Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a 57-year old Italian priest, isn’t your typical Syrian rebel. The Jesuit cleric moved to Syria over thirty years ago, came across the abandoned Deir Mar Musa Monastery in the desert north of Damascus and decided to rehabilitate it. Soon, his monastery became a site for pluralist dialogue in a country steeped in the history of many faiths. But, about a month ago, as the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad went into full throttle, Dall’Oglio gave a memorial service for a fallen Christian dissident. The gathering gave the Assad regime an excuse to kick him out. Now, banished from his beloved Syria, he has begun traveling the globe, urging concerted international and U.N. action in the face of a spiraling crisis.
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For decades, the Assads maintained control through a secular, pan-ethnic consensus that knitted together their own Alawite minority with Christians, Kurds and Syria’s majority Muslim sect, the Sunnis. That state of affairs has unraveled over the past year and a half, with the rebellion taking on, according to some observers, a decidedly sectarian character. Reports, including in TIME, suggest Sunni extremists and jihadist groups are flooding into the country. As the battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, continues, some reports suggest the city’s Christian community was arming itself and readying to fight rebel militia. Dall’Oglio, sponsored by the National Alliance for Syria, a non-profit network of Syria activists, spoke with journalists in New York this week and insists this is not the case.
“The Christians are a minority in Syria [for] centuries, so they have a minority attitude. It’s to be protected by the power,” says Dall’Oglio, gesturing to the historically close ties between Syria’s Christian grandees and the Assad regime. However, Dall’Oglio insists that the majority of Christians within the country are against the regime. “It is very clear that the opposition is not sectarian. Christians have been jailed, Alawites have been jailed, Jewish people have been jailed, Kurdish people have been jailed, obviously Muslims, Sunni and Shiites [too],” Dall’Oglio says.
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But he cannot deny that Christians and other minorities do still fear what may follow if and when Assad falls. Their yearning for democracy and freedom has been tempered by the uncertainties posed by a motley, volatile insurgency.
So Dall’Oglio preaches tolerance and hope. “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.
Nor does Dall’Oglio want a Western intervention, blessed by a U.N. resolution (a la Libya, last year), which he suspects would only further messy an already ugly conflict. The U.S.is “paralyzed by the complexity of the issue,” he says, 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.
At this point, the discord and violence of the civil war gives Dall’Oglio more sleepless nights than the embattled Assad regime itself. “I am a priest but not a prophet,” he says of Syria’s future. “But things are accelerating,” and an ever-dwindling power base means Assad’s end may be near. “He will not be able anymore to replace the people leaving his puppet government and so far this puppet state will fall.” When that time comes, Father Paolo hopes to return and be part of the process of healing wounds and helping create a new, peaceful Syria. “I consider myself homeless until I go back.” But it’s hard to tell whether he’ll recognize the home he had to leave behind.