Over the weekend, TheBlaze reported on a story in Catholic Online which said that the Vatican had confirmed Franciscan priest Father Francois Murad was beheaded by Syrian rebels. The Catholic news site also linked to a video from Live Leak purporting to show Murad and two others being beheaded as gleeful onlookers stood by, snapped photographs and yelled Allahu Akbar (“Allah is the greatest.”)
On Wednesday, CNS News reported that the Catholic priest was not one of the three men seen in the video, because, according to Catholic Church sources it quoted, Murad was shot eight times by his attackers and not beheaded.
CNS reports that Father Murad was killed on Sunday June 23rd as he tried to defend the nuns at the monastery in which he’d taken refuge, but that detail, too, seems to be shrouded by the fog of war since an earlier statement by Catholic Church officials said that Murad was alone in the monastery. CNS reports:
A Catholic priest slain in Syria last month was not one of the three men seen being beheaded in a video clip posted online – but he was killed by anti-Assad rebels, who gunned him down as he tried to defend nuns at a monastery.
A representative of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land told CNSNews.com that Francois Murad had been “killed by eight bullets.”
She said a Franciscan from the Custody had gone to the site – St. Anthony’s Monastery in Ghassanieh – on the day Murad was killed, June 23, and had taken his body for burial later the same day in Knayeh, a village nearby.
“He also took the Catholic religious women of the village who were still in Ghassanieh, in order to find them a place more secured.”
The Custody of the Holy Land which oversees Franciscan institutions in the Middle East from its Jerusalem headquarters will not comment publicly on how Murad was killed, but in a statement last week it said, “the conditions of his death are not clear.”
A Franciscan representative told CNS that the Custody does not know the identities of those in the video or if any of them were Christians.
CNS reports that 49-year-old Murad “was a former Franciscan friar who was later ordained as a priest. After his own monastery in Ghassanieh was bombed he moved into the Franciscan one in the same village, St. Anthony’s, for safety and to give support to those still there, including nuns – until Sunday, June 23, when rebels attacked.”
According to CNS, the head of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said in an earlier statement: “Islamists attacked the monastery, ransacking it and destroying everything.”
“When Father Francois tried to resist, defending the nuns, rebels shot him,” he was quoted as saying.
But a statement from June 24 on the Custody’s website said, “He was apparently alone in the monastery when it was completely pillaged.”
Due to the volatile conditions in Syria, obtaining accurate and consistent information has proven difficult, for both journalists and religious officials with emissaries on the ground.
According to CNS, the Vatican quoted local sources who said that Murad’s attackers were believed to be members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Al-Nusra Front.
Though reports about how Father Murad was killed appear to be contradictory, Vatican sources are unanimous in describing the man’s character, his devotion to God and to those in desperate need of help.
Vatican Radio wrote last week, “Fr. Mourad was just one of the many men and women religious putting their faith on the front line in Syria, refusing to abandon the communities they serve, Christian and Muslim. They stay because they want to be a sign of hope, light and comfort to people in the midst of destruction.”
In its June 24 statement, the Custody of the Holy Land wrote that after studying in Rome, “he heard a more urgent call from the Lord to lead a contemplative life,” which took him back home to Syria. According to the Custody, from the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Father Murad was devoted to taking care of a friar “in fragile health,” and serving the local community of religious sisters.
The Custody writes about the urgent conditions for Christians in Syria with “extremist groups on the rampage” [emphasis added]:
A few weeks ago the Holy Land magazines of the Custody reported that in the Orontes region, the Custody had received “some one hundred people, Christians and both Sunni and Alawi Muslims. They were able to live together because the priest had categorically forbidden political discussions in the monastery. They were in need of everything: bread, water, electricity. The friars and Franciscan sisters did everything they could to obtain medicines and urgent supplies for them.”
The Custody tries to support its friars in Syria as much as possible by sending them what they need, but the risks of travel are enormous. The friars, emphasizing the religious nature of their activity, have made agreements with the various groups to guarantee their safety as they move about. However, the situation at present is unpredictable and the extremist groups are on the rampage. No movement, even for clergy, can be assumed to be safe, as evidenced by the kidnapping of two bishops of whom there has been no news for two months.
Catholic friars distribute food to those who seek their help, give money to help build homes that have been destroyed, and “sometimes serve as intermediaries when parishioners are kidnapped.”
Even the little help they offer embattled Syrian Christians can elicit reprisals “from one camp or the other.”
As they try to offer assistance, Christian clergy are facing a dangerous campaign by jihadi rebels intent on ridding the Middle East of Christians.
CNS quoted Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, who told a congressional hearing last week that Christians are being “specifically targeted in an ethno-religious cleansing campaign.”
Shea described the rebel groups' use of Sharia law against Christians who are “targeted with summary executions, forcible conversions to Islam and expulsions from their homes as a result of actions taken by the courts of the ‘Caliphate of Iraq and the Levant,’ the name the al-Nusra Brigade and other Islamist rebels use in reference to the Syrian territory under their control.”