Syria Expels Jesuit Priest Who Spoke for Change
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Thick wooden beams barred the doors of St. Cyril’s Church in Damascus when friends of Bassel Shahade, a young opposition filmmaker killed in Homs in late May, arrived for a memorial prayer service. Government thugs dragged some mourners off to jail and chased away the rest, according to activists.
The leadership of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church did not intervene, they said. But the Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit, invited Mr. Shahade’s friends to pray at Deir Mar Musa, an ancient desert monastery. “Nobody was allowing them to pray for their lost friend,” he said in Beirut, noting that both Muslims and Christians attended.
His offer was the last straw for the Syrian government, which had been seeking to expel Father Paolo since last year — and finally did. He departed on Saturday, leaving behind the monastery that he rebuilt and reinvented over the last 30 years into a center for interfaith dialogue.
“The very fact that I am for change, for democracy, for human rights and dignity, this is very provocative,” said Father Paolo, 57, a burly, animated man with cropped gray hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, wearing a dark gray suit and indigo T-shirt. “I received a one-way visa out.”
The government of President Bashar al-Assad, dominated by his own minority Alawite sect, has long presented itself as the guardian of Syrian minorities and pluralism. But that is a mirage, opponents said, with minorities cherished only if they kowtow.
The life and times of Father Paolo are proof enough, they said.
“For 40 years they have been scaring Christians about others, making them believe that the regime is protecting them and protecting minorities, but that is a lie,” said Sarjoun al-Akkadi, the head of the Christian Coordinating Committee in Latakia, one of the few Christian organizations openly opposing the government.
Father Paolo was punished for supporting groups like his, he said. “He spoke with a spirit opposed to the repression of the demands of the people,” Mr. Akkadi said in an interview via Skype. “If he weren’t Italian, he would have been arrested, if not killed.”
The Christian population is estimated at less than 2 million among Syria’s 23 million people, or about 8 percent. Fear of a looming Muslim fundamentalist takeover drives most of the Christians to support Mr. Assad, or at least remain on the fence, Father Paolo said.
“The fear of Islam is a big, massive fact,” he said, adding that Christians here, like all Syrians, have zero schooling in democracy. “The democratic system is still something coming from the West with Zionist interests.”
Syria boasts more than half a dozen Christian sects, reflecting early schisms in the faith. Their patriarchs endorse the government without exception.
After casting his ballot in the May 7 parliamentary elections, for example, Gregorios III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and all of the East, called the vote a step toward reform that reflected the “true, positive image” of Syria. Most of the opposition called the election a sham.
Father Paolo said it was one thing to avoid the opposition, but he was baffled by church leaders both inside and abroad who failed to criticize the shelling of civilian neighborhoods. The attacks drove most civilians out of the city of Homs, for example, including some 150,000 Christians.
“How can we stay silent?” Father Paolo said. “We are in solidarity with the repression, not only because we don’t denounce the repression, but also because we negate there is repression.”
Father Paolo said he harbored a certain sympathy for the churches headquartered in Damascus because, like all Syrian organizations, they were infiltrated by the secret police. But those abroad had no excuse, he said. “I was really astonished that the patriarch of Moscow was not able to ask the Russian partner of the Syrian power to protect the Christians of Homs,” he said. “The old Christian presence in Homs is destroyed.”
Dalal Mawad contributed reporting.
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In a visit with Mr. Assad in Damascus late last year, Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church praised Syria’s treatment of Christians and did not mention the mounting death toll. In Bkirki, the seat of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, Patriarch Bechara Peter Rai said Christians had been protected in recent Middle Eastern history so long as they remained loyal to the state. In Syria, Christians “abide by the laws imposed by that regime and do not interfere in political matters,” Patriarch Rai said in an interview in his office high above the Mediterranean.
Father Paolo came to the Middle East from Rome in the late 1970s, hoping to improve Muslim-Christian dialogue. In 1982, he wandered across the wreck of a Byzantine monastery on a rocky hillside about 50 miles from Damascus, its 11th-century frescoes faded by years of sun and rain.
“It was really kind of falling in love,” Father Paolo said, recalling his initial 10 days spent praying in the desert. The place felt freighted with symbolism and spirituality.
After the uprising erupted in March 2011, Father Paolo organized discussions about nonviolent protest, earning the government’s wrath. The government pushed the local Roman Catholic bishop to expel him last November, but in a compromise he stayed silent for a time.
The continued siege of Homs drove him to activism again, especially after Syria accepted a United Nations-brokered peace plan that included the right to demonstrate.
Long years of organizing public events meant he contacted the secret police, what he called the real authority, before embarking on any enterprise. So when the town of Qusair descended into sectarian kidnapping and other violence, he telephoned an officer to tell him he was going to mediate. “You have nothing to do with those people,” he recalled the officer saying. “It would be better if you did not go.”
He went anyway. Qusair, near the Lebanese border, has attracted more overt Muslim jihadists than other towns, he said, and their attitude means Christians fearing the fallout from the revolution have legitimate concerns. “The revolution is making an effort to stay democratic and pluralistic,” he said. But the longer the fight, the greater the space for “extreme jihadism,” he said.
What is needed, he argued, is a greater international response, with a larger presence of United Nations forces and organizations that can build civil society. As for himself, he regrets being separated from the country he considers his own, and muses aloud that it might have been better to die among the protesters than to leave them to an uncertain fate.
“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.”
Dalal Mawad contributed reporting.
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