Since 2011 over half a million Christians have fled Syria as a result of the Civil War and the rise of the Islamic State. The Syrian priest, Father Jacques Mourad, was one of them; after his unique experience with IS, he remains determined to continue working towards a dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
“Like all the Syrian people, the Christians are suffering. People are poor, without anything, and the biggest problem is the emigration to camps such as those in Lebanon. They don’t have any hope for a solution. They feel that they have been left out and that no one has taken care of them. Even in Europe, or anywhere else in the world, the Christians feel alone” says Father Jacques Mourad, a Syrian Catholic priest from the town of Aleppo.
In over 30 years, Father Mourad has worked to establish a dialogue between the religions, in his monasteries outside Damascus. When the Civil War broke out in 2011, he continued his work until taken hostage by the Islamic State (IS). Today, Father Mourad works towards establishing scholarships for Syrian refugees and travels to universities all over Europe to meet fellow Syrians.
Mourad is one of many Christians who left Syria after the uprising of 2011, and thus the country that has been their home for over two thousand years. Syria has always had a significant population of Christians; indeed, Syria’s Christian community – consisting of different Christian congregations such as the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church – is one of the oldest in the world. As recently as the 1920s, the Christians were believed to have constituted about 30 percent of Syria’s population. Today they make up about 10 percent of 22 million inhabitants. Christians in Syria have long been among the country’s elite despite their minority status, and they have been present in many of the political groups within the country.
When peaceful protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, many Christians initially tried to avoid choosing sides in the conflict. As the situation intensified, however, with the government cracking down on protests and the opposition turning to arms, the Christians were gradually drawn into the conflict. Since the beginning of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Christians have been displaced or left the country.
Furthermore, with the rise of IS in 2014 many more Christians were forced to leave their homes, as their religious leaders were kidnapped, their churches destroyed, and their villages burned to the ground. According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International’s report “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East” from March 2016, the Christian population in Syria decreased from 1.25 million in the beginning of 2011 to 500,000 in 2015. In 2015 alone, an estimated 700,000 Christians fled to other countries.
DIALOGUE FOR PEACE
According to Father Mourad, most Syrian Christians have fled to the city of Latakia on Syria’s coast, Syria’s neighbor Lebanon, and to Christian majority countries in Europe and to Canada. For Fr. Mourad, however, the Syrian conflict is not a conflict between the Syrian people, or between Christians and Muslims.
“The conflict has nothing to do with Christians and Muslims. They have been living in peace for hundreds of years. The problem is regimes. It is a political game between foreign powers and this is a much bigger problem, much more destructive than the dialogue between Christians and Muslims; dialogue that has been going on for ages”.
To continue to foster this dialogue, Fr. Mourad began organizing meetings and seminars back in 2001 between Christians and Muslims in his monasteries. The idea was to recognize each other and live in peace.
“The dialogue started as a result of many years of welcoming Muslims to the monastery, and because we believe that this dialogue is the only way of building a true and peaceful project. We witnessed how in the formal meetings between religious leaders in the country everything was a façade. They pretended that everything was okay, but when they turned their backs to each other it was a different story,”
Fr. Mourad continues:
For this same reason, however, Fr. Mourad was captured by IS in May 2015 and held in captivity at their headquarters in Raqqa. Armed gunmen stormed the monastery of St. Elian in the town of Qaryatayn where Mourad worked, and abducted him. The monastery is about 60 miles from the old city of Palmyra, which was known for hosting several hundred Muslim and Christian refugees that had fled from neighboring villages in 2013 and 2014. Two months after Fr. Mourad’s abduction, the town swarmed with IS-fighters, the monastery was abolished and 230 people were kidnapped.
“The only thing that is left now are friendships” says Fr. Mourad.
THE POWER OF LOVE
Although Fr. Mourad was held in captivity in Raqqa, the head of the IS unit had spent several hours with him, talking to him and discussing religion. According to Fr. Mourad, the conversations were characterized by dialogue and the attempt at a mutual understanding. They discussed the pillars of the Christian Faith and the Holy Trinity, but they never spoke about Islam, as it is forbidden to discuss Islam with a non-Muslim. Although his dialogue partner accused the Bible of being untruthful, corrupt, and manipulated, he was not violent. Indeed, Fr. Mourad found the discussions to be relatively interesting, considering the situation.
He vividly remembers one incident in particular: when an Islamist responsible for bringing food and water had behaved very aggressively towards him, Fr Mourad responded by reflecting on this person and his relationship to God, and decided to encounter him with a smile and to include him in his prayers. As time passed, the IS fighter became softer, less aggressive and even asked Fr. Mourad if he needed anything.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
When discussing politics, however, the IS-fighters treated Mourad as a representative of the crusaders and argued that Muslims have the right to defend their land and people from those who attack it. This made Fr. Mourad convinced that the IS fighters truly believe in their cause of building an Islamic State.
“For them, creating an Islamic state is the only solution to get rid of all the dictatorships in the Arab world”.
According to him, however, the IS fighters themselves are products of the regimes in the region, and he emphasizes the importance of not only understanding IS’s ideology, but also the people behind it.
“All the prisoners who were persecuted in the prisoners of these regimes have something in common, which is the pain they suffered in the prisons. No one who is persecuted forgets the pain. All jihadists are human beings and the violence they practice is a reaction to something”.
Fr. Mourad spent five months in IS captivity before he managed to escape by dressing as an Islamist and fleeing on a motorcycle. Although he, like so many of his fellow countrymen, had to leave Syria because of the current situation, he still feels hopeful for the future of his country.
“The relationship between Christians and Muslims has not changed. Nothing can change the relation between Syrians. My experience and the miracle that happened to me made me believe that God is much stronger than all the evil in the world”.
Mina Fossum & Vanessa Veltgens