VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis called Wednesday for prayers for 12 Orthodox nuns who were taken by force from their convent in Syria by opposition fighters. Religious officials in the region have said the women were being held against their will, but a Syrian opposition activist said they were merely taken away for their own safety.
Francis didn't call for their release but appealed for prayers from the crowd at the end of his general audience in St. Peter's Square.
"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 said. "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.
Rebels previously kidnapped two bishops and a priest. 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. Christians have accused radicals among the rebels of abusing residents and vandalizing churches after taking Christian towns.
A Syrian opposition activist claimed the nuns were taken for their own safety from the convent because of heavy clashes nearby. However, rebels were refusing to provide evidence of the nuns' safety, said the activist, who goes by the name Amer and often reports on rebel activity in the area.
Rebels of the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front took the sisters to the nearby town of Yabroud, where they were placed with a Christian family, he said.
"They are being taken care of," Amer said, adding that his information came from friends close to the rebels holding the nuns.
However, a nun in a nearby convent insisted the women were being held against their will. Stephanie Haddad, deputy of the Greek Orthodox Saidnaya Convent, told The Associated Press that she spoke to the nuns on Tuesday night, from the house in Yabroud.
She said rebels guarding them kept promising they would be released soon, "but nothing in certain."
Syria's Greek Orthodox Patriarch, John Yazigi, pleaded for the release of the women on Tuesday.
Maaloula is a Christian village that rebels recently overran. The town was a major tourist attraction before the conflict began. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a language spoken by Jesus.
Albert Aji in Damascus, Diaa Hadid in Beirut and Daniela Petroff at the Vatican contributed to this report.