Islamists took control of the town, were held at Yabroud, close to the Lebanese border. A few days later, the nuns were seen on a video, and appeared to be in good health. 

Early on Monday, the nuns were driven to Arsal, further north on the Lebanese side of the border, where they were handed over tothe Lebanese authorities, before being driven to Damascus. The nuns' captors were members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.

The Mother Superior of Mar Takla, Pelagia Sayyaf, said: "God did not leave us. The Front was good to us, but we took off our crosses because we were in the wrong place to wear them." The nuns later said that they had been treated well throughout their captivity. They went on to thank all those involved in the mediation efforts.

The release of the nuns was covered extensively by Syrian state media, but no mention was made of the freeing of prisoners as part of the deal, or the payment of money. The Syrian government had accused the Islamists of seizing the nuns to intimidate Christians in Syria; the rebels insisted that they had moved the nuns out of Maaloula for their own security.

The Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Mervyn Thomas, expressed delight at the release of the nuns. "We are particularly pleased to hear they were released unharmed, and were treated well," he said.

But Syrian Christians are in-creasingly worried about the safety of the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mor Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Paul Yazigi, who were abducted in April last year (News, 3 May 2013). They were seized in the north of the country while returning by car to Aleppo from Turkey, and have not been heard from since.

Mr Thomas said that CSW was urging "the Lebanese and Qatari authorities who facilitated the nuns' prisoner-exchange to use their good offices to secure the Archbishops' release as well".

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