Syrian monk was kept hostage by IS for five months – but still speaks out for reconciliation
Father Jacques Mourad belongs to the Syrian order “Mar Mousa al-habashi” (“Saint Moses of Abyssinia”). He was prior of Mar Elian monastery, a pilgrimage centre near the city of al-Qaryatayn. Mourad was kidnapped by fighters of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in May of 2015. His monastery was largely destroyed. Today, he lives in Europe “as a homeless person among the homeless,” as he describes it himself. He is being supported by the worldwide pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). He recently visited the aid organisation’s German office. Berthold Pelster talked with him about his fate and the current situation in Syria.
Pelster: Father Jacques, in May 2015 you and a novice monk were kidnapped by the terrorist militia IS and taken into the desert. What set this into motion?
Mourad: I believe that there were two reasons behind my kidnapping: IS wanted to frighten the people and so nip any resistance in the bud. And as prior, I played an important role in the urban community of al-Qaryatayn. Our monastery means a lot to its residents, both Christian and Muslim. The people feel at home there. And this bothers IS. Its followers consider it blasphemous that the tomb of Saint Elian is revered there. When the terrorist militia conquered al-Qaryatayn, they first destroyed the cemetery. The very same thing that happened in many other places in Syria.
You have just mentioned it: the city of al-Qaryatayn was taken by IS in August 2015. About 250 Christians from your parish were kidnapped…
The 250 Christians, these were entire families, children, disabled, old and sick people… Among them was also a woman suffering from cancer. We pleaded with IS to get medicine for her. But in vain. The woman died. That was torture. They did not torture the people physically, but psychologically. The terrorists wanted to destroy our will to live.
How were you treated during captivity?
There were very difficult days full of violence and then I was left alone again. But essentially, the constant psychological torture of the IS henchmen can be summarised in the sentence: “Either you convert to Islam or we will cut off your head!”
In October 2015, after more than five months, you were able to flee. How did you manage this?
That was actually quite simple: we had in the meantime been brought back to al-Qaryatayn. I asked a Muslim friend there whether he would bring me to safety on his motorcycle. And then we headed out, straight through the desert. And miraculously, nothing happened.
And what happened to the other kidnapped Christians? Were they able to regain their freedom?
That was one of the reasons why I fled: I wanted to find a way to help the other Christians escape. And we managed to do so. Three days later we were able to free 58 people. A few at a time, until all the Christian hostages had escaped through the desert – but always with the help of Muslim friends and neighbours!
In early April 2016, al-Qaryatayn was finally freed from IS. How is the situation there now?
The city may have been freed from IS. However, a normal, everyday life is not yet possible. Most houses have been destroyed. But at least electricity and water have in the meantime been restored. However, most people have not yet returned to al-Qaryatayn. The fear that IS will come back is great.
In what condition is your monastery Mar Elian?
The old part of the monastery is almost completely destroyed, including the chapel that once contained the shrine of Saint Elian. The newer buildings are also in a terrible state. We had just built them over the last 15 years with the help of Aid to the Church in Need. That this has now happened cuts me to the quick. But I hope that we will be able to begin again anew.
The war in Syria continues unabated. Peace negotiations have repeatedly failed. Many people are fleeing – among them also Christians. How great is the danger that Christianity will be obliterated in the Middle East?
This obliteration has long since become reality. Today, there are already regions in Iraq and Syria that no longer have any Christian inhabitants. A thank you to Germany and Europe, where many refugees are being taken in with generosity and love. However, the people are not fleeing willingly. They have no other choice. This is especially true for the Christians in Syria, because we are a small minority. The violence that reigns in Syria is unbearable. I do not understand why other countries refuse to see this reality and take a decision. The world must finally react!
What kind of reaction should this be?
If the world is really serious about putting an end to the fanatics, then it will have to stop doing business with Saudi Arabia. Because that is where the funding and weapons for IS are coming from. Bombing achieves nothing. The US and Russia have been bombing Syria and Iraq for years. And what have they achieved? Have they stopped the terrorist violence? Absolutely not!
What could the international community do instead?
The solution cannot be eliminating those who persecute us. The only way of stopping the extremists is to enter into a dialogue with Islam. That has been my personal experience. We, the Christians of my parish, decided not to resort to violence, even despite the danger. Which is why we are still alive. An IS leader told us exactly that: “You ‘People of the Book’ [term used for Jews and Christians in the Koran; editor’s note] do not even use violence against us.” This saved our lives.
Thus, non-violence and dialogue are what Christians should contribute to this war?
This past spring, I had the following inspiration during Mass: our world needs a revolution against violence. Only then will it be able to find peace. We want to be instruments of peace. This is how we did it in Mar Elian – without considering the person or the religion. Our work would not have been possible without our friends at Aid to the Church in Need. Their support allowed us to save people from dying. We could give them medicine, rebuild their houses and provide families with food. Their help is an important sign of hope for us.
Since the beginning of the war in Syria, Aid to the Church in Need has supported projects that benefit the suffering population with a total of 14.6 million euros. In neighbouring countries, especially in Iraq, Aid to the Church in Need is also doing a great deal in the refugee camps to ensure that the people can have a future in their homelands.