More than twenty years ago a young priest was sent to the Middle East to build bridges between Christianity and Islam.
Today, says Tom Spender, Muslims are flocking to the cigarette-smoking Jesuit’s goat-hair tent to hear about the Gospel In the early 1980s a young Italian Jesuit, Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, was sent to the Middle East to build bridges between Christianity and Islam. There was war in Lebanon and the priest was fearful.
“I felt I needed 10 days of prayer,” he explains. “I like the mountains and nature and the monasteries in the desert fascinated me. I felt a strong desire for the simple life.” Fr Paolo came to Deir Mar Musa, a ruined Syrian Orthodox monastery in the rugged valleys an hour north of the Syrian capital Damascus – and stayed.
Now 50 years old, he has overseen the restoration of the monastery church and its beautiful 11thand 13thcentury frescos. There are monks, nuns, goats, hens, dogs and a tortoise. Work is well under way on the nearby Al-Hayek Hermitage, which will accommodate 70 people for religious seminars, conferences and retreats.
The Muslim holy day of Friday begins in Deir Mar Musa with Mass in Arabic, following which monks, Christian and Muslim Syrian visitors and western travellers staying at the monastery eat breakfast together under a goat-hair Bedouin tent before volunteering for communal tasks.
Muslim families come and go throughout the day, climbing the steps winding up from the valley below. It is an idyllic place, utterly silent at night, far removed from the suspicion and violence present elsewhere in the Middle East.
But the monastery is also Fr Paolo’s response to what he calls “mistrust” between the faiths – a space where Muslims and Christians can encounter each other in mutual respect. Give people the chance to get to know each other, he argues, and things flow from there.
“Post-restoration, the monastery’s main act has been opening its doors to the outside,” says Fr Paolo, a large, charismatic man with a big voice that booms fluently in Arabic, French and English. He has a shock of short greying hair, wears a long grey robe and is smoking a Lucky Strike cigarette.
“Today, in the world, there are many difficulties,” he says. “You have Muslim Arabs with a strong desire to find their own identity and play their own role in global society. They feel very bad about the aggression of the West – the cultural and financial pressure and its strategic power. In the West people are not sensitive to this, but here we feel as though the colonial aggression never ends.” It is a feeling, he says, that the West ignores at its peril.
“We build bridges here,” he explains. “We encourage Christians and Muslims to talk to each other. If this communication – from Islam to Christianity – is not received peacefully then it will be imposed, polemically, by Muslims. Islam has a role in the universal spiritual world and it is to be recognised and welcomed. If we fail to do this we will see the rise of more extremist Islamic propaganda.” Syria is a multicultural country: 10 per cent of Syrians are Christian, although Sunni Muslims are in the majority. President Bashar Assad is from the minority Alawite sect and the country is also home to Shia and Druze. But even in relatively tolerant Syria there have been problems.
Dima Fayyad is a novice nun from the central city of Homs. In 1982 the Syrian army was ordered into the nearby town of Hama to wipe out armed Islamists in violence that left thousands dead.
“Blood was flowing in the streets,” she recalls. “Everywhere there are fundamentalists, but Christians here, as a minority, have to know that this is their country too. Recently a lot of Christians have stopped thinking of the Middle East as an area for Christians. They look to Europe because that is where Christians are in the majority.” Fr Paolo agrees that Christians feel persecuted by Muslims.
“They feel the attraction of the West and many emigrate,” he explains. “They have a tendency to copy the West, which creates a larger gap in local society because the Muslims react against this Occidentalism.” In an attempt to meet Muslims halfway Paolo has shaped Deir Mar Musa in the image of the local civilisation.
“In the church we have carpets instead of benches,” he says. “We pray in Arabic, although the monastery is Syriac and there is a Syriac liturgical language.” The Bedouin tent used by the community was sewn by Christians and Muslims. “In the Bible, Abraham received his guests in his tent, so ours became the tent of Abraham in Deir Mar Musa,” he says.
Visitors are greeted with cups of water, delicious after the long climb, and the ubiquitous Arabic greeting “Ahlan wa sahlan” (“welcome”). Ahmad Ismael, 25, a Muslim, said he came because he wanted to know more about Christians.
“The monastery is a holy place,” he tells me. “Every man has his own way of worshipping, but we all worship the same God. We have a relationship of friendship and love with Christians – we are one people in this country.” Deir Dar Musa is not just about making Christianity “accessible” to local Muslims. It is also a way for Fr Paolo and the monks to discover Islam – and to help guide the Catholic church in its wider encounters with the Muslim world.
“We believe in this Islamic society,” he says. “The presence of Islam is a big challenge for Christianity. How can it happen that a religion of law comes after the Gospel of grace? There is no doubt that Islam gives witness to a desire for uniformity in life conditioned on the worship of the one God.
“Muslims often react to Christian theology by feeling that the nice words in the Bible remain nice words and that the moral lesson for society is not properly realised.” He continues: “Muslims are asking Christians to give a more transparent witness and clearer realisation of Jesus’s words. They are asking us not to speak about love while having nuclear weapons; not to speak in terms of solidarity while crossing international boundaries; not to speak in terms of poverty while promoting the idolatry of capitalism; not to speak of the simple life and then campaign for world glory.
“Muslims don’t accept the Trinity, the incarnation of the Word of God or the Cross of Jesus. This refusal obliges the Church to give a more existential body to this dogma. Many Christians come back to their faith from their witness to the Muslim faith in God – this overwhelming feeling that God is there, is merciful and is taking care.
“We want to give the Church another way to look at Islam and to give witness to some of these values that we have discovered and wish to share. The Catholic Church is anguished about self-conservation, especially in Europe and the West, and sometimes has a defensive attitude, but I’m radically optimistic about her ability to listen.” But some in the Church have not always been pleased with what they have heard. Fr Paolo is circumspect; he tells me that he was pushing for deeper dialogue with the Vatican and that he has responded “to their criticism” in writing. He is now waiting to hear back from the authorities in Rome.
For Frederic Massoun, a 32-year-old monk from Savoie in France, discovering Islam means praying from the Koran.
“In my personal spiritual life I am studying the Koran, praying from the Koran,” he says. “Jesus is the way, bringing me in front of the door, giving me the desire to knock on the door. I knocked at the door and the Koran answered and said, ‘Please enter’.” Frederic has been at Deir Mar Musa for almost three years and speaks good Arabic. As he talks he turns woollen prayer beads in his hands – a good symbol for the monastery: the 99 beads correspond to the 99 names of God in the Koran.
“I grow in my Christian faith through Islam,” he says. “We are making history here. It is fragile to talk about it but it is a communication that is striving to be stronger than the violence and incomprehension in the world.
“One day I received some Europeans. Their guide was a Muslim. We started talking and he started to open up. There is a place in the church especially for Muslims to pray, facing the side wall towards Mecca. This man prayed. Afterwards we sat together.
“I have learned that within Islam there is a very strong thirst for communication and for union.” The monastery holds regular meetings and seminars, and Fr Paolo participates in Islamic events. Arabiclanguage pamphlets are being prepared with an introduction by the orientalist Louis Massignon, a Catholic scholar of Islam who wrote about the Palestinian issue before his death in 1962.
Fr Paolo also recognises the potential of the mass media and has appeared on Syrian television and radio. As a result, increasing numbers of Muslims are making their way through the otherwise empty valley “Muslims are believers who offer their lives to God,” says Fr Paolo. “I said on television that if only Christians came here I would leave. The next day many Muslims came.” He adds: “There is a big discussion about interreligious dialogue in the Church. For some people, in order to feel good about their faith, they need to say that others do not have the truth. But I have my own experience of truth and I will be faithful to it – this will allow me to recognise it in others. It is a dynamic process.” And he has identified a further mission to reach a new generation, primarily young westerners, who visit the monastery on their travels but do not belong to any religious tradition at all.
“Irreligion is the story of an individualistic society,” he says. “It gives a free pattern to spiritual research. But if you want to find faith you may not have the words or categories for the spiritual experience itself. You have a very wild experience, unknown and unspeakable.
“I believe in dialogue between this generation and mine. How can people meet Jesus Christ? This will be the new story.” For more information, visit www.deirmarmusa.org