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A quest for 'the only possibility' in the Syrian desert

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  • Thomas Daniel
    A quest for the only possibility in the Syrian desert A community centered on an ancient monastery strives to shine light on Muslim-Christian dialogue and
    Message 1 of 2 , Feb 6, 2002
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      A community centered on an ancient monastery strives to shine light on Muslim-Christian dialogue and Middle East peace
      Stephanie Saldana
      Daily Star staff
       
      NEBEK, Syria: The year is 1982 and in Lebanon, after seven years of civil war, Israel has besieged Beirut. Sectarian violence has thrown the region into chaos. And a young Italian Jesuit student of Arabic has wandered alone into the 1,500-year-old remains of a monastery in rural Syria, where he sits among the walls still haunted with frescoes, and wonders how he, how the countries around him, will survive.
       
      Fast forward 20 years, and you will still find Father Paolo Dall' Oglio meditating among the ghosts of the same frescoes each morning, in the same monastery, with many of the same questions about the Middle East. The difference is that these days he is rarely alone. And what were once simply ruins have now been transformed into a tiny monastery that could revolutionize the Middle Eastern debate on Muslim-Christian coexistence.
       
      Tucked above a desert valley beyond Nebek, the Deir Mar Musa Monastery is dedicated to practicing Christianity within the broader context of Islam. Here, the worn frescoes on the church walls have been joined by newer Syrian faces  Maronite, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and Roman Catholic who have cast aside their differences to save their country's differences.
       
      Christians have been migrating to America, Europe and Australia in alarming numbers, unraveling Syria's religious pluralism. The city of Nebek has a population of some 500 Christians among 45,500 Muslims. Like the world's rare languages, Christian communities in rural Syria are in danger of becoming extinct.
       
      Sitting on the porch overlooking the valley, Paolo is exhausted these days.With the intifada raging in the West Bank and Gaza and the post-Sept. 11 crisis sparking the "clash of civilizations" hype, he repeated how little has changed since he first came here.
       
      Insisting that the polarization of religious communities in Syria is just one example of an international crisis of "us" vs "them," he repeated that dialogue remains the only answer.
       
      "If you conceive of the other as the enemy, if you cannot conceive of them as blessed, then there is no reason for Christians to stay in Syria," he said.
       
      Enter into the equation the monastic community at Deir Mar Musa, where monks and nuns have taken their vows of poverty, chastity and service, all within a commitment to Muslim-Christian coexistence, and where they foster the belief that Christianity and Islam are two separate bodies that complete one another. Officially founded by Paolo in 1991, they pride themselves not only in their ancient church and Ibrahimitic hospitality, but on the personal relationships they have formed with sheikhs throughout Syria, with members of the surrounding Muslim communities, and with the Koranic schools in Damascus.
       
      To outsiders, a typical day at the monastery consists of men and women feeding goats, making cheese, translating documents and building virtual monasteries in cyberspace. However, the dialogue is in the details. That phone ringing? The Grand Mufti of Nebek. The wall decorations? Beside the crucifixes, there's an Islamic calendar and a poster of a shepherd in Palestine, an expression of solidarity.
       
      Take a peek into the library, and you'll stumble onto the Lives of the Saints.But you'll also find shelves of commentary on the Koran, Islamic philosophy, Sufism and books on religious dialogue. Even within the church, pews have been replaced by carpets and sheepskin rugs, and prayer sessions consist of readings followed by questions and debate. It is as if Syriac Christianity has somehow collided with the notion of a mosque as a place not just to pray, but to gather and discuss.
       
      Christians at Deir Mar Musa are learning what they can learn from Islam. At the same time, Muslims are learning about Christianity, as the number of Muslims who visit the church on weekends and during the summer attests. Working together, Christians and Muslims from the surrounding areas have succeeded in having the valley preserved as a national park. Muslims are actively engaged with Christians on most of the monastery's building projects. Workshops and seminars on Muslim-Christian coexistence held at the monastery draw not only Muslims and Christians from throughout the Middle East, but from Europe and America as well. And in light of the intifada, the community has sent out extensive literature to American and European Christian communities, reminding them that violence in the Middle East is less about religion than it is about human rights.
       
      The monastery urges a simple, local dialogue of humanity. Brother Jens Petzold, a monk at the monastery, said that the most important lesson in dialogue is to remember that small moments hold huge opportunities.
       
      "There are choices in everything," he explained. "Even when local Muslims come up to visit the monastery ��� and we show them the frescoes, there is a choice. Will we describe the Church scenes in a way that will make sense to someone with a background in Islam?
       
      "I liked the openness to other traditions," he continued, "that the other attitudes are not simply a historical mistake, that there must be something more."
       
      Like others here, he is both proud of the monastery's accomplishments and troubled by how much remains to be done.
       
      "Too often, people have the idea that they are living with their enemy ��� I think we're the only church in the world committed to Christianity within the framework of Islam. People need to be told: There is a role for Islam in the world, and there's a role for Christianity."
       
      Though Paolo originally had a rocky relationship with the Catholic church, these days he is helping Syria hold center stage as a country taking strides to bridge the Muslim-Christian divide. In May of last year, Pope John Paul II removed his shoes and entered the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and in a speech to Muslim leaders, asked forgiveness from God for "all the times Muslims and Christians have offended one another."
       
      Times are changing in the region, but at Deir Mar Musa, the concern is that they are simply not changing quickly enough.
       
      "At Deir Mar Musa, we are doing something without hope," Paolo admitted a few weeks ago, voicing concerns that the disintegration of religious pluralism will create an erosion of democracy. "Canada, the United States, Australia, they are interested in taking the elites of the Third World, though we need these people in order to grow. The United States still thinks in terms of nations. But I am convinced that in a global society, that if you do not work to create global democracy, then we will lose our democracy. Democracy cannot be the privilege of some nations. That will create terrorism."
       
      Plans at the monastery include building an interfaith chapel in the valley where Muslims and Christians can come together. But Paolo admitted that these days it often feels like an uphill climb.
       
      "Sometimes, I wish that Jerusalem, with all of its problems, would disappear," he said. "Muslims cannot see the meaning for Jews, Jews cannot see the cry for justice among Palestinians, there is no possibility for mutual recognition. It is an eschatological disaster, and Sept. 11 is a symbol of that."
       
      Pausing for a moment, he continued firmly: "What has happened was expected. Do not say that it was unexpected. Years ago, we wrote here that the only answer was a truce. Now, on this basis, we can start a real dialogue, to find real solutions. This is the only possibility."

      Lebanese Daily Star Online


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    • DANIEL BABU PAUL
      very fascinating. is it possible for foreigners to join this monastery? TOTUS TUUS MARIA ... From: Thomas Daniel To: OzInterOrthodoxUnity@yahoogroups.com ;
      Message 2 of 2 , Feb 10, 2002
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        very  fascinating.
        is it possible for foreigners to join this monastery?
        TOTUS TUUS MARIA
        ----- Original Message -----
        Sent: Wednesday, February 06, 2002 8:45 PM
        Subject: [SOCM-FORUM] A quest for 'the only possibility' in the Syrian desert

         
        A community centered on an ancient monastery strives to shine light on Muslim-Christian dialogue and Middle East peace
        Stephanie Saldana
        Daily Star staff
         
        NEBEK, Syria: The year is 1982 and in Lebanon, after seven years of civil war, Israel has besieged Beirut. To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:
        SOCM-FORUM-unsubscribe@egroups.com



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