Friday, April 20, 2012

What is happening in Syria?

Mar Musa or Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi literally The Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian is a monastic community Syriac Catholic rite, situated near the town of Nabk, approximately 80 kilometers north of Damascus. Paolo Dall’Oglio SJ is the leader of this community and Sebastien Duhaut is an inmate of the monastery. Both Paolo and Sebastien tell Victor Edwin SJ about the present situation in Syria for Jivan. It is reprinted from Jivan.

Edwin: Kindly tell us the context in which the protests are taking place and the effect on Syria and its secular credentials? 

Dall’Oglio: The current protests are a logical extension of the movement for democracy that is currently sweeping the Arabic world, from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, etc. They are also in line with past movements in Syria itself (Muslim brothers’ revolt in 1982, "Damascus spring" in 2000, etc.).

Syria has a long history of nationalist anti-imperialist positions. A part of its territory, the Golan, is still occupied by Israel, and obviously no peace treaty could be signed in those conditions (unlike Egypt or Jordan). Moreover, Syria supports the militant groups that defend the Palestinian cause (Hamas, Hezbollah). Last but not least, it has until now kept and even strengthened its alliance with Iran, the stronghold of resistance to Western strategic interests in the region. This proximity with the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran also has a religious dimension, since the Alawites in power in Syria are a particular Shiite group.
Although this stance has earned the Syrian regime some support in its population and in the Arabic/Muslim audience, it does not at all immunize it against demands for political freedom, transparent elections and respect of human rights.

The geostrategic situation of the region is very complex and it is almost impossible to make predictions. Nearly all the actors, at the regional and global levels, are involved in the local developments. So far, there are Arabic Sunni actors (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries, the Muslim brothers of Egypt and Jordan, the Hamas in Gaza, the Hariri group in Beirut, the Arabic Sunnis in Iraq…), non-Arabic Sunnis (mostly in Turkey, but also the Kurds), Shiites (Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, the new Iraqi regime), the West (US, Europe) and the other powers (Russia, China, Brazil, etc.). The most important negotiation is between Turkey and Iran.

So, how much Syria would be able to keep its secular credentials depends very much on the positions of neighbors and partners. A divided Syria would be more extreme in all its attitudes.

Edwin: Is there a fear among Syrians that Islamists or Islamist-leaning figures are taking over power?

Dall’Oglio: The fear does exist, especially among religious minorities: Christians, but also (and sometimes to a greater extent) among the heterodox Islamic communities such as Alawites, Druzes, Ismailis, etc.
Fundamentalist Islam (salafist-wahhabi) exists in Syria, but represents a small minority. The Muslim Brotherhood is far more popular, but should not be immediately labeled as “extremist”.

The fear of a political Islam has long been used by the Syrian authorities to justify a strong system of repression. We should not forget that this fear was also used by the West to justify friendship and commercial ties with Ben Ali and Mubarak, among other Arabic dictators.

As Christian minorities in the Islamic world, we should not be paralyzed by the phobia of a political Islam. Above all, this worry should not lead us into supporting policies and systems that are contrary to our ethical values.

Our long term future, inside the Muslim Umma, depends on good neighboring attitudes, theological appreciation of other religions and common militancy for human progress. At Mar Musa, our hopes and prayers go towards the peaceful maturation of both Islam and Eastern Christianity, towards promoting a full acceptance of pluralism, freedom of conscience and dignity and rights of persons and groups. 

Edwin: Are the religious minorities nervous about the future of Syria?

Dall’Oglio: Communities that have enjoyed a privileged position during the past decades obviously do not want to lose it. The situation is now blocked, with a symmetrical escalation in violence and deadly clashes that occur every Friday, if not every day. In some cities, we already see violent confrontation between people of different communities.
We all pray for peace. From Friday, September 23th, to Friday, September 30th, the monastery has organized a week of prayer and fast for reconciliation. The text of the call is available on our website:

Edwin: It is said that the diversity and unity of the protesters guarantee that Syria will not fall into sectarian conflict if the Assad regime falls. What is your assessment?

Dall’Oglio: This is rather optimistic. But on the ground, demonstrators and victims are mostly Sunnis, while religious minorities tend to support the regime. This gap constitutes in itself a factor of sectarian conflict, or even civil war. In case the regime simply “falls”, rather than transforming and opening itself, and without an alternative in sight, the risk of a Yugoslavian scenario should not be underestimated. Given the geography of Syria, and the interest of other regional powers in its breaking down, this would entail violent ethnic cleansing and finally loss of the national unity.

Edwin: Kindly tell us about your ministry at Deir Mar Musa?

Dall’Oglio: Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi is an ancient monastery located in the desert mountains of Qalamun. After two centuries of abandonment and ruin, it has been restored and now harbors a monastic community of monks and nuns, dedicated to religious dialogue with Islam, prayer, manual work and hospitality. Many Syrians of all religions continue to visit us, to stay with us for a few days, a few weeks or a few months. They find here a place of serenity, tolerance and introspection.
Our mission is to encourage a self-awareness of Christianity that goes beyond mere sociological belonging and, following Jesus’ example, puts at the core openness to the other, brotherhood and forgiveness. 

Edwin: What is your message for the Jesuits in South Asia?

Dall’Oglio: I want here to stress the importance of symbolical figures that can play a leading role in mobilizing spiritual energies for reconciliation, peace and brotherhood. In our region, “Middle-East” or “West Asia”, Abraham is most certainly the key-figure. He is the one who overcomes ethnic belonging to follow, as a pilgrim, the call of Truth. He is the common father of Muslims, Christians and Jews. That is why he is so important to us. In Arabic, we say “Ibrahim al-Khalil” (Abraham the friend of God), and al-Khalil has become the name of our monastic community.

We are among the founders of the Abraham Path Initiative, a program that aims at creating a common pilgrimage of the three faiths, crossing Turkey, Syria, Jordan and ending in the Holy Land with Jerusalem/al-Qods and Hebron/al-Khalil, the tomb of the Patriarchs. Of course, this idea can be the object of political-ideological manipulations or criticism, from the various parties involved. But we remain firm in our pursuit of a Godly inspired peace, fair and complete, based on the joy of living together and on the appreciation of religious diversity.

Abraham, if he had lived nowadays, would have been confronted, in this same region, by an incredible number of visas, stamps, “security walls” and border controls! This is why he remains an inspiring, disturbing and prophetic figure.

So I invite the Jesuits of South Asia to get interested in this spirit of Abrahamic hospitality, to spread it and to take part in it actively. We hope also, when peace will be established, that people from South Asia will come to visit those countries, not only in the pattern of Christian pilgrimage, but also in the one of Abrahamic harmony.

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