ROME — As civil war rages in Syria, priests are choosing to stay with their people and continue pastoring them, even as a monk was killed during a raid on a monastery in the north of the country on June 23.
Father Francois Mourad died at the Franciscan monastery of St. Anthony of Padua in a village near Jisr Ash-Shughur. The town had been under attack by Islamist rebels for a few weeks, and local Christians sought refuge in the monastery.
Catholic News Agency spoke with another priest, who is from Aleppo, on June 18, who said, “I try to live this war with the people, not abandon them.”
The Syrian conflict has dragged on for 27 months, since demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011, protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president and leader of the country’s Ba’ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war, which has claimed the lives of more than 93,000 people.
The priest spoke with us on condition of anonymity for safety reasons. He was in Italy briefly before preparing to return to his country, saying he would return “because it is his duty.”
He will not be able to fly into Aleppo, as its airport has been closed for several months. He expects to fly to Latakia and from there take a helicopter from the Syrian regime to Aleppo, as traveling by car is too dangerous for Christians there.
In April, two Orthodox bishops were kidnapped from their car as they returned to Aleppo from the Turkish border. The kidnappers killed their driver, Deacon Fatha’ Allah Kabboud.
The priest indicated that, since the war began, he has evangelized differently. “First, I tried to take Christ to people through music, and I was very involved with it in Church.
“But now I need to be poor with the people and suffer with them.”
“Many Muslims have asked me why I do this, because they are surprised,” the priest said. “But this interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians is now stronger.”
He noted that, about eight months ago, a group of young priests, jointly with local Muslims, opened two schools for 425 internally displaced Muslim children.
“We give them food to eat every day, we play with the children and just live alongside both Christians and Muslims.”
At least 4.25 million Syrians have been internally displaced, and 1.5 million have become refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Jordan and Lebanon.
Fighting in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, began last July, and now “more than half” of the city is destroyed, the priest said, “including many 500-year-old buildings.”
The priest explained that most factories “have been destroyed” and that, before the war, Aleppo was home to 40% of the Syrian economy because of its cotton and wheat production.
“But now most children can’t even go to school — only a few who live in calm areas, and they go to private schools.
“They are growing up with weapons and with the mentality that as long as they have one in their hand, they have power and can do anything.”
He stressed that before the war “we had a beautiful life” and that now “we live a big evil because we see our youth going to the army and dying and churches in danger.”
He affirmed that while the Assad regime “made mistakes,” Syrians had “a marvelous peace between Muslims and Christians” prior to the war.
“The president made many modern developments during the last 10 years, and we didn’t need anyone for food and water because we were self-sufficient,” the priest said.
He stressed that he does not have a vision for the future because “we are living in chaos and confusion” and does not know “how it will all finish.
“I am not stable, but I try to live my life with my family and with all those whom I love and whom I believe in.”
Father Mourad’s death occurred roughly 70 miles from Aleppo, in a contested region. Jisr Ash-Shughur is located in Idlib province, near the Turkish border, between Aleppo and Latakia.
St. Anthony of Padua Monastery gave shelter to Father Mourad when the village was attacked, as well as to some Franciscan friars, four religious sisters and 10 lay Christians.
When Father Maroud tried to defend the sisters and others from the rebels, he was shot.
The village is now completely deserted.
Father Pierbattista Pizzabella, the Franciscan custodian of the Holy Land, told Vatican Radio that “Syria has now become a battleground not only between Syrian forces, but also between Arab countries and the international community. And those paying the price are the poor, the young and the Christians.
“The international community must put a stop to all this.”
Speaking of Father Mourad’s murder, Cardinal Leandro Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, appealed that “this latest episode of unjustified violence arouse the conscience of the leaders of the conflicting parties and the international community, so that, as repeatedly stated by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, the guns of war be silenced and a season of justice and reconciliation begun for a future of peace.”
The international community has been contributing to the violence, with Russia, Iran and Lebanon-based Hezbollah supporting the Syrian regime.
Western nations have favored the rebels, who are composed of a number of groups, including both secularists and Islamists such as al-Nusra Front.
The U.S., France and U.K. have all been giving the rebels non-lethal support since 2012. On June 14, President Obama said he was prepared to give direct military aid to the opposition, having determined that the regime used chemical weapons on its own people. The British prime minister has made similar statements.
As Western governments consider increasing the flow of arms into Syria, the flood of refugees fleeing the country increases daily.
At current rates, the U.N. estimates that, by the end of 2013, an additional 2 million will have left the country.