Reports: 13 nuns freed by kidnappers in Syria

(CNN) -- Thirteen nuns and three maids kidnapped in late November from a Greek Orthodox monastery in Syria were freed Sunday, a pro-Syrian government news network and Lebanese state media reported.

The women were "less than a few hours" from arriving at the Syria-Lebanon border, senior Orthodox Bishop Lucas al-Khoury said on pro-government Ikhbariya television Sunday afternoon.

Al-Khoury, standing at the border to greet the group, said negotiations for their release took several months because the kidnappers "made false requests intended to stall the process."

The Greek Orthodox figure, who often speaks out on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad's government, added that the recent Syrian troop offensive on the opposition stronghold of Yabroud worked in the favor of the nuns' release.

The women were due to arrive in Beirut later Sunday, Lebanon's National News Agency said, citing The Greek Orthodox Council.

In December, Syrian state news service SANA reported that armed terrorists took the nuns, implying that rebels fighting to oust al-Assad were behind the attack.

The chief of an opposition group based in London told CNN he had confirmed that al-Nusra Front fighters abducted the nuns, but Rami Abdurrahman said the fighters did so to protect them from what the group believed would be an impending attack by Syrian government forces.

CNN could not confirm Abdurrahman's account of why the nuns were taken from the Monastery of Saint Tecla in the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula, about 40 miles west of Damascus. Abdurrahman leads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Great Britain.

The U.S. State Department has designated the al-Nusra Front a terrorist organization with links to al Qaeda.

Christians make up about 10% of the population of Syria, but Christianity has a rich history there.

Jesus was baptized in Syria, some of the earliest relics were found there, and Maaloula, in the Qalamoun Mountains, is one of the last places where the ancient Aramaic that Jesus spoke is still the main language.

Many of Syria's Christians support the al-Assad government, fearing that an end to his presidency could lead to instability and an Islamist power grab.


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