05/15/2020, 14.10
SYRIA – ITALY – ISLAM
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For Fr Jacques Mourad, a jihadi abductee, Silvia Romano is a 'sister, I embrace her in faith'

by Dario Salvi

The Syrian priest, who was held in Syria by the Islamic State group for five months, says people should not judge the Italian aid worker’s decision to convert. She was held by al-Shabaab in Somalia for 18 months. In such a situation, "even one more day makes a huge difference". For him, a smile should be used against threats, violence and attempts to convert. Praying is a shared experience.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Silvia Aisha Romano went through an experience "similar to mine,” said Fr Jacques Mourad, a Syro-Catholic priest. For this reason, "I can say I feel close to her. However, she was held for 18 months, I was held only for five. In such a situation, even just one day more makes a huge difference.”

Reached by phone from a location kept secret for security reasons, the clergyman said he doesn’t want to “judge” the Italian aid worker abducted by Jihadis who converted to Islam. “If I met her, I think I’d embrace her like a sister, in faith and life experience.”

Fr Mourad was the prior at Mar Elian monastery (not far from Mar Musa, the community founded by Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio) and was the leader of the Christian community in Qaryatayn, near Palmyra.

He was kidnapped by a group affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group in May 2015. After weeks of threats, pressure, violence, attempts to convert him and a simulated execution, he was able to escape in a courageous deed, as he puts it, on 10 October 2015.

“From the start it was clear to the kidnappers that I would not weaken or give in, thanks to the faith that accompanies and supports me; not even when they told me they were going to behead me. Even then I chose not to react. I just looked them in the eyes and smiled.”

"I never replied in words; only with smiles,” he explained. “This was my way of communicating the message: I shall not doubt my faith; I shall never submit to fear.”

Precisely for this reason, the priest does not want to judge the path and choices made by Silvia Romano, an Italian aid work abducted in Kenya on 20 November 2018 and freed in early May following the probable payment of a ransom of €4 million (US.4 million), something the Italian government has neither confirmed nor denied.

After 18 months of captivity, Romano appeared in good health; however, the joy for her release was offset by the political and social controversy triggered by her decision to convert to Islam (which she claims was of her free will) and to appear in public wearing a traditional Muslim dress and veil.

Silvia, who took the name Aisha, had travelled to Kenya to work on a project by Africa Milele, an NGO, teaching children in Chakama, a village in Kilifi county. A local resident allegedly tipped off a local cell of al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based Jihadi group linked to al-Qaeda, who abducted her. A spokesman for the extremist group announced that the ransom money will be used to finance the jihad.

When asked if Silvia Romano could have been “pressured,” Fr Mourad said that "everything is possible". However, for him “the fact that she converted to Islam" is not that important as "only God knows what is in people's hearts".

“We have a duty not to pretend to be shocked or scandalised because nobody knows what she went through,” he noted. “No one knows the suffering she experienced. We just have to welcome Silvia with the tenderness and love of God and Jesus, even if she is a Muslim.”

For extremists, taking men or women makes no difference. Some people are "more wicked, vicious; others are better,” he said. He should know: in Palmyra, “I interacted with twins: one bloodthirsty, the other one, calm, with softer ways.”

What counts “is for everyone to believe and pray. This transcends ordinary life and has allowed me to overcome my being prisoner versus them being jailers. We both turn to God and that is where we can meet: prayer.”

Remembering the moment of his abduction and liberation, Fr Mourad said that “The first sensation I felt was fear", not from the kidnappers, "but from others, ordinary people, from going back to life.”

Presently, "I view this experience as a gift" because it was "interesting" to meet Islamic radicalism, “which is totally different from us, a military apparatus that is not recognised as an army and does not have the dignity of rebel movements.”

The difference "is perhaps inherent in the decision to take ‘holy’ war, jihad, to an extreme, living out their madness. Still, there is an explanation for such actions and feelings, if we are willing to analyse them. However, the biggest mistake is to react ourselves violently.”

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