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.
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’.”
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.’
‘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.