By Susan Schwartz, TMO
An empty street is pictured in Salah al-Din neighborhood following clashes between the Free Syrian Army fighters and Syrian Army soldiers in central Aleppo, August 8, 2012.
As the fighting in Syria escalates with the regimeâ€™s callous disregard for the lives of civilians and as Bashir Assad pulls out all stops to preserve his power, a hero emerges from the deluge.
Father Paolo Dallâ€™Oglio is a Jesuit priest, an Italian by ethnicity, and a hero to those within and without Syria who are familiar with his work. Herewith his story.
Father Dallâ€™Oglio went to Syria 30 years ago and visited the Mar Musa monastery located not far from Damascus. He found it abandoned and vowed to rebuild it as an interfaith center. Rebuild it he did, returning it to its original purpose. References to the Mar Musa monastery can be found as far back as sixth century Syriac texts. It was built by Jesuit missionaries then to serve as an interfaith venue for Muslims and Christians.
In Syria Father Dallâ€™Oglio became a champion of the people fighting against the Assad dictatorship. The regime attempted on several occasions to expel him from the country. In late May of this year, following the murder of Christian Syrian filmmaker Bassel Shahade in Homs, the Assad government would not permit Syrians to mourn him in a Homs church. Father Dallâ€™Oglio offered to hold the ceremony in the Mar Musa monastery.
In June the Assad regime succeeded in expelling Father Dallâ€™Oglio. The Syrian American Counsel (SAC)in the Anaheim/Los Angeles area invited him to speak and sponsored his appearance in two venues last week as well as in other venues throughout the United States.
On the morning of August 1 Father Dallâ€™Oglio addressed the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) Senior Leadership.
He told a small group of activists that in Syria Muslims will lead. He opposes secularism and said it grew out of necessity for the Christian community to protect Christians – who would not tolerate pluralism – from each other.
â€œThe Muslim ummah is humane beyond its borders.â€
Father Dallâ€™Oglio then asserted that a friendly and peaceful Middle East would be in Israelâ€™s best interests. Jews and Arabs, he reminded his audience, have lived together for centuries.
In fielding questions from the audience which consisted of youth as well as MPACâ€™s Senior membership, Father Dallâ€™Oglio spoke of the necessity of combating Islamophobia and referenced a book he has written, soon to be available in English. The work â€œLoving Islam – Believing in Jesusâ€ will be a powerful weapon in fighting Islamophobia.
In the early afternoon of the same day Father Dallâ€™Oglio joined a panel of Middle East experts at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Joining him were Professor James Galvin whose expertise is on Syria and anthropologist Lindsay Gilford. The latter has spent time in Syria and is familiar with the land and its people. She attested to the esteem in which Father Dallâ€™Oglio is held.
Professor Galvin spoke of the arrest and torture in two small Syrian cities of young children by one of Assadâ€™s intelligence agencies. This resulted in massive demonstrations, and the forces opposing Assad escalated their activism.
He referred to Father Dallâ€™Oglio as the â€œMandela of Syriaâ€.
Ms Gilford said, referring to Father Dallâ€™Oglio, â€œHe is a household wordâ€. She said that in Syria there is no true civil society as every organization must be licensed by the state.
Father Dallâ€™Oglio said that we cannot practice negationism. We must assume our crimes of history and the blood of our ancestors. There is no present justification for the continuation in power of Bashir Al Assad. He must go.
He said that he believes in the democratic evolution of Muslim society.He does not believe in the classical secular state but in the help of religion to protect society.
Father Dallâ€™Oglio said that if the war continues he will return to Syria and work as a nurse in a revolutionary hospital.
â€œWhat a truly inspiring manâ€ said one student after Father Dallâ€™Oglio had finished his presentation.
The web site of SAC is www.sacouncil.com and the e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
The Syrian American Council is a grassroots organization devoted to promoting educational, civic,economic and human development as well as advancing civil liberties and human dignity in Syria. It also aspires to build bridges of understanding and cooperation between American and Syrian people and institutions.
MPAC is a grass roots organization working for the civil rights of Muslim Americans and the integration of Islam into the American pluralistic system. To access MPAC please use the following web site: www.mpac.org.