Voices from Russia

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Minoborony Rossii Told Pentagon Shill to “Temper His Zeal”

00-russia-general-igor-konashenkov-250217

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Minoborony Rossii spokesman Major-General I Ye Konashenkov told US Defence Department shill Peter Cook to “temper his zeal”. Konashenkov’s commentary appeared on an official video posted on YouTube. At a Minoborony media briefing on a Russian-American agreement on a forthcoming ceasefire in Syria, he said:

A few days ago, for some reason, Mr Cook said that a ceasefire in Syria would be a test for the Russian authorities. I advise Mr Cook to temper his zeal and focus on activities related to the organisation that he represents, that is, the Pentagon. Unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t have knowledge of military affairs, so I’m sure that’s difficult for him. Therefore, he seeks to compensate for his deficiencies but only comes out with shrill howlers. He should be reasonable… yes, and professional.

According to published statements released on Monday, on 27 February, a joint US-Russian agreement stipulates a ceasefire between government forces and armed opposition groups in Syria. However, attacks on ISIS, al-Nusra, and other parties recognised as terrorist entities by the UN will continue.

25 February 2017

RIA Novosti

https://ria.ru/world/20160225/1380054199.html

Editor:

General Konashenkov used the word ляпами, which is rather colloquial, so I tried to capture the flavour of that in my Englishing of his commentary. Cook is a clueless journalist with NO MILITARY EXPERIENCE WHATSOEVER. He’s an Obama holdover. Igor Yevgenyevich skewered him, well and truly. It shows you the difference between the American and Russian approaches… the Russians appoint people with real relevant knowledge… the Americans appoint blowsy blowhards with no relevant experience (but who look good on camera).

Kudos to Igor Yevgenyevich… it shows you what sort of people that the Yanks put into responsible positions. They’re talking from “a position of strength?” I think not…

BMD

Monday, 16 December 2013

16 December 2013. The Beat Goes On… No REAL News from Syria

00 Ted Rall. A Look Back at Syria. 2012

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Editor’s Note:

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…

BMD

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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

Fady Noun

AsiaNews

http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Lebanon-asks-for-Qatari-help-in-Maaloula-nuns-affair-29769.html

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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”.

11 December

The Daily Star (Lebanon)

http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2013/Dec-11/240628-siniora-urges-release-of-nuns-seized-in-syria.ashx

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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

AsiaNews

http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Greek–Orthodox-Patriarchate:-No-news-of-the-13-Ma’aloula-nuns,-we-do-not-trust-the-video-29786.html

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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

Bassel Oudat

al-Ahram Weekly

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/4925/19/Christian-debacle-in-Syria.aspx

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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

Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

http://news.yahoo.com/syria-activists-talks-ongoing-free-seized-nuns-103901275.html

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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”.

Neighbourhoods targeted

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.

Persecution prevails

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

Reese Erlich

Deutsche Welle

http://www.dw.de/syrian-christians-fear-islamist-rebels/a-17279974?maca=en-rss-en-all-1573-rdf

Monday, 9 December 2013

9 December 2013. Antiochian Bishop Offers Call to Arms… News Roundup from the Civil War

00 Syrian Christians and Muslims pray for nuns. Damascus SYRIA. 09.12.13

Christians and Muslims pray together in Damascus SYRIA for the release of the abducted nuns. This is the truth… accept no CNN/Fox News provocations! Most Muslims are our friends… sadly, the minority that aren’t friendly are violent. Keep focused and sane, kids…

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On Sunday, Syrian Christians offered prayers for a group of more than a dozen nuns and orphanage workers held by rebels for nearly a week, fuelling fears in the minority community that extremists amongst the fighters seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad target them. The seizure of the 12 Greek Orthodox nuns and at least three other women is the latest attack to spark panic amongst Syrian Christians over the strength of al-Qaeda-linked militants and other Islamist radicals in the nearly 3-year-old revolt against Assad’s government. A priest and two bishops previously kidnapped by rebels remain missing, and many accuse extremists of vandalising churches in areas they’ve captured.

On Monday, rebels seized the nuns from the Greek Orthodox Mar Tekla convent when fighters overran Ma’loula, a mainly Christian village north of Damascus, which lies on a key highway. It’s changed hands several times in fierce fighting between rebels and government forces. Gunmen took the group, along with three women… themselves orphans… who work in the convent’s orphanage to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud. According to Mother Febronia Nabhan, Superior of the Saidnaya Convent, the eldest of the nuns is nearly 90 years old, and the youngest of the orphanage workers is in her mid-teens. On Friday, rebels released a video of the nuns, where they denied being kidnapped, saying they were in good health and that fighters took them to a place away from the combat, out of concerns for their safety.

The video only stoked the worries of Christians who gathered Sunday for Liturgy at the Mariamiya Cathedral in Damascus, the main church of the Patriarchate of Antioch in Syria. Odette Abu Zakham, a 65-year-old woman in the congregation who lives in the nearby historic Christian district of Bab Touma, said, “They’re coming after us. All they do is massacre people; all they know is killing”. Another woman at Liturgy noted that in the video, the nuns appeared in their black robes, but with no religious symbols on them. She said, “They didn’t even let them wear their crosses. This just shows they aren’t capable of respecting Christians. It’s been a week. If they’re only holding them for their safety, they could have handed them over by now”. The woman spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation against herself or her family.

Christians and other minorities tend to support Assad’s government, who comes from a Shi’ite offshoot sect. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority form the backbone of the uprising against Assad. However, nationalist fighters in the opposition face an increasing and threatening expansion of power by extremists, both Syrian rebels who’ve taken up hardline al-Qaeda-style ideologies and foreign fighters. Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East, asked in his sermon at Liturgy, “I ask anyone with any connection, direct or indirect” to intercede to win the group’s return. “We hope this would happen today, not tomorrow. We urge everyone to adhere to the logic of dialogue and peace, not to violence and weapons”. He carefully avoided describing the nuns as ‘‘kidnapped’’ or asking for their release… praying only for their ‘‘return’’… a sign of concerns amongst the Church that any statement could inflame the situation.

The rebel faction that released the video, aired on al-Jazeera, didn’t name itself, and no faction announced it’s holding the group. Syrian opposition activists and Church officials said that the al-Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra is holding them. One activist said that a Syrian Christian businessman is trying to mediate between Jabhat al-Nusra and the government for their release in return for the release of seven Saudi fighters. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secret negotiatons, but didn’t have any further details. Sources at the Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East wouldn’t comment on the situation.

8 December 2013

Albert Aji

Bassem Mroue

Associated Press

http://www.boston.com/news/world/middle-east/2013/12/08/seizure-nuns-stokes-syrian-christian-fears/pGzi0cZt9xYmknutrWDCHN/story.html

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Bishop Luqa al-Khoury, a Patriarchal Vicar at the Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East in Damascus, urged Christians to take up arms to defend themselves and their holy places in the wake of the seizure of a group of nuns from the ancient village of Ma’loula. Speaking to the Iraqi newspaper Azzaman, he said, “We have many young men who’re asking us [to take action], and there are those demanding that we take immediate action. I call on every young man who can take up arms to come forward”, adding that he meant his initiative to propose that the community’s members should engage in self-defence and protect Christian holy places, which have come under attack recently. He went on to say, “Our young people are ready; their fingers are on the trigger and they’re ready to fight for the sake of Syria and for the sake of self-defence”.

Asked about the 13 nuns and several orphanage workers seized last week and spirited away from Ma’loula to the nearby town of Yabroud, Bishop Luqa indicated that he was unable to discuss their situation freely, “As they said, they’re in the home of a neighbour. When you’re in a neighbour’s home, you can only communicate when the neighbour wants you to”. The women appeared in video footage broadcast Friday by al-Jazeera and said that the rebels treated them well after forcing them to leave Ma’loula due to heavy shelling. Pro-opposition sources deny that the rebels kidnapped the women. Bishop Luqa said that some 40 churches suffered damage in the present civil war and blamed the international community for accepting the opposition’s version of events, “which is that the regime is killing its people… they’re seeing things with only eye”. He urged the major powers to make efforts to stop the flow of weapons into the country.

In Lebanon, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil said that the events in Ma’loula, where a fierce campaign locked the régime and rebels in hard combat over the last several weeks, were having an impact on Christians in Lebanon and the rest of the world. Bassil told a news conference that it was time to act to halt “the series of attacks on Christians. Reactions in Lebanon, the Levant, and the world haven’t been sufficient”, adding that a similar disappointing response followed the kidnapping of two Orthodox bishops in April. The minister proposed both prayer and large-scale peaceful demonstrations to express outrage over the targeting of Christians in the Syrian Civil War.

 9 December 2013

The Daily Star (Lebanon)

http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Dec-09/240373-bishop-christians-should-take-up-arms.ashx

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00 Destroyed Syrian Church. 09.12.13

How many destroyed churches (and loyalist mosques) must there be before the West stops aiding the Islamist rebels? Remember, bin Laden took Langley‘s shilling, and Langley FREELY offered it. Let’s not make the same mistake twice…

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Amidst the calamities besetting Syria and the bloodshed afflicting our people and amidst the uncertainty that still surrounds the fate of our Metropolitans Boulos and Youhanna in Aleppo, it’s with deep pain that the Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East received news of the abduction of her daughters, nuns and orphans of the Monastery of Mar Tekla in Ma’loula on 2 December 2013, and their being transported to Yabroud. Because our first attempts to get the release of our abducted daughters didn’t achieve the desired outcome, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East calls upon the international community and all governments to intervene and make efforts to release them safely. She likewise calls upon the conscience of all humanity and upon the spark of living conscience that the Creator, may He be exalted, sowed in the souls of all those who worship God, including the kidnappers, to release our sisters, the nuns and the girls of the orphanage.

Our appeal to the international community… although we’re grateful for all the feelings of solidarity, we no longer need denunciation, condemnations, or “feelings of concern” about the assault on human dignity that’s occurring, because all this is engraved in the conscience of every one of us. Today, however, we need concrete actions, not words. We don’t want voices of condemnation from decision-makers, whether regional or international, but rather efforts, pressure, and action leading to the release of those whose only fault was their clinging to their monastery and refusing to leave it.

We reiterate our call to stop the logic of conflict in Syria and replace it with the logic of peaceful dialogue and not to use stalling the start of dialogue to make gains on the ground because Syria is bleeding, and with her, too, our hearts bleed. Let all know that one drop of innocent blood shed on this earth is holier and more precious than all the slogans in the world. Let all understand that the bells of our churches, we the Christians of the Middle East, which were hung and rang in time immemorial, shall continue to ring out and be heard as the sound of our love and our peace for others, with their various religions, throughout the world.

The cruelty of the present days shall not uproot us from our land, because it’s our being, our essence, and a piece of our heart. Given the new circumstances exemplified by the abduction of the nuns and orphans of Ma’loula, with regret, we announce the suspension of our official patriarchal pastoral visit to our children and parishes in the countries of the Arabian Gulf, which we scheduled between 6-17 December 2013, and our return to Damascus to follow closely all efforts and communications related to this latest incident. I greet all of our children in those countries and all those who laboured to prepare the schedule for the visit. I hope that my visit to them would be at the nearest opportunity. You, our children in the Gulf, you, whose sweet and honoured faces, dear to my heart, I was eagerly looking forward to meeting tomorrow, I apologise to you all for suspending this visit after you had made all arrangements for its success. I pray for your health, blessing, and success.

May God protect Syria, Lebanon, and the Middle East, and the people of the Middle East. Thank you to the media who’ve made it possible for the entire world to hear Antioch’s pain and for all to hear of Antioch’s hope.

5 December 2013

His Holiness Youhanna al-Yazigi

Patriarch of Antioch and all the East

Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America

http://www.antiochian.org/patriarch-john-x-speaks-abducted-nuns-maaloula-syria

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On Sunday, an activist group and two pro-government TV stations reported that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad secured the highway that links Damascus with northern Syria, paving the way for the potential shipment of chemical weapons overland to a Mediterranean port for destruction abroad. Last month, government troops launched an offensive in the rugged Qalamoun region north of Damascus, trying to secure the main north-south highway that runs through the area and to cut rebel supply lines that crisscross the mountainous terrain. Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), said that fighting in the area had left the road cut for nearly three weeks, but that government forces reopened the road Sunday after seizing control of most of the contested town of Nabek located along the highway, saying, “It’s open, but it isn’t secure”, adding that the route remains “dangerous” because it’s still under rebel fire.

Two Lebanon-based, pro-Assad TV stations, al-Mayadeen and Hezbollah‘s al-Manar, reported that the Syrian Army secured the Damascus-Homs highway. Both stations have several reporters in Syria. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which heads the UN-backed mission to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile, said last week that it’d consider using the highway to transport Syria’s arsenal to the port of Latakia to take the weapons out of the country for destruction. Dutch diplomat Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint UN/OPCW mission in Syria, said that she recently visited the port of Latakia by helicopter, as the highway wasn’t open, saying, “To get the material to port, it’s necessary that the roads are open and are safe and secure to use”. The UN/OPCW team in Syria intends to remove the most toxic chemicals from Syria by the end of the year for destruction at sea and destroy the entire stockpile by mid-2014. Sunday’s fighting focused on the town of Nabek near the Lebanese border.

The SOHR said that Syrian troops backed by members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah managed to capture most of the town in heavy fighting. Both al-Mayadeen and al-Manar aired videos from inside the town showing bodies of fighters in the streets as well as four booby-trapped vehicles. The SOHR said that the bodies of three children, a woman, and a young man shot dead in Nabek were brought Sunday afternoon to the nearby town of Yabroud. It said that government forces killed them. Opposition activist Hadi Abdullah posted a photo on his Twitter account showing two boys and a girl who he said were killed in Nabek.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah announced that two of its members, including a local commander, were killed whilst “performing their jihadi duties”. The group didn’t say where the men died, although it’s widely believed to have been in Syria. Leaflets handed out in the southern port city of Sidon identified the two as Khalil Diaa and local commander Ali Bazzi. A photo distributed in Sidon of Bazzi, showed a man with a white beard wearing a camouflage military uniform and a green beret. Also in Lebanon, on Sunday, the Lebanese Army captured seven Syrians who had weapons with them as they tried to cross the border. Lebanon’s National News Agency said that Lebanese authorities detained three Syrians near the Lebanese border town of Arsal whilst on their way to Qalamoun. It said the arrest happened after midnight Sunday; the Syrians carried light weapons and telecommunications equipment. Later, the Lebanese Army issued a statement saying that troops detained another four Syrians who were trying to cross from Syria to Lebanon in a car with no license plate. It said the soldiers found weapons, including several hand grenades, in the car. The army said they detained the four near Arsal after they crossed into Lebanon.

8 December 2013

Bassem Mroue

Associated Press

http://en.ria.ru/world/20131209/185374686/Syrian-Troops-Seize-Control-of-Strategic-Highway.html

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00 Chechen fighters 2008 S Ossetia

Chechen fighters in the South Ossetia War… NOT the sort of guys you want to be on the bad side of…

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On Wednesday, Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov said that he’s forming a special security unit in Chechnya to deal with Syrian radicals both domestically and abroad, if necessary. Kadyrov said that the move came as a response to many online videos in which Islamists battling government forces in Syria threatened to move to the North Caucasus when the Syrian Civil War is over and engage in terrorist and subversive activities in the volatile region. He said that both the government and residents of Chechnya were getting increasingly concerned about those threats and consider them a serious challenge to their security, saying, “We aren’t going to listen to those threats and watch this plague encroaching on the Russian border. That’s why [Chechnya’s] law enforcement agencies and administration are taking an array of preventive measures”. Kadyrov said that members of the special unit would be ready to interfere in the Syrian conflict, if President Vladimir Putin authorises such operation, adding, “On an order from the commander-in-chief, the unit would be ready to start neutralising in their lairs those in Syria who threaten Russia”.

5 December 2013

RIA-Novosti

http://en.ria.ru/russia/20131204/185264350/Chechnya-Sets-Up-Security-Unit-to-Fight-Syrian-Radicals.html

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The Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MID) and the MP demanded the release of a group of nuns reportedly captured by Islamist rebels at an ancient convent in Syria. On Monday, armed men broke into the Greek Orthodox convent of Mar Tekla in the village of Ma’loula, some 50 kilometres from the Syrian capital of Damascus, and took away the nuns. There was some confusion over the number of women involved and whether the rebels took them hostage or had forcibly moved them away from the fighting in the village.

Vatican Radio reported that Pope Francisco Bergoglio called at his general audience on Wednesday for prayers for the nuns of Mar Tekla “who were taken away by force by armed men”. According to media reports, Archbishop Mario Zenari, the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, said that rebels took the 12 nuns to the town of Yabroud, some 80 kilometres north of the capital. The MID website reported that 13 nuns were missing, including the Superior, Mother Pelagia Sayyaf. SANA said that Mother Pelagia was one of six nuns trapped in the convent.

Konstantin Dolgov, the human rights officer at the MID in Moscow, urged the international community and NGOs to condemn the incident, which increased fears over the safety of Syrian Christians. On Wednesday, Dolgov wrote in his Twitter account, “We call on those who kidnapped the nuns to free them immediately safe and sound”. On Wednesday, the MP also condemned the “cynical act of extremists” in a statement and said that it was praying for the safe release of the nuns. It expressed “full solidarity” with Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East, who appealed in a statement for “the kidnappers” to free the nuns and a group of orphans that lived at the convent. Frequently, extremist Islamist insurgents amongst the rebel groups fighting for almost three years against the régime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad target Syria’s Christian minority. Previously, rebels kidnapped two bishops and a priest, but this is the first incident involving nuns.

4 December 2013

RIA-Novosti

http://en.ria.ru/world/20131204/185257026/Russia-Urges-Release-of-Abducted-Orthodox-Nuns-in-Syria.html

Saturday, 7 December 2013

7 December 2013. Ma’loula Roundup… Nuns Apparently Safe… For Now

00 Monastery of the Mother of God. Saidnaya SYRIA. 16.10.13

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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

AsiaNews

http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Maaloula-sisters-in-Yabrud,-Greek-Orthodox-Patriarchate-reports-29720.html

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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

Christian Today

http://www.christiantoday.com/article/12.nuns.abducted.as.rebels.recapture.maaloula/34910.htm

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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

Nicole Winfield

Albert Aji

Associated Press

http://news.yahoo.com/pope-prays-syrian-nuns-held-rebels-173906096.html

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00 Patriarch Youhanna of Antioch with Pres al-Assad. 05.12.13

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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

The Daily Star (Lebanon)

http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2013/Dec-05/240023-yazigi-urges-for-the-release-of-abducted-nuns.ashx

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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

Reuters

http://news.asiaone.com/news/world/syrian-rebel-group-demands-hostage-swap-abducted-nuns

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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

Patrick McDonnell

Nabih Bulos

Los Angeles Times

http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-syria-nuns-hostages-20131206,0,6881412.story

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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

Albert Aji

Zeina Karam

Associated Press

http://news.yahoo.com/syrian-nuns-taken-rebels-appear-video-180023654.html

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