06/21/2022, 19.39
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Mar Musa monastery reopens, welcomes pilgrims and visitors again

by Chiara Zappa

After years of isolation due to war and pandemic, the community founded by Father Dall'Oglio is again welcoming pilgrims and visitors. For Abbot Br Jihad Youssef, the monastery is “a spiritual oasis of peace and friendship” in a still harsh context.

Milan (AsiaNews) – After years of isolation due to war and COVID-19, Syria’s Deir Mar Musa Al Habashi monastery[*] has reopened its doors to pilgrims and visitors.

In the 1990s Jesuit Father Paolo Dall'Oglio turned the ancient monastic compound nestled between the mountains and the desert, almost a hundred kilometres north of Damascus, into a centre for dialogue between Islam and Christianity.

“This is an important sign,” said Abbot Br Jihad Youssef. “For many Syrians, the abbey represents a spiritual oasis of peace and friendship for people from different religious backgrounds.”

The monasteries is one of the oldest in Syria, with precious frescoes and preserved wall inscriptions in Arabic, Syriac and Greek as well as a church from the 11th century.

After civil war broke out in 2011, fierce fighting between opposition groups and government forces engulfed the nearby town of al-Nabek. Between 2015 and 2017 the Islamic State group took control of a nearby region, which was followed by a wave of kidnappings of Christian residents.

For local Christians, the hardest blow came however with the disappearance in 2013, of Father Dall'Oglio who went missing in the jihadi-controlled Raqqa area. The clergyman has not been heard or seen ever since.

His spirit, however, lives on, stronger than ever, within the ancient stone walls, where silence is broken only by the chants of the monks during the hours of prayer.

In such a place of fraternity between faiths and people, “There is no internet connection,” said Abbot Youssef. “Our guests can enjoy a break from the hectic life of the city, and devote themselves to the encounter with God, with themselves and with us, in a climate of friendship that overcomes religious differences,” he explained.

Here, a “prophecy of a global friendship" is particularly poignant amid a still harsh daily reality. Fighting might have ceased, but “people here survive rather than live. We are going through a deep economic crisis, our currency is no longer worth anything, work is precarious and poorly paid and the prices of everything is skyrocketing.”

Yet, despite an atmosphere of great discouragement, locals have greeted with great joy the news that the monastery was going to reopen to outside visitors.

“For some time, many friends had been asking us when we would begin to welcome visitors again. They told us: ‘We need you, to pray, to rest, to contemplate nature and walk in the mountains’.”

From the beginning, the ties with creation and care for the environment represent one of Deir Mar Musa’s peculiarities. The monks and nuns work the land and follow projects to enhance local biodiversity, while guests can share in the manual work while finding time to reflect and take advantage of the large library.

In recent years the community has been closely involved helping the displaced and the poor, in and around al-Nabek as well as the Governorate of Homs, where the monastery of Mar Elian is located. Islamists partially destroyed the latter in the summer of 2015 and kidnapped Father Jacques Mourad, holding him for five months.

Some time ago, Father Mourad announced that monastery would be rebuilt and its vineyards and olive groves replanted. Now, with Deir Mar Musa’s reopening there is hope anew.

“Groups are back. We had 110 people in a single day, while a priest from Aleppo accompanied 35 women from one of the city’s parishes for a retreat. Some 30 young people also came,” Br Jihad noted. “Our agenda for the coming months is already full.”

Most pilgrims are Syrians. It is not easy for foreigners to get visas to visit the country, but “everyone is welcome,” the abbot said. “For us, hospitality is a sacred duty. Everyone who arrives comes to visit the Lord and we, by welcoming him, welcome Jesus, and in the name of Jesus. It is always God who receives and who is received.”

[*] Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian.

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