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Letter to the Friends of Deir Mar Musa Christmas 2013
Every time I try to write these lines to you, our dear friends, I am confused, because the words betray me and do not help me to convey the bitterness that is in my heart: The confusion that occupies my mind because of the pain and sadness for what we experience in our dear country, Syria. The love of homeland in me is strong and deep, which opens a wound in my heart and I find no remedy for this other than prayer, as many Syrian do these days.
Some define prayer as an art that we exercise before God, where we choose the words and expressions that he likes, trying to satisfy him and to be close to him; like an intimate encounter that we experience with the one we love. It is like a real relationship that takes possession of our hearts. Others experience it as a way of standing before God to praise and thank him for his gifts... and so on. Everything could be true. Personally however, I find prayer as a dialogue between us and God where our demands, our questions and our hopes abound. We would like them to be answered quickly and realized in a way that meets our needs and to donate peace, reconciliation and forgiveness to all the children of our country and the world. In this position we join the successor of Peter, the Pope Francis; this humble Pope, close friend of the poor and the afflicted, in solidarity with the suffering of our people.
Prayer, then, is a dialogue, but not just any dialogue. In our world today we talk everywhere of dialogue, at different levels. As human beings, we need dialogue as a means of communication and in order to overcome the difficulties that we face everyday, living together on our planet. Dialogue with God, however, is different: on the one hand you should enter into a relationship with the One who loves you and understands you and on the other hand, this does not happen outside of you, but in a dive towards your depths, where you can find God waiting to meet you. Here is the essential difference with any other dialogue, at any level, and with any other relationship.
We understand dialogue as a means of opening a space for understanding and a way to exchange ideas this is true, but in dialogue with God, who loves us and whom we love, another meaning prevails, because it is not a purpose in itself any more. However, we use the word/concept "dialogue" to describe what happens between us and God. It is difficult to explain what we live in times of prayer and words are often unable to describe what happens in us or what moves our feelings. In a dialogue between two lovers, each person tries to explain in his own words what he has in mind, but with God there is no need to look for words, because He is the Beloved who knows you more than yourself. He is putting his words in your mouth to express what you have inside and to communicate what you feel in terms of joy or, as for me these days, of sadness and melancholy for what is happening in my wounded country. Because God knows us, He is our help in listening to our simple and sincere invocation. Even when it is totally different, that is when our "prayer" is full of curses against those we do not love – which is hurting God’s heart - He transforms it with the power of his love into good and peace, listening only to its good side, the side that contains desires for welfare, for success, for charity. He overcomes our feelings of closure and discomfort asking for the death of the other; in fact this attitude is not Christian and does not please God. For he wants us to see in the other, despite all his flaws and mistakes, the good he granted him, with the hope that God will change and convert his heart.
The same demand comes again and again in our prayer, coming from the depth of our sadness: where is God in all that happens to us? Is He really absent? Or maybe He decided to withdraw in His heights and stay there watching? We often forget that God is the one who took the initiative, loved us and entered into a relationship with us. Therefore it is impossible that He abandons us, He who said: " Fear not little flock " (Luke 12:32). He wants each of us to be responsible and aware of our own role and vocation. We are confident that God acts and provides the things as He sees possible and convenient, in a way that does not negate the responsibility of man, but rather respects it and makes it more effective for the common good.
We rediscover in these difficult times the efficacy of prayer as the only way to come out of our negative feelings, of fear and anxiety regarding our existence and our future. We rely on God, our support and our help to overcome the tribulations. As disciples of Jesus son of Mary, we are called to live in hope and to be a sign of hope for those around us.
With much regret we escorted to his final resting our Archbishop Theophilos George Kassab, may God take him in His mercy. He left us to join the "joy of his Lord" after a difficult fight with disease. He was a good friend in addition to being a good father and pastor. He was the one who signed our monastic rule and confirmed our Community, recognizing her charisma on the eve of the feast of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, August 8th, 2011, conferring therefore his apostolic blessing. We are sure that he continues to pray for us from heaven. We ask for God's help for Monsignor Philip Barakat in his tenure as patriarchal administrator until the election of a new bishop, and we pray for this.
We are very saddened and distressed as to the fate of our founder, Father Paolo. We do not have any certain news after his disappearance. We do not know whom to ask or who to turn to for help. We know however how to rely on God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, and on the prayers of so many people of good will in the world, of different religions and nations, for our beloved brother and teacher. We are in constant prayer for his safety and serenity. We hope that the tragedy of all the kidnapped, disappeared and detained will come to an end. We pray unceasingly for the two bishops and the other priests who are kidnapped and for all prisoners and hostages, for anyone who is missing and especially for those of whom nothing is known.
The atmosphere at Mar Musa is similar to last year. There are no pilgrims or visitors because of the general situation, and therefore there is much time of deep silence, which invites even more time for prayer and meditation. We are trying as much as possible to take advantage of these days for our spiritual growth. We would like all our friends and all those who love meditation and silence to participate in this. Of course, when the monastery was crowded with people, we had only the evening meditation hour to enjoy the silence of the desert. We are committed, however, in the hopefully near future, when the "blessed crowd" comes back, to create more space for a living silence, God willing. It is true that in this period we do not practice hospitality or organize seminars or any other type of religious or socio- cultural activity, yet we stay here with God’s help, for His love and in solidarity with the children of our Churches and with our Muslim brothers and sisters in our dear Middle East. We read the continuity of our "staying" as the light of hope in a future in which justice and truth embrace each other.
Father Jacques dedicates all his time to Qaryatayn to accommodate families of refugees who came to the monastery of Mar Elian looking for help and protection. The number of refugees who have arrived at the monastery and in the town itself in the last few months exceeds five thousand, with a majority of Muslim refugees (women, children as well as the elderly and adult men). They were sleeping like Scouts at camp; everywhere, in the church, in halls and even on the roof despite the cold. We thank the Lord that their escape was in spring and not in winter. Today, as I write this letter, Jacques welcomes more than four hundred refugees from nearby villages. They are all Muslims (57 families with 97 children under 10 years) who escaped death and gunfire. For some months the security situation in Qaryatayn has been good; the town is quiet and almost stable, while the neighboring villages still suffer. Helping these people has been possible thanks to your donations and thanks to the solidarity of many people who felt responsibility towards those who suffer. However, we still need help, since these displaced people were left with nothing, their homes looted and burned, their villages destroyed. This infrastructure has to be rebuilt as they have no electricity, nor a place to return to. "Only in contact with them, playing with their children” says father Jacques “ have I understood my vow of poverty. I understood what it means that the Son of God left everything and became incarnate through a poor young woman in order to become the son of man."
As monks and nuns, we all try not to leave Jacques alone. This is why we alternate to visit him one after the other and join him for about a week when the circumstances allow. He also comes to visit Mar Musa when he can. The weight has become a bit lighter for Jacques since he does not need any more to come and celebrate the Mass in Mar Musa every week, which he did it with much patience and love. Indeed, Father Jihad, who finished his licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, is now present among us, which is a true grace. So we now enjoy the celebration of the Eucharist every day, especially the solemn Sunday which is the center of our lives.
Sister Huda however does not hide from you, dear friends, that her tenure as head of the monastic community is not easy, as you can imagine. "Often” she says “I was confronted by my weakness and I felt a great weight inside. However God, the Friend, helped me. He knows me and always comes at the right moment to support me." The other brothers are also very supportive with their charity and solidarity. We should also say that a few friends continually expressed their solidarity and charity, in several ways. Their friendship and prayer gives us strength to go on.
Brother Boutros, with his love for plants, did not leave even a hole in the mountain or in the valley without planting something, giving the place a good-looking green aspect and thus fulfilling our commitment to manual labor. He also takes care of the chickens.
Brother Yause from Maalula is no less active. He planted a small vegetable garden on the dry and fertile terrain of the dam. The quality was excellent while the quantity remained symbolic because it was just a test. As it is now a few years since we bought any more candles for the church, either in Mar Musa or in Mar Elian, Yause is also involved in making candles. In addition to this, he helped Jacques ploughing the garden in Qaryatayn.
Sister Deema said goodbye and went to Rome to continue her second year of specialization in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Together we spent a nice time of intense prayer, work and community meetings, which increases mutual understanding and helps us to deepen our common vocation.
The novice Carol is also in Rome to finish her last year of the license at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic Studies and Islamic studies (PISAI). She advances with solid steps towards her permanent vows that were already scheduled last summer. We have not yet set a date, but it will be, God willing, between spring and early autumn next year.
The novice George has lived a difficult year. He had to leave the monastery for a long time to take care of sick members in his family: his grandfather, his grandmother and his mother. The Lord recalled all three in less than three months, his mother being still very young. May God have them in his mercy. George relied on God, was strong and gave his best to faithfully serve his relatives. He is now completing some family duties in Damascus and will then return to the monastery.
The novice Nabil has made friends with the doors, windows and roofs of the monastery, dismounting everything he could to varnish it all. As a result, the roofs are still old but clean and decent. This brother’s enthusiasm for manual work is an encouragement for us all to engage in work, every one according to his capacities. Nabil did the same in Mar Elian for the chapel’s roof over the saint’s tomb. In addition, he worked in Mar Elian for making bricks of clay and straw used in traditional building.
At the end we cannot forget Youssef Bali, who celebrated his fifty-first birthday with us at the end of October with two cakes, one with chocolate and one without, because he does not eat chocolate. It is his seventh year with us. Although not a monk, as you know, he lives the monks’ life without vows, practicing prayer, meditation and manual labor. The one who said "Monks take vows and others respect them" was not completely wrong. This dear brother helps as he can with enthusiasm for the monastery’s works and he is everyone's friend. We thank the Lord for him.
The constant presence of the team of our workers and employees (6 in all, Muslims and Christians) is a real moral and material support for the Community, especially when we are few. These brothers are, with their families and especially our parishioners in Nebek, the bigger frame of our community, its direct and living environment. We thank them all, those who work on a permanent basis as well as those who help us from time to time.
Brother Jens lives generously his priestly vocation in the parish of Sulaymanieh where he tries to worry about, among other things, the youth of the parish. The Community has a summer camp in August with a group of young Christians received from various parts of Iraq. The experiment was successful and the Community intends to repeat the experience in the future, God willing .
The novice Friedrieke passed her second year of novitiate in Sulaymanieh. She helps to prepare the new monastery and studied Arabic and a little Kurdish. We often think of her elderly mother who lives alone in Germany.
Sebastian, who is also a novice, studied for the second year at the seminary of 'Ayncawa. He seeks to strengthen the ties of friendship with the Iraqi Church and with the local young people.
After the rise to the patriarchal chair of the Chaldean bishop Louis Sako, who invited us into Iraq, the Community expects its new Eparchy local bishop. We are united with them in prayer for the new pastor. We hope that God will send new and generous vocations to the our nascent monastic Community especially in Iraq and from the Iraqi people themselves, so that it is well rooted in its oriental atmosphere, made from pieces of various nations and religions both Christian and Muslim. Our charism is to build bridges of dialogue, harmony and friendship with the Muslim world which cannot be separated from our roots in the local eastern church which has become smaller and smaller and more fragile, now more than ever in the past.
This year, apricot trees gave almost nothing and the olive harvest was limited. But the vineyard was good, thank God. Other works were realized, such as the construction of an underground shelter that will be used in case of bombing, as it was built with big walls and a reinforced concrete roof, especially effective against bombs. We have not yet completed a large hall for parish activities that can help us in this situation to accommodate more people in a more decent way. The work is slow because of the unbelievable prices of construction materials and wages, as well as the lack of security in the area. A big water tank has also been built and already used for drinking and sanitary needs when the monastery was full of displaced people. You cannot imagine what it was like, with thousands of people and only a few toilets and even fewer showers! We also built a fence around some of the monastery’s land, to protect it from theft and unlawful occupation by persons who take advantage of the current anarchy. Many ask Jacques, "Father! Why do you still build and for whom? Christians are emigrating and they are disliked by many in the Islamic countries." He answers saying: "We believe in divine Providence that protected us through the centuries in our land. We build to serve the poor, to teach children, Muslims and Christians, so that hope does not die. We want to remain a sign of hope for the rest of the parish and for all the others. We are proud to host Muslims in God’s house, it is their right and it is our duty."
The coordinated efforts of brother Jacques with the town’s Mufti and some important Muslim personalities have spared the town itself and save it from imminent destruction because of the battle that was about to erupt on the spot. A truce was indeed concluded, as a local solution between the two sides that guaranteed peace in the town, hopefully opening a way towards a future and deeper reconciliation! This joint initiative, together with the humanitarian activity of Mar Elian monastery, has helped in strengthening friendship and mutual respect between Muslims and Christians in Qaryatayn. Among the concrete fruits of this proximity, a camp was held in Mar Elian for the children of the town, Muslims and Christians, with the help of some friends in Damascus during the two-day Muslim holiday of al Adha (feast of the Sacrifice). The children came to the monastery in the morning to play and take part to various activities and eat together, and then came back to their homes in the evening. We wish all Syrian children and those of the whole world, everywhere, to be able to play together instead of fighting each other as grown-ups too often to.
We did a little restoration to the Monastery’s building, taking advantage of the absence of visitors to better prepare the place for when we hope to host them again in the future. A dining room was added above the library’s reading room, as a replacement for the Bedouin tent where we used to eat in winter, for lack of a place able to accommodate more than ten people. We have renovated the damaged roof of the kitchen and added some furniture. The roofs of the women's bathrooms have been also renovated and we set up a solar water heater. The other important work was the renovation of the large terrace that serves as the roof of the library and of the basement rooms, in order to stop the leaks of rainwater and snow that were threatening our books and the humidity that was threatening even the main ancient walls. Some stairways and corridors that had become dangerous were partially restored or completely renovated. We did these works with the money put aside for emergencies by the Community and with the help of some friends.
In Mar Elian there are many displaced people (see above), but in Mar Musa the situation is different since there are no displaced families directly next to us like in Qaryatayn. They are in Nebek, 17 Km from the monastery, where we continue the project "houses for young Christian families", which are also used to welcome as many as possible of the displaced people, Christians or Muslims, who took refuge in Nebek, without forgetting the affected families from the city itself. We also offer assistance to some other families, here and there, according to our capacities. The top priority for us in this emergency situation is the construction of an underground shelter of 150 square meters, because there is nothing of the sort in the neighborhood. The shelter will include bathrooms, a communal kitchen and two distinct spaces for men and women, with an underground tank to provide water in case of emergency. Several families live in this project’s houses, for the most part Christians, with some Muslims. This embodies the coexistence and good neighborhood relations that has marked this land for a long time, strengthens the bonds of friendship and improves the safety of the housing complex. Three of the four planned building blocks are completed, along with three studio apartments. The fourth block remains to be built and that will be above the shelter mentioned above. We thank all the friends and benefactors who helped and still help us in this project, especially some Catholic institutions in Europe and a group of generous individual donors. The completion of the fourth block with the shelter depends on your donations, even small and humble. Please do not be ashamed of making small donations, maybe covering the cost of a handle on a door or a stone in a wall. The convergence of your efforts and donations goes together with our service.
On the broader level of the neighborhood where these blocks are located, we offer some material support to known families (rents, school fees, etc.), either directly or through institutions and charity associations such as the Red Crescent, trying to meet their needs (winter clothes especially for children, milk, food, etc.). We would like to continue this collaboration and develop it next year.
As for the life of the monastic community, we will continue our journey in God's light. The new foundation in Iraq progresses, the students are studying in Rome with success, thanks to God and to the benefactors who enable us to take this golden opportunity of studying in the best Catholic universities.
The news we want to tell you about is an idea barely crystallized. After a proper discernment, we thought it convenient to transform the students’ house of Cori into a proper "monastery" with a permanent presence, for two reasons:
The first is ancient and corresponds to our desire to maintain a presence in Cori, next to Rome, where we have the deepest network of friendship and brotherhood relations with the Parish of Santa Maria della Pietà, which welcomed us with unlimited love and generosity. Don Ottaviano was for us a father, a mentor and a friend. Actually, we have given the monastic habit "honoris causa", a couple of years ago. This reverend priest finished his pastoral service after fifty-four years in the same parish. Now eighty-four and after sixty-one years of priesthood, he has retired and lives with his brother’s family that welcomes him with a special love. Don Ottaviano still helps in religious services in his village and many of the faithful continue to ask him for spiritual direction. We thank him from the bottom of our hearts. The successor of Don Ottaviano for our parish is Don Angelo Buonaiuto, already in charge of the next-door parish of Saints Peter and Paul. He too is open to our mission and committed to welcome us; we hope to push forward this new house-monastery with his support. We would like here to express our gratitude to His Excellency Joseph Petrocchi, the bishop who blessed our presence in his diocese of Latina eleven years ago, and has now become the bishop of L'Aquila. We wish him much success in his new pastoral task. Let us ask the Lord to bless and sustain his successor, Excellency Mariano Crusade, recently appointed by the Pope for this assignment, and ask for him as new pastor the intercession of the Virgin Mary. We hope to continue with him the path started with his predecessor for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls.
The second reason for maintaining a permanent presence in Cori is the current impossibility of welcoming in Mar Musa new non-Syrian, especially European, postulants or novices. We hope that the students’ house of San Salvatore, becoming the Monastery of San Salvatore, will be able to provide this service, along with our Virgin Mary Monastery in Sulaymaniah. We start thinking about how to achieve this goal in practice given our limited number and put our confidence as always in God.
We do not forget to tell you about the flowering of the Friends Associations “Khalil Allah – l’Amico di Dio” in Italy, "Association des amis de Mar Moussa (AAMM)" in Switzerland and "Al-Khalil" in France. In addition to raising funds and receiving donations for the Community, they followed a nice spiritual journey and achieved a good success in human relations and intellectual and cultural activities, particularly in the field of dialogue, of vicinity between Islam and Christianity and of openness in general. We hope that this type of community or something similar, not necessarily associations, can be established in different places by persons who care about openness to the other, to the different, and who want to build bridges of friendship between Muslims and Christians. The Church today has discovered that she cannot move forward in step with society if it does not give more weight and space to lay people, abandoning or at least mitigating the absolute centrality of the "sacred power" of priests and religious. Only in this way will she be more credible and convincing. Otherwise, she would have difficulty or, even worse, would cling to fossilized forms or lock itself in a rusty system of rigid relations backed by a glorious past that has today become ineffective and instead blocks the possibility of creating the future that we all hope. Power is service...
We try to keep in good condition what we have achieved at the Monastery. The most urgent is the well water. One of our two wells dried out (the one next to the goat farm). We live and get all our drinking water from the second well, next to the orchard. The pump pulls water out from 350m deep and sends it up another 100m. It breaks down two or three times a year, which means pulling out the 350 m pipe with a crane to fix the pump and, at times, some damaged pipe.
We would like to enlarge our garage gradually, according to the circumstances, in order to put the two cars and the tractor inside and avoid another theft, since there are so many thieves around making the most of the lack of security. There are also six roofs to renovate, those built a long time ago with non-reinforced concrete; they are not good any more. There is also the maintenance of Hayek (one of the three main buildings of the monastery), which was abandoned after the armed assault by unknown men in 2012, and then “visited” by some thieves twice, leaving some windows and doors broken, which we want to fix. We also want to wall up the main doors and keep them closed as long as the building is not used.
Last but not least, the families displaced or affected by the armed conflict in Nebek. Winter has come, hard and cold, and we need to provide various things such as blankets, jackets, especially for children, students and women, milk for children and medicines for all. One of the most urgent needs, which weighs on us, on our workers and on displaced persons, in short, on all, is the lack of fuel (diesel) for heating. When and if it is found, it is too expensive because of the war and of the smugglers who take it to Lebanon where they sell it at even more expensive prices. We would like to help some people on this issue, according to our capacities.
We arrive at the end of our letter. We are perplexed and uneasy, between heaven and hell. We all know that the country is at war and there is no need to tell you more about the suffering of so many. Those who want to know more can still refer to other sources. We shared with you and told you what was possible. We wanted to tell you more but wisdom calls for prudence, for obvious reasons. We apologize however to those who may have had different expectations.
We wish you all good health and all the best and ask for your prayers, each according to his faith and religious tradition. To those whom do not consider themselves a believer or religious, we ask for spiritual and moral solidarity in the manner that suits them, because what we call the communion of saints is not a reality limited to religious people, at least not only to those whose religiosity takes an explicit and visible form. As for us, we assure you of our friendship and affection, and we always remember you in our prayers, including all those whose names we do not remember or who visited the monastery for a short time. We have experienced the efficacy of prayer in this time of trouble that Syria is experiencing - not only our prayers, but especially that of many in the world and their solidarity. Several people have emailed or called us on the phone, and many would like to contact us or even to visit us. We really felt your closeness and solidarity and experienced the reality of your moral support, which assures us of being under the eyes of the Creator and of His creatures.
We wish to thank all those who have offered us, in addition to moral support, material aid and donations. Without you our lives would be almost impossible, especially for the future and the livelihood of the families of employees and workers of the Monastery. We rely anyway on God who cares for us, especially through the helping hands that many others lend as you do. We apologize to all those who have sent donations without us thanking them, especially those who donated through Magis (of the Jesuit Fathers) which collects donations for us with so much love and humility. To Magis our friendly gratitude. We want to point out that sometimes the donations arrive at Magis without the address of the benefactor, which makes it impossible to send thanks. On top of this, it has become almost impossible to use the internet connection: it is now asceticism and mortification that the computer works at all. Paper mail practically does not exist. For all these reasons it is no longer as easy as before to ascertain whether the donations have arrived, nor inform or thank the benefactors (voluntary persons used to help us for this in the office, thanks to their knowledge of European languages). This work has become slow and difficult for members of the community residing in Syria, also because some are absent, studying in Italy. We take this opportunity, therefore, to apologize and to renew our deep gratitude.
Beloved, it is said that the philosopher Diogenes went around with a lighted lamp in broad daylight, and when he was asked why he used to reply: "I am looking for a man." We also have our lamps alight (cf. Mt 25), the lamps of hope that never dies, burning day and night. We are searching for the man, for goodwill, for justice, peace, truth... and so on. We are looking for a way out, asking God for comfort and consolation. We had lit up our lamps, waiting for Him, He who comes, we waited for Him a long time, our lives and the souls of his lovers are thirsty for Him. But when he comes, will He find faith on earth? Will He find a man? Will He find humanity?
Merry Christmas with love.
The Khalil Allah monastic community of Deir Mar Musa
For your donations to Deir Mar Musa,
please use one of the following two banks and specify clearly the recipient (Deir Mar Musa) and the reason for the donation (for example Nebek homes, displaced or otherwise...) according to your intentions, without mentioning Syria (otherwise the transfer will be blocked).
First possibility : the account of our Association Khalil Allah in Italy :
Name of the account : Khalil Allah- L'amico di Dio
Banca Popolare dell'Emilia Romagna- V.le Europa , Roma
IBAN: IT 58 M 05387 03208 000001908336
BIC : BPMOIT22 XX
Motive : donation for Deir Mar Musa
Second possibility : through Magis www.magisitalia.it
IBAN: IT16 A076 0103 2000 0000 0909 010
Account name: MAGIS Movimento e Azione Gesuiti Italiani per lo Sviluppo
via degli Astalli, 16 - 00186 ROMA
Current bank accounts
1. CIN: Y - ABI: 03069 - CAB: 3200 - C/C: 100000509259
IBAN: IT07 Y030 6903 2001 0000 0509 259
Account Name MAGIS Movimento e Azione Gesuiti Italiani per lo Sviluppo
presso INTESA-SANPAOLO SPA
Via della Stamperia, 64 - ROMA (RM)
Donating to Maryam Al Adhrah Monastery in Sulaymaniah
You can use the two options above, specifying "Deir Mar Musa - Sulaymaniah" or directly to the account of the Community in Iraqi Kurdistan:
Name of the bank: BBAC Sal. Erbil Branch, Iraq
Account name: Father Jens Petzold
Account number: 0368 516171 203 EUR
CORRESPONDENT: COMMERZ BANK