12/07/2015, 00.00
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Fr Jens Petzold’s mission in Iraq and Syria is to build bridges between Christians and Muslims

The 53-year-old Swiss religious spoke to AsiaNews about how his vocation emerged during a spiritual journey in the Middle East. After his baptism on Easter 1996, he took his vows four years later. At present, he heads a monastery in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Despite negative experiences the Mar Musa community has had, the greatest danger is not trying to have any contact with Islam."

Sulaymaniyah (AsiaNews) – Fr Jens Petzold, a German-born Swiss, is a member of a Christian monastic community born from the experience of Deir Mar Musa, Syria, whose main features are prayer, acceptance and dialogue with everyone, especially Muslims.

The 53-year-old came late to his vocation, which he discovered and developed as an adult in a Syrian monastery where he began studying the great religions of the world, especially those of the East.

Here he has led a missionary life dedicated to building bridges between Christians and Muslims in Middle East countries now torn by war and violence that have (also) acquired a confessional overtone.

Before he discovered his missionary vocation he studied marketing, doing various jobs before moving to the Middle East, where he has lived for the past 20 years.

Since 2001, Fr Jens heads a monastic community in Sulaymaniyah, one of the main cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was an outgrowth of the monastic experience in Deir Mar Musa, Syria.

The following year he also devoted himself to a 19th century church dedicated to the Virgin, in Sabunkaran district, at the request of Mar Louis Raphael I Sako, then Archbishop of Kirkuk, now patriarch of the Chaldean Church.

Deir Maryam al-Adhra (Monastery of the Virgin Mary) was founded by Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi, the Syrian monastic community founded by Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio, who prayed and worked for dialogue with Islam.

"My call to mission came late,” Fr Jens said, “because until 1994, when I came for the first time to the Middle East, I was not a Christian. In Europe, I had started a spiritual journey, looking to Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, which fascinated me. This is why I decided to leave Europe, to discover how people lived in countries with well-established Buddhist traditions. After a year of travel I arrived in Syria, even though my final destination was Japan."

Syria conquered him and he decided to stay for seven months and begin to study Arabic. "Finally,” he said, “I discovered the monastery of Mar Musa where I saw a community that took seriously other religions."

Those in charge of the monastery “offered me an opportunity to stay for a year to study and research,” he explained. “I accepted the proposal with enthusiasm. I realised immediately that to create bridges one must be part of one of the two banks of a river.”

“A decision of faith had to be taken,” he said, “and one had to rely on the Holy Spirit. It was the year 1994. At that time, I knew I wanted to become a Christian and dedicate my life to this particular monastic and missionary experience.”

Thus, he began a journey to deepen his faith through study and prayer that led to his baptism on Easter 1996. Four years later, at Easter, he pronounced his vows. He also spent two years in Rome taking Arabic and Islamic studies at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI).

"Where I live (Sulaymaniyah), it is hard to believe that war is raging just 150 km away. The city has cafés and even at the worst time, last year, when the Islamic state (IS) was advancing, one could not feel any tensions.

“Of course, restaurants were empty because of fear, but normal life ran its course. We never ran out of food. There was some petrol rationing; that is all. We did see refugees, 220 of whom are staying in our community with another 5,000 spread around the city."

"I came here, in Iraq,” he added, “to create a place where Muslims and Christians could meet . . . . Here I see a lot of interest among the faithful of Islam about finding a way to free themselves from Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State), to show that Daesh is wrong . . . Muslims who seek to preserve traditional Islam."

Classic Islam is "a movement of reflection and research,” he noted. It seeks to understand "how we can get out of this crisis. From my point of view, this is a very interesting time to look at a society that is trying to fight for a new path."

The monastic community in Sulaymaniyah is characterised by a vow of prayer, manual labour, and hospitality based on the model of love and acceptance shown by Jesus Christ.

Speaking about the Islamic world, Fr Jens noted that "if we talk about relations with individual Muslims, there are no problems." However, war, violence and terror have caused bloodshed in Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East in recent years.

"Ours is a meeting place,” he said. “It is not a cultural centre or a place for dialogue. Our goal is to facilitate meetings, starting from the differences in faith and culture, but favouring a path of knowledge and discussion.”

Nevertheless, Anchor“Despite negative experiences the Mar Musa community has had, the greatest danger is not trying to have any contact with Islam."

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