A Syrian Priest Tours for Peace

Father Paolo Dall’Oglio is exiled, but his passion for peace continues.

When soldiers recently barred the doors of Syrian churches, Father Paolo opened the doors of the monastery.  He welcomed the Muslim and Christian friends of an opposition filmmaker killed in Homs, who had been turned away and arrested as they arrived for a memorial prayer service at a church in Damascus.  For this act of interfaith hospitality—and defiance— as well as months of increasingly vocal criticism of the Assad regime’s campaign of violence, Father Paolo was expelled from Syria this June.
 
Father Paolo is an Italian Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for over 30 years.  He has earned a following for his charismatic leadership in interreligious dialogue, centered at the Deir Mar Musa Monastery in the mountainous desert north of Damascus.  Father Paolo rediscovered the abandoned monastery in 1982 and reinvented it as a vibrant hub of interfaith exchange and reconciliation.
 
Since the uprising in Syria began, Father Paolo has been speaking out against the violence and working to reestablish the religious harmony that existed in Syria for centuries prior.  His efforts culminated in the memorial service at the monastery and an open letter to Kofi Annan asking for a massive UN peacekeeping intervention, for which he was thrown out of the country he calls home.
 
Since then, he has taken his work for peace and reconciliation on the road.  His tour passed through New York this weekend. On Sunday, he spoke at the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Addressing a crowd of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, Syrians, Americans, and other supporters, Father Paolo shared some of his experiences on the ground in Syria as well as his impressions and hopes for the future.
 
The conversation ranged widely, from the chilling notion that the Assad regime would be willing to use chemical weapons on the Syrian people…  to the hopeful assertion that the revolution has already birthed a new generation more open to honesty and debate.  Father Paolo emphasized the importance of the narratives in the conflict, rejecting the ideas that the uprising emerged from sectarian frictions, or that Syria is destined to become an Islamist regime if the opposition topples the Assad government.
 
Instead, he encouraged the audience to remember that many religions have lived together in Syria in peace, and that a humble return to the religious values shared by all of Syria’s sects will foster reconciliation.
 
Those gathered were eager to engage Father Paolo and a conversation blossomed in both Arabic and English.  They affirmed the mission for a peaceful Syria, sought information about the conditions on the ground, and aired their fears and hopes for the outcomes.  By the end, the crowd joined together to chant the familiar slogan of solidarity: “Wahid, wahid,wahid: al-sha'b al-Sūry wahid”—One, one, one, the Syrian people are united.”
 
Father Paolo is calling on Syrians of all sects and people of faith everywhere to recognize one another and to fight together for a peaceful and just society.  The power of his approach was palpable in the room on Sunday afternoon, and Tanenbaum’s Peacemaker in Action, Hind Kabawat, cites him as an inspiration for her own continued work to promote reconciliation in Syria.
 
Together, peacemakers like Hind and Father Paolo offer a hopeful vision for Syria’s future and an inspiring model for accomplishing it.