Syria, December 3, 2013
Syria's Greek Orthodox patriarch has urged Syrian rebels to release a group of nuns who taken hostage from a convent in the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula.
Mother Superior Pelagia Sayyaf and 11 nuns were kidnapped from St Tecla Orthodox monastery after it was overrun by rebel forces who had taken control of the city in southwest Syria.
"We appeal to the seed of conscience that God planted in all humans, including the kidnappers, to release our sisters safely," patriarch John Yazigi said.
"We call upon the international community and world governments to [help secure the] release the nuns of the St Tecla convent."
Yazigi said that orphans who were in the foster care of the sisters had also been taken hostage.
Febronia Nabhan, the Mother Superior of nearby Christian convent of Saidnaya, said that the nuns had been taken to the rebel stronghold of Yabroud, 20km north.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Maaloula was captured by rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
Maaloula, a historic city close to the Lebanese border, and its nuns have been struggling to steer a middle course since the civil war broke out in March 2011.
One of the last places where Aramaic - the language of Jesus - is spoken, Maaloula and St Tecla used to be major pilgrimage sites for Christians and Muslims alike.
"Many Muslims come and the Muslims make their prayers to God. This convent opens its doors to everyone, regardless of their faith," Sayyaf told Fox News in 2010.
After war broke out, most Christians sided with the regime in fear of an Islamist takeover.
Sayyaf initially appeared to back the regime of Bashar al-Assad, whom she had met at least once in 2008, when the president and his wife visited the convent for Easter.
"There were people here who wanted to push us against the government," Sayyaf was quoted in Russia Today one year into the conflict.
"If you hear the army enter the city and kill people believe me this is a mistake; the army is here to protect people. God bless Assad."
When rebel forces first seized Maaloula in September, Sayyaf reportedly angered Assad supporters by denying government reports that the city's monasteries had been razed and pillaged.
In a video uploaded on YouTube by an opposition group Sayyaf is seen flanked by another nun calmly speaking to rebels at the convent. Shelling can be heard outside.
Syria's foreign ministry said after the kidnapping that terrorists had taken the nuns and sabotaged churches and houses.
Sayyaf managed to get a message through to Nabhan that she and the sisters were "fine and safe".
The Apostolic Nuncio to Damascus, Monsignor Mario Zenari, told Vatican Radio that it was not clear if the nuns were taken hostage or were evacuated from the monastery to keep them safe from fighting.
He said the convent was one of the last inhabited buildings in Maaloula. Most residents fled long ago because of the danger.
"If Maaloula survives, it will be a miracle," Sayyaf told the New York Times in September. "Maaloula is empty. You see ghosts on the walls."