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Syrian Catholic priest abducted and held in ISIS captivity ‘didn’t expect to survive’

Fr Jack Murad, the Syrian priest abducted and held in captivity by IS for three months (BBC)

A Syrian priest captured by ISIS for nearly three months and threatened with execution has spoken about his ordeal for the first time.

Fr Jack Murad was abducted from the Elian monastery in al-Qaryatain, Syria in May along with volunteer Botros Hanna.

“I didn’t expect to survive,” Fr Jack recalling his abduction by ISIS. “It was a group of militants with their faces covered. They took me and a young man working in the monastery.”

They were both handcuffed and blindfolded and put them in a car which drove them towards an unknown destination “in the mountains”.

Four days later, the two men were tied and blindfolded again, before being taken on a longer journey.

They were taken to a prison in Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold where they were kept for 84 days.

The captives were well-fed, given treatment and weren’t tortured, but they were verbally abused.

“There was no violence,” Fr Jack told the BBC. “But they were always ready with harsh words. They called us infidels.”

Fr Jack and Botros were told they strayed from ‘the true religion of Islam’, though the captors seemed curious about Christian beliefs.

They asked about God, the Holy Trinity , Christ and the Crucifixion, Fr Jack said. Though he thought it ‘pointless’ to try to answer.

“What’s the point of debating with someone who’s put you in prison and pointing their rifle at you?” he said.

The militants tried to scare prisoners, telling them they would be killed if they did not convert.

“To frighten us, they would even tell us in detail how we would die. They are truly gifted at using words and imagery to terrorise,” Fr Jack added.

On Day 84, an emir arrived telling him the Christians were “pestering” them for his return.

Fr Jack was taken in a car down a tunnel towards large iron gates were he saw men from his parish waiting.

“I was shocked,” he said. “But they were so happy and rushed to meet me. They didn’t think I was still alive and were pessimistic about their own fate.”

The group were held captive for another 20 days, then on August 31, Fr Jack was summoned before IS clerics.

The ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had decided their fate.

“ISIS had four options: to kill men and keep women captives, to enslave everyone. The third is to embrace Islam and the last option is what they call ISIS remission. It’s what gives Christians the right to live under ISIS rule.”

They could live under ISIS rule, with their land, homes and money, under ISIS protection, but they had to sign a two-page contract listing restrictions.

Fr Jack answered all their questions, despite refusing to convert, or give in to their demands. He tried to save Saint Elia, by omitting to mention it, but the monastery had already been destroyed.

The group were taken back to Qaryatain the next day, and were told not to leave ISIS-controlled territory. Fr Jack and Botros fled, escaping.

“I felt that as long as I am there, Christians will not leave. So I had to go to encourage them to do the same,” he said. But not many have followed – there are 160 Christians left behind.

“Some can’t accept the idea of being displaced and would rather die at home. Others are convinced the Islamic State, with which they have a contract, will protect them.” Fr Jack said. “We must pray for God to protect them.”

The priest added he felt his captivity had ‘liberated’ him. He credits a Muslim friend and the Virgin Mary for his escape.

“It’s truly a miracle that a priest has been freed from the hands of the Islamic State. A miracle that the Virgin Mary worked for me.”

Fr Jack is now working with another priest to help free the remaining Christians held in captivity.