by John L. Allen Jr. | Dec. 6, 2013
Syria’s roll call of missing Christians continues to grow.
In April, Islamic militants kidnapped two Orthodox prelates, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi. In July, the same fate befell Italian Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, a well-known Jesuit pioneer in Christian/Muslim relations and anti-Assad activist. The whereabouts of all three remain obscure.
Given the courage and persistence shown by the country’s religious women, it was probably inevitable that sooner or later it would be their turn, and that’s precisely what happened this week.
Sometime late Sunday night or early Monday morning, an armed group linked to the rebels forced their way into the storied fourth-century monastery of St. Thecla (Mar Takla) in the village of Maalula, about 35 miles north of Damascus. It’s one of those famed ancient Christian villages that still speaks Aramaic, by tradition the language of Christ.
The monastery’s mother superior, Sr. Pelagia Sayyaf, and 11 other Orthodox nuns were taken away to the nearby rebel stronghold of Yabrud.
Though some rebel sources insisted that the sisters had been evacuated for their own safety, most observers regard it as a kidnapping, something that’s become a sad fact of life for the country’s Christian minority. Last February, the website Ora pro Siria, operated by Italian missionaries in Syria, launched an emergency fundraising appeal it called “Ransom a Christian.” The website reported that the going price for a kidnapped priest in Syria today is in the neighborhood of $200,000.
The news that the sisters had been taken was confirmed Monday by the papal nuncio in Damascus, Italian Archbishop Mario Zenari. On Wednesday, Pope Francis launched an appeal for their safe return during his general audience.
“I invite you all to pray for the nuns of the Greek Orthodox convent of St. Takla of Maalula in Syria, who were forcibly taken away by armed men two days ago,” the pope said. “We pray for these nuns and for all kidnap victims in the conflict.”
Though Christians long ago became targets of choice for radical elements within the anti-Assad uprising, this particular act has set off special alarms in part because Mar Takla isn’t just any monastery. Along with the nearby monastery of Mar Sarkis, it represents the heart of Syria’s antique Christian presence that reaches back to the Roman era. It’s still an important point of reference, as Mar Takla was a popular center for the Sept. 7 day of prayer and fasting called by Pope Francis on behalf of peace, widely seen as a gesture of opposition to Western military strikes.
In part, too, Sayyaf isn’t just any nun. She’s a formidable figure, often willing to speak out about the situation facing Christians amid the country’s civil war. She’s paid a price for her candor, having been excoriated in turn both by the rebel forces and the Assad regime depending on what she’s had to say.
Last March, for example, Sayyaf was blasted by the rebels for an interview she gave to Western media in which she denied that Assad’s army was engaging in indiscriminate killing and said that the situation for Christians was markedly better in areas under the regime’s control. The opposition was especially incensed that she closed her comments by saying, “God bless Assad.”
In September, however, pro-government social media sites labelled Sayyaf a terrorist because of another interview in which she refuted claims from the regime that rebels had assaulted Christians in her area. A pro-Assad Facebook site labelled Sayyaf a “traitor,” accused her of being friends with Dall’Oglio (and thus, presumably, hostile to Assad), and suggested that her loyalties to Syria are suspect because she’s Lebanese.
Although a friend reported that she spoke to Sayyaf by phone Monday and that Sayyaf said she and the other sisters were safe, it’s not clear what their abductors want or how long the women might be held.
The drama is merely the latest chapter in the rapidly deteriorating situation facing Christians in Syria. At the same time the nuns were being taken, militants took over the Armenian Church of the Martyrs in Raqqa, in the country’s north, unveiling an Islamic banner atop the church.
In his final speech as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York recently called his brother bishops to ramp up their efforts on behalf of suffering Christians around the world. Right now, Syria would be a great place to put those words into action, insisting that the Obama administration use whatever nominal influence it may have with the rebels to secure the safe release of Sayyaf and the other sisters.
In early Christian tradition, Thecla was a follower of St. Paul who, as the story goes, was saved from her persecutors by a mountain of Maalula that miraculously opened up to shelter her. Right now, Syria’s Christians are probably praying for another such miracle, because they certainly could use one.