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Archive for the tag “Raqqa”

Raqqa, City of Contrasts

Raqqa ISIS convoy

Today’s reality in Raqqa, claimed since 2014 as the capital of Islamic State, is hard to reconcile with its illustrious past as a leading city of the Islamic Golden Age. 

But Matthew Heineman’s powerful new film ‘City of Ghosts’, difficult to watch at times, does not concern itself with history. Its focus is the here and now, the story of the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), whose members are risking their lives to send the outside world painful footage from inside Raqqa, in their mission to counter ISIS propaganda. The documentary – in Arabic, with subtitles – follows four of the group’s leading members over the course of a year, starting from late 2015, and includes material recorded covertly in the city by RBSS and other footage from the Syrian revolution.

Nothing in Syria is straightforward and there are cruel ironies. The bird’s eye view given by aerial drone footage in the film’s early shots of Raqqa’s desolate flat landscape with its sprawling mess of modern buildings, is the same bird’s eye view the US-led coalition pilots will be getting from their cockpits as they bomb “a forgotten city in Syria” as Aziz, the main RBSS spokesman, calls his hometown.

“A few thousand extremists,” he laments, “are deemed justification to blow up civilians.” But he was talking back in 2016, not about the massive aerial bombardment campaign currently being waged on Raqqa by the government of the same country that has just given his activist group a top press freedom award, but about the handful of token airstrikes the Assad regime and its Russian ally had seen fit to conduct against the ISIS capital up to that point.

Raqqa bombing August 2017

Over the coming months it is sadly inevitable that Raqqa’s civilians will be slaughtered all too loudly, as they get caught in the crossfire between ISIS mines and the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seeking to ‘liberate’ them. The UN estimates that up to 50,000 of Raqqa’s original 300,000 inhabitants remain trapped inside the city as human shields, prevented by ISIS from leaving.

The famous Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, immortalised in the tales of A Thousand and One Nights, moved his capital in 796 from Baghdad to Raqqa on the banks of the mighty Euphrates River.

Raqqa Old City overview

He built five hectares of palace complexes to symbolise his dominance of the region, from which his recreational summer palace Qasr al-Banat (Palace of the Maidens) and a colossal courtyard mosque with a 25m tower are all that remain today.

The Syrian astronomer Al-Battani (858-929), who calculated the 365-day length of the solar year to an accuracy of within two minutes and who is quoted as a major source by Copernicus over 600 years later, lived and worked in Raqqa.

 

But while future generations will forever associate Raqqa with savagery and Islamist terrorism, the University of Nottingham’s excavations of the 1990s focussed almost exclusively on another of Raqqa’s claims to fame – its 2km-long industrial complex where, from the 8th – 12th centuries, the city manufactured glass and pottery, becoming the Islamic world’s most important glass-making centre.

Raqqa glass 13th century

The well-preserved glass furnaces produced green, brown, blue and purple glass on a commercial scale, made from quartz pebbles of the nearby Euphrates river-bed, combined with the ashes of plants that grow in the surrounding semi-desert environment. The skilled artisans were both Christian and Muslim, buried side by side in an area close to the kiln sites.

“Death is death, as we say in Raqqa” declares Aziz, claiming he has gone beyond fear in his fight against the jihadists. Yet it is clear, as the film follows its four main members of RBSS, that their constant battle to report ISIS atrocities has taken its toll on all of them, as they chain-smoke to settle their nerves and steady their shakes. The opening scenes, juxtaposing the high glitz of the New York awards ceremony with horrific shots of decapitated bodies in Raqqa, capture this well, exposing the gulf between the two worlds. A female US photographer tries to shoot photos of Hamoud, the RBSS photographer, urging him to smile for the camera: “You’re so serious, my friend!” she exclaims.

As the film moves back to Syria, it charts the heady days of the 2011 Revolution with its singing and peaceful demonstrations. “After forty years of Assad, we started to scream for freedom,” Aziz recalls, and the footage moves to Dera’a where “the deaths of fifteen children were the spark that ignited revolution”. He explains how he had no political background before then, and how his father, well-aware what would happen, warns him to stay away from journalism.

The film’s main focus throughout is the danger to the men as activists, a shared danger which deepens their bonds of friendship. As ISIS seeks to silence them, and as their colleagues and family members start to be assassinated, they decide to leave for Turkey’s Gaziantep, assuming it will be safe to continue their work from there. But ISIS is not so easily deterred and their co-founder and mentor Naji Jerf is shot in broad daylight on the city’s streets. The intimate scenes shot at his funeral are among the most moving in the entire film.

Naji Jerf funeral

Some of the activists, including Aziz, are then granted expedited visas, immediate refugee status and free housing by the German government. Only Muhammad, a maths teacher, is married. His wife Rose is the sole female character to appear, and the film now shows footage of them all enjoying snowball fights in Berlin juxtaposed with surreal videos from Raqqa of casual street executions carried out by young ISIS recruits, their victims’ heads impaled on public railings. Mass destruction of satellite dishes is secretly filmed as ISIS cracks down on their activities, determined to cut them off from the world. Safely in Germany, they all suffer from survivors’ guilt. Hamoud, a self-described introvert, watches the video of his father’s assassination, posted online by ISIS, to “give me strength.” Meanwhile the friends experience the harsh reality of a Pegida anti-immigrant rally with heavily tattooed Germans chanting “One-way ticket to Turkey! Deport them!” Aziz is offered German police protection, from ISIS and from Pegida, but refuses it, feeling he cannot accept a protection that his friends lack.

A clear sense is given of how ISIS’s own films and propaganda material has become more professional through recruitment of media specialists, using Hollywood-style special effects to boost membership, making the ISIS lifestyle seem like a glorified video game. “Why play it online when you can play it for real?” reflects Aziz.

What the film does not explain is why ISIS chose Raqqa in the first place. They borrowed the black banner of the Abbasids, but their choice was much shrewder than their awareness of the city’s former glory. The last fifty years of Assad rule left Raqqa’s population neglected and exploited. Its poor and disadvantaged population, ripe with resentment and hatred of the regime, made it fertile ISIS recruiting ground. It is the only place in all of Syria where I have had stones thrown at me as a westerner. The takeover by a handful of extremists of an insignificant provincial backwater was considered unimportant by Assad, so his forces made no attempt to displace the ISIS fighters who first appeared in the city in early 2013. It was a bad miscalculation. The regime did not understand that Raqqa’s strategic location on the Euphrates,

Raqqa Euphrates banks

downstream from Syria’s largest reservoir Lake Assad, and the main hydro-electric dam at Tabqa, together with its proximity to the country’s oil and gas fields, would give the pretender caliphate a disproportionate stranglehold on Syria’s infrastructure from the start. This part of Syria, well-watered, fertile, cotton and wheat-rich, should be the wealthiest in the country, but Bashar al-Assad’s regime, unlike his father’s, has always been urban-focussed, treating the assets of the provinces like possessions to be milked as if they belonged to his personal farm.

The film ends with a warning. In his speech to the assembled New York glitterati, Aziz explains that the conditions and structural problems in Syrian society which enabled the rise of ISIS are still there. Even if their territory is lost, he reads in halting English from his script, their ideology will continue to find supporters among the brutalised and unemployed youth with nothing to lose. When Hamoud becomes a father in Germany (his wife is invisible) the responsibility changes everything for him: “I don’t want my child to struggle like me without a father.” He names his new-born son after his assassinated father, and footage moves from the German hospital where the naked baby gurgles and kicks, to a chilling scene showing Raqqa’s Caliphate Cubs chanting death slogans. A child barely older than a toddler uses a huge knife to saw the head off a startlingly white teddy-bear, then beams, holding up the head triumphantly for the camera and squealing Allahu Akbar on cue.

To recover from such barbarity I recommend a visit to the glass displays of London’s V&A Museum. Gaze at the exquisitely delicate Raqqa perfume bottles, and ponder the fall of such a city, which in happier times centuries ago was known for its beautiful artisanal creations, its earth-changing scientific inventions, its multicultural environment and its magnificent summer palaces – all fostered by an enlightened, outward-looking Islamic state.

IMG_20170405_153342

Exquisite glass perfume bottles made in Raqqa, displayed in London’s V&A Museum (DD)

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Is there a grand American/Kurdish plan in Syria?

Arab families returning to Tel Abyad

Arab families returning to Tel Abyad

Events are moving very fast in northern Syria, so fast it is hard to keep track of all the different threads and what they mean. But one thing seems clear – the Americans and the Kurds are working together because their interests coincide. The Americans want a ground force with whom they can coordinate air strikes to push back ISIS, and the Kurds want to control and link up their three separate cantons along the Turkish border. So far so good, but what is the deal they have struck with each other?

Following the surprisingly quick fall of Tel Abyad to the Kurds last week, their YPG forces have now sped south and taken the town of Ain Issa from ISIS control, along with the nearby military base of Brigade 93 and surrounding villages. It is a half-way point to Raqqa, ISIS headquarters, just 50km further south, so have they really agreed to take on ISIS in its heartland, aided by US air strikes? Such a move would be highly audacious and unless the Americans  already have intelligence that Raqqa is not as strong as it projects itself, would inevitably cost many Kurdish lives. The Kurds would want a big reward for such a project. What might that be?

Ain Issa  is also at a junction of roads heading northwest across the Euphrates near the medieval castle of Qal’at Najm, towards Manbij and Jarabalus, a region the Kurds would have to control if they wanted to link up with their third and most isolated canton of Afrin, northwest of Aleppo. Is that a realistic ambition?

The biggest question is whether or not a grand but as yet undeclared American strategy in the region has now been formulated, using their willing Kurdish partners on the ground to strike at the heart of ISIS in Raqqa and deal it a blow from which it may struggle to recover. With its main supply routes via the Turkish border cut off at Tel Abyad and the Kurds increasingly controlling the Turkish/Syrian frontier areas, ISIS may indeed suddenly be vulnerable at its heart. If Raqqa were to fall the blow to ISIS PR and its image of invincibility would be massive. How deep into Syria’s non-Kurdish territory might the Kurds be persuaded to go? As far as Palmyra for example, just two hours’ drive south from Raqqa?

The picture is confused by many factors. How will the Kurds be received in predominantly Arab areas when there is a clear perception that their YPG forces have been conducting some ‘ethnic cleansing’ exercises in Tel Abyad and other towns they have taken? Arabs are said to feel unwelcome in Rojava, yet Al-Jazeera TV has shown pictures of some Arab families returning to their unlooted homes, even being reunited with their abandoned livestock.

Then there is Turkey’s position, now even more confused by the recent election results, giving more parliamentary representation to the Kurds than at any other time in their history. Today is the first day that efforts to form a ruling coalition are starting in Turkey, with President Erdogan and his dominant AK party increasingly hysterical about the dangers emanating from the strengthening of the Kurds along the Syrian border. Were the Kurds to succeed in joining up their three cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Hassakeh the consequences for Turkey would be considerable: it would put paid to their hopes of a no-fly zone along the border inside Syria and might even permit the Kurds to open up a corridor for an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean from Iraqi Kurdistan. Maybe this is even what has been promised to them by America as their reward for combating Islamic State.

The future of such grand schemes will depend above all on the ability of the Kurds to win over the other ethnic groups with whom they share this territory – Arabs, Turkmens, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Armenians, Chechens. They must prove that their declared intention – to build a democratic life free from race, religion and gender discrimination – is mirrored in their actions. Let us hope that at least is part of the deal.

Related articles:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/06/turkey-syria-kurdish-corridor-in-the-making-kobane.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-33234648

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/6/23/syrian-kurds-seize-raqqa-military-base-from-islamic-state

Schizophrenia in Damascus

Nothing in Damascus was as expected. Convinced there would be food shortages, I had vowed to eat very little during my stay. Yet while the besieged suburbs are starving, the central food markets are overflowing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The fruit stalls of Sharia al-Amin boast bananas from Somalia, the Bzouriye spice markets are buoyant with top-quality saffron from Iran and walnuts from Afghanistan. Lebanese wine and beer are freely available. Prices are higher than before, but still largely affordable for most people.

Sandwiched between the heavily-armed checkpoints, street stands selling thick hot Aleppan sakhlab, a sweet white drink, are everywhere.

Cafes and pastry shops are bursting with sticky delicacies, the famous Bakdash ice-cream parlour is buzzing with people as ever.

Bakdash ice cream parlour, October 2014

To judge from the carpets of cigarette butts on the pavements, smoking rates, always high, are higher than ever. In the main thoroughfare of Souq al-Hamidiya all the usual clothes and flamboyant underwear outlets are still thronging with customers – not a single boarded shopfront – quite a contrast to the average British high street.

Sporadically, in the days as well as the nights, shelling is disturbingly loud, but strangely offstage.

President Bashar al-Assad’s artillery is fired from Mount Qassioun, directly above the city, towards the eastern Ghouta region – the scene of last year’s chemical attack, whose pockets of resistance are still a thorn in the side of the government. Villages there have suffered a food blockade for the last 18 months.

But by all accounts there is much less noise than there was a year ago.

Mount Qassioun, seen from DamascusMount Qassioun, seen across the rooftops of Damascus

From that point of view, very gradually, life in central Damascus is getting better. Yet from other points of view, just as gradually, it is getting worse.

Beyond the 3.5 million who have fled the country as refugees, a further 7.5 million have been internally displaced – added together that accounts for half of Syria’s entire population. Homes which are left empty, if they have not been flattened, are vulnerable to immediate seizure by others – usually the owners have no idea who has moved in and it is too dangerous to go back and find out.

Almost as often, but rarely reported, Syrian homes are taken by profiteers, exploiting the weak or the absent.

My own house in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Damascus, bought and restored in 2005, fell victim a few months ago.

It had been lived in for more than two years, from the summer of 2012 to the summer of 2014, with my consent by displaced friends whose homes had been destroyed in the suburbs. Now they had been evicted by my ex-lawyer and the previous owner conniving together to take it for themselves and split it 50:50.

Determined to get it back I recently returned to Damascus to throw them out and after 15 roller-coaster days, I succeeded. Things can happen surprisingly fast in Syria. You go to meet the judge one day, and he comes to inspect the house the next – without payment.

The old and the new doors to the houseA blacksmith made a new metal door to cover the smashed antique one.

Among the many moments of high drama were two break-ins, six changes of lock, the installation of two metal doors and the exposure of the bogus security reports which had led to my friends being evicted in the first place.

Bit parts were played by a fake general on a forged 25-year lease, and a Baathist single mother in the house with her newborn baby. It was with her that I felt most threatened by violence.

But in some ways life goes on almost as normal: dining with one friend in her 50s, whose car was lost in a random mortar attack, she explains how she now accompanies her 16-year-old nephew by taxi to play in the orchestra at the Opera House to make sure he is not picked up and enlisted into the army. At the checkpoints she clutches his cello between her legs so that the soldiers will not take it.

Checkpoints and road blocks in Yusuf al-Azma SquareCheckpoints and road blocks, such as this one in Yusuf al-Azma Square, are a common sight

Another friend works for the national electricity grid: his job is to repair electric cables damaged in the clashes. Over lunch at his home with his family, he tells me how one of his team stepped on a mine and was blasted to pieces in front of him – the man next to him had his eyes blown out.

He himself was lucky, escaping only with shrapnel in his intestine. He spent two weeks in hospital, two weeks at home recuperating, then went straight back to work. His attitude is simple: anyone who damages Syrian infrastructure is hurting the Syrian people.

The alleys of the Old City are full of children playing football. Many go to the school round the corner from my house.

Such is the overcrowding – some say Damascus’s population has risen from four to seven million because of internally displaced refugees – that their school-day is from 11:00 to 15:00, with one shift before them and another shift after them. They have 50 to 60 in their class but their enthusiasm to learn and to do their homework is undiminished.

The only other foreigners I saw on the streets were Iraqi Shia, men and women led round in groups to visit the shrines by a man wielding an orange lollipop sign.

When I met an old friend at the tourism ministry who still works at his office every day, he explained how this kind of religious tourism is now all they have left, some 200,000 pilgrims a year, after 8.2 million foreign visitors in 2010. He expresses no political views – he is just someone who has chosen to stay and do his job as best he can, like millions of others.

All over the country, even in ISIS-held Raqqa, I was reliably informed, government employees now draw their salaries direct from cash points on specific days, causing long queues outside the banks.

For the last two nights when I was finally able to sleep in my house in Old Damascus I experienced what everyone else has to suffer on a daily basis – scarcely four hours of electricity a day, no gas, no hot water, limited cold water.

It was tough, yet strangely invigorating, crossing the chilly courtyard to wash in a dribble of icy water, warmed by the knowledge I was surrounded by loyal neighbours who were looking out for me. Without them I could never have retaken my house: they protected me, helped me at every turn.

Bait Baroudi

A crisis brings out the worst and the best in people. What I found in Damascus was that a genuine kindness, a shared humanity and an extraordinary sense of humour are well and truly alive. Decent Syrian citizens are together doing their best to fight against immorality and corruption. Morale, in spite of everything, is high. Laughter keeps them sane.

Not once did anyone mention sectarianism. “DA’ESH” (the Arabic acronym for ISIS used across the Middle East) was universally condemned as beyond the pale.

How much longer, as the war approaches its fifth year and the number of greedy opportunists in society increases, such neighbourhood camaraderie can survive is an unanswerable question. But after this fortnight in Damascus I am more optimistic than before.

Diana Darke, Middle East cultural expert and Arabic speaker, is the author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, new 2015 edition now available as paperback and e-book from:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=11301

My House in Damascus

http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/190832399X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421401514&sr=8-1&keywords=9781908323996

Related post:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30494989

 

 

Refutation of Mother Agnes Mariam’s narrative on #Syria

As submitted to The Tablet, published 21 June 2014
“Abigail Frymann tries hard to present both sides of the narrative in her feature interview (“The rebels want my head”, 7 June) with Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross. Sadly, in so doing she falls hook, line and sinker for the controversial nun’s take on matters inside Syria. The view that ‘the majority of anti-Assad fighters in Syria are foreign’ is presented as ‘widely accepted’, yet all reputable media outlets like The Financial Times and the BBC regularly report that whilst there are indeed now many foreign fighters inside Syria, they began in small numbers and only started expanding a year after the uprising began. Even now they account for less than 25% of the total opposition. Assad himself has of course brought in far greater numbers of foreign fighters – from the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – to defend his own regime, but no mention is made of that. 
Certainly matters ‘are not black and white’. But the ‘more complicated reality’ to which Mother Agnes refers is that Assad, under the guise of a general amnesty in early 2012, released al-Qaeda affiliated prisoners from his jails, knowing full well they would regroup and pursue their extremist ideology. Again, no mention is made of that. Now, two years later, the proof is before us, as ISIS, untargeted by regime airstrikes, was allowed to consolidate itself in Ar-Raqqa, from where it has swept into Iraq and taken large swathes of territory. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically – why is it that they have yet to fight each other?
The ‘reconciliation’ initative of which Mother Agnes is part, so loudly trumpeted by the Assad regime that well-meaning people like Mairead Maguire are fooled into nominating Mother Agnes for the Nobel Peace Prize, is a naked attempt to deceive the world that Assad is keen to forgive and forget. Had ‘reconciliation’ been his message at the outset in March 2011 instead of savage crushing of peaceful demonstrations, ISIS extremists could never have thrived on Syrian soil. As to her assertions on the chemical weapons attack,  Human Rights Watch has systematically dismissed the basis for her arguments.
Only when Assad, no doubt amply aided by Hizbullah and Iran, finally orders his forces to drop barrel bombs on ISIS headquarters, instead of on moderate rebel headquarters in Aleppo and Dera’a, will his narrative that he is fighting ‘extremism and terrorism’ become true. Maybe then we can nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Diana Darke
Author of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution
All that remains of St Simeon Stylites' pillar in St Simeon's Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting 'souvenirs' across the centuries [DD]

All that remains of St Simeon Stylites’ pillar in St Simeon’s Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting ‘souvenirs’ across the centuries [DD]

#Syria’s opposition groups – do their ever-changing dynamics matter?

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Arguments will rage about numbers of fighters belonging to this or that group in Syria’s opposition rebels and about who is allied to whom. But does it really matter?

Western analysts are obsessed with putting rebel groups into boxes and labelling them. Are they linked to Al Qa’ida is always the first question? Are they jihadis?  What is their ideology? How Islamist are they? But it has become increasingly difficult to determine accurate numbers, as allegiances are shifting all the time,  new groups are emerging or blending with others. The IHS Jane’s analyst Charles Lister thinks there are up to a thousand rebel groups who together make up a body of some 100,000 opposition fighters. He categorises only 30-40,000 of them as moderates. Other sources put the figures higher, at 120-150,000 opposition fighters, with around 50,000 of them categorised as Free Syrian Army fighters. By these sorts of reckonings something between a third and a half of the fighters are moderates, which means that something between two thirds and a half are labelled extremists.

But how meaningful are these distinctions? As more and more stories come out via journalists who spend time embedded with various rebel groups, a common thread is emerging. Many moderate fighters in the so-called extremist groups like Jabhat An-Nusra are fighting to free Syria from the Assad regime. They will join whichever group is the most effective and best-funded to achieve that end. If that means growing a beard and adopting Islamist names and slogans, so be it. There is also the important fact that these extremists groups in the north have seized much of the country’s oil, gas and grain supplies in Syria’s northeast  Jezira region and can therefore distribute them to ‘loyal subjects.’ But such allegiances are temporary and are based on the economics of war. Very few such fighters and local residents are likely to remain ‘extreme Islamists’ after the objective has been achieved. The vast majority will revert to their previous moderate positions once a charade of extremism is no longer necessary.

The most interesting development of recent days has been the increasingly vocal rejection by the Syrian Coalition and by other opposition fighters inside Syria of the behaviour and ideology of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Shaam, the new extremist group which emerged in spring this year. Its summary executions, seizing of churches as military headquarters and random slaughter of anyone who is not like them are drawing more and more criticism, not just from international commentators abroad, but also from Syrian opposition figures inside and outside the country.

All these developments lead me to hope that, in some future democratic system of free elections inside Syria, Syrians will finally be free to speak out against Islamic extremism and expel it from their country. By having a taste of the reality of an ISIS-led Islamic state in areas around Aleppo and Raqqa, Syrian citizens have seen for themselves how it works on the ground.

As for the recent announcement by the 11/13 rebel groups rejecting the leadership of the Syrian Coalition in exile, that too may be less significant than it first seems. The ever-shifting dynamics among rebel groups on the ground are clearly impossible for outside powers to control, but by the same token are equally difficult for the Assad regime to control, forcing it to realise it cannot win this fight. And that makes the chances of a UN-sponsored peace agreement infinitely more hopeful than before.

Related articles

One year since Father Paolo’s abduction by ISIS

Father Paolo sits besides his beloved 'old stones' of  Deir Mar Mousa

Father Paolo sits besides his beloved ‘old stones’ of Deir Mar Mousa

 

Steps leading up the monastery of Mar Musa (DD)

Steps, which Father Paolo helped to build, leading up to the monastery of Mar Musa (DD)

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.

Father Paolo 2 download

Related links:

http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/20110

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/syria-jesuit-priest-paolo-dall-oglio-killed-498510

http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2014/05/jesuit-priest-father-paolo-dalloglio-sht-14-times-by-syrian-freedom-fighters-video/

 

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