Christians in Syria have been gravely affected by the country’s ongoing conflict. Most recently, 12 Greek Orthodox nuns from the Mar Takla convent in the Aramaic-speaking Christian village of Maaloula were either evacuated or abducted—it is still unclear which—by a rebel group. Two bishops previously kidnapped by rebels remain missing, and extremists are accused of vandalizing churches in captured areas. Below is one of many stories reminding us to pray for a just, peaceful end to the Syrian civil war.
On July 28, 2013, Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio went missing in the Syrian city of Raqaa. He had returned to Syria from forced exile to negotiate a truce between local Kurds and an Islamic militant group. It is unclear whether or not he is still alive. No one has heard from him since his disappearance.
Father Paolo came to Syria in 1982 as a young Jesuit priest from Italy, and chose to stay and commit his life to interreligious peacebuilding. He renovated the abandoned sixth-century Byzantine monastery of Deir Mar Musa, turning it into a gathering ground, a pilgrimage destination for Christians and Muslims interested in meeting in peace and prayer, in thought and faith. He also established the religious community at Deir Mar Musa called Al Khalil, or “Friend of God,” which is affiliated with the Syrian Catholic Church. (You can see a video about Father Paolo and Deir Mar Musa at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2012/07/20/july-20-2012-syria-monastery/11895)
Despite his long tenure as a leader in interfaith peacebuilding, the Assad regime exiled Father Paolo in June 2012 when he voiced his support for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. He continued to advocate for the rights of the poor in Syria after he was expelled, exposing the human rights abuses and political oppression he saw under the rule of Assad.
In 2006, several years before the uprising, I had the chance to visit Deir Mar Musa while living and studying Arabic in Syria. The monastery was a popular destination for foreign language students. Even my European classmates, routinely skeptical of religion, were intrigued by the story of the monastery’s charismatic modern-day founder.
The 347 steps that led up the mountain to the desert monastery were intimidating to this first-time visitor. I finally reached the top, tired and winded, and was rewarded with a majestic view—the sun setting over the desert plain. I had arrived just in time for the evening service. We were an odd group—backpackers, students, nuns and academics, of every age and nationality—but as we removed our shoes and stooped to enter the monastery’s ancient chapel, we joined in the Mass in a spirit of community. Father Paolo, fluent in Italian, English, French and Arabic, led us in this multilingual service. Candlelight flickered across the cave-like space, illuminating the rich hues of the chapel’s eleventh and twelfth-century frescoes.
After Mass, we sat cross-legged around a long, low table and shared the evening meal. Visitors are expected to contribute food and help with meal preparations and the work of the monastery in return for lodging. I stayed for just one night, but some stay much longer, joining the daily rhythms and work of the monastic life.
In a 2011 video posted on the Deir Mar Musa website, Father Paolo said, “Dialogue begins with the opening of the heart.” As I pray for the safe return of this leader and peacemaker, I also pray I’ll follow his example and open my heart to love and learn from those whose commitments and experiences are very different from my own.