Kidnapped nuns bond with al-Qa’ida captors: ‘We weren’t harassed at all. They were kind and sweet’

Thirteen nuns kidnapped by militants blamed for some of the worst atrocities in the Syrian civil war have been freed in a prisoner exchange. Far from being ill-treated, they describe their keepers as ‘kind and sweet’. Fenande van Tets reports

The 13 nuns and three maids crossed the border in the dark, in black cars, flying the black al-Qa’ida flag and driven by masked al-Qa’ida rebels that had held them captive for nearly three months.

Before they went on their way they exchanged pleasantries with the rebels from Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group that fights for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. One nun, who was too weak to walk, was carried to the car by a rebel fighter who covered his face with a black scarf.

The remarkable scene was played out in the early hours of Monday morning, as a deal brokered between extremist rebels and the Syrian government saw the release of 13 nuns captured in December in exchange for the release of 150 female prisoners and four children held by the government. Later, one of the nuns would give a brief account of their time with one of the most feared rebel groups in Syria: “They were kind and sweet.”

The release is the latest in a series of similar exchanges between government forces and rebel groups, despite the country’s brutal civil war continuing apace. The government is keen to portray itself as the protector of minorities in Syria – predominantly Christians and Alawites.

A video released by activists showed the nuns arriving in the town of Arsal in Lebanon in SUV’s with the black Salafi flag used by al-Qa’ida fluttering in the wind. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog based in the UK, declared Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, was behind the abduction.

The group has been blamed for some of the worst atrocities of the Syrian civil war – including the deliberate targeting of civilians. Human Rights Watch have accused the group of taking part in a massacre of civilians belonging to the Alawite sect, to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs. The opposition has always claimed the nuns were being held as “guests” for their own safety as the regime was shelling the area. The regime claims foreign terrorists, its name for rebels, target minorities, such as Christians.

But according to the nuns, they were treated well by their captors. The rebel video shows the nuns having good rapport with their captors, smiling and exchanging blessings. An unseen rebel says: “I was so happy to be in communication with you and I hope we can stay in communication, if God decides that. Please say hello to your families for me, and I hope you arrive safely,” he adds as the nuns got into the car.

The Greek Orthodox nuns and their three maids were taken on December 3 following a rebel offensive in the mostly Christian town of Maaloula, where Aramaic is still spoken. They were initially held in the monastery of Mar Thekla in Maaloula, but later moved to Yabroud, a rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border. George Haswani, a local pro-government business man, confirmed they were held at his villa there.

Yabroud, is the last rebel stronghold in the middle of Syria and has been under fierce attack by the Syrian Army. Due to the fighting in the area, the nuns were taken first across the border to Lebanon, before being transported to the Jdaidet Yabous border crossing in the early hours of Monday. Senior regime figures, family members as well as Muslim and Christian clergy welcomed the nuns back in Syria. A reception was held on Monday at Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Old Damascus, where the nuns will now be staying. Clergy in Syria said the advances made by the Syrian army were behind the release of the nuns. “What the Syrian army achieved in Yabroud facilitated this process,” Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop Louka Khoury.

Talking to assembled reporters at the border the nuns said they were treated well, with one nun even describing her captors as “ kind and sweet”. Mother Pelagia Sayaf, head of Mar Thekla monastery thanked the Syrian government, who she said worked with the Qatari government for their release.

“We weren’t harassed at all,” she said. “No one forced us to remove our crosses.” In a video released in December, in which the nuns had already indicated good treatment, they were seen without their religious symbols. It transpired yesterday that removing the crosses was a voluntary decision as it “seemed like the right thing to do”.

The deal almost fell through on Sunday, as the rebels tried to use last minute pressure to bargain. In return for the nun’s release a number of female prisoners were freed from Syrian jails. At the end of the rebel video one could see a throng of women heading towards the rebels, including two young children. They are suspected to be the children of known rebel commanders who had been taken along with their mothers.

The prisoner exchange is the latest reconciliatory gesture by the government, which relies on support from minority Alawites and Christians. Negotiations are ongoing to facilitate the release of two archbishops, taken in Aleppo last April, as well as the Italian Jesuit, Paolo dall Oglio, who disappeared last July.

In January, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem said the government was open to exchanging prisoners. However, exchanges have been rare and have mostly focused on foreigners. The first big prisoner exchange took place in January 2013, when 48 Iranians were released by rebels in return for 1,200 government prisoners. Last October, rebels released nine Lebanese hostages in exchange for dozens of female detainees. The conflict, which has seen 100,000 killed, will reach its third anniversary on Saturday.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture