Syria and Iraq, persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, the true nature of Islam: in a controversial speech in October 2015 upon accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt, the Muslim writer Navid Kermani tackled a host of contested questions. And he asked: Will Western Christians respond, or stay indifferent?
On the same day that I learned I had been awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Jacques Mourad was abducted in Syria. Two armed men entered the Mar Elian monastery on the outskirts of the small town of Qaryatain and called for Father Jacques. They found him, likely in the bare little office that also serves as his living room and bedroom and took him away. On May 21, 2015, Jacques Mourad became a hostage of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
I first met Father Jacques in autumn 2012 when I was traveling as a journalist through an already war-torn Syria. He served Qaryatain’s Catholic parish while also belonging to the religious order of Mar Musa, which was founded in the early 1980s in a derelict early Christian monastery. This order is a special, even unique Christian community, since it is devoted to an encounter with Islam and to love for Muslims. The monks and nuns, while conscientiously holding to the Catholic Church’s precepts and rites, engage just as seriously with Islam and take part in Muslim traditions, including Ramadan. This may sound mad, even ludicrous: Christians who, in their own words, have fallen in love with Islam. And yet this Christian–Muslim love was a reality in Syria until just recently, and remains so still in the hearts of many Syrians. Through the work of their hands, the goodness of their hearts, and the prayers of their souls, the nuns and monks of Mar Musa created a place that to me seemed a utopia, a place where the eschatological reconciliation of all things was – well, perhaps not already fulfilled (they would not have claimed this), but still tangible in advance as a promise of the reconciliation to come.
This was the Mar Musa I came to know: a seventh-century stone monastery amid the overpowering solitude of the mountains of the Syrian desert, a place visited not only by Christians from all over the world but also by ever-increasing numbers of Muslims, who knocked at the door to meet their Christian brothers and sisters; to speak, sing, and be silent with them; and also, in a corner of the church kept free of images, to pray according to their Islamic custom.
When I visited Father Jacques in 2012, his friend Paolo Dall’Oglio, the Italian Jesuit who had founded the Mar Musa community, had recently been expelled from the country. Father Paolo had been too outspoken in his criticism of the Assad government, which had responded to the Syrian people’s call for freedom and democracy – a call that had remained peaceful for nine months – with arrests and torture, with truncheons and assault rifles, and finally with horrific
massacres and even poison gas until the country descended into civil war. But Father Paolo had also confronted the leadership of the official Syrian churches, which remained silent about the government’s violence. He had attempted in vain to persuade Europe to support Syria’s democracy movement and had called in vain on the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone or at least send observers. He had warned in vain of a religious war if the secular and moderate groups were abandoned and foreign aid went only to the jihadists. He had tried in vain to break through the wall of our apathy. In the summer of 2013, the founder of the Mar Musa community secretly returned to Syria to help recover some Muslim friends who were in the hands of ISIS, and was himself abducted by its forces. There has been no trace of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio since July 28, 2013.