SYRIA – “The people are afraid that IS will return”
Although “Islamic State” (IS) has now been driven out from the Syrian city of Al Qaryatayn, it is unlikely Christians will return quickly. Fr. Jihad Youssed from the Community of al-Khalil, a local Catholic religious order said in an interview Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) “The residents, who have fled, both Christians and Muslims, are afraid. They fear that IS may come back again.”
“The swift return of the people is also dependent upon how long the city will remain a military zone. Further, infrastructure such as water and electricity has largely been destroyed. And besides, many residents no longer even live in Syria, but have fled to other countries.”
According to Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II the combined population of Christians in the city was 300 people. “We have lived this way for centuries and have learned to respect each other. We can live together again, if only others leave us in peace ” said the Patriarch.
The Syrian army backed by Russian air forces was able to recapture the city recently after it had been occupied by the terror militia since the beginning of last August. Many of the city’s residents fled from IS .In addition to Father Jacques Mourad, a monk, and a companion who were already kidnapped in May and released in October, at times large numbers of Christians from Al Qaryatayn were being held hostage by IS. Five people are still missing, probably they were killed by IS. 21 Christians are known to have been killed during the nearly six-month occupation of the city.. According to a Syrian cleric, some of them were killed while trying to escape, and some were killed for breaking the 11-point Code found at Zimmie. This code applies to all non-Muslim inhabitants of the land under the rule of Islam. According tothe code’s principles, Christians can not, among others, criticize Islam or publicly celebrate their holidays. They must also pay a special tax called Jizya.
The 1500 year old Mar Elian monastery was almost completely destroyed in August 2015 after the city of Mar Musa was seized by IS which was intent on wiping out Christian identity in the region.
of the community were destroyed immediately. Photographs released by IS on social media showed bulldozers levelling the complex, sections of which dated back to the 5th century.
“The archaeological part has been razed. Fortunately, however, the complex of buildings was not destroyed in its entirety” Father Jihad told Aid to the Church in Need. “The walls of the church are still standing, even though the roof is no longer there. The altar, unfortunately, was destroyed. They also smashed the sarcophagus of St. Elian.”
However, it is a sign from God and a source of great consolation for the community, Father Jihad said, that the remains of St Elian were not destroyed or stolen, but can still be found scattered there. Photographs taken at the monastery ruins by a group of journalists who visited the site recently show a quantity of bones scattered around the floor and stacked up in rooms in cardboard and plastic boxes. A skull and bones were found in the rubble of a smashed fifth-century sarcophagus believed to be that of St Elian, a physician who healed the sick and was killed by his own father – a Roman officer – in AD 284 for refusing to renounce Christianity.
Father Jihad added “St Elian is greatly revered by the Christians. Muslims also used to go on pilgrimage to his grave. We want to gather the holy relics and give them a worthy place again.” He is confident that it will be possible to restore the smashed marble sarcophagus of the saint. “Until the possible restoration of the monastery, the remains could be taken to another place,” said Father Jihad
However, he emphasised though that for him spiritual renewal is more important : “Of course we are attached to the monastery. We invested a great deal of effort to make it into a place of prayer and dialogue. In this, Aid to the Church in Need was vital in its support. But we are not attached to stones. Our Jerusalem is in heaven. And you don’t lose anything with God. Matter can be restored. A great deal more vital than the restoration of the stones and the recovery of the monastery is the reconciliation of hearts,” said Father Jihad whose community has made the dialogue between Christians and Muslims an integral part of its focus.
“Several years ago,” he continued, “we were grateful to the benefactors and those who help with prayers at Aid to the Church in Need for their help in building the monastery. Unfortunately, it is now very heavily damaged,” he emphasized. “We are therefore now asking those who pray to add Syria to their prayers. May hatred vanish from the hearts.”