DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Greek Orthodox nuns freed after being held hostage by al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels arrived in Damascus Monday morning, ending their four-month ordeal in a rare prisoner exchange with the government.
The 13 women said they were treated well by rebels and appeared so in a video of their release issued by the al-Qaida group. It showed a masked gunman carrying one elderly nun who was too weak to walk to a waiting vehicle. Activists said the release came in exchange for 150 female prisoners held by the government.
Residents gave the nuns a warm welcome at the Church of the Cross in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Qassaa, state news agency SANA reported.
They were released early Monday in a rare deal between the Syrian government and rebels of the so-called Nusra Front that was mediated by the Gulf country of Qatar, traditionally a rebel supporter.
The video appeared genuine and consistent with The Associated Press’ reporting. The dialogue it showed between the nuns and the armed, masked Sunni militants was surprising for the familiarity with which they addressed each other.
“What we did was less than what we should have done,” an off camera rebel voice said to a nun, likely referring to the length of their captivity. He said that God will reward the nuns for their suffering.
“May God reward every person who sought to resolve this problem,” said the nun, who later exclaims: “Four months, man!”
As the women reach the car, the unseen rebel says, “I was so happy to be in communication with you and I hope that we can stay in communication, if God decides that. Please say hello to your families for me, and I hope you arrive safely.”
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Observatory for the Human Rights said the government freed 150 women prisoners and three children of a prisoner in exchange for the nuns.
In Damascus, the nuns prayed before heading to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Old Damascus, where they will now stay, SANA said.
Patriarchal assistant, Bishop Luca al-Khoury, who led an official church reception to greet the nuns, accused the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad of targeting Syria’s patchwork of religious minorities. Al-Khoury is a frequent defender of Assad’s rule.
“Syria, which does not differentiate between Muslims and Christians, is targeted … by the armed terrorist groups who don’t understand anything but the language of killing and destruction.”
Although the nuns appear to be treated well, their seizure confirmed the fears of many Syrian Christians that they were being targeted by extremists among the rebels in the increasingly sectarian three-year conflict.
The country’s chaotic mix of rebel groups is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, while minorities include Christians, Shiite Muslims and Alawites – whose sect is a Shiite offshoot. Most have sided with Assad or remained neutral, fearing for their fate should rebels take power. Assad is an Alawite.
Two bishops were seized in rebel-held areas in April, and an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, went missing in July after traveling to meet militants in Raqqa. None have been heard from since.
The energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar had been involved in the mediation that freed the nuns since December, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah said in a statement carried by his country’s official news agency.
Also Monday, the international rights group Amnesty International accused the Syrian government of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity by blockading and starving civilians in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk.
Amnesty said it estimated 128 people starved to death in Palestinian-dominated Yarmouk since a yearlong blockade on the area was tightened in July by forces loyal to Assad, who sought to flush out rebels and to punish civilians for harboring them.
Efforts to reach a truce in Yarmouk allowing food deliveries to starving residents have repeatedly collapsed.
Hadid reported from Beirut. Adam Schreck contributed reporting from Dubai.