It took a reported sum of $4 million and the release of some 150 women and children held by the Syrian government to secure the freedom Monday of 13 Greek Orthodox nuns who had been held hostage since December by Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria.
The Associated Press called the deal between the government of President Bashar Assad and those trying to overthrow him “rare,” but that it would unlikely allay the fears of Syria’s embattled Christian minority. A long-serving bishop on Sunday expressed fears that his community is in “mortal threat” of being “driven into extinction.”
The AP reported that a convoy of 30 vehicles drove the nuns to a town near the Lebanese border, Jdeidet Yabous.
“God did not leave us,” said Mother Superior Pelagia Sayaf who heads the Maaloula convent. “The (Nusra) Front was good to us … but we took off our crosses because we were in the wrong place to wear them.”
The unusual scene of their release unfolded in a video posted to YouTube, in which an Islamist rebel whose face was fully covered with a black mask was seen carrying a frail nun who, like the other women, was wearing a black habit. The nuns were moved into vehicles waving Al Nusra Front flags.
The nuns said that they were taken care of while being held captive and had not been mistreated.
When the women were released and rebels welcomed their freed prisoners, the Islamist militants could be heard on the video erupting in a chorus of “Allahu Akbar.”
The video also showed children who were part of the exchange deal being reunited with the rebels, including a boy who entered the car of one of the Al Qaeda-linked militants.
Rebels nabbed the women from the Mar Takla convent in the Christian village of Maaloula three months ago. The nuns worked in the convent’s orphanage, according to the AP.
“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.”
Some of the freed nuns attended a thanksgiving service in honor of their safe return at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Damascus, Reuters reported.
A Reuters reporter saw Mother Superior Pelagia Sayyaf holding a candle and weeping as she entered the church.
Among those praising the deal was the Lebanese militant Shiite group Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian government. It issued a statement which read in part, “On this happy occasion Hezbollah congratulates the released nuns, the Orthodox Church, the Syrian leadership, and the Syrian and Lebanese people.”
Here is a video that reportedly shows the release of the nuns: