Author Topic: Rebel Leader: Nuns Were Led To Safety, Not Seized, In Syria  (Read 196 times)

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Rebel Leader: Nuns Were Led To Safety, Not Seized, In Syria
« on: December 20, 2013, 11:55:15 AM »
Via NPR, so take that as you will:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2013/12/19/255548730/rebel-leader-nuns-were-led-to-safety-not-seized-in-syria

Quote
There are differing versions of what happened to the Greek Orthodox Nuns of Maaloula, who left their convent north of Damascus earlier this month. Some say the nuns are being held hostage by Islamic radicals. Others say they were under missile assault by the forces of Syrian President Bashar and were rescued by rebel fighters.

NPR now has a first-hand account from one man who was in Maaloula – and says he helped with the nuns' passage.

When Abu Majid, a 25-year-old Syrian rebel, negotiated the nuns' passage from the Mar Tekla convent in the ancient, Aramaic-speaking town of Maaloula, he was convinced they would be killed if they stayed.

"He decided to kill you and blame us," he recalled pleading with the sisters, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad, after a surface-to-surface missile shattered the convent's thick wooden door on Dec. 3.

His talks with the nuns over their safety began earlier in the day as five rebels groups — local insurgents, including an al-Qaida-linked battalion — fought Syrian government forces for control of the predominantly Christian town. The battle in Maaloula was part of a larger war for the strategic area of Qalamoun, near the Lebanese border. The nuns, the only civilians left in town, were reluctant to leave the convent, built deep into the rocky landscape.

But after a missile hit at dusk, Abu Majid said, "it was crazy," and the nuns agreed to go. "At first, they had to walk. It was too dangerous to bring cars into the town."
Syrian Christians and Muslims at the Greek Orthodox Mariamiya Church in Damascus, Syria, offer prayers for Greek Orthodox nuns who left their convent in Maaloula, Syria, with rebels amid heavy fighting.

Syrian Christians and Muslims at the Greek Orthodox Mariamiya Church in Damascus, Syria, offer prayers for Greek Orthodox nuns who left their convent in Maaloula, Syria, with rebels amid heavy fighting.
STR/AP

Abu Majid said he told the frightened sisters if the Syrian soldiers saw car lights, the army would kill them all. From the outskirts of Maaloula, a convoy of rebel cars moved in darkness and transported the women, including two Lebanese and one Iraqi nun, to an isolated villa in a rebel-held village, away from the immediate danger.

"To make them feel safe, a local rebel came with them from Maaloula. He was in the lead car ," Abu Majid said.

The events surrounding the nuns' departure from the Mar Tekla convent has become a tale of competing narratives. Syrian government officials immediately accused radical Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaida of kidnapping the sisters at gunpoint. Syria's government-controlled media contends that Muslim extremists are targeting Syria's minorities, including Christians.

But Abu Majid said local rebels were protecting the women from the regime shelling on an ancient Christian town.

"Assad always says he protects the minorities, but he shells them," said Abu Majid during an interview in Lebanon. The thin-faced young man, with dark hollowed eyes, agreed to talk about the nuns of Mar Tekla and his role in their departure from Maaloula on a rare visit across the border in a short break from the battlefield.

Refusing an offer of food in honor of his fellow fighters, Abu Majid said rations are so short that his battalion has learned to survive on local dates and cigarettes. He finally drank some sweet tea.

Church Official Confirmation

A law student before he joined Syria's rebellion, Abu Majid now leads Ahrar al Asserian, or Free Asserians, a local Muslim rebel group. In addition to Arabic, he speaks Aramaic, a language shared with the sisters of Mar Tekla. He says the nuns left the convent willingly and were permitted a satellite call to confirm their safety.

Some of the details of Abu Majid's account were confirmed in call to the office of the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, Archbishop Mario Zenari in Damascus.

"The sisters have been in touch with the local bishop," Zenari said, referring to the head of the Damascus-based Greek Orthodox Church. He added that the sisters were also allowed to make a call to the office of Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.'s special envoy to Syria.

Zenari did not call the nuns' departure from Maaloula a kidnapping. "As far as we know," he said, "the sisters were taken to a safer place," though he added that the situation is "still confusing."
A Syrian government solider aims his weapon during clashes with Free Syrian Army fighters in Maaloula village , north of Damascus, in this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA on Sept. 13.

A Syrian government solider aims his weapon during clashes with Free Syrian Army fighters in Maaloula village , north of Damascus, in this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA on Sept. 13.
SANA/AP

The calls made by satellite phone, he said, were made at about the same time that a video surfaced, on Dec. 6, of the sisters sitting on a sofa in front of a heater explaining they had been taken away for their own safety.

The head of the convent, Mother Superior Pelagia Sayyaf, spoke directly to the camera. Her account tallied with Abu Majid's version of a fast drive out of Maaloula under heavy shelling.

"We can't say anything except may God give them all health," Sayyaf said in the video, referring to the rebels who are not seen onscreen. "I thank those who offered this favor, food, water and welfare."

Abu Majid said government forces have cut off all food deliveries into much of the Qalamoun area, but there are still stored supplies. The nuns are getting the best food, he said.

"They even get chicken when we are eating dates and water," he said.

Conflicting Reports On Talks, Demands

The complicated negotiations to release nuns now include the Syrian government, the Vatican, Qatar, the rebels and a wealthy Syrian Christian businessman who runs an oil and gas construction business with ties to Moscow, according to Abu Majid. The talks are taking place against a backdrop of fierce battles between rebel groups and the regime in the Qalamoun region where the nuns are believed to be held.


More at link.

I'm pleased the Sisters were finally persuaded to leave. We couldn't do it.
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