Days ago ISIS bulldozed a Syrian monastery dating back to the 5th century. The mediaconscious militants carefully documented the destruction of the Monastery of Mar Elian, near Homs. They filmed the beautiful façade being dashed to pieces, and fighters digging up a sarcophagus and desecrating the remains of Mar Elian (St Julian) inside. Why did ISIS, an army fighting enemies on all sides, spend precious time and resources razing a monastery that few outside Christian circles had heard of? There are three main reasons. First, ISIS fighters wish to destroy all places of worship other than their own. They believe that churches, in particular, are blasphemous and that it pleases God to demolish them. Second, like all totalitarian forces, they seek to eradicate the memory of those who preceded them. They hope to cast all preceding non-Sunni cultures in Syria and Iraq into historical oblivion. Third, they want to wound the feelings of Christians worldwide in the hope of provoking a religious conflict that will, according to their ideology, bring about the End Times.
Few Christians could watch the video of the destruction of Mar Elian monastery without feeling visceral revulsion. But in our anger we shouldn’t overlook the human story that lies amid the monastery’s rubble. While the foundations date back 1,600 years, parts of the monastery were renovated in recent times.
One of the restorers was the Italian Jesuit Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was seized by ISIS in July 2013 and is still missing. The monastery’s abbot, Fr
In our anger we shouldn’t overlook the human story that lies amid the rubble
Jacques Mourad, was kidnapped last May. ISIS has also reportedly captured dozens of Christians from the surrounding area.
As Professor Emma Loosley explains on page 25, Fr Dall’Oglio and Fr Mourad fully grasped the dangers of being associated with an ancient Christian monastery amid a brutal civil war. They knew that the conflict was breeding new and deadlier strains of Islamism. But they persevered because they wanted the light of monastic life to continue burning as darkness descended on Syria. The two men would have derived great comfort from praying to Mar Elian, a man of outstanding faith. Mar Elian monastery is said to be built on the very spot where the saint was laid to rest, after dying on the road back from a pilgrimage Jerusalem.
Neither Fr Dall’Oglio nor Fr Mourad gave in to bitterness and hatred, though they had good reasons for doing so as they saw Syria collapsing around them. In an email to Aid to the Church in Need in August 2014, Fr Mourad described his community’s efforts to help the local population. He wrote: “Our efforts to sustain the oppressed and suffering Muslims in our regions are also the simple expression of the Church’s duty, which in the image of Christ crucified bears the weight of those who are ill, criminals, sinners and persecuted. Our testimony today, much like how the reflection of the Cross light announces a new dawn, bears the hope of Resurrection for all mankind.”
The Syrian civil war must eventually end. Let’s pray that, when that day comes, faithful inspired by Fr Dall’Oglio and Fr Mourad will return to Mar Elian monastery and raise it back up from the ruins.
e Pope is not a political pawn
The Catholic Church has had a long and difficult relationship with the powers of this world. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, it was clear that there was a critical distance between them: it was an encounter between two worlds, in which two minds did not meet, and no compromises were reached, but which resulted in victory for the seemingly weaker party. By contrast, at other periods of its history, the Church has been tempted by the alliance between throne and altar, which has always been to the detriment of the altar in the long run.
Just recently some activists from
Argentina tried to recruit the Pope to their cause by handing him a propaganda poster, with which he was photographed. This stunt hardly heralds a political alliance between Argentina and the papacy, but it serves as a warning.
This Pope, indeed every pope, needs to keep clear of opportunists like President Kirchner, and maintain the neutrality of the Holy See, which is part of its stock in trade in international relations. The prestige of the papacy and of the Church would greatly suffer if the Church appeared to be a pawn in political games.
Other attempts to compromise the neutrality of the Church have been made, most notably by President Putin, in his attempts to avoid international isolation. On a local level, we have also seen the Church co-opted into hosting a Mafia funeral in Rome recently. But if the Church takes sides in any dispute, or backs one nation rather than another, it ceases to be universal, and it certainly ceases to be faithful to the spirit of its Founder, who spoke truth to power. A policy of critical distance in dealing with nations and ethnic groups, a policy of internationalism, not nationalism, is the only one to follow.
CATHOLIC HERALD, AUGUST 28 2015 3