Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest beloved by Syrians, disappeared in July 2013 while on a personal mission of mercy in Raqqa, Syria. In late 2011, the Assad regime had ordered Fr. Paolo’s expulsion for participating in demonstrations with the students of Raqqa and being a staunch supporter of their revolution for freedom and dignity that had begun earlier that year. By staying relatively silent he managed to remain in Syria until June 2012 when he once again provoked the ire of the Syrian government by inviting friends of Bassel Shahade, a young opposition filmmaker killed in Homs in late May, to pray at Deir Mar Musa after they were refused entrance to a memorial service being held at St. Cyril’s Church in Damascus.
When a mix of Muslims and Christians accepted Fr. Paolo’s invitation it proved to be the last straw for the Assad regime. They had been warily watching him for years, not pleased that his decades of interfaith dialogue success ran counter to the regime’s narrative of protecting Syria’s Christians from the Islamic extremists they claimed were behind the revolution. In spite of being warned repeatedly not to return by his superiors in Rome, his friends, and family, Father Paolo went back to Syria in 2013 driven by a firm belief that armed only with his vast knowledge of the Quran he would be able to convince militants of the Islamic State to release their hostages. Although many different stories have been told of what happened to him in the days following his disappearance, none have ever been confirmed.
What we do know for sure about Fr. Paolo is that he was not one of the Vatican’s favorite sons for he was not your typical Catholic priest. Many people who knew him described him as stubborn, determined, and loud. As a young monk exploring a remote desert area in Syria in the early 1980s, Father Paolo had chanced upon the ruins of an abandoned Byzantine monastery, replete with 11th century frescoes, and knew immediately that he had discovered a pearl of great price. Deir Mar Musa, or the Monastery of Moses, is located on a mountain precipice in west-central Syria, and reaching it is not easy.
The original chapel had been built by an Abyssinian king in the 6th century AD named Moses who had forsaken worldly pleasures to become a monk. By the late 1980s, young Father Paolo was able to successfully intervene and prevent the crumbling cluster of buildings from being handed to the Assad regime by the Syrian Catholic Church. Inspired by his faith for what it could become, the young visionary began its conversion into a spiritual oasis for the pilgrims he hoped would make the trek up the mountainside in search of a sanctuary from the cares of a far from perfect world.
In the years that followed many people from all over the world and from all walks of life would make the 20-minute climb up the precipitous sandstone stairway that snakes up the mountainside to Deir Mar Musa. Their reasons for doing so were as diverse as they were; some looking for answers to spiritual questions or to feed their thirst for adventure, others came out of curiosity or specifically to meet the eccentric Italian priest who had chosen to make his home in the remote mountains of a not particularly welcoming land. Others, like Stephanie Saldana, a brokenhearted 27 year old American student living in Damascus during the US war on Iraq, came in search of solace for their troubled souls.
Saldana, a writer, teacher, and journalist who now specializes in religious diversity in the Middle East, had moved to the city of Damascus in 2005 on a Fulbright fellowship to study the Islamic version of prophet Issa who is known to Christians as Jesus. Her spiritual quest eventually took her to Deir Mar Musa where Father Paolo had successfully created a gathering place where Christians and Muslims were free to engage in interfaith dialogue. Saldana paints a compelling picture of what she experienced there in her book “The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith” published in 2011.
Another more recent visitor was London-based travel writer Sally Howard who made the trek up the mountainside a mere six weeks before the revolution began in the Spring of 2011. By the time her article “A Victim Of Troubled Syria: Ancient Monastery That Welcomed All Comers” was published in Forbes in January 2012, Father Paolo had already been ordered to leave Syria by the Assad regime. Along with evocative descriptions of the monastery itself, Howard was able to convey the essence of the man who had successfully accomplished the mission he had embraced of transforming a crumbling ruin into a “gathering ground for thought and faith in a divided region.”
Being very much aware of the pre-revolution unrest in Syria at the time, Howard had asked Father Paolo if he nurtured any hope for the troubled region he had adopted as his home many years before.
“You know, in the village I come from in the South Tyrols we have a peculiar festival that dates back centuries,” he replied. “We gather one day a year in the town square and pelt each other with oranges. Out comes the aggression and we get back to our peaceful civic lives. You know, I often think how much simpler life would be if the world threw a few oranges once a year.”
The following link is to a political commentary written and published by Fr. Paolo on June 19, 2013, shortly before his final return to Syria. It is titled “Dear Friends of the Syrians”. In it, he revealed that he had written a letter per year, for ten years in a row, to Bashar Assad trying to recommend concrete and effective reforms before it was too late. He had also appealed to the leaders of the Catholic Church to support the Syrian people’s right to self-determination and a democratic alternative to the brutality of an oppressive regime. Father Paolo also predicted that if the Assad regime was not stopped, the result would be 500,000 dead and 10 million escaped from Syria. It was as if he was prophesying about what was to come.