Out of Syria: An Expelled Italian Priest Calls for Peace and Reconciliation

A 57-year-old Italian cleric who has lived in Syria for more than thirty years speaks out on the nature of the conflict and his hopes for peace.

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LOUAI BESHARA / AFP / Getty Images

Italian Father Paolo Dall'Oglio walks around the Syrian Maronite monastery of Deir Mar Musa, 80 km north of Damascus, July 11, 2007.

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.

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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.

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Sid sridhar
Sid sridhar

What is guaranteed in Syria, is the fall of assad regime because the West has thrown its weight behind the Saudi backed Sunnis. But, what is not guaranteed is a peaceful Syria where non-Sunnis will feel safe. There is very little doubt that the rebels are being funded by Turkey,Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the US is providing military intelligence. But, the recent visit to syria by Iran's foreign Minister confirms that the Shias feel so nervous that they are starting a counter-offensive with enlistment of all non-Sunnis. This means that the Shias in saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the Kurds in Turkey and other non_Sunnis will not make it easy for either the Syrian rebels nor their financial backers. Into this volatile mix, the West will get sucked into a huge quagmire. God help us all!

carlloeber
carlloeber

President Obama .. do you not think the Syrian people are worthy of freedom .. ? Are they not possessed of the inalienable rights that the American founders proclaimed .. these are humans Mr. President .  .I have been to Syrian myself and have never met a better people .. I am disgusted to watch the inaction of the White House ..   President Obama is to blame.. too much a coward to do anything during the re-election .. so he should agree with Romney to come together and make a joint announcement that they both agree that the US should take military action and lead with air power .. John McCain will give them guidance if the President can't figure out what to do .. President Obama should have acted to stop the murder more than 400 days ago .. by sending in drones for the dictator's palaces in Damascus .. instead President Obama has descended into ignominious cowardice .. Did the Kremlin wait to get UN approval when they went sent tanks into Georgia in 2008 ? Why is President Obama handcuffed by the Kremlin ? we can only say that it is because he does not want to save the Syrians .. he does not want to send in drones .. he does not want to risk re-election chances and thinks he can shirk his responsibility as leader of the free world .. Who does President Obama and the West depend on the save the Syrian children ? The same man who the US depended to save the Rwandan and Bosnian children ..   Syrian authorities are systematically detaining and torturing children, the United Nations' human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has told the BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/worl......   President Obama has allowed this to happen .. he has given free rein to the dictators in Damascus and abandoned the Syrian people .. he said the right things when he lead the charge against Qaddafi .. but has let his re-election rule his moral sense on Syria .. It is disgraceful cowardice unbecoming of the leader of the home of the brave .. He could have shot back at the Damascus dictators 487 days ago when they started shooting innocent protesters .. He could have sent cruise missiles and drones to attack the palace of the dictator and his tanks and artillery .. He and the other leaders of the West meekly bow to the Kremlin and Chinese dictators .. instead they only strain their intelligence coming up with new words to say how horrible are the Syrian dictators' atrocities .. March 28, 2011, President Obama said .. "when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians." www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-... “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,” (Except in an election year?) “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different,” (Except in an election year?)   2011: “And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” 2012: Coward