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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, DallOglio 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. DallOglio 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, DallOglio 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, DallOglio 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? 

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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Saying that the US is paralyzed by the complexity of the issue-is to me a lame reason to stand by as a virtual genocide by a brutal regime continues. This talk and " concern" that foreign fighters from arabia are fighting with the rebels and complicates things -turns the population which are being murdered-into pieces on a chess board. The reality is-ethically- it does not matter if saudi fighters, iraqis, alquada ,hezbollah come to the aid of the people being slaughtered by a brutal regime. That if anything shows their humanity -that they want to topple this horrific mass murdering regime.My father was originally from aleppo syria. He claimed we go back to the early christians.He's not alive now but I can't imagine he would take this position that as long as assad is good for the christians-that's more important then the fact that he's murdering thousands of men women and children! Or that if arabia or even alquada sides with the civilians and not the regime-we should allow a slaughter to continue because it's a" complex issue".There's nothing complex about massmurder by a brutal dictatorship.The sand keeps shifting it seems in how we talk about events in the mid east.When we were in iraq face to face with real iraqis -the real bad guys we claimed were those people coming in from syria. Now we say the real bad guys are those people coming in from arabia and iraq.The reality on the ground is what we seem to have a hard time acknowleding-in iraq that the people opposed us, and in syria that the people are rising up to topple a brutal regime -one we labeled part of the axis of evil and we claim is in bed with that other evil regime of iran.Yet we hesitate and bring in the kitchen sink about how "complex" the whole thing is. Complex or not murder of civilians is happening on a large scale for 2 years now and that no one stops it is at this stage to be complicit with a virtual genocide. If this monk has clout -I wish he would use it to call for intervention to stop this.

Fr. Christian de Cherge and the other six Trappists of the Abbey of Notre Dame of Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria, faced the question in a different but similar form in 1993. They were martyred. But I, for one, never would have heard of them had it not been for the movie Of Gods and Men, and probably not even then had it not been for Terry Gross' interview with the actor who played Fr. Christian, which I heard by the accident of being in my car her show was on. Maybe the Trappists were better known in France.I mention this to make two points: Fr. Paolo alive can cast a Christian perspective on our thinking about the Syrian civil war and what do do about it. And it is incumbent on the Catholic media and Catholics in the media to make sure we see the light he can shed.Almost every day I reread Fr. Christian's spiritual last testament. I think it is one of the great spiritual documents of the bloody 20th Century. It upholds the "stand and die" option. I don't recommend its conclusion for someone else, which would be unmitigated presumption on my part. But its thinking in it does wonders for clarity.

When even opponents of the assad regime[westerners and people of faith]talk about the uprisings in syria the same way the assad regime does[there are foreign fighters to blame, it's a complex issue, what chaos will unfold if he goes, those christians may be at risk etc] then to me that is the power of the demonic. Here we are repeating what assad says[even as we ponder war with his professed ally iran] while we see him and his regime every day committing mass murder of men women and children before our every eyes.Yet we repeat his line.It's uncanny and it's uncanniness i see as demonic. That is the only way I can process this.We were saying it was a civil war from day one practically-when it was not a civil war,when the rebels were not being supported by us or anyone, when it was-like in egypt and tunisia-simply people rising up to topple a dictator.We -it seems, wanted it to be a civil war-to validate doing nothing to topple a brutal mass murderind dictator.Now that we've given some support to the rebels -we can call it a civil war.But of course it is a regime crushing civilians who rose up to topple it.Perhaps it's our wish for genocide- against sunni arabs-coming true by proxy.I don't know-but what is happening there and our repeating of the assad line - is horrific and bizarre.

Christians in Syria overwhelmingly oppose the Syrian resistance, and with good reason. Assad tolerates Christianity and has protected Syrian Christians from Islamist violence. If Assad is overthrown, those Islamists will no longer be restrained and Christians will be violently attacked and even murdered, as they have been in Iraq after one dictator was replaced by "democracy" and as they are being in Egypt after another dictator was replaced by "democracy." Many of the Christians who fled Iraq after our invasion fled to Syria. If Assad is toppled, they will have to flee again. Indeed, that is what the Syrian resitstance wants, with its slogan of "Alawites to the wall, Christians to Beirut."

Tom--Michaels Peppard's post about Fr. Paolo also reminded me to some degree about the Tibhirine monks. (Be sure to read John Kiser's "The Monks of the Tibhirine" for a fuller account of the martyred French Trappists and their work in Algeria.) At first glance, Fr. Paolo might seem to be a stranger in a strange land, but Robert Louis Wilken's latest book, "The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity," contains a wealth of information about the establishment of Christianity throughout much of the Middle East, including present-day Syria. The book was favorably reviewed in Commonweal in October, and the reviewer, DukE Divinity School Professor Maria Doerfler, noted:"Wilken concentrates ... on the spread of Christianity into regions beyond the Roman Empire. Most prominent among these is the Syriac realm, and exceedingly fertile source of literary and theological production, as well as a launch pad for Christian mission into other parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia."The Syriac Catholic Church is one of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches in communion with the Holy See, and though its numbers have diminished, primarily as a result of the spread of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, it remains an important reminder of the many faces of Christianity. Unfortunately, because of associations with the Alawhite minority in Syria (Bashir and his family are Alawhites), the Syriac Catholic Church may be a target of persecution when the Bashir regime finally falls.

That's not a christian[human] response;to say that because assad protects christians -it is acceptable for men women and children to be murdered by him because they're not christian.It's not about christian vs. muslims though that is the narrative the west is imposing apparantly. The question should be asked of anyone including christians-how can you support a massmurdering regime?That's the question-not well he's good for you so we get it!Long before assad there were christians in syria and the mid east. so it is false to say only assad or murbarak or saddam huseing kept christians living there. There would not have been any christians there in the mid east for 1700 years if it were true that muslims will not allow christians in their midst.But all that is beside the point-we can cross any bridge we get too-right now mankind is us here and here and now a virtual genocide is taking place. If christians collaborate with brutal dictators [or an invasion force like the americans in iraq when the iraqis never asked to be "liberated"] then that is why they are on the wrong side when the people rise up to topple the regime. it's not fair or accurate to say its about religion as much as it is with collaborating with brutal regimes or foreign invaders[iraq].Had we or some one intervened initially to help topple this regime once the people rebelled-the christians would not have been seen as on the sidelines cheering the brutal mass murderer assad and the animosity that the rebels may very well feel now toward christians or any one who supports him is to be expected after 2years of supporting his crackdown which has resulted in the deaths of over 40 thousand men women and children.This knee jerk position of viewing assad's regime from the lens of a geo political situation or from what it means to christians -reduces the suffering and deaths of thousands of men women and children to the level of pawns in a chess game. There is nothing christian about this default position that pervades even professed christians here.

In one sense, he was doing no more than basic human decency demands: to offer a proper burial.Like Antigone, and look what happened to her.

What the monks of Tibhirine chose was courageous and holy, but perhaps it's worth noting that I don't think less of Fr. Paolo for going into exile.

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