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Features » International

Jesuit priest abducted by al Qaeda has deep ties to Syria

Known by local Muslims as 'Abuna Paolo', or Father Paolo, he has promoted peace in the country for three decades

Jesuit priest abducted by al Qaeda has deep ties to Syria
John L Allen Jr, National Catholic Reporter International

August 12, 2013

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Like most journalists who have been in Rome lately, I know Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio, the Jesuit missionary and pro-democracy activist who disappeared in Syria 11 days ago, becoming the latest symbol of the suffering afflicting everyone in that war-torn nation, especially its Christian minority.

Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino confirmed Tuesday that Dall'Oglio is in the hands of "a local version of Al-Qaeda," presumably a reference to the militant "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" that's become a major player in the uprising against President Bashar Assad.

Few Westerners know Syria as well as Dall'Oglio or feel as passionate about it.

He lived in the country for 30 years, spending most of that time rebuilding an abandoned sixth-century monastery called Deir Mar Musa, turning it into a center for Muslim-Christian friendship. He launched the community al-Khalil, or "Friend of God" community, promoting a more appreciative understanding of Islam among Christians and vice versa. He's known among locals as "Abuna Paolo," Arabic for "Father Paolo."

None of that, however, really brought Dall'Oglio fame. Instead, what made him a celebrity was getting kicked out of the country in June 2012 on the basis of his outspoken support for the anti-Assad opposition.

In retrospect, the regime might have been better advised to keep its friends close and its enemies closer. In exile, the 58-year-old Jesuit has become a tireless crusader on behalf of what he calls "consensual democracy" in Syria, bluntly and repeatedly calling for Assad's ouster. As a result, he became a go-to figure for the press corps on all matters Syrian.

For reporters, Dall'Oglio is a godsend. He knows his stuff, having lived in the country for three decades, and he didn't spend most of that time on the corporate and diplomatic cocktail party circuit in Damascus. He was out in the trenches, where real people live.

He also has a clear point of view – "Assad must go" – that he expresses without a lot of guile or qualifications.

Dall'Oglio isn't afraid of challenging anyone he perceives as feckless. In June, I saw him on a panel in Rome with Italy's former foreign minister, Franco Frattini, where he openly scoffed when Frattini said he wasn't sure if Syria would be better off with regime change. He turned on Frattini, normally a figure who inspires deference if not always agreement, and gave him a blistering mini-education in the realities of life under Assad.

Dall'Oglio also delivered a great candidate for sound bite of the year not long ago, when he was asked about reports that the Vatican is opposed to outside military intervention to remove Assad from power.

"If they don't believe foreign troops sometimes have a legitimate role," Dall'Oglio shot back, "what are the Swiss Guards doing in St Peter's Square?"

That said, Dall'Oglio's views aren't universally shared by Syria's Christians, many of whom are less sanguine about the country's prospects should Assad lose control.

During World Youth Day in Brazil, for example, I met a 29-year-old Latin rite Catholic from Damascus named Bashar Khoury, who bluntly said if Assad falls, he'll leave the country for good because in his eyes, it would mean the inevitable rise of an Islamic state.

Full story: A Jesuit missing in Syria

Source: National Catholic Reporter

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