Priest was ISIS captive: 'I am journeying towards freedom'
"The presence of the Blessed Virgin, our Mother, and the prayer of the Rosary were my spiritual weapons."
Syrian monk Father Jacques Mourad spent five months in 2015
as a captive of ISIS. He recently spoke about his experience at Notre Dame
Cathedral in Paris, during the “Night of the Witnesses,” an annual initiative
of the French office of Aid to the Church in Need, the international Catholic
How did I—taken hostage by a group of
jihadists, imprisoned for almost five months, frequently threatened with
beheading, and after witnessing the abduction and imprisonment of 250 of my
parishioners—how did I respond to the experience of my liberation? Was there
any room for love in this experience?
In Karyatayn (Al-Qaryatayn) I had been
ministering to all the people since the year 2000 and I was in charge of the
Syriac Catholic parish there, belonging to the Diocese of Homs. And yes, it was
from Karyatayn that I was abducted.
On May 21, 2015, a group of masked and
armed men invaded the monastery of Mar Elian, which I was in charge of, taking
me hostage together with Boutros, who was then a postulant at the monastery. We
were kept prisoner there in the car in the middle of the desert, for four days,
then they took us to Raqqa, where we were imprisoned in a bathroom.
On the road to Raqqa, [traveling] into
the unknown, a phrase came to me and stayed with me which helped me to accept
what The presence of the Blessed Virgin, our Mother, and the prayer of the
Rosary were my other spiritual weapons.
On the eighth day a man in black, his
face masked, came into our “cell.” At the sight of him I was terrified and I
thought my last hour had come. But instead, to my great surprise, he asked my name
and addressed me with the customary [Arab Muslim] greeting: Assalam aleïkum, which means “Peace be
with you.” It is an expression reserved for Muslims and forbidden to
non-Muslims (because there can be no possible peace with those who oppose
them). And above all because Christians are considered by them to be unbelievers
and heretics (kouffar).
He then engaged us in a long
conversation, as though he was trying to get to know us better. And when I
found the courage to ask him why we were being kept prisoner, I was surprised
by his reply: “Look on it as a spiritual retreat.”
We remained imprisoned in that bathroom
for 84 days. Almost every day they came into my cell and interrogated me about
my faith. I lived each day as though it was my last. But I did not waver. God
granted me two things: silence and amiability.
I was harangued, threatened several
times with beheading, and was subjected to a mock execution for refusing to
renounce my faith. In those moments, our Lord’s words resonated within me: “My
grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness…”
In the midst of this situation I was also happy to be able to concretely live
these words of Christ from Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “Love your enemies, bless
those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who
ill-treat and persecute you.”
On Aug. 4 2015, ISIS took control of
Karyatayn and then the next morning, at dawn, took a group of Christians
hostage, some 250 people, brought from a region close to Palmyra. Obviously, we
didn’t know anything about what was going on, since we had been cut off from
the world. On Aug. 11 a Saudi sheik came into our cell. He spoke to me, saying,
“You are Baba Jacques? Come with me! They’ve been battering our ears talking
We drove through the desert for about four hours. When we arrived
in a compound enclosed by a huge iron gate, the Christians of Karyatayn were
around me, astonished to see me. It was a moment of unspeakable suffering for
me, and for them an extraordinary moment of joy and pain. Of joy because they
never expected to see me survive, and of pain because of the conditions in
which we had met again.
20 days later, on Sept. 1, they brought
us back to Karyatayn, free again, but forbidden to leave the town. To put it
another way, it was a return to life, but not yet to liberty. But already a
return to life—what a miracle! I could not help but marvel at it!
We were even allowed to celebrate our
religious rites, on condition we did not advertise the fact. A few days later,
when one of my parishioners died of cancer, we went to the cemetery, close to
the monastery of Mar Elian. It was only then that I discovered it had been
destroyed. Strangely, I felt no reaction. On Sept. 9, the feast of Mar Elian
(Saint Julian of Edessa), I realized that Mar Elian had sacrificed his
monastery and his tomb in order to save us.
On the evening of Oct. 9 I sensed that
the time had come to leave. And the next morning, with the help of a young
Muslim man, I was able to flee from Karyatayn, despite the dangers it involved.
And here again the merciful hand of God and the Virgin Mary protected and
accompanied me. Helped by this local Muslim man, I was able to pass through a
checkpoint controlled by the jihadists, without them recognizing me or seizing me.
It was on that day, Oct. 10, 2015, on
that desert road, that the word “freedom” really came home to me once more.
This thirst for freedom is not mine
alone. It is that of all the Syrian people. Many European and American
countries have opened their borders to Syrian refugees and welcomed them.
Thousands of Syrians who have fled death have taken refuge in these countries
because they long for life and yearn for liberty.
Nonetheless, I cannot close my eyes to
the contradictions we see in these countries at war. On the way towards freedom
we must absolutely ask ourselves this crucial question that Pontius Pilate
addressed to Christ: “What is truth?” Having said that, he went out again to
speak to the Jews and declared to them, “I find no cause for condemnation in
Pilate represented the Roman Empire, a
symbol of the whole world which has decided to kill Christ. Nothing has
changed. How long will we continue to refuse to understand the message of our
God? How much longer must our world go on being governed by little groups who
seek only their own self-interest?
It is time to react against the fears
of a third world war. The time has come for a revolution of peace—against
violence, against the manufacture of armaments, against governments who
constantly find reasons for war throughout the world, but above all in the
As for Europe, it is time that the
Muslim community took a clear and unambiguous position in regard to the
violence which is growing and being propagated. For them, too, fear is a
paralysing factor that is shackling them. Their silence is becoming the sign of
a manifest and apparent agreement in the face of the violence that is
Despite everything the humanitarian
organizations are doing for the Syrian people, there are still families living
in terrible conditions, outside the refugee camps, for lack of space. They are
not accepted there. They are homeless, they have nothing.
God is not only asking us to be
sensitive to the material needs of the poor. We are presented with a people who
are suffering, a wounded people who are bearing a very, very heavy burden, who
cry out with Jesus on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
People who cry out with David in Psalm 51: misericordias
domini. This war must stop. We want to return to our ruined homes. We have
the right to live, like everyone else in the world. We want to live!
Father Mourad; ACN photo