Damascus (AsiaNews) – Islamic State (IS) militants recently bulldozed the ancient monastery of Mar Elian in al-Qaryatayn, a strategic town located in the central Syrian province of Homs. Photos posted on IS social media sites show militants destroying the building, which dated back to 5th century AD.
One picture shows the desecration of the monastery’s church. The second shows the exhumation of the remains of Mar (Saint) Elian* to whom the monastery is dedicated. A third photo shows the destruction of the ancient compound, which is located in the Syrian Desert.
"It is hard to get first-hand news,” Mgr Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio in Syria, told AsiaNews. The prelate tried to contact the local diocese, “but little is known or independently confirmed.”
The town where the monastery is located, al-Qaryatayn, is a strategic crossroads in the central province of Homs. Earlier this month, IS fighters seized it from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of sources in the country, IS appears to have moved out most of al-Qaryatayn’s Assyrian Christians, whom it had detained after capturing the town.
"News about the fate of Christian families are sketchy,” Mgr Zenari noted. “They are probably held for different reasons, perhaps as human shields or something else. The only thing that is certain is that they are in their hands. The situation is messy and the various factions are still fighting each other."
The fate of Fr Jacques Mourad, a Syrian Christian priest who was the prior at Mar Elian monastery, is still shrouded in mystery. Well known for helping Christians and Muslims alike, he was seized last May near the monastery that has just been demolished.
At the time of his abduction, he was helping hundreds of refugees fleeing from Palmira after IS seized the city.
"We are trying to come up with all possible means to free him,” said the apostolic nuncio, “but so far all attempts have failed to deliver the desired outcome. Even though we have not been idle, we have had no tangible results. "
In the meantime, the apostolic nuncio expressed cautious optimism about the latest diplomatic attempts to end the four and a half years civil war that has battered Syria, and left it in the hands of Jihadi militias.
"Something is happening,” said Mgr Zenari. “Even though we are still far from the goal, we must continue. If I can use a football metaphor: ‘We play to score, but we are still far from the goalpost, yet we're taking small steps in that direction."
In fact, Iran on Thursday welcomed a UN peace plan aimed at ending the four-year war that has engulfed its ally Syria, insisting thought that President Bashar Assad's regime must be directly involved.
On Monday, the UN Security Council adopted a new push for peace talks in Syria, which was also endorsed by Russia, another key ally of the Damascus regime, and the other 14 member states.
Prepared by Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, the peace initiative, set to begin in September, would see four working groups address various issues: safety and protection, counter-terrorism, political and legal issues and reconstruction.
“There is some movement,” Mgr Zenari said. “It is worth working from the margins to move towards the centre one day.”
For him, “Everyone – Syrian government and opposition, foreign governments and the international community – accepts that things cannot continue because the only winner is the Islamic State.”
“The issue of a provisional governing body exercising executive powers during the transitional period has not been settled yet,” the prelate said. “However, there has been some converge on other points (counter-terrorism, humanitarian issues, civilians)." (DS)
* Mar (Saint) Elian was killed by the Romans in 285 AD.