(CNSNews.com) – 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.”
CNSNews.com reported earlier on claims that Murad had been beheaded by rebels. A graphic online video showed the decapitation of three men, and Catholic Online reported at the weekend that Murad had been identified as one of the three victims.
The Franciscan representative said the Custody did not know the identities of the three men who were beheaded, or whether any of them were Christians or clergy.
Based in Jerusalem, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, headed by Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, has jurisdiction stretching from Egypt to Syria.
Murad, 49, 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.
“Islamists attacked the monastery, ransacking it and destroying everything,” Pizzaballa said in an earlier statement. “When Father Francois tried to resist, defending the nuns, rebels shot him.”
The Vatican cited local sources as saying the attackers were believed to be members of the al-Nusra Front, a group linked to al-Qaeda.
Murad’s murder comes amid growing concern about the safety of Syrian Christians as the civil war drags on.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told a congressional hearing last week that the Christians were trapped between the two sides in the conflict, and also being “specifically targeted in an ethno-religious cleansing campaign.”
Shea cited accounts of Christians and others being “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.”
“Christian leaders are particularly vulnerable in Syria, as the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad is targeting them to send a message to the entire community that Christians are no longer welcome in the country,” says Barnabas Fund, an international charity working to help Syrian Christians.
Two Syrian church leaders, a Greek Orthodox bishop and Syriac Orthodox archbishop, were kidnapped by rebel gunmen near Aleppo last April and remain unaccounted for.
In a decision that has drawn mixed reactions, the Obama administration announced recently it will broaden its assistance to the Syrian opposition to include military aid.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked Tuesday about the beheading video and how the administration could be certain U.S. assistance to the opposition does not go to jihadist groups like the one responsible.
“One of the reasons why the Secretary [John Kerry] felt it was so important for military aid to go through the SMC [the Free Syrian Army’s supreme military council] is to make sure that it’s going to moderate members of the coalition,” she replied.
“That’s been a priority. That’s been something that’s he’s been working with Congress on and has been encouraging our other partners around the world to do the same.”
A U.N.-commissioned report released last February by an expert panel investigating rights abuses in the conflict said outside support to rebels has benefited extremists and pushed the rebellion in a more radical direction.
“The intervention of external sponsors has contributed to the radicalization of the insurgency as it has favored Salafi armed groups such as the al-Nusra Front, and even encouraged mainstream insurgents to join them owing to their superior logistical and operational capabilities,” it said.
The panel’s subsequent and latest report, released in June, recorded the growing power and influence of al-Nusra.
“This group has been part of, and occasionally co-leading, most of the major operations conducted by other anti-government armed groups given its better organization and discipline, greater operational efficiency and access to external support,” it said.
“Foreign fighters with jihadist inclinations, often arriving from neighboring countries, continued to reinforce its ranks.”
A Pew poll last month found that opposition to U.S. and other countries arming Syrian rebels has risen to 70 percent, up from 65 percent last December, while support for such action has dropped to 20 percent, down from 24 percent six months ago.