How did I – taken hostage by a group of jihadists, imprisoned for almost five months, frequently threatened with beheading, and after witnessing the abduction and imprisonment of 250 of my parishioners – how did I respond to the experience of my liberation? Was there any room for love in this experience?
In Karyatayn (Al-Qaryatayn) I had been ministering to all the people since the year 2000 and I was in charge of the Syriac Catholic parish there, belonging to the diocese of Homs. And yes, it was from Karyatayn that I was abducted.
On 21 May a group of masked and armed men invaded the monastery of Mar Elian, which I was in charge of, taking me hostage together with Boutros, who was then a postulant at the monastery. We were kept prisoner there in the car in the middle of the desert, for four days, then they took us to Raqqa, where we were imprisoned in a bathroom.
On the road to Raqqa.. into the unknown, a phrase came to me and stayed with me which helped me to accept what was happening and to abandon myself to the Lord: “I am journeying towards freedom…”. The presence of the Blessed Virgin, our Mother, and the prayer of the Rosary were my other spiritual weapons.
On the eighth day a man in black, his face masked, came into our “cell”. At the sight of him I was terrified and I thought my last hour had come. But instead, to my great surprise, he asked my name and addressed me with their customary greeting: “Assalam aleïkum”, which means “Peace be with you”. It is an expression reserved for Muslims and forbidden to non-Muslims (because there can be no possible peace with those who oppose them). And above all because Christians are considered by them as unbelievers and heretics (kouffar).
He then engaged us in a long conversation, as though he was trying to get to know us better. And when I found the courage to ask him why we were being kept prisoner, I was surprised by his reply: “Look on it as a spiritual retreat.”
We remained imprisoned in that bathroom for 84 days. Almost every day they came into my cell and interrogated me about my faith. I lived each day as though it was my last. But I did not waver. God granted me two things: silence and amiability.
I was harangued, threatened several times with beheading, subjected to a mock execution for refusing to renounce my faith. In those moments Our Lord’s words resonated within me: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness…”. And in the midst of this situation I was also happy to be able to concretely live these words of Christ from Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who ill-treat and persecute you.”
On 4 August 2015 the Islamic State took control of Karyatayn and then the next morning, at dawn, took hostage a group of Christians, around 250 people, brought from a region close to Palmyra. Obviously, we didn’t know anything about what was going on, since we had been cut off from the world. On August 11 a Saudi sheik came into our cell. He spoke to me, saying, “You are Baba Jacques? Come with me! They’ve been battering our ears talking about you!” We drove through the desert for about four hours. When we arrived in a compound enclosed by a huge iron gate, the Christians of Karyatayn were around me, astonished to see me. It was a moment of unspeakable suffering for me, and for them an extraordinary moment of joy and pain. Of joy because they never expected to see me survive, and of pain because of the conditions in which we had met again.
20 days later, on 1 September, they brought us back to Karyatayn, free again, but forbidden to leave the town. To put it another way, it was a return to life, but not yet to liberty. But already a return to life – what a miracle! I could not help but marvel at it!
We were even allowed to celebrate our religious rites, on condition we did not advertise the fact. A few days later, when one of my parishioners died of cancer, we went to the cemetery, close to the monastery of Mar Elian. It was only then that I discovered it had been destroyed. Strangely, I did not react. Three days later, on 9 September, the feast of Mar Elian (Saint Julian of Edessa), I realised that Mar Elian had sacrificed his monastery and his tomb in order to save us.
On the evening of 9 October I sensed that the time had come to leave. And the next morning, with the help of a young Muslim man, I was able to flee from Karyatayn, despite the dangers it involved. And here again the merciful hand of God and the Virgin Mary protected and accompanied me. Helped by this local Muslim man, I was able to pass through a checkpoint controlled by the jihadists, without them recognising me or seizing me.
It was on that day, 10 October 2015, on that desert road that the word “freedom” really came home to me once more.
This thirst for freedom is not mine alone. It is that of all the Syrian people. Many European and American countries have opened their borders to Syrian refugees and welcomed them. Thousands of Syrians who have fled death have taken refuge in these countries because they long for life and yearn for liberty.
Nonetheless, I cannot close my eyes to the contradictions we see in these countries at war. On the way towards freedom we must absolutely ask ourselves this crucial question that Pontius Pilate addressed to Christ: “What is truth?” Having said that, he went out again to speak to the Jews and declared to them, “I find no cause for condemnation in him.”
Pilate represented the Roman Empire, a symbol of the whole world which has decided to kill Christ. Nothing has changed. How long will we continue to refuse to understand the message of our God? How much longer must our world go on being governed by little groups who seek only their own self-interest?
It is time to react against the fear of a third world war. The time has come for a revolution of peace, against violence, against the manufacture of armaments, against governments who constantly find reasons for war throughout the world, but above all in the Middle East
As for Europe, it is time that the Muslim community took a clear and unambiguous position in regard to the violence which is growing and being propagated. For them too fear is a paralysing factor that is shackling them. Their silence is becoming the sign of a manifest and apparent agreement in the face of the violence that is unfolding.
Despite everything the humanitarian organisations are doing for the Syrian people, there are still families living in terrible conditions, outside the refugee camps, for lack of space. They are not accepted there… They are homeless, they have nothing.
God is not only asking us to be sensitive to the material needs of the poor. We are presented with a people who are suffering, a wounded people who are bearing a very, very heavy burden… Who cry out with Jesus on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” People who cry out with David in Psalm 51: “misericordias domini…”. This war must stop. We want to return to our ruined homes. We have the right to live, like everyone else in the world… We want to live.
Père Jacques Mourad