They were abducted in December from their convent in Maaloula, an ancient Christian town where the inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. However, they say they were not badly treated by their captors, the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group that fights for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. One of the nuns said of them: ‘They were kind and sweet.’

The nuns removed their crosses during their captivity as ‘it seemed like the right thing to do’. A rebel video shows the nuns smiling and exchanging blessings, with an unseen rebel saying on their release: ‘I was so happy to be in communication with you and I hope we can stay in communication, if God decides that. Please say hello to your families for me, and I hope you arrive safely.’

The group was freed after negotiations facilitated by Qatar and Lebanon, reportedly in exchange for the release of 153 women and children held by the Syrian government.

Jabhat al-Nusra has been accused by Human Rights Watch of some of the worst atrocities of the Syrian civil war, including the massacre of Alawite civilians. Many Christians in Syria have attempted to remain neutral in the conflict, though in contrast to their relative freedom under the government regime, alongside other minorities they have been increasingly targeted by rebel groups.

Orthodox bishop Luca al-Khoury, who led the official church reception to greet the nuns, said that Syria ‘does not differentiate between Muslims and Christians’ and referred to ‘armed terrorist groups who don’t understand anything but the language of killing and destruction’.

The nuns’ release has sparked speculation about the terms of the deal, with some reports – denied by the Church – saying that large sums of money had been paid.

The release marks a rare piece of good news in the country, which last month marked three years since the outbreak of the civil war. So far around 100,000 people have died and 2.5 million have fled as refugees to neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, while a further 6.5 million are internally displaced.