DAMASCUS, Syria — A group of Greek Orthodox nuns in Syria, as well as women from their convent’s orphanage, were returned safely Sunday, following their kidnapping by the rebel al-Nusra Front.

“God did not leave us,” said Mother Pelagia Sayaf of the convent of St. Thekla, when they arrived in Damascus Monday, March 10.

One dozen nuns and three workers were abducted from St. Thekla Convent in Ma’loula, located 35 miles north of Damascus, when the town was seized by al-Nusra Front Dec. 2. They had been held three months in the nearby town of Yabrud.

The abductees were brought through a rebel-held border crossing to Arsal, a Lebanese border town, where they were given to Lebanese officials and then driven to Syria, where they have been taken to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus.

“As God is my witness, I tell you the al-Nusra Front treated us well,” one of the nuns told the press.

They explained that they were not forced to remove their crosses, but Mother Sayyaf said they did so “because we were in the wrong place to wear them.”

The nuns’ abduction had prompted objections and concerns from around the world. Pope Francis called for prayers for the nuns in his Dec. 4 general audience. They appeared in a video broadcast on Al Jazeera in December.


‘A Sign of Hope’

Gregorios III, Melkite Greek Patriarch of Antioch, said the nuns’ release was “a sign of hope in this time of crisis.”

“I think they were not treated too badly, as it is not in the interest of the kidnappers to do this,” he told Aid to the Church in Need March 9.

Yabrud is now the focus of a major military campaign by the Syrian army and fighters of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist movement.

Greek Orthodox Bishop Louka al-Khoury credited the military action, saying, “What the Syrian army achieved in Yabrud facilitated this process.”

Patriarch Gregorios said that Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X of Antioch had intervened to help secure the nuns’ release, adding that the secret services of Qatar and Lebanon helped mediate the negotiations.

The BBC reported that officials from Qatar and Lebanon negotiated the deal, quoting a Lebanese general, Abbas Ibrahim, who was involved in the talks. It said the nuns’ release was part of a deal with the Syrian government, which agreed to release around 150 female prisoners.

Sana, the Assad regime’s news agency, quoted the regime’s information minister, Omron al-Zoubi, as saying that only 25 prisoners were released in exchange for the nuns’ freedom and that Qatar was not involved. Sana has acknowledged Lebanon’s role in the release.

Syrian officials have said the nuns were abducted to intimidate Syria’s Christians, while al-Nusra Front has said it was protecting the nuns from government shelling.

The rebels first took Ma’loula for three days in September. Twelve people were killed during that time, including three men who refused to renounce their Christian faith.

The Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, according to Sana, said that the nuns’ return “is a divine message to the Christians to cling tenaciously to this land in fraternity with Muslims.”

Sana added, “The Patriarchate expressed in a statement hope that freeing the nuns is a step forward on the road to genuine national reconciliation and the return of all the abducted and the missing, including bishops Boulous Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim, to their homes.”


Abducted Bishops

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulous Yazigi of Aleppo and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim of Aleppo were abducted in April 2013. Their fate is unknown, though there are rumors that only one bishop is still alive, and he is being kept in either Syria or Turkey.

Approaching its third anniversary, the Syrian conflict has claimed the lives of at least 100,000 persons and as many as 130,000.

The conflict began March 15, 2011, when demonstrations protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party sprang up nationwide. In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters.

The civil war is being fought between the Syrian regime and a number of rebel groups. The rebels include moderates, such as the Free Syrian Army; Islamists such as al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; and Kurdish separatists.

Some 40% of Syria’s population have fled their homes because of the civil war. There are 2.4 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and an additional 6.5 million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.