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Monthly archives: October, 2015

The Syrian Catholic priest who escaped IS captivity

A Syrian priest who was held by Islamic State (IS) militants for nearly three months and threatened with execution has for the first time spoken about his ordeal. Fr Jack Murad was abducted from the central Syrian town of al-Qaryatain in May along with Botros Hanna, a volunteer at the ancient Mar [Saint] Elian Monastery.

Fr Jack told BBC Arabic what happened.


Father Jack Murad spoke to BBC Arabic about his ordeal

Fr Jack remembers how he and Botros Hanna were blindfolded and had their hands tied, before the car they were forced into sped away to an unknown destination “in the mountains around al-Qaryatain”.

After four days, the two men were blindfolded and handcuffed again, before being forced on a much longer journey.

They ended up in a cell somewhere in Raqqa, IS’ stronghold, where they were kept for 84 days.

The captives were well-fed, given medical treatment and never tortured, Fr Jack explained.

What stood out, he said, was the verbal abuse.

Fr Jack and Botros Hannah were repeatedly called “infidels” and told that they had strayed from the true religion of “Islam” – in particular, “Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam”.

Intriguingly, Fr Jack says his captors all seemed curious about his Christian beliefs.

“They would ask about my theology – God, the Holy Trinity, Christ, and the Crucifixion,” he said.

He thought it pointless trying to answer.

“What’s the point of debating with someone who’s put you in prison and pointing their rifle at you?” Fr Jack asked rhetorically.

“When I was forced to respond, I’d say ‘I’m not prepared to change my religion’.”

Death threat

The militants he met would scare prisoners, telling them they would be killed if they refused to convert.

‘For them, my fate for refusing to convert to Islam was death. To frighten us, they would even tell us in detail how we would die. They are truly gifted at using words and imagery to terrorise,” Fr Jack recalled.

The priest said the experience only strengthened his faith, although at the time he expected to be beheaded.

“On Day 84, the last day, an emir arrived, telling us ‘the Christians of al-Qaryatain have been pestering us about you and want you back, so come on, move.’


IS militants destroyed Fr Jack’s ancient monastery

‘We went past Palmyra and Sawwaneh, then the car disappeared into a tunnel. We were taken out of the car, and the emir took me by the hand towards a large iron door. He opened it, and I saw two guys from my parish standing there.”

They hugged and then Fr Jack looked up to find an astonishing scene.

“All the Christians of al-Qaryatain, my whole parish, my children were there. I was in shock. They were surprised and happy. They all came to embraced me.”
During his captivity, the town of al-Qaryatain had been captured by IS.
All of them were held captive another 20 days.

Finally, on the 31 August, Fr Jack was summoned before several IS clerics.
They wanted to convey what IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had decided about the fate of the Christians of al-Qaryatain.

Various options were on the table, including killing the men and enslaving the women.
Instead the IS leader chose to give the Christians the “right to live as citizens in territory held by Islamic State”, which meant returning their land, homes, and money in return for conditional IS protection.

‘Land of blasphemy’

Fr Jack told them everything he was asked about the churches and the monastery in al-Qaryatain, but omitted to mention Saint Elian’s grave, hoping he could spare it from destruction.

But it was difficult to fool the IS militants.

“They know everything, every detail. We tend to think of them as uncultured Bedouins. The opposite is true. They’re clever, educated, with university degrees, and meticulous in their planning,” Fr Jack said.

During his captivity the monastery had been confiscated by IS as a spoil of war during the battle for al-Qaryatain and was destroyed.

The IS clerics read out to him the terms of an agreement between the Christians of al-Qaryatain and Islamic State.
Under the deal, they could travel anywhere inside IS territory as far away as Mosul, but not to Homs or Mahin (which are closer, but outside IS control), “because to them, this is the land of blasphemy.”

Still, Fr Jack managed to leave the IS-held territory. Botros Hanna, the volunteer, also escaped with him.

“The area is a battlefield. On the one hand, the air force is shelling. On the other, we are not safe staying in al-Qaryatain. I felt that as long as I was there, the people would stay. So I felt I had to leave to encourage others to do the same.”

But not many more followed him afterwards.

“In fact many want to stay because they have nowhere else to go. Some can’t accept the idea of being displaced and would rather die at home. Others are convinced the Islamic State, with which they have a contract, will protect them.’

Fr Jack says 160 or so Christians are left in al-Qaryatain.

“They have stayed because they want to. We ask God to protect them because our town is a dangerous battlefield. There is no shelter, nowhere is safe.’

Source: Reporting by BBC Arabic’s Assaf Abboud and Rami Ruhayem.

Prayer focus

Just after posting this verse below, we came across a story by the BBC, telling of the release of a Syrian Catholic priest who faced execution since he refused to convert to Islam.

The change of heart of Father Jack Murad’s IS captors cannot really be explained. Execution was what had been threatened and what was expected.

This verse is a great example of how to pray. Let’s believe that God will intervene in many of the situations where people are being held captive – that they will be set free, without a shot being fired.

Father Jack Murad’s remarkable story can be read right here on this Friends In The West site in the post above.


South Sudan war: 30,000 people face starvation, UN warns

At least 30,000 people are facing starvation in South Sudan, the UN has said.


South Sudan’s civil war has left a third of its population in crisis

Three UN agencies warned that a famine could develop in southern Unity State, where fighting has prevented deliveries of humanitarian aid.

Two years of civil war have left nearly 4m people – particularly young children – facing severe hunger, the UN said.

Both the government and rebel forces have accused each other of breaching a peace agreement signed in August.

The conflict has left a third of the country’s population is in crisis, up 80% since last year, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), children’s agency Unicef and the World Food Programme (WFP) said in a joint statement.  “People are on the edge of a catastrophe that can be prevented,” said WFP chief Joyce Luma.

‘Catastrophic’ situation

Fighting has disrupted harvests, food and fuel prices have risen and some displaced families are being forced to survive on a single daily meal of fish and water lilies.

An official famine has not yet been declared, but almost a million people are described as living in a “catastrophic” situation, the highest level of food emergency under the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which classifies hunger on a scale of one to five.
Under the IPC, a famine is declared when 20% of the population are deemed to be in a catastrophic situation.

Families have been “extraordinary” in trying to sustain their children but have now exhausted all their coping mechanisms, said Jonathan Veitch, head of Unicef in South Sudan.
“Agencies can support, but only if we have unrestricted access. If we do not, many children may die,” Mr Veitch said.

The civil war began in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings that has split the country along ethnic lines.

Both sides are accused of perpetrating ethnic massacres, recruiting and killing children and carrying out widespread rape, torture and forced displacement of populations to force out their opponents.


People in inaccessible areas have to rely on food drops to survive

Source: BBC

US-Iraqi forces rescue dozens of hostages held by Islamic State (IS)


The raid comes amid efforts from Kurdish fighters to dislodge IS militants

US-Iraqi forces have rescued dozens of hostages held by Islamic State (IS) in Iraq after learning of their “imminent execution”, the Pentagon has said.

But a US soldier wounded in the raid died of his injuries – the first killed in action since US operations against IS began last year.

The early morning operation on Thursday took place near the town of Hawija in northern Iraq.

Five IS militants were captured and a number killed, the Pentagon said.

The raid targeted an IS-held prison near Hawija, in the predominantly Kurdish province of Kirkuk.

The US military were involved at the invitation of the Kurdistan regional government, the Pentagon said.

American helicopters flew troops to the site, with Kurdish special forces taking the lead but with US ones on the ground.  “This operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement.

“It was authorized consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise, and assist Iraqi forces,” he added, using an alternative acronym for IS.

The US soldier killed was said to have come under fire from IS militants during the operation.

Gen Lloyd Austin, who heads the US military’s Central Command, said “we deeply mourn the loss of one of our own who died while supporting his Iraqi comrades engaged in a tough fight”.

A US-led coalition has been carrying out daily air strikes on IS positions in Iraq and Syria for more than a year.

The raid on the prison in northern Iraqi comes amid a fresh push by Iraqi and Kurdish forces to captured territory seized by IS.

Source: BBC

Sat 7 TV studio in Egypt raided

Portrait Crop small

Sat 7 Office Director (Egypt) Mr. Farid Samir

On Saturday 10th October, Officers from Egypt’s Censorship Department came to the SAT-7 studios with a search warrant and removed items of equipment, including cameras and computers used for editing. The Office Director, Mr. Farid Samir, was detained for 6 hours but then released.

Mr Samir (left) faces four charges relating to operating a satellite TV channel without the necessary licences, although the SAT-7 Egypt office is a programme production facility and not a satellite broadcast centre for any of the SAT-7 channels.

A hearing was held Sunday 11th October at the Public Prosecutor’s Office, during which it became clear that all charges are based on a lack of and/or incorrect information. A decision will be taken by the Public Prosecutor in the next few days concerning whether this case will go to court.

In the meantime, the confiscated equipment remains in police custody and the normal activities of SAT-7 in Egypt are severely disrupted.

Recording a music show in the Egypt studioThe work of SAT-7 Egypt is carried out under the legal umbrella of the Coptic Evangelical Church but its services are in support of all the Church denominations in Egypt.

Egypt studio We Will Sing

Recording an episode of We Will Sing in the Egypt studio

Though facing challenges, the SAT-7 team in Egypt remain encouraged by the love and support they have received over this difficult weekend. We would ask for your continued prayers. As Farid Samir wrote on Sunday, we invite you to please “Unite with us in prayer so that we can complete our ministry – one based on love and which aims to serve our beloved country [Egypt]”.

Photo: Recording an episode of We Will Sing in the Egypt studio

Please pray:
• For Farid and his family, that they will know the Lord’s peace and strength at this difficult time.

• That the Public Prosecutor will conclude that there is no case to answer.

• For SAT-7’s team in Egypt as they try to operate without the confiscated equipment. Pray that it will all be returned quickly.