Thirteen nuns freed after being kidnapped by Syrian rebels have arrived in Damascus, ending a three-month ordeal in a rare prisoner exchange with the government.
A ceremony to welcome the nuns was held on Monday at the Church of the Cross in the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Qassaa.
The release of the Greek Orthodox nuns came in exchange for 153 female prisoners held by the government after a deal was struck through Qatari-Lebanese mediation.
However, Abbas Ibrahim, head of the Lebanese general security, said on Monday morning that the government was selective in who were freed from the prisons.
“There are some who were imprisoned in Syrian jails who were released, except for those who committed major crimes. They were taken off the list,” he said.
Acting Qatari ambassador to Lebanon, Ali al-Malki, told Al Jazeera that media reports of a delay in the operation to free the nuns due to rebels asking for ransom money were false.
“There were some media reports that logistical delays had something to do with some financial reasons … there was no ransom paid,” al-Malki said.
The nuns went missing in December after fighters took the ancient quarter of the Christian town of Maaloula north of Damascus.
They were later moved from their monastery of Mar Thecla in Maaloula to the rebel-held town of Yabroud, which is now the focus of a government military offensive.
In Damascus, the nuns prayed before heading to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Old Damascus, where they will now stay, state news agency SANA reported.
Patriarchal assistant Bishop Luca al-Khoury, a frequent defender of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, led the official church reception to greet the nuns. He accused the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad of targeting Syria’s patchwork of religious minorities.
“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,” he said.
Although the nuns appear to have been treated well, their seizure confirmed the fears of many Syrian Christians that they were being targeted by the rebels in the increasingly sectarian three-year conflict.
Before the war, about ten percent of Syria’s 20-million population were Christians, while about 70 percent were Sunni Muslims.
More than 2.5 million people have fled the country since the conflict began and an estimated 140,000 others have been killed.