Caritas coordinator Fr Iyad Ghanem describes the devastation at the church, monastery and hostel. Jihadis blew up the saint’s tomb. At present, Al-Qaryatayn is a ghost town littered with mines and unexploded bombs, which need to be cleared. However, the greatest tragedy is the flight of Christians; for them, what is needed are "prayer and mercy."
Homs (AsiaNews) – Fr Iyad Ghanem, Caritas Syria Coordinator in Homs diocese, spoke to AsiaNews about Mar Elian monastery, which is located in the recently liberated town of al-Qaryatayn.
The site is totally destroyed, he said. Initially, we thought the Islamic State (IS) group had “only damaged the saint’s burial place”; however, everything is smashed, “the church, the monastery, and the hostel” for visitors and pilgrims.
Recently, the clergyman got in touch with Mgr Philippe Barakat, procurator for the Syriac Catholic patriarch, who has visited the city and seen the monastery. What he found defies imagination: “complete devastation”.
"They put a bomb in the saint’s tomb and blew it up,” Fr Iyad said. “From a preliminary look, the tomb and everything inside were destroyed. It is total destruction – there are no other ways of putting it. It was one of the most important and ancient Christian sites in Syria."
Mar Elian monastery is located near the town al-Qaryatayn ("the two villages" in Arabic), in Homs Governorate, central Syria, a country battered by five years of a civil war that has killed 260,000 people and displaced millions more.
In August 2015, after they conquered the area, IS militants proceeded to demolish with bulldozers the 5th century building as well as the church graveyard. The site held the tomb with the remains of Saint Elian, who was martyred for refusing to renounce Christianity. The militants then posted their deed online.
Fr Jacques Mourad, a Syriac Catholic priest, headed the monastery. After months in IS captivity he managed to flee.
In a long interview, he talked about his ordeal, which included a mock execution. Speaking soon after his escape, he described the pain and suffering, noting that silence is the best answer to such a trial.
With a population of about 30,000 people, including about a thousand Christians, al Qaryatayn was a symbol of religious coexistence.
According to legend, when the Arabs arrived in the 7th century, one of the two most important local families converted to Islam, whilst the other remained Christian. The goal was to protect each other from external threats and attacks.
Today the area is considered a strategic hub in Homs governorate and is rich in mineral deposits. Just last week, the Syrian army was able to retake it from IS with the help of Russian air raids.
Despite its liberation, al-Qaryatayn is a ghost town, shop windows broken, and buildings damaged or collapsed from the intense fighting. The retreating Jihadis took their captives with them, including some Christians.
"The government is preventing people from entering because the streets are full of mines and unexploded bombs,” Fr Iyad said. “The area has no electricity or drinking water.”
“Not far from there, there is heavy fighting in another town between Daesh (Arabic acronym for IS) and the regular army. There is no security and it will take time to clear the area."
Despite the devastation suffered by the monastery and surrounding areas, "we have not lost many people. Most of our people are still alive and safe." As for the rest, "it is known that where Daesh passes” only "destruction and debris remain”.
“We are sad for the loss of the tomb, and the monastery, but what makes us really sad is the exodus of Christians from the country, especially young people."
“The destruction hurts", but the flight of the faithful "is much worse . . . This is our great wound. The church and the monastery can be rebuilt, but there is nothing worse than the loss of young people,” Fr Mourad said.
“In this jubilee year, Syria needs more than ever mercy and prayer. We ask everyone to pray for us to stop the war, to let us out of the tomb in which we have fallen, and to look at this in the future with mercy and consolation. Christ is risen . . . and is a source of consolation for us."