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."

By Oliver Maksan

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.

Syrian-Catholic liturgy.v2.jpg

“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

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