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July 2nd, 2013
11:58 AM ET

CNN exclusive: Catholic monk not beheaded by Syrian rebels, friar says

By Mohammed Jamjoom and Daniel Burke, CNN

Jerusalem (CNN) – A Catholic monk was not among the men beheaded in a gruesome video circulating online, a friar who oversees Franciscans in the Middle East told CNN in an exclusive interview.

Father Franҫois Mourad, a Syrian, was shot eight times and killed June 23 at a Catholic monastery in Gassanieh, said Friar Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

Mourad was buried the same day in a nearby village, the friar said.

A nine-minute video, which appears to have been shot with a handheld device, shows three men being beheaded on a grassy hill while a crowd shouts, “Allahu Akbar!” Arabic for God is great. It is not clear where or when the video was shot.

A number of Catholic websites in the United States have posted the video online, saying that Mourad was among the three beheaded men.

“I deny this vigorously," Pizzaballa said. "He has nothing to do with this video and with (these) three poor persons."

Pizzaballa said he had seen the video, which he called “shameful.”

In a statement Friday, the Custody of the Holy Land also denied media reports that three friars had been killed in Syria recently.

Headquartered in Jerusalem, the Custody includes about 285 Franciscan friars and covers Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Pizzaballa said that Mourad sought refuge at Gassanieh because it was considered to be safe from Syria’s bloody civil war, which has claimed more than 93,000 lives, according to the United Nations.

The Vatican has not commented on the video and referred questions to Pizzaballa.

A June 25 report from Vatican Radio the church’s official broadcast said that Mourad was killed during a raid on the Franciscan monastery of St. Anthony of Padua in Gassanieh, a predominantly Christian village near the Turkish border.

Mourad was well-known in the region, according to the Franciscans. He completed his novitiate in Rome as a Franciscan of the Custody and moved to Syria, where he was a citizen, to live a contemplative life as a hermit. As the war wore on, Mourad sought refuge at the monastery.

Several Franciscans, four nuns and 10 Christians also lived at the monastery, which was considered safe until the raid, according to Pizzaballa.

“When (Father) Franҫois tried to oppose resistance to defend the nuns and other people, the guerrillas shot him, killing him,” according the Vatican Radio report.

Most of the Gassanieh's Christian population has fled, Pizzaballa told Vatican Radio, after weeks of assaults by Syrian rebels.

“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," Vatican Radio said.

"They stay because they want to be a sign of hope, light and comfort to people in the midst of destruction."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Foreign policy • Jerusalem • Middle East • Religious violence • Syria • Vatican

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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.