VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis called on Catholics worldwide to pray for five Orthodox nuns who were kidnapped in Syria and for all people who have been abducted during the conflict there.
“Let’s keep praying and working together for peace,” he said in an appeal at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square Dec. 4.
The pope invited everyone to pray for the nuns who “were forcibly taken away by armed men” Dec. 1.
“Let us pray for these sisters and for all people abducted because of the conflict underway,” he said before leading the crowd in praying the Hail Mary in Italian.
The kidnapping of the nuns from a Christian village near Damascus shocked Syria’s Christian community and filled many Christians with fear, said Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, Syria.
Speaking to Vatican Radio Dec. 3, Bishop Audo said the latest information was that the superior and four of the nuns belonging to the Orthodox Monastery of Santa Tecla in Maaloula were kidnapped during the night Dec. 1 and taken to Yabrud, a city nearby.
“We have no more information,” he said.
Most media reports on the kidnapping, including by the government’s Sana news agency, speculated the kidnapping was the work of the Al Nusra Front, which the U.S. State Department defines as a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaida. Early reports said 12 nuns were kidnapped.
Bishop Audo told Vatican Radio, “Maaloula is an important symbol not only for Christians, but also for Muslims in Syria and throughout the Middle East, because it is known that people there still speak the Aramaic dialect, the language of Christ. That is one of the reason people are so struck” by the kidnapping of the sisters and the rebels’ capturing the town in early December.
As for the motive of the kidnapping, Bishop Audo said, “the first reason is the war.”
“As Christians, as the church in Syria, we don’t want to say this is a war against Christians because we want to be a presence for reconciliation and coexistence. That is our vocation. We don’t want to create provocations with the Muslims.”
However, he said, Christians feel more threatened now because the kidnapping has brought the war “to a sacred Christian place, one where for centuries nothing like this has happened.”
Maaloula is about 35 miles north of Damascus, the capital of Syria.
In Bkerke, Lebanon, the Council of Maronite Bishops condemned the kidnapping of the nuns.
“What do those who pray for peace in the Syrian conflict have to do with this?” the bishops asked.
They urged the international community to determine the nuns’ whereabouts and facilitate their return “to the sanctity of the monastery.” They also called for “the preservation of this sacred place, and houses of worship, and the protection of the dignity of every human being” and for “hard work to find political solutions” to the conflict in Syria.
Lebanese authorities say there are more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, equal to about one-quarter of Lebanon’s population.
Contributing to this story were Carol Glatz at the Vatican and Doreen Abi Raad in Beirut.