Rome (AsiaNews) – Remaining in Syria despite the war and the bombing "was for me the test of faith. I knew what it meant in theory, but I had never personally experienced it. Now I really know what it means to have faith or not, believe or not. Faced with the suffering of people, of friends, before the destruction of the city, doubts develop,” said Fr Youssef Jihad, a monk from the community of Deir Mar Musa at a meeting organised in Rome by the Friends of Deir Mar Musa, in collaboration with the Astalli Centre and the Magis Foundation.
Father Youssef belongs to a community founded in 1991 by Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio, which now includes four monasteries. The first monastery is that of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi*, which is located some 80 kilometres from Damascus, in the desert. Fr Jihad lived there until September. The monastery is home to three monks and four nuns, whose vocation is prayer, manual work, hospitality and Muslim-Christian harmony.
The Syrian Catholic monk remembers the most tragic phases of the Syrian conflict, which closely affected him. “In 2013 al-Nabek was besieged. It is the nearest town to Deir Mar Musa monastery, at about 17 kilometres. Our friends in the city and ourselves spent 25 days that felt more like 25 years locked up in the basement. Our cities are not built to withstand war. We do not have real air-raid shelters. Providence left us a functioning phone in the monastery, so that we could occasionally hear our friends in al-Nabek."
"When the battle was over, we went into the city and saw the destruction, especially the Christian Quarter (which is on higher ground). We thought that if we did not repair the houses of our parishioners, they would go away. Thank God, with the help of three European Catholic organisations, we came up with a plan, and immediately got a positive response. Within four-five months, we repaired 63 homes in the Christian Quarter and also some buildings in the Muslim Quarter."
Father Youssef said that it was not easy to remain in Syria after seeing so much destruction. "At that time, monks and nuns discussed every day whether to stay in Mar Musa, what we were doing there; whether they were going to come and kill us, rob us . . . We remained. We chose to stay for a simple reason: we made our daily discernment, and I can’t say that God told us to stay, but at least he did not tell us to go. We stayed out of solidarity for our Christian and Muslim friends in al-Nabek. We could see in their eyes that our presence was welcomed as a sign of hope, and a true message of peace and brotherhood, which we have preached for 20 years."
The test of faith "was the most difficult challenge we faced in the community, more than the bombs. Because all our faith in a God who helps his people had ended up in nothing. It seemed that God was not listening; we could not understand his will. In my mind, I had an imaginary interlocutor who said to me: Behold! You Christians are good for nothing; you can’t take a real stand that gets immediate results. You seek refuge in a God that you invented, à la Feuerbach.”
“Yet, each day we chose to believe, to confirm the promises of our baptism. We said, 'Lord, we believe, strengthen our faith.’ The concrete sign of God's presence in our lives was a common feeling: that we were not alone. Our prayers and those of friends who came, both Christians and Muslims."
For Fr Youssef, "At times of distress, I can understand the feelings of those who abandon everything to go away, to the sea, to face almost certain death. We are always saying that Christians must remain in the Middle East, cling to their roots. That's right, but in such situations, I realise that fear drives to the point of pulling up one’s roots."
"Those who remain in Syria must have a mission and understand it,” the monk explained. “They must stay out of their free will, not forced. So many are forced to remain because they are either too poor or do not want to risk death at sea. Those who remain must have a mission because the baptised is a mission."
The mission of the community of Deir Mar Musa has always been dialogue and friendship with Muslims. “We want to be a presence for the Islamic world,” Fr Jihad said. “We do not want to stand aside Muslims or head of them. We want to be for Muslims, love them, be curious about them, understand what they believe and do. ‘Go among the Saracens,” as Saint Francis said, identifying yourself as Christian, without proselytising but waiting for the Holy Spirit to speak out and prepare the ground.”
In recent years, the monks of Deir Mar Musa worked with the Jesuit Refugee Centre (JRC) and Caritas, helping “everyone, Christians and Muslims, in the region around the Mar Elian monastery, where Fr Jacques Mourad was the only monk”.
“We took in for three months some 50 Muslim families with women, children and seniors, because they had nothing. When they arrived, they had lost many loved ones and had only the clothes they were wearing. They were welcomed in the monastery where children used to play and go to school.”
“Although this is not enough, this work is essential and has borne fruit because Christians and Muslims in the city talk about 'our monks, our monastery' when they speak of our monastery and community.”
* Dayr mār Mūsá al-Ḥabashī, literally the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian