GHASSANIEH, Syria — Fr. Francois Mourad, 49, a Syrian diocesan priest who sought refuge from the country’s civil war in a Franciscan monastery, was killed June 23 during a raid on the building. He was apparently alone in the monastery when it was completely pillaged. The cause and manner of his death are not clear, according to a statement from the Custody of the Holy Land.
Though he was not a friar, as some earlier reports stated, Fr. Francois had close ties with the Custody. He completed novitiate with the Custody in Rome before he received a call to the contemplative life. A citizen of Syria, he returned to his country and frequently assisted in the Custody’s convents when needed. He had started the construction of a monastery dedicated to St. Simon Stylites in the village of Ghassanieh before the war began.
After the fighting started, the monastery of St. Simon was bombed. Fr. Francois then moved to one of the Custody’s convents for safety reasons and to serve a neighboring community of religious sisters.
Reaction from HNP Friars
The friars at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, located in Washington, where Edward Flanagan, OFM, is stationed, have taken a special interest in the events in Syria and the surrounding area.
“Just listening to them over coffee, at meals and at recreation is an education in current events,” said Ed, who has been at “The Mount” — as it is often referred to by friars — since 2008. “Many of the friars here have served in Syria and Egypt, and have lived and served with friars of the Custody of the Holy Land and the zealous laity who are living there now. Of special concern is Aleppo in northern Syria where the civil war is fierce and unremitting. So the news of the recent murder of Fr. Francois, the diocesan priest who was killed while living with the friars, was an event of great sadness.”
He continued: “An ongoing major concern of the friars is that the Christians of all the countries involved in the ‘Arab Spring’ are leaving their homelands — especially Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Once thriving Eucharistic communities of faith become smaller with each passing day. No doubt the leadership of the Custody of the Holy Land now meeting in Chapter in Jerusalem will address this issue — with the plea for an end to the conflict and for religious freedom for all the peoples of the countries involved.”
Michael Calabria, OFM, a Washington-based friar who speaks frequently on Christian-Muslim relations, said: “From a Muslim perspective, the deliberate killing of non-combatant Christians is inexcusable. The Qur’an says that priests and monks are the nearest in friendship to Muslims (5.82). Moreover, Muslims were first given permission to take up arms to protect houses of worship, including monasteries, churches and synagogues (22.39-40).”
Several incorrect statements about the manner of Fr. Francois’s death have been circulating in the news and social media. Confusion arose after a claim was made that three Franciscan friars were killed last week. The Custody denied this claim in an online statement, saying that it “vigorously denies these stories.”
Other reports suggested that Fr. Francois was beheaded and his death was recorded in a video that went viral this past week. Andrea Avveduto, NGO of the Custody, denied these claims, saying that Fr. Francois was not the man in the video. “The corpse of Fr. Francois was intact,” Avveduto said in a June 28 Ansa article.
An article clarifying rumors surrounding the priest’s death also appeared on the English-speaking Conference’swebsite.
“Let us pray,” said Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM, Custos of the Holy Land, in a press release from Agenzia Fides, “so that this absurd and shameful war ends soon, and that the people of Syria can go back to living a normal life.”
Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo, titular of the Syrian Catholic archeparchy in Hassaké-Nisibis, said in the press release: “The whole story of Christians in the Middle East is marked and made fruitful by the blood of the martyrs of many persecutions. Lately, Fr. Mourad sent me some messages that clearly showed how conscious he was of living in a dangerous situation, and offered his life for peace in Syria and around the world.”
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.