In a town recovering from Islamic State slaughter, memories of Muslim-Christian friendship

AMMAN: In the sleepy, remote Homs province town of Qaryatayn, nestled along a highway crossing the desert between Damascus and Palmyra, shop owner Abu Mohammad Farouq first met Syriac Catholic priest Father Jack Murad 17 years ago.

Bashar al-Assad had just replaced his father as the Syrian president, and the civil war that would later rip apart the town—and the country as a whole—was more than 10 years in the future. The Islamic State’s two deadly invasions of Qaryatayn were years away, as was a mass exodus of both Muslims and the last remaining Christians from the religiously mixed town—tragedies that would herald the end of peaceful coexistence between Qaryatayn’s two religions.

Farouq, at the time 33 years old, had just returned to Qaryatayn to settle back into his hometown after several years working abroad in Saudi Arabia, he says. Once back in Qaryatayn, he opened a modest shop selling construction materials to support his wife and young children.

One morning soon after his return, Farouq says, “I was heading to work, and stopped my car by the entrance of the shop.” Outside, “there was this man who was clearly a stranger to the area. I already had a customer, but I told him to wait so I could see who this newcomer was.”

“He was wearing average clothes, pants and a shirt, but it was clear to me that he was someone important,” Farouq recalls. “He asked me [if I could point him toward] a local carpentry shop, so I told him there was one close by.” Farouq sent his seven-year-old son Mohammad to guide the stranger to the nearby carpentry workshop.

From the man’s accent, Farouq says, “I could tell he was from Aleppo.”

“A week later, the guy came back to me—I still remember exactly how he looked.” Farouq invited him in for a pot of tea, and the two sat together in the shop to pass time. “I didn’t know yet whether he was Muslim or Christian, where he worked, or what he was doing [in Qaryatayn],” Farouq says.

“That’s how our friendship started.”  

Father Jack Murad—or simply Father Jack, as Farouq refers to his friend—had just arrived to Qaryatayn from his native Aleppo, where he worked as a Syriac Catholic priest, to serve as head of the town’s ancient St. Elian Monastery. Even in 2000, years before war broke out, the site sat largely in disrepair.

St. Elian, a native of ancient Emesa—now Homs city—is said to have died more than one thousand years ago while travelling through the desert surrounding Qaryatayn, and was buried on the plot of land where the monastery now stands. Like the monastery’s namesake, Father Murad arrived in Qaryatayn, some 70 kilometers southeast of Homs city, largely by chance—on assignment from the Syriac Catholic ministry.

Qaryatayn on Oct. 29, after regime forces recaptured the town from IS. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images.

“On my first day in Qaryatayn, I needed people to help refurbish some of the old rooms of the monastery,” recalls Murad. “I wasn’t wearing the clothing of a priest, but [Abu Mohammad] still sent his son along with me, with full confidence and generosity.”

Before his posting, Murad had heard that the town’s conservative Muslim community was somewhat closed off and insular. But Murad’s encounter, and later close friendship, with Farouq “was very important to me, and it gave me an idea of what the Muslim [community] is really like in Qaryatayn,” he recalls. “What more can we want?”

Nearly two decades and a civil war later, the two friends live scattered far from Qaryatayn after fleeing the country over the course of the war. Today, the desert town’s homes and shops are pockmarked with bullet holes after Syrian regime forces drove out the Islamic State two weeks ago—for the second time.

The course of Farouq and Murad’s friendship, now sprawled out across borders, mirrors the trajectory of the formerly mixed-religion town, today recovering after Islamic State fighters unleashed a “massacre” against its residents—both Muslim and Christian—last month. As many as 100 Qaryatayn men, young and old, were recorded killed by IS during the month of October, local pro-opposition news page Badia 24 reported, in summary executions targeting residents with alleged ties to the Syrian regime.

At least two of the victims were among the last 30 remaining Christian residents of Qaryatayn, Jamil Diarbakerli, director of the Sweden-based Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights told Syria Direct. “The others left Qaryatayn after the Syrian regime regained control of the city,” Diarbakerli said. His group records rights abuses against Christians in Syria and Iraq.

Today, Diarbakerli says, Qaryatayn is now totally empty of its Christian population, with “no hope of return” in the near future.

At the same time, thousands of Muslim residents who also fled IS are living in exile far from their hometown, in poorly served displacement camps or as refugees abroad.

“What happened in Qaryatayn,” says Murad, “was an operation to drive out both Muslims and Christians, together.”

‘Neighbors’

It was late on a Friday night at the tail end of September when Islamic State fighters burst into Qaryatayn, launching a surprise attack on the town. The capture of Qaryatayn—located deep within Syrian regime territory—was a rare victory for IS, which is suffering heavy losses elsewhere in eastern Syria.

The IS assault, residents told Syria Direct at the time, came as a “shock.” Over the next several weeks, as the Islamic State reinstated its control over the town, fighters reportedly raided pharmacies and cut off phone and internet connections for days at a time. Gunmen went door-to-door rounding up men and reportedly at least one teenager as young as 16 for execution, pro-opposition news page Badia 24 reported.

After three weeks of renewed IS rule in Qaryatayn, regime forces returned and drove them out again in late October. With phone and internet lines running again, news of the killings began to emerge. Any remaining Christian residents fled Qaryatayn, heading southwest to regime-held Damascus.

And so the Islamic State’s second period in control of Qaryatayn also marked the second time that the extremist group drastically altered the desert town’s social fabric.

A priest in the destroyed remnants of St. Elian monastery in April 2016. Max Delany/AFP.

Before the war, Qaryatayn’s demographics generally reflected those of Syria as a whole. Christians, a sizable minority, made up 10 percent of the town’s estimated 14,000 residents, says Abdullah al-Kareem, a former resident and director of the pro-opposition Badia 24 news page. The rest were Sunni Muslims, who, though conservative and religious for the most part—the town is home to a number of mosques—actively took part in their Christian neighbors’ social lives, al-Kareem tells Syria Direct.

Murad remembers his “surprise” upon first working at the St. Elian monastery, when he saw local Muslim residents visit the adjacent church for social gatherings. “I soon learned that this wasn’t unusual,” says Murad. “The sitting rooms in the church were open for a long time before me, from the time of the priest who was there in the 1970s—and they were open to both Muslims and Christians.”

“They would come [to the church] to chat, snack on raisins and drink tea. Basically, the church was also their home, just like the mosque was their home.”

As a shop owner, Farouq recalls local Christian “businesses and some professions that relied on Muslims, due to the small number [of Christians]. They worked with Muslim craftsmen and manufacturers.”

Farouq’s children grew up in schools where both Muslim and Christian teachers worked together. “Our houses were side by side,” he says.

And as Farouq grew closer to Murad over the years, the two became “like family members—I even introduced him to my brothers, and we used to visit one another,” the shopkeeper recalls.

“If you visited Qaryatayn, I doubt you would have been able to discern between a Muslim or a Christian, in terms of clothing or traditions,” says Farouq. “We assisted one another and stood beside one another on important occasions. We’re one family.”

Then, in early 2011, the Syrian revolution began. At first, Qaryatayn was neutral, but eventually came under control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

When government forces started to bomb the town, says Farouq, “the regime wouldn’t target the monastery. So [Murad] opened up the monastery to civilians—by God, at times the people [taking shelter] were 90 percent Muslims.” Farouq says he and others helped Murad provide food and water to residents sheltering within the monastery’s walls.

“Even during the revolution, I didn’t see any divisions,” former resident al-Kareem says, now living within opposition-controlled territory elsewhere in Syria. “You know how you deal with your own neighbors? That’s how it was between Muslims and Christians in Qaryatayn.”

Islamic State

But in August 2015, on the heels of a major victory in Palmyra roughly 100 kilometers northeast across the central Syrian desert, the Islamic State arrived for the first time in Qaryatayn and joined local sympathizers within the town.

“Of course, the Christians who were able to flee left,” seeking refuge in neighboring regime-held towns and elsewhere in Syria, says Father Murad. “The remaining 250 [Christians] were taken as prisoners, and of course I was also a prisoner alongside them.”

Their IS kidnappers, he says, “were from this town, and unfortunately from among those who used to work in the monastery, and whose families used to request aid.”  

“I went and drank tea with their zaeem, who was affiliated with Daesh, 10 days before my kidnapping.”

For nearly three months, Murad and another Qaryatayn priest were held captive in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital city at the time.

A memorial service for Qaryatayn residents killed by IS in October. Photo courtesy of Qaryatayn Media Center.

In his absence, IS forces bulldozed the St. Elian monastery and torched the adjacent church. Alongside some other Muslim residents of Qaryatayn, Farouq worked to negotiate Murad’s release, he tells Syria Direct.

“There were a number of us. I was making phone calls,” says Farouq.

Eventually, IS did release Murad and other Christian captives from the town. When Murad was released, he was greeted by well-wishers in a local church over the next four days. “Most of those who came were from the Muslim families of the area,” Murad says.

Then, 15 years after first coming to Qaryatayn, the priest fled by motorcycle to regime-held Homs city for safety.

For Farouq, his role in securing his friend’s release, as well as his “anti-IS stance,” meant that he, too, needed to flee. “I received news that I was wanted by IS,” he says.

Soon, Farouq and his family paid smugglers to take them north through opposition territory and into Turkey, then across the Aegean Sea to to Greece via a makeshift raft. Finally, they reached Germany, where the family split up. Farouq’s wife, children and grandchildren reached Germany first and registered their refugee status separately from him. As a result, the family members were resettled in different cities.

While Farouq and his family traveled to Europe, thousands of Qaryatayn’s other Muslim residents fled south, crossing more than 100km southeast through open desert toward a remote strip of no man’s land on the Syrian-Jordanian border.

They were among the first residents of the Rukban camp, now home to tens of thousands of people from former IS territory across central and eastern Syria. In Rukban, water and medicine are in short supply. Rule of law is virtually nonexistent and crime is common, as disparate tribes from Syria’s eastern desert cram side-by-side into threadbare tents and makeshift mud homes.

Syrian regime forces would eventually recapture Qaryatayn from IS—for the first time, at least—in 2016. But for the thousands of residents who had already fled, it was too late, as they were already abroad or in camps and felt a return journey was too great a risk.

‘I need to ask you something’

In March, Farouq received a phone call. At the time, the now 50-year-old grandfather was living alone in Germany, his wife, children and grandchildren resettled across the country, in a city one hour away. He didn’t yet have residency, he says, and couldn’t easily travel to visit his family.

The voice on the line was Father Murad, who happened to be in Rome while on a trip through Europe preaching and attending religious conferences.

“He told me he was heading to Sweden, that he wanted to see me along the way,” says Farouq. The priest had just four hours to spare in Germany to see his old friend from Qaryatayn.

Farouq remembered when Murad had sheltered him and other residents in the monastery, and when, in exchange, he and other Qaryatayn Muslims helped secure the priest’s release from imprisonment in Raqqa. Perhaps he recalled a day 17 years ago in Qaryatayn when a stranger came to his shop, asking for a carpenter.

The two old friends reunited in Germany later that month. This time, Farouq was the one asking for help, he recalls. “‘Honestly,’ I said. ‘I need to ask you something.’”

He told Murad of his problem—his separation from children and grandchildren one hour away in a German state he couldn’t easily reach. Farouq had previously gone to Caritas, a Catholic relief organization, to organize a family reunification in one city, but was unsuccessful.

During the four hours that Murad spent with Farouq in Germany, the priest took his friend to the local Caritas office. There, Murad—now a relatively well-known Catholic priest due to his kidnapping by IS—requested aid workers to “reunite [Farouq] with his kids.”

“They agreed to transfer me,” says Farouq. “Now I’m with my children and grandchildren, all in the same region of southwestern Germany.”

Father Murad says he visited and helped a number of old friends from Qaryatayn—both Muslims and Christians—while in Europe.

“These are normal relationships that continued after the catastrophe that happened with IS,” he says. “They will continue even if IS comes again. Because these ties are deep among the people, because they say that human traditions are stronger than religious rulings.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.