Monday, May 01, 2006

Reviving an Ancient Monastery in Syria

Interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor about an Italian Jesuit who discovered a crumbling, unused 6th century monestary, and is attempting to bring it back to prominence. He is also trying to use it as a means of bridging the gap between Christians and Muslims in Syria.

A Syrian monastery lies at the nexus of Islam, Christianity

By James Brandon
- It is late afternoon at the monastery of Deir Mar Musa on the edge of the Syrian desert and the only sounds are the call of desert birds and the whisper of the breeze over time-worn stones.

Until, that is, a group of Muslim schoolgirls arrive from a nearby town to fill the monastery's valley with laughter and joyful chattering.

"Keep the noise down. This is a monastery," bellows the Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, the monastery's Italian Jesuit founder, looking stern for a moment before breaking into a broad, proud smile.

The monastery of Deir Mar Musa was first built by Greek monks in the sixth century as a remote retreat from the material and political world. Abandoned in the 19th century, it once again houses a small religious community. But now, under its second founder, Father Dall'Oglio, it is on the forefront of politics with a fresh approach to bridge-building with the Islamic world.

"When I arrived here 25 years ago, Syria was [a] center of the struggle between communism and capitalism," says Dall'Oglio, dressed in a worn gray pullover. "And today it is the crossroads between Islam and Christianity."

"For us, dialogue really starts from being curious about others," he says, explaining that instead of proselytizing, the Catholic Church now advocates building bridges with Islam.

Through day-to-day interaction, bridge-building is what the Deir Mar Musa's six monks and nuns and several lay assistants are working toward. Traveling to local Muslim communities they work with Muslim leaders to improve opportunities for young people, promote ecological awareness, and arrange theological discussions between religious leaders.

"It's really just a simple, evangelical life," he says, stroking silvery beard. "I accept pluralism as a gift from God."

In 1977, Dell'oglio began studying Arabic in Damascus, where he soon heard about a ruined Byzantine monastery 50 miles away on the edge of the Syrian desert.

Five years later he made his first visit. After leaving the main road and trekking into barren hills, he arrived at a crumbling building. Clambering through the ruins, he found himself in a roofless church staring at medieval frescos slowly dissolving beneath the sun, wind, and rain.

"I came here for 10 days of prayer and meditation," he says. When he returned to Damascus, he began laying plans for nearly a decade to restore the ruins and make it the home for a new sort of monastery.

REBUILT: An Italian Jesuit has reopened an ancient monastery in Syria to act as a bridge between Christians and Muslims.


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