BEIRUT — A Syrian priest imprisoned by the Islamic State says he felt the hand of God during his captivity and is thankful that God protected him.
Father Jacques Mourad was kidnapped in May from Qaryatain, Syria, where he served as prior of Mar (Saint) Elian Monastery, which dates back to the fifth century. Known for spearheading Muslim-Christian dialogue, the Syriac-Catholic priest had been sheltering refugees, Christian and Muslim alike, in the monastery. The priest also was pastor for the Syriac-Catholic community in Qaryatain, which is located about 35 miles southeast of Homs.
Along with the priest, the militants also abducted a deacon named Boutros.
During an interview with the Register on Nov. 11, while visiting Beirut a month after his escape, Father Mourad talked about his captivity.
Somewhere in the Islamic State stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, a 19-foot by 10-foot dark bathroom served as a prison cell for the two Christian men. Their captors continually ordered each of them to convert to Islam, “or we cut your head off,” the priest recounted.
All through his imprisonment, especially when threatened, Father Mourad said, “God graced me with two things: silence and kindness,” as a way to respond to the terrorists.
The prison abuse was limited to verbal threats, except for one time, when the priest was subjected to a severe beating with a plastic hose. That attack lasted about a half hour.
As he was being scourged, Father Mourad recalled, “I received the grace to be thankful for what was happening to me. I didn’t allow any hatred to enter in and take hold of me.”
“I had pity on them,” he said of his captors. “I was really praying for them.”
“For a few seconds, I was so filled with fear when they held a knife to my neck (after the scourging). But when the guy started counting to 10, I started to ask God for his mercy and forgiveness.”
The lives of Father Mourad and Deacon Buotros were spared.
A turning point in his captivity, the priest said, was when a masked man, dressed in black from head to toe, entered the cell. Expecting to be executed, Father Mourad and the deacon were puzzled by the man’s cordial behavior. When the priest asked the man in black why he and Deacon Boutros were being held captive, the man said to consider their time there as a khaelwe, an Arabic expression for a spiritual retreat. Then the visitor left.
“The encounter with that guy was a real consolation to me. He’s the one who allowed me to feel that my imprisonment was a way to carry the cross of Jesus. It helped me not to fall into despair,” Father Mourad explained, adding that, afterwards, he felt his prayer life had intensified.
What helped them to endure their captivity, he said, was recalling Scripture and praying together, especially the Rosary.
“I realize now that, before I was kidnapped, Bible verses were theoretical for me,” Father Mourad admitted. “But in captivity, I really lived them,” he pointed out, citing in particular St. Matthew’s words about forgiveness and loving one’s enemies.
The priest said he also realized the truth of what St. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:10-11: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
“Really, all the time during my captivity, I never felt that I was weak. This amazed me. Usually I am weak. Spiritually, physically, I am weak,” said the priest, who has suffered from back pain since childhood.
Reflecting on the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila — “Let nothing disturb you” — also helped to strengthen and console the priest while he was a prisoner.
“I felt it was exactly for me. One day, I translated this prayer into Arabic and added a melody. I started to sing it and chant it, even though in prison you don’t feel like singing.
“I liked it before, but the meaning changed for me in prison. Once you’re in prison, you see many things in a different way.”
The songs of Lebanon’s iconic singer Fayrouz also flashed in his mind during captivity, the priest said, citing some of her popular lyrics, such as “My home is your home,” and “I don’t have anybody but you.”
“I felt like everything was a prayer,” he recalled.
In the cell in Raqqa, with no news or contact at all from the outside world, Father Mourad didn’t know that 250 Christians from Qaryatain were taken by the Islamic State as prisoners on Aug. 5. Nor did he know that, the day before, the Islamic State had demolished his beloved monastery.
On Aug. 11, Father Mourad and Deacon Buotros were moved from the building where they were imprisoned, without any explanation.
“When they took us from prison, they didn’t tell us where we were going. So when we arrived at the destination, we got out of the car, and they opened a huge iron gate, and I saw a big crowd — my parishioners: women, children, men, the handicapped, elderly.”
But the priest felt great anguish to be reunited with his flock under such circumstances, knowing that they, too, had endured the suffering of imprisonment.
“All these people were my parishioners. It was the most difficult day of my life when I met them.”
“For the parishioners, it was a consolation, because they thought I was dead,” he said. “It was a nice surprise, like a sign of hope, because those days of imprisonment for all these parishioners were really fearful. They thought it was their last days. They thought they would never be rescued. But when they saw me, they had hope.”
The militants then took the priest and his parishioners back to Qaryatain, “as if they freed us,” Father Mourad explained.
But, instead, their “freedom” was actually house arrest.
The captors later worked out a deal, whereby each parishioner had to pay a jizya tax in order to remain as a Christian in Qaryatain. Tax “rates” were based on the individual’s financial status.
Shortly after their “release,” one of Father Mourad’s parishioners died. The woman, a former prisoner, had been battling cancer.
It was then, on the way to Mar Elian for her funeral, that Father Mourad saw for the first time his beloved monastery, completely destroyed and leveled to the ground by the Islamic State.
As a way to deal with the shock, the priest experienced the grace of detachment.
“For 15 years, this monastery was everything to me,” said Father Mourad, who had been closely involved in the ancient site’s restoration and archeological excavations. “But I didn’t feel anything, neither bothered nor upset,” he said.
Three days after the funeral, it was St. Elian’s feast. Father Mourad celebrated Mass for his parishioners in an underground location.
“During Mass, I understood that St. Elian sacrificed his monastery and his grave for the sake of the Christians there. It’s a miracle for me that, of 250 parishioners, not one turned Muslim,” despite all the harassment they faced from the Islamic State.
“So I feel that St. Elian’s intercession was really great. That miracle was not just for me, and with me — it was for everyone.”
Father Mourad also sees a higher purpose in his suffering: “Maybe the Lord allowed me to go through this in order to renew their hope, to renew their trust in the Lord.”
Regarding his mission for the future, the Syriac-Catholic priest said with conviction, “After this happened to me, I have a bigger responsibility now, with Muslim-Christian dialogue. We can’t play with God’s will.”
Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.