Michael Peppard writes about his acquaintance Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit priest gone missing in Syria. Prior to the war, Fr. Paolo’s work there involved peacemaking between Muslims and Christians. Now, like two Orthodox bishops in Syria, Fr. Paolo has apparently been taken captive. Peppard goes on:
But I have been unexpectedly angry, disdainful, and plaintive in heart since hearing of his alleged kidnapping. Part of my response comes from my writing a book about early Christianity in Syria at the same time as its current civil war. Another part of it comes from having written scholarship about the art of the medieval monastery, Mar Musa al-Habashi, which is what Fr. Paolo refounded after centuries of abandonment and made into a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims who wanted to meet in peace and prayer.
But the most anguished part of my response comes from the despair that if Fr. Paolo couldn’t figure out the moral calculus in Syria — and he confessed that the complexity of the civil war precluded obvious moral imperatives — then who are we to do so? It’s true that Fr. Paolo ultimately joined the anti-Assad side, but having done so did not necessarily imply a particular course of military action.
Peppard wrote earlier this year a moving post about Fr. Paolo and the extreme difficulty of what a monk (and, you might say, all faithful Christians) are to do when confronted by this terribly complex civil war in Syria.
Syria has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It is being destroyed by this war, because so many Syrian Christians are going into exile. Assad is an evil man, but if the anti-Assad forces win, the Christians are doomed. The ancient Christian community in Iraq has been decimated by the war and its aftermath. In Egypt, the Arab Spring has brought terrible persecution of Egypt’s Christians by Islamists.
What can the rest of us do for them? Who can say? We can, at least, pray for them. In our little parish, we have been praying for John and Paul, the captive Orthodox bishops in Syria, in every service since they were seized. Last night, I saw Peppard’s piece about Fr. Paolo just before I left for Vespers. I lit a candle for Fr. Paolo (above) and prayed for him, and I’m going to add his name to the prayers I offer for the Syrian captives. Maybe you can do this at your church today as well.
Christians should remember that the Christian community of Syria is one of the oldest in the world, having been founded through the evangelical efforts of the Apostles. St. Paul was on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians when he had his miraculous conversion. In other words, there were Christians in Syria before Saul’s conversion. That’s how ancient their presence there is. And they are in danger of being wiped out. Pray.