Mar Elian monastery – a model of hospitality destroyed

In recent weeks, IS overran Qaryatayn, a remote Syrian town in the desert between Homs and Palmyra. They also destroyed its monastery, Mar Elian.

Emma Loosley describes her deep connection with the community and the effects of the monastery’s destruction.

The monastery of Mar Elian almost certainly dates back to around the 5th century and is considered the last resting place of Mar Elian esh-Sheikh, St Julian the Old Man, who the locals believe was the teacher of St Ephrem the Syrian, the most important of all writers in the Syriac language.

In 2001 the Syrian Catholic Metropolitan of Homs, Msgr Georges Kassab appointed Fr. Jacques (Yaqub) Mourad from the Community of Al-Khalil as parish priest and tasked his Community with breathing new life into the monastery. Fr. Jacques was one of two founder members of the Community of Al-Khalil with his superior, Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio S.J. and the two of them believed in a vocation of Abrahamic hospitality and Christian-Islamic Dialogue. Both have now been kidnapped by IS – Paolo in July 2013 and Jacques in May 2015.

Paolo immediately set about arranging an archaeological excavation at the site as the Community had already breathed life into one disused monastery (Mar Musa al-Habashi) and now prepared to do the same again. None of us realised how life-changing the process would prove. Qaryatayn and her monastery were neglected and unloved by the outside world and, as with a neglected child, it took the Qurwani a little while to accept these foreigners – Jacques being from Aleppo was as exotic as Paolo and me – as many people couldn’t really conceive of a world outside Syria. However, once convinced of our good intentions they whole-heartedly adopted us and I got used to being greeted by people who had nothing themselves turning up at my door with a plastic pail of grapes or a dish of stuffed vine leaves on an almost daily basis. It turned out that the Qurwani could teach all of us something about the true meaning of hospitality.

Until Jacques’ abduction Dayr Mar Elian had remained the heart of the town, comforting the local population and becoming home to hundreds of, mainly Muslim, internal refugees. It was a beacon of Inter-Faith co-operation with Jacques and the local Sheikh standing side by side to prevent the town splintering along sectarian lines. IS has broken the heart of a whole town and only time will tell if it can ever be mended. A friend from Qaryatayn who has managed to escape to Europe sent me a text on Friday that says it all “My heart keeps crying Mar Elian.”

For more on Qaryatayn see:

On Palymra see:

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