During a Civil War, What’s a Monk to Do?
In 1982 Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit priest, hiked into the Syrian countryside to seek a solitary spot for a retreat. After injuring his leg in a serious fall, he stayed for a week in the abandoned monastery he had found on the side of a mountain. Years later, he would re-found it as Deir Mar Musa Al-Habashi, the monastery of St. Moses the Ethiopian (or Abyssinian).
The site was of interest to art historians, since its eleventh-century frescoes represent “the only full program of medieval church decoration to have survived in greater Syria.” Its artistic program, published in full by Erica C. Dodd, offers a rare glimpse into a Syrian artistic tradition from before the Crusades, after which artistic traditions from the Christian East and West were exchanged more readily. More importantly, over time the re-established sixth-century monastery became a place of refuge for Christians and Muslims who sought to understand one another. (A short video introduction to the monastery is available here.)
Viewed from afar, Mar Musa has offered for many Christians a beacon of hope for the best kind of interreligious dialogue: it combines commitment, openness to growth, and hospitality.
That beacon’s light has been snuffed out — only for a short time, I pray. Since last summer, Fr. Paolo has been in exile.
When the protests broke out in 2011, he supported the youth who demonstrated peacefully. But the act that catalyzed his exile followed the death of a young activist and photographer, Bassel Shahade, who was killed by a sniper in Homs. The St. Cyril’s Church in Damascus refused to hold his funeral. Fr. Paolo intervened and had the service at his monastery, where Christians, Sunnis, and Alawites together commemorated his death. In one sense, he was doing no more than basic human decency demands: to offer a proper burial. But in another sense, he was publicly honoring a well-known member of the opposition. He now lives in exile in a monastery in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
When I had the chance to meet Fr. Paolo in New York (Feb 2011), I was impressed by his rare combination of virtues. Rarely is someone so faithful and practical, idealistic and realistic, expressing levitas and gravitas, hope for the future and mourning for what has been lost. If anyone has a moral sense of the right thing to do in Syria, I would think it is Fr. Paolo.
The fact that even he is uncertain of the best course of action thus reveals the fogginess of justice amid a civil war. In an interview with Time magazine, Fr. Paolo said he preached “tolerance and hope” as the uprising began.
“The revolution is there. I have seen the revolution. I have seen the boys of the revolution, the young people, incredible courage,” Dall’Oglio says, but even he can see that the situation has passed a point of no return. “I am a Catholic priest so I have had all kind of anguish about the use of violence during this revolution. I always encourage those who behave with non-violent actions,” he says. Dall’Oglio had wished for some sort of U.N. peacekeeping force to stabilize the situation before it blew up into what now appears to be a full-scale civil war. “Today, that is not realistic anymore. The disaster already happened,” Dall’Oglio says.
Regarding the prospect of a military intervention by the United States, he responds:
The U.S. is “paralyzed by the complexity of the issue” … and therefore unable to provide real assistance. Too often, Dall’Oglio adds, individual countries’ agendas trump any real motive to help Syria, which, as many observers note, is becoming the staging ground of a proxy war between Iran and its regional arch-rival Saudi Arabia.
And yet, the most recent quotation from Fr. Paolo on the issue of humanitarian intervention takes a different tack. In response to what he perceives as a lack of exhortation by Pope Benedict XVI, Fr. Paolo offers this rebuttal (via John Allen):
If the Vatican doesn’t believe foreign troops have a role to play in keeping the peace, … what are the Swiss Guards doing in St. Peter’s Square?
Are the length of the civil war and its uncertain future beginning to wear down the commitment to nonviolent resistance? When the country’s main university is lethally targeted during exams, what response can there be?
In an interview with the New York Times, Fr. Paolo pondered whether he ought to have stayed and, perhaps, died with the protesters.
“I am a monk,” he said. “My real country is heaven, the kingdom of God. My real country is a moral belonging, it is not a place.”
During a civil war, what’s a monk to do?