By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BosNewsLife)– Syria’s minority Christians faced another day of anxiety Thursday, December 5, amid mounting concern about the fate of a group of nuns who were abducted by suspected Islamic fighters.
Twelve nuns and three other women were forcefully removed Monday, December 2, from the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Takla in the
ancient Christian town of Maaloula, church officials and local Christians said in statements obtained by BosNewsLife.
They were reportedly taken towards the rebel-held border town of Yabroud, which also has a large Christian population.
The monastery, which housed some 40 nuns and dozens of orphans, and at least one other church, were severely damaged in the clashes, Christians said.
Monday’s abduction followed heavy fighting between a coalition of rebel groups, including the extremist al-Nusra Front with ties to the al-Qaeda terror network, and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
After the rebels drove out Assad’s forces, they reportedly killed three young Catholic men whole attacking several Christian buildings in the area, church sources said.
Maaloula is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the few places in the world where locals still speak Aramaic, which is believed to have been the primarily language of Jesus.
Syrian state-run media claimed rebels “committed acts of vandalism in the town’s neighborhoods and around the convent, attacking locals and targeting them with sniper fire.”
Local Christians and rights activists have long warned that Syria’s minority Christian population would be in the crossfire between rebels and Assad forces. They have also expressed concern about growing Islamic extremism within rebel groups.
Before this week’s attack, already thousands of Christians and many Muslims fled Maaloula when it was previously invaded in September by rebels and other Islamic fighters, rights activists said.
Many Christian families who escaped were accommodated by churches around the capital Damascus, where they received food and medical supplies, aid workers said.
As fighting continued, thousands of kilometers away at the Vatican, Pope Francis urged believers to pray for abducted nuns and others suffering for their faith in Christ.
“Now I would like to invite everyone to pray for the religious sisters of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint [Mar] Takla in Maaloula, in Syria, who, two days ago, were taken away by force by armed men,” he said at the end of his General Audience on Wednesday, December 4.
“Let us pray for these sisters, and for all those who have been kidnapped on account of the on-going conflict. Let us continue to pray and to work for peace,” the pontiff added.
Christian rights activists are also investigating the disappearance of Archbishop Boulos (Paul) Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
The two leaders were kidnapped by gunmen in April this year while returning from a humanitarian mission near the Syrian-Turkish order. Their whereabouts remained unknown Thursday, December 5.
“These are worrying times for the Christian community in Syria, given the earlier abductions of two Archbishops and the documented and deliberate targeting of clergy and laity by Islamist militia,” said Mervyn Thomas, the chief executive of advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
“We also request the speedy release of these nuns and their associates into the hands of church authorities.”
Thomas told BosNewsLife that his group has urged “every party to the conflict to adhere to humanitarian standards with regard to the treatment of civilians, religious leaders and religious establishments, regardless of creed or ethnicity.”
The Syrian civil war has claimed nearly 126,000 lives, with five million people internally displaced, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).