An Italian Jesuit who was recently expelled from Syria for criticizing the government’s crackdown on the uprising there had spent three decades in the country, creating a small oasis of peace and interfaith dialogue.
I met Father Paolo Dall’Oglio in 2010. I had traveled from the States to visit my daughter, Merrit, in Damascus, where she was spending the summer studying Arabic at one of several language centers in the Syrian capital. A few weeks earlier, one of Merrit’s housemates had visited Deir Mar Musa, the ancient monastery Father Paolo had restored and reopened, and she was eager to return.
So several of us traveled the 50 miles from Damascus to Mar Musa, then joined backpackers, pilgrims and tourists from many lands in making the long climb up a series of stone steps to the clifftop monastery high above the Syrian desert.
At the top, along with a splendid view, we found a very special place.
Father Paolo and his small community of a few monks, nuns and lay volunteers welcomed visitors to stay for as long as they wished, at no charge. All were invited to hang out on Mar Musa’s broad porch overlooking the hills and the vast desert below, to sleep on bedrolls in shared sleeping quarters, and to take part in simple communal meals of soup, olives, bread, yogurt, eggs and preserves from the monastery’s apricot crop.
In exchange, visitors were asked to help cook, wash dishes, hang laundry or pick up litter from the slopes nearby.
Father Paolo was the warm, gregarious soul of Mar Musa. He told us that he had been studying Arabic himself in Damascus years earlier when he heard about the abandoned monastery. He made his way there for the first time in 1982, climbing the hill to find the building in ruins, its small chapel without a roof, its Byzantine-era frescoes fading and peeling in the sun.
He led the monastery’s restoration and then reopened it as a place of refuge, peace and dialogue for visitors of all faiths, or no faith at all.
After dinner, shifting easily through many languages, he answered questions about the monastery and told us about his work with local Muslims on educational and environmental projects. He spoke of his deep love for Syria and its people, Christians and Muslims. One could not help but be moved by this good man and his long history of building bridges between diverse people and communities.
After he was expelled from his adopted country, Father Paolo told reporters that he hoped to return to Syria, and to Mar Musa. I hope he can.
--Rebecca Trounson in Los Angeles
Photo: A visitor walks between stone buildings at Deir Mar Musa, a Byzantine-era monastery about 50 miles from Damascus, Syria, whose restoration was led by an Italian Jesuit, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio. Credit: Rebecca Trounson / Los Angeles Times