Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who spent decades restoring the ancient Mar Musa monastery in Syria, has taken the unusual step of touring Canada to call for action that would prevent the Assad regime from killing even more of its own people. While in Ottawa recently, he was quoted as saying, “The international community cannot turn its back on the Syrian people, who are being tortured, jailed and killed for the simple act of demanding freedom of expression.” His tour also takes him to Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York. While in Ottawa, he met with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
Restoring Mar Musa
Dall’Oglio has spent most of the past 30 years at the Christian monastery of Mar Musa, which is perched high up on a cliff in the sun-baked desert hills about 80 kilometres north of Damascus. Mar Musa was built in the 6th century when Syria was at the centre of Byzantine Christianity and when monasticism was flourishing. Mar Musa gradually fell into decline and was abandoned in the 1830s.
Dall’Oglio visited in the 1980s and has since devoted himself to Mar Musa’s restoration. With the help of the local community and foreign money, the monastery and its small 11th century church were refurbished. Mar Musa has become a centre of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims and a destination for others who arrive and stay awhile, provided they are prepared to help with cooking and cleaning.
Visiting Mar Musa
We visited Mar Musa in 2010, travelling in a small van from Damascus. Our young driver had been recommended by a friend who knew and trusted him. He pulled into a parking lot from where we would ascend hundreds of stone steps along the side of a gorge to get to the monastery. He told us that the secret police regularly wait in the same parking lot and question drivers about what their passengers had talked about on the trip out from Damascus.
After a steep climb we arrived at the high stone bench on which the monastery is built. There we ducked through a low doorway into the small, dimly-lit church with its priceless restored frescoes depicting the Last Supper and other Christian events. A priest was saying mass for a small group of French tourists so we sat quietly on the mats, participating in the ritual and looking at the frescoes.
We did not see Dall’Oglio that day but his name has become synonymous with Mar Musa over the past 30 years. He is in anguish over the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on what began as peaceful dissent and calls for reform in Syria. The situation has now escalated into a civil war that is drawing in outside players, including the Iranians and Russians on the side of the regime, and the Americans, Saudis and Qataris on the side of the opposition. Each passing day also provides more evidence that al-Qaeda fighters have been arriving in the country to carry out jihad against a regime that they despise.
The Toronto Star reports that the Assad regime has killed at least 17,000 Syrians in 17 months, with twice that many missing — either in jails or dead. At least 125,000 refugees have escaped into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Between 2 million and 4 million Syrians are internally displaced.
President Bashar al-Hassad is an Alawite, a Muslim minority group in Syria that comprises about 12% of the population and is considered heretical by the majority Sunni population. Bashar’s late father, Hafez al-Hassad, ruled with the country with ruthless determination, creating an informal coalition of religious minority groups including Christians, who comprise another 10%. More than 70% of the Syrian population is Sunni, but they are largely excluded from regime’s ranks and its patronage.
Christians in Syria
There are Christians on both sides of the current struggle. Some are represented among the opposition to the Assad regime while others support it. The New York Times has reported that their support “is often driven more by fear than fervor.” The newspaper continues: “For many Syrian Christians, Mr. Assad remains predictable in a region where unpredictability has driven their brethren from war-racked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where others have felt threatened in post-revolutionary Egypt.”
Dall’Oglio is in anguish. In May 2012, he sent a letter to special UN envoy Kofi Annan calling for the deployment of 30,000 UN troops to protect Syrian civilians from harm. That got him kicked out of the country and he now lives in Beirut. His call sounds much like the “responsibility to protect” doctrine promoted by former Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and others.
Dall’Oglio is critical of the Maronite Catholic church establishment in Syria, backed by the Russian Orthodox Church and some in the West. They believe that the Christian minority in Syria is better off under Assad than it is likely to be under any replacement.
That is a lie, says Dall’Oglio. He is quoted in the Toronto Star as saying, “Canada is full of Syrian Christians who escaped from there. Christians in Syria have faced one crisis after another, yet the church establishment thought Assad was protecting them.” He adds that many rank-and-file Christians have joined the struggle against the regime.
Selfish and self-serving
In any event, he says, it is selfish and self-serving for Christians to think only of themselves. “Are we only taking care of ourselves as a tribe? If we are Christians, we should be for the dignity and human rights of all the people of Syria.”
The irony, he says, is that the longer the Assad regime lasts, the greater the prospects of hard-line Islamists playing a bigger role, in the struggle, increasing the very danger that Christians are worrying about. “The things that happened in Iraq against Christians may happen in Syria as well,” he adds.
Pressure and aid
Dall’Oglio called in his meeting with John Baird for Canada to put diplomatic pressure on China and Russia, countries that continue to use their veto to block any action by the UN. He is also calling for more humanitarian aid for displaced people within Syria and for those who have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries.
Photos of Mar Musa
To see more photos of Mar Musa, please click here.