By Oliver Maksan and John Newton
CHRISTIANS will not be returning to Al Qaryatayn, according to Church sources, despite the Syrian army’s success in driving Daesh (IS) from the town.
Father Jihad Yousef, of the Syriac-Catholic Order of Mar Musa, told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “The residents who have fled – both Christians and Muslims – are afraid. They fear that IS may come back again.”
Although the jihadist militia Daesh was driven out of Al Qaryatayn in central Syria early last week, Fr Yousef said it was unlikely life would return to normal soon.
He added: “The swift return of the people is also dependent upon how long the city will remain a military zone.
“Further, infrastructure such as water and electricity has largely been destroyed.
“And besides, many residents no longer even live in Syria, but have fled to other countries.”
The Syrian army retook Al Qaryatayn on 3rd April nearly eight months after Daesh occupied the town.
Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, told the BBC that the up to 300 Christians who remained in the city were forced to accept “dhimmi contracts” requiring them to submit to Islamic rule.
He said that 21 Christians were killed, either for trying to escape or for breaking the terms of their “dhimmi contracts”.
Five more Christians are still missing, believed dead.
Patriarch Ignatius added that he had received reports that Daesh was planning to sell Christian girls into slavery.
Fr Yousef told Aid to the Church in Need that parts of the local Mar Elian monastery of the community of Mar Musa were destroyed immediately after the city was seized.
Photographs released by Daesh showed bulldozers levelling the complex, sections of which dated back to the 5th century.
Fr Yousef said: “The archaeological part has been razed. Fortunately, however, the complex of buildings was not destroyed in its entirety”.
“The walls of the church are still standing, even though the roof is no longer there. The altar, unfortunately, was destroyed. They also smashed the sarcophagus of St. Elian.”
Fr Yousef said it was “a sign from God” and a source of great consolation for the community that the saint’s relics were not destroyed or stolen, but left scattered at the site.
“St. Elian is greatly revered by the Christians. Muslims also used to go on pilgrimage to his grave.
“We want to gather the holy relics and give them a worthy place again.”
“Of course we are attached to the monastery. We invested a great deal of effort to make it into a place of prayer and dialogue.
“In this, Aid to the Church in Need was vital in its support.
“But we are not attached to stones. Our Jerusalem is in heaven. And you don’t lose anything with God. Matter can be restored.
“A great deal more vital than the restoration of the stones and the recovery of the monastery is the reconciliation of hearts,” said the priest whose community has built up inter-faith dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
Fr Yousef concluded: “Several years ago, we were grateful to the benefactors and those who help with prayers at Aid to the Church in Need for their help in building up the monastery.
“Unfortunately, it is now very heavily damaged. We are therefore now asking those who pray to add Syria to their prayers.
“May hatred vanish from the hearts [of everyone].”
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom St John Paul II named “An outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in more than 140 countries throughout the world.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 176 languages and more than 51 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
Aid to the Church in Need UK is a registered charity in England and Wales (1097984) and Scotland (SC040748). ACN’s UK office is in Sutton, Surrey and there is a Scottish office in Motherwell, near Glasgow.
For more information, contact John Newton, ACN Press Officer, 020 8661 5167 or Clare Creegan, Digital Media and Press Officer on 020 8661 5175.