Hanin Ghaddar

Between Father Paolo and Patriarch Rai, a mountain of disgrace

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

  • Maher Bouthaina Ghazali

    Ha Ha there it is I was waiting for it, the personal attacks and defamation of character typical of the bully Syrian regime, thank you Denny your box of fresh Baraze2 is in the mail along with a coupon of one year free subscription to Al-Watan (although the regime could expire before your subscription does).

    December 15, 2011

  • Denny

    I met Fr. Paolo twice last year and despite being really funny, on both occassions, he came across as the most puffed up, arrogant ass I've met in years. The fact that the vast majority of the visitors are foreigners (primarily backpackers) and only two of the six or so monastics are Syrians (one is Lebanese-German and the others are Swiss, German, Italian, etc) shows that his message has fallen largely on deaf ears. Syrians think it's interesting what he's doing, but when it comes down to it, Saydnayya and Ma'loula - where Arabs run things and dialogue is never mentioned - hit the notes they want. Peace "out."

    December 15, 2011

  • Ghawar

    Majd what terrorists? The ones Walid Mou3alem showed us video clips of? The Syria regime controls the only medias allowed to operate inside the Syria territory yet the only footage Walid was able to muster are from three years ago in Lebanon with not even one Syria on camera. Even the guy he claimed was a Syrian security forces member being lynched by the terrorists in Syria was an Egyptian in Katramaya Lebanon. Now Lebanon is doing a fine job covering the Syrian troubles, in fairness you need to start asking Al Manar, NBN and the Syria regime for actual proof of what their claim not fake, forged or doctored evidence. Even long time Syrian supporters NewTV and al-Akhbar are starting to have doubters of the official line. Finaly as long as the Majds of the world keep believing Mou3alem's lie he will keep telling them, next he'll tell us Father Paolo was an Israeli agent and Majd'll repeat it as gospel.

    December 14, 2011

  • `saadeldine almekari

    TO MAJED even tough the fact are visible to everybody if you care to see for your self you would be ashamed of whats been happening in the country so please make sure you go to UTUBE and you would change your mind. regarding what you said about the massacre's from the opposition its your false allegation those opposition's are to protect the public not to harm them no matter what their believe are.finally all of the Syrian people have been living together long before history began and its fact.

    December 14, 2011

  • shirin

    majd, why don't you write soemthing instead of critizing such a beautiful well written article???

    December 14, 2011

  • ali daoud

    Hanin Ghaddar, all you care about is alienating the Syrian Christians from supporting Bashar el Assad, don`t you think they know their best interest much more than many Lebanese?!!!!! would you care to write one article about the masacres being committed against the syrian Christians by the opposition amred groups?!!!!!!!!!!! just for little fariness and objectivity, is Now Lebanon the Lebanon of one sided stories?!!!!!!!!!! please publish.

    December 13, 2011

  • Howaida Zaidan

    I've been very lucky to visit farher Paolo's haven Last year and it was an amazing experience that I will never forget, he is a peace loving person With a shunning personality that makes u feel so Humble and that captures the granduity of this Magical place. It hurts me to see we live in a worl That humiliates such enfuluential people that live Only to serve the people, I can't write enough about This subject I can only say it's a shame .

    December 13, 2011