My name is Deema, I am Syrian, and I come from Homs, a city in the centre of Syria tragically affected by the war. I belong to the monastic community of al-Khalil (“friend of God”) founded in the Syrian Catholic monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi (St Moses the Abyssinian) in 1991 by Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio SJ, together with Jacques Mourad. We have not heard from Fr. Paolo since he was kidnapped by the so-called Islamic State in July 2013. Fr Jacques, however, was kidnapped in 2015 by ISIS, and released a few months later.
If I were to describe our monastic life, I would say that it is based on three priorities and one horizon. The first priority is prayer. As it says in the text of our rules, “we came to the Monastery above all to pray and to pray uninterruptedly, therefore continuous, conscious and deep communication with God is our goal, our right and our duty.”
Our life is also consecrated to manual labour, seen and lived as obedience to the commandment given to man to care for the earth and thus co-participate in creation. The third priority, instead, is the hospitality inspired by Abraham, who welcomed God into his tent. In each person, we see God who comes to visit us. This welcome finds its deepest meaning when we are able to welcome the other in our prayer.
The horizon onto which our life opens is the vocation to Islamic-Christian dialogue. We wish to consecrate ourselves particularly to the love of Jesus Christ for Muslims as people, and for the Muslim world as a community (Umma). In fact, we want to offer our lives to make the Gospel leaven ever present in the Muslim-majority society, and this, as the community Rule states, “in the spirit of discernment, hope and charity capable of transforming the suffering of yesterday and today for mutual understanding and love into mutual consideration and respect”.
Vocation of dialogue for peace
In times of war, our vocation to dialogue could seem like madness, but day after day, we experience that it could be the way — I want to say the only way out — towards a world of peace.
Our monastery has been a destination for many pilgrims who wish to, not only satisfy their cultural curiosity, but also satisfy their spiritual thirst. The war has had an effect on this movement and we heard the call to go down to the cities to rescue the needy.
In 2013, the community celebrated Christmas Mass in an underground location, following the destruction of the Christian neighbourhood of Nebek, the city closest to the monastery. After this, a huge work of reconstruction of the houses took place, thanks to the enthusiasm of many collaborators and the generosity of many friends scattered throughout the world.
The same year, many Muslim families found refuge in the Mar Elian Monastery in the city of Qaryatyan, which was entrusted to the community in the year 2000. Here too, thanks to the solidarity of many people, we were able to help these families repair and return to their homes.
After this intense period of fighting, a phase of relative calm began, a period in which we began to think of the future. We understood that it is appropriate, and also necessary, to “announce a word of hope in this dark night, to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness”, to cite the letter written by the monastic community for the Christmas vigil, mentioned above.
To think about the future means to think about children and young people. From that moment to today, we have helped support a kindergarten in Nebek, we have founded a school of music for the children and young people of two of the city’s parishes, and we have helped several young people in their university studies and with employment.
The little information that was available in Italian news sources on the situation in Syria has given way to other news, unfortunately still about war. An immense suffering penetrates Syrian hearts and the crisis continues to this day.
Hope born in simple daily actions
If I write these words, it is only because I would like to bear witness to the way hope, despite everything, arises from very simple daily gestures, gestures that the media are unable to transmit, or that they consciously choose not to communicate.
During the years of war, we were able to touch the Lord’s mercy expressed in mutual compassion and solidarity among brothers and sisters.
To participate in some Masses in the city; to see young people, both Christian and Muslim, serve those in need with enthusiasm and joy; to participate in praying the rosary in houses as fighting went on right around the corner; to hear a chorus of children; to know that many Muslim friends worry about us and pray for peace, denouncing all forms of violence; to hear the prayers of many friends scattered throughout the world … all this has kindled a timid light of hope.
Indeed, sometimes it was enough to see how the ordinary person continued to live, to believe in God and to hope for a better future, in order to catch their breath and continue to journey along the narrow path of hope.
As far as I am concerned — and I think that I speak not only for myself but also for my community and many Syrians — in these years I have fought to protect even my hope in mankind and its capacity to do good and to choose the path of non-violence.
I have faith in mankind’s possibility to open up to the Lord’s grace. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis teaches us that “we become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.”
To try to be human in times of war allows us to enter into the circle of Love that knows no limits and is capable of changing the world and making the seeds of the Kingdom blossom on earth, now and not in a distant future. I can cry out with certainty that some Syrians have entered into this circle!