An Italian priest may seem an unlikely champion of Syrian national unity, yet Paolo Dall’Oglio’s is investing immense efforts to bridge deep divisions among Syrians.
Bashar al-Assad’s government expelled Dall’Oglio last month, three decades after he revived a monastery on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Syrian desert that became a center for dialogue between the country’s myriad ethnic and religious communities.
A big man with a loud voice and a calm manner, Dall’Oglio, 57, has reinvented himself as an unofficial diplomat on behalf of Assad’s opponents abroad.
As a deeply-divided opposition movement tried to narrow their differences at a meeting in Cairo on Tuesday, the bearded Dall’Oglio was a key fixture, hurrying among the delegates and relaying messages from embattled activists back home.
“Assad’s regime is so full of lies and spies that it no longer knows what is true or right,” he told Reuters. “I am urging all diplomats I see to help the people and demanding that their countries force Assad to stop the violence and leave.”
Admirers hope the priest can help achieve what others have not - heal deep divisions between Assad’s Muslim, Christian, Islamist and secularist opponents, who often seem united only by their hostility to Assad.
“I perceive faith as a bridge that we all must cross to be better people,” he said. “The drive for power and personal glory is what makes people stray from religion and the extremists among them turn into tyrants like Bashar al-Assad.”
Dall’Oglio revived Deir Mar Musa monastery in 1982. The site 80 km north of Damascus, established by Greek monks in the 6th century, had lain abandoned since the 19th century.
“It was a desolate place filled with insects and snakes, but I saw in it what I needed to convey my message,” he said.
Its small community works with Muslim groups to improve prospects for young people, promote dialogue between religious leaders and instill respect for the local environment.
Dall’Oglio was expelled after visiting the al-Qusair area of Homs city when it was under heavy attack.
“They got angry because I went to support my courageous people in Homs against those liars and violent thugs,” he said. “I am sure that eventually the protesters will win as they are on the right side, fighting for their freedoms.”
Dall’Oglio was told to leave Syria more than a year ago but pressure from supporters, who set up a Facebook group entitled “No to the Exile of Father Paolo”, helped delay his departure.
Dall’Oglio’s email address now begins with “matrudzaalan”, meaning “expelled and angry” in Arabic, “the language of the region I love with all my heart”, he said.
During the Cairo conference, the priest was seen urging western diplomats to step up pressure on Assad.
Delegates took him aside repeatedly to ask news from home as he fielded calls from Syrian activists.
“Hang on there,” he told one who called from the town of Talbisa as it came under heavy attack. Asked for the identity of the caller, he said: “One of my children in Syria but I don’t know his name because I never ask. They are all my children.”
To Dall’Oglio, Syria is a country whose hatred of military dictatorship will overcome the fear of chaos and sectarian strife that Assad’s government has encouraged.
It is, he says, a country that can one day bring solutions to region-wide tensions, “rather than a corrosive cancer”.
“People there are very open-minded and mingle very well with one other,” he said. “I have sat with many Islamists and they all say they want a democratic civil state and are very keen to protect the rights of Christians.”
Syria’s mounting death toll
In Syria, regime troops pounded several rebel-held districts in the central city of Homs on Tuesday, as the death toll mounted across the country, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In total, 56 people were killed on Tuesday across the country; Al Arabiya reported citing Local Coordination Committees in Syria.
At least two civilians and three rebels were killed in Homs, as clashes raged in and around the neighborhood of Baba Amr, a former rebel stronghold that the army seized on March 1 after a fierce 27-day assault.
Rebels and troops also battled for the district of Khaldiyeh, the monitoring group said. Khaldiyeh is one of several rebel-held districts of Homs that have been besieged by the army for almost a month.
On Monday, troops tried to storm the encircled district of Jourat al-Shiah, according to the Observatory.
Troops also rained shells in the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the 16-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, killing six people, the watchdog said. Among the victims were a woman and her three children.
In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, much of which is rebel-controlled, violent clashes broke out with regime forces, at least four of whom were killed, the Observatory said.
The Local Coordination Committees - a network of activists on the ground - said “125 families fled the city of Deir Ezzor and its suburbs ... as a result of the unrelenting military attacks.”
Several areas of Damascus province also saw heavy violence, the Observatory said. Troops shelled the town of Arbeen, killing one child, while two people were shot dead by snipers near the city of Douma.
Rights organizations say over 16,000 people have been killed since Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, which have been mostly blamed on the regime’s fierce attempts to crush dissent.
The Syrian government, on the other hand, has said “terrorists” in the country have caused the violence.