.- An Orthodox bishop in Syria has called for the release of 12 nuns kidnapped by Islamist rebels, saying they “have done no harm to anyone.”
“We’ve now reached the point where even nuns are being abducted. What have they done wrong? It’s a crime. The abductors want to demonstrate that they show no mercy,” Bishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Homs and Hama, told Aid to the Church in Need Dec. 11.
The bishop told the international Catholic pastoral charity that there has been no communication with the nuns, and that he believes they are being held in Yabrud, a rebel-held town 12 miles from their Orthodox convent of St. Thekla in Ma'loula.
The nuns, along with three women from their convent's orphanage, were abducted after Ma'loula, located 35 miles north of Damascus, was seized by rebel forces Dec. 2. Their captors are presumed to be Islamist fighters of al-Nusra Front.
“I am very sad that they have been abducted,” the bishop said.
The television station Al Jazeera broadcast video of the nuns last week.
“They said they had been removed for their own safety,” Bishop Alnemeh reported. “We don't know how recent the recordings are and how the sisters are doing now.”
The Syrian government is negotiating with rebels who are demanding that hundreds of imprisoned women activists be freed in exchange for the nuns’ freedom, the Associated Press reports.
Bishop Alnemeh said the nuns have been completely apolitical.
“They were neither on the side of the regime nor on that of the opposition. Their convent took in refugees regardless of their religion, including Muslims.”
Pope Francis called for prayers for the nuns in his Dec. 4 general audience.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, on Dec. 13 said there has been “a significant adnd deeply alarming rise” in abuctions of religious figures, journalists, activists, and human rights supporters by opposition groups. He said Syrian government forces have also engaged in “arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances of individuals.”
Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulous Yazigi of Aleppo and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yuhanna Ibrahim of Aleppo were abducted in April. Bishop Alnemeh said their fate is unknown, though there are rumors that only one bishop is still alive, and is being kept in either Syria or Turkey.
Bishop Alnemeh urged the international community, governments of neighboring countries and other organizations to bring an end to the Syrian civil war, now in its 32nd month.
The war is rooted demonstrations which sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011 protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader the country's Ba'ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war which has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people.
There are 2.3 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. An additional 6.5 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
Syrians are facing food insecurity, and a severe winter storm has brought freezing temperatures and snow to bear upon refugees in Lebanon without adequate shelter.
The Syrian civil war is being waged among the Syrian regime and various rebel groups, including both moderates such as the Free Syrian Army, Islamists such as al-Nusra Front, and Kurds.
On Dec. 11, both the US and UK announced the suspension of all “non-lethal” support, such as vehicles, communications equipment and medicine, to rebels in northern Syria, after the Islamic Front, a new rebel alliance, seized a Turkish border crossing operated by the Free Syrian Army.