Qaeda-linked rebels free priest, other Christians in Syria

A handout picture released by the Holy Land offices on Oct 7, 2014 and taken on Nov 21, 2011 in Jerusalem shows Father Hanna Jallouf of the Custody of the Holy Land, parish priest at Qunyeh in Syria. A priest and 20 other Christians kidnapped by
A handout picture released by the Holy Land offices on Oct 7, 2014 and taken on Nov 21, 2011 in Jerusalem shows Father Hanna Jallouf of the Custody of the Holy Land, parish priest at Qunyeh in Syria. A priest and 20 other Christians kidnapped by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria this week were released on Thursday, Oct 9, 2014, the Franciscan order said. -- PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - A priest and 20 other Christians kidnapped by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria this week were released on Thursday, the Franciscan order said.

"Father Hanna Jallouf has been released this morning... He is under house arrest at the convent of Qunyeh," the order said, without providing further details.

A Franciscan spokeswoman later confirmed that the other captives were also released.

Rebels linked to Al-Nusra Front - Al-Qaeda's Syria branch - abducted Jallouf and the others Sunday in the northwestern village of Qunyeh, near the Turkish border, the order said.

A local activist said Al-Nusra had been trying to take over some of the Franciscan properties in Qunyeh, prompting Jallouf to complain to an Islamic religious court last week.

Al-Nusra rebels have seized several Christian and Muslim villages in the area during the course of Syria's three-and-a-half-year civil war.

The Franciscans, a Roman Catholic religious order that has operated in the country for more than eight centuries, have 19 people working there. They have been working in Qunyeh for 125 years, the activist said.

Kidnapping is rife in Syria, with all sides accused of abducting people.

Civilians have often been targeted for ransom, while extremists such as Al-Nusra and the Islamic State group have seized journalists, aid workers and soldiers, as well as civilians and rival opposition fighters.

In recent months, IS has beheaded two journalists, both American, and two British aid workers.

In August, rebels that included Al-Nusra kidnapped more than 40 Fijian UN peacekeepers in the Syrian-held sector of the Golan Heights. The troops were released two weeks later.

Still missing in Syria are two senior Aleppo clerics -Archbishop Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church, kidnapped in April 2013, and Italian Jesuit Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, taken by rebels three months later.