DAMASCUS: Pope Francis called Wednesday for prayers for 12 Orthodox nuns reportedly taken by force from their convent in Syria by rebels. Religious officials in the region have said the women were abducted, but a Syrian opposition activist said they were merely taken away for their own safety.
Francis didn't call for their release but appealed for prayers from the crowd at the end of his general audience in St. Peter's Square.
"I invite everyone to pray for the sisters of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Santa Takla in Maaloula, Syria, who were taken by force by armed men two days ago," he said. "Let us continue to pray and to work together for peace."
His call came amid ongoing battles in several parts of the country. Rebels firing mortars at government-held neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo killed at least 17 people and wounded dozens more, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The reported seizure of the nuns increases fears that hardline Sunni Muslim rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad are targeting Christians.
Both church leaders and pro-rebel activists say that the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front took the nuns of the Greek Orthodox Mar Takla convent in the ancient Christian village of Maaloula as part of a broader battle to control the rugged Qalamoun area north of Damascus. The area controls the smuggling routes from nearby Lebanon that sustain rebel-held enclaves, as well as a highway leading from Damascus to the central city of Homs.
The rebels took the nuns to nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud, said Mother Superior Febronia Nabhan, head of the nearby Saidnaya Convent. There was no suggestion that the rebels had entered Maloula specifically to seize the nuns. The Qalamoun area has a significant Christian minority.
Syria's three-year-old conflict began with mostly peaceful demonstrations against Assad's rule but collapsed into a chaotic uprising after security forces violently cracked down on protesters.
Hard-line Sunni Muslim brigades have become increasingly dominant within the rebellion and the conflict has grown ever more sectarian.
Syria's minorities, including Christians, have mostly sided with Assad or remained neutral, fearing for their fate if the rebels come to power. Christians have accused radicals among the rebels of abusing residents and vandalizing churches after taking Christian towns. But some members of Syrian minority groups are still fervent activists in the now-overshadowed peaceful uprising to oust Assad.
Al-Qaida-linked rebels previously kidnapped two bishops and a priest.
A Syrian opposition activist claimed the nuns were taken for their own safety because of heavy clashes nearby. However, rebels would not provide evidence of the nuns' safety, said the activist, who goes by the name Amer.
He said the rebels placed the nuns with a Christian family in Yabroud.
"They are being taken care of," Amer said. His information came from friends close to the rebels holding the nuns.
However, a nun in a nearby convent insisted the women were being held against their will.
Stephanie Haddad, deputy of the Greek Orthodox Saidnaya Convent, told The Associated Press that she spoke to the nuns on Tuesday night.
She said rebels guarding them in Yabroud kept promising they would be released soon, "but nothing in certain."
Syria's Greek Orthodox Patriarch, John Yazigi, pleaded for the release of the women on Tuesday.
Maloula was once a tourist attraction before the conflict began. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a language spoken by Jesus.
In another move that underscore the fears of beleaguered minorities, al-Qaida-linked rebels who rule the northeast town of Raqqa converted a church into a center for proselytizing their extreme interpretation of Islam, and another into an administrative office, said the Observatory's Abdurrahman.
Rebels of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant had previously set fires in the two churches and knocked the crosses off them, replacing them with the group's black Islamic banner.
Abdurrahman sent photographs of the Church of Armenian Martyrs, with a black ISIL flag flying from where the cross once stood.
Below, a black banner read, "The proselytizing office, region of Raqqa."