The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East announced, “The five nuns from the Mar Tekla Monastery in Ma’loula now in Yabroud are in good condition; however, nothing’s known as yet as to why Islamist rebels took them or when they’d release them”. Islamist rebels held the five nuns… not 12 per first reports… since Monday, after bursting into the monastery and forcing them to go with them to Yabroud, some 80 kilometres north of Damascus. Now, 35 nuns remain at Mar Tekla. Meanwhile, in the small town, the cradle of Syrian Christianity, Islamist rebels started to burn all the houses owned by Christians. Local sources, anonymous for security reasons, said, “No one’s left in Ma’loula. These attacks sadden those who fled. Residents listen helplessly to reports about the destruction of their homes”. Sources noted that such actions result from “anti-Christian hatred by Muslim extremists” and are “unrelated to the war”. In recent days, extremists led by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters posted graphic videos of their attacks and summary executions on social networks.
4 December 2013
The Vatican reported that opposition rebels abducted 12 nuns when they captured the historically-Christian town of Ma’loula on Monday. Most observers believe that most of the town’s Christian population fled after clashes between government forces and rebels in September, leaving a mainly-Muslim population behind. The 40 nuns of the Orthodox Mar Tekla convent were the major exception, until rebels abducted 12 on Monday. Reportedly, the insurgents took the nuns to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud. Today, Mother Febronia Nabhan, the Superior at the Saidnaya Convent, told the Associated Press that three other women accompanied the nuns who left. Mother Febronia said that the Ma’loula convent’s Superior, Mother Pelagia Sayyaf, called her later on Monday and said that they were all “fine and safe”.
Archbishop Mario Zenari, the Vatican ambassador in Damascus, told Vatican Radio that gunmen abducted the nuns on Monday afternoon, although he said that he didn’t know the reason behind the kidnapping. Later, the BBC quoted rebel media sources, which said that the nuns “hadn’t been abducted”; the rebels warned them to leave Ma’loula for their own safety, but they refused. Archbishop Mario said that the Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, the authority over the convent, “called on all Catholics to pray for the women”.
Ma’loula, 60 kilometres (40 miles) northeast of Damascus is a symbol of Syria‘s ancient Christian roots, where the people still speak Aramaic… the language spoken by Jesus. Rebels recaptured the town after three days of fighting. It’s a strategic location on the road between Damascus and Homs; today, reports said that parts of this road are closed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based opposition group, said that the rebel group included Islamist fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Ramid Abdurrahman, the SOHR director, said that the opposition had control of the town and that there was now “no major fighting”.
In September, rebels killed three Catholic men when they seized control of Ma’loula. Government forces quickly retook the town, but by that stage, most of the Christians had fled. NGOs report that when Islamist-dominated opposition groups take control of towns and villages, Christians are under severe threat. Next week, a group plans to present a petition at the UN; it has over 270,000 signatures. On behalf of Syrian Christians, It urges that all those with influence and power do everything possible to:
- Protect the lives, livelihoods, and freedoms of all the people of Syria
- Safeguard the existence of the Christian community, and, in particular, stop the assaulting, kidnapping, torture and killing of Christians by extremist and criminal groups
- Guarantee safe, fair, and proper access for all to humanitarian assistance, both inside and outside Syria
- Make it possible for Christians to stay in and/or return safely to their homes without fear or threat of violence
- Safeguard the right of Christians to to worship in peace and safety and allow them space to offer compassionate care and contribute to making peace
3 December 2013
On Wednesday, Pope Francisco Bergoglio called for prayers for 12 Orthodox nuns reportedly taken by force from their convent in Syria by rebels. Religious officials in the region said that rebels abducted the women, but a Syrian opposition activist said that rebels merely removed them for their own safety. The 12 nuns join two bishops and a priest already believed held by hardline rebels, deepening concerns that extremists in the opposition target Christians. Syria’s minorities, including Christians, largely sided with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s government or tried to stay on the sidelines of the civil war, fearing for their fate if the rebels, increasingly-dominated by Islamic extremists, come to power.
Speaking to a crowd gathered for the Pope’s general audience in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Francisco invited “everyone to pray for the sisters of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Tekla in Ma’loula, Syria, taken by force by armed men two days ago. Let’s continue to pray and to work together for peace”. His appeal came as fighting raged in several parts of Syria including the northern city of Aleppo. Rami Abdurrahman of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that rebels firing mortar rounds at government-held neighbourhoods killed at least 17 people and wounded dozens more.
Activists also reported clashes in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus, an area that controls the smuggling routes from neighbouring Lebanon that help sustain rebel-held enclaves and it’s a key transportation corridor from the capital to the central city of Homs. The region boasts a sizeable Christian population and is home to the ancient Christian village of Ma’loula and its Mar Tekla convent. Church leaders and pro-rebel activists said that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra seized the nuns from Mar Tekla on Monday. Mother Febronia Nabhan, Superior of the Saidnaya Convent, said that the rebels took the nuns to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud. There was no suggestion that the rebels entered Ma’loula specifically to seize the nuns.
Syria’s three-year-old conflict began with mostly peaceful demonstrations against Assad’s rule, but devolved into an armed insurgency after security forces violently cracked down on protesters. Increasingly, hardline Sunni Muslim elements dominate the rebellion and the conflict grows ever more sectarian. A Syrian opposition activist claimed that rebels took the nuns for their own safety because of heavy fighting nearby. However, the activist, who goes by the name Amer, said that rebels wouldn’t provide evidence of the nuns’ safety. He stated that the rebels placed the nuns with a Christian family in Yabroud, saying, “They’re being taken care of”. His said that his information came from friends close to the rebels holding the nuns.
However, a nun in a nearby convent insisted the rebels held the women against their will. Mother Stephanie Haddad, deputy of the Greek Orthodox Saidnaya Convent, told the Associated Press that she spoke to the nuns on Tuesday night. She said that the rebels guarding them in Yabroud kept promising them that they’d release them soon, “but nothing is certain”. Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi, pleaded for the release of the women on Tuesday. Ma’loula was a popular tourist attraction before the conflict began. Some of its residents still speak an Aramaic dialect, a language spoken by Jesus.
Abdurrahman of the SOHR said that al-Qaeda-linked rebels who control the northern town of ar-Raqqah, in another move that underscored the fears of beleaguered minorities, converted a church into a centre for proselytising their strict interpretation of Islam, and another into an administrative office. Previously, rebels of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’ash) set fires in the two churches and knocked the crosses off them, replacing them with the group’s black Islamic banner. Abdurrahman sent photographs of the Church of Armenian Martyrs, with a black Da’ash flag flying from where the cross once stood. Below, a black banner read, “The proselytising office, region of ar-Raqqah”.
4 December 2013
On Thursday, Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East appealed to the international community to exert all possible efforts to secure the release of the 12 nuns rebels forced to evacuate a monastery in the Syrian town of Ma’loula. In a televised news conference, he said, “I appeal to the international community to exert all efforts to help secure the release of the abducted nuns from Mar Tekla Monastery in Ma’loula”, adding that information indicated that the rebels took the nuns to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud. He said, “We don’t want the decision-making authorities on the international and regional levels to merely express condemnation, but to make efforts and to exert pressure to release those whose only sin is their love of their land and monastery”.
Patriarch Youhanna’s brother is one of two bishops kidnapped in Syria earlier this month. In April, armed men abducted Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos al-Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim whilst they were en route to the northern Syrian city from the Turkish border. Reportedly, they were on their way to negotiate the release of three priests who are also missing.
On Monday, rebels from the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra recaptured Ma’loula, north of Damascus, from government forces following heavy clashes. At the time of the recapture, the nuns were inside the convent and were amongst only a few residents left in the historic Christian town. Rebels forced the nuns to evacuate the covenant along with dozens of orphans trapped in the monastery since September. It wasn’t clear whether they were evacuated or kidnapped.
Patriarch Youhanna said that acts against Christians wouldn’t shake their commitment to their land, saying, “We Christians of the east tolled the bells of our churches in the past and we’ll keep on tolling them so that everyone could hear the love we have for others of different religions. The ruthlessness of the coming days won’t force us to abandon our land”, he added that such behaviour targets Christians and Muslims alike. Youhanna also said that he suspended a visit to various Gulf countries in light of the developments in Ma’loula.
5 December 2013
On Friday, pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that a Syrian rebel group calling itself “Free Qalamoun” claimed the kidnapping of 12 nuns and said it that wants to trade them for a 1,000 female detainees held by the government. Rebel spokesman Mohannad Abu al-Fidaa told the paper that the nuns were safe, but “we won’t release them until the government carries out several demands, most importantly, the release of 1,000 Syrian women held in its prisons”. Reuters couldn’t confirm the report.
An official at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East in Damascus said that the nuns were safe, but wouldn’t comment on which group abducted them. Generally, Syria’s Christian minority tried to stay on the sidelines of the sectarian conflict pitting majority Sunni Muslims against the Alawite minority. Many Christians fear the rise of hardline Islamist groups. according to the Vatican envoy to Syria, Archbishop Mario Zenari, on Monday, Islamist fighters who captured the Christian village of Ma’loula north of Damascus moved the nuns from the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Tekla to the nearby town of Yabroud. The militants took the ancient quarter of Ma’loula on Monday after heavy fighting with government forces in the Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border. The fighting, which pits al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and other rebels against Assad’s forces, is part of a wider struggle for control of the Damascus-Homs highway in central Syria.
6 December 2013
According to an account published Friday in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Syrian rebels demand the release of 1,000 female government detainees in exchange for the freedom of a group of Greek Orthodox nuns held by opposition forces. The proposed swap indicates that the nuns are now hostages… contradicting earlier opposition assertions that they evacuated the sisters for their own safety during heavy fighting early this week in Ma’loula, a Christian landmark town outside Damascus. Hostage-taking and kidnapping, often with sectarian overtones, have become defining characteristics of Syria’s more than 2-year-old civil conflict. The fate of two kidnapped Christian bishops, believed seized by opposition forces in April, remains publicly unknown.
On Friday, in a video broadcast on al-Jazeera, several of the nuns took turns speaking and appeared in good health, although it wasn’t possible to verify the footage’s authenticity . The Associated Press reported that the nuns said they went with the rebels for their personal safety. Generally, security analysts consider such videos suspect because captives might be speaking under duress. One of the nuns said in the video, “We’re 13 nuns and three civilians, and we’re here in a very, very nice villa, but we’re going to leave in two days”.
A spokesman for a rebel group identified as the Ahrar al-Qalamoun Brigade told the newspaper that they wouldn’t release the nuns until the government carried out several demands, most importantly, that the authorities had to free 1,000 female prisoners held in Syrian prisons. The rebel spokesman, identified as Mohannad Abu al-Fidaa, said, “The nuns are in a safe place”, although he declined to give more detail. The spokesman described the conditions for the nuns’ release as “joint demands” from his faction and another rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaeda. The captors also demanded that the government suspend its sieges on a number of rebel strongholds, including several suburbs of Damascus.
Published reports indicated that rebels seized a dozen nuns during fighting between rebel and government forces in Ma’loula, a historic and mostly Christian town north of Damascus, which has been the site of intense combat. The nuns were from 40 sisters who resided at the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Tekla, named after an early Christian saint who was a disciple of St Paul the Apostle. Government authorities accused “terrorists” of kidnapping the nuns from the monastery at gunpoint and holding them hostage. Opposition spokesmen said that they moved the nuns for safety reasons amidst heavy government shelling. The exact number of nuns taken from the monastery and whether any remained at the convent in Ma’loula remained uncertain. Also unclear is the fate of as many as 21 orphans said to have been in the nuns’ care at the monastery. The fate of several workers from the site also is unclear.
The case caused deep consternation among Christian communities in the Middle East and worldwide, with Christian and Muslim religious leaders pleading for the nuns’ release. On Wednesday, Pope Francisco Bergoglio called for prayers on behalf of the Syrian nuns “taken by force by armed men”. The seizure of the nuns heightened fears amongst Syria’s Christian minority that Islamist rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad are targeting them. Generally, most observers see Christians and other Syrian minorities as being supportive of the government. On Friday, the Lebanese national news service reported that Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Azmi Mikati contacted Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East, and said that the abductions of the nuns “doesn’t reflect in any way the teachings of the Islamic religion, nor does it mirror the human and spiritual values of Muslims”.
6 December 2013
A group of Syrian Greek Orthodox nuns reportedly seized by rebels from a convent near Damascus denied in a video broadcast Friday that the rebels kidnapped them and said that they were in a safe place. It was the first appearance by the nuns, whose alleged Monday abduction increased concerns about the treatment that hardliners amongst the rebels meted out to Christians, particularly, as the fighting engulfed more Christian villages in recent months.
Also on Friday, an international watchdog said that it’s verified the destruction of all of Syria’s declared stocks of unfilled munitions for delivering chemical agents, another milestone along the road to eradicating President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a statement that its experts in Syria also verified destruction of weapons production facilities. The latest destruction work was near Homs… sites that the OPCW said were inaccessible due to security reasons. The Syrian Army advanced against the rebels, and on Monday, troops reopened the highway linking Damascus with the central city of Homs. The highway is a key road leading to Syria’s coast and could open the way for transporting the country’s chemical weapons to the port of Latakia for transport outside the country for destruction.
The joint UN/OPCW team in Syria aims to remove most chemical weapons from Syria by the end of the year for destruction at sea and destroy the entire stockpile by mid-2014. The unprecedented disarmament in the midst of a civil war began following a 21 August chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds of civilians. The USA and its Western allies accused the Syrian government of being responsible for that attack, whilst Damascus blamed the rebels. Syria joined the OPCW and agreed to dismantle its chemical arsenal to ward off possible American military strikes. In another positive development for the mission, Denmark and Norway confirmed that they’d offer to help transport “chemical warfare agents” out of Syria using specialised cargo vessels and naval frigates. Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende and acting Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Rasmus Helveg Petersen said in a joint statement, “The use of chemical weapons is a threat to international peace and security. Removal of these heinous weapons from Syria is a critical task for the international community”. Earlier, both countries said that they’d help ship the chemicals, but the announcement highlighted that the Scandinavian neighbours are planning a joint mission led by Denmark. Both countries said that they’d have to “complete relevant national procedures before the operation could begin”.
In a video aired by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite channel Friday, the Greek Orthodox nuns appeared healthy. They sat on sofas in a “villa” at an undisclosed location, and took turns speaking, saying the rebels escorted them out of Ma’loula to keep them safe from shelling. One of them said to the camera, “The brothers treat us well, they’ve brought us from the convent here, and we’re very happy”. The video appeared authentic, but it was impossible to verify it independently or to know if the nuns were speaking under duress. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and religious officials said that rebels took the Orthodox nuns and three civilians from the Mar Tekla convent in Ma’loula after rebels overran the village, and were keeping them in the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud. Pope Francisco Bergoglio called for prayers for the nuns.
Christians and other minorities tend to support Assad, who comes from a Shi’ite offshoot sect. They are concerned about the rising role of al-Qaeda-linked groups in the rebel movement, dominated by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. Many accuse the hardliners of vandalising churches and abducting several clerics. Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios Laham of Antioch, commenting on the video, thanked all who contributed to making the nuns comfortable, but said, “Real comfort would be in their homes”. Lebanon’s official National News Agency published his comments.
According to the state news agency SANA and activists, on Friday, a suicide car bomber detonated explosives near a building manned by paramilitary forces in a mainly Kurdish town in northeastern Syria, killing at least five people. The blast in Qamishli follows clashes between Kurdish gunmen and Islamic militant groups led by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that left hundreds of people dead in recent months. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s 23 million people. SANA said that the explosion occurred on a crowded street in Qamishli, which is in al-Hasakah Governorate, killing six people and wounding 30. The SOHR, which has a network of activists around the country, said the attack targeted a building manned by pro-government gunmen from the National Defence Force. It said the blast killed at least five and wounded 10. The SOHR said that it isn’t clear if the dead were members of the National Defence Force.
6 December 2013