BEIRUT: Thirteen kidnapped Lebanese and Syrian nuns appeared in good health in a video broadcast by Al-Jazeera Friday, with one captive saying they would be released in two days.
“We are 13 nuns and three civilians and we are here in a very, very nice villa ... and we will leave in two days,” one of the nuns said in response to a question posed by a man behind the camera.
Asked whether they considered themselves hostages, another nun said they were evacuated from Maaloula into a safer place as a result of heavy shelling on the Christian town.
One of the nuns also said they were being treated fairly, urging opposing forces in Syria to refrain from targeting religious sites such as mosques and churches.
A group calling itself the Free Qalamoun Battalion demanded the release of 1,000 Syrian women detainees as part of a swap deal to secure the release of the nuns seized from a convent in Syria.
“The nuns are in a safe place, but they will not be released until several demands have been implemented, most notably the release of 1,000 Syrian [women] held in the prisons of the Syrian regime,” the group’s spokesman, Mohannad Abu al-Fidaa, said in comments to pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat published Friday.
Fidaa said the group’s demands were conveyed to the Syrian regime through the Vatican after establishing contact between the head of the Mar Takla monastery, Mother Pelagia Sayyaf, and the Vatican by a satellite-operated phone.
He said the demands were made jointly by the Free Qalamoun Brigades and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
The nuns along, with several orphans, were feared kidnapped on Monday after Syrian rebels, including fighters from the Nusra Front, recaptured the Christian town of Maaloula, located north of Damascus, from Assad’s forces after three days of heavy clashes.
It could not be confirmed whether the nuns had been abducted or evacuated for their own safety.
Fidaa said the Vatican had pleaded with his group to move the nuns, who are being kept at an underground shelter, from Maaloula to the house of a Christian citizen in Yabroud.
"But their request was rejected until our demands are met," he said.
Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati phoned Friday Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X Yazigi and expressed his solidarity with the case of the nuns and expressed hope that the ongoing contacts would secure their release and that of the bishops abducted earlier this year.
"[I] reject such heinous crimes that are not related to Islam or any spiritual values ... these nuns devoted their lives to serve the orphans, the needy and the poor and they should be kept at a distance from political disputes," Mikati told Yazigi, according to a statement from Mikati’s office.
He also said that religious sites particularly historic ones should be protected from military operations.