Missing priest worked for reconciliation in Syria

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Italian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, was working for reconciliation between Muslims, Christians, Alawites and Kurds when he went missing in northern Syria three weeks ago. His friends believe he has been kidnapped and fear for his life.

By Michel Hoebink

“At the same time we fight for peace in Syria, we need to prepare the ground for reconciliation,”said Paolo Dall’Oglio in a recent interview with Syria Deeply.

No news
Dall’Oglio worked for thirty years to foster harmony between Christians and Muslims from his base in the Syrian monastery of Mar Musa. Last year, he had to leave the country because of his open support for the revolution. Since then, he slipped back into northern Syria several times to talk to the leaders of Kurdish and Sunni Muslim armed groups about reconciliation. In the days before he went missing, he was in the northern Syrian town of Raqqa talking to the Amir of the jihadi group ‘The Islamic state of Iraq and Syria’, probably about the release of hostages and the conflict with the Kurds. Nothing has been heard from him since Monday July 29 and some sources claim he has been executed.

In the late 1970s, Paolo dall’Oglio went to Syria and Lebanon as a young priest to study Arabic. In 1982, he witnessed the Israeli invasion in Lebanon. To come to terms with what he saw there, he went on a retreat in the ruins of an old monastery in the mountains north of Damascus. “I stayed there for ten days in prayer and I fell in love with the place,” he said last year in an interview with Catholic Focus. Paolo rebuilt the monastery and founded a community of men and women ‘committed to the love of Jesus for Muslims and Islam’.

Everybody welcome
The eleventh century Mar Musa monastery became well known in Syria, in large part for the hospitality of Father Paolo and his community. Anyone prepared to pick some olives or do the dishes was welcome to stay. In the old church with its medieval frescoes, Muslims and Christians prayed together. On the terrace, with a wide view on the Syrian desert below, they ate communal vegetarian meals. “Hospitality in the name of Abraham,” Father Paolo called it. The monastery received up to 50.000 visitors a year, the majority of them Muslims. It also became a safe haven for young people – Christians, Alawites and Muslims – who dreamt of a free and democratic future.

Open support for rebels
Then came the spring of 2011. Meetings were held in the monastery with young people of all religions to fast and pray for reconciliation. The more violently the regime reacted to the demonstrations, the more outspoken Paolo became in his support for the revolution. Eventually, in June 2012, he felt forced to leave the country.

Father Paolo was one of the few Christian leaders who openly supported the revolution. Those bishops who kept supporting Assad, he said, were misled by the regime’s propaganda. In exile, Father Paolo toured the world trying to convince the international community to intervene militarily and to help oust Assad.

Common memory
And he kept working for reconciliation within Syria. “Pluralism is the real and deepest identity of Syria,” he told the journalist of Catholic Focus. “The typical Syrian town of the past is an Arab town where Muslims, Christians and Jews live together and where other people such as Kurds and Armenians also live. In this sense we want to go back. We want to discover this again, this common memory.”

On July 26, Paolo left for Raqqa to speak to the Emir of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A YouTube video shows how the inhabitants of Raqqa greet him cheerfully. On his Facebook page he wrote: “I feel happy because I am in a liberated town and because I am welcomed here with enthusiasm. The people walk in the streets freely and peacefully. I hope this will soon be possible everywhere in Syria.”