by Angelo Maddalena*

Starting this Monday, for a month, we will be publishing a three-part report from Syria: the first on the author’s journey, the second on what the Free Syrian Army was and is today. The third, finally, is about the Catholic-Syrian monastic community of St Moses the Abyssinian, re-founded in the 1980s by Father Paolo Dall’Oglio (kidnapped in Raqqa on 29 July 2013 and missing since then). The experience of Father Dall’Oglio is the leitmotif of this series of articles accompanying Angelo Maddalena’s trip to this country torn apart by 12 years of war. Enjoy reading.

PART 1 (Introduction, arrival in Syria)

“You will return to Mar Musa,” says Nouhad, who lives here in the monastery of Deir Mar Musa Al Bahashi, or Saint Moses the Abyssinian. From this terrace of the complex in the Syrian desert, I look up at the sky and, with the help of Paolo, one of my companions on this trip to Syria, I see the constellation of the Scorpion. Paolo is a physics and maths teacher. When I asked him in Damascus, in the room where we were sleeping, “What do you do?,” he jokingly replied, “I teach physical education”. Less than a year ago, I bought Francesca Peliti’s book about Father Paolo Dall’Oglio (kidnapped in Raqqa on 29 July 2013 and never heard from again) and the community of Deir Mar Musa. So I decided to go there.

I had heard about the disappearance of Abuna Paolo Dall’Oglio in 2013 (he was kidnapped in July 2013 ed.). I had bought this book because I had no idea that, after his abduction, the community he had re-founded thirty years earlier, renovating this abandoned monastery dating from the 4th century AD, would continue to exist despite his absence. More importantly, it had survived ISIS raids and the abduction of one of its founders, Father Jacques, who was kidnapped for five months in 2015. Thanks to Peliti’s essay, I discovered that there were still monks and nuns living there, Catholic and Orthodox, with a great openness to Islam. One of Dall’Oglio’s books is called Innamorato dell’Islam, credente in Gesù (In love with Islam, a believer in Jesus). A few days before I left, I also heard that the whole community of Mar Musa would be in Italy to celebrate Mass on the tenth anniversary of Fr Paolo’s death. I had been told that it was not easy to come to Syria and Mar Musa alone at that time, so I contacted a Syrian man who, between excursions, he explained to me about his country’s history and current events. “There is no future in Syria as long as there is an embargo”, he said in one of his conversations, illustrating the economic and political conditions of recent years. We passed through Bosra, the first Syrian town after crossing the border from Jordan, in the late afternoon of 30 July, having arrived from Amman (where we landed and then continued by bus). Before heading to Damascus, we visited the 2nd-century Roman theatre, “which withstood the bombs that Assad launched against the Free Syrian Army rebels holed up nearby”, our source explained, adding that “fortunately there is a citadel around the theatre that protected it from the explosions”.

These bombs may have contained chemical weapons, which are banned under the 1991 Geneva Convention, as, among others, Italian newspaper Avvenire wrote. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been indicted for such crimes, as we shall see. A local source told us about the last time he left Syria, (“I had practically escaped”), because after the first protest demonstrations in 2011, the regime had responded with a ferocious repression against activists and Syrian citizens who had taken part in peaceful street demonstrations: arrests, torture, killings. This led many activists to organise themselves into brigades of armed fighters. He explains, however, that within a short time, many outsiders from the Gulf, Turkey and other countries had infiltrated the ranks of the fighters: “We are talking about 90,000 fighters who had joined the Free Syrian Army, coming from Turkey or Lebanon, but also from the Persian Gulf, including Qatar, which financed the Free Army to attack the regime indirectly, while the Anatolian peninsula served as a logistical base.” He then recounts a detail of this bus journey to Europe in the summer: “At the rebel checkpoint they checked our documents, but the two men with machine guns had long beards and did not look Syrian. Those armed men took eight Alawites with them, and that saved me because I threw my wallet under the seat where my documents said I worked at the university. As I am a Christian,” he adds, “they would probably have taken me away, as they did with the Alawites, who are considered by the rebels to be too close to the regime, since they have held considerable power in Syria since 1970, thanks to Hafiz al-Assad (Bashar’s father), also an Alawite”.

Our source then makes a bitter and not very obvious confession to us Westerners and non-Syrians: “One of the most tragic side effects of the war is the loss of the religious minorities that have been present in Syria since time immemorial. In Aleppo, for example, we stayed in the bishopric of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church. The morning after our arrival, we visited the Armenian cathedral, named after the Forty Martyrs, and a Maronite church a few dozen metres away (there was also an Evangelist church not far away). From my third-floor window, in the twilight, I happened to hear the litany of prayers coming in from the mosque, while in the church below my window Mass was being celebrated in the Greek-Melkite rite, in which the sung litanies are so present that it sounds like a long sung mass. Until 2012, Christians made up 10% of the Syrian population: today they are 2%. A Jesuit Father Jo, a Jesuit who hosted us in Amman, had already given us a geopolitical picture of the Middle East, telling us that in neighbouring Iraq, before the invasion by the Anglo-American coalition in 2003, there were 1.2 million Christians: today there are less than 250,000.

He also explains objectively, when one of us asks him a pertinent question, how the international military intervention has destroyed the productive and social fabric of Iraq: “Saddam Hussein had maintained order, albeit with brutal methods, among other things he had once expelled the Jesuits, not killed but expelled, but after the Anglo-American intervention, which was supposed to facilitate the transition to democracy, everything went up in smoke. Many state employees of Saddam’s regime, who were paid very little for their work, lost their jobs, as did many military personnel, just as the oil industry collapsed”. In this context, Islamic extremist groups, which later became the infamous ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), were strengthened. The Father also tells us that 65,000 Iraqis are displaced in Jordan, that many of them do not want to go back to Iraq because they do not see a future there, because they do not have much chance of emigrating elsewhere now that the former US President Donald Trump has passed a law further restricting access from countries considered “enemies” (so-called rogue States), including Iraq and Syria. “Therefore”, says the Father, “even if we go to the US after this trip, we will have bureaucratic problems if our passports show that we have stayed in Syria.”

He reminds us that 600,000 Syrians are now refugees in Jordan and two million in refugee camps in Lebanon. In northern Iraq there are still many anti-personnel mines buried and ready to explode, while the Turks are carrying out massacres in Iraqi Kurdistan. All this is “not much talked about”, denounces the Father. Recently, hectares of forest have been burnt by incendiary bombs from the Turkish army, which continues to bomb in the direction of Iran or in Suylemanya (a town in Iraqi Kurdistan), where there is a small community linked to the Mar Musa monastery. The Father is keen to remind us that in our minds the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Palestinians are often associated with terrorists. But in the mountains of Sinjar, the land of the Yazidis, the PKK fought fiercely against ISIS, while the Peshmerga also fled. One of us asks when we will be able to visit Iraq, and the Father says that it is now easier for Europeans because from 2021 they will be able to enter without a visa. The subject of the Kurds persecuted by the Turkish army was also taken up by our guide when, as he often did, he reconstructed the recent history of Syria. He reminded us that over the last twenty years Turkey has hindered or at least contributed to the collapse of the Syrian economic system: “Between 2008 and 2011 our country was growing,” he explains. “There was an average income of 1,000 euros a month, which was very high for a Middle Eastern country. It was a competitive market, even for Turkey. It was a unique model, rich, highly educated”.

In Aleppo, on the way to Manara, we visit a bombed-out cultural centre that is being rebuilt. A gentleman we met said to some of us, with an angry expression on his face: “Assad is good, Erdogan is a dog” (turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ed.). Since 2011, our source reminds us, “the Turkish president has been smuggling jihadists into Syria to support the rebels. Today, Syria is a crumbling country and the Islamic State has strengthened itself thanks to the embargo, which has helped to push Syria into the abyss by destroying the religious minorities that enriched it. And it has also strengthened the regime”. It is in this context that Paolo Dall’Oglio has worked, in search of dialogue with Muslims, a challenge that was already difficult but became even more so from 2012, the year in which he was expelled by the Assad regime for his proximity to the peaceful mobilisations of the Syrian people in 2011. He later also supported the Syrian Liberation Army, as well explained in ‘Paolo Dall’Oglio’s Self-Defence and Non-Violence’ by Riccardo Cristiano, author of ‘Una mano sola non applaude’ (A single hand does not clap), which I recommend reading and rereading. “I can say,” reads the text, “that his vision of Islamic-Christian dialogue is very topical and must be studied since Father Paolo Dall’Oglio was certainly a forerunner of the document on a human fraternity that Francis and the Imam of the Islamic University of al-Azhar, Ahmad al Tayyib, signed together in Abu Dhabi in 2019.”

It continues…

In the cover photo, children playing in Aleppo (by Angelo Maddalena)

To learn more, read our Syria conflict factsheet



* Angelo Maddalena is a narrator of grassroots conflicts and popular struggles, from the Val di Susa (Susa Valley) in Italy to Algeria and Buenos Aires. His reports often become theatrical monologues with songs like “Cugini di Algeria fratelli di Kabylia” (Cousins of Algeria brothers of Kabylia); “Alla Maddalena” (at the Maddalena); “la favola del 3 luglio in Val di Susa” (the 3 July’s tale in Susa Valley). In 2018 he published an investigative book entitled “Un anno di frontiera” (A Year on the Border) about the incomplete reception of migrants in Ventimiglia. He writes for “Mosaico di pace” (Mosaic of Peace) and in June 2023 a reportage of his was published in the fortnightly magazine “Rocca”. From 2013 to 2022 he was a regular contributor to “la Bottega del Barbieri”, a blog dedicated to social and investigative journalism, for which he curated the column “L’Angelo del lunedì” (The Mondays Angel). His latest book is “Taccuino di viaggio interiore (Notebook of an Inner Journey)”, accompanied by the CD of songs “Tutti positivi” (All Positive). In September 2023 the documentary short film “Mi sembra di viaggiare con te. Vita da Angelo, un artista e la sua ricerca di senso (It feels like travelling with you. The life of Angelo, an artist and his search for meaning)”, directed by Gabriele Perni.