Speaking to thousands gathered in St Peter’s square, Pope Francis appealed for prayers in the wake of the abduction by Islamist terrorists of three Greek Orthodox nuns from the Syrian city of Maaloula. “Let us pray for these nuns, for these sisters”, asked the pontiff on December 4, “and for all those who have been kidnapped as a result of the current conflict. Let us continue to pray and act for peace together. Let us pray to the Virgin.” In addition, two Orthodox Christian bishops remain in captivity, having been abducted by Islamists earlier this year.
It was on December 2 that Islamists opposed to the Syrian government led by President Bashar Assad attacked the largely Christian city, which is one of the last places where the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus himself is spoken. Following the attack on the city and the St Thekla convent, no Christians are known to remain in the occupied city north of Damascus. Bishop Mario Zenari, the Vatican’s diplomatic representative to the Assad government, confirmed the news after speaking with representatives of the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate. Msgr. Zenari conveyed an appeal from the patriarch, who "calls on all Catholics to pray for the women religious."
Msgr. Zenari said "Armed men burst in the monastery of St Thecla in Maaloula this afternoon. From there, they forcibly took 12 women religious." The reasons for the abduction and the welfare of the abducted nuns was not confirmed. However, Zenari said that the Islamists may have taken them to Yabrud, which is approximately 50 miles north of Damascus.
Islamist rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had invaded Maaloula in September after having driven government troops out. After taking control of Maaloula with the help of the Al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Brigades, they went on a rampage against Christian buildings and killed three young Catholic men. The town's entire Christian population fled their homes to seek refuge in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of Damascus. Some found shelter with relatives in Lebanon or in local Greek-Catholic convents. They left behind the nuns at St Thekla Monastery, who stayed to care for dozens of orphaned children – Christian and Muslim.
Fighting is intensifying, sources told AsiaNews. "The army is trying to regain control over the villages north of Damascus. For this purpose, it has launched a major offensive against the rebels, who are trying to hold government forces back through a scorched earth policy in the areas under their control." Clashes were concentrated mostly in the upper, oldest part of Maaloula, where both the Greek Orthodox St Thekla and the Greek-Catholic Sts Sergius and Bacchus are located. From there, the rebels launched repeated attacks against army positions in the lower part of town. Local Muslims of Maaloula aided the Islamist combatants in the persecution of their Christian neighbors. Muslims, who once represented one-third of the population of Maaloula, are now the majority due to the murders and occupation by Islamist terrorists.
Patriarch Gregory III, who leads the Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem of the Melkites, spoke of the men killed by Islamists in September as "true martyrs." After meeting with Pope Francis in Rome, Patriarch Gregory said on December 1 that they are the "three men from Maaloula who refused to repudiate their faith." It was during the fighting in Maaloula on September 3-7 that men from the Syrian Free Army and the Jabhat al-Nusra Islamic Front carried out a coordinated attack in order to take control of Maaloula. Once they occupied the town, fear reigned among Christians who began to flee. When three men refused to repudiate their Christian religion, they were summarily executed in public, and six more were taken hostage. This was followed by a failed attempt by Syrian government forces to retake the town.
"You," Gregorios III told the pope, "spoke to us, asking us not to let the flame of hope die in our hearts . . . . We want to be martyrs on this earth, martyrs in blood, as was the case for some of our faithful, including the three men from Maaloula: Michel Thalab, Mtanios Thalab and Sarkis Zachem."
"Holy Father, they are true martyrs. Ordered to give up their faith, they proudly refused. Three others however gave in and were forced to declare themselves Muslim, but later returned to the faith of their ancestors."
"Our Church, which you love, today is a church in distress," the Patriarch said. "For this church, which is facing an unprecedented situation in its history, you are Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross."
"Like the Blessed Pope John Paul II who, through his prayers and brave actions brought down the Berlin Wall, you, Holy Father, have performed a miracle, calling on Christians and the whole world to fast and pray. You brought about a turning point in the Syrian crisis and in the vision of global politics. The world, after 7 September 2013, has changed."