The fourth-century saint Mar Elian’s relics survived the Islamic State’s destruction of the Syrian monastery that bears his name, and a priest who escaped captivity says these are among the signs of hope for Syria.
“In Mar Elian, we have always hoped to welcome everyone. Mar Elian was really a sign of hope for the Syrian people,” Father Jacques Mourad told CNA.
“Everything changed when I was taken hostage. But we can still build something. We must, however, await the end of this war.”
Mourad was captured by the Islamic State group in May 2015, and escaped some five months later. He was prior of the monastery of Mar Elian, in the Syrian town of Al Qaryatayn, about 60 miles southeast of Homs.
The monastery had given refuge to hundreds of Syrians displaced from Al Quaryatayn, and partnered with Muslim donors to provide for their needs.
“Mar Elian was a hermit who lived in the fourth century, and his relics were kept in the monastery dedicated to him,” the priest said.
In August 2015, Islamic State militants captured and destroyed the monastery. Between 160 and 230 Christians and Muslims were abducted from the town. Several dozen are known to have escaped captivity.
Despite the horrors of war, the area’s Christians still looked to the monastery of Mar Elian.
“After the destruction of the monastery, we thought his relics were lost, but instead we were able to find them. This gave us great consolation,” Mourad said. The recovery of the relics represents “a great sign of hope for the coming days,” he added.
Christians in Syria are looking forward to “placing the bones of Mar Elian back in the places where they were kept, and to pray again around the relics.”
The town of Al Qaryatayn was retaken by Russian-backed Syrian forces and their allies in April 2016.
The priest reflected on the motives of the Islamic State.
“When ISIS troops took the region, among the first things they attacked was Mar Elian’s tomb, with the aim to destroy only the ancient monastery,” he added.
For the militants, he explained, tombs, relics and saints are “a heresy.”
“They cannot accept that the cities they seize have places where tombs or relics of saints are kept. They believe that there is no need for a tomb, as once a person passes away, his existence is over on earth.”
Mourad said that Islamic State militants, in capturing him, “wanted to send a message to Christians in the region: you are not welcome here. It was a way to push Christians to flee.”
Despite signs of hope, the future of the monastery, like the future of the people in the region, is uncertain.
Reviewing the situation, Mourad lamented that “nothing has changed in Mar Elian, and everything is abandoned.” He stressed that there is only a small community of Muslims still living in the area, “perhaps because they have no more places to live.”
“Large parts of the city were destroyed,” he said.
Over 280,000 people have died since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011. Another 12.8 million people have been forced from their homes.