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March 11, 2014 9:04 am

Syrian Rebels Release Group of Kidnapped Nuns in Exchange for Captive Women and Children

avatar by Anav Silverman / Tazpit News Agency

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The fighting in Syria, as seen from Israel. Photo: Tsuri Cohen-Arazi/ Tazpit News Agency.

Thanks to Lebanese-Qatari mediation, a group of 13 nuns captured in December 2013 by Syrian rebels were released on March 10. The nuns, along with three maids, were abducted from their convent, which also serves as an orphanage, in the Syrian town of Maalua, during intense fighting between Syrian rebels and regime forces.

The 13 Syrian and Lebanese Orthodox nuns were taken to a nearby town, Yabrud, where they were held by jihadist Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, which spearheaded the capture of Maalua, a historic Christian town on UNESCO’s tentative list of world heritage sites.

The Al-Nusra Front is one of the radical Islamic groups attacking and harming Christians and Christian sites in Syria.

According to an AFP report, the nuns appeared exhausted after the arduous journey that took them from Yabrud into Lebanon and then finally back to Syria’s Jdeidet Yabus. One nun had to be carried out of the vehicle, which had transported them.

In a press conference at the Syrian-Lebanese border, one nun spoke well of the captors, telling reporters that the Al-Nusra Front “were giving us everything we asked for.” She also denied reports that the kidnappers had forced the nuns to remove their crosses.

In exchange for the nuns, 150 women and children held in Syria’s jails were freed according to the British-based monitoring group, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. AFP reports that human rights groups say that tens of thousands of people including hundreds of children are currently being held in Syria’s jail, where torture and ill-treatment prevail.

Lebanon’s General Security agency director, Abbas Ibrahim, who led the efforts to free the Maalula nuns together with Ghanem al-Kubeissi, Qatar’s intelligence chief, were also involved with similar negotiations last year that freed Christian pilgrims held by rebels in northern Syria.

While Syrian state media reports did not mention any payments for the release of the nuns, two rebel leaders from Yabroud in a BBC report claimed that Qatar, which is one of the main supporters of the Syrian revolt, had offered to pay $4 million for the nuns’ release.

Approximately 45,000 Christians have fled Syria out of a population of two million, and the numbers of Christians leaving is only increasing. A Christian member of the Syrian parliament, Maria Saada, warned in December that “The radical organizations are now attacking [Christian] children to get their parents to leave the country.”

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