Syria: Christians fear for nuns abducted by Muslim insurgents

politics | Dec 11, 2013 | By Martin Barillas

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch continues to demand the release of thirteen nuns abducted by Islamist insurgents opposed to Syria’s Assad government. In a statement, the patriarchate says that Christians continue to be “concerned” about the fate of the nuns and three orphans who remain in the hands of Al-Ahrar Qalamoun – an extreme Muslim militant group in a town called Yarbud. The religious women were abducted during the capture of the city of Malaloula by Muslim extremists. The entire Christian community has fled the city.
According to video released by the Al-Jazeera network, the nuns were to be released on December 9. However, their church has since stated that it "does not have any news on the condition of the nuns and three young orphans from Ma'aloula ." The last direct contact by the nuns was via telephone when they spoke with the Patriarch of Antioch Youhanna X a few days after their abduction. The patriarchate stated that it does not trust the veracity of the video.
In a report by AsiaNews, "Since then - said a source in the Patriarchate - no one has been in touch with us and most of the news we read on the internet like the rest of the world. We have seen the video released by Al- Jazeera , but we have no confirmation on the real condition of the sisters, nor the reasons for their seizure and we think that the video is unreliable and further investigation is required .”
In the video, one of the nuns appears to speak for the group. Dressed in sombre black, the nuns appear subdued and wary. The video records a masculine voice of someone not in the viewfinder who suggests what the nuns should say for the camera. "We are fine. We're staying at a beautiful villa and we'll leave in two days," says one of the nuns. "We left the monastery because of the intensity of shelling ... We call for an end to the shelling of churches and mosques ... Our hosts are kind and they have taken care of us," said another. "We were treated in a good manner and we're happy because we were evacuated from the monastery" said a third. Yet another nun predicted that they would be released in two days, and then says "We are not abducted, we only kept in safety."
In the December 6 video, the religious women insisted that "the group that hosts them and that made ​​them leave the monastery of St. Thecla", did so for their "safety." They also sought to let it be understodd that they are indeed the thirteen nuns and three lay persons who left Maaloula "because of the bombing." In the video the Ma'aloula sisters appeared in good health and denied having been abducted. The women were filmed wearing their religious clothing, but without the traditional crucifix that hangs by a cord from their necks.
Currently, there is fierce fighting in the Qalamoun region between Syrian army units and the Islamist militants. The area is located approximately 30 miles northwest of Damascus, incorporating the village of Yabrud and the rebels’ stronghold. The area has long been a refuge for Christians who have lived quietly in the mountainous region for millennia. Predominantly Christian villages such as Sadad and Hofar have been invaded by the Muslim insurgents. Christians from those areas have joined the more than one million Syrian refugees who have fled the country. Qalamoun is on the frontier with Lebanon. On December 10, President Assad’s military was able to regain control of the towns of Nabak , Deir Attiya and Qara .
Rebel groups who are seeking to overthrow the Syrian government belong to different political and Muslim orientations. Al-Ahrar Qalamoun, which abducted the Greek Orthodox nuns, claim to have taken the them into custody. Such abductions, according to the extremists, are "humanitarian actions aimed at the protection of civilians." Hostages such as the nuns are used by the insurgents as human shields and as bargaining chips with the Assad government. For example, two Spanish journalists , Javier Espinosa of  El Mundo newspaper and freelance photographer Ricardo Garcia, are reportedly being held by Islamist militants who call themselves the  ( freelance photographer ), by the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant . They disappeared on September 16 in Raqqa, a province along the border shared with Turkey.
No word has come about the fate of two Orthodox Christian bishops who were abducted by Islamist militants in Syria this April. Recently, the head of Lebanon's security said he would consult with his counterparts in Qatar to obtain further information about the nuns.
In September, an Islamist group linked to Al-Qaeda wrecked the interiors of two Catholic churches in Ar-Raqqah, northern Syria. They burned holy images and crosses. At one of the churches, they raised a Muslim flag from the belfry.



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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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