Riccardo Cristiano

2 May 2024


Father Dall’Oglio, a Champion of Dialogue
between Islam and Christianity

There is a monastery in Syria that recently – with great circumspection – was able to reopen its doors to a controlled and very limited Abrahamic reception. What this means is that the tent of Abraham placed there by its restorer, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, forty years ago, in the Qalamoun Desert, is not dead: it is stronger than what the great intellectual Michel Seurat, who was kidnapped and killed in 1986 by the Assad regime, referred to in the book that cost him his life, The State of Barbarism, the one built on arbitrariness. Arbitrariness requires individual and collective acceptance in exchange for protection, the system that has regulated the coexistence of the faithful in the Islamic world. Dall’Oglio is a new Seurat who continues to speak thanks to the aforementioned monastery, Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi, which he discovered and restored, telling everyone that there is only one protection that works, that of good neighborliness, embodied by Christian monasteries in the land of Islam, the outpost of its Church of Islam. So, in the land of Islam and of minority protection, Dall’Oglio reversed both the old Islamic protection and the new protection of arbitrariness, proposing mutual protection, that which comes bottom-up, in brotherhood. It was and is a reception in the style of the place, humble and common to both, and therefore critical of westernizing globalization. It does not make Christianity – however affectionate it may be – a fifth column of the West.

To get out of the protection syndrome, blamed and desired by the Christian minorities, to offer mutual protection – this was his life mission. In his farewell letter to the Qalamoun, when he was expelled, we read why today’s reopening proves that Dall’Oglio is stronger than the system: “I saw in the monastery the appropriate means to realize the project of mysticism shared between Christians and Muslims, to translate into action Abraham’s vision of hospitality and interest in the environment, in the fight against desertification for a sustainable development, and the patient work done to build a mature civil society, a guarantee of a democracy that is not only formal.” Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi reopens amid ghosts, in the ecological disaster, in the more than ever spectral darkness of arbitrariness. A disaster that speaks only of death.

Paolo Dall’Oglio testified in the East and the West that exclusive belonging leads to the sacralization of power and therefore to violence. This is why he dedicated his life to the meeting point between Islam and Christianity, the Levant. He did so as a Catholic priest because he had understood the breadth of the lesson of his teacher, Louis Massignon, according to whom God had put the Church at the crossroads, the paths between East and West. This did not include exclusive membership.

I believe it is reductive and even impossible today to grasp the true relevance of Father Dall’Oglio by placing him outside the consistent drama of denial: after that of the Holocaust, in its uniqueness, there was Syrian denialism, which Dall’Oglio challenged by bearing witness, as a priest, to the Syrian genocide. Now the specter of a third denialism, oriented toward a cultural genocide, is appearing. This we can see elsewhere as well.

Did European and Catholic culture, to which Dall’Oglio certainly belonged, see the sense of this gulf that has been making us walk on the edge of a denied, or perhaps accepted, fascism for a century? If so, and I think so, Dall’Oglio’s challenge is immersed in topicality even if the ferocity of his torturers tried to simply remove him without anyone looking for him anymore. Evaporated, nine years ago. This Italian heir to Louis Massignon has disappeared from the Italian cultural scene, but is beginning to be seen in the awakenings of the Oriental Churches to which he offered thirty years of his life and nine years of suspension. Having said that we should all be Chinese Jesuits, I say that he is the Euro-Arab Matteo Ricci in this time of terrorism. State terrorism, theological terrorism, nihilistic violence have been accompanied by condemnations as complicit as they are implacable, by perverse interests, by ideologies as opposite as they are similar, such as Pan-Islamism and real Pan-Arabism. Dall’Oglio challenged all this without condemning. On the contrary, convinced that democracy is like the wheel – as soon as it was discovered everyone wanted one – he chose to propose it to even the most radical of humans; not to reject them, but to convince them to testify, to persuade.

Among the endless theological texts by Paolo Dall’Oglio, I was not surprised by the confirmation of the need to recognize Muhammad’s special relationship with God: how can one respect denying the other? If Christ precedes Muhammad, Christ will seal the prophecy, coming at the end of time. The two elections did not surprise me: the one that comes from Isaac, but also the one that comes from exclusion, the exclusion of Ishmael, the forebear of the Arabs. His speech creates full acceptance of the other without denying himself. In fact, as is well known, it is the Bible itself that mentions the great promise made to the children of Ishmael, the son of the slave Hagar. God says: “I will also make the son of this bondswoman a great nation, because he is thy seed.” Dall’Oglio, like Christian de Chargé, understood why Isaac and Ishmael played together as children: theirs was God’s game with our differences, as de Chargé explains in his testament.

Dall’Oglio wrote: “The fundamentalist believes that outside the true faith there are only false beliefs and therefore a false humanity.” He continued: “If you believe that you can be exclusively Christian, then somehow you are a bad Christian. In one way or another, every fidelity to the good, to the truth, to the beauty of belonging invites one to enter into dialogue until a kind of synthesis, a marriage, is reached.”  This is why in the Christianity of the East, forged by Churches that have become ethnic and by an Islam that is now closed, Dall’Oglio has played an unbearable role for many, but one that proves to be the only lifeboat for not declaring the last presence of the other extinct. For him, the “fear of others shapes them on the basis of our own fears.” This is also true for many Arabs faced with their idea of Europe. Dall’Oglio went so far as not to fear syncretism, and wrote, as long as it is not of a statue of Mary with the arms of the goddess Kali.

Hence, he left for Beirut, where he studied Arabic, not to learn Arabic, he wrote to his family, but to become an Arab. He became an Arab without ceasing to be European. It may not have been easy for him to remain a European and become an Arab.

That is why, not being Manichaean, he knew how to warn us of the danger. Going against the tide, he told us that if we did not arm the Syrians in revolt against the power of the ‘state of barbarism,’ we would become barbarians ourselves, opening up a Pandora’s box of Islamic nihilism. But even then, he believed he could avoid weapons with free expression. Of Kofi Annan’s plan, which was accepted by the parties, he mentioned only one point: the right to free expression. He called on everyone to force the regime to allow the press to cover the demonstrations. It was his way, as he told my colleague Lorenzo Trombetta back in 2006: “The lack of transparency generates mistrust and pushes individuals—community members more than individual citizens—to look to the community for protection.” The space for dialogue, confrontation, and thus transparent expression seemed essential to him in order to build a peace that like all peace involves having to learn something from the other. This is why he spoke out against the regime in 2011: the UN peace plan allowed for it, and since no one else did, he offered himself as a space for social dialogue. His Church did not understand and did not follow him, thus making his expulsion inevitable.

Until 2012 he hoped for an intervention by the world peace movement as the white helmets of interposition, a similar UN action at the time. Without recourse to arms. But he knew what was happening. And when everything risked overflowing, he said it: the Free Syrian Army had to be armed; it was the last possible barrier to the spread of nihilism. So convinced was he of this, when Pope Benedict asked the international community not to sell arms to Syrians, he wrote: “I agree, let’s give them to them for free.” Here is a lesson for today that I cannot keep silent. Dall’Oglio did not esteem the Syrian opposition leadership; he esteemed the Syrians as though they were a non-violent, Gandhian intellectual. But at the moment when systematic extermination was proposed, he was forced to say ‘we are there,’ ‘we have learnt the lesson of history.’ He understood the full meaning of the manifesto that had appeared in Kefranbel in October 2011 at the height of the genocidal action. That poster read: “Down with Assad. Down with the opposition. Down with the Arab-Islamic states. Down with the UN. Down with everyone.” It was the announcement of the chilling cry of nihilism. Do we not also hear the cry today that says that if everything is corrupt nothing is worth anything?

Dall’Oglio knew that the despair of abandonment was about to produce the nihilism of the abandoned. But while he was warning us, he was also warning them. In his last interview from Raqqa, he told the Syrians: “If each of us closes his mind and believes that things will go as he wants, he will be disappointed: in this way things will go as the devil wants (…) We must put all our belongings into a framework of human understanding characterized by religiosity (…) Religiosity means looking at oneself as God looks upon his creatures and therefore with rights, dignity, and deserved respect.” That is why he never succumbed to Manichaeism. Although he recognized the state of barbarism in Assad’s regime, he criticized me when I told him that Assad’s followers were supporters of barbarism: “It doesn’t work like that. I am sending you a text from one of them. They want what we want.”

We have all said he was kidnapped by ISIS. But was it really a kidnapping? A few days before arriving in Raqqa he wrote to me and to other friends that he had accepted to return. What does the word ‘accept’ mean? I think it means he had been asked to go to ISIS. He knew he was risking everything, that’s why he wrote to us, something he had never done on other occasions, to pray for him. There are many opinions about that mission. For some he carried a message from the Kurdish leadership. I do not know whether this is true. I think he was convinced that a space for dialogue had to be opened. With ISIS? Dialogue is the collapse of ISIS, and he tried to offer himself as a beacon for a dialogue that would awaken Syrians to their own tomorrow, that would break down the barriers of belonging, that would make it clear to all that none of them had been abandoned. The local Churches did not understand this either. That is why it seems to me that he was not kidnapped so much as abandoned by the refugees in the opposing affiliations. But his conscious decision made many Syrian Muslims understand what it means to say “I leave you peace, I give you my peace, not as the world gives it, I give it.” His choice was to help all Syrian diversities to find the common denominator that would unite them in the dynamic, not static, justice of peace: and that common denominator is now back in Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi.


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Cover photo: still from the documentary ‘These Stones Remain’ of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio in Deir Mar Musa, Syria. Patrick Garety and Olivia Crellin (Wikimedia Commons).

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