BEIRUT: The country’s Maronite bishops made a fervent plea Wednesday for the release of 12 nuns as well as orphans the women look after at a convent in Syria. “The bishops strongly deplore and condemn the kidnapping of the nuns and orphans in Maaloula,” a statement from the Council of Maronite Bishops said at the end of their monthly meeting chaired by Patriarch Beshara Rai at Bkirki.
“What do those who pray for peace in the Syrian conflict have to do with this?” they asked.
The meeting of bishops urged the international community to determine the whereabouts of the nuns and return them to the convent.
Rebels, including fighters from the Islamist Nusra Front, Monday recaptured Maaloula, located north of Damascus, from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces after three days of heavy clashes. At the time of the recapture, the nuns were inside the convent there and were among only a few residents left in the Christian town.
The nuns and dozens of orphans were first trapped in the convent back in September, when the first round of fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels began in Maaloula.
The Vatican’s ambassador to Syria said Tuesday that rebel fighters moved a dozen nuns and three female helpers from Maaloula to the nearby town of Yabroud.
But it wasn’t clear whether they had been kidnapped or evacuated for their safety. It was also not immediately clear whether the orphans were taken from the convent.
Pope Francis has appealed for prayers for the nuns and all hostages held in Syria.
Francis’ calls were echoed by Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, who issued a public statement urging rebels to release the nuns, along with two bishops kidnapped in the spring.
Qabbani warned against dragging Christians into the region’s conflicts and targeting Christian figures and holy sites, saying foreign powers could use such acts as a pretext to intervene in the Middle East.
“Their abduction and mistreatment contradict the manners and teachings of Islam in treating monks and nuns, particularly during periods of wars and conflicts,” his statement read.
In April, armed men kidnapped Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim while traveling to Aleppo from the Turkish border.
Lebanese caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Samir Moqbel also condemned the aggression against the holy sites and clergy members and denounced the recurrent attacks on the religious sites.
“How can we stop these aggressions?” he asked. “We can’t wait until an outcome to all fighting in Syria is clear, and to protect Christian regions and especially the historical holy sites from being susceptible to such aggressions and its bishops, nuns and monks being offered as scapegoats.”
Moqbel said it was the duty of everyone involved in the Syrian conflict to put an end so such religiously targeted violence and free those captive now. He implored powerful foreign states and the United Nations to have a global conscience and do what they could to curb such crimes.
Head of the Orthodox Gathering Michel Tueini also urged the international community to stop the aggression on the holy sites in Syria and to exert efforts to release the two bishops and the nuns.
“Targeting the Christians in the region started in 1948 and hasn’t stopped with the Syrian crisis,” he said.