Father Jacques Mourad spent five months in the jails of Islamic State militants, in constant danger of death. One day after the Palmyra offensive, May 21, 2015, as the Syrian civil war had been raging for four years, Father Mourad, superior of the monastery of Mar Elian in Al-Qaryatayn, was kidnapped with a deacon of his community by two Islamic terrorists, one of whom he knew. The jihadists abruptly stormed into the convent in the middle of the day and dragged them to the back of a car, where they were locked up for four days, until they reached Raqqa, the ISIS-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State.
This is how his long ordeal began.
The Light of God in the Darkness
During his months of captivity, Father Mourad underwent all sorts of abuse. Confined in a dark and gloomy bathroom without electricity, insulted, whipped, repeatedly threatened with beheading and urged to convert to Islam, he saw the specter of death becoming more concrete and inevitable day after day.
Initially convinced not to be worthy of martyrdom, Father found the spiritual resources to face his destiny in St. Teresa of Ávila — praying every night her famous prayer of abandonment “Let nothing disturb you” — and in Our Lady of Lourdes, to whom he made a pilgrimage after he was released.
“Every time I prayed the Rosary, the Virgin Mary gave me peace,” Mourad told the Register on the occasion of the presentation of his recent book Un Monaco in ostaggio: La lotta per la pace di un prigioniero dei jihadisti (A Monk Held Hostage: A Jihadist Prisoner’s Struggle for Peace) at the parish church of the Santissimo Salvatore in Bracciano, near Rome, on Feb. 8. “Her presence gave me a lot of support and helped me overcome my fear of death, which is a natural feeling — no one wants to lose one’s life.”
“But as St. Paul once said,” he added, “death is beautiful because it brings [us] to Christ, and this sentence is so engraved in my heart that I can even say it saved me.”
When the jihadists brought him back to Al-Qaryatayn, together with some of his parishioners who also were held as hostages, Father Mourad eventually managed to miraculously escape, thanks to a few Muslim friends masquerading as one of them.
As he revealed in his book, this authentic trip to hell, during which he initially felt nothing but fear and anger, slowly became a “kind of spiritual retreat that would change me forever.” As peace returned to Father Mourad’s heart, he came to pity his jailers, who were “free to come and go but that seemed to be immured in an interior prison that was far gloomier than my bathroom,” he wrote.
Promise of Return
He now lives beside the refugees in Sulaymaniyah, in the northeast of Iraq, and cherishes the hope of one day rebuilding his monastery of Mar Elian, a 1,500-year-old jewel of the Christian heritage, named for St. Elian (in Syriac, “Mar Elian”) of Emesa, the fifth-century Syriac martyr, that was entirely destroyed by ISIS in August 2015. Before its destruction, the monastery was noted as a center for Christian-Islamic dialogue.
“The bones of Mar Elian weren’t damaged in the explosion, and it is a proof that God wants the bones stay in this place so that this site remains a place of unity, a place of gathering and prayer for everybody,” Father Mourad told the Register, noting that even if no reopening project has been officially initiated yet, he hopes he can count on the spiritual and financial support from associations and friends in the future.
At the moment, there are no Christians left in Al-Qaryatayn, the city adjoining the convent. Since it was liberated by the Syrian Army in 2017, the desolate town has been struggling to come back to life. “All of the Christians left because it is still impossible for them to live there, but I still trust God and his providence,” Father Mourad said, reaffirming his belief that he has been called to rebuild the Lord’s Church in the Syrian desert. “I know that God wants his Church to survive, as he said that even the doors of hell cannot destroy it. Thus, I count on this promise, and I move on.”
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