A group of thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns held for three months by Syrian rebels were released March 9 in an unusual exchange. Their capturers made an agreement with the Syrian government to ensure the release of 150 female detainees in state custody.
Their captors had been Islamist fighters from the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist rebel group with ties to al-Qaeda. The head of the Mar Takla monastery in Maaloula, Mother Pelagia Sayyaf, who was chosen to speak for the rest, denied rumors of mistreatment, saying that “no one bothered us” and that they “were given everything we asked for.”
She denied strongly that they were forced to remove their crosses, saying that they made the decision among themselves because “we were in the wrong place to wear them.”
The nuns had been taken from their Christian village of Maalula, located forty or so miles away from Damascus, on December 3 and taken to the neighboring town of Yabrud, about 13 miles to the north. The rebels claimed that they had been protecting the nuns from the danger of the shelling that was being done by the Syrian government nearby. However, Syrian officials said that they in fact had been kidnapped in order to intimidate the minority Christian community in the country, which makes up only 10% of the population.
The majority of the Christian population in Syria support the al-Assad government because they fear that the end of his presidency would bring an Islamist power grab to the region and further instability, though they avoid publicly going against the rebels. Christians have been targeted by jihadists and had their communities destroyed in Iraq since 2003, and the situation in Syria is showing signs that the same will begin to happen there.
“We want to thank God, who made it possible for us to be here now,” Sayyaf told reporters. “God did not leave us.”