A Syrian priest who spent five months in captivity by the Islamic State jihadist group has been elected archbishop of a Syriac Catholic archdiocese.
The Synod of Bishops of the Syriac Catholic Church elected Fr. Jacques Mourad as Archbishop of Homs, Syria, it was reported Saturday. Pope Francis has given his assent to the election.
One of 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome, the Syriac Catholic Church has some 175,000 faithful in the Middle East and in the diaspora.
Archbishop Mourad said in an interview with Aleteiain 2015 that he “felt Jesus’ presence” during his monthslong captivity.
Mourad, 54, was born in Aleppo, Syria, and attended seminary in Charfet, Lebanon. He graduated from the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik and made religious vows on July 20, 1993, in the Syriac Catholic monastic community of Deir Mar Mousa Al-Abashi [St. Moses the Abyssinian], about 50 miles north of Damascus. He was co-founder of the monastery with Jesuit Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian priest who was abducted in 2013 and not heard from again.
Mourad was ordained a priest on August 28, 1993, and from 2000 to 2015 directed the ecumenical monastery of Mar Elian, near the city of Qaryatayn, about 62 miles from Palmyra. Its main mission then was to work for dialogue with Muslims.
The Assyrian International News Agency said that Mar Elian was founded in the 5th century as a Syriac Orthodox Monastery. In the 17th century, it became Catholic. In modern times, it was renovated by Fr. Dall’Oglio.
Nadia Braendle, a Swiss woman who works with The Friends of Mar Moussa, and has known Archbishop Mourad for years, in 2015 called him a “great man” who “refused to become a bishop because he wants to work with the people of Syria — Muslims and Christians.”
She said he’s the kind of person Syria needs.
During the Syrian civil war, the city of Qaryatayn was repeatedly conquered by anti-Assad militias and bombed by the Syrian military. Mourad, along with a Sunni lawyer, acted as mediator to ensure that the urban center of 35,000 inhabitants was spared for long periods from armed clashes.
His monastery hosted hundreds of refugees, including more than 100 children under 10 years of age. Mourad and his friends provided the bare necessities for their survival by seeking the help of even Muslim donors.
On May 21, 2015, Mourad was abducted from Quaryatayn by unknown gunmen as ISIS overran Palmyra. The jihadist group destroyed the monastery of St. Elian.
Mourad later described his life in captivity, saying ISIS militants held him for four days locked in a car in the mountains before transferring him.
In an interview with the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le jour, he described how he was threatened with beheading several times if he did not convert to Islam; he was whipped and subjected to a mock execution.
“The first week was the hardest: After being held for several days in a car, I was taken, on Pentecost Sunday, to Raqqa [the Islamic State’s Syrian “capital”]. I lived those first days in captivity torn between fear, anger and shame,” he said.
“Consider it a spiritual retreat”
On the eighth day, a person dressed in black entered his cell. While the priest believed his end was near, the man struck up a conversation. Mourad asked why he had been abducted. “Consider it a spiritual retreat,” his jailer replied.
“From then on, my prayer, my days took on a meaning, he said. “I felt that through him, it was the Lord who sent me these words. That moment was a great comfort to me. Through prayer, I was able to regain my peace. It was May, the month of Mary. We began to recite the Rosary, which I did not pray much before. My relationship with the Virgin was renewed by it. St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer, ‘Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you …’ also sustained me. One night I made up a melody for it, which I started to hum. Charles de Foucauld’s prayer helped me abandon myself into the hands of the Lord, well aware that I had no choice. For I had every indication that either I converted to Islam, or I would be decapitated.
“Almost every day someone entered my cell and asked me about my faith,” he continued. “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 some answers could provoke them, that just one word can condemn you. Thus, I was questioned about the presence of wine in the convent. The man cut me off when I started to answer. He found my words unbearable. I was an ‘infidel.’ Through prayer, the Psalms, I found a sense of peace that never left me. I also remembered Christ’s words in the Gospel of St. Matthew: ‘Bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you.’ I was happy to be able to live out these words. It is no small thing to be able to live the gospel, especially those difficult verses, which were previously only theoretical. I started to feel compassion for my captors.”
Paying the jizya
Suddenly, on the 23rd day, his captors reappeared and gave him a 30-minute flagellation. The whip was made of a piece of garden hose and ropes.
“I was in physical pain, but deep down inside I was at peace,” he said. “I had great comfort in knowing that I was sharing something of Christ’s suffering. … I forgave my tormentor even as he was whipping me. … Later, I remembered the verse where the Lord says that it is in our weakness that his strength is manifested.”
As bad as that was, he said he experienced his greatest fear a short time later, when a man armed with a knife entered the cell.
“I felt the blade of the knife on my neck, and I had the feeling that the countdown for my execution had begun,” Mourad recalled. “In my fright, I recommended myself to God’s mercy. But it was only a horrifying sham.”
On August 4, the Islamic State seized Qaryatayn, kidnapping some 230 civilians from the town, including 60 Christians. A few days later a Saudi sheikh entered the priest’s cell: “Are you Baba Jacques?” he asked. “Come! Some Christians from Qaryatayn have been bothering us about you!”
“I thought that I was being taken away to be executed. Sitting in a van, we drove for four hours straight. Beyond Palmyra we took a mountain path that led to a building secured by a large iron door. When it was opened, what did I see? The whole population of Qaryatayn, amazed to see me. It was a moment of unspeakable suffering for me; for them, an extraordinary moment of joy.
“Twenty days later, on September 1, we were brought back to Qaryatayn, free, but we were forbidden to leave the village. A collective religious contract was signed: We were now under their protection upon payment of a special fee (jizya), which non-Muslims have to pay. We could even practice our rites, provided that it not offend any Muslims.”
After almost five months of captivity, Father Mourad managed to escape on October 10, 2015.
“I dressed as Islamist and fled on a motorcycle with the help of a Muslim friend” to the town of Zeydal, near Homs, he said at the time. Along with an Orthodox priest and a few Bedouin and Muslim friends, he then worked to win the release of 200 Christians who were still in captivity.
He said that in spite of several close calls with death, he felt an interior peace.
“Almost every day, someone came into my cell and asked me, ‘Who are you?’” he said. “I answered: ‘I am a Nazarene, that is to say, a Christian.’ ‘So you’re an infidel,’ he shouted, ‘and since you’re an infidel, unless you convert, we will cut your throat.’ But I never signed anything renouncing Christianity.”
He spoke with Vatican Insider about his experiences and prospects for the future.
How did you celebrate Mass under the jihadist regime?
In Quaryatayn, we managed to celebrate the first Mass on September 5, …. The Islamic State’s jihadists brought us — more than 250 Christians — back to our city, having held us hostage in various locations. We found an underground space in a building situated in what was once the Christian neighborhood. As we —Syro-Catholic and Syro-Orthodox faithful — celebrated Mass together, we were full of awe at the miracle we were experiencing.
Yes, me especially. It was the first Mass I celebrated after four months and 15 Sundays spent in prison. At the beginning there was fear: What if they, the jihadists, turned up? How would they react? Then I felt a sense of gratitude wash over me, an urge to give thanks to Him who supported me through all those trials, even as they told me they would slit my throat if I did not convert.
I thought a great deal about that Mass, after I heard the news about the martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel who was slain at the altar of his parish church in France.
During your imprisonment, when you were unable to celebrate Mass with the others, what did you do?
At dawn I would always sing the entire Mass, remembering my parish choir and the Masses celebrated at the monastery of Mar Mousa. … I was also held prisoner in Raqqa for a while — this was the city where Paolo Dall’Oglio went missing… While I was there, I imagined him in a situation similar to my own in that same city, possibly just a short distance from me and I felt him close to me, as he was at the start of our common monastic journey in Mar Mousa, the monastery in the desert. That bathroom where they kept me locked up had a sturdy iron door which reminded me of my cell door at the monastery. I shared a paradoxical bond of friendship with that prison. It wasn’t a comfortable environment, especially given my fragile health. But I didn’t feel anguish. I sensed the grace experienced by St. Paul when he heard the Lord saying to him: ‘My grace is enough for you.’ Even in my innermost weakness, it was Him who revealed His strength.
After his release, Mourad stayed in monasteries in Italy and in Iraq for some time. Returning to Syria in 2020, he served as vice-superior of the community and bursar, as well as a member of the College of Consultors of the Archeparchy of Homs, the archdiocese he now will head.
Following his liberation, he commented, “I still feel for my captors the same feeling I had for them when I was their prisoner: compassion. This feeling comes from my contemplation of God’s gaze on them, despite their violence, which is the same one that he has for every man: a gaze of pure Mercy, without any desire for revenge.”