by Gianni Valente
Quaryatayn (Agenzia Fides) - In August 2015, when the black flags of the Caliphate flew over much of Syria, the militiamen of the self-proclaimed Islamic State sowed ruin and devastation in the ancient Syrian monastery of Mar Elian. The jihadists of Daesh had brutally desecrated the same tomb of the Saint, as if they wanted to erase what they had also recognized as the beating heart of the monastic complex.
Today, seven years later, the lives, expectations and gratitude of Christians in the region are once again gathering around the relics of Mar Elian. A miracle can be glimpsed that will allow a place of prayer and peace to flourish again around the relics of the Saint for Syrian Christians, but also for their Muslim compatriots.
This Christian story of rebirth is told by a short and intense account written by Father Jacques Mourad, a Syrian monk from Deir Mar Musa, the monastic community founded in Syria by Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, the Roman Jesuit who died on 29 July 2013 while he was in Raqqa, at that time the Syrian capital of Daesh. Precisely in Mar Elian, Father Jacques was kidnapped on 21 May 2015 by a jihadist commando. The monk had endured long months of captivity, first in solitary confinement, then with more than 150 Christians from Quaryatayn, also taken hostage in the territories then conquered by Daesh.
Today, as the community of Deir Mar Musa has regained control of the monastic complex devastated by the jihadists, Father Jacques recounts the intense work accomplished in recent months in the hope of seeing Mar Elian flourish again. A work carried out in the midst of the difficulties "linked to the economic situation of our country due to the sanctions imposed".
Restoration work on the monastery, says Father Jacques, began in March with the construction of a wall around the archaeological area which, before the war, also included the old crypt and the tomb of the saint. Work continued with the search and collection of ancient stones among the ruins still scattered around the monastery, which could be used in the reconstruction. Then came the reconstruction of the crypt, and the restoration of the tomb with the recovery of the old fragments found.
The desire, Father Mourad confides, was to celebrate the feast of Mar Elian at the monastery, and to bring back the relics of the saint", which had been found and collected by Father Jacques himself near the desecrated tomb and had been
brought to safety in Homs. Relics - points out the monk of Dei Mar Musa - "which have a great value for all the inhabitants of Quaryatayn: those who reside in Quaryatein, those who live in the refugee camps and those who have left the countries with the aim of finding a better future for their children". Last August, the church, which had been set on fire by the jihadists, was also repaired and provided with a new altar: a restoration that was carried out without completely removing the carbon black from the walls, so that even in this place of worship and prayer, visible traces of this stage of recent history remain. Young Muslim friends also did their best to carry out the final preparations together. Finally, on September 9, the feast day of Mar Elian, more than 350 people arrived by bus from Damascus, Nabek, Homs, Sadad and Maskane, as well as many Syrian Catholic priests from all over Syria. The inauguration ceremony, presided over by Youhanna Jihad Battah, Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Damascus, also saw the participation, as a special guest, of Mor Timotheos Matta al Khoury, Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Homs. The two bishops, says Father Jacques, anointed the rebuilt crypt and the restored church with holy oil. Thus, the consecration ceremony became "a wonderful opportunity to experience the communion between the two sister Churches", which had in the past experienced periods of conflict over the ownership of the convent that had lasted 200 years. A matter that had divided the two communities, despite the fact that the members of the two parishes sometimes belonged to the same families. "The most touching moment" - warns Father Jacques - was when the relics of Mar Elian arrived at the gates of the monastery, and from there a Christian and a Muslim brought them and placed them in front of the altar. "Everyone exulted with joy at the presence of the saint". In the crypt, the bishops anointed the restored tomb of Mar Elian with oil. Many Muslim friends of the monastery were also present at the Eucharistic liturgy, as a sign of fraternal closeness. After the long Stations of the Cross lived by the Syrian people", remarks the monk of Deir Mar Musa, "it was not easy to imagine being able to live the joy of such an encounter. There is certainly a force that exceeds our human limits". After the Mass, a professor of philosophy, representing the Islamic community of Quaryatayn, also gave a speech, reciting verses from the Bible and the Koran, as he called on the Christians of the village to return to their homes and fields, now parched. In his speech, Father Jacques tried to suggest "how the Lord, through the intercession of Mar Elian, accompanied us through all the events experienced after the conquest of Quaryatayn by Daesh, till today. A journey full of pain but also of miracles, such as that of a more powerful unity experienced among Christians and of a found brotherhood also experienced with other Muslims. A journey that Father Mourad retraced without anger or pride, with words full of gratitude: "At the end of the ceremony, the Syrian monk remembers, Father Michel Nouman, representative of our diocese, poured oil olive on the relics of Mar Elian. Then four people, including a Muslim, together carried the reliquary of Mar Elian, and put it in the sarcophagus "and we closed it by singing a beautiful hymn of Saint Ephrem the Syrian in Arabic and Syrian: "Blessed is the good servant: when the Lord returns, he will find him awake, working in the fields, from morning to evening..." "On the same day, Father Mourad, the bishops and the other participants in the feast of Mar Elian also visited the other churches of Quaryatayn, which still bear the traces of the war: "We also prayed - Father Jacques recalls - for all the Christians who previously filled these churches with their prayers and songs, giving glory to God. We implored the Lord, so that these churches may become alive again, filled again with the prayers of Christians who love God". (Agenzia Fides, 4/10/2022)