9 years ago in Syria Father Paolo Dall’Oglio disappeared. Sleeper in the Cave?

Years of silence, waiting, hope, since Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit, disappeared 9 years ago in Syria. It was July 27, the feast of the 7 Sleepers of Ephesus. I called Father Paolo on his cell phone, it rang off the hook, no answer. In the following days came the news of his abduction in Al-Raqqah, Syria.

Father Paul was a Jesuit, who in the desert of Syria had started the Mar Musa, Monastery, St. Moses the Abyssinian. One of the most important centers for Christian-Islamic and inter-faith dialogue.

Father Paul, a prophet of the mountain

Much has been said about his disappearance, speculation has been made, TV reports and documentaries have been filmed. The truth is still submerged in the ashes of a dream that seems to have burned. But, as Paul taught us: hope is never won, “Hope against hope.” That is why 9 years later I want to talk about Father Paul, so that his dream-and the dream of a free and peaceful Syria-may remain lit like the stars in the desert nights.

Paolo Dall’Oglio with Annamaria Perini in the forests of the Dolomites

Paolo Dall’Oglio loved Syria with a great love. His prophetic voice still resonates in the hearts of many people. He had “seen” the tsunami, at night, as it happened on the other side of the world. He understood with a unique lucidity the dynamics of international politics. His powerful voice went unheard. In 2012, after being expelled from Syria and many doors slammed in his face even in Italy, he had retreated for some time to the Dolomites, where we had celebrated Dr. Carlo Spagnolli’s recovery. He had devoted himself to organizing a trip to meet with heads of state and ministers from different countries to raise awareness of the looming tragedy in Syria. He believed strongly in diplomacy, the real kind.

Mar Musa, St. Moses the Abyssinian

Father Paolo Dall’Oglio’s “Tuenno Call,” expelled from Syria

At that time, among other meetings, we had been in Val di Non, in Tuenno. There Paolo had launched an appeal, he had called it “The Charter of Tuenno.” I reproduce the text, so that his words will not be lost, and to revive the way of peace in a time when we struggle to talk about peace and nonviolence.

Tuenno Call, 9.11.2012. Initiative of democratic people in solidarity with Syrian democrats.

No fear and no interest can justify the failure of the international community to come to the aid of the Syrian people who have been demanding civil mutation for twenty months and are being torn apart by regime repression. We have therefore activated this popular chain of institutions, representatives and citizens to demand that governments act immediately and industriously in order to counter the various and cross-cutting complicity with the liberticidal regime. It is time to take action on the diplomatic level with more vigor and inclusiveness, on the level of humanitarian assistance with more effectiveness and consistency, on the level of non-violent action with more inventiveness and courage, on the level of partisan struggle with more incisiveness and competence, and on the level of human rights with more rigor and foresight.

In particular, we propose that the European Union foster dialogue among all Syrian identity components in order to promote a broad and fair constitutional settlement that would allow an exit from violence and achieve national reconciliation in the perspective of peace in justice that is to be doggedly pursued throughout the Near East region. Underwritten by: Paolo Dall’Oglio…”

The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

I had picked up Father Paul upon his arrival from Syria after his expulsion. He was distraught. He was dragging himself with an old, worn-out blue backpack. Very little luggage, a few personal items and a gift for us. He had brought us a beautiful icon of the Sleeping Saints. At the moment I did not grasp its meaning, then everything became clearer.

The Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varazze tells of 7 young men who were persecuted by the Roman emperor Decius around 250 AD. They fled to a cave on the mountain near Ephesus, were discovered and the cave was walled up, leaving them inside. Tradition had it that two hundred years later they were found alive and sleeping in the same cave.

Even in Islam, in the “Sura of the Cave,” there is a trace of the sleepers: “And you would have thought them awake, while instead they were asleep, and we turned them on their right and left sides, while their dog was crouched with outstretched paws, on the threshold. […] So they remained in their cave three hundred years, to which they added nine years” (Qur’an, XVIII:18, 25).

Since meeting Father Paolo Dall’Oglio in Syria, so many plans and dreams

I had met Father Paolo Dall’Oglio in Syria in 2008. I wrote the story of our meeting in the book On the Paths of Hope, because it is an event worth telling. I had made Paolo read it, he had liked it very much, he was almost amused.

That year we had organized a branch section of Religion Today Film Festival right in Mar Musa, in the desert. There was no electricity, so we had thought of an ad hoc generator and a sheet as a screen. I had brought the most important films on interfaith dialogue.

The following year, we had started the first path “Dialogues on the Way: on the Paths of Abraham”: a group of young people from different backgrounds had walked on the paths of the patriarch, meeting Sufi communities, from various currents of Islam, Orthodox Christians, Copts, Catholics… It was to become a path somewhat like the one to Santiago…

Dialogues on the Way, Mar Musa

e were committed to another project to provide employment for the 70 shepherd families who lived in the areas near the Monastery. With the help of many, including the president of the Trentino Breeders Federation, Silvano Rauzi, a wonderful dairy had been built. Paul had designed it by visiting several Trentino farmhouses. It was a model dairy, perfect for desert areas, and therefore exportable to other places. It was powered by a few solar panels and the processing brought to produce refined cheeses, thus switching from meat sheep, to dairy sheep. Silvano had gone up to the monastery to dose the salt and balance the flavors.

Finally, Father Paul was among the inspirers and founders of the Women of Faith for Peace movement, which will soon gather in Jerusalem and Haifa to remember Faten Zenati  and in Trent, during the 25th Religion Today Film Festival, Sept. 14-18, 2022.

ays forward on roads not taken, to name fears and thus defeat violence.

Dreaming in Palmira

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