Islamic State demolishes ancient site of pilgrimage, modern site of reconciliation
It’s no accident that the Islamic State group abducted certain residents of a Syrian village before destroying the village’s centuries-old spiritual heart, said a Swiss woman who has worked to support Christian monasteries in Syria.
ISIS published a video consisting of still photos showing the destruction of the Monastery of Mar Elian, in the central Syrian town of al-Qaryatain. The jihadist group said it destroyed the monastery because it “is worshiped beside Allah,” according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported the destruction Aug. 20.
The video also shows the exhumation of the remains of St. Elian (pictured), who was killed by his father, a Roman officer, for refusing to renounce Christianity.
Militants who carried out the destruction reportedly took some residents of the town, including Christians, to their “capital,” the Syrian city of Raqqa, according to the Observatory.
Mar Elian Monastery is the home of Father Jacques Mourad, who was kidnapped there in May. Father Mourad worked for reconciliation in the local community since the beginning of the civil conflict in Syria.
“Thanks to Jacques and some Muslim notables, the village remained calm, peaceful and they managed to keep both the regime troops and the rebels out of it,” Nadia Braendle, of The Friends of Mar Moussa, told Aleteia. “The monastery hosted 400 refugees fleeing from neighboring villages. Jacques asked—and received—help from all over Syria and from abroad. Our association was one of tens that sent money to buy mattresses, blankets, toilets, water tanks, shelters.”
Braendle, who said she has stayed at Mar Elian many times, said there has been no news from Father Mourad since his kidnapping.
Isis captured al-Qaryatain Aug. 6. It is located at a strategic point near the road linking the ancient city of Palmyra with the Qalamoun mountains, along the border with Lebanon, according to Breitbart. The group also kidnapped 230 villagers, including 60 Christians. Braendle called them “people who worked to maintain the cohesion of the village.”
“So it is not haphazard that they were abducted, after Father Jacques. [ISIS] fights against all the people who worked for a Syrian country united and multicultural and multireligious, and they also destroy all the symbols of that.”
The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, echoed those sentiments, saying that ISIS wanted to send a message of “violence and intolerance” by destroying this symbol of Christianity, according to Vatican Radio:
Referring to the hostages’ situation, Audo said the IS had “two goals” in kidnapping them: the first was to obtain ransom money in exchange for the hostages’ release. The second aim of IS, according the Syrian Bishop, was to “spread a message of terror” and show people they were “powerful” and they didn’t believe in a political solution.
In addition, he conceded it was “possible” that the hostages could be killed, adding that the IS has “no conscience or morality” and “they are able to do anything.”
The Assyrian International News Agency said that Mar Elian was founded in the 5th century as a Syriac Orthodox Monastery. In the 17th century it became Catholic. Ten years ago, it was renovated by the prior of the ancient Mar Moussa al-Habashi (St. Moses) monastery, Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio.
Father Dall’Oglio was kidnapped by ISIS in July, 2013. His fate is still unknown.
“We are very preoccupied with the future of the nearby monastery of Mar Moussa (only 40km away),” Braendle said. “Up to now it is calm, and the monks of Mar Moussa do their best to help people who fled from Qaryatayn.”
ISIS is reported also to have set off explosions at a temple in the ancient ruins of Palmyra. Archaeologists and others have feared for the priceless cultural artifacts there since the jihadist group took over the area.
But even the destruction of the monastery of Mar Elian drew a sharp rebuke from the United Nations’ agency for the protection of the world’s cultural heritage.
“The intentional targeting and systematic destruction of the cultural heritage of Syria is reaching unprecedented levels,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO. “The destruction of the Mar Elian monastery is a tragic loss for the region, for women and men around the world. The cultural cleansing underway at the hands of ISIL/Daesh must stop. The persecution of communities reflecting the great diversity of Syria, combined with the systematic destruction of some of the most iconic representations of Syria’s rich heritage, testifies to an ideology of hatred and exclusion.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.