The ancient monastery of Mar Elian, on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Quaryatayn, which was ransacked and desecrated by jihadist militiamen in 2016, could soon return to being a place of prayer and peace.
Father Jacques Mourad, a monk of the community of Deir Mar Musa, who was kidnapped in Mar Elian on 21 May, 2015 by jihadists of the self-styled Islamic State, and lived long months of imprisonment, first in isolation and then together with more than 150 other Christian hostages from Qaryatayn, made the announcement this week.
Fr Jacques said the rebirth of the Monastery of Mar Elian, will be made possible thanks to an agreement between the Syrian-Catholic archieparchy of Homs, Hama and Nabk and the monastic community of Deir Mar Musa, founded by Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio, the Jesuit from Rome who has not been seen since he was captured by IS in Raqqa on 29 July, 2013, when Daesh took over the city.
In his message, Fr Jacques asks everyone to pray so that the parishioners of Qaryatayn will be able to discern "God's will for the future of this important geographical area of Syria, our Country."
The plan for the rebirth of Mar Elian envisages the replanting of vineyards and olive groves on the land around the monastery, together with the reconstruction of the surrounding walls and access doors. Fr Jacques says: "We will try to encourage the return to Qaryatayn of the Christians who lived there and who were forced to flee during the war, supporting the reconstruction of their homes, the revitalization of crops and activities that guaranteed their economic independence before everything was devastated by the conflict. If this first phase proceeds well, the actual reconstruction of the monastery and the parish church will be carried out, as well as the archaeological recovery works around the tomb of the Saint, "which will not be easy after the devastation suffered."
Currently only 26 Christians remain in the Qaryatayn area while are fewer than 10,000 Muslims there. But Fr Jacques is hoping many more Christians will return to the area where they lived for centuries before they were forced to flee by IS.
Before the conflict, the ancient Sanctuary of Mar Elian, dating back to the 5th century, had been closely linked to the monastic community of Deir Mar Musa and was flourishing. The Christians there lived peacefully with the Moslem community.
In February 2015, Father Jacques was kidnapped by the jihadists, who soon took control of the entire area. The tomb of Mar Elian was brutally desecrated, as IS tried to erase what they believed represented the heart of the monastic complex. But the relics of Mar Elian, scattered around the tomb of the Saint, were not lost. In particular, the bones of the Saint had been found, collected and taken to Homs in April 2016, after the end of the jihadist occupation.
Fr Jacques said: "We know that the old sanctuary was razed to the ground, that the archaeological site was devastated, while the new church and the monastery were set on fire and partly bombed." But he said: "When we return to Mar Elian, we will put the relics of the Saint back in their place. The life of grace will blossom again around the memory of the saints. And it will be a great sign of blessing for our whole Church."