DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Opposition fighters abducted 12 nuns from a Christian village overrun by rebels, Syria's Greek Orthodox patriarch and the head of a convent said Tuesday, adding to fears that hard-line Muslim rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad were increasingly targeting Christians.
The nuns join two bishops and a priest who were previously kidnapped by rebels. 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.
The nuns and three other women were seized Monday from the Greek Orthodox Mar Takla convent in the village of Maaloula and taken to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud, which also has a large Christian population, said Mother Superior Febronia Nabhan, head of the nearby Saidnaya Convent.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi made a fervent plea for the release of the women, as well as some two dozen orphans the nuns care for at the convent, although it could not be immediately confirmed that the children were also taken.
"We appeal to the seed of conscience that God planted in all humans, including the kidnappers, to release our sisters safely," he said in a statement. "We call upon the international community and world governments to (help secure the) release of nuns of Mar Takla convent and the orphans who are being held since yesterday."
Nabhan told The Associated Press that the Maaloula convent's mother superior, Pelagia Sayaf, called her late Monday from Yabroud and said the nuns and the other women were all safe. She made no mention of the orphans.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around the country, said the fate of the nuns is unknown, adding there were conflicting reports on whether they were taken to a nearby area or not.
The Observatory said it received information late Monday saying that the nuns "are still alive." It gave no further details. Syrian rebels captured large parts of Maaloula, some 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of the capital, on Monday after three days of fighting. Activists say the rebels who stormed the town included members of the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front.
In September, rebels seized parts of Maaloula only to be driven out within a few days by government forces. The town was a major tourist attraction before the conflict began in March 2011. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language spoken by Jesus.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said "terrorists" broke into the Mar Takla convent and held mother superior Sayaf and a number of other nuns "as hostages and sabotaged churches and houses." It urged the international community to condemn the attack.
In two letters sent to the heads of the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. secretary-general late Monday, the ministry said: "Syria is facing a barbarian war launched by extremist ... gangs targeting its present and future."
It urged the Security Council to condemn the attack on Maloula in "the strongest terms" and exert pressure on the countries supporting the rebels to stop providing them with logistical and financial support.
The nuns are the latest Christian clergy members to be abducted. Two bishops were seized in rebel-held areas in April, and an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, went missing in July after traveling to meet militants in Raqqa. None has been heard from since.
Al-Qaida-linked militants, who seized control of Raqqa in March, have set fires to churches and knocked the crosses off them, replacing them with the group's black Islamic banner. Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army, denounced the behavior of some groups in Maaloula, but blamed the regime for placing tanks and other military hardware inside the village. Speaking to Al-Arabiya TV, he said rebels went into Maaloula not for sectarian reasons but because of its strategic location.
In other violence, Syria's state TV reported that a suicide attacker blew himself up in central Damascus, killing four people and wounding 17 others. The TV gave no further details about the blast in the central Jisr Abyad neighborhood and did not say what the target was.
Such blasts in Damascus are not uncommon and have killed scores of people in the city. Meanwhile, troops continued their advance in the western town of Nabek after they captured most of it Monday and reopened the highway linking Damascus with the central city of Homs. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said that although the road was opened it is still dangerous because of fighting in nearby areas.
The highway is a key road leading to Syria's coast and could open the way for transporting the country's chemical weapons to be sent to the port of Latakia before they are taken out of the country for destruction.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is aiming to destroy Syria's entire chemical weapons program by mid-2014. Meanwhile, across the border in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, Lebanese troops began deploying in areas between pro- and anti-Assad groups after four days of fighting that left a dozen people dead and more than 100 wounded.
The Tuesday deployment came a day after the government authorized the army to take charge of security in Lebanon's second-largest city for six months. The army said in a statement that 21 people from both sides have been detained.
Mroue reported from Beirut.