Syrian Church Aims to Foster Religious Dialogue

Frescos at Church of Deir Mar Musa i i

hide captionThe frescos at Church of Deir Mar Musa date from the 11th century. This one is a detail from the "Last Judgment."

Nezar Hussein for NPR
Frescos at Church of Deir Mar Musa

The frescos at Church of Deir Mar Musa date from the 11th century. This one is a detail from the "Last Judgment."

Nezar Hussein for NPR
Deir Mar Musa i i

hide captionThe mountaintop monastery of Deir Mar Musa serves as a bridge between Christians and Muslims.

Nezar Hussein for NPR
Deir Mar Musa

The mountaintop monastery of Deir Mar Musa serves as a bridge between Christians and Muslims.

Nezar Hussein for NPR
Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio i i

hide captionRev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit, restored this ancient monastery in Syria.

Nezar Hussein for NPR
Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio

Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit, restored this ancient monastery in Syria.

Nezar Hussein for NPR

Every 33 years, the major Christian and Muslim holidays of Christmas and Eid al Adha fall close together. This is one of those years.

While Christmas focuses on the birth of Jesus Christ, Eid al Adha centers on Abraham, a shared prophet from the Koran and the Bible's Old Testament. In the Middle East, these dual holidays are reminders of the many shared traditions of Muslims and Christians.

Deck the Malls

In the predominantly Muslim country of Syria, Christmas trees twinkle in shopping malls. Muslim neighborhoods are decorated with festive lights, a new custom borrowed from Christians.

The jingle bells are jazzy at the Damascus opera house – and the choir is decked out in gold robes. The horn players wear angel wings. Syria's Christian community celebrates the season with a traditional concert. Muslim families, also part of the tradition, join in the holiday cheer.

Across the Middle East, however, true understanding between Muslims and Christians is harder to find.

Leading the Way

One religious community in a mountaintop monastery is trying to lead the way to understanding. Dier Mar Musa is a long trek up a mountainside, up hundreds of stone steps that finally lead to an arched doorway, a courtyard and a church. The church was built more than 1,500 years ago, when Christians were a majority in the region.

"Christians in the Middle East, the numbers are going down quickly," says Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, who leads this community of Christians and Muslims. "Some of us are willing to create hope together, to build a complementary world vision in a way that we can work on our future world, hand-by-hand as minorities that have something to offer to majorities."

An Organic Life

Dall'Oglio makes sure there is tea after the long hike and a sumptuous spread of cheese, jam, olives and bread. The community produces the food it needs.

"We have only goats because this mountain is so high," says Luay Jubail, a veterinarian who takes care of the goat herd. "All the milk from the goats, only is special to produce cheese and everything is organic."

Sister Huda Faduil conducts tours of the church, the restored 6th century altar and medieval frescos of Bible stories. She has lived here for 13 years; she says she was attracted to the monastery's main mission.

"The first time I came for a visit only to see the place," she says. "It has attracted me, the simplicity of the place and our vocation, the dialogue with Islam."

To promote this dialogue, a place has been set aside within the church for Muslims to pray facing the holy city of Mecca. And on the wall, Arabic calligraphy in the shape of a dove spells out first phrase of the Muslim call to prayer.

Dall'Oglio, who came here from Italy in the 1980s as a young seminary student, says he found his life's work in this ancient place, promoting dialogue between Muslims and Christians.

"Each one of us, Muslims and Christians, we block the other in our concepts. We don't know about how the other build his hope, his relationship with God and others, his feeling about the secret spiritual dimension of life," Dall'Oglio says. "From that level, we are in a failure of dialogue and we have to start and start again."

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