Syrian rebels release 13 nuns after three month ordeal

Insurgents claim they protecting the women; Government calls it intimidation against Christians

Nuns, who were freed after being held by rebels for over three months, arrive at the Syrian border with Lebanon at the Jdaydeh Yaboos crossing. Photograph:Khaled al-Hariri /Reuters

Nuns, who were freed after being held by rebels for over three months, arrive at the Syrian border with Lebanon at the Jdaydeh Yaboos crossing. Photograph:Khaled al-Hariri /Reuters

 

Syrian insurgents released 13 nuns and three attendants who disappeared three months ago from their monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, Lebanese and Syrian officials said early today, ending a drama in which rebels said they were protecting the women from government shelling and Syrian officials said they were abducted in an act of intimidation against Christians.

The handoff was infused with suspense until the last moment.

Officials said yesterday afternoon that the nuns had crossed the mountainous border to Arsal, a pro-rebel town in Lebanon, to be handed off to Lebanese officials and driven to Syria.

But amid reports of last-minute glitches, reporters and government supporters waited hours at the border with no sign of the nuns.

Finally, early today, the Lebanese channel Al Jadeed showed the black-clad nuns at the border, beaming, as one embraced a Lebanese security official and another was carried by officers.

Mother Pelagia Sayaf, head of the Mar Taqla monastery in Maaloula, thanked president Bashar Assad, saying he had worked with Qatari officials for their release. She said the nuns were “treated very well” by the insurgents and were not prevented from wearing religious symbols. Some had speculated that similar declarations on videos from captivity were forced.

“We weren’t harassed at all,” she said. “No one forced us to remove our crosses.” The government portrayed the release as a major victory, sending senior figures like the Damascus governor, Hafez Makhlouf, a relative of Mr Assad, to greet the nuns. Their ordeal was a major setback for government opponents trying to persuade fence-sitters not to fear jihadists among the insurgents.

Their release came after negotiations that, according to official media and Syrian insurgents, involved Lebanese and Syrian officials, the intelligence chief of Qatar, a country that has supported the revolt in Syria, and members of the radical Islamist insurgent group the Nusra Front.

An intense battle has raged for weeks in the border area around the Syrian town of Yabroud, where the nuns had been held. The fighting has pitted government forces backed by the Lebanese militia Hezbollah against a mix of local rebels and Nusra fighters, who sometimes cooperate and sometimes clash.

There were conflicting reports about the deal. Two rebel leaders from Yabroud, who would identified themselves only as Abu al-Majd and Khaled, said Qatar offered to pay $4 million for the nuns’ release, but that Nusra demanded $50 million. Abu al-Majd said the insurgents had also demanded the release of more than 100 people detained by the government, including women. But Syrian state television did not mention any swap or payment.

The release came after the Qatari intelligence chief met on Sunday with Lebanese officials. Qatar last year helped win the release of a group of Lebanese Shiites held in northern Syria, whom rebels had accused of being Hezbollah fighters.

A Damascus priest, Makaious Kalloumah, said on Syrian television that the Qataris aimed to “shine their image” after Saudi Arabia and other allies withdrew their ambassadors last week in a dispute over regional politics. George Haswani, a pro-government businessman from Yabroud, told Al Jadeed that the nuns had stayed in his villa there, confirming earlier rebel claims that they were kept safely in the home of a local Christian.

Mr Assad personally checked frequently on the nuns’ health, said Mr Haswani, whose mediation, rebels say, helped keep Yabroud relatively untouched by fighting until recently. Yabroud has essentially governed itself, with some local Christians remaining, even as the war turned sectarian elsewhere.

Mother Agnes of the Cross, a Lebanese nun who has mediated between the government and rebels, said Sunday that the nuns were healthy, though one recently had an asthma attack. The nuns’ odyssey began in September when insurgents entered Maaloula, a town built into steep cliffs where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. They drew ire from government supporters for telling reporters the insurgents had not harmed them or Christian sites. But later - after battles damaged the town and monastery - rebels took them, saying it was for their safety. Tensions ensued among rebels when the Nusra Front decided to impose conditions for their release.

“If you have conditions, then they’re abducted,” Mother Agnes said late last year.

New York Times