This article was originally published as the cover story of the March 2, 2020 issue of America Magazine, with the support of CRCC’s global project on engaged spirituality.
It became clear that I would need to follow the Rev. Jacques Mourad around all day. To the kitchen, where he was preparing kebab with eggplants or demonstrating how to cut onions just so or washing dishes. To the chapel, where he was picking away wax collecting on candle holders. To the classrooms, where he was nodding his head as nuns from India attempted to recite the Mass in Arabic that he has spent months teaching them. To the door, which he was always leaning out of, calling to someone in the street.
There was nothing too small, or nothing small enough, to occupy Father Jacques, for he believed that God was captured best in simplicity. The woman called by name. The prayer in the chapel, where only two of us had gathered beneath the rising Iraqi sunlight. The coffee filled exactly to the correct level.
We are in the upstairs classroom, where he is seated at the head of a table, reciting the Mass in the Chaldean rite from a prayer book, carefully pronouncing the words in Arabic and Aramaic, waiting as the nuns recite them in return. He pauses, flustered. The translation from Arabic to English that they have been consulting is not accurate. The word hanan has been translated as “to pity.”
“No,” he says. “It should not be that the Lord has pity on us. The meaning is closer to tendresse. Tenderness.”
“This is important,” he insists. “The Lord doesn’t have pity on us from a distance. He is close to us, in his tenderness.”
This is not the way I expected to begin the story of a Syrian priest kidnapped by ISIS during Syria’s civil war, tortured and held in prison for five months before escaping and forgiving his captors. What do onions mean in the scale of such a story? I had traveled to Iraq to hear more about how this man had survived, a Catholic priest rescued by his Muslim friend. He would tell me that story, too. But in the meantime, he wanted me to learn about chopping onions.
I first met Father Jacques in 2004, when I was a student in Syria. I often visited the monastery of Mar Musa, where he was a member of al-Khalil, a monastic community of monks and nuns dedicated to dialogue with Islam. I, like many others, journeyed there in large part to speak with the community’s charismatic founder, Paolo Dall’Oglio, S.J. At the time, Father Jacques was restoring the monastery of Mar Elian, in the village of Qaryatayn an hour away, and so he was rarely present; but sometimes he visited to cover the Mass when Father Paolo was gone. He sang beautifully, and for years when I tried to summon memories of him, I would hear the echo of his voice in Aramaic: Qadishat aloho.
I do not remember talking with him. I never visited his monastery. Father Jacques did not ask to be noticed, and so I did not notice him.
I came to know Father Jacques later, through stories I heard about him during the war of thousands of Muslims and Christians seeking safety in his monastery as their villages were bombed. By then, Father Paolo had been kidnapped. So, too, the Bishops Boulos Yazigi and Gregorious Yohanna Ibrahim. The Jesuit father Frans van der Lugt had been killed on his doorstep in Homs.
Father Jacques had stayed. When Europeans sent him money to restore the houses of his Christian parishioners, he rebuilt the houses of Muslims, too. He remained when Father Paolo disappeared. He refused to leave when ISIS invaded Palmyra. He stayed with the neighbors he loved, until he, too, was taken.
Now it is November 2019, and Father Jacques and I are sitting in a corner of a church at the monastery of Maryam al-Adhra in Sulaimaniya, where he has been living since 2016. A picture of Father Paolo, who remains missing, has been placed nearby with a candle. The Iraqi sunlight is streaming through the windows. It is time to talk. We will continue, in long stretches, for a week.
Our story begins 100 years before, with another man named Jacques Mourad—his grandfather. That Jacques had lived in the Syrian Orthodox Christian community of Mardin, in southeastern Turkey. In 1915 he, along with hundreds of thousands of other Christians, fled to escape the genocide that would be known in Syriac tradition as the Seyfo. His family separated, and our Father Jacques’s grandfather arrived in what is now Syria. He quarreled with the Orthodox bishop and became Catholic. So it was that the boy who would become Father Jacques Mourad was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1968, a member of the Syriac Catholic Church, to a family rooted in the liturgical richness but also the wounds of Syriac Christianity. Since boyhood, Jacques knew that the story of what had happened to his family was more complicated than some would tell. “It’s true that members of my family were killed by Ottomans who happened to be Muslims,” he tells me. “But when they fled to Aleppo and Jazira—they were saved by inhabitants who were Muslims and Christians both.”
People could kill, but they were also able to save. From then on, whenever Father Jacques refers to the last Christian communities in the Middle East, he calls them by a phrase that, in Arabic, sounds like “the remains of the remains.” It will take time before I understand that he is calling them “the remnants.”
Father Jacques’s faith was forged in Aleppo’s diversity. His parents were his “first church,” and he remembers watching his mother murmur the name of Jesus as she cleaned the house, selling her jewelry so that he could afford to attend the Armenian Catholic School. When he walked to class each morning, he would duck into churches left open on the way to light candles. And so that became for Father Jacques the image of the church and later of the very heart of God—a door that always remains open.
He was astonished by the life in Aleppo’s churches. As a boy, his father would take him by the hand on Sunday mornings, and he would serve the different Catholic Masses: Syriac, Armenian, Greek, Chaldaean, Roman Catholic, Maronite. He waited with anticipation to open the tabernacle, amazed that God—who was so great—became small so that he might partake in him.
He was drawn to a sentence from the Psalms inscribed on the pillar of his church at school: Lord, I love the house where you dwell, the place where your glory resides.
He wondered how a church that had suffered so much pain, over so many centuries, could remain so alive.
“How did the church remain alive?” I ask him.
“From its faith,” he answers.
“And where did this faith come from?”
“This faith comes from this pain.”
“As Christians, we are called to build the kingdom,” he continues, “All of us. However this kingdom cannot be built except by taking up the cross. When Jesus said: ‘Blessed are you when people persecute you and curse you and say all kinds of evil things against you,’ Jesus did not lie to us. That’s because he knows the situation of the world. But at the same time, he was saying, ‘Repent—the kingdom of God is near.’”
Every morning, Father Jacques turns toward the East. Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner, he prays—the prayer of the heart. The East symbolizes hope, and the Christians of the East collectively turn to it in joy and expectation. That is why ancient churches built their altars facing east. That active waiting is the life he felt in the church when he entered as a boy.
“We are partners in building the kingdom,” he tells me. “We are responsible to work for achieving it every day in our lives. We shouldn’t just wait for it to descend from the heavens. In that spirit there are many things in our life that take another dimension. When I have a responsibility in building the kingdom, then I must start from where I am.”
“The church is not a place,” he says. “It is a community on a journey.”
Called to the priesthood, Father Jacques was 18 years old when he moved to Lebanon to study theology. When some teachers in his seminary voiced sympathy toward Christian militias fighting in the Lebanese Civil War, he felt betrayed. Surely, they had misunderstood the mystery of why Jesus had offered himself on the cross. Jesus was the victim, not the oppressor.
During those years, he traveled for the first time to the sixth-century monastery of Mar Musa in Syria, where he met Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit fluent in Arabic, who had also been ordained in the Syriac Catholic rite and had begun a project of restoration. The monastery lay high on a cliff and could be entered through a narrow door opening into a courtyard taking in a view of the desert. Father Jacques was enchanted—by the monastery and its ancient frescoes and by Father Paolo. He wrote in his memoir, “I was created to live in this place.”
Jacques stayed, and he and Father Paolo became a community of two. He read the lives of the desert fathers and the writings of Charles de Foucauld, who had written of the “hidden life” of Jesus of Nazareth, who for 30 years had lived largely unnoticed. Those unseen moments in Jesus’ life were also incarnation, leading to the cross and resurrection. Father Jacques studied the monks who abandoned their lives to God alone. For that first year, he wondered if he and Father Paolo would remain alone. Would anyone join them?
Visitors often climbed the steps up the mountainside, and Father Jacques would welcome each with a glass of water or tea, practicing the hospitality of the desert. He felt that people retreated there to remember who they were. He thought back to the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman: “With the water I give you, you will no longer thirst.” Deir Mar Musa was offering living water, a place where Syrians could reconnect to the goodness within them, meeting God “without checkpoints.”
A community of monks and nuns began to gather, and Father Paolo named them al-Khalil, the name given to Abraham, the friend of God, who welcomed strangers. Still, Father Jacques’s relationship with Father Paolo was not easy. Father Paolo was inspired by the theology of Louis Massignon, the French Catholic scholar of Islam, and he restored the monastery to initiate a project of interreligious dialogue. The monks and nuns took vows of hospitality, expected to welcome Muslims as guests sent by God. Father Jacques, who carried the wounds of his family’s past, felt that Father Paolo, a European, did not appreciate how difficult the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Syria really was.
In truth, growing up, Jacques had barely known any Muslims. There had been only two in his class at school. His professors in seminary had often spoken harshly about Islam. At Mar Musa, he began to meet Muslims for the first time from nearby villages: the bread vendor, the ice cream seller, the workers restoring the monastery. Each one was kind.
But when a Muslim in the nearby village of Yabroud killed a Christian in a fight between families, Father Jacques became furious. Father Paolo remained silent.
Later, Father Jacques would reflect on Father Paolo’s wisdom: “He knew very well what Christians are called to. As for me, I didn’t know yet.” He felt himself living a paradox, torn between the rejection of those outside of his faith and the awakening to a spiritual journey, asking him to open his heart to the Other. Deeply, he knew that it made no sense for a disciple of Jesus to hate.
In 1996, Father Jacques visited the village of Qaryatayn, southeast of Homs, for the feast of Mar Elian, a saint the locals revered. He knew nothing of the saint and was surprised to encounter thousands of Muslims and Christians at the tomb, who told him stories of miracles they had experienced through Mar Elian’s intercession. “How is it,” he thought, “that we have not done more to care for this place?”
In 2000, the bishop asked Father Paolo if the community would assume responsibility for Mar Elian. He proposed that Jacques should restore the ancient monastery. Jacques had not forgotten the power of his initial encounter, and yet he had no desire to leave Mar Musa. “I didn’t know—did God want this?” he asked. He decided to try.
On his first day in Qaryatayn, he entered a shop to buy supplies for restoring three rooms around the monastery. The owner, who was Muslim, asked Jacques what the materials were for and was surprised to learn that this man, covered with dirt, was the new village priest. Jacques told him that the tools were to restore the monastery of Mar Elian, whom the Muslims called Ahmed al-Houri. The shopkeeper refused to let Father Jacques pay. He sent his son to lead him to the blacksmith, who might forge other tools. Jacques was astonished by this stranger’s generosity. He took it as a sign.
The population of Qaryatayn was largely Sunni Muslim, with a small community of Christians; half Syrian Catholic, half Syrian Orthodox. All of the residents—Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox alike—visited the tomb of Mar Elian to pay their respects to the saint, or wali, as the Muslims called holy men, who they believed protected them. Over time, Father Jacques worked with the villagers to restore the monastery around the tomb with ancient stones, and together they planted over 1,000 trees. His Muslim neighbors invited him to celebrate their feasts and lined up in the monastery salon to extend their greetings on Easter. Jacques witnessed “a kindness from within them that emanated from their own faith.” In the middle of the desert, the monastery became an oasis, a sign of hope. “I saw that people were no longer thinking of moving away,” he told me. “And the reason was simple: They were seeing the trees that we planted around the monastery growing tall.”
Every Sunday morning, Father Jacques visited his friend, the Syrian Orthodox priest Abouna Barsoum, and they sat for an hour and a half before Father Jacques rang the bells for Mass. Father Barsoum was preparing bread for the Eucharist. When he finished, Father Jacques took from those hosts to use in his own Mass. They knew it was the same body of Christ on the altars of both of their churches—Orthodox and Catholic. By this, Father Jacques was reminded that he was not only the priest of the Catholics but Abouna, meaning “our Father,” to all of the Christians of Qaryatayn.
In the beginning, the Muslims of the village called Father Jacques Ya Muhtaram, “Oh respected One,” but in time they also began to call him Abouna, until he began to think of that, and not Jacques, as his real name. As a father to everyone, Christians and Muslims, he began to understand that he could not love one child more than another. His heart was healed, and he saw that God does not love any person more than another, neither Christian nor Muslim, that all of us are dear to God’s heart. Father Jacques kept the monastery open. He noticed that the villagers, Muslim and Christian, kept the doors to their homes open. They taught him that a door that is open leads to a heart that is open, ready to receive whomever is sent.
He prayed with Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, meditating on incarnation; God’s decision to empty himself out to become a servant. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
If God loves all of his people the same, then he—Jacques—must learn to love them that way, too.
In 2012, on the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, Father Jacques was holding a camp for 80 children from the local parish when a battle broke out between government forces and members of the opposition in the streets outside.
Father Jacques gathered the children into the hall, and they sang until their voices drowned out the din of bullets.
“Love and life will always prevail,” he tells me, “if human beings desire it.”
War had arrived. Jacques kept the monastery open, with one rule: No weapons inside. He instructed his parishioners not to take up arms.
Every week, Jacques met with sheikhs to strategize ways to help the villagers—their friendship, he believed, was “the real revolution that we lived in Qaryatayn.” Thousands of Syrians fled surrounding villages and stayed around the monastery, trusting it as a safe space, believing that they were protected by St. Elian.
Father Paolo had been expelled from Syria in 2012 for his outspoken criticism of the government. In July 2013, he crossed back in and traveled to Raqqa, presumably to negotiate the release of hostages with a group calling itself the Islamic State. He disappeared. Father Jacques barely had time to absorb the news. Thousands of Syrians were camping around his monastery, and he was trying to negotiate a local ceasefire.
Two months passed with no news. Father Jacques began to feel Father Paolo’s absence. They had shared their lives for more than 20 years, and despite or maybe because of their disagreements, he considered Father Paolo his “closest friend until the end.”
There were moments he considered to be miracles, and he wondered if Father Paolo’s self-offering was responsible. When food ran out in Qaryatayn, a truck from the Jesuit Refugee Service arrived, loaded with provisions. Others sent money allowing him to rebuild the houses of Christian and Muslim families.
As violence escalated, the monastic community in Mar Musa briefly fled the monastery for safety. Yet not a single rocket fell on it, and no faction took it over. The door remained open, an image of God’s heart. Even when the monks and nuns escaped, two men stayed behind to protect it. One was a Muslim worker.
“Why did he stay?” I ask.
“He had built the women’s monastery of al-Hayek with his own hands,” Father Jacques tells me. “It was his second home.”
On May 20, 2015, ISIS took control of Palmyra. The next day, they kidnapped Father Jacques in Qaryatayn, along with a young Christian man named Boutros, and took them to Raqqa.
I have no desire to ask Jacques about his five months in prison. He described them in his book Un Moine en Otage, written with the French journalist Amaury Guillem and published in 2018. I know about the psychological torture. The near execution. I have not come here to ask him to relive his trauma.
But there are some things Father Jacques wants to make sure I understand.
He wants me to know that he prayed the prayer of the heart in prison, the prayer that he had seen on his mother’s lips when he was a boy, murmured while she was doing the housework.
He wants me to know that when a member of ISIS put a knife to his throat and counted to 10, Jacques cried out, “Lord, have mercy on me!” The man fled the room. Jacques felt certain that God had intervened in the heart of that man, his cry reminding him that God exists.
He wants me to know that when he was beaten by his captors, he was granted the vision of Jesus, flagellated, so that he could say in his heart, “With your pains, O Jesus,” even if he did not deserve that. How could he feel anything but gratitude, both for the gift of Christ’s presence and for the man whose violence failed to overcome him?
He wants me to know that prison taught him to recognize the image of God in everyone. Even if a man is carrying weapons, this does not obscure the image of God within him.
“You were able to see the image of God, even in the man who tortured you?” I ask.
He struggles with my question. “No,” he admits. “Because when a man comes to torture you, you do not see anything. You close yourself in on your own pain in order to protect yourself.” He wraps his arms around his chest, leaning forward, to show me what he means.
It was only later that he was able to look again, at that same man, and recognize it.
There is one last thing. I cannot forget a vivid scene in his memoir. In the middle of the night in prison, the words to the Taizé song “Nada Te Turbe” had come to him. Until then, he had only heard the song, taken from a text by St. Theresa of Avila, in Spanish, a language that he does not speak. He received those words in Arabic as a miracle. God was with him, just as he was with Christ, on the cross, who called out: Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do!
I ask Father Jacques to sing it for me in Arabic, which channeled the essence, if not the exact wording of the song’s original Spanish. He closes his eyes:
Let nothing worry you
Let nothing make you fearful
God is with you
And so evil shall not come close to you
Let nothing worry you
Let nothing make you fearful
God alone suffices
Everything is incarnation. This is what Father Jacques wants me to understand. His mother’s prayers while cleaning. That pillar in his childhood church: Lord, I love the house where your glory resides. Father Paolo. The desert, where he met God alone. All those who called him Abouna. His hiddenness. All was preparation for teaching Father Jacques how to love.
One day, ISIS drove Father Jacques from Raqqa to Palmyra, where he discovered that 250 of his parishioners had also been kidnapped. In time, they were allowed to return to Qarytayn after signing a document accepting a long list of severe prohibitions, above all to their freedom of movement. Their lives, however, would be spared.
ISIS was now in control of Qaryatayn. His monastery had been partially destroyed. The tomb of Mar Elian desecrated. The trees remained.
Jacques was touched when, on the Christians’ first night back in Qaryatayn, Muslims from the village brought them food. He knew that these Muslims, by aiding their Christian friends, were taking a risk. But they wanted their Christian neighbors to understand that they were still on their side. Father Jacques held Mass in a basement. He presided over funerals. Russian jets bombarded. He feared that the Christian girls might be forced to marry ISIS fighters.
The Muslims of Qarytayn could help. They dressed Christian girls in black abayas and smuggled them through the checkpoints, pretending that they were their wives or sisters, out of the village and to safety.
Father Jacques knew he also needed to escape. A Muslim friend disguised him as a Bedouin and put him on the back of his motorcycle, driving him out of town. When they reached the ISIS checkpoint, the militants asked Father Jacques his name. Ahmad Abdullah, he said. They waved them through.
His friend had put himself in grave danger to rescue him. But now he was free.
“Your question is: Why did these Muslims risk their lives to save us?” Father Jacques asks me. “The answer that they gave us is this: Because we are their family.”
In the meantime, another tragedy had been unfolding across the border in Iraq. In 2014 ISIS invaded Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, forcing roughly 100,000 Christians to flee. Dozens of families sought shelter at the Monastery of Maryam al-Adrah in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the community of al-Khalil has kept a small presence since 2010. They crowded into every corner available, even sleeping in the church. When Father Jacques joined them in 2016 he was devastated by the scene.
“If it wasn’t easy for me,” he says. “How was it for the heart of God?”
Thousands of Muslims had also fled, Yazidis had escaped a genocide on Mount Sinjar, and Syrian refugees were streaming across the border. Father Jacques found himself a refugee among refugees.
He collaborated with the Community of Sant’Egidio’s Humanitarian Corridors program to help Syrians obtain visas to Europe without risking the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. He worried about Syrian men who might be conscripted into the army and forced to bear arms. The words echoed in his heart: “Don’t be worried about who will kill the body but who will kill the soul.”
Today, most of the Christians who sought shelter at the monastery in 2014 have returned to their villages, now liberated from ISIS. Others have been resettled in Europe and Australia. Estimates say that Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from 1.5 million in 2003 to roughly 250,000. The Christian community in Syria has also been devastated.
“The danger of ending a Christian presence in the Middle East can be symbolized by a tree whose roots have been removed,” Father Jacques says. “When a tree no longer has its roots, what is its destiny? It dies. The situation that we are living has reached a stage of complete collapse. If we as Middle Eastern Christians do not understand the dimensions of this reality, nothing will convince us to stay.”
Those who remain carry stories. Across the alley lives Silvana Maqdas, an Assyrian Christian displaced from the village of Tel Keyf in northern Iraq. She fled in 2014, pregnant and worried that her town would fall soon. Her son was born here in Sulaimaniya, two days after Tel Keyf fell to ISIS.
A few families from near Mosul live in white container shelters around the monastery. Their children roller skate in front of the church, past the military post, placed there by the government after the terrorist attack on the Church of Our Lady of Salvation killed dozens of worshippers in Baghdad in 2010. A family displaced from Damascus lives upstairs. A man named Khudr runs errands for the makeshift community. He left Baghdad in 2010 for Bashiqa, to flee again in 2014. When I ask him what his job is, he laughs: “Whatever they ask me to do.”
The monastic community at Deir Mariam al-Adhrah, like that of Mar Musa, remains dedicated to living in dialogue with their Muslim neighbors. In the afternoons, the monastery courtyard fills with students here for language classes and theater workshops, and most of them are Muslims. Many, too, are refugees and internally displaced persons. I speak to Naja Imam, from Kobani in Syria, who is the assistant to Father Jens Petzold, the monastery’s abbot. After she, her mother and her sister were thrown into an ISIS prison, accused of dressing immodestly, they knew it was time to leave. She describes dead bodies in the streets, the danger of the passage, the cruelty of those who rented out animal barns for refugees to sleep in. Now, she has found new life. “I have friends—Abouna Jens and Abouna Jacques,” she says. “Here you feel safe.”
Each person carries the memory of a city left behind. When I ask them about Father Jacques, many repeat the same sentence: He always has time for us.
In the evening, the Christians gather to celebrate Mass in the church. It no longer matters who is Catholic or Orthodox, Syrian or Iraqi. Father Jacques once called this the “ecumenism of blood.”
Ruba, once a member of her choir, sings. Father Jacques joins.
Later, Ruba will lead me to her room to lend me a jacket. I had not expected it to be so cold. She will describe surviving the war in Syria and missing her family. My eyes will fall on a cross made of connected phrases on a table beside the bed. “It’s from Abouna Jacques,” she explains.
It is the text of “Nada te Turbe.”
A scene sometimes comes to Father Jacques’s mind. He was walking in Qaryatayn when a fighter jet bombarded the street in front of him. By instinct, he threw himself to the ground.
This is what you do in wartime, he says: You throw yourself to the ground. And once you are forced to be close to the ground, you understand the wisdom of being there, for it is close to the ground that you become closer to people and understand their needs and listen. Your presence reminds them that God is present, too. God became small; He, too, went close to the ground.
Father Jacques takes comfort in knowing that Mar Musa in Syria remains open. Its small front door, entered by bowing down, reminds him of what Jesus said about the narrow gate: “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
The way to stop violence is through repentance. Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. But when you bow down and come out the other side of the door to the immense expanse of the desert, you understand just how wide the kingdom is.
When he was young, Jacques loved a second sentence. He read it in The Book of Mirdad, by Mikhael Naimy: “When you love everything you are attached to nothing.”
“Love is freedom,” he explains.
Perhaps he is thinking of the freedom to return to Syria, which he hopes to do soon. Or the freedom to lay down one’s life, which he almost did. But I suspect he means simply the freedom of giving himself away daily, in cups of coffee and hours spent, in onions chopped. If he loves cooking, it is because he believes he resembles Jesus most when he prepares a meal for his friends.
“We are the yeast,” he likes to say. The little things we do matter. When I ask him if God really cares about my salad, he laughs, but then turns serious: “There’s nothing called ‘my salad,’” he reminds me. “There’s nothing called ‘my kingdom’ or ‘my church’ or ‘my people.’ The salad I am preparing for others is the kingdom for today. The helping of a poor man at the door is the kingdom for today.”
Love is the freedom to give everything away. Even our grievances.
He explains with a story: Whenever a feud broke out between families in Qaryatayn, he and the sheikh would be invited to help them reconcile. When they entered a house, Father Jacques and the sheikh would first be offered a cup of coffee, the symbol of hospitality. They would accept but not drink.
“We want to solve this problem,” Father Jacques would announce. “What should we do?” And the hosts, more often than not, even if blood had been shed, insisted: “Oh, Abouna. Oh, Sheikh—the problem has already been solved by your arrival. Please, drink your coffee!”
“How, then,” Father Jacques asks, “can I not base my hopes for reconciliation on the generosity of people?”
Click here to read the story on americamagazine.org.
Stephanie Saldaña is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.