A Syrian Haven for Christian Spirituality

By Stephen Starr

Atop a mountain in the Syrian heartland lies a monastery where the message of Christian-Muslim unity is alive and well.

Cooled by eastern-blowing winds from the mountains dividing Lebanon and Syria, Deir Mar Musa is perhaps an unlikely place to find the seed of intercultural and inter-religious understanding. Yet the monastery has been a bedrock of local and national movements for years.

Deir Mar Musa’s reputation and physical restoration is due much to the efforts, determination and belief of a single man. After completing a doctorate in comparative religion and Islamic studies at the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio single-handedly restored the site, setting the first stone in cement in 1982.

Speaking from a library in the monastery, Father Paolo displays a nuanced knowledge of contemporary currents in social and political affairs.

“I came here as a student of Arabic and lived in Lebanon and Syria beginning from the 1970s. I asked a priest in Damascus if he knew of a place where I could go to to study and pray. He suggested I come up here, and here I am today,” explained the priest, who was awarded the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean award for interfaith dialogue on behalf of Deir Mar Musa in 2006.

A Jesuit priest, Father Paolo does not see Christianity as being a superior religion. “I think globalisation has set in motion a series of events and established a new mindset. People are on the move, as you can see right here in this monastery every day. Ideas have new venues from where they can be exchanged and people are getting to see everything through the Internet. So we have had an explosion of information and as a result everyone in this region knows about the Danish cartoon episode and Iraq, etc.,” he said.

A physical presence lumbering around the monastery’s dining area, Father Paolo walks the mountains with a cane alone at night after mass and dinner. He makes himself known to all visitors and can mingle with foreigners and locals alike, in fluent Arabic.

The monastery was founded by Mar Musa al-Habashi, or Saint Moses of Abyssinia, who, as legend has it, was the son of an Ethiopian king. Refusing to accept his future as laid out before him, Saint Moses decided to become a Christian monk and later travelled to Syria where he founded the monastery. Although the monastery itself has been reconstructed over the last 25 years, with funding sourced locally and from Rome, its church is said to date back to the 6th century.

Almost entirely self-sufficient, the monastery’s community is comprised of 15 permanent staff, but can rise to more than 40, all of whom cater to the hundreds of pilgrims arriving during summer from Damascus and the central Syrian valleys, coming to cool off from the 40C-plus heat.

Embracing the need to move with the times, the monastery employs a solar-powered water-heating system and boasts wireless internet in its three-room library.

Today the monastery stands as an important local and national vehicle for interfaith initiatives, in addition to supporting environmental and other projects.

On its busiest days, with such an eclectic mix of backpackers, worshippers and teenagers, it is easy to forget that Deir Mar Musa is a religious site. Couples, even married, must sleep in separate quarters separated by more than a 200-meter mountainside walk.

As many headscarf-wearing Muslim women and girls come to the monastery for day trips as local Christians and western travellers. “Muslims in the Levant consider Deir Mar Musa a place of their own,” said Father Paolo.

In Syria, religiosity is also cultural. Christians in Syria say “Allah” to refer to God but in the West “Allah” is only associated with Islam.

Christians in Syria go to church on Fridays as it is a holiday, in addition to Sundays. Christians and Muslims are equally as religious and have managed to live alongside one another without issue. It is this kind of respect Father Paolo and the others living in the monastery have seen flourish at Deir Mar Musa.

Stephen Starr is a freelance writer.

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