In early December 2013, al-Nusra Front (ANF), now Tahrir al-Sham, broke into the ancient monastery of St. Takla in Syria's Qalamoun region and kidnapped 13 nuns and three workers.
The kidnapped were taken to Yabroud in northern Syria before being released on March 10th, 2014.
In their wanton disregard for religious and historical artefacts, the ANF elements also vandalised the monastery and robbed all its contents during the raid.
These included icons, crosses, bells, books and religious manuscripts -- all of which are of invaluable religious and historical value.
Four years after the incident, the Lebanese army has announced it has recovered some of the stolen items from the north-eastern border town of Arsal in the Bekaa Valley.
On December 12th, the people of Arsal handed over to the Lebanese army a church bell and 11 ancient religious books in several languages that were found in refugee camps in the town.
These items belonged to the monastery of Maaloula in Syria's Qalamoun, which was "seized by terrorist groups during the events in Syria", said a statement by the army’s Directorate of Guidance.
It said the items will be "handed over to the monastery at a later time".
Artefacts will be displayed once again
Bishop Luka al-Khoury of Saydnaya, the patriarchal assistant in Damascus, told Al-Mashareq that the holy books received by the Lebanese army were "stolen from the monastery, and we await their receipt very soon to check if they include any manuscripts".
These books are "of religious and historical value", he said.
ANF elements stole all of the monastery’s and church’s holdings, he said, noting that the number of looted items is "very high".
These include the church’s bells and a huge bronze statue of Jesus Christ, he said.
The Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus "had earlier received from the Lebanese army what remained of the statue of Jesus Christ, a church bell and a number of icons that date back to the 15th and 18th centuries", Bishop al-Khoury said.
"We look forward to displaying them once again at the monastery, which we are putting the final touches on its rehabilitation," he said.
Monastery regains 'its life'
"The items stolen from the monastery of Maaloula are of great artistic, historical and religious value, which makes them irreplaceable and very rare," said Lulu Saibaa, the official in charge of documentation at the University of Balamand in North Lebanon.
"The stolen items were taken from John the Baptist Church, St. Takla grotto and the Mother Superior’s wing at the monastery," she told Al-Mashareq.
The stolen icons date back to the 15th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, she said.
Saibaa added that a large number of ornamented bibles and holy urns were also stolen from the monastery.
All the items "are of rare religious and artistic value and are irreplaceable", she said, adding that they were made specifically for the monastery.
"With their gradual recovery the monastery regains its contents and its life," she said.