13 November 2015
The Rev. Jacques Mourad poses for a photo on 11 November in the reception area at Our Lady of the Annunciation Church in Beirut, Lebanon. (photo: CNS/Doreen Abi Raad)
When a man dressed head-to-toe in black entered the room where the Rev. Jacques Mourad was being held by the Islamic State, the Syriac Catholic priest thought his time to become a martyr had come.
“That moment was really intense and difficult,” he recalled.
It was eight days after Father Mourad’s May abduction by Islamic State from Qaryatain, Syria, where he served as prior of the ancient Syriac Catholic Mar Elian monastery. The militants also kidnapped Boutros, a deacon. Together they spent 84 days in captivity.
To the two prisoners’ surprise, their would-be executioner did not treat them as though they were “infidels” (Christians), who are considered as impure and beneath fanatic Muslims: The man in black shook their hands, greeted them with “salam alaykoum” (peace be with you) and asked questions as if he would like to get acquainted.
When Father Mourad asked, “Why are we here?” the masked man told the priest to consider it as a “khaelwe,” which in Arabic means a time of spiritual reflection, a spiritual retreat.
“I needed this concept of a ‘spiritual retreat,’” the priest told Catholic News Service while visiting Lebanon on 11 November, a month after his escape. “I felt that the Lord was speaking through this masked Muslim. It gave me a push to keep going.”
Instead of the dreaded death sentence, the encounter turned out to be a turning point for Father Mourad. From that day, the priest said, his prayers had a whole new meaning, and he began to see his imprisonment as a way to carry and embrace the cross of Jesus.
In the 19-by-10-foot bathroom that served as their prison cell, Father Mourad and Boutros spent most of their time praying together.
“The prayer that really helped us, that was a source of strength, was the rosary,” the priest said. He added that they also relied on Scripture.
“I used to remember the verse from Matthew: ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.‘”
As far as the two Christians knew, they were the only prisoners. From behind the locked bathroom door, sometimes they could hear the muffled voices of their captors, or their footsteps. Otherwise, they were completely cut off from the outside world.
There was no electricity in their cell. Daylight entered through a tiny window near the ceiling. Nights were dark, long and especially difficult, Father Mourad recalled. The two prisoners were given rice and water twice daily. Tea was added to that ration three times during their captivity.
Periodically, Father Mourad and Boutros were threatened with the ultimatum, “Either you become Muslim, or we cut your head off.”
One time Father Mourad was beaten. He distinctly remembers that it was on the 23rd day of imprisonment. Nothing in particular provoked the punishment, which was carried out with a plastic hose, functioning as a whip.
“It really hurts,” the priest calmly recalled of the scourging, which he said lasted about half an hour. “They thought maybe I would succumb and agree to become a Muslim.”
Yet Father Mourad said Boutros “was suffering because he was watching me.” Every so often, the priest said, he would turn his head and smile at Boutros to console him.
“Personally, despite the pain, I lived this half hour in peace,” the priest said. “I felt privileged that I was participating in Jesus’ suffering. But at the same time, I considered myself unworthy of it.”
Clever tricks of manipulation were also used, the priest told CNS. The day after the beating, one of the captors apologized for his colleague who carried out the assault on the priest.
“It’s like a psychological game,” Father Mourad explained. “They scourge you, and then they apologize, as if they want to show that Islam is merciful.”
He said he responded, “Don’t worry, I had already forgiven him.”
On 4 August, Islamic State captured and demolished Mar Elian monastery, where Father Mourad had served for 15 years. Aside from the extensive archaeological excavation and renovations he oversaw, the priest promoted dialogue and coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
“For many years he built bridges between the religions. This has now proved its value in the war,” Father Jihad Youssef, a fellow Syriac Catholic, told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need after Father Mourad’s abduction.
Father Mourad also had been sheltering Christian and Muslim refugees at the monastery.
When asked by Catholic News Service how he sees his mission for the future, the priest shrugged his shoulders and responded: “After this happened to me, I have a bigger responsibility now, with Christian-Muslim dialogue. We can’t play with God’s will.”
12 November 2015
Abanoub Sherif carries a beekeeper’s hat to his father’s apiary near their home in
El Mahalla, Egypt. (photo: David Degner)
In 2014, we visited a school for visually impaired children in Egypt and met one student, Abanoub, hoping to attend a university:
Abanoub is a 17-year-old student from El Mahalla el Kubra, an industrial city in the Nile Delta about two hours’ drive from Cairo. When he first came to the home at the age of 5, he admits, he was terrified. “But then I got used to the place and I felt that I wanted to stay there forever. I built a new life for myself and made new friends,” he says. He is currently in his second year of high school and wants to attend college and major in psychology. He recently started learning the guitar.
But the transition from a school for the blind to a university can be a challenge. Sister Souad says they begin preparing children for the task from day one.
“We tell them, ‘One day, you will leave here and go to university with all kinds of people around.’ Since they are prepared, the transition is normal. We encourage them to take recorders to class, then listen again at home. They study normally.”
One of their students recently received a scholarship to study in the United States.
“I hope other blind children learn that going away from their family is not that difficult; it can be much better for their future,” Abanoub says.
“We teach them there is nothing they can’t do,” Sister Souad says proudly. “They are normal children. The only difference is they cannot see, but that doesn’t mean they can’t live a normal life.”
Read more about young people in Egypt journeying “Out of Darkness” in the Spring 2014 edition of ONE. And to help support the Christians of Egypt, please visit this giving page.
10 November 2015
Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic Bishop Milan Sasik, C.M., looks out the window of his
office in Uzhorod. (photo: Oleg Grigoryev)
The Autumn edition of ONE features an online exclusive profile of Bishop Milan Sasik of Ukraine, who describes efforts to revive what had been, during the Soviet era, an underground church:
As Ukraine still struggled with nascent nation building, Bishop Milan encountered a community in a state of “spiritual hunger.”
Its shepherds, 128 priests, had been placed in Soviet prisons and sent to exile in Siberia, and 20 would never return alive. Some 40 churches had been destroyed by the Communist government, and 273 more were transferred to the Orthodox Church of Russia — the only church the Soviets had authorized, which operated under the strict control of the Kremlin.
In 1991, when Ukraine gained independence, the eparchy initially regained only 117 churches and four monasteries from Moscow. Of the more than 500 eparchial institutional buildings that were nationalized, the eparchy was left with 60.
As a result, Bishop Milan initially had nowhere to live.
“I joked that I would live in the cathedral tower, or in the crypt or even in the sacristy.”
The priority was clear: The bishop initiated numerous brick-and-mortar projects — most importantly, a seminary to meet the demand of the newly resurgent faithful.
Read more of the profile here.
And in the Autumn edition of ONE, learn more about the seminarians being formed in Ukraine, helping the church come “Out From Underground.”
9 November 2015
Three young men work on a site for the new light rail in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The country’s landscape is becoming more urbanized, and that is creating new challenges for both the people and the churches. Read more in “Bright Lights, Big Problems” in the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE.
(photo: Petterik Wiggers)
6 November 2015
Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic seminarians in Urzhorod, Ukraine, take time in between study and prayer for some gardening and fun. A new generation of seminarians is helping breathe new life into the seminary and the Greek Catholic Church. Read more in “Out From Underground” in the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: Oleg Grigoryev)
5 November 2015
A construction worker examines the remaining damage to St. Sebastian’s Church in Dilshad Garden, New Delhi. To learn more about the trend of vandalization and violence against the church of India, read ‘There Will Be More Martyrs,’ from the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: Jose Jacob)
4 November 2015
Tags: India Violence against Christians Indian Christians Indian Catholics
Women prepare sweets as part of an income-generating program in the eastern Beirut neighborhood of Geitawi. A Lebanese-Armenian Catholic named Ani Kaloust discusses this program and much more — including her extraordinary life — in the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE.
(photo: Dalia Khamissy)
2 November 2015
Priests of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church hear confessions outdoors in Zarvanytsia, Ukraine. Learn more about the life of priests in Ukraine — many of whom are married with families to support — in “A Letter from Ukraine” in the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: John E. Kozar)
30 October 2015
Culinary students speak and sign to one another at the Women’s Promotion Center in Addis Ababa. To learn more about how the church in Ethiopia is responding to the challenges of urbanization, read Bright Lights, Big Problems from the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
29 October 2015
Tags: Ethiopia Education Disabilities Urbanization
Iraqi youth attend summer camp in the mountain village of Qartaba, Lebanon. Iraqis who have fled ISIS are facing new challenges in Lebanon. Read “In Limbo in Lebanon” in the
Autumn 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)