Beirut (AsiaNews) - "This grace was given to me for the comfort of many,” said Father Jacques Mourad, a priest in the Syriac Catholic Church. When he was in Beirut, we met at the Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation. Head of the Mar Elian monastery and responsible for the Christian residents in the village of Al-Qaryatayn, near Palmyra, Fr Murad was abducted by men from the Islamic State group (Daesh), back on 21 May. He was held in captivity for 4 months and 20 days, before he was able to join the so-called free world on 10 October.
Harassed, threatened, and pressured to convert to Islam, he went through several mock decapitations. He was even flogged once, and went through a mock execution the next day. He was held with a seminarian in a bathroom lit only by a skylight, and was reduced to a diet of rice and water, twice a day, without electricity or a watch, completely cut off from the outside world. Yet he managed to remain watchful, and never saw his faith weaken. On the contrary.
His grace, or the miracle in Fr Mourad’s words, was staying alive, not abjuring his faith, and finally finding freedom. "The first week was the hardest,” he said. “After being held for several days in a car, on Pentecost Sunday, I was taken to Raqqa. My first days of captivity were full of fear, anger and shame."
For Fr Jacques, the turning point in his captivity came on the eighth day when a masked man in black came to the cell, someone who looked like those who appear in Daesh’s videos. “My time is up. That’s it,” he thought. Instead, after asking him his name and that of his fellow prisoner, the man addressed him ‘As-salamu alaykum’, ‘Peace be upon you,’ and entered the cell. A long talk followed as if the unknown man wanted to understand really the two men in front of him.
"Think of this as a spiritual retreat," he told him, when Father Jacques asked why he was being held. “From then on, my prayers and my days made sense,” the Syrian priest said. “How can I explain this to you! I felt that through him, the Lord was speaking to me. That was very comforting.”
"Through prayer, I was able to regain my peace,” he added. “It was May, the month of Mary. We began to recite the rosary, which I had not done a lot before. My relationship with the Virgin was renewed. The prayer of Saint Teresa of Avila ‘Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing make you afraid’, also helped me. For her, one night I came up with a melody that I started to hum”.
“Charles de Foucauld’s prayer [also] helped me abandon myself in the hands of the Lord, conscious that I had no choice. For every indication suggested that it was either conversion to Islam, or decapitation. They came into my cell almost every day to ask me about my faith. I lived every day as if it were my last. But I did not give in. God gave me two things, silence and friendliness. I knew that some answers could provoke them, that any word might condemn you.” For instance, “They asked me about the presence of wine in the convent. When I started to answer, the man cut me off. He found my words unbearable. I was an ‘infidel’.”
“Thanks to the prayers, at the Psalms, I entered a peace that has never left me. I even remembered Christ’s words in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ‘bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.’ I was happy to be able to live out these words. It is no small feat to experience the Gospel, especially these difficult verses, which previously were theoretical. I started to feel compassion for my captors.
"Occasionally I would remember Fairuz’s poetic songs,” Fr Jacques said, “especially one about dusk, which I sang during June’s long nights in Raqqa, when we were left in the dark. Even these words and their music became a prayer. They spoke of suffering carved ‘in the twilight’.”
Then one day, Father Jacques Mourad was flogged.
"It was the 23rd day of my captivity,” he said. “They came in suddenly. It was all staged. Flogging lasted about 30 minutes. The whip was made from a piece of garden hose and ropes. It hurt physically, but inside of me, I was at peace. I was consoled by the knowledge that I was sharing something of Christ’s suffering. I was also extremely confused because I felt unworthy of it. I forgave my tormentor even as he whipped me.
“From time to time, I comforted deacon Boutros, my fellow prisoner, with a smile, who could hardly contain himself over my flogging. Later, I remembered the verse in which the Lord says that his strength manifests itself in our weakness. That really struck me because I felt I was weak, spiritually and physically. You see, I have suffered from a bad back since childhood and my conditions in detention were such that the pain should have in principle gotten worse. At the monastery, I had a special mattress, and an ergonomic chair. In prison, I was sleeping on the floor, and I could not walk around the bathroom.
"Later, I got really scared,” Fr Jacques said, “when a man armed with a knife came into our cell. I felt the blade on my neck and the countdown for my mock execution began. In my fright, I entrusted myself to God’s mercy. But it was nothing but a sham."
On 4 August, the Jihadis took Palmyra and Al-Qaryatayn. The next day at dawn, they took 250 civilians hostage, and brought them to Palmyra. On 11 August, Father Jacques and his companion followed. This is how, “A Saudi sheik came into our cell. 'Are you Baba Jacques?’ He said. ‘Come on, move it! Qaryatayn Christians can’t stop jabbering about you!’
“I thought I was being taken to be executed. Instead, we travelled by van for four hours. After Palmyra, we took a mountain path leading to a building with a big iron door. When it was opened what do I see? The whole population of Al-Qaryatayn, amazed to see me. It was a time of unspeakable suffering for me – for them, an extraordinary moment of joy. Twenty days later, on 1 September, we were brought to Al-Qaryatayn, free but banned from leaving the village.
“A collective religious contract was signed. We were now under their protection (ahl zemmeh), upon payment of a special tax (Jizya) imposed on non-Muslims. We could practice our rites, provided they did not offend Muslims.
“A few days later, after one of my parishioners died of cancer, we went to the cemetery, near the Convent de Mar Elian. Only then did I find out that it had been levelled. Strangely, I did not react. Inwardly, I felt that Mar Elian had sacrificed his convent and his grave to save us.
"Today, I still feel the same about my captors as I felt when I was their prisoner: compassion,” said Fr Jacques, who is tight-lipped about the way he defied the ban to leave Al-Qaryatayn. “This feeling comes from my contemplation of God’s gaze upon them, despite their violence, as he does upon any man, a gaze of pure mercy, without any wish for revenge.
"Today I know that prayer is the way to salvation,” said the priest, who was a monk at the monastery of Mar Musa, founded by Father Paolo Dall'Oglio. Hence, “We must continue to pray for the still missing bishops and priests whose fate is still unknown; we must pray for my brother, the Father, Paolo Dall'oglio, who disappeared in Raqqa in July 2013).
“We also must pray for a political solution in Syria. This year, we mark a hundred years since the slaughters and exodus of 1915. Without a political solution, emigration will finish the work that began with the 1915 massacres."