Missing nuns, missing details, in Maaloula (updated)

Trust me on this. I know that it must be impossible for journalists to cover events in the war-torn land of Syria right now without getting their heads blown off. This is especially true for correspondents linked to Western news organizations that are trying to cover the actions of Islamist radicals.

However, how hard is it to cover the actual statements of major churches and, at times, even the Vatican? I realize that this can lead to unbalanced coverage, if these Western voices are quoted in isolation. I get that. However, what I don’t understand is journalists with major organizations — such as the Associated Press — failing to cover the basics on life-and-death stories of interest to many readers.

At the moment, Eastern Orthodox listservs and parish websites are buzzing with some horrifying news from the highly symbolic town of Maaloula (click here for a column I wrote on earlier events in the fighting there). First, here is the Associated Press brief. Try to make sense of this:

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – The mother superior of a Syrian convent says 12 nuns have been abducted by opposition fighters and taken to a rebel-held town.

Febronia Nabhan, Mother Superior at Saidnaya Convent, said Tuesday that the nuns and three other women were taken the day before from another convent in the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula to the nearby town of Yabroud.

Syrian rebels captured large parts of Maaloula, some 40 miles northeast of the capital, on Monday after three days of fighting.

Nabhan told the Associated Press that the Maaloula convent’s mother superior, Pelagia Sayaf, called her later that day and said they were all “fine and safe.” The state news agency SANA had reported Monday that six nuns, including Sayaf, were trapped in a convent in Maaloula.

I have no idea what is going on here. For starters, WHO is “fine and safe” right now? Six sisters in the other besieged convent in Maaloula or the 12 taken away to other location by rebels?

By the way, what is the name of the other convent led by Nabhan? (The answer, I assume, is Our Lady of Saidnaya.) Why not tell readers the religious tradition that is involved here? And what is the name of the besieged facility in Maaloula, which just happens to be one of the most symbolic Christian sites in the Middle East (and thus, the world)?

And what are we to make with the “three days of fighting” reference? Maaloula has been under siege for weeks, if not months. And why is this town so important to “opposition fighters” and “rebels”? Why is it so important to overthrow an ancient institution containing some nuns and lots of orphans?

So Eastern Orthodox Christians are not reading the Associated Press, for obvious reasons. We are having to turn to AsiaNews.it for some specifics.

Is the information in this AsiaNews report accurate? Is it neutral?

Well, it helps to note some of the fine details and the sourcing. Here is the top of that report:

Damascus (AsiaNews) – Islamist rebels have kidnapped a group of nuns from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St Thecla (Mar Taqla) in Maaloula (north of Damascus). Mgr Mario Zenari, the Vatican nuncio in Damascus, confirmed the information after speaking with the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate. Through the Vatican diplomat, the latter “calls on all Catholics to pray for the women religious.”

“Armed men burst in the monastery of St Thecla in Maaloula this afternoon. From there, they forcibly took 12 women religious,” Mgr Zenari said, citing a statement from Patriarchate. The group of Islamist rebels has apparently taken them to Yabrud, some 80 km north of the capital. Neither the nuncio nor the church Greek Orthodox Church know reason behind the kidnapping.

Islamist Rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had invaded the small town on 5 September after driving out regime troops with the support of al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Brigades. After taking control of the city, they went on a rampage against Christian buildings, killing three young Catholic men.

More than 3,000 people, the town’s entire Christian population, fled their homes seeking refuge in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of Damascus. Some found shelter with relatives in Lebanon or in local Greek-Catholic convents. Only Muslims were left in town, plus 40 nuns at the St Thecla Monastery who stayed to help care for dozens of orphaned children.

In this view of events, specific sites in specific Christian traditions are being attacked over a long period of time, in the flow of the Syrian war. It is also clear, later, that the fighting centers on Islamists attempting to capture these older, historically Christian institutions, and the community that surrounds them.

Why? Are these convents and monasteries really that important, strategically, in terms of regional politics and combat? Really? Why are these sites so important to leaders on both sides?

Trust me, I know it is hard to cover these stories accurately when it is so dangerous to visit these communities. I have no idea how I would handle the situation — other than that I would quote major authorities directly linked to the events (the Vatican and the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate are good places to start) and I would get the names and traditions straight.

Just the facts? Well, yes. More of the specifics and facts would help.

Now here is a question: Are the missing nuns still missing? Are they alive?

UPDATE: Well this AP report is short, but an improvement.

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis has called for prayers for 12 Orthodox Christian nuns who were abducted from their convent by Syrian opposition fighters.

Francis made the appeal at the end of his general audience Wednesday. He said: “I invite everyone to pray for the sisters of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Santa Takla in Maaloula, Syria, who were taken by force by armed men two days ago.” He added: “Let us continue to pray and to work together for peace.”

The abduction has added to fears that hardline Muslim rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad were increasingly targeting Christians. Syria’s minorities, including Christians, have mostly sided with Assad or remained neutral in Syria’s civil war, fearing for their fate if the rebels, increasingly dominated by Islamic extremists, come to power.

When in doubt, quote the pope. Most journalists will concede that he is real and that he matters.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joshua Kurtenbach

    This is truly sad. It does not help things when some media outlets try to soften the story, like HuffPo saying that the rebels “moved” the nuns. HuffPo says it could have been to keep them safe, as much as I hope that is true, it does not seem to follow what has been happening in the war. Everyone should these nuns (and all other Syrians) in their prayers.

  • AnneG

    I pray daily for them and our other brothers and sisters caught in this civil war. Yes, where are they and why?

  • Howard

    I’m more amazed at the general absence of Syria from the headlines. After Russia surprised Kerry by taking him up on what he clearly thought was a joke, Syria has been studiously ignored or buried.

    • Julia B

      I must have missed the business about Kerry and the joke. Could you explain that? Thanks.

      • HowardRichards

        The “Russian plan” to have Syria give up its chemical weapons to international custodians was first floated by Kerry, who seems to have been completely unprepared for anyone taking him up on it. Putin jumped on it, and this took the steam out of the administration’s claim that an “incredibly small” strike on Syria was required. It also gave the impression that Obama had been outmaneuvered (again) by Putin, and that American international influence was being eclipsed. After that, Syria seems to have essentially disappeared from the news.

        • Julia B

          Thanks.
          Additionally, I don’t think the West understands that the Russian Orthodox hierarchy sees itself as the champion of the Orthodox folks in that region. And Putin has forged a relationship with the Russian church. Both Putin and the the Russian Orthodox powers-that-be see Assad as a protector of the many Christians in Syria. In fact, many Christians fleeing from Iraq after Sadam was gone went to Syria. If Assad is gone, there will be an ethnic cleansing of the remaining Christians like what is now proceeding apace in Iraq since the Americans have washed their hands of the place. I see no mention of any of that in our press. I think most Western journalists haven’t a clue that there are still lots of indigenous Christians in that area – or there were. Not too long ago the majority of people in Lebanon were indigenous Christians.

          • HowardRichards

            Those are not secrets. Those in the West who care, know.

            The problem is that Assad is probably fatally wounded now, as Mubarak was not long ago and the Shah was 3 decades ago. His perceived weakness will mean that even if the Islamist rebels are defeated, other opportunists will arise. Put not your trust in princes indeed, especially those that are yesterday’s news. I hope I’m wrong, though. I’d rather stick with the devil I know.

  • Julia B

    I should have said that Putin, of course, has additional non-religious motives that underlie his alliance with the Russian church in its concern about Syria.

  • 39 New Saints

    Truly sad, indeed. Emperor Justinian founded this convent.

    • Sophia Sadek

      I am sorry to hear that. Justinian has an abysmal reputation.

  • Sophia Sadek

    My heart goes out to any woman in the hands of Islamist radicals, even more so to those who have made a vow of chastity. I shudder at the thought of what could be in store for those captives.


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