The disappearance of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio in the northern city of Raqqa illustrates Syria’s struggle today. His fate, whether kidnapped or working on a secret agreement with extremist groups to stop the “dirty stuff”, captures the level of chaos and uncertainty that has engulfed a country he has dedicated his life for, promoting coexistence and acceptance.
Father Paolo or “Abouna Paolo” as he likes to be called, has special affinity to Syria. The cliff he fell off in 1982 in the Eastern mountain range on the Lebanon border, led him to Deir Mar Mousa el-Habashi, one of the oldest monasteries in the Levant (sixth century) that Father Paolo restored, and made it home for 30 years. He got expelled in June 2012 for criticizing the Assad regime and offering an interfaith memorial service in the monastery, in memory of Bassel Shehade, the activist filmmaker who was killed in Homs during shelling by the regime.
Father Paolo’s Syria
Leaving Syria shook Father Paolo to the core. When I interviewed in Washington last summer, his voice cracked while speaking about Deir Mar Mousa, and life in exile. He lamented the loss of life in a conflict he initially saw as a struggle against “a fallen regime” and later has warned from a civil war. The Jesuit priest was fasting Ramadan, and in his eloquent Arabic cried for tolerance and coexistence in Syria. He wanted to see a quick end to the violence, and to offer international protection for civilians, and unite efforts to rebuild a new country that is not based on the “clan rule.”
Father Paolo wanted the world to “care and take care of Syria,” for Russia and the U.S. to agree on a comprehensive transition. Mostof all, he wanted to go back to Syria, live and struggle with the Syrians and die in his monastery.
Destruction, chaos, sectarian divisions and party loyalties have replaced what was once the cradle of Arabism in the Middle East.Joyce Karam
The Syria that Father Paolo is striving for has compelled many to join the uprising in 2011, in seeking to change the country’s four-decade-old authoritarian power structure. But that vision is quickly fading two years and 100,000 casualties later. Destruction, chaos, sectarian divisions and party loyalties have replaced what was once the cradle of Arabism in the Middle East.
Paolo’s dual struggle
Father Paolo was ecstatic to arrive in Raqqa late last week, nearly five months after the city was taken by the rebels. He spoke in the town’s square on Saturday about the desire for unity, hope, and education as tools in saving Syria. According to accounts of different activists who spoke to Reuters, father Paolo was adamant about meeting leaders from the two extremist groups Jabhat Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). His message to them according to the Daily Star was going to be “to stop kidnapping and doing all this dirty stuff”, to put an end to the fighting against the Kurds, and promote coexistence and openness in treating fellow Syrians.
Nusra and ISIS are one of the most dominant extremist fighting forces in the North, and they have recently been involved in fighting the Kurds, and driving away minorities in areas they have taken control over.
The rise of extremism within the opposition, in the face of a hardening military approach from the Assad regime, is sinking Syria deeper into a civil strife, and dealing a blow to the priest’s vision of a more tolerant and open society. Father Paolo’s fight for a better Syria is threatened by both, Assad’s artillery and extremists’ agendas. His fight does not involve kidnapping bishops, banning women from wearing pants, establishing Islamic courts and killing FSA rebel commanders. Nor does it condone a regime that uses Scud missiles and bomb barrels against its own citizens.
By going to Raqqa, Father Paolo has done what the elite in both the regime and the political opposition would not do. He is Syria’s voice in the wilderness, calling for humanity and tolerance against hatred, for preserving the country’s diverse heritage and open culture. And it is in Syria’s interest that this voice is not silenced.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam