Middle East

Catholic priest exiled by Syria warns of civil war

ROME: Christians must do everything they can to avoid the destruction of Syria's religious pluralism, a Catholic priest forced to leave after spending 30 years in a monastery north of Damascus said this week.

Father Paolo Dall'Oglio speaks with emotion about a country that he says enshrines "the ideal of Arab ecumenism" and the lifetime he spent building bridges between Christians and Muslims in his mountaintop church in Mar Moussa.

The thick-bearded 57-year-old fights back tears as he remembers the thousands of victims of the conflict and accuses the international community of "irresponsibility" which could pave the way for the rise of Islamist groups.

An energetic Italian Jesuit who has also lived in Lebanon, Dall'Oglio left Syria in June under strong pressure from the Syrian regime and is in Rome for consultations on the crisis including with the Vatican's Secretariat of State.

He calls himself the "chaplain of the revolution" and told AFP in the Thursday interview that Syrians "have the right to defend themselves with arms" against an unjust regime.

During the interview, Dall'Oglio's mobile phone rings: a friend from Homs, the bombed-out city that has become a symbol of the bloody uprising.

"A priest whose two brothers have been kidnapped. He thinks I have the right contacts but I no longer have any direct influence on the ground," Dall'Oglio said.

He said the Christian minority in Syria is caught in a complex bind and is "in danger" even though it is not expressly being targeted by rebels.

President Bashar al-Assad's government has used "a systematic strategy to force Christians to remain allied with it," he said, adding that men and women of the clergy were being coopted to keep Christians on the regime's side.

Syria "has the vocation to express the ideal of Arab ecumenism where Muslims, Christians and Jews have retained an ancient civilisation," he said.

But some Christians "see Bashar as the only defence for the Eastern Church against fundamentalist satans," he said.

The pope's visit to Lebanon next month, he added, could countermand this view with a call for religious "pluralism".





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