ROME (RNS) A Syrian priest held hostage for months by the ISIS terrorist group is certain his life was saved due to his interfaith work, despite being threatened with beheading by jihadists if he did not renounce Christianity.
The Rev. Jacques Mourad, a Syriac Catholic priest, was taken hostage in May from the Mar Moussa monastery, situated between the capital Damascus and the city of Homs. He and a volunteer from the monastery were forced into a car and driven for four days, during which time Mourad said he thought he would be killed.
“We could only perceive the sense of the desert. In that moment … I thought it was over,” he told members of Rome’s Foreign Press Association on Thursday (Dec. 10), the first time he has spoken in detail about his odyssey since he escaped.
The two were instead taken to Raqqa, the de facto capital of terrorist group ISIS, and held in a bathroom.
“During these 84 days that I was a prisoner in this bathroom in Raqqa, it could be said that it was one of the most difficult experiences that a person can go through; that of losing one’s liberty,” Mourad said, speaking through an interpreter. “For me it was also a very intense experience, from the spiritual point of view.”
While the priest sought to sustain himself through prayer, he acknowledged there were incredibly dark moments: “It was very difficult above all when they said, ‘Become Muslim or we’ll cut your head off’.”
While the various minority Christian communities in Syria have been decimated during the civil war — and Christians have been brutally murdered and persecuted elsewhere by ISIS and other Islamic extremists — clerics have often been singled out as targets.
Two Orthodox bishops in Syria were kidnapped by ISIS in 2013 and have not been heard from since, and an Italian Jesuit priest, the Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, has also been in captivity for two years with no word on his fate. A 75-year-old Dutch Jesuit, the Rev. Frans van der Lugt, was killed by a gunman in Homs in 2014.
Dozens of U.S. religious leaders are currently lobbying Secretary of State John Kerry to include Middle East Christians on the State Department’s forthcoming list of genocide victims of ISIS, a designation that is expected to be given to communities such as the Yazidis.
Mourad said he believes his reputation at the monastery, where he fostered interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims, saved his life.
“I’m convinced I’m alive also thanks to this mission … the work we did contributed to preventing Islamic State (ISIS) from killing me,” he said.
He recalled a moment in which he thought he was to be killed, when a man came and asked if he was Christian. But — to Mourad’s surprise — the man then greeted him.
“That amazed me because normally the people (militants) don’t shake Christians’ hands or touch them, because they consider them impure. They don’t even greet Muslims that don’t think like them,” Mourad said.
In August he and the volunteer kidnapped with him were driven to another location where he came across 250 Christians abducted from his Al-Qaryatayn parish:
“I saw a young boy from my parish; it was a very touching moment. As soon as I turned I suddenly saw all the 250 kidnapped Christians — the children, old people, disabled, women — it was a very hard moment for me.”
In September the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, struck a deal to return the Christians to their community if they agreed to pay a tax and live under ISIS rule. The other options, Mourad said, were to have ISIS kill the men and keep the women captive, to enslave them all, or to wait until ransoms were paid.
After they were released, Mourad and his parishioners were taken back to Al-Qaryatayn and began celebrating Mass in secret. Despite returning to “a certain sense of a normal life,” Mourad said he soon decided to escape because conditions were becoming unbearable.
“Life had become unsustainable. We had nothing — we didn’t have electricity, there was no food, water — it was difficult because it was also very dangerous. At the same time I felt a responsibility towards the Christians,” he said.
Mourad said he was smuggled out of Al-Qaryatayn on Oct. 10 with the help of a Muslim friend; he declined to provide further details of the escape.
While other Christians have been able to flee the area, Mourad said eight parishioners have been killed. Though he is especially concerned about his own parishioners, Mourad described all Syrians as victims of war.
“We are responsible for the whole Syrian population, not only Christians,” he said, and appealed to Western nations to take action and to welcome refugees from the region.
“Europeans must accept their responsibility towards Syrians — towards so many Syrians who flee in search of a better life and die in the sea,” he said.
So far this year more than 944,000 people have reached Europe by sea, around half from Syria, while 3,580 people have died or gone missing during the journey.
(Rosie Scammell covers the Vatican for RNS)