Syria Freed Christian Nuns
Nuns who were freed after being held by rebels for over three months arrive at Jdaydeh YaboosReuters

A group of Greek Orthodox nuns that were released by rebels linked to al-Qaida in Syria as part of prisoner exchange with the government have reached Damascus.

Syria's state-run news agency said the 13 nuns have arrived in the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Qassaa in the capital, where they were greeted by locals.

The nuns and three of their helpers, 16 women in all, were freed after four months in captivity as the government of Bashar al-Assad agreed to release dozens of female detainees in return.

They were held by Islamist rebels, including members of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, who abducted them from the Saint Tecla Orthodox convent in the predominantly Christian town Maaloula, southwestern Syria, in December.

The nuns, who are believed to be mostly Syrian and Lebanese, worked in the convent's orphanage.

Shortly after their capture a Syrian rebel group calling themselves "Free Qalamoun" demanded the release of 1,000 female prisoners in exchange for the religious.

Last week, Damascus agreed to free approximately 150 female inmates.

"We arrived late, and we arrived tired," said Mother Superior Pelagia Sayaf, the head of the Maaloula convent, upon release.

The nuns were initially taken to the town of Jdeidet Yabous, off the Lebanese borders before heading to Damascus.

Sayaf said she and her companions were treated well by the rebels.

"God did not leave us," Sayaf said. "The (Nusra) Front was good to us ... but we took off our crosses because we were in the wrong place to wear them."

The abduction came as Maaloula, which was a major tourist attraction and a pilgrimage site for Christians and Muslims alike before the war, was captured by rebels last year.

It raised fears Christians that account for about 10% of the country's population were becoming a target for Islamist rebels.

Many of the Christians who haven't fled Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011 have sided with the regime, out of fear of an Islamist takeover.