The fourth piece below is “caveat lector” to the max. However, it’s the shit being peddled by the rebels, and you have a “need to know”. To keep it short, there’s nothing new… nothing at all. Nobody knows anything. Full stop. The beat goes on…
For the past two days, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon‘s General Directorate of General Security, was in Doha (Qatar) to secure the release of the Orthodox nuns held hostage by Islamist insurgents who took them from their monastery in Ma’loula to Yabroud, further north. In addition, General Ibrahim is trying to gather information about Metropolitans Boulos al-Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim, the Greek-Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox bishops abducted near Aleppo in April. At present, we know nothing about their fate. Lebanon hopes that Qatari mediation can be as effective as it was two months ago, when rebels released Lebanese Shia pilgrims detained at Aazaz (Syria) thanks to Qatari and Turkish intervention. General Ibrahim went to Doha with an official letter from Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, in which the Lebanese head of state asked for the emirate’s good offices on these two very sensitive issues. Lebanon’s security chief also made contact with Qatar-based al-Jazeera to find the source of a video released last week in which the nuns announced their upcoming release. The video stated that the 13 sisters were “detained” (not “abducted”, the video notes) and brought to Yabroud “to save them from the bombing”. Three other people accompany the nuns. For now, there’s no more information. Telephone communications between Beirut and Syria are down.
Meanwhile, more and more people in Syria and Lebanon appeal for the release of the nuns. In Damascus, Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East served liturgy on Sunday, focusing on the nun’s plight. In his homily, he called on “anyone with any connection, direct or indirect”, to intercede to obtain the group’s release. He added, “We hope that this will happen today, not tomorrow. We urgently call on everyone to accept the logic of dialogue and peace, not violence and weapons”. In Lebanon, the Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi and other Christian associations slammed the abduction and demanded the nuns’ release. Lebanese Minister for Energy and Water Gebran Bassil appealed to all factions to adopt peaceful protest. He also called the international reaction to the kidnapping “insufficient”.
10 December 2013
On Tuesday, former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora denounced the abduction of a group of nuns earlier this month in Syria and called for their immediate release. Separately, a source from General Security told The Daily Star that the agency’s head, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, met with Qatari officials over the weekend as part of continuing efforts to secure the release of the 13 nuns who went missing last Monday. Siniora, who headed a delegation of Future Movement MPs, told reporters after meeting with Orthodox Metropolitan Elias Aoudeh of Beirut, “We denounce assaults against religious sites. The attacks weren’t only limited to religious sites, but they also targeted people who exist only to serve humanity, such as the kidnapping of the two dear bishops [Boulos al-Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim] and the nuns. We hope that anyone able to help will exert efforts to release the nuns and bishops because keeping them in captivity doesn’t serve the Syrian cause and doesn’t help overthrow the oppressive regime in Syria, but leads to more violence”. A source confirmed that General Ibrahim visited Qatar seeking the Arab state’s assistance in the case of the nuns. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Ibrahim might visit Qatar again if it’s necessary.
Last week, Syrian rebels took 13 nuns from their convent in the historic Christian town of Ma’loula. Last week, they appeared in video footage and said that fierce shelling and bombardment forced them to leave the convent with rebels. There are conflicting reports over whether the rebels moved them under duress or not. In April, armed men kidnapped Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos al-Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim as the two were traveling to Aleppo from the Turkish border. Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East appealed to the international community to exert efforts to secure the release of the nuns. Youhanna said in a televised news conference at the University of Balamand, “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”. He added that he had information that the rebels took the nuns to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud. Youhanna said that there was an urgent need for “concrete actions, not words”.
Thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns kidnapped on December in Ma’loula along with some young orphans are still in the hands of the Islamist group al-Ahrar Qalamoun. After the video released on 6 December by al- Jazeera, there’s been no more news of the nuns, despite speculation about their possible release as early as 9 December. Contacted by AsiaNews, the Greek orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East said, “We don’t have any news on the condition of the nuns and three young orphans from Ma’loula“. The last direct contact was a brief phone call to Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch a few days after the kidnapping. A source at the Patriarchate said, “Since then, no one was in touch with us and most of the news we get we read on the internet like the rest of the world. We’ve seen the video released by al- Jazeera, but we’ve no confirmation on the real condition of the sisters, nor the reasons for their seizure, and we think that the video is unreliable and we need further investigation”. In the video the Ma’loula nuns appeared in good health and denied that the rebels abducted them, but only brought them to safety. In the video, the women wore their religious garb, but without the traditional crucifix.
Reports indicate fierce fighting in Qalamoun region between the army and Islamist insurgents. The area, which incorporates the small village of Yabroud, is located about 50 kilometres (31 miles) northwest of Damascus, and is one of the most important strongholds of the rebels. In the mountainous area on the border with Lebanon, there are several predominantly-Christian villages such as Sadad and Hofar, which fell in recent months into the hands of Islamist extremists. Yesterday, the army regained control of Nabak, Deir Attiya, and Qara. AsiaNews sources point up that the anti-Assad rebels belong to different factions, each taking advantage of abductions for various purposes. Some groups, such as those who seized the Ma’loula nuns, try to distance themselves from extremist and violent kidnappings; they say that the abductions are “humanitarian actions aimed at the protection of civilians”. The most intransigent and violent groups use hostages as human shields and as bargaining chips in negotiations with Assad’s army. The last case concerns two Spanish journalists, Javier Espinosa (El Mundo) and Ricardo García (freelance photographer), who disappeared 16 September in the ar-Raqqah Governorate near the Turkish border, reportedly in the hands of the Militia of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The two were in Syria just to document the positive aspects of the rebellion against Assad.
According to El Mundo, which in recent months censored its reporting to deal with the kidnappers, gunmen kidnapped the two journalists along with four fighters of the Free Syrian Army. The FSA fighters went free after 12 days, but not the two Spaniards. Today, Monica Prieto, wife of Javier Espinosa, appealed to the kidnappers, “Javier and Ricardo aren’t your enemies. Please, honour the revolution that they’ve protected and free them”. There are also several Syrian anti- Assad activists in the hands of groups of kidnappers, not yet been identified. Today, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced the disappearance of Razan Zaitouneh, winner of the 2011 Anna Politkovskaya Award. Armed men kidnapped her in the suburb of Douma east of Damascus along with other activists. They raided the headquarters of the centre for the documentation of human rights violations linked to the rebellion. Zaitouneh admitted receiving death threats from Islamist extremist groups.
11 December 2013
The village of Ma’loula with its ancient sanctuaries perched high on a mountain area near Damascus was a pilgrimage destination. However, today, the village attracts a new type of visitor, some of them, with guns. For centuries famous for its Christian sites, some of the oldest in the history of Christianity, the village was a symbol of coexistence between Muslims and Christians. However, this is no longer the case, since the village is now a battlefield between the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the armed opposition to his rule. Its inhabitants, bombed and bullied, don’t know who to blame or who to turn to for help.
A recent bout of fighting began when opposition groups waged an attack on a military barracks at the village entrance, with government forces then reacting by shelling the village with heavy artillery, causing extensive damage. Then, 13 Christian nuns from the village’s ancient convents went missing, and the government immediately publicised their plight, claiming that terrorists bent on persecuting Christians held them hostage. The Syrian Foreign Ministry sent messages to the UN, triggering widespread alarm. However, two days later, the opposition released a video showing the nuns living in a nearby town, presumably waiting for a chance to leave an area blasted by intense fighting in recent weeks. In the video, one of the nuns said, “Those who took us treated us with love and care, and we thank them for giving us everything we’ve asked for”.
Fahd al-Masri, spokesman for the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), blamed Christian militia affiliated with Lebanese General Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah for the recent bout of fighting in Ma’loula. Speaking to al-Ahram Weekly, al-Masri accused the Syrian government and its allies of seeking to destroy churches in order “to scare the Vatican and the world about the fate of Christians and minorities in Syria. Several Islamist groups conducted the attack on the roadblock and barracks. We’ve learned that they were under strict orders to avoid disturbing Christian places of worship, individuals, and heritage sites”.
Although the nuns seem to be safe for now, pro-government Christian clergymen used the incident to demonise the opposition. Bishop Luqa al-Khoury, a patriarchal vicar at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, called on all Christian men to take up arms in defence of Syria and its Christian heritage, saying, “Our young men are ready and willing to fight for Syria”. His was the first public call for Christians to defend their community in the course of the current war in Syria. Greek Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East didn’t go as far, stating, “The systematic assault on churches is meant to divert attention from what’s happening in Syria. It’s meant to depict the events in Syria as a war on Christians. We’re Christians and we’re also Arab Syrians who’re loyal to this country. We aren’t children, and we aren’t going to side unthinkingly with one side or another”.
A hitherto-unknown organisation called the Free People of Qalamoun claimed responsibility for abducting the nuns, offering to release them in exchange for 1,000 women detainees held in the government prisons. The FSA said that no such group existed, claiming that the developments were part of the government’s propaganda war. Sanharib Mirza, a representative of the Syriac Assyrian Block in the National Syrian Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an opposition group, voiced frustration with events in Ma’loula. Speaking to the Weekly, Mirza said, “These reports don’t bode well for the future of Christians in Syria. Some of the extremist Islamist groups are starting to fall into the trap set by the government by terrorising the country’s minorities”. Mirza said that Ma’loula and other mountain villages had no strategic importance for the warring parties, noting, “If it’s true that the nuns were abducted, we refuse under any circumstances to bargain with the government for their freedom. Christians aren’t going to become hostages in the Syrian crisis. We won’t allow the government or the opposition to exploit them”. Mirza called on Muslim clerics to instruct the armed opposition to avoid actions that could harm Syria and its minorities.
Observers said that what happened in Ma’loula would have no impact on the immediate course of the war, but can’t deny its psychological significance for Christians in Syria. A former Christian member of the Syrian parliament speaking on condition of anonymity said that the Christians became the target of aggression as well as pawns in the wider war. He said that the government was trying to exploit the Christians “in order to win international recognition of its claimed role as protector of minorities”. The former parliamentarian claimed that over the course of the past few months, the government abducted several Christian men and clergymen, including two bishops in Aleppo, saying, “The danger today is greater than at any time before”.
Since the first day of the Syrian Civil War, the government tried to depict the opposition as bloodthirsty extremists, intent on killing and subjugating all who differ from them in faith. Opposition figures said that the recent tragedy in Ma’loula is only part of this strategy. A recent report by Syrian rights groups makes the same claim. The Assyrian Organisation for Human Rights, the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, and the Syrian Human Rights Network released the report, which accuses the Syrian government of exploiting the situation of the Christians. Whilst condemning the government’s attacks on Christians, the report said that the opposition conducted some of the abuses. It noted that since the Civil War started, the government destroyed 36 churches, whilst the opposition only attacked four. The report claimed that the government murdered scores of Christians for failing to do its bidding. It claimed that the government killed more than 100 Christians “for refusing to comply with its sectarian designs and for opting instead to stand by the country’s higher interests”. Meanwhile, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamist groups in the opposition denounced attacks on the Christians, saying that the protection of all Syrians is now a top national priority.
12 December 2013
On Saturday, two activists said that the Syrian government is negotiating with rebels to release 12 nuns seized earlier this month from a convent north of Damascus. The rebels are demanding that the government free hundreds of imprisoned women activists in exchange for the nuns. Reports of local cease-fires and other short-term deals have become more common as Syria’s three-year-old civil war drags on, but talks leading to prisoner exchanges still appear to be rare. There was no immediate government comment. Calls to the Lebanese offices of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, the canonical superior of the convent, went unanswered.
A spokesman for the rebel brigade al-Habib al-Moustafa said that, so far, government officials refused the demand to release prisoners. The spokesman, who used the alias of Abu Nidal for security reasons, said that a mediator was speaking to both parties. He said that his group wasn’t involved in negotiations, but was relaying information from other fighters. A Syrian opposition activist, who requested anonymity, as he was discussing talks conducted by other parties, also confirmed the negotiations. He said that the rebels were also demanding the release of imprisoned Saudi Arabian nationals captured while fighting for the opposition. The activist said that negotiations began immediately after the nuns were seized from the Convent of Mar Tekla in the village of Ma’loula, north of Damascus on 6 December, when rebels overran the area. Activists said that at rebels seized at least another three women from the convent’s orphanage, and they took all of them to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud.
The seized women appeared on a video days after their capture saying that they were alive and well. The rebel faction that released the video didn’t identify itself. No faction announced that it has control of the women. Syrian opposition activists and Church officials said that the al-Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra holds them. The kidnapping of the women strengthened fears among Syria’s minority Christians that al-Qaeda-linked militants and other extremists, who are increasingly prominent in rebel ranks, are targeting them. A priest and two bishops previously kidnapped by rebels remain missing, and many accuse extremists of vandalising churches in areas they’ve captured. Christians and other minorities, like the Druze and Shi’ites, tend to support the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who comes from the country’s minority Alawite sect. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority forms the backbone of the uprising against Assad.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, fighting continued in an industrial area near Damascus where al-Qaeda-linked rebels earlier faced charges of killing Druse and Alawite men, women, and children. State-run Syrian television and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the killings began on Wednesday, when rebels, mostly from Jabhat al-Nusra, overran the ‘Adra industrial district and its neighbouring residential area northeast of Damascus. However, rebel spokesman Abu Nidal and another rebel spokesman, Abu Yazan, both based in the nearby area of Ghouta, said that the rebels only killed pro-government fighters in Adra and soldiers from the nearby 122 Brigade military base. They acknowledged the fighters were Alawites and Druse, but said that the rebels killed them because they were fighting for the government, not because of their sect. Increasingly, Syria’s government relies on militias, often drawn from minorities, to hold territory. They said that rebels were fighting in Adra to open up a road to Ghouta, which was under siege for the past ten months by Syrian forces, and to cut a government road.
14 October 2013
Islamist extremists among anti-government rebels have been targeting Syrian Christians as “infidels”. After a mortar attack left four children dead, Armenian Apostolic Bishop Armash Nalbandian lamented, “We’re suffering a new genocide”. Relatives stood silently in front of an altar honouring four children killed by a mortar attack near the Old City of Damascus. The Armenian Orthodox children were waiting for their school bus when a rebel attack killed them and the bus driver. One relative, Amira Hana, cried as she described the explosion, “We went running to the school to find out what took place. All the buses were destroyed, completely destroyed. Blood was all over the ground”.
Anti-government rebels regularly fire mortars and rockets into Damascus. Sometimes they hit military targets. At other times, they seem to target Christian neighbourhoods, which they perceive as pro-government. Bishop Armash Nalbandian, a leader of the Armenian Apostolic church, criticised rebels who intentionally target civilian areas, “I can’t understand what kind of vision, what kind of ideology they have. I do know that they don’t pursue freedom or democracy as they say. They’re actually criminals”. He said that indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a war crime, “What they’re doing isn’t against the government. It’s against humanity. I’m speechless”.
Human rights groups say that the government also indiscriminately shells rebel-held neighbourhoods. All of Damascus reverberates with the sounds of Syrian army artillery fire and high-power rifle shots. According to critics, the army wantonly attacks rebel-held areas full of civilians. In recent weeks, the government claimed important military victories near Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and other major cities. Syrian Minister of Justice Najm al-Ahmad said that the government is winning the war, with major cities nearly all back in the government camp after more than a year of being under rebel control. He said that the government took back several Damascus suburbs, but admits rocket and mortar fire continue to hit the capital, saying, “In some pockets in rural Damascus, there are some bombardments. They focus on the areas of the Christian minority. The Syrian army is achieving good progress in all areas of the country”.
Exodus of refugees
An estimated 3 million Syrians left the country, including tens of thousands of Christians. For Bishop Armash, who is of Armenian ancestry, the refugee upsurge reflects a personal tragedy. Armenians fled Turkey to Syria in 1915 after a genocidal attack by the Ottoman Army. He said that Armenians came as refugees to Syria, where they created schools, churches, and a new life, noting, “After 95 years, we’re suffering a new genocide. It’s more difficult for us to carry this cross”. When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, many Christians felt caught between a repressive government and fear of Islamist extremist rebels who see Christians as infidels. The UN rights chief recently announced evidence linking the Syrian government to war crimes. Bishop Armash said that in the first few months, Christians hoped that the government would make significant reforms, “Unfortunately, the government lost this moment, or couldn’t or didn’t use this moment. The government did some reforms according to the constitution, but actually it’s not enough”. For example, the government lifted the formal state of emergency, but it continued its repressive policies. Christians were also offended that the country’s constitution mandated that the president be a Muslim.
During the past year, extremist Muslim groups gained ground among the rebels. They targeted Christian villages and other religious groups they perceived as Assad supporters. Extremists and criminal elements kidnapped Christians for ransom. As the extremist groups took over more areas and chaos ensued, Christians threw their support behind the government. Bishop Armash said that many Christians now see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a protector, “The guarantee of security of minorities, my church, is to have good functional government, a strong government. This security we experienced and saw with the government of President Bashar al-Assad”. The killing of innocent children and the refugee exodus took a psychological toll on Syrian Christians… and on the personal faith of Bishop Armash. He experienced a deep psychological shock from the death of the four children from his church, observing, “I don’t know if I’m sad, if I’m tired, if I’m exhausted, I don’t know. I gain my power, energy from prayer. How, I don’t know. Why, I don’t know, but I have this strength”. Bishop Armash said that he and other Christians would survive, as they have many crises before.
13 December 2013