OFFENSE? NUN TAKEN: The 13 nuns and three maids kidnapped from the Mar Takla Monastery in Maaloula in December 2013 were released Sunday, three months after Jabhat a-Nusra kidnapped the women amidst heavy clashes in the Qalamoun mountain range near Syria’s border with Lebanon.
The nuns spoke from the Lebanese town of Jadidat Yabus, where they were released in a Qatari-brokered prisoner exchange. Pro-government newspaper al-Watan reported that the Syrian-Christian businessman George Haswani negotiated on behalf of the Syrian government.
Jabhat a-Nusra reportedly kidnapped the nuns in December during the struggle for Qalamoun, which oversees the M-5 highway linking Homs and Damascus. The nuns were kidnapped when rebel groups briefly seized the ancient Christian village of Maaloula.
After being freed, the nuns echoed sentiments they had expressed in two videos that surfaced during their detainment, in which they insisted rebels had not mistreated them. “Jabhat a-Nusra treated us well and they provided us with all of our needs,” head of the Mar Takla Monastery told a group of mostly pro-government media.
The Mother Superior thanked the Syrian president for working with the Emir of Qatar, as well as others involved in their release.
“All 16 of us were released… We are in good health and were not harmed at all,” she added.
“We have been able to practice [our religion] freely,” said another nun, though none of the nuns was wearing the traditional crucifix around the neck.
After Maaloula once again fell into regime hands, Jabhat a-Nusra reportedly transferred the nuns to the rebel-held town of Yabroud, where clashes are ongoing.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the agreement to release the nuns included provisions for “exchanging women who are imprisoned in government jails in addition to other stipulations that have not been made clear yet.”
Hadi Abdullah, a prominent Syrian activist who has closely followed and reported on the prisoner exchange, denied al-Watan’s report that Haswani, the Syrian-Christian businessman, had played any role in the release.
Al-Watan added that the agreement includes an exchange of 150 female Syrian prisoners and is being supervised by the director general of the Lebanese security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim.
The head of the Qatari Intelligence Services, Ghanam a-Qabisi, arrived at the Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut on Sunday to meet with Major General Ibrahim. Outer Damascus governor Hussein Makhlouf, a relative of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also traveled to Lebanon to greet the nuns upon their release.