— Resplendent in black cassock and matching skullcap, the bearded Jesuit appears in a YouTube
video breaking bread with opposition activists and donating blood at a makeshift rebel clinic, highlighting his solidarity with the Syrian rebellion.
But Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a brawny bear of a man who enunciates each word with a theatrical sense of certitude, scoffs at the “jihad priest” label. He says he remains committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in his adopted homeland — a “jihad of the spirit, not a jihad of arms,” as he declared during a recent stay in the rebel-occupied Syrian town of Qusair.
Still, the Italian-born priest warns: “If nonviolence becomes another name for a lack of responsibility, then I am not with nonviolence anymore. I am with the right to defend people.”
Talk like that helped get Dall’Oglio expelled from Syria last month after 30 years in Syria, where his devotion to Christian-Muslim “harmony” earned him a global following as a charismatic and pugnacious interfaith visionary.
The outspoken cleric says he was “kicked out” by church authorities acting on demands from the Syrian government, enraged by his strident pronouncements backing the 16-month uprising against President Bashar Assad
He evinces little sympathy for fellow Christians who fear Assad’s fall could unleash an era of Islamist repression.
“They are in a state of Islamophobia,” Dall’Oglio says of Syrian Christians still loyal to a fraying police state that has throttled dissent but tolerated religious minorities for more than four decades. “From the 1980s, all they’ve heard, repeated and repeated, is that without the Assad state, Syria would be an Islamic hell.”
The Dall’Oglio imbroglio provides a window onto the parlous position of Syria’s Christians, who trace their origins in Syria to pre-Islamic times but now represent perhaps 10% of the nation’s 23 million people, the great majority of whom are Sunni Muslims. Christians are generally counted as pillars of support for the secular Assad administration.
The priest is plainly infuriated by the perception among many Christians that Assad’s ouster would lead to an Islamist takeover that could trigger a backlash against minorities.
“How can we as Christians go with the lies of the regime and stick with the confessional complicity in renouncing the specificity of the Gospel, renouncing the fight for human dignity and freedom?” he asks.
In an “open letter” to United Nations
special envoy Kofi Annan
, Dall’Oglio lays out, in rambling, ornate prose, his case for massive, nonviolent intervention: 3,000 unarmed observers and 30,000 civilian peacekeepers deployed in Syria to help “initiate a widespread start of grass-roots level democratic life.”
It is a characteristically grandiose submission from the flamboyant Jesuit, and probably an unrealistic one, given the constraints of diplomacy and the extreme peril that forced the U.N. to pull back its comparatively minuscule 300-member unarmed observer mission in Syria. But Dall’Oglio is a guy who likes to think big, leading some Christians, and others, to call him naive, trusting too much in the opposition pledges of tolerance.
“The game includes players bigger than him,” says one Christian activist close to the situation in Syria.
The now-exiled priest, speaking from a Jesuit residence in Beirut after his expulsion from Syria, sounds a stern plea for peaceful foreign intervention in the nation to avert what he calls a looming humanitarian catastrophe.
“The question is: Is the international community mature enough to show and affirm full responsibility toward a situation like Syria?” asks the 57-year-old cleric, who argues that Syria is sliding into an abyss of communal slaughter and even partition.
Assad, he says, must go.
“They can receive him and his family in Russia,” Dall’Oglio says. “People are the issue, not dictators.
“What is pitiful is that there are conditions for massive killings, and ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and all of the awful things that we have seen in Bosnia, for instance.”
A native of Rome, Dall’Oglio says he developed an interest in Islam as a young man, specialized in Oriental studies and arrived as a priest in Syria 30 years ago. He founded a center for interreligious dialogue in a restored Byzantine monastery, Deir Mar Musa al Habashi (St. Moses the Abyssinian), situated in a breathtaking cliff-side desert site and featuring restored 11th and 12th century frescoes.
The monastery became a kind of fixture on the offbeat, spiritual-tourism circuit, though the conflict has cut off the once-steady flow of foreign visitors whose contributions helped sustain the place.
In February, Dall’Oglio says, 30 masked gunmen stormed the monastery, demanding, “Where are the weapons!” They left after trashing some equipment, but no one was injured, Dall’Oglio says.
Today, his call for interfaith dialogue seems more urgent than ever. He allows no trace of a smile, saying there is nothing to smile about.
The ethnic cleansing of Syria has already begun, warns Dall’Oglio. But he insists that it is a project of the Assad government, not an objective of the Sunni-led guerrilla forces that have inspired such misgivings among Christians and other Syrian minorities, including Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“The regime is already acting in the logic of division of the country,” says Dall’Oglio, citing rumors of contingency plans for an Alawite-run rump state carved from the Mediterranean shore to the Orontes River. “What do you do with most of the Sunni population? They have started to kill them, massively.”
Syrian authorities deny such allegations linking government-backed shabiha
militias to mass killings in towns such as Houla, where more than 100 people, mostly women and children, were killed in late May. Each side in the Syria conflict inevitably blames the other for the almost-daily litany of massacres.
The monk’s next stop on his Christian-Muslim harmony mission is the Kurdish region of Iraq
, a nation whose recent history underscores the thorny relationship between political liberation and religious tolerance.
The U.S-.led ouster of another secular autocrat, Saddam Hussein
, unleashed a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, along with church-bombings and other assaults targeting Iraq’s Christian minority. It is the fervent hope of Dall’Oglio that the Christians of Syria will not face the same email@example.comSpecial correspondent Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.