During the evening of March 9, some 13 Greek-Orthodox nuns, who had been abducted by Muslim terrorists from the orphanage they operated in Syria, were released. They had been detained by a group of combatants who are fighting to bring down President Bashr Al-Assad’s government, which has been battling its opponents and killing civilians for the last two years. It was in December 2013 that the nuns went missing from the largely Christian town of Maaloula, north of Damascus. Their release came about when the Syrian government agreed to release 153 female prisoners from prison. This followed negotiations led by intelligence agencies of Lebanon and Qatar.
Earlier on March 9, there was news that the nuns’ release had been secured. However, their abductors piled on further conditions for the release, thus delaying their freedom. Finally, the nuns – who had been held in the rebel-controlled city of Yabroud – were released on the outskirts of Arsal, a city in northeastern Lebanon. It was during the early morning hours of March 10 that they were welcomed by General Abbas Ibrahim – the head of Lebanon’s intelligence agency and lead negotiator – after they had been transported in a 30 vehicle caravan to the Syrian town, Jdaidet Yabouss. The nuns’ leader, Mother Aghiah, stated that during their captivity, their abductors "were very sweet and gentle." Besides the 13 nuns, 3 lay cooperators were also released. The Al-Nusra Front, a designated terrorist group, has been tagged as the culprit for the abduction.
The negotiations leading to the nuns’ release involved direct contacts between Syria and Qatar. Qatar is one of the main opponents to the Assad regime in Syria. Qatar’s chief of intelligence, Saadeh al-Kbeisi met with Syrian General Ali Mamlouk in Damascus to discuss the release of the nuns.
Senior Orthodox Bishop Lucas al-Khoury spoke on March 9 on Syrian-government television. The bishop has sometimes spoken in support of the Assad regime. He blamed the delays for the nuns’ release on their captors, who he said "made false requests intended to stall the process."