The Uncertain Future of Father Paolo’s Interfaith Legacy in Syria

At around the same time last week that news broke of a high-ranking Syrian colonel’s defection to Jordan, it was reported that Syria had expelled an activist Jesuit priest. While the defecting pilot had his mind set on the freedom he would regain outside Syria, the thoughts of the priest Paolo Dall’Oglio were with the people he left behind.

Alarmed by the killings of thousands of Muslim and Christian civilians by the regime, Father Paolo, a champion of interfaith dialogue, told the New York Times he would rather have died among the protesters than leave them to an uncertain fate.

Father Paolo’s sympathy with the opposition and his open support for democratic change didn’t sit well with a regime that has used fear of an Islamist takeover of Syria to garner the support of the country’s minority Christians who account for about 8 percent of Syria’s population.

The Jesuit priest was ultimately given a one-way ticket out of Syria after inviting friends of opposition filmmaker Bassel Shahade (killed in Homs in May) to the ancient Mar Musa Monastery he had rebuilt himself — where they could freely pray and mourn Shahade’s death after being barred from worship at a Catholic Melkite church in Damascus.

Father Paolo is generally well regarded by Christians and by many Muslims in Syria. His reputation is based as much on his practical work skills as on his charisma and vision. When he first came to Syria 30 years ago, he fell in love with the dilapidated remains of a once famous Syriac-Orthodox monastery, hidden deep in the Qalamun mountains halfway between Damascus and Homs. First mentioned in a sixth century Syriac manuscript, the Mar Musa Monastery was eventually abandoned in the 19th century. Father Paolo decided to rebuild it and to make it famous again. Today the monastery attracts visitors from all over the country and beyond and stands as a physical and spiritual meeting-point between Christianity and Islam.

The restoration team of Syrian and Italian experts, set up by Father Paolo in the 1980s, was able to recreate and conserve the impressive monastic complex that includes in its main church 11th-13th century wall paintings — the most extensive and best preserved Christian wall paintings in the country. In the Middle East they are rivaled only by paintings in some Coptic monasteries in Egypt. Following its restoration, the Mar Musa Monastery received much international scholarly attention from historians, art historians and Syriac scholars. Nothing of this would have been possible without Father Paolo’s effort and enthusiasm.

The physical rebuilding and conservation of the Mar Musa Monastery was only one part of Father Paolo’s plan. Inspired by the monastery’s multilayered and multicultural history as well as by Syria’s century-old experience of Muslim-Christian coexistence, he established the Mar Musa community, which includes Christian and Muslim men and women. Devoted to prayer, manual labor, dialogue and respect across cultural and religious boundaries, the community in recent years has been exploring some of the spiritual depths shared by Islam and Christianity.

In his positive view of Islam Father Paolo joins a venerable group of Catholic intellectuals (including such luminaries as Louis Massignon, Louis Gardet, Georges Anawati and others) who, particularly in the 20th century, developed a genuine interest in the message and in the spiritual world of Islam. Father Paolo’s openness to Islam is most eloquently expressed in his 2009 publication “Amoureux de l’Islam, croyant en Jésus” (“Lover of Islam, Believer in Jesus”) and earned him in the same year an honorary doctorate jointly conferred by the two Catholic universities of Louvain, in Belgium.

That Father Paolo’s monastery was able to be built in Assad’s Syria, and that his ideas were able to flourish and to bear fruit among Christians and Muslims should be seen as proof of what was possible in that country — even under the limitations that were imposed by the regime.

It also helps us understand the measure of fear and uncertainty that moderate Christians and Muslims presently feel about their country’s future.

Will the climate of acceptance that allowed Christians to freely practice their religion and to treasure their sacred places prevail in post-Assad Syria? Father Paolo had committed himself to the cause of reform in Syria, with the hope of seeing the ideals of tolerance and harmony strengthened. But will they survive the present turmoil? What will happen to Father Paolo’s legacy now that he is gone? The Syrian authorities’ decision to expel Father Paolo and to excise from the Syrian society the thoughts and dreams that he represents is indeed deeply tragic and troubling.

It is very much to be hoped that one day — in the not too distant future — Father Paolo will be allowed to return to Syria, with all those who in the past year have been forced out of their homeland. Let us hope that they will be able to rebuild their country along the lines of openness, inclusivism and respect — values he so powerfully advocated.


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