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08/07/2012 Share/Save/Bookmark
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Father Paolo Dall’Oglio in Mar Musa (LA Times)
Father Paolo Dall’Oglio in Mar Musa (LA Times)

Italian priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio created an Interfaith refuge in Syria

(DP-News – LA Times)

SYRIA- Several of us traveled the 50 miles from Damascus to Mar Musa, then they joined backpackers, pilgrims and tourists from many lands in making the long climb up a series of stone steps to the cliff top monastery high above the Syrian desert.

At the top, along with a splendid view, they found a very special place.

Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit who was recently expelled from Syria for criticizing the government’s crackdown on the uprising there had spent three decades in the country, creating a small oasis of peace and interfaith dialogue.

Father Paolo and his small community of a few monks, nuns and lay volunteers welcomed visitors to stay for as long as they wished, at no charge. All were invited to hang out on Mar Musa’s broad porch overlooking the hills and the vast desert below, to sleep on bedrolls in shared sleeping quarters, and to take part in simple communal meals of soup, olives, bread, yogurt, eggs and preserves from the monastery’s apricot crop.

In exchange, visitors were asked to help cook, wash dishes, hang laundry or pick up litter from the slopes nearby.

The Dall'Oglio imbroglio provides a window onto the parlous position of Syria's Christians, who trace their origins in Syria to pre-Islamic times but now represent perhaps 10% of the nation's 23 million people.

The priest is plainly infuriated by the perception among many Christians that Assad's ouster would lead to an Islamist takeover that could trigger a backlash against minorities.

"How can we as Christians go with the lies of the regime and stick with the confessional complicity in renouncing the specificity of the Gospel, renouncing the fight for human dignity and freedom?" he asks.

In an "open letter" to United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan, Dall'Oglio lays out, in rambling, ornate prose, his case for massive, nonviolent intervention: 3,000 unarmed observers and 30,000 civilian peacekeepers deployed in Syria to help "initiate a widespread start of grass-roots level democratic life."

The now-exiled priest, speaking from a Jesuit residence in Beirut after his expulsion from Syria, sounds a stern plea for peaceful foreign intervention in the nation to avert what he calls a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

"The question is: Is the international community matures enough to show and affirm full responsibility toward a situation like Syria?" asks the 57-year-old cleric, who argues that Syria is sliding into an abyss of communal slaughter and even partition.

Assad, he says, must go.

"They can receive him and his family in Russia," Dall'Oglio says. "People are the issue, not dictators.

"What is pitiful is that there are conditions for massive killings, and 'ethnic cleansing,' and all of the awful things that we have seen in Bosnia, for instance."

A native of Rome, Dall'Oglio says he developed an interest in Islam as a young man, specialized in Oriental studies and arrived as a priest in Syria 30 years ago. He founded a center for interreligious dialogue in a restored Byzantine monastery, Deir Mar Musa al Habashi (St. Moses the Abyssinian), situated in a breathtaking cliff-side desert site and featuring restored 11th and 12th century frescoes.

The Deir Mar Musa monastery became a kind of fixture on the offbeat, spiritual-tourism circuit, though the conflict has cut off the once-steady flow of foreign visitors whose contributions helped sustain the place.

In February, Dall'Oglio says, 30 masked gunmen stormed the monastery, demanding, "Where are the weapons!" They left after trashing some equipment, but no one was injured, Dall'Oglio says.

The ethnic cleansing of Syria has already begun, warns Dall'Oglio. But he insists that it is a project of the Assad government, not an objective of the Sunni-led guerrilla forces that have inspired such misgivings among Christians and other Syrian minorities, including Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"The regime is already acting in the logic of division of the country," says Dall'Oglio, citing rumors of contingency plans for an Alawite-run rump state carved from the Mediterranean shore to the Orontes River. "What do you do with most of the Sunni population? They have started to kill them, massively."

Father Paolo was the warm, gregarious soul of Mar Musa. He told us that he had been studying Arabic himself in Damascus years earlier when he heard about the abandoned monastery. He made his way there for the first time in 1982, climbing the hill to find the building in ruins, its small chapel without a roof, its Byzantine-era frescoes fading and peeling in the sun.

He led the monastery’s restoration and then reopened it as a place of refuge, peace and dialogue for visitors of all faiths, or no faith at all.

Father Paolo used to speak of his deep love for Syria and its people, Christians and Muslims. One could not help but be moved by this good man and his long history of building bridges between diverse people and communities.

After he was expelled from his adopted country, Father Paolo told reporters that he hoped to return to Syria, and to Mar Musa.

Visitors Comments          Number of Comments (1)
This European priest is dissembling
Alan            7/12/2012 2:48:29 AM
This European priest is dissembling he was put out of Syria by the local Bishop and recalled by his own Bishop, he knows a lot about the sectarianisation of the conflict and the fact that the so called “free” Syrian Army were involved in attacks against Christians. Ask him what happened in the town of Qusayr and the activity of local FSA leader Abdel Salem Harba who expelled all the Christians! And before you print an article like this perhaps you should pick up the phone and ask an Indigenous Syrian Christian what they think. If you even care to cross reference the reports over the last six months from the Vatican's Fides News Agency ( http://www.fides.org/index.php) with what he is saying you will see anomalies.
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