The relics of a saint who refused to comply with the Romans’ demands to apostatize faced a new test by a group trying to stamp out Christianity. But now his bones are being protected in Syria.
Aided by Russian airstrikes, the Syrian army on Sunday drove the Islamic State group out of Al Qaryatayn after a seven-month occupation. The jihadists left behind much destruction, including the monastery of St. Elia and other churches.
Now, a priest who himself had been held captive by ISIS is preserving the fifth-century saint’s bones.
Father Jacques Mourad, who was held by ISIS from May to October of last year, found the relics scattered around the tomb when he returned to the monastery.
“In front of all what happened and is happening, I prefer to be silent, because now silence appears to me as the most appropriate word,” Father Mourad told Fides news agency. “The fact that the relics of Mar (St.) Elia are not lost is for me a great sign: it means that he did not want to leave the monastery and the holy land.”
Qaryatayn, which is about 75 miles northeast of Damascus, was once home to a sizable Christian population, AP reported. More than 200 residents, mostly Christians, including Father Mourad, were abducted by ISIS. Some were released and others were made to sign pledges to pay a tax imposed on non-Muslims. Some have simply vanished, the wire service reported. As for the center of Christian life in the town:
The church’s doors and windows were blown out and its interior appeared to have been used by the militants as a workshop for manufacturing bombs and booby traps, its floor littered with gas canisters, metal kettles, coffee pots and blue pails.
Scrawled in blue paint on the church’s exterior stone wall was a verse from a 19th-century Egyptian poet known as the Poet of Islam: “We faced you in battle like hungry lions who find the flesh of the enemy to be the most delicious.” It was signed “The Lions of the Caliphate.”
Another wall was sprayed with the words “Lasting and Expanding,” the Islamic State group’s logo. It was dated August 15, 2015.
Father Mourad recalled that last Sept. 9, the feast of St. Elia, Qaryatayn was under ISIS control. Celebrating Mass, he told other Christians from the town that it would not matter if the monastery or the tomb were destroyed. “The important thing is that you bear Mar Elia in your heart, wherever you go, even in Canada, or Europe, because he wants to stay in the hearts of his followers,” the monk said.
This week, a priest of the Syrian Catholic Archeparchy of Homs, along with some monks of the nearby monastery of Mar Musa will inspect Mar Elia monastery. “I asked them to collect the remains and bring them to Homs to guard them,” Father Mourad told Fides. “We know that the old sanctuary was destroyed, the archaeological site was devastated, while the new church and monastery were burned and partly bombed. The life of grace will bloom again around the memory of the saints. It will be a great blessing for our entire Church.”
Meanwhile, amazingly, there are still 43 Christian families living in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold, some five hours to the northeast. But the Islamic State has forbidden them from leaving, according to activists in the city.
An activist with the anti-IS group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) said that the ban had been imposed at Easter, noting that most of the Christians left in the city were poor workers with little prospect of moving even if allowed the opportunity.