Kidnapped Syrian nuns released

Greek Orthodox nuns speak with reporters at a checkpoint in the town of Judaydat Yabus in Syria on the border with Lebanon on March 10, 2014, after being released by rebels.(AP)

Thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns that had been held by Syrian opposition forces since December were released yesterday as part of a prisoner exchange.

Last minute problems dogged the final stages of the release, but eventually the nuns entered the pro-rebel town of Arsal in Lebanon, and then moved to Judaydat Yabus, a town on the border between Lebanon and Syria.

The Lebanese television channel Al Jadeed showed pictures of the black-clad nuns at the border. They smiled widely as one reached to hug a Lebanese security official.

The nuns, who are mostly Syrian and Lebanese nationals, and their three helpers, had been working for the orphanage of Mar Takla convent in the Aramaic speaking village of Maaloula, 40 miles north east of Damascus.

They were taken captive by the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate operating out of Syria. This led many to fear that Christians were becoming a new targeted group in the ongoing Syrian conflict.

However the rebels claimed that they were attempting to protect the women from government shelling, and the nuns reported they had been well treated by the opposition fighters.

Although Mother Superior Pelagia Sayaf, the head of the Maaloula convent said to the New York Times: "We weren't harassed at all ... No one forced us to remove our crosses."

The BBC quoted her as saying she and her fellow sisters made a decision to remove them voluntarily "because we were in the wrong place to wear them".

"God did not leave us," Ms Sayaf said. "The [Nusra] Front was good to us."

Not everyone was glowing over their treatment.  Mother Agnes of the Cross, a Lebanese Nun who mediated between the government and the opposition groups said to the New York Times, "If you have conditions [for their release] then they're abducted."

The nuns were held in the city of Yabroud, 50 miles north of Damascus, which has recently been the site of intense fighting between the opposition and government forces.

Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop, Louka al-Khoury, who welcomed the news, was quoted by the Herald Scotland as saying: "What the Syrian army achieved in Yabroud facilitated this process."

There are conflicting accounts of the exact terms for their release. Two rebel leaders from Yabroud known as Abu al-Majd and Khaled, had claimed that Qatari officials offered to pay $4 million for the nuns' release, but that the Al-Nusra front had demanded $50 million.

Lebanese security Chief General Abbas Ibrahim was on Syrian Television saying that the release was made in exchange for the release by the Syrian government of approximately 150 female prisoners.

One rebel source, speaking to Reuters, gave support to this account: "The deal is for the release of 138 women from Assad's prisons."

Syrian State Television covered the release live, flooding the screens with a montage of Christian imagery including churches and statues of the Virgin Mary.

The abduction was a blow to western figures attempting to garner international support for pro-democracy forces fighting the Syrian government. It led many to conclude that the opposition had been largely overrun by Islamist militants.

Over 100,000 people have died and 9.5 million people have been displaced since the conflict against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Christian groups like Barnabas Fund say abductions have become commonplace in the conflict, and questions still remain about the fate of two bishops who were abducted in April last year close to the Turkish border. 

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