In March 2023, Fr Jacques Mourad, a former hostage of Islamist terrorists, was appointed Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Homs, in Syria. Recently he hosted a delegation from the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and spoke about the current challenges in his country, about forgiveness and about a trusting dedication to God.
The war in Syria appears to be frozen, yet the Syrian population continues to live under very difficult circumstances. What are the biggest challenges facing your country?
I think especially of education, which is going through a very serious and sensitive crisis. All our children and young people in schools and universities are affected. Education is the future of our country, and children and teachers have the right to a good working environment, yet teachers’ salaries – only 18 to 20 Euro per month – are below the level of human dignity. The serious challenges facing our country are the result of oppressive sanctions against Syria, which directly affects the people, and the corruption.
Another major source of concern is mass emigration. We see families leaving Syria because they want to ensure a better life for their children. They have lost hope and confidence in this country, and they do not want their children to live in a country where they are not safe. There are also many young people who choose to emigrate, and this also poses considerable problems. Since most of them are men, young Christian women end up marrying Muslims and then they have to convert – that’s the law. They often leave behind elderly people who need to be cared for.
What is the Church doing in this situation, to stand with the people?
We have a big responsibility. However, we cannot help everywhere. In these few months as bishop, I have noticed how weak and helpless we are as the Church, and as bishops. I agree with the Pope, that we need help from the laity.
Therefore, it is wonderful to have the concrete, “incarnate” presence of organisations like ACN here in Syria, which give witness to true love, to solidarity.
You are a monk of the Deir Mar Musa community. How did you personally experience the problem of the emigration of young people when you were still in the Mar Elian monastery, before you became a bishop?
During the war most of the houses of Christians in nearby An-Nabk were destroyed, yet no one left the town, because with the support of different charities, like ACN, we very quickly helped people to rebuild their houses. And we then launched a number of projects for children and young people. It was easy to be close to the local people as there were only about 125 Christian families in the area. Nevertheless, I think that the work in An-Nabk should be an example for all our Churches in Syria. We shouldn’t just give out food, but also call into life various projects – schools, music and art, for example – so that people sense that they have a right to life. That kind of help can have the effect that people stop thinking about emigrating. Yet it requires bishops, priests and lay people working together.
When you were held hostage for five months in 2015 by Islamist terrorists, you underwent considerable suffering. How is forgiveness possible after such upsetting experiences?
Forgiveness is not something which we ourselves can “create”. Forgiveness means giving a place in our hearts to God, so that He can forgive in us; as Jesus said on the Cross: “Father, forgive them!”.
Each time that a terrorist came into the bathroom in which I was being held captive, I felt compassion for him. Although I was also confronted with rage and other strong emotions, in that moment I didn’t have any such feelings, but only compassion. We need a lot of humility to accept that we ourselves are not capable of something like this. All that we are capable of comes from God. Including forgiveness.
Do the experiences from those days as a hostage continue to resonate in your daily life?
The most important thing which I learned from that time was to place myself trustingly in God’s hands. Since I have been walking with the Lord, I have prayed this prayer of Charles de Foucauld every day, and the five months as a hostage gave me the opportunity to live it very concretely:
“Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you. I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures. I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.”
In various places the Church in Syria is striving to support people with their most essential needs. So you are faced with the challenge of not turning into an NGO…
Yes, above all there is the danger that people become too dependent on the help of the Church. And it is really important that priests are freed from activities which could be described as social work. Therefore, it is important to have a committee with lay people which manages the various projects. We must also involve young people more and trust them. I value their commitment very much. They have new and refreshing ideas, and we need them in order to mould the future.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is funding a project to distribute more than 3,000 gifts to children and people with disabilities this Christmas. Furthermore, the charity is supporting clergy in the Archdiocese of Homs with Mass offerings – their only source of income – and with subsistence assistance for married priests who would otherwise be unable to support their families and would be at risk of emigrating. ACN also supports summer camps for children, young people, scouts, and choirs every year. These camps play an essential role in healing the traumas of war and the psychological problems arising from the instability and poverty that plague the country.