BEIRUT -- At least a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns kidnapped by Syrian rebels near Damascus in December were released on Sunday, according to Syria’s official news agency and Lebanese media reports.
The state-run Syrian news outlet reported that the nuns had been freed and were due to arrive at a Syrian border crossing with Lebanon.
Various media accounts indicated that the nuns had been released near the rebel-held Syrian city of Yabroud and transported to the Lebanese border town of Arsaal. The nuns had reportedly been held for months in Yabroud, which is now the focus of a Syrian military offensive.
A Lebanese security delegation was reportedly set to take the nuns back to Syria via an official border crossing at Jdaidet Yabous, on the Syrian side of the frontier. The nuns were then expected to be transported to Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Various news outlets quoted Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop Louka al-Khoury, who was at the Syrian border crossing, as confirming the nuns’ release and crediting Syrian authorities for their liberation.
Some reports indicated that the nuns were freed in exchange for the release of more than 100 female prisoners in Syrian jails, but there was no official confirmation of any prisoner exchange.
The delicate negotiations that led to the nuns’ release reportedly involved Syrian and Lebanese officials, as well as representatives of the Gulf nation of Qatar, which has long been a major backer of various Syrian rebel factions.
The nuns were kidnapped in December from the St. Thecla Monastery in the historic Christian town of Maaloula, north of Damascus. Islamist rebels overran the town, long a center of Christian pilgrimage.
Initially, opposition spokesmen asserted in comments to the media that the nuns were taken from their convent for their own safety amid heavy fighting. However, it became clear that the nuns were being held hostage once rebel demands emerged for a prisoner exchange.
The abducted nuns later appeared on an Internet video, apparently made by their captors, saying they were guests and were being treated well. Various observers said the women appeared to be speaking under duress.
The nuns’ release would represent a public relations victory for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which has fashioned itself as a defender of minorities amid a war waged by Islamic groups it characterizes as terrorists. The Syrian military has been advancing against rebels on various fronts as the war approaches its three-year mark.
Christians represented about 10% of Syria’s population before the war, according to various estimates. However, many have fled the country, joining more than 2 million Syrian refugees.
The number of nuns kidnapped from Maaloula has variously been described as 12 or 13. Most are said to be Lebanese. Some reports indicated that several lay women who worked in the convent were kidnapped along with the nuns.
Syrian rebels are also suspected in several other high-profile abductions of Christian clerics, including two Syrian bishops seized near the northern city of Aleppo last April and an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who went missing in July in the rebel-held northeastern city of Raqqah.
There has been no definitive word on the fate of the missing bishops or the Italian Jesuit.
Bulos is a special correspondent.