|Mother Pelegia Sayyaf|
Syrian opposition forces are offering to swap some 12 Orthodox nuns they are holding in the Qalamoun Mountains range for 1,000 women prisoners detained by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
News of the proposed exchange makes today’s front-page lead of the respectable Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat.
The paper’s correspondent in Antakya quotes an “Ahrar al-Qalamoun Brigade” spokesperson as saying the nuns abducted earlier this month from the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula “are now in a safe place. They won’t be released before a number of conditions are met – chiefly, the release of 1,000 Syrian women prisoners languishing in Syrian regime lockups.”
An Ahrar al-Qalamoun Brigade spokesperson, AKA Muhammad Abul-Feda, tells Asharq Alawsat, “Our demands were relayed to the Syrian regime via the Vatican following a satphone call by Mother Pelegia Sayyaf to Rome.”
Mother Pelegia Sayyaf is the abbess of St. Thekla (a disciple of St. Paul who faced a heroic and miraculous martyrdom) in Maaloula (which means “entrance” in Aramaic).
Some of Maaloula’s residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language spoken by Jesus.
Abul-Feda tells Asharq Alawsat the rebel demands were jointly set by Ahrar al-Qalamoun Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra, adding:
“The Vatican had asked my brigade to move the sisters to a Christian family’s home in the nearby town of Yabroud. The request was turned down pending approval of our terms that have been passed on to the regime.”
Abul-Feda said the nuns are now in a safe hideaway and protected jointly by Ahrar al-Qalamoun Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Saudi daily quotes other unnamed sources as saying Jabhat al-Nusra also wants the regime to lift its blockade on food and other supplies in Ghouta near Damascus.
Mohammed el-Zahouri, a Syrian journalist embedded with opposition forces in Maaloula, says he saw the nuns and their valet, Elias, “but their number is not 12 as the Vatican is claiming.”
Zahouri tells Asharq Alawsat, “The Syrian regime is trying to kill the nuns and blame the armed opposition for their killing. A few days ago, they escaped certain death when their St. Thekla convent in Maaloula was hit by a government ground missile and a round of mortar shells.”
But he is adamant the nuns “are now out of Maaloula and out of Yabroud as well.”
Separately, opposition activists again accused Assad forces of using poison gas in Syria’s civil war yesterday, and said victims had been discovered with swollen limbs and foaming at the mouth.
The activists told Reuters two shells loaded with gas hit a rebel-held area in the town of Nabak on a major highway in the Qalamoun region. They reported seven casualties.