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Christian Dissent in Syria Loses a Leader: Assad Deports the Noblest Priest -- Father Paolo Dall'Oglio
By Elie Chalala
Two interviews with Father Paolo Dall' Oglio on Al Arabiya and MTV television led me to recall an exchange I had on a Southern California Listserv almost a year ago. The exchange was spurred by a celebratory post about the Syrian Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Assistant, Bishop Luca al-Khoury, who expelled the American Ambassador Robert Ford and his French counterpart, Eric Chevallier, from the church. I asked at the time: is this Christian behavior? Do Christians not claim that God's house is open to all? Until the Arabiya interview, I knew little about Bishop Luca, except, that he was and still is an apologist for the Assad regime. But after reading and research, it is clear that Bishop Luca's ties to the regime ran much deeper. He was not only an apologist but also an informer for the Syrian authorities.
In contrast, when the Italian Jesuit Father Paolo responded to a question about Christians in Syria from Giselle Khoury, the TV host of Studio Beirut on Al Arabiya, he debunked the myth of total Christian support of the Syrian regime. Instead, he claimed that Christians, Alawites, and Sunnis are all part of the anti-Assad opposition. But what most captured my attention was Father Paolo's opinion of a column by Syrian essayist and opposition figure Michel Kilo about the Syrian Christians, and more specifically on how a Bishop called on the Syrian security forces to arrest a group of youths peacefully protesting the Church position toward the regime. Even more ominously, the bishop encouraged some of his male and female parishioners to celebrate the death of Muslim youths in a neighboring village of Damascus, according to Michel Kilo. Father Paolo's answer to these incidents was shocking: they (some religious officials) needed not call upon the security forces for they are "security forces" themselves.
This piqued my interest in Father Paolo, and what I found speaks volumes of a great "noble Syrian priest," to use the words of Elias Khoury in Al Quds Al Arabi.
Father Paolo came to Syria at the age of 19 as a tourist in 1973. Then he returned to study Arabic language, Islamic religion, and Near Eastern Christianity in 1980. He joined Deir Mar Musa in the summer of 1982, where, according to many reports, he molded the place into a center of Islamic-Christian dialogue. Father Paolo or abouna boulous, as the residents used to call him according to another prominent opposition figure and writer Fayez Sara, instantly transformed the community. His efforts resulted in improved relations between Christians and Muslims who lived in Deir Mar Mousa, as Mr. Sara wrote in Al Hayat. Sara also tells us that Father Paolo transformed Deir Mar Mousa, an ancient desert monastery, into a forum for scholars and researchers to hold debates that transcended religious subjects, many of which dealt with the basic interests and needs of the Syrian people.
Father Paolo has been in the news ever since his arrival and the Syrian authorities hoped to remove him from the country more than a year ago. His latest confrontation with the authorities came after the Shabiha killed the young filmmaker Bassel Shahade in Homs last May who was a young Fulbright scholar from Syracuse University documenting the revolution. When his friends came to his memorial service at St. Cyril's Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the government "thugs dragged some mourners off to jail and chased away the rest, according to activists," as cited by the New York Times. The leadership of the Church did nothing to allow the service to continue. On the other hand, Father Paolo invited Mr. Shahade’s friends to pray at Deir Mar Musa, which is about a half hour drive from Damascus, and which had become his main headquarters. “Nobody was allowing them to pray for their lost friend,” he told the New York Times, even though both Muslims and Christians attended the service.
Contrary to the wishes of the Syrian authorities, with their benevolent “guardian policy” for minorities, Father Paolo was asked by Al Arabiya about his mediation in Qusair (a town near the Lebanese borders) over the kidnapping of community members. He had to intervene, he said, for the kidnappings were sectarian in nature. Since the kidnapped were probably Christians, the government did nothing to protect these minority members. When Father Paolo telephoned an officer to tell him he was going to mediate the release of the kidnapped, the officer answered: “You have nothing to do with those people...It would be better if you did not go," according to the New York Times story. But Father Paolo would have nothing to do with the officer's advice, for he is the "father of all Syrians," according Mohammed Ali al-Atassi, as cited by Elias Khoury.
The regime, always aware of its narrow social base and its alienation from the vast majority of the Syrian people, has invested considerably in creating a support base for the regime among "minorities." Father Paolo’s expulsion is simply because his position runs contrary to the Assad policy. Father Paolo’s mending of the sectarian differences and healing of communal wounds appeared a disservice to the regime because it undermined the fear and division it instilled among Syrian groups.
Father Paolo’s expulsion resulted from his break with the position of official Syrian Christianity, where a majority of churches have longstanding ties with the repressive Assad regime. This remains the case despite the fact that more than 150,000 Christians were expelled from Homs, and their churches were attacked, ransacked, and vandalized. Meanwhile, the question for Father Paolo is how Christian priests, Bishops, and Patriarchs justify even their "neutrality," not to mention their defense of the Shabiha and their close relationship with a tyrannical regime that has now killed more than 17,000 of its own citizens. The "old Christian presence in Homs is destroyed," Father Paolo told the Times. Michel Kilo raised similar questions: "How does a religious man allow himself to become an informer for the security forces, and how does the Church of man remain silent in the face of massacring children?"
There is no better witness to the actions of the Christian clerical establishment than Michel Kilo, the writer who referred to Bishop's Luca al-Khoury as a government informer. Under the current clerical leadership, Kilo writes, "there is a clear animosity toward the Other (who is different): whether Christian or non-Christian, the church practices a sectarian racism placing the Christian above the non-Christian while at the same time the heads of the Church officials are aligned with an oppression similar to what Rome inflicted upon the first Christians. This official Syrian Christian establishment incites its followers against fellow Christians (the dissenters and the anti-Assad) by portraying them as anti-religious. The conduct of Bishop Luca is a case in point.
Recently, Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Assistant, Bishop Luca al-Khoury was invited by the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) to talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an event that also included the Assad-appointed Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Hassoun, who threatened in one of his angry speeches to send suicide bombers to the United States. However, the outcry was such that the endowment decided to cancel the event.
It is no wonder then that Father Paolo was expelled. His every action opposed the Syrian authorities. Father Paolo was debunking the sectarian differences among Syrians and healing the wounds, efforts viewed by the regime as threatening.
When asked by Al Arabiya about his expulsion and departure, Father Paolo gave a quite emotional answer: "I have not left Syria; I was expelled from Syria...My body is standing on its feet that leaves Syria, but I am staying hundred percent." He added, "I left against my will...I prefer silence in Syria to speaking in exile." He was also cited by his friend Fayez Sara to have said: "God is my witness! I would have preferred to rest with the martyrs of freedom in the soil of this loving country, or to have descended to the hell of imprisonment."