On 21st August 2015 the Catholic Herald reported: ISIS bulldozes ancient Syrian monastery
Today, 27th August, Emma Loosley in the Catholic Heral reports: ISIS has just ripped a community’s heart out
The monastery of Mar Elian, destroyed by ISIS, was a beacon of inter-faith co-operation
When I first moved to Dayr Mar Elian in the summer of 2001 I was slightly disconcerted when the Qurwani, as the people of Qaryatayn are known, kept asking me if I had met Mar Elian yet. Since he is believed to have died more than 1,500 years ago, I thought that they meant had I seen the sarcophagus, which of course I had. When I said this I was somewhat perplexed to realise that I had misunderstood the question (complicated, of course, by my faltering Arabic and their thick regional dialect).
What the Qurwani meant was: had I spoken to the saint personally? One man told me of walking in the vicinity when a stranger accompanied and blessed him, and he later realised that the man had been Mar Elian (St Julian). The site guardian told me that late at night in the chapel a voice had repeated “God give you health” three times – which he took to be Mar Elian praying for him as he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
I recount this story to try to impress on the reader how central the Monastery of Mar Elian was to the local populace. The saint was a much-loved figure in the town and treated more as a venerable uncle in most homes than a distant exemplar of the faith.
What is more, in the case of that first man who had seen Mar Elian, I don’t know whether he was Christian or Muslim. The Sunni townspeople named the saint Sheikh Ahmed Khoury (Sheikh Ahmed the Priest) and the Christians of the town allowed their Muslim neighbours to place the green satin shroud of a Muslim holy man over the Byzantine sarcophagus in the monastery church. There, on a Muslim satin shroud, rosaries and saints’ cards lay with votive candles lit by those of both faiths.
Much has been written in the last few days about the physical impact of the loss of the monastery. But little consideration has been given to the psychological trauma that currently affects those of us who knew and loved the shrine. Mar Elian, or Sheikh Ahmed, was a very tangible presence in the lives of all who knew the monastery.