On 29 July 2013 Father Paolo was abducted by ISIS in the Syrian city of Raqqa. There have been occasional rumours of his death at the hands of ISIS, most recently by an ISIS defector who said Paolo was shot 14 times and his body thrown into a well, but the Vatican so far has refused to confirm or deny such rumours. Until any news is definite, I will therefore keep this piece in the present tense, reissued in remembrance of a remarkable man.
Father Paolo does not fit the mould. He is not a man of conventions and has always pushed at the boundaries of what both Muslims and Christians consider acceptable. An Italian Jesuit priest, he went against the rules of his Jesuit community and set up an ecumenical monastery in the mountainous desert between Homs and Damascus. It represents his entire life and there is no doubt he would be prepared to die for it, for Syria and for his beliefs.
What are his beliefs? For him it does not matter whether you are Muslim or Christian, as long as you are close to God. He rejects the strict concept of ‘orders’ as very occidental: “Orders come from the West,” he always said. “In the east there are no orders.” He also felt it does not matter if you are a man or a woman, as long as your commitment to God is deep and sincere. He has always rejected what he sees as narrow-minded criticism of his allowing both monks and nuns at his community of Mar Musa. Most unusual of all though, is his conviction that he has been called to bring Islam and Christianity closer to each other. This is the whole purpose of his monastery, where masses were attended by Muslims and Christians alike. “We are here for the Muslims and for Islam”, he said. “We must not be against them. We are here for them.”
This is what he said to everyone who visited, and before the revolution up to 50,000 visitors a year came, mostly Muslims. He said it to Marius Kociejowski, who devoted a chapter to Father Paolo in The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool, and he said it to me when I last visited him in November 2011, eight months into the Syrian Revolution when almost no foreigners came any more to Mar Musa.
On that occasion, six months before he was expelled from Syria for his outspoken criticism of the Assad regime and equally outspoken support of the Syrian Revolution, he spoke animatedly about his fears for the country. He foresaw the partition of the country and all the old divisions he was fighting so hard to dispel, resurfacing in ugly ways. He was disappointed in the position that some of his fellow Christian churchmen and women were taking in the struggle, trying to exclude themselves from the fight.
To imagine that he would stay out of Syria after his expulsion was always unrealistic. A man like Paolo could never be a bystander and watch from the sidelines. He knew the risks he took in going into Raqqa, in trying to speak to militarized extremists. The risks would not have mattered to him. What mattered was that he at least tried to negotiate, tried to reason with them not to fight against Kurdish groups. He believed in sacrificing personal happiness in pursuit of a greater goal.
“For me there is no East or West,” he said. He rejected the mould. May his philosophy never die.