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.