Kidnapped in 2015 in Syria and held for five months by jihadists of the so-called Islamic State before managing to escape, Archbishop Jacques Mourad, the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Homs, came close to martyrdom.
“Convert or we will cut off your head,” his captors had threatened him. This phrase, uttered as an ultimatum, put him – he who at the time was only a priest – “before the vows of his ordination”. He recalls, “I was in exactly this position: either I continue to carry the Cross to death with Christ for the sake of the Church and the salvation of the world, or I give up but then I also give up my vocation”.
He understood that he would continue to carry the cross, “but not just to carry the cross, but also with thoughts of my captors. The gift I received from this experience is to look at these people, the jihadists, in a spirit of prayer and ask God to enlighten their hearts, to convert them. Not for me but for their salvation and for the peace of our world. This total renewed trust in God freed me from all fears. When you come face to face with death, there is a certain feeling of fear that penetrates our soul. Whenever I felt this fear, I prayed the rosary; the fear passed and turned into courage.”
Time of grace
“Today, I consider this experience a grace, a grace that began on the eighth day, just before sunset.” Archbishop Mourad recounts that at the end of his first week as a hostage, he received a visit from the governor of Raqqa, not knowing that the man in front of him was the leader of the so-called Islamic State in Syria.
“When I asked him, ‘Why are we captives, and what have we done wrong to be held captive?”. The Islamist leader replied, “Consider this time as a time of retreat”.
“This answer of his turned the rest of my life upside down,” says the Archbishop. He confesses that he never expected such an answer from an extremist leader at the head of one of the most bloodthirsty groups.
“Although for a disciple of Christ there are no enemies, and even if there were, we must love them,” said Archbishop Mourad. “How can you love an enemy who wants to kill you and whom you would like to kill? This is the mystery of Christ’s love that was revealed so clearly, when, on the Cross he says ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.”
Jacques Mourad escaped in the fifth month of his detention, aided by a young Muslim man, who with about 15 others organized the escape of dozens of hostages. He said, “God wanted to save me in this world so that I would continue to serve Him to testify to the important Gospel principle: If you want peace, start by opening your heart.”
Martyrdom of Jesuit: Frans Van der Lugt
A year before his abduction, also in Homs, Dutch Jesuit Frans Van der Lugt had been murdered in the garden of his convent. In 2015, Jacques Mourad knew very well what he was up against with his jihadist captors.
Archbishop Mourad said, “Father Frans was for me and for all Syrians the very example of faithfulness to his Lord, Jesus Christ. He had dedicated his life to love for Syria and the Syrian people. His example is that of the incarnate Christ, who brings the message of the Father’s love to all, true salvation cannot come except through love and the gift of self.”
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of another Jesuit, Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, who has not been heard from since 2013, a Mass was celebrated in Rome.
Archbishop Jacques Mourad was present at the commemoration. He and Father Dall’Oglio had shared nearly 30 years of their lives together. With their sleeves rolled up, the two men restored the Mar Musa monastery together. They had known each other since 1986: “I knew Father Paul as I know myself, and I loved him as I love myself. For me he is a living martyr. He is truly a living martyr, whether he is dead or still alive.”
The Archbishop elaborates, “A martyr is someone who always lives in the memory of the Church, in the heart of the Church and the people of God. People came from all over to meet him. If you put together the messages and letters, received or sent, you could make an encyclopedia of them. He was always there for everyone, for the smallest as well as the greatest, for the ignorant as well as the wise, for the believer as well as for any other person.”
“I can testify that prayer is the only thing that has given meaning to my imprisonment, to my everyday life.”
For Archbishop Mourad, being a prisoner is the worst thing that can be inflicted on a human being created in the image of God. “We are created free, free to think, free to speak, free in his movements. God gave us this gift and to making a man a prisoner is an act that goes against the will of God in His creation.”
And within this framework, he stresses, “the only practice that helps a person to live this essential freedom is prayer, because it is this that allows us to come out of ourselves to be with God and to live with the one, we love.”
Paradoxically, concludes the Archbishop of Homs, his period of imprisonment was “the most fruitful time in my spiritual life, in my relationship with God and with the Virgin Mary.”