Does abduction signal Islamic State's move on Homs?
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Local Muslims in Syria can help win the release of Father Jacques Mourad, a Syrian priest who was kidnapped Thursday, says a Swiss Middle East expert who leads a support network for Syrian monasteries.
"I have known Abouna Jacques for years," said Nadia Braendle, responding to an email about Father Jacques Mourad, who was kidnapped from the monastery where he is the superior.
The Syrian Catholic Archdiocese of Homs confirmed the kidnapping Friday, said Fides news agency.
Over the years, Father Mourad has worked to restore Mar Elyan (St. Julian) Monastery, just north of Qaryatayn, a large town in the middle of the Syrian desert, about 62 miles from Palmyra. He has also been instrumental in working for improved relations between Muslims and Christians.
"I visited his monastery many times," said Braendle. "He is a great man; he refused to become a bishop because he wants to work with the people of Syria—Muslims and Christians."
Braendle characterized Father Mourad as "always joyful and positive—until the email I received yesterday morning at 9:30 Swiss time.
That email referred to the situation in the nearby area of Palmyra, where ISIS gained control over the past few days, leading to international concern about the ancient ruins there.
"The situation is getting very complex. Men of Da’ech are getting closer and closer," Father Mourad wrote, referring to the Islamic State group by its Arabic acronym. "We hear that they cut throats of people of the villages nearby. Today we are still alive, but tomorrow is uncertain. Please pray for us."
"And yesterday at 2:30pm local time, three armed men came to the monastery," Braendle wrote. "They obliged Father Jacques to go with them, they took his laptop and his car."
She added that people and priests in Syria are trying to negotiate with the kidnappers.
"Many think—and I am one of them—that the only solution will come from the Muslim community of Qaryatayn and surroundings," Braendle said. "They know him, they have worked with him to keep their village out of the conflict."
In fact, they know him so well that many people defended him as a "man of peace" in reaction to posts on a local Facebook page that included sentiments such as "One should cut the throat of Father Jacques, as a ‘infidel,’ a non-Islamic believer."
"Let’s hope that good will will succeed in freeing Abouna Jacques, the kind of man Syria needs for the time being and for its future," Braendle concluded.
Fides quoted local sources saying that a deacon, Boutros Hanna, also was kidnapped, but that was not confirmed by the Syrian Catholic Archdiocese of Homs. The news agency said:
Local sources consulted by Fides speculate that behind the kidnapping there are Salafi groups in the area, who felt strengthened by the recent success of the jihadists of al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Syrian territory….
he monastic settlement…is a branch of the Monastery of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi [St. Moses the Abyssinian], refounded by the Italian Jesuit Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was also kidnapped on July 29, 2013 while he was in Raqqa, the Syrian capital for years under the control of the jihadist of the Islamic State.
In the years of conflict, the city of Qaryatayn was repeatedly conquered by anti-Assad militias and bombed by the Syrian army. It was Father Jacques, along with a Sunni lawyer, who acted as mediators to ensure that the urban center of 35,000 inhabitants was spared for long periods by armed clashes.
The monastery hosted hundreds of refugees, including more than 100 children under 10 years of age. Father Jacques and his friends provided the bare necessities for their survival even by seeking the help of Muslim donors.
"He appeals for funds to help them to bring water tanks, generators, agricultural tools so that these people can return home," said Braendle, who works with The Friends of Mar Moussa, quoted bythe Swiss newspaper Le Temps. "Father Jacques is deeply Syrian in that he believes in the coexistence of all. Purposeful, bright, he is guided by the love of people."
The news outlet said that several months ago, Father Mourad went to negotiate with the Al-Nusra Front for the release of a young man that another Islamist group held hostage.
According to Le Temps, after the kidnapping, a small community of monks, fearing the worst, abandoned the monastery and took refuge in private homes.
The paper speculated that the removal of Father Mourad is a signal that ISIS wants to advance towards the city of Homs. It quoted another priest in the region, who spoke of the activation of sleeper cells and a pattern of local sympathizers and other rebel groups as ISIS moves in. This, he said, is often accompanied by the disappearance of local figures: politicians, village leaders and churchmen, who until then have helped block the advance.
Father Mourad’s abduction comes during a week which saw significant gains for ISIS, including the fall of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syra. The BBC reported Friday that the Islamist group has now taken over the last government-controlled border crossing from Syria to Iraq: "Government forces withdrew from al-Tanf—known as al-Waleed in Iraq—crossing as IS advanced, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said."
The UK-based SOHR says the Islamic State now controls more than 50% of the country’s territory, dominating the provinces of Deir al-Zour and Raqqa and with a strong presence in Hasakeh, Aleppo, Homs and Hama.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.