Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio SJ has been a leader among Christians in Syria. In 1992 he re-founded an abandoned ancient monastery in the desert North of Damascus as a place for reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue. It is becoming more and more famous as a pilgrimage site, attracting over 50,000 pilgrims last year, the majority being Muslims. At the bottom of the post is a short documentary about the monastery ‘Deir Mar Musa made by an Italian NGO’. Fr Dall’Oglio has received a prize from the President of Lombardy for his work for peace. Since then – controversially – he has decided that non-violence is no longer an option in the face of what he has described as Assads ‘ethnic cleansing’ policy of Sunni’s. In the face of this people have a right to defend themselves he claims.
As his stance hardened he was told to leave the country by the Assad regime. After he published an open letter to the UN and special envoy Kofi Annan, his local bishop insisted he heeded the threats and he went into exile. As things deteriorated in Syria and Christian groups were targeted more and more – he gave this interview from Paris just before a Catholic priest was shot dead inside his church in June. The interview was given to a group called Syria Deeply. Since the interview Fr Dall’Oglio has returned to Syria – and was kidnapped in the rebel held town of Raqqa on 29 July by the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, There are claims that he has been executed by the extremist group. The claims are not yet confirmed.
SD (Syria Deeply): Is that kind of reconciliation possible in Syria today, a country whose diverse ethnic and religious groups are being torn apart by the conflict?
PD: My position is we need to bring back all the sectors, all the facets of the Syrian population, in order to bring back this harmony that was the pride of the whole country. That so many communities were able to live together in the same society… it’s certainly one of the reasons why I fell in love with the country. And also because it was still outside the Western way of life, there was less consumerism, and traditions were so alive, such great hospitality, such an understanding of how to live together. Everything is lost now, and we need to rebuild on a solid foundation.
SD: Is this why you’ve chosen to risk sneaking back into Syria on two occasions now to meet with opposition activist groups?
PD: And I will go again. I hope to work with television to show and to help the civil society take root and grow.
SD: You’ve met with everyone from Kurds to Jihadists…
PD: I don’t like the word Jihadist. Jihad simply means ‘holy effort or struggle.’ There are Christians whose first name is Jihad, bishops with the first name of Jihad. I prefer to say ‘militarized extremists’.
SD: You met with militarized extremists who oppose the Assad regime.
PD: Yes, [the Syrian state news agency] then accused me of being imbedded with Islamist extremists and paid by Al-Qaeda.
SD: And for you, such meetings are all essential steps in a roadmap to peace?
PD: Absolutely, because at the same time we fight our fight for peace in Syria, we need to prepare the ground for reconciliation. Take the Alawite clan [Bashar al-Assad’s clan], they are not all criminals, there are very good people among them, but they are kidnapped by the logic of community solidarity to serve the regime. They too are victims of the regime.
SD: Your mission has clearly expanded far beyond furthering Islamic-Christian understanding.
PD: I am fully engaged in Islamic-Christian harmony building, but today I’m also in the service of Islamic-Islamic harmony building. We want next Ramadan to be a time for prayer and action for the reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.
SD: Are the types of causes you’ve taken up typical of a Jesuit?
PD: The Jesuits are an order of priests committed to the service of the gospel and souls, but not in an artificial way—we are very much for engaging and compromising in the society, by fighting for justice, for [community] development and human development, and for inter-religious dialogue and harmony building. Such has been my commitment… and in this I’m certainly very Jesuit.
SD: I’d like to understand what moved you to settle in Syria 30 years ago. What did you discover in the ruins of Mar Musa monastery in 1982, and what did you later try to build there?
PD: Simply, it’s a place of hospitality in the name of Abraham… In fact, traditionally, the Christian monastery in the desert is an organic part of the Islamic symbolic system, in literature, in relations between spiritual leaders, and in the massive flow of visitors—especially pious visitors. This began immediately after we opened our doors—up to 50,000 visitors in the year, the vast majority of them Muslims. Even now, in this difficult moment, this site is protected by the Muslim population.
SD: Were you able to function more or less freely for a time under al-Assad?
PD: The Syrian State is made up of people, yes it was kidnapped by the regime, but it still was a state with its ministries. So I worked with the ministries of agriculture on the environment, with culture on historic monuments and restorations, with tourism on development. The regime was always there watching, but I was in a sincere relationship with the state… But when we started to oppose corruption, then I was recognized as an enemy of the regime, and all my activities were shut down, game over. That was 2010.
SD: People had initially been hopeful about al-Assad as President.
PD: We had hoped that Mr. Bashar Assad would change his country, and free his people… The Syrian people who remembered the Hama uprising in 1982 knew this regime was capable of massacres, yet they hoped slowly there could be a shift to a new era of real democracy, even in small steps. They said, ok you stole all the money, fine enjoy it, but change the system. You have half the country for yourselves, fine, keep it, but let the people breathe. You have an enormous amount of power, fine, but start to share it. This was the hope. And it didn’t work. When our youth started the Arab Spring, they said enough is enough, obliging all of us to stand for freedom, and to stop this game.
SD: How has your perspective on Syria changed since you’ve been in exile?
PD: I’m really outside today, and being outside I find myself in the company of an entire people in exile. I meet with Syrians who have been in exile for 20 or 40 years, second generation expelled people. When you meet with a group of 15 Syrians outside the country, you have stories of years spent in prison and an incredible amount of suffering, violence and torture that has been witnessed—it is unbelievable. I want to raise up the voices of these people asking for freedom, democracy and justice.
SD: What do you believe those supporting the regime are fighting to preserve—the status quo?
PD: Today the regime is using actors in different sectors, Muslim leaders, Christian leaders, journalists, and working to convince them that the regime, although not the best in town, is better than anything that could come after them. They don’t pretend to be good, but the theory is the alternative could be worse. They say, look at Afghanistan, at Iraq, it didn’t work. Somalia was a disaster. Look what’s happening in Libya. In Tunisia and Egypt the Muslim radicals are taking power. So why do we want change in Syria if it’s to be the same story?
It’s to the point that today, you have Marxist anti-imperialists on the extreme left who are for Bashar [al-Assad], and who go march for him in the street alongside the right wing Christian traditionalists… both out of Islamophobia.
I see these [Syrian] Christians as victims too of what’s happening, they’re trapped in the middle, unable to believe in the revolution, in democracy, having been educated from their early days to believe that democracy is part of a big conspiracy, a big lie of [Western] imperialism. So they go under the protection of the regime thinking without it they will be forced into exile.
SD: You were exiled soon after the massacre of Houla, was that a turning point in the conflict for you?
PD: Yes, in the sense that it was the moment when my calls to the international community to act in a nonviolent way to protect the freedom of the Syrian people in their pacifist protest ended in a failure, where the international community was unable to act. The regime chose to use more and more violent repression, until it reached the point of massacre.
SD: At that point you decided a violent response to this repression was justified?
PD: The moment came when I said people have the right to defend themselves. The soldiers that have left the army so that they won’t be forced to shoot their own people, they have the right and the duty to protect the people. And when a democratic civil society is pleading not to be destroyed by violent repression and torture, the international community should help