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Headline: A Syrian monastery lies at the nexus of Islam, Christianity

Byline: James Brandon Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Date: 05/01/2006



(DEIR MAR MUSA, SYRIA)It is late afternoon at the monastery of Deir Mar
Musa on the edge of

the Syrian desert and the only sounds are the call of desert birds and

the whisper of the breeze over time-worn stones.



Until, that is, a group of Muslim schoolgirls arrive from a nearby town

to fill the monastery's valley with laughter and joyful chattering.



"Keep the noise down. This is a monastery," bellows the Rev. Paolo

Dall'Oglio, the monastery's Italian Jesuit founder, looking stern for a

moment before breaking into a broad, proud smile.



The monastery of Deir Mar Musa was first built by Greek monks in the

sixth century as a remote retreat from the material and political

world. Abandoned in the 19th century, it once again houses a small

religious community. But now, under its second founder, Father

Dall'Oglio, it is on the forefront of politics with a fresh approach to

bridge-building with the Islamic world.



"When I arrived here 25 years ago, Syria was [a] center of the struggle

between communism and capitalism," says Dall'Oglio, dressed in a worn

gray pullover. "And today it is the crossroads between Islam and

Christianity."



"For us, dialogue really starts from being curious about others," he

says, explaining that instead of proselytizing, the Catholic Church now

advocates building bridges with Islam.



Through day-to-day interaction, bridge-building is what the Deir Mar

Musa's six monks and nuns and several lay assistants are working

toward. Traveling to local Muslim communities they work with Muslim

leaders to improve opportunities for young people, promote ecological

awareness, and arrange theological discussions between religious

leaders.



"It's really just a simple, evangelical life," he says, stroking

silvery beard. "I accept pluralism as a gift from God."



In 1977, Dell'oglio began studying Arabic in Damascus, where he soon

heard about a ruined Byzantine monastery 50 miles away on the edge of

the Syrian desert.



Five years later he made his first visit. After leaving the main road

and trekking into barren hills, he arrived at a crumbling building.

Clambering through the ruins, he found himself in a roofless church

staring at medieval frescos slowly dissolving beneath the sun, wind,

and rain.



"I came here for 10 days of prayer and meditation," he says. When he

returned to Damascus, he began laying plans for nearly a decade to

restore the ruins and make it the home for a new sort of monastery.



Now on one typical April day, the restored monastery is visited by a

busload of noisy Muslim schoolgirls on a field trip, two Syrian

Christian soldiers in camouflage uniforms, and a stream of foreign

backpackers and tourists. "Sometimes on Fridays thousands of people

come," says Dell'oglio. "For Muslims, a Christian monastery is a holy

place. And Muslims know that monasteries like this were protected by

the prophet Muhammad himself."



The monastery also combines medieval monasticism with Arab traditions

of hospitality by extending free accommodation to all travelers -

provided they help with cleaning, washing the dishes, and collecting

litter from the surrounding hills.



"Our hospitality is really a political program," he says. "I would say

to the [American] people 'come to Syria and discover the human values

of these people - Muslims and Christians.' "



"Yes, we have problems [in the region] but let us consider the problems

of the Middle East as a problem within one family and not as the

problems of an enemy. Let us look for another logic beyond the logic of

military aggression and occupation and see that we are one humanity.

Peace is something that you build with your enemies."



Ironically the monastery's very success at attracting visitors means

that the monks now have little time for meditation or study. Recently

they have refurbished another old monastery 30 miles further north as

well as ancient caves throughout the surrounding stony hillsides.



"We consider ourselves at home when we are surrounded by guests," says

Dell'oglio. "But obviously sometimes we get tired and so we have caves

where people can go for some quiet."



Not surprisingly, many visitors find it difficult to leave. One young

French woman is coming to the end of nearly two years of living in the

monastery and working with local people as an agricultural engineer.



"This place is like something wonderful," she says. "Every day I wake

up here and think that I just want to live here for always and always."



But Dell'oglio rubs his eyes tiredly when asked about the future of the

region, and particularly of Syria's 1 million native Christians. He

says if relations with the West worsen, it will get more difficult for

Christians to stay in Syria.



His concerns are shared in the Syrian capital, Damascus.



"The Christians in Syria are very worried about the future," says Ayman

Abdul Nour, a Syrian reform leader in Damascus. He notes that a

disproportionate number of visa seekers at North American embassies are

Christians.



But while Dell'oglio is concerned about Syrian Christians, he's also

thinking globally.



"The big issue is whether there can even be a future without religious

harmony," says Paolo. "To build religious harmony is to build a future

for humanity. It's not going to be easy but I say let's do it. Bring it

on."



(c) Copyright 2006 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.
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