Twelve nuns kidnapped by jihadists in Syria last December were set free yesterday (Sunday, March 9th).
Patriarch Gregorios III, head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, broke the news to a team from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), who had just arrived in Lebanon to visit projects supporting refugees from Syria.
The Damascus-based Patriarch told members of the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians that the nuns had not been harmed during their ordeal and that their release was “a sign of hope in this time of crisis.”
Gregorios III said, “I think they were not treated too badly as it is not in the interest of the kidnappers to do this.”
He said that the freedom of the nuns had been secured following the intervention of Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X.
Patriarch Gregorios added that the release had apparently been mediated by the secret services of Qatar and Lebanon.
Describing the plight of the nuns, who were seized from a monastery in the Syrian town of Maaloula, Patriarch Gregorios said yesterday (Sunday): “[The nuns] had to travel [80Km] from Yabroud [where they were being held] to the border of Lebanon and I don’t know where they will go this evening,” although it is expected they will now settle in Lebanon.
His comments came as a Lebanese security source was reported yesterday (Sunday) as saying that the nuns were being accompanied by the head of a Lebanese security agency and a Qatari intelligence official.
According to media reports, the release of the nuns had been agreed as part of a deal in which the government would free scores of women prisoners.
The Sisters were seized in December from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Thecla in the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula, about 40 miles north of Damascus.
Later that month (December), the nuns appeared in a video obtained by Al-Jazeera television, saying they were in good health, but the circumstances in which the video was made were unclear.
Soon after their capture, they were reportedly moved 15 miles north to the rebel-held town of Yabroud.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group identified the rebels who took the nuns as militants from the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
The Nusra Front invaded Maaloula on September 4th, 2013.
In the three days that they held the town, 12 people were killed, including three men who refused to renounce their Christian faith.
The Patriarch described speaking to the nuns’ Mother Superior shortly after the town was taken and being assured by her that all the Sisters were unharmed.
Weeks later, the Islamists struck again and took the nuns.
In the meantime, children who fled Maaloula in September are being supported and educated by the Church in Damascus.
Patriarch Gregorios said, “Thanks to Aid to the Church in Need we have been able to give help to 5,000 children: 1,000 in Damascus, 2,000 in Dina, and 2,000 in Homs.”
ACN has provided ongoing emergency help for the victims of the violence and unrest in Syria, including food, shelter and medicine.
Up to nine million people are either internally displaced within Syria or living as refugees abroad.
Of Syria’s pre-war Christian population of 1.75 million, it is now understood that 500,000 have fled their homes.
Directly under the Holy Father, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity - helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
Founded in 1947 by Father Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An Outstanding Apostle of Charity,” the organization is now at work in over 145 countries throughout the world.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 43 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide.