.- A Syrian priest who spent more than four months as a captive of the Islamic State is headed back to the conflict zone – and he wants both Christians and Muslims to embrace mercy.
“I will return right away to the Middle East. It's God who asks us to continue our mission,” said Fr. Jacques Mourad, a Syriac Catholic priest of the Community of Al-Khalil, based at Deir Mar Musa (the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian) in Al-Nabek, 50 miles northeast of Damascus.
He spoke to a press conference in Rome Dec. 10 organized by the pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Fr. Mourad said Christian outreach to Muslims can be part of the Church’s Year of Mercy.
“I ask first that Christians look with eyes and hearts of mercy and carry out the mission of mercy for all Muslims. It's a way of combating violence. In this way they are a witness, a true testimony for our brothers.”
“I want to tell Muslims to remember that they are a religion of mercy,” he added.
“They understand Christians well, they accept them because they are mentioned in the Quran. They have nothing to do with religion and war. One can't use religion to make war. Religion is a call to a righteous life, to peace, not to war.”
He characterized Deir Mar Musa as “a symbol of dialogue between Christianity and Islam.” He said it works to provide “aid and closeness” to the people, especially those in need. The monastery helped families, the sick, migrants and the displaced.
“In the period in which I received migrants in the monastery, I didn't do it because they were Christians or Muslims, but because they were people.”
Since March 2011 Syria has been engulfed in civil war. The rebel factions include the Islamic State, whose extremist vision of Sunni Islam has targeted Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and other religious minorities.
“It’s impossible for us Christians to live under ISIS,” Fr. Mourad said. “The entire Syrian people are victims of this war. I believe that when Jesus gave his life he gave it for all, and we, as a Church, are responsible for the entire Syrian people, not only the Christians. This is a responsibility to commit ourselves with very seriously, that everyone has peace.”
The war has produced some 4.1 million refugees. In recent months, hundreds of thousands have begun to migrate to Europe.
“European countries must accept their responsibility for the Syrian people, for the many Syrians who flee in search of a better life and who find death in the ocean,” Fr. Mourad said. “Each person has the right to live in peace and to have a place to raise their own children in peace.”
Fr. Mourad was prior of the Monastery of Mar Elian near Al Qaryatayn, about 60 miles southeast of Homs. Until it was destroyed by Islamic State militants in August, Mar Elian was cared for by the Al-Khalil community based at Deir Mar Musa.
Mar Elian is where Fr. Mourad encountered the Islamic States' fighters; he was abducted May 21 along with Deacon Boutros Hanna.
“They took us to Raqqa, what is considered the ISIS capital, into a prison and put us in a bathroom to humiliate us,” he said.
The priest said he considered this a blessing “because this is our vocation: to be humble even in the face of violence.”
“In these 84 days that I was a prisoner in that bathroom in Raqqa, one could say that it is one of the most difficult experiences for a person to undergo, to lose their freedom. But for me it was also a very intense experience from a spiritual point of view.”
He and his fellow captives suffered insults and worse. It was especially hard for him and Deacon Hanna when their captors told them “either become Muslim, or we will cut off your head.”
Two things helped him to maintain inner peace. He prayed the Rosary, entrusting himself to the Virgin Mary, “who always sustained me. Every time I prayed the Rosary I felt something strong inside of me, something indescribable,” he said. The priest has fulfilled his promise to the Virgin Mary to make a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in Lourdes if he escaped captivity.
In captivity he also prayed the prayer of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a French priest who lived as a hermit in North Africa to work, live with, and learn from Muslim people such as the Tuareg. The priest was kidnapped in Algeria by bandits on Dec. 1, 1916, and killed when the kidnapping attempt was disrupted.
“He was a victim of violence, but still gave his entire life in Algeria to dialogue with Islam,” Fr. Mourad explained as he recounted his trial.
One day a hooded man entered the prison where Fr. Mourad was being held. “I thought my moment had come, but instead this man came close to us and asked our names and asked if we were Christians.”
Then the man extended his hand.
“We were shocked, because normally these people, fundamentalists, don’t extend their hand, they don’t touch Christians because they consider them inferior. Neither do they greet Muslims who think differently than they do,” the priest recounted.
The man started to create a more normal environment, and suggested the priest consider his captivity “a spiritual retreat.”
Something was happening. Early in August the Islamic State had took taken control of Al Qaryatayn and kidnapped 250 Christians.
On Aug. 11, several men took the priest and two other captives and drove them three or four hours away. They stopped in a tunnel and were directed to a door.
The priest then saw a young man from his parish.
“It was very moving; I embraced him, and it was a very touching moment. As soon I turned around, unexpectedly I saw all of the 250 Christians who were kidnapped; children, elderly, disabled, women. It was really a very strong moment for me.”
A small group of people sent by Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi presented the captive Christians four options: have the men killed and the women and children taken; slavery; ransom; or give them freedom if they agreed to 12 conditions, including a commitment not to leave Al Qaryatayn.
They agreed to the last option.
Sept. 1 became their “day of liberation.” They returned to Al Qaryatayn and tried to return to normal life.
Father Mourad lived with a family in the parish, because Mar Elian monastery had been taken.
The Christians began to celebrate Mass underground so that they would not show that they were praying, and also to protect themselves from bombs.
But they lacked the basic necessities of life. They felt they had to leave.
“We didn’t have anything: there was no electricity, there was no food, no water, and to live in these conditions was difficult also because it was very dangerous to live in that area.”
A Muslim man and a Syriac Orthodox priest helped the Christians escape in small groups. The majority still have not been able to leave, and eight people have died.
“The result of violence is always violence, so it’s necessary to seek and strengthen ourselves in the good in man,” he said.
Fr. Mourad also said journalists have a responsibility to be “messengers of peace.” He also thanked NGOs active in helping Syrians; he is convinced he is alive because of Aid to the Church in Need and its mission.
He asked for prayers for his fellow Christians. He also asked for prayers for a kidnapped Jesuit priest, Fr. Paolo dall’Oglio, “that God can work a miracle so that he is freed.”
Fr. dall'Oglio, an Italian native, is the founder of the Community of Al-Khalil. He had worked to restore Deir Mar Musa for more than 30 years, and was kidnapped in July 2013.