Syrian rebels released about a dozen Orthodox nuns from captivity on Sunday. The nuns were transferred into the Lebanese town of Arsal and expected to return to Damascus soon after. Their freedom concludes a three-month ordeal that included being moved from their home village of Maaloula, north of Damascus, to the rebel stronghold of Yabroud.
According to sources in the rebel camp, the nuns were freed in a prisoner exchange between the al-Nusra rebel group and the government of Bashar al-Asad, which agreed to release 150 female prisoners of their own. Qatar along with Lebanon helped mediate the deal, which has been one of the few international efforts to successfully ease tensions in the Syrian conflict. The Syrian army has recently launched an offensive targeting Yabroud, where the nuns were being held and Syrian state television did not mention any sort of swap. State news sources are portraying the event as a victory for Asad who has personally checked on the health of the nuns numerous times.
Nuns who has been held by Syrian insurgents for over three months arrived at the border with Lebanon on Monday after being released. (Photo: Reuters)
With Christians comprising only 10% of the population in Syria, Maaloula is one of the last remaining places where Aramaic is still spoken as a primary language. Many Christians fear the radical Islamist agenda of rebel fighters could repress religious minorities, and are worried about the power vacuum that could ensue from a rebel victory. As a result, many minority groups have remained neutral in Syria’s civil war or backed President Asad.
Despite trying to avoid the war, Christian groups have become increasingly drawn into the violence. Along with abducting clerics, some rebel groups have vandalized churches. In the northern city of Raqqa members of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) under threat of death forced Christians to convert or submit to minority status under Sharia law. As a dhimma, or non-muslim, Christians would have to pay a tax, to avoid persecution, and would be forbidden from repairing churches or wearing symbols of their faith.