Byline: James Brandon Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
(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
"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
"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,
"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
But while Dell'oglio is concerned about Syrian Christians, he's also
"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
(c) Copyright 2006 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.