On the day I received the news of the Peace Prize of the German Publishers’ Association, the same day, Jacques Mourad was abducted in Syria. Two armed men entered the monastery of Mar Elian on the outskirts of the small town of Qaryatain and demanded to see Father Jacques. They found him no doubt in his bare little office, which also served as his living room and bedroom, seized him and took him with them. On May 21, 2015, Jacques Mourad became a hostage of the so-called Islamic State.
I first met Father Jacques in the autumn of 2012, when I was travelling through an already war-torn Syria to report on the events there. He was responsible for the Catholic parish of Qaryatain and also belonged to the community of Mar Musa, which was founded in the early 1980s in a derelict early Christian monastery. It is a special, probably a unique Christian community, for it is devoted to the encounter with Islam and love for Muslims. While conscientiously following the commandments and rituals of their own Catholic church, the nuns and monks engage equally earnestly with Islam and take part in Muslim traditions, including the observance of Ramadan. It sounds mad, even ludicrous: Christians who, as they themselves put it, have fallen in love with Islam. And yet this Christian-Muslim love was a reality in Syria only recently, and still is in the hearts of many Syrians. With the work of their hands, the kindness of their hearts and the prayers of their souls, the nuns and monks of Mar Musa created a place that seemed to me a utopia, a place which – although they did not ignore the divisions of the present – anticipated nothing less than an eschatological reconciliation, took for granted that reconciliation will come. A seventh-century stone monastery, amid the overpowering solitude of the Syrian desert mountains, which was visited by Christians from all over the world, but where day after day still greater numbers of Arab Muslims – dozens, even hundreds – knocked at the door to meet their Christian brethren, to talk, to sing and to keep silence with them, and also to pray according to their own Islamic ritual in a corner of the church that was kept free of images.
When I visited Father Jacques in 2012, the founder of the community, the Italian Jesuit Paolo Dall’Oglio, had just been expelled from the country. Father Paolo had been too outspoken in his criticism of the Assad government, which responded to the Syrian people’s demands for freedom and democracy – demands they had raised peacefully for nine months – with arrests and torture, with truncheons and assault rifles, and finally with horrific massacres and even poison gas, until the country descended into civil war. But Father Paolo had also opposed the leadership of the recognized Syrian churches, which had remained silent about the government’s violence. He had tried in vain to raise support in Europe for the Syrian democratic movement, and called in vain on the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone or at least to send observers. He had warned in vain of a sectarian war if the jihadists were the only ones to receive support from abroad while the secular and moderate groups were neglected. He had tried in vain to break through the wall of our apathy. In the summer of 2013, the founder of the community of Mar Musa secretly returned to Syria to try to help some Muslim friends who were in the hands of Islamic State, and was himself abducted by Islamic State. Since July 28, 2013, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio has been missing without a trace.
Father Jacques, who now bore sole responsibility for the monastery of Mar Elian, is a very different kind of person: not a gifted orator, not charismatic, not a temperamental Italian, but rather, like so many Syrians I met, a proud, deliberate and extremely polite man, quite tall, with a broad face, his short hair still black. I did not get to know him well, of course; I attended Mass, which consisted of enchantingly beautiful singing as in all Eastern churches, and observed how warmly he chatted with the faithful and with local dignitaries at the lunch that followed. When he had said good-bye to all the guests, he led me to his tiny room for half an hour, placing a chair for me next to the narrow bed upon which he sat for the interview.
It was not only his words that amazed me – how fearlessly he criticised the government, and how openly he also spoke of the hardening taking place in his own Christian community. What made an even more profound impression on me was his demeanour: I experienced him as a quiet, very conscientious, introverted and ascetic servant of God who, now that God had given him the task of ministering to the beleaguered Christians in Qaryatain and leading the monastic community, was devoting all his strength to carrying out this public duty as well. He spoke quietly and slowly – usually with his eyes closed – as if he were consciously slowing down his pulse and using the interview as a brief rest between two more strenuous commitments. At the same time he chose his words very carefully and articulated his thoughts in polished sentences, and what he said was so clear, and so politically incisive, that I asked him repeatedly whether it might not be too dangerous to quote him directly. Then he opened his warm, dark eyes and nodded wearily – yes, I could print everything, otherwise he would not have said it; the world had to learn what was happening in Syria.
This weariness – this was also a strong impression, perhaps my strongest, of Father Jacques – it was the weariness of one who not only acknowledged, but indeed affirmed that he might not find rest before the next life; it was also the weariness of a doctor or a fire-fighter who husbands his strength in the face of mounting adversity. And Father Jacques was indeed a doctor and fire-fighter too in the midst of the war, not only for the souls of those living in fear, but also for the bodies of the needy, whom he gave food, shelter, clothes, protection and, above all, loving attention in his church, regardless of their religion. To the end, the community of Mar Musa sheltered and cared for many hundreds if not thousands of refugees, the vast majority of them Muslims, at the monastery. And not only that: Father Jacques managed to keep peace, even between the different faiths, at least in Qaryatain. It is chiefly thanks to him, the quiet, serious Father Jacques, that the various groups and militias, some of them aligned with the government and some opposed to it, agreed to keep all heavy weapons out of the town. And he, the priest critical of his church, was able to persuade almost all the Christians in his parish to stay. ‘We Christians are a part of this country, whether the fundamentalists here and in Europe like it or not,’ Father Jacques told me. ‘Arab culture is our culture!’
The demands of some Western politicians to admit Arab Christians in particular made a bitter impression on him. The same West that cared not one iota about the millions of Syrians of all confessions who had demonstrated peacefully for democracy and human rights, the same West that had devastated Iraq and supplied Assad with his poison gas, the same West that was allied with Saudi Arabia, the main sponsor of jihadism – this same West was now concerned about the Arab Christians? He could only laugh at the idea, Father Jacques said, with a perfectly straight face. And with his eyes closed he continued, ‘With their irresponsible statements, these politicians promote the very confessionalism that threatens us Christians.’
The responsibility grew constantly, and Father Jacques bore it as patiently as ever. The community’s non-Syrian members had to leave the country and took refuge in northern Iraq. Only the seven Syrian monks and nuns stayed behind, dividing themselves between the monasteries of Mar Musa and Mar Elian. The front was constantly shifting, and Qaryatain was ruled sometimes by the state and sometimes by opposition militias. The monks and nuns had to come to terms with both sides and, like all the inhabitants, to survive the air raids whenever the little town was in opposition hands. But then Islamic State advanced ever deeper into the Syrian heartland. ‘The threat from IS, this sect of terrorists who present such a ghastly picture of Islam, has arrived in our region,’ Father Jacques wrote to a French friend a few days before his abduction. The message to her continues, ‘It is difficult to decide what we should do. Should we leave our homes? We are loath to do that. It is dreadful to admit that we have been abandoned – especially by the Christian world, which has decided to keep its distance so as not to endanger itself. We mean nothing to them.’
Two phrases are striking in these few lines of a simple e-mail, no doubt written in haste, phrases which are both characteristic of Father Jacques and a standard for all intellectual integrity. In the first phrase, Father Jacques writes, ‘The threat from IS, this sect of terrorists who present such a ghastly picture of Islam’. The second phrase, referring to the Christian world: ‘We mean nothing to them.’ Father Jacques defended the community he does not belong to, and criticised his own. A few days before his abduction, when the group that pretends to represent Islam and claims to apply the law of the Quran was already an immediate physical danger to him and his parish, Father Jacques still insisted that these terrorists were distorting the true face of Islam. I would take issue with any Muslim whose only response to the phenomenon of the Islamic State was the worn-out phrase that their violence has nothing to do with Islam. But a Christian, a Christian priest who could expect to be expelled, humiliated, abducted or killed by followers of another faith, yet still insisted on defending that faith – such a man of God displays a magnanimity that I have encountered nowhere else, except in the lives of the saints.
A person like myself cannot and must not defend Islam in that way. The love of one’s own – one’s own culture, one’s own country and also one’s own person – manifests itself in self-criticism. The love of the other – of another person, another culture and even another religion – can be far more effusive; it can be unreserved. It is true that the prerequisite for love of the other is love of oneself. But one can only fall in love, as Father Paolo and Father Jacques did with Islam, with the other. Self-love must be a struggling, doubting, constantly questioning love if it is to avoid falling prey to narcissism, self-praise, self-satisfaction. How true that is of Islam today! Any Muslim who does not struggle with it, does not doubt it and does not critically question it does not love Islam.
I am thinking not only of the horrific news and the still more horrific pictures from Syria and Iraq, where the Quran is held aloft at every act of barbarism and ‘Allahu akbar‘ is cried out at every beheading. In so many other countries too, indeed in most countries in the Muslim world, state authorities, state-associated institutions, theological schools and rebel groups all appeal to Islam as they oppress their own people, discriminate against women, and persecute, expel or massacre those with different ideas, religious beliefs or ways of life. Islam is invoked to justify stoning women in Afghanistan, murdering whole classes of schoolchildren in Pakistan, enslaving hundreds of girls in Nigeria, beheading Christians in Libya, shooting bloggers in Bangladesh, detonating bombs on marketplaces in Somalia, murdering Sufis and musicians in Mali, crucifying dissidents in Saudi Arabia, banning the most important works of contemporary literature in Iran, oppressing Shiites in Bahrain, and inciting violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Yemen.
The vast majority of Muslims certainly reject terror, violence and oppression. This is something I have experienced directly on my travels; it is not an empty slogan. On the contrary: those who cannot take freedom for granted know its value best. All of the mass uprisings of recent years in the Islamic world have been uprisings for democracy and human rights: not only the attempted, although mostly failed revolutions in almost all the Arab countries, but also the protest movements in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and, not least, the revolt at the ballot box in the last Indonesian presidential election. The streams of refugees likewise indicate where many Muslims hope to find better lives than in their home countries: certainly not in religious dictatorships. And the reports that reach us directly from Mosul and Raqqa attest, not to enthusiasm, but to the panic and despair of the population. Every relevant theological authority in the Islamic world has rejected the claim of IS to speak for Islam, and explained in detail how its practices and ideology go against the Quran and the basic teachings of Islamic theology. And let us not forget that those who are fighting on the front lines against Islamic State are themselves Muslims – Kurds, Shiites and also Sunni tribes and the members of the Iraqi army.
All of this needs to be said to expose the illusion that is being propounded in unison by the Islamists and the critics of Islam alike, namely that Islam is waging a war against the West. More accurately, Islam is waging a war against itself; that is to say, the Islamic world is being shaken by an inner conflict whose effects on the political and ethnic map may well come close to matching the dislocations that resulted from the First World War. The multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural Orient, which I studied through its superb literary achievements of the Middle Ages, and which I came to love as an endangered, never whole yet still vital reality during long stays in Cairo and Beirut, as a child during summer holidays in Isfahan and as a reporter at the monastery of Mar Musa – this Orient will have ceased to exist, like the world of yesteryear which Stefan Zweig recalled with nostalgia and sorrow in the 1920s.
What happened? Islamic State was not founded yesterday, nor did it begin with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Though its methods meet with abhorrence, its ideology is none other than Wahhabism, which exerts its influence in the remotest corners of the Islamic world today and, in the form of Salafism, has become attractive especially to young people in Europe. Since we know that the schoolbooks and curricula of Islamic State are 95 per cent identical with the schoolbooks and curricula in Saudi Arabia, we also know it is not just in Iraq and Syria that the world is strictly divided into what is forbidden and what is permitted – and humanity divided into believers and unbelievers. A school of thought that declares all people of other religions heretics, and berates, terrorises, vilifies and insults them, has been promulgated for decades, sponsored with billions from oil production, in mosques, in books and on television. If you denigrate other people systematically, day after day, it is only logical – how well we know this from our own history, from German history – that you will end up declaring their lives worthless. That such a religious fascism has become conceivable at all, that IS is able to recruit so many fighters, and still more sympathisers, that it has been able to overrun entire countries and capture major cities with hardly a fight – this is not the beginning, but rather the endpoint to date of a long decline, and I am referring not least to the decline of religious thought.
I took up Middle Eastern studies in 1988; my topics were the Quran and poetry. I think everyone who studies this subject in its classical form reaches a point where they can no longer reconcile the past with the present. And they become hopelessly, hopelessly sentimental. Naturally the past was not simply peaceful and colourfully diverse. As a philologist, however, I was dealing mostly with the writings of the mystics, philosophers, rhetoricians and theologians. And I, or rather we students, can only marvel, then and now, at the originality, the intellectual scope, the aesthetic power and the great humanity we find in the spirituality of Ibn Arabi, the poetry of Rumi, the historiography of Ibn Khaldun, the poetic theology of Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani, the philosophy of Averroes, the travel reports of Ibn Battuta; and in the tales of the Thousand and One Nights, which are worldly – yes, worldly and erotic, and feminist too, incidentally, and at the same time infused with the spirit and the verses of the Quran on every page. These were not newspapers, of course; the social reality of that civilisation was, like any other, greyer and more violent. And yet these documents of their age tell us something about what was once conceivable, even taken for granted, within Islam. None of this can be found in the religious culture of modern Islam, nothing whatsoever that is even remotely comparable, that is as fascinating, as profound as the writings I came across as a student. To say nothing of Islamic architecture, Islamic art or Islamic musicology: they no longer exist.
Let me illustrate the loss of creativity and freedom in the context of my own field: there was a time when it was conceivable, and even taken for granted, that the Quran is a poetic text which can only be grasped using the tools and methods of literary studies, no differently than a poem. It was conceivable and taken for granted that a theologian was at the same time a literary scholar and an expert on poetry, and in many cases a poet himself. In our time, my own teacher Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd in Cairo was charged with heresy, driven from his university and even pronounced divorced from his wife because he conceived Quranic studies as a form of literary scholarship. In other words, an approach to the Quran which was once taken for granted, and for which Nasr Abu Zayd was able to cite the most important scholars of classical Islamic theology, is no longer even acknowledged as thinkable. Anyone taking such an approach to the Quran, even though it is the traditional one, is persecuted, punished and declared a heretic. And yet the Quran is a text that not only rhymes, but speaks in disturbing, ambiguous and enigmatic images; nor is it a book at all so much as a recitation, the score of a chant that moves its Arab listeners with its rhythm, onomatopoeia and melody. Islamic theology not only examined the aesthetic peculiarities of the Quran; it declared the beauty of its language to be the authenticating miracle of Islam. All over the Islamic world today, however, we can observe what happens when one ignores the linguistic structure of a text, when one no longer adequately understands or even acknowledges it: the Quran is degraded to a reference manual in which people look up arbitrary keywords using a search engine. The powerful eloquence of the Quran becomes political dynamite.
We read so often that Islam must be cleansed by the fire of Enlightenment, or that modernity must win out over tradition. But that is perhaps too simplistic when we consider that Islam’s past was so much more enlightened, and its traditional writings at times more modern, than the current theological discourse. Goethe and Proust, Lessing and Joyce were not out of their minds, after all, to have been fascinated by Islamic culture. They saw something in the books and monuments that we no longer perceive so easily, brutally confronted as we often are by contemporary Islam. Perhaps the problem of Islam is less its tradition than its nearly total break with that tradition, the loss of its cultural memory, its civilisational amnesia.
All the peoples of the Orient experienced a brutal modernisation imposed from above in the form of colonialism and secular dictatorships. The headscarf – to name one example – the headscarf was not abandoned gradually by Iranian women: in 1936, the Shah sent his soldiers out into the streets to tear it from their heads by force. Unlike Europe, where modernity – in spite of all the setbacks and crimes – was ultimately experienced as a process of emancipation and took place gradually over many decades and centuries, the Middle East experienced it largely as violence. Modernity was associated not with freedom, but with exploitation and despotism. Imagine an Italian president driving his car into St Peter’s Basilica, jumping onto the altar with his dirty boots and whipping the Pope in the face: then you will have a rough idea of what it meant when, in 1928, Reza Shah marched through the holy shrine of Qom in his riding boots and responded to the imam’s request to take off his shoes like any other believer by striking him in the face with his whip. And you will find comparable events and pivotal moments in many other Middle Eastern countries which, instead of slowly leaving the past behind, demolished that past and tried to erase it from memory.
One might have thought that the religious fundamentalists who gained influence throughout the Islamic world after the failure of nationalism would have valued at least their own culture. Yet the opposite was the case: by seeking to return to a supposed point of origin, they not only neglected Islamic tradition, but resolutely fought it. We are only surprised by Islamic State’s acts of iconoclasm because we never noticed that there are virtually no ancient relics left in Saudi Arabia. In Mecca, the Wahhabis have destroyed the tombs and mosques of the Prophet’s closest kin, including the house he was born in. The historic mosque of the Prophet in Medina has been replaced with a colossal new building, and on the site where, until a few years ago, the house of Muhammad and his wife Khadija stood, there is now a public toilet.
Apart from the Quran, my studies were focused mainly on Islamic mysticism, Sufism. Mysticism sounds like something marginal, esoteric; a kind of underground culture. In the Islamic context, nothing could be further from the truth. Well into the 20th century, Sufism formed the basis of popular religion almost everywhere in the Islamic world; in Asian Islam, it still does. At the same time, Islamic high culture – especially poetry, the fine arts and architecture – was infused with the spirit of mysticism. As the most common form of religious life, Sufism was the ethical and aesthetic counterweight to the orthodoxy of the legal scholars. By emphasising God’s compassion above all and seeing it behind every letter of the Quran, by constantly seeking beauty in religion, acknowledging truth in other forms of faith too, and explicitly adopting the Christian commandment to love one’s enemies, Sufism infused Islamic societies with values, stories and sounds that could not have resulted from literalist pietism alone. As the Islam of daily life, Sufism did not invalidate the Islam of law, but complemented it and made its day-to-day form softer, more ambivalent, more permeable, more tolerant; and most of all, through music, dance and poetry, it opened Islam to sensual experience.
Hardly any of this has survived. Wherever the Islamists have gained a foothold, from the 19th century in what is now Saudi Arabia to recent events in Mali, they began by putting an end to Sufi festivals, banning the mystics’ writings, destroying the tombs of the saints and cutting the long hair of the Sufi leaders or killing them outright. But not only the Islamists. The reformers and the Enlightened religious philosophers of the 19th and early 20th centuries also found the traditions and customs of popular Islam backward and antiquated. It was not they who took Sufi literature seriously, but the Western scholars, Orientalists like the Peace Prize winner of 1995, Annemarie Schimmel, who published scholarly editions of the manuscripts and so saved them from destruction. And even today, only a handful of Muslim intellectuals address the treasures found in their own tradition. The destroyed, neglected, rubbish-filled old city quarters all over the Islamic world, with their ruined architectural monuments, symbolize the decline of Islamic thought every bit as vividly as the biggest shopping mall in the world, which has been built in Mecca right beside the Kaaba. You have to picture this; you can see it in photos: the holiest place in Islam, this simple and superb edifice where the Prophet himself prayed, is literally towered over by Gucci and Apple. Perhaps we should have listened less to the Islam of our grand thinkers and more to the Islam of our grandmothers.
To be sure, people have started restoring buildings and mosques in some countries; but only after Western art historians or Westernised Muslims like myself came along and recognised the value of the tradition. And, unfortunately, we came a century too late, when the buildings had already crumbled, the building techniques had been forgotten and the books erased from memory. But we believed there was still time to study the remains thoroughly. Now as a reader I almost feel like an archaeologist in a war zone, gathering up relics hastily and often haphazardly so that future generations will at least be able to view them in museums. Certainly Muslim countries are still producing outstanding works, as we can see at biennials and film festivals, and once more at this year’s Book Fair. But this culture has hardly anything to do with Islam. There is no Islamic culture any more; at least, none of quality. What we now have bursting all around us and raining down on our heads is the debris of a massive intellectual implosion.
Is there any hope? Until our last breath there is hope – that is what Father Paolo, the founder of the community of Mar Musa, teaches us. Hope is the central theme of his writings. The day after his disciple and deputy was abducted, the Muslims of Qaryatain flooded into the church, unasked, and prayed for their Father Jacques. That must surely give us hope that love works across the boundaries between religions, ethnicities and cultures. The news and the pictures of Islamic State have produced a powerful shock, and it has set opposing forces in motion. Finally, a resistance to violence in the name of religion is taking shape in the Islamic orthodoxy as well. And for some years now – perhaps less in the Arabian heartland of Islam than on the periphery, in Asia, South Africa, Iran, Turkey and not least among Muslims in the West – we have witnessed the development of a new religious thought. Europe too had to reinvent itself after the two World Wars. And perhaps I should mention, considering the flippancy, disdain and open contempt which our politicians – no, which we as a society have shown towards the European project of unification, the most politically valuable project ever initiated by this continent, perhaps I should mention at this juncture how often people bring up the subject of Europe with me on my travels: as a model, almost a utopia. Anyone who has forgotten why there needs to be a Europe should look at the emaciated, exhausted, frightened faces of the refugees who have left everything behind, given up everything, risked their lives for the promise that Europe still represents.
That brings me back to the second phrase of Father Jacques’s that I found remarkable, his statement about the Christian world: ‘We mean nothing to them.’ As a Muslim, it is not my place to cast blame on the Christians of the world for failing to aid, if not the Syrian and Iraqi peoples, then at least their own brothers and sisters in faith. And yet I too cannot help thinking it when I experience the lack of interest of our public sphere in the seemingly apocalyptic disaster in the East, which we try to repel with barbed-wire fences, warships, stereotypes and mental blinkers. Just a three-hour flight away from Frankfurt, whole ethnic groups are being exterminated or expelled, girls are being enslaved, many of humanity’s most important cultural monuments are being blown up, cultures are disappearing and with them an ancient ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity that, in contrast to Europe, had still persisted to a certain extent into the 21st century – but we only join together and rise up when one of the bombs of this war strikes us, as it did on January 7 and 8 in Paris, or when the people fleeing this war come knocking at our gates.
It is a good thing that our societies, responding better than they did to September 11, 2001, have opposed terror with freedom. It is uplifting to see so many people in Europe, and especially in Germany, supporting refugees. But this protest and this solidarity too often fall short of becoming political. We are not having a broad dialogue in our society about the causes of terror and refugee movements, about how our own policies may in fact be exacerbating the disaster taking place just outside our borders. We are not asking why our closest partner in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, of all countries. We are not learning from our mistakes when we roll out the red carpet for a dictator like General el-Sisi. Or we are learning the wrong lessons, if we conclude from the disastrous wars in Iraq or Libya that it is best not to get involved even when genocide begins. We have not come up with any way to prevent the murders being committed by the Syrian regime against its own people for the past four years. We have likewise resigned ourselves to the existence of a new religious fascism whose territory is roughly the size of Great Britain and extends from the Iranian border almost to the Mediterranean. Not that there are any simple answers to such questions as how a metropolis like Mosul can be liberated – but we are not even asking the question in earnest. An organisation like Islamic State, with an estimated 30,000 fighters, is not invincible to the world community – we cannot allow it to be. ‘Today they are in our country,’ said the Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Youhanna Boutros Moshe, when he asked the West and the great powers to help drive IS out of Iraq. ‘Today they are in our country. Tomorrow they will be in yours.’
I am hesitate to imagine what else has to happen before we agree with the Archbishop of Mosul, for the logic of Islamic State’s propaganda is to kindle ever higher degrees of horror with its images in order to penetrate our consciousness. Once we ceased to be outraged at the sight of individual Christian hostages saying the rosary before being beheaded, IS started beheading whole groups of Christians. When we banished the decapitations from our screens, IS burnt the pictures in the National Museum in Mosul. Once we had become inured to the sight of smashed statues, IS began levelling the ancient ruins of whole cities like Nimrod and Nineveh. When we stopped worrying about the expulsions of Yazidis, the news of mass rapes briefly jolted us from our slumber. When we thought the terrors were confined to Iraq and Syria, snuff videos reached us from Libya and Egypt. When we had grown accustomed to the beheadings and the crucifixions, they beheaded their victims first and then crucified them, as they recently did in Libya. Palmyra is not being blown up all at once, but in fact one building at a time, at intervals of several weeks, in order to produce a fresh news item each time. This will not stop. IS will go on escalating the horror until we see, hear and feel in our European day-to-day lives that this horror will not end by itself. Paris will have been only the beginning, and Lyon will not be the last beheading. And the longer we wait, the fewer options we will have. In other words, it is already far too late.
Can the recipient of a peace prize call for war? I am not calling for war. I am merely pointing out that there is a war – and that we too, as its closest neighbours, must respond to it, possibly by military means, yes, but above all with far more determination than we have shown up to now, in our diplomacy and in civil society. For this war can no longer be ended in Syria and Iraq alone. It can only be ended by the powers behind the warring armies and militias: Iran, Turkey, the Gulf states, Russia and the West. And only when our societies cease to accept the madness will our governments take action. Whatever we do at this point, we will probably make mistakes. But our greatest mistake would be to go on doing nothing, or too little, against the mass murder being carried out by Islamic State and the Assad regime at Europe’s doorstep.
‘I have just returned from Aleppo,’ Father Jacques continued in the e-mail he wrote a few days before his abduction on May 21: this city which sleeps by the river of pride, which lies at the centre of the Orient. It is now like a woman consumed by cancer. Everyone is fleeing Aleppo, especially the poor Christians. Yet these massacres strike not only the Christians, they strike the entire Syrian people. Our purpose is difficult to achieve, especially in these days since the disappearance of Father Paolo, the teacher and initiator of dialogue in the 21st century. In these days we are living that dialogue as a communal, shared suffering. We are sad in this unjust world which bears a share of the responsibility for the victims of the war, this world of the dollar and the euro, which cares only for its own peoples, its own prosperity, its own safety, while the rest of the world dies of hunger, disease and war. It seems their only aim is to find regions where they can wage wars and further increase their trade in arms and aeroplanes. How do these governments justify themselves, when they could end the massacres, but do nothing, nothing at all?
I do not fear for my faith, but I fear for the world. The question we ask ourselves is this: do we have a right to live or not? The answer has already been given, for this war is a clear answer, as clear as sunlight. So the real dialogue we are living today is the dialogue of mercy.
Courage, my dear, I am with you and embrace you.
Two months after the abduction of Father Jacques, on July 28, 2015, Islamic State took over the small town of Qaryatain. Most of the inhabitants managed to flee at the last moment, but two hundred Christians were kidnapped by IS. Another month later, on August 21, the monastery of Mar Elian was destroyed by bulldozers. You can see in the pictures posted online by IS that not one of the 1,700-year-old stones was left standing. Another two weeks later, on September 3, photos appeared on an Islamic State website showing some of the Christian hostages from Qaryatain sitting in the front rows of a school auditorium or municipal hall, their heads shaven, some of them little more than skin and bone, their faces void of expression, all of them marked by their captivity. Father Jacques is recognisable in the photos, wearing plain clothes, likewise emaciated and with his head shorn, the shock clearly visible in his eyes. He is covering his mouth with his hand, as if unwilling to believe what he is seeing. On the stage of the hall we see a broad-shouldered, long-bearded man in combat fatigues signing a contract. It is what is known as a dhimmi contract, which subjugates Christians to Muslim rule. They are forbidden to build churches or monasteries, and to carry crosses or Bibles on their person. Their priests are not allowed to wear clerical attire. Muslims must not hear the prayers of Christians, read their writings or enter their churches. The Christians are not allowed to bear arms and must obey the instructions of Islamic State unconditionally. They must bow their heads, endure all injustices in silence, and also pay a poll tax, the jizya, to be allowed to live. The contract is sickening to read: it divides God’s creatures quite clearly into first and second-class persons, and leaves no doubt that there are also third-class persons whose lives are worth even less.
It is a calm but utterly depressed and helpless glance that Father Jacques casts at us in the photo as he covers his mouth with his hand. He had expected his own martyrdom. But to see his parish taken captive – the children he christened, the lovers he married, the elderly to whom he promised the last rites – must be enough to drive him mad, to drive even a man as deliberate, inwardly strong and devoted to God as Father Jacques mad. After all, it was for his sake that the other captives had stayed in Qaryatain instead of fleeing Syria like so many other Christians. Father Jacques no doubt believes that he bears guilt; but God, I know this much, God will judge him otherwise.
Is there hope? Yes, there is hope, there is always hope. I had already written this speech when, five days ago, on Tuesday, I received the news that Father Jacques Mourad is free. Inhabitants of the town of Qaryatain helped him escape from his cell. They disguised him and managed to get him out of the IS-controlled area with the help of Bedouins. He has now returned to his brothers and sisters of the Mar Musa community. Apparently a number of people were involved in the rescue, all of them Muslims, every one of them risking his or her life for a Christian priest. Love worked across the boundaries between religions, ethnicities and cultures. And yet, as magnificent as this news is – indeed, as wondrous as it is in the literal sense of the word – sorrow nevertheless outweighs the joy, and most bitterly Father Jacques’s own sorrow. Indeed, the lives of the two hundred other Christians in Qaryatain may well be in greater danger now than before his escape. And there is still no trace of his teacher, Father Paolo, the founder of the Christian community that loves Islam. Until our last breath there is hope.
The recipient of a peace prize should not call for war. But he can call to prayer. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make an unusual request – although, in a church, it is not really so unusual after all. I would like to ask you to refrain from applauding at the end of my speech and instead to pray for Father Paolo and the two hundred captive Christians of Qaryatain, for the children Father Jacques baptized, for the lovers he married, for the elderly whom he promised the last rites. And if you are not religious, then let your wishes be with those who have been abducted, and with Father Jacques, who struggles with the fact that only he has been freed. What are prayers after all but wishes addressed to God? I believe in wishes, and I believe that they have power in our world, with or without God. Without wishes, mankind would never have built one stone upon one another, the stones it so recklessly demolishes in war. And so I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to pray for Jacques Mourad, pray for Paolo Dall’Oglio, pray for the Christians of Qaryatain, pray or wish for the liberation of all hostages and the freedom of Syria and Iraq. I invite you to stand up so that we can answer the snuff videos of the terrorists with a picture of our brotherhood.
Translated into English by Wieland Hoban.