DAMASCUS/AMMAN: Thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns arrived in Damascus Monday after Al-Qaeda fighters who held them for more than three months freed them in exchange for women prisoners held by President Bashar Assad’s government.
It was unclear how many women prisoners had been released. Activists said at least 15 women were freed from Adra prison north of Damascus, just a fraction of the 153 whom some officials had said would be included in the exchange.
The mostly elderly nuns and three other women from their convent appeared in good health as they sat in a room with several other Christian clergymen.
Most of them were dressed in black habits and wore large crosses around their necks.
“All of Syria is happy today [for their return],” Bishop Luka 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.”
Eleven of the nuns later attended a service of thanksgiving for their safe return at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Damascus. Mother Superior Pelagia Sayyaf, one of the abducted nuns, held a candle and wept as she entered the church.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate welcomed the nuns’ return and called for the release of all remaining prisoners in Syria, including two prominent Syrian bishops who were abducted in Aleppo province last April.
Activists said the authorities released 15 women activists who had been held on terrorism charges at the sprawling Adra prison on the outskirts of Damascus.
Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent human rights lawyer whose family was representing some of the women, said one of them had been serving a 20-year sentence.
Many had been sentenced under laws against terrorism enacted after the revolt against Assad erupted in March 2011, while others were being held without charge, he said.
“We are hearing that a swap is underway. We ascertained that 15 women have been released so far because they were held in a formal prison. It is unclear until now what happened to the rest,” Bunni said.
Activists said more than 100 other women detained in secret police and intelligence compounds, including several imprisoned with their children, were still awaiting release.
Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah, who said his country’s mediation had secured the nuns’ release, told state news agency QNA that the exchange included the release of 153 female Syrian prisoners from state prisons.