symbol of coexistence
Dall’Oglio hosted interfaith seminars at the monastery, where the Christian minority and Muslims prayed side by side, turning it into a symbol of coexistence that has drawn visitors and devotees for three decades.
The Italian Jesuit priest was expelled from Syria in 2012 for supporting a mass uprising against the government, but returned a year later.
He disappeared in the summer of 2013 on his way to the headquarters of the group that later became known as the Islamic State (ISIS) in the city of Raqqa, where he had gone to plead for the release of militants kidnapped.
Dall’Oglio’s practice of interfaith coexistence was the exact opposite of the intolerant and murderous extremism of ISIS.
He was reportedly executed and his body thrown into a crevasse shortly after his capture, but his death was never confirmed by any party.
“ISIS most likely kidnapped him. We don’t know for sure if he is alive or dead,” Youssef said, adding that no one had contacted the monastery to ask for a ransom.
In 2015, the monastery came under fire from Islamic State after the jihadists began two years of control in the neighboring countryside of Homs.
“We were afraid of being kidnapped or killed at any time,” especially after ISIS reached the nearby village of Al-Qaryatain and kidnapped groups of Christians there, Youssef said.
ISIS abducted the former head of the Al-Qaryatain monastery Jacques Mourad for several months in 2015.
The group razed a monastery in the nearby village and locked hundreds of Christians in a dungeon. They were later released, but a Christian community that once numbered hundreds in Al-Qaryatain has now shrunk to less than two dozen.
“We experienced all kinds of fears,” Youssef said, adding that they felt isolated in the desert monastery during the height of the fighting, and later because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
US-backed local forces defeated the IS “caliphate” in eastern Syria three years ago, while Syrian government troops, backed by Russia and ISIS-linked forces Iran, recaptured much of the territory from the rebels.
“It’s a simple monastery with no luxuries. There’s no internet or cell coverage, which makes it easier to escape the hustle and bustle of the city,” Youssef said.
Two monks, a nun and two postulants live in the three-storey monastery, which includes rooms for visitors, a bird farm and an extensive library.
They live off the land and drink from a nearby well.
In the early hours of the morning, Youssef calls them for breakfast from a courtyard overlooking caves carved into the hillside.
The solitary refuge at the top of a hill bathes in an unparalleled tranquility.
Youssef al-Halabi, 48, has been a monk for 16 years but says the lack of visitors has left him wondering what he could do to fill his free time.
“I started looking for ways to fill those long hours…because sometimes we didn’t have any annual visitors,” he said.
After his morning prayer, the white-bearded monk usually heads to a nearby cave to make candles. Sometimes he takes care of agriculture.
Halabi, who has dedicated his life to worship and serving visitors, said he hopes people will once again fill the monastery “to share our way of life”.
“It’s a space to breathe, away from noise and bustle,” he said.