Syrian rebel group Ahrar Al-Qalamoun Brigade took responsibility for the recent abduction of 12 nuns and three civilians from the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, while conflicting reports cast uncertainty over whether the nuns were abducted or evacuated.
The group, which has close ties to al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, demanded the release of 1,000 female detainees in exchange for the nuns’ release, according to Asharq Al-Awsat. It also demanded the government end its siege on certain areas of Syria, including the Ghouta district of Damascus.
But that report conflicted with other accounts, including a video of the nuns released the same day. The New York Times reported that in the video Mother Pelagia Sayaf said, “They said there is heavy shelling, and we might get hurt. … For the sake of our safety, we should leave the monastery.” The Times said it was unclear whether the nuns were forced to make the video.
The rebels took the nuns and civilians from a convent in Maaloula on Dec. 2. Mother Superior Febronia Nabhan of the nearby Saidnaya Convent said they were taken to the rebel-held town of Yabroud.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi pleaded for their release saying, “We appeal to the seed of conscience that God planted in all humans, including the kidnappers, to release our sisters safely.”
Two days after the group took the nuns, Pope Francis called for prayers as he spoke in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Vatican representatives said they’ve also been in touch with the nuns, but didn’t know whether they were abducted or evacuated, the Times said.
“The taking of the women from the Mar Takla monastery is extremely troubling, especially in light of the documented abuses that women have faced throughout the 33-month-long conflict,” said Todd Daniels, the regional manager for the Middle East for International Christian Concern (ICC). “Women have been targeted by snipers, used as human shields, raped, and, in some cases, tortured.”
Syrian Christians have accused radicals among the rebels of abusing residents and vandalizing churches after taking Christian towns. The U.N. and human rights organizations blame rebels and the Syrian government for “war crimes” against civilians, according to ICC.
The attack on Maaloula, which began on Nov. 30, was the second attack on the area in nearly three months. Since an offensive in September, most of the 3,300 residents of Maaloula have fled.
The fighting has been devastating to civilians and to churches. The nearly 3-year-old civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people and created at least 2.2 million refugees. Before the conflict, tourists flocked to Maaloula, where some residents can still speak Aramaic.