Syria: with ISIS ousted from their town, Christians are still wary of returning
"St. Elian is greatly revered by the Christians. Muslims also used to go on pilgrimage to his grave."
NEW YORK—In the wake of the ouster of
ISIS from the Syrian city of Al Qaryatayn, a local priest expressed doubt that
its inhabitants would return to their homes anytime soon.
“The residents who have fled, both Christians and
Muslims, are afraid. They fear that IS may come back again,” said Syrian-Catholic
Father Jihad Yousef, a monk of the order of Mar Musa told international
Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
“The swift return of the people is also dependent upon
how long the city will remain a military zone. For one thing, infrastructure
such as water and electricity has largely been destroyed. Plus, many residents
no longer even live in Syria, but have fled to other countries,” he said.
The Syrian army was able to recapture the city earlier
this week, defeating ISIS forces which had held the city since August 2015. A
large number of local Christians had been held hostage, among them Father
Jacques Mourad, who escaped last October. Parts of the local Mar Elian
monastery of the community of Mar Musa were destroyed immediately after the
city was seized, with ISIS posting photographs showing bulldozers levelling the
complex, sections of which dated back to the 5th century.
“The archaeological part has been razed. Fortunately, not
all the buildings were entirely destroyed in its entirety,” Father Yousef said,
adding that “the walls of the church are still standing, even though the roof
is no longer there. The altar, unfortunately, was destroyed. They also smashed
the sarcophagus of St. Elian.”
However, the remains of the saint, though scattered,
were not stolen or destroyed. It will be possible to restore the smashed marble
sarcophagus of the saint, but “until the possible restoration of the monastery,
the remains could be taken to another place,” he explained.
“St. Elian is
greatly revered by the Christians. Muslims also used to go on pilgrimage to his
grave. We want to gather the holy relics and give them a worthy place again,”
said Father Yousef.
“Of course, we are attached to the monastery. We
invested a great deal of effort to make it into a place of prayer and dialogue.
But we are not attached to stones. Our Jerusalem is in heaven. And you don’t
lose anything with God. Matter can be restored. A great deal more vital than
the restoration of the stones and the recovery of the monastery is the reconciliation
of hearts,” said the priest, whose community has made Christian-Muslim dialogue
an integral part of its mission.
Syrian-Catholic liturgy; ACN photo