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After 30 Years In Syria, Outspoken Priest Is Expelled

Jun 18, 2012
Originally published on June 18, 2012 11:05 pm

Syria has expelled an Italian Jesuit priest for his outspoken criticism of the government's crackdown on a popular uprising. The Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio has lived in Syria for 30 years, helping to restore a 1,000-year-old monastery that became a center for Muslim and Christian understanding.

Dall'Oglio's departure from Damascus on Saturday was sudden. More than a year ago, the government ordered him out, but a campaign on Facebook — "No to the Exile of Father Paolo" — delayed his expulsion.

When the anti-government demonstrations began last year, Dall'Oglio supported the young Syrians who risked their lives to protest peacefully.

"I am very moved by the face of many youth that have been suffering enormously to achieve their desire of freedom and dignity," Dall'Oglio said last week from the garden of his home in Damascus as he bade farewell to friends and supporters before his expulsion. "There are so many young persons that are put in jail and tortured, just because they have expressed, nonviolently, their opinions."

His opinions have finally landed him on the wrong side of the government.

Sectarian Friction

For three decades, he headed a Christian community in an ancient monastery he helped restore in the hills outside Damascus. He invited Muslims and Christians to pray together — and they did — in more peaceful times. But Dall'Oglio says the uprising has strained Syria's diverse religious fabric.

The government says it protects religious minorities — the Christians, the Alawites and others — against what it says is an uprising of Muslim fundamentalists. Dall'Oglio rejects this picture as simplistic, but acknowledges the tensions.

When asked whether he thinks Christians in Syria are under threat from the uprising, Dall'Oglio is adamant that it is not the revolution that threatens them, but the conflict between the opposition and the regime, and the Alawite community.

"So there is, in some parts of Syria, in a real civil war — we know that," he said.

Dall'Oglio also knows Syria's minority Christians have real fears, but he says it is a generational issue. Older Christians have no experience with democracy — not in the family or in the community. Many younger Christians have joined the revolt because, he says, they believe democracy is better protection than the regime's violence and oppression against the Muslim majority.

"Many Christian youth believe in a better world. We should pay attention to them. Something new has happened," Dall'Oglio said. "I've been with Alawites for democracy, Sunnis for democracy, Christians for democracy — these people are real."

Dangers, And Violence, Grow

They are real, he says, and in danger. When a young activist, photographer Basil Shehadi, a Christian, was killed by a sniper in the embattled city of Homs, the church in Damascus refused to hold his funeral — a sign of the divisions in the community.

Dall'Oglio arranged to hold the service at his monastery, where he says young activists — Christians, Sunnis and Alawites — mourned the loss and prayed together.

Does he have faith in this uprising now that it has entered a more violent phase?

"I am a monk, and I have taken a position with nonviolence," he says. But, he adds, "the church I belong to believes in the right of people of self-defense. I will stay faithful to nonviolence, but I won't be astonished that violence brings violence in reaction."

Dall'Oglio's departure comes as the Syrian government has launched a relentless offensive against the armed wing of the revolution. Civilians, no matter their religion, are dying every day. The priest's supporters say the government is trying to silence a voice for religious tolerance, just as the country slides into civil war.

"It would be better for me to be dead with the martyrs of this country than to go away in exile," Dall'Oglio says. "I have offered my life for the future of this country, and I wish to stay in full solidarity with them; so I will come back."

But not, he fears, anytime soon.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now to Syria and to one man who has been expelled for criticizing the government's crackdown on dissent. Father Paolo Dall'Oglio is an Italian Jesuit priest. He's lived in Syria for 30 years. In that time, he's helped to restore a 1,000-year-old monastery that became a center for Muslim and Christian understanding. NPR's Deborah Amos met him as he prepared to leave Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Father Paolo Dall'Oglio was saying goodbye to friends and supporters over coffee in the garden of a house in Damascus. His departure was sudden. More than a year ago, the government ordered him out, but a campaign on Facebook delayed his expulsion. So the Facebook page is no to the exile of Father Paolo.

FATHER PAOLO DALL'OGLIO: There is a Facebook active now where thousands have been signing in response to the tries to kick me out.

AMOS: When the demonstrations began last year, Father Paolo supported a generation of young Syrians who risked their lives to protest peacefully.

DALL'OGLIO: I am very moved by the face of many youth that have been suffering enormously to achieve their desire of dignity and freedom. There is so many young persons that are put in jail and tortured just because they have expressed nonviolently their opinions.

AMOS: His opinions have finally landed him on the wrong side of the government. For three decades, he headed a Christian community in an ancient monastery he helped restore in the hills outside of Damascus. He invited Muslims and Christians to pray together, and they did in more peaceful times, but he says the uprising has strained Syria's diverse religious fabric. The government claims it protects religious minorities - the Christians, the Alawites and others - against what it claims is an uprising of Muslim fundamentalists. Father Paolo rejects this picture. It's simplistic, he says, but he acknowledges the tensions.

DALL'OGLIO: The issue of the confessional conflict in Syria is already a reality.

AMOS: Do you think that the Christians are under threat in Syria from the revolution?

DALL'OGLIO: No, no, no, no, no, they're not under threat from the revolution. They are under threat from the conflict between the revolution and the regime and the Alawite community. So there is, in some parts of Syria, a real civil war. We know that.

AMOS: He also knows Syria's minority Christians have real fears, but he says it is a generation thing - older Christians have no experience with democracy, not in the family, not in the community. Many younger Christians have joined the revolt because, he says, they believe democracy is better protection than the regime's violence and oppression against the Muslim majority.

DALL'OGLIO: Many Christian youth believe in a better world. We should pay attention to them. Something new has happened - been with Alawites for democracy, Sunni for democracy, Christian for democracy, these people are real.

AMOS: They are real, he says, and in danger. When a young activist, photographer Basil Shehadi, a Christian, was killed by a sniper in the embattled city of Homs, the church in Damascus refused to hold his funeral, a sign of the divisions in the community. Father Paolo arranged to hold the service at his monastery where he says young activists, Christians, Sunnis and Alawites mourned the loss and prayed together. Do you have faith in this revolution now that it has moved to a more violent phase?

DALL'OGLIO: I am a monk, and I have taken a position with nonviolence. But let me say something, the church I belong to believe in the right of people of self-defense. I will stay faithful to nonviolence, but I won't be astonished that violence bring in violence in reaction.

AMOS: His departure comes as the government has launched a relentless offensive against the armed wing of the revolution. Civilians, no matter their religion, are dying every day. Father Paolo's supporters say the government is trying to silence a voice for religious tolerance just as the country slides into civil war.

DALL'OGLIO: It would be better for me to be dead with the martyrs of this country than to go away in exile. I have offered my life for the future of this country, and I wish to stay in full solidarity with them, so I'll come back.

AMOS: But not anytime soon as he knows when he gives his blessing to those devastated by his exile.

DALL'OGLIO: God bless you.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.