Almost ten years ago, and during one of my few trips to Syria, I came across one of the most beautiful sites in the region: the secluded Deir Mar Musa, a monastery located some 50 miles from Damascus. It was founded in 1982 by Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian priest who has lived in Syria for almost 30 years, devoting his time to Christian-Muslim dialogue.
A certain magic surrounds the place and the man behind it. Father Paolo, with his kind smile and lovely demeanor, captures the heart (and mind) of every visitor who comes to pray, talk or take in the magnificent scenery.
At the time, I thought that if Father Paolo was left to live in peace and create this wonderful place, Syria couldn’t be all that bad. But I was wrong.
Last week, Father Paolo was asked by Syrian authorities to leave the country. It appears the regime could not tolerate his work during this critical time. It appears that a Christian who preaches dialogue between all communities, has no place in Syria today. His genuine attempt to bridge gaps between people frightens the regime simply because the regime wants these gaps to remain. It wants sectarian strife to grow, to intensify and to translate into sectarian violence in the streets of Syria because it believes this is the only way left to discredit the revolution. If it stops being peaceful and united, the revolution will lose its support.
Father Paolo told The New York Times last year that he struggles “to build harmony around a religious fault line that has only grown more volatile since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”
When he first arrived in Syria in 1982, he found an abandoned Byzantine ruin which, after hard manual labor and community spirit, became a house of worship, with a guest house, that would help to address the region’s religious conflicts. The monastery draws thousands of visitors each year, including many Muslims.
Father Paolo considers himself a member of the many communities that visit his monastery, so he could not stay silent when he saw his people being tortured and killed by the brutal regime.
Although he did not say much, one statement was enough to get him expelled. In an interview with the Catholic newspaper La Croix in early October, he said that a large part of the Syrian population could no longer tolerate living under a totalitarian dictatorship.
Then, in his annual Christmas message, he stressed his role to engage in dialogue, mediate, and build bridges. “Fear has oppressed us too long,” he said, “but reconciliation requires several fundamental conditions. In their absence, it would be tantamount to submission and surrender. The most important of those conditions are to accept pluralism, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, and respect of citizens’ dignity and basic rights.”
That was it. Fighting fear and dictatorship with dialogue and reconciliation is the absolute worst nightmare for Assad’s regime. Father Paolo was asked to leave, but he refused. He loves Syria and has made it his home. He cannot just go because a dying regime asked him to. He is in hiding, like many other Syrians who have also refused to leave.
Father Paolo’s story highlights the regime’s bogus approach towards the region’s minorities, mainly Christians in Syria and Lebanon, whose survival is predicated on the perpetuity of the Assad regime. Without its protection, the argument goes, the region’s minorities will dwindle into nothingness.
But Father Paolo’s expulsion unveils the truth: if these minorities stay silent and submissive, they will be left in peace; but any inconvenience caused by any of them to the regime, will be treated with ruthless suppression. Their protection comes at a price and that price is silence.
Father Paolo was expelled because he refused to remain silent, or as the authorities maintain, because he interfered in Syria’s politics instead of sticking to matters of religion - as if religion in this context should turn a blind eye to human suffering and calls for dignity and basic rights.
Would this story be a good lesson to the Christians in Syria? Would it teach Patriarch Rai of Lebanon a lesson in humility and dignity? That is unlikely. Rai seems to care for his rank and position more than the lives of Syrians dying daily for freedom and dignity. Between safety and self-respect, our Patriarch has chosen disgrace.
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW Lebanon