Good news: Generic nuns released in Syria!

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For three months now, members of my parish just south of Baltimore have been praying for the release of some of our sisters in the faith in Syria, along with two kidnapped bishops.

Thus, I was thankful when the news spread recently that they had been released. I was also glad to see that their release was covered by The New York Times. It felt like a nod of respect for an oppressed minority religious group in a suffering land.

However, as I read this report I noticed something rather strange. Here is the top of the story:

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian insurgents released 13 nuns and three attendants who disappeared three months ago from their monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, Lebanese and Syrian officials said …, ending a drama in which rebels said they were protecting the women from government shelling and Syrian officials said they were abducted in an act of intimidation against Christians.

The handoff was infused with suspense until the last moment. Officials said Sunday afternoon that the nuns had crossed the mountainous border to Arsal, a pro-rebel town in Lebanon, to be handed off to Lebanese officials and driven to Syria.

But amid reports of last-minute problems, reporters and government supporters waited hours at the border with no sign of the nuns. Finally, early Monday, the Lebanese channel Al Jadeed showed the black-clad nuns at the border, beaming, as one embraced a Lebanese security official and officers carried another.

Mother Pelagia Sayaf, the head of the Mar Taqla monastery in Maaloula, thanked President Bashar al-Assad, saying he had worked with Qatari officials for their release. She said the nuns were “treated very well” by the insurgents and were not prevented from wearing religious symbols. Some had speculated that similar declarations on videos from captivity were forced.

This story does a good job of describing the complex nature of the negotiations that may, or may not, have led to the release of the nuns. All of the political fine points are discussed, as they should be.

The story also includes quite a bit of information about the abduction of the nuns.

All well and good. But two crucial pieces of information are missing from this report (maybe three).

We are told that these women are nuns and that is that. Period.

They are, apparently, generic nuns in a region in which you will find more than one kind of nun. Catholic? Eastern-Rite Catholic? Eastern Orthodox? Oriental Orthodox?

When the news broke, some people wondered if these sisters were, in fact, “our” nuns — the missing Antiochian Orthodox nuns of the ancient Monastery of St. Thecla. Within a few hours church officials, reacting to the generic news reports, assured the faithful that these were the missing nuns for whom we have been praying.

Why be vague? Why not insert a few specific fact to tell readers what kind of nuns were released? It would have only taken a few extra words.

And while we are at it, what about the orphans who were abducted at the same time as the nuns who care for them? What is the status of the children? And it would have only taken another sentence or two to offer an update on the status of the two kidnapped Orthodox bishops who remain missing in Syria.

Still, it is time for the Orthodox — and others of good will — to give thanks. But then, so many others are missing, from a variety of different religious groups and minorities.

It is a region of great complexities. I appreciated the end of the story, when the Times addresses this rather Byzantine question: When is a kidnapping not really a kidnapping?

Mother Agnes of the Cross, a Lebanese nun who has mediated between the government and rebels, said … the nuns were healthy, though one recently had an asthma attack.

The nuns’ odyssey began in September when insurgents entered Maaloula, a town built into steep cliffs where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. They drew ire from government supporters for telling reporters the insurgents had not harmed them or Christian sites. But later — after battles damaged the town and monastery — rebels took them, saying it was for their safety. Tensions ensued among rebels when the Nusra Front decided to impose conditions for their release.

“If you have conditions, then they’re abducted,” Mother Agnes said late last year.

Meanwhile, pray for the orphans and all who are suffering.

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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.

  • MainlineP

    In a newsroom which I must assume tries to get the bare facts correct, it is likely no mention of sect was made because the writer and editor didn’t know. As you say, Syria has a multiplicity of Christian sects. Don’t be so quick to assume the omission was some “put-down” of religion. When your newsroom is mostly non-religious lapsed Christians, militant agnostics, and/or secular Jewish folks, the nuances of Christian denominations and their religious orders is specialized knowledge not possessed by that staff. They might have been on deadline, and didn’t have time for an internet search on the topic.
    John

    • tmatt

      … didn’t have time for an internet search on the topic.

      Right. That would take six seconds to get this info, even with the most basic of search terms.

  • fredx2

    Hey look on the bright side! They said “…a town built into steep cliffs where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken.”
    Rather than the “…language of the alleged person known as Jesus to Christians”

    But as to the nuns? The truth is probably that the editors at the Times do not know which brand of nuns they are, and cannot be bothered to find out. It’s too confusing for them, and rather than get it wrong and be pilloried, they decided to just not make a definitive statement.


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