The AP reports this morning:
Activists and residents say Syrian rebels have taken control of parts of an ancient Christian town in the rugged Qalamoun region near Damascus. . . .
The resident said hardline Islamic brigades first began attacking Syrian forces in the town three days ago. He said Maaloula residents fled to Damascus, fearing rebels would punish them for supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad and because they are Christians. The resident requested anonymity, fearing for his safety.
In previous battles, hardline rebels have desecrated churches but largely left Christians alone.
Maaloula is one of three towns where Syrian Christians still speak Aramaic (Jesus’ mother tongue), and was nearly overrun by rebel units in September. The rebels were driven out by regime forces, but now more rebels — led, especially in the northern part of the country, by proudly Islamist groups — are mounting an offensive in the remote area. In the process, rebels apparently today kidnapped twelve Greek Orthodox nuns:
Islamist rebels have kidnapped a group of nuns from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St Thecla (Mar Taqla) in Maaloula (north of Damascus). Mgr Mario Zenari, the Vatican nuncio in Damascus, confirmed the information after speaking with the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate. Through the Vatican diplomat, the latter “calls on all Catholics to pray for the women religious.”
“Armed men burst in the monastery of St Thecla in Maaloula this afternoon. From there, they forcibly took 12 women religious,” Mgr Zenari said, citing a statement from Patriarchate. The group of Islamist rebels has apparently taken them to Yabrud, some 80 km north of the capital. Neither the nuncio nor the church Greek Orthodox Church know reason behind the kidnapping.
Meanwhile, the U.N. reported on Friday that more than 1 million children have been made refugees from their own country by the war the Assad regime began, making it the worst new refugee crisis in more than two decades.
UPDATE: Lebanon’s Daily Star cites a more nuanced explanation from the Vatican’s top diplomat in the country: “We don’t know the reasons behind this act by the armed opposition. It is a kidnapping, or an act of control over the monastery in order to free their hand in Maaloula.” And the opposition had a different story:
Pro-opposition sources denied that the nuns had been taken hostage, claiming that rebels from the mainstream Free Syrian Army were trying to protect the women amid intensive shelling by government troops located near the town.
The sources said the rebels were still in the convent with the nuns and that the shelling and sniping by government troops had prevented their attempts to evacuate them.