A $4 million ransom was reportedly paid to the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front for the release of 13 Greek Orthodox nuns that were held by the rebel group for four months, according to Lebanese media.
YNET News The nuns’ release was reportedly delayed because the kidnappers added further conditions before agreeing to hand over the hostages. They were released early Monday in a rare deal between the Syrian government and rebels of the Nusra Front, mediated by the Gulf country of Qatar, traditionally a rebel supporter.
The freed nuns arrived in Damascus on Monday morning, where they received a warm welcome at the Church of the Cross in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Qassaa, official news agency SANA reported.
“All of Syria is happy today (for their return),” Bishop Luka al Khoury told Reuters. “These are women who do nothing but pray…They don’t have weapons or bombs. On the contrary, they pray for people to be safe and secure.”
Eleven of the nuns later attended a service of thanksgiving for their safe return at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Damascus. Mother Superior Pelagia Sayyaf, one of the abducted nuns, held a candle and wept as she entered the church.
The women said they were well treated and appeared so in a video of their release issued by the Nusra Front, the group that held them. One elderly nun too weak to walk was carried by a rebel gunman, his face covered with a balaclava, to a nearby vehicle. They thanked God for their safety before heading to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Old Damascus, where they will now stay, SANA said.
The Syrian Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Assistant, Bishop Luca al-Khoury, who led an official church reception to greet the nuns, accused the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad of targeting Syria’s patchwork of religious minorities. Al-Khoury is a frequent defender of Assad’s rule.
“Syria, which does not differentiate between Muslims and Christians, is targeted… by the armed terrorist groups who don’t understand anything but the language of killing and destruction.”
The nuns’ seizure confirmed the fears of many in Syria’s minority Christian community that they were being targeted by extremists among rebels. Syria’s three-year conflict has become increasingly sectarian.
The country’s chaotic mix of rebel groups is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, while the minorities include Christians, Shiite Muslims and Alawites – whose sect is a Shiite offshoot. Most have sided with Assad or remained neutral, fearing for their fate should rebels take power. Assad is an Alawite.