Letter to the Friends of Deir Mar Musa 2006


News about Deir Mar Musa

Dear Friends, Dear Families,

Here we are at the end of the year 2006… It is the moment to write this traditional letter. Like a Christmas present, you will also find attached texts. Nathalie (who we will introduce you to later) has deciphered the hand-written texts of Father Paolo which had been left unedited… amongst others, the Letter to the Friends 2003 (www.deirmarmusa.org/page/amici2003ita.htm, - at the moment only in Italian and French - which you have never received, and an unedited version of the one of 2004. The present is not very entertaining, because the matters discussed are serious, but is with great affection that we share with you our concerns and our commitments.

Mar Musa al-Habashi


In the past days, during the monastic catechism in the morning, we have been reflecting on the Incarnation. There are three divine acts here:

The first is giving Mary a son without a father, as on the first day of Creation, when the Spirit hovered over the waters, and also as on the sixth day, when God worked the clay into His own image.

The second is the one that is repeated for every daughter and every son at the moment of conception in the womb of their mother… This divine act occurs normally with the supreme celebration of human love. It is when God “creates” in the person, with the breath of his Spirit, this desire, this capacity, this eternal nostalgia for union with the divine life. This creation is that which is normally called “the immortal soul”, or here in the Orient, the “spirit of the human person”, much more mysterious and elevated than his rational being. It is good to repeat here that, according to Christian faith, this does not happen automatically from generation to generation. God is directly and intentionally at the appointment, to create in every one of our children the “organ” capable of faith.

Finally, the third divine act: this human baby, completely human, is radically and definitively united with the personal divine gesture of expressing humanly, for human beings, in their favor, the will of God to make Himself visible to us, to turn to us, to come, to live amongst us, to make of us His family. It is there, in the end, in the coming of this divine baby, that we earn, for free, the status of adult, the divine likeness, the radical autonomy, our difference from a world too or too little divine… in order that we are put on the path with faith in him, the man of Nazareth, towards the bosom of the Father.

The season and the land

We are in winter. We had good rains at the beginning of the autumn, now it is the “great drought”. The barley that we planted in various places for our growing flock risks being burnt up by the cold. Around us the shepherds are getting anxious. Rima, a friend of ours, is doing a doctorate on the subject of our pasturelands, but to make sense of such an activity, turned upside-down by desertification, you really need many doctorates! The vegetal covering is destroyed by the excessive presence of flocks which do not move around enough and which are too numerous. Many sheep-breeders no longer accept the nomadic life of the past. The mechanical transport of flocks, food and water only increase the desertification factors. At least in part protected by a ministerial decree, our valley is truly becoming an exception, because here we can note a quite visible recovery of vegetation. We have a nice saying that the seeds of the protected plants fly out to the pastures of everyone; the neighboring shepherds watch our valley from the tops of the hills with a certain jealousy. Thus, we need more communication, concrete solidarity and successful experiences.






The state of our flock is improving, and above all, there is more stability at the human level, with the family of shepherds that works with us and who have a passion for their work, to such a point that we are thinking of buying a cow to cover the period when our goats do not have milk.

At Qaryatayn, the agricultural work is developing well, and this year the olive harvest has been encouraging. We would like to create a cold press for the “bio” olives, because, in the desert, there are fewer parasites to combat. We are looking for good ideas and assistance to make this project a reality. The experimentations on medicinal plants continue well, and the production is increasing. Experiments in the production of home-made jam (cooked in the sun), carried out by families in the village, must be perfected so that it becomes a commercial possibility. For the moment, at Deir Mar Musa, we are enjoying the unsold leftovers! A great task of programming and experimentations is underway for the rehabilitation of the vast lands of the monastery of Mar Elian. Given the scarcity of water and the vast surfaces, we must orientate ourselves especially towards rationalized pastureland.

Human resources and relations

During the summer, we received the gift of a 12-seater minibus which was generously offered to us by friends. On the first inaugural trip on the magnificent mountain Anti-Lebanon there were:

Diane, French, from Normandy, who, after two years as a volunteer agricultural engineer, has joined us as a postulant,

Yusuf, from Maalula, and Daniel, from Tartus, who are two new Syrian novices,

Dima, who in a moving testimony of joy, made her monastic profession in September,

Jihad, who was ordained sub-deacon in the square of his village (the joy was such that his father found himself cured of an illness that had bothered him all year; we have therefore decided to ordain him deacon next summer…),




Jens, who spent the month of July in Iran, opening up a way that the Community would like to follow in future years,

Boutros, whose beard is growing long, with the odd flake of wisdom… (it promises well!),

Huda, who, with the fourth and penultimate year of study in Rome behind her, is beginning to breather the air of her own country,

Jacques, who has had a glorious year in Qaryatayn,

And Paolo at the wheel of the Community, because, as far as the car is concerned, this is driven only by those who have a license. It has in fact been baptized “Diaconia” which means “service”! (Father Paolo then had a spectacular accident: thank God, the damages were only material… and economic!)

Our Community has suffered the loss of some precious members. Khulud has renounced her novitiate for the moment; this is in fact not yet the last word. Eglantine, our volunteer from South-west France who had such a discreet and contemplative presence, she has left a large gap not only in the hearts of the cats! Not having found valid reasons for staying longer at Deir Mar Musa, she has returned to France where she is working as a journalist for the “Le Monde” group. To put it frankly, we do not have the impression of having lost Eglantine, but rather that she has opened up a branch of our community in Paris. The Lord, in His providence, has dealt well with us and has sent us another volunteer, Nathalie, from Marseilles, who has made a good start in her work in the library and in the office. If nobody answers your emails, ask her help! Ah, in addition to French, she manages very well also in Italian and not badly in English, and she is a woman very disposed to help. Also Diane has been substituted in her role as agricultural engineer, by a French volunteer Stéphane, a Breton, who demonstrates a capacity for adapting fast to the extreme complexity of our dreams.

The team of our local lay collaborators is well established with a staff of local family men who are very committed (Amin, Marwan, Mehiar, Abu Riad, Abu Raed). In their tracks, a whole group of younger men is developing, both Christian and Moslem: it is this that makes of the “dialogue” of life the life of every day.

Our accountant, the other Huda, is working from home, as she is in her fifth month of pregnancy and climbing all those steps to the Monastery has become difficult for her. Her husband, Adib, teaches Mathematics in a school and he is preparing the publication of books which should come out in Arabic in our blossoming publishing house, which he directs. Adib and Huda live in Nebek, in a house that is traditional and welcoming, and which is becoming a stopping-off place for many. Frédéric and Stephanie have settled in the Arab part of the Holy City, after their marriage in the countryside of France in May, at which both Paolo and Dima were present. They are deeply committed to the Abrahamic spiritual axes that are the foundation of our Community. It is like a circle that grows bigger through the joy of many people. Other families feel very near to us in other parts of the world. Will this be structured in some way? Our monastic constitutions already deal with this committed relationship between the Monastery and its friends, not necessarily Christian.

We have finished the Ignatian month of spiritual exercises. There were four participants this year: Daniel, the novice, Myra, an Orientalist from California of Philippine origin, Cilia, from Holland, another Arabist, and Mary, of Scottish origin, a psychotherapist of considerable experience, who discovered with amazement a desire to join our life. Amongst the long-term guests, we cannot forget another Yusef, this time from Aleppo; he was once a sailor who now the waves of life have brought to harbor with us. His presence is sweet and disarming.

Another noteworthy piece of news is the publication in March, in the Albin Michel Publishing House of Paris, of the book by our very dear friend Guyonne de Montjou, “Mar Musa, a monastery, a man, a desert”. Our friendship was crowned by her marriage in October to Anton, in the Church of Deir Mar Musa. The book has been judged by many as moving and interesting. Is there anyone, amongst those who read this letter, who might have the good idea of translating it into other languages?

The author dedicated the book to Father Jean-François Six, because it is all connected! Father Six is, among other things, the person responsible for The Union - Brotherhood of Brothers and Sisters of Christ, “Charles de Foucauld”. On Easter Monday, Paolo was in Paris for the meeting of coordinators of languages for this association. Father Charles de Foucauld had founded this association personally and had written its directory. It is a union of baptized people, of every state, appealing to those who desire to live the mystery of Nazareth, to develop and extend the charisma of Charles de Foucauld in an effort of evangelic life that is particularly attentive to the respect and consideration of every culture and the worth of every person. It is this that Brother Charles bore witness to in his life and in his death in Algeria. Paolo has been designated coordinator for the Arabic language, and thus has begun with Adib the work of translating the directory. The importance of the work of the Blessed Charles de Foucauld for the evangelic renewal and the presence of the Church in the Moslem world is well-known. Louis Massignon, the great Islamist Christian, had taken up the Union and, following the same line, had created a group called “Badaliyah”, conceived especially for Christians in Moslem countries. It is there that we find one of the sources of the spirituality of our Community.

Buildings, projects and activities

At the moment, our team is engaged on three sites.

The first should have been easy and fast, but this has not been the case. We are talking about the rehabilitation of the spaces, especially the caves, which had been used, in the area of the monks’ quarters, as stalls for the goats. Seven good cells are appearing for members of the Community and for guests. Above there will be bathrooms for the upper floors. It was an insistent requirement, especially in winter. This work will be “crowned” by the construction of a correct pigeon-cote, thought up by Stéphane. The protected reservation around the monastery will provide food for the pigeons and they, in their turn, will offer good food to the monks and the guests, according to the most ancient tradition of the desert.

The second site is at the monastery of el-Hayek. It has been going on for seven years, and the results amaze everyone. Even the workers have the impression that somebody else built it. It seems to have been there forever, embedded in the mountain and cut out of the rock. We are planning to build fifteen rooms or so: four on the last floor of the south wing, plus a chapel, and the others along the encircling wall. These cells will be for guests who are on spiritual retreat or on other activities, rather than for residents. We are looking for friends who have the wish to “build themselves a room” there. Calculating the bathrooms and the final large water tank, the cost for each room is 4,000 euros. We have to say that we are counting on our friends because this type of project is difficult to finance in any other way. Once the elevator and the cableway for the elderly are installed, all our dreams of stone will be reality! By 2010? Is there a good reason for constructing all this? We believe so. The places in the old monastery become constantly more places for services than for residence. Already, our cultural and spiritual activities attract an important number of people and we believe it to be important to develop these. Therefore we see the need for differentiated spaces: on one hand, for the Community and the more motivated guests (to be precise, el-Hayek and the house of the monks known as Deir er-Ruhban); then on the other hand, for people in passing, the tourists and the pilgrims (for the moment, the old monastery, in the future, the Visitors’ Centre).









This year, 2006, Deir el-Hayek has seen five major events, in addition to a magnificent Christmas party.

In the spring, there was the seminar for bee-keepers. Bees are considered here as believers and attract people with spiritual inclination towards Nature.

A study seminar was organized with local partners (experts, shepherds, farmers, monks and nuns) to write a project for combating desertification to be presented to the World Bank.

In August, despite the war in Lebanon, we held an inter-religious seminar. The title was: “Doctrines and questions to take a step together towards horizons of hope”. Friends, Sunnis and Shiites, Protestants, Orthodoxies and Catholics, were present, in the atmosphere of an island in the middle of stormy seas. Of course,

anxiety and even anger were there, with a strong sense of impotence.

A few days before that, we had had the visit of a large group of European and Palestinian young people involved in an inter-cultural seminar. The following day, there was the summit in Rome on Lebanon and a large part of the night was spent drawing up a fax for President Prodi!


In September, there was a meeting of Jesuits of every origin, involved in Islamic studies and dialogue. We organized one day open to everybody, with great success. It was the first time a group was able to use el-Hayek for sleeping, eating and for prayer, as well, of course, for the meetings themselves. It worked very well, even if the rooms were still unfinished and we had to ask the nuns to give up their rooms to the Reverend Fathers. Our guests were also able to make good use of our new Reading Room in the library, which is very luminous and comfortable.

The last group was that of the “Abraham Path”, which we will speak about later.

So now we come to the third site. This is the realization of the Visitors’ Centre down in the valley of the monastery. The Minister of Agriculture has already decreed the making available of a large piece of State land. A large reservoir of water has been made under the direction of our Marwan. There has been a financing of the base infrastructures on the part of the UNDP, the agency of the United Nations for Development. The State is drilling a new well. This proceeds slowly but the well is already deep. There have been many problems with the borer because the spare parts are American and are unavailable because of the sanctions against Syria. All this project is being done with the collaboration of the Syrian State, local partners and our Community. We have already dealt fully with the subject of the Visitors’ Centre in the letter of 2005 and we refer you to this.


The question of the Garden of Harmony, with the idea of constructing a church and a mosque in the name of Abraham, is still open and under discussion. The Faculty of Architecture of the private University of Qalamun, near Deir Mar Musa, is very interested in collaborating. We do not know if it will be possible to organize at the end of 2007 an exhibition of the architectural and artistic projects for the realization of the dream. If this exhibition takes place, it will be in dialogue with all the involved parties, beginning with the local Church. We have repeated a thousand times: we are not going towards the Moslems by leaping over the heads of the oriental Christians who, for their part, have known how to bring about a dialogue of life and a true and concrete harmony throughout the centuries.

Visitors who arrive in the monastery car park find, in the middle of a flower bed, a rock, erected on the occasion of the ninth Environmental Spring Seminar, with a plaque commemorating the laying of the first stone of the Visitors’ Centre. Not far from there, at the beginning of the path, you will find the monastery shop, created this year by an inspired effort directed by Diane, with the participation of the artistic talents of a somewhat varied group of persons. On display in the shop, there are handcraft products from various local voluntary associations, thus creating an opportunity for united relations. You can also find our books, souvenirs, agricultural products of Deir Mar Musa and Qaryatayn, and soon also postcards and posters. There are also religious objects: we try to choose those which are simple and beautiful with some necessary concession to popular taste. The rosaries, both Christian and Moslem, are much in demand. Also the icons, both in the form of paper pasted on wood and the true icon painted according to local tradition by our great friend Abu Charbel of Damascus. Elias works in the shop on a regular basis with a certain enthusiasm. You will recall that it was Elias who tried to fly away from the terrace of the monastery and who the angels caught… However, he can no longer work outside in the sun. Some are a little jealous and say: “I want to throw myself off too!”

Connected to the Visitors’ Centre, there is the Abraham Path Initiative (www.abrahampath.org). In November, a traveling study group, with people from twelve countries and belonging to different religious traditions (the three Abrahamic religions plus others), made the main stages by bus. The group was composed of representatives of various organizations and coordinated by a seminar of Harvard University. Paolo participated in this from Turkey, from Urfa and Harran, places traditionally Abrahamic. Deir Mar Musa hosted the group with much spiritual consolation, despite the heavy local incomprehension which obstructed the more significant meetings. But the essential thing was done: the way is open… It is a path, not a motorway… In a certain sense, that is what we want, because the aim of this initiative is more spiritual than political, more eschatological than historical. In Jordan, the authorities have been very positive, and a work group has been set up for mapping the path on the model of that of Compostella, but with all the necessary local adaptations.

The group followed the route up to Jerusalem and Hebron (al-Khalil), received well by representatives of all the local communities. Paolo left them on the banks of the Jordan to allow himself a pious visit to the place of the baptism of Christ. This traditional place is very suggestive because of its ruins of Byzantine churches. One can also visit a small church, recently built, of great beauty; on the walls there are frescoes with the Fathers and Mothers of the desert, especially Palestinian. Paolo was also able to visit the hermitage of Mary the Egyptian, who we count amongst our spiritual founders. It is not surprising that tradition makes this the place of the seizure of Elijah. What a concentration of spiritual symbology! This will become an important point of pilgrimage for the novices of our Community. Not far from there, Paolo also visited Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the promised Land before he died, as Tradition tells us, kissing the mouth of the Eternal. There is a small group of Franciscan archeologists living there who knew how to create a spiritual place that was also artistic, biblical and especially of true natural beauty, open to all. After a good cup of Italian coffee, Paolo and the Brothers said good-bye to each other: “See you at Deir Mar Musa.”

At the end of this section of the Letter to the Friends, we are happy to tell you that the Community has received, from Anna Lindh, the Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for Dialogue between Cultures and from the Mediterranean Foundation, the Prize for Dialogue between Cultures 2006, with the theme “Mutual respect between persons of different religions and of every faith”. In November, Paolo left for Tampere to receive the trophy which was presented by the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs during the contemporaneous Euro-Mediterranean Summit.

Great news in ecclesial relations!

When Paolo arrived in February at the Vatican, he was surprised by an optimistic atmosphere. It was said that Father Charles de Foucauld had in fact performed the miracle that we had asked of him at the moment of his beatification in November 2005. Well, there had been the plenary meeting of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the decision was taken: there was no reason to condemn dogmatically the re-founder of Deir Mar Musa and the constitutions of the Monastery were recognized approvable. There was still some correction to make but nothing essential. Our friend Cardinal Musa Daud was happy, as well as surprised, to be able to communicate to Paolo all this good news. Paolo immediately called the Community in Syria and at Cori to give them the news. We had the impression that we were dreaming! A few days later, we were in Cori with our friends to celebrate the decision of the Vatican in “our” ancient Church of San Salvatore which had just had a new roof. The Gospel was that of new flasks for new wine. A Jesuit friend, over 80 years old, exclaimed: “How beautiful the Church is, always able to make new flasks for new wine!”

Finally, in October, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches communicated to our bishop in Homs that: 1) our constitutions were dogmatically correct, and 2) our form of religious life doesn’t present anything truly new from the strictly canonical point of view. So, the Bishop can now approve our monastic Community, albeit at the beginning in an experimental way, as laid out by the canons. This all may seem a little strange after twenty-five years of commitment… But the Romans have a saying that the cat in a hurry gives birth to blind kittens! This last piece of good news reached us during Advent, according the Syriac rite, on the Sunday of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, coinciding also with the visit of the Pope to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Everything is connected! So we are entering now a new phase deeply linked to the evolution of the relationship inside the local Church. We are surrounded by friendship and the solidarity of the Bishop, of priests and of the faithful who have known us for such a long time. We must certainly make a renewed effort to translate into the language and the mentality of here the essential point of what we know to be our charisma and our vocation. We believe in the local Church, therefore this is an effort that is sweet to us.

Some observations on the political situation

Several people in the Community pose questions to Father Paolo, trying to understand a political situation that is disconcerting in its complexity and drama. Here is an attempt to give some responses without any pretension of being either comprehensive or exhaustive.

At this end of the year, Syria finds itself somewhat revived, both at the regional and at the global level. The change of direction in America, with the election of the new Congress, and also in Italy, with the fall of Berlusconi and the return of Prodi, has changed certain “givens”. That does not take away from the fact that our Country here, Syria, feels itself suffocated by regional circumstances of extreme difficulty: Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine! Furthermore, our society has its own problems that can be summed up in one word, “overdue”: economic, structural, democratic. However, this is not an obstacle to other noteworthy “development”: demographic, technological, organizational, and even cultural.

The national fabric holds. In general, the faith in the presidency of Dr. Bashar el-Assad remains strong, and for certain sectors of the population, it has even increased on the occasion of what was seen here as the victory of the Syria-Hezbollah alliance in the Israeli-Lebanese war. Those who would like to destroy, for various reasons, Baathist Syria, find themselves weakened at the finishing-line of the year: the Bush administration, a part of the Chirac administration and also the Israeli government.

Therefore it is possible to count on the stability of the Country, guaranteed by the will of nearly all the components of the Syrian population to avoid at all cost the blood bath of a civil war. The stability is also guaranteed by the actual strength of the State and by the weakening of the will of foreign destabilizing factors.

From the regional point of view, as much to save the internal stability as to develop its influence, Syria acts as a safeguard factor in the national unity of Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Nation. This does not impede our Country from developing its alliances and its strategies in a logic: of opposition and resistance to the monopolist globalization, of structural renewal of the Arab world (modernization), of participation in the movement of the rebirth of the Moslem world and of the activation of every desirable alliance, from Oriental Asia to Latin America.

The friendship of solidarity with Iran is longstanding and has its roots, according to the opinion of many observers, as much in the vast process of Shiite emancipation as in the revolutionary role of Khomenist Iran.

Syria is proud of the degree of harmony lived day by day among the different religious components of its society. Some say that this is only because of the brute force of the State. This is not our opinion, because inter-religious social harmony is a cultural constant of this Country and it imposes itself on the Institutions rather than depends on them. Obviously history must also register some unpleasant exceptions and the processes of global cultural emulsion are such that the local traditions are no longer able by themselves to characterize the common life. At this point, the common life depends very much on the complexity of the structures of transnational cultural belonging. Thus, effectively, even with the help of mass media, there is the risk of depending, locally, on sentiments, reactions, events that have to do with identity elements that are not uniquely “Arab-Syrian”. These can be the language, as for the Kurds, the Armenians, a part of the Syriacs and others, or the affiliation to a religious “universality” like that of the Sunni, the Shiite, Catholic, Orthodox etc. To this, local particularities can be added in the near oriental sense of the term, as that of the Alawites (well-known to be connected to the family of the President, who however chose to marry a Sunni woman of a high cultural level), that of the Ishmaelites and of the Druze; all historically connected to Shiism but very individual and autonomous.

For Syria, the priority is of both national unity as well as the creation of economic resources to meet the needs of a rapidly increasing population. This goes along with a desire for emancipation, a requirement of justice, even revenge, as regards a regional situation which is seen as characterized by a real persecution on the part of the Zionist Nation and of its ally the West towards the Arab nation and the Moslem Umma. None of this stopped the President to extend, at the end of the year, an olive branch in the form of a concrete peace proposal, since the strategy of tension is considered, after all, as losing.

If Syria remains an ally of Hezbollah and Hamas, it is for several reasons. First, they are Arabs who are fighting the Zionist enemy (they do this for religious reasons and this adds energy and vision to their fighting and brings them wide popular support). Second, these two movements represent well a popular and revolutionary behavior aimed at the realization of a dream of emancipation from structures of power which are perceived as an expression of reactionary traditionalism, submitted to the logic of neocolonialist marketing, as is the case for the monarchies and the Emirates of the Gulf.

In addition, Syria in this way regains playing cards on the table of regional strategy. Others play on the same chess-board (one may think of Israel and its allies), putting together in a way truly surprising moral preachings with the practice of massacre of innocent civilians. We have the impression here of always being the losers, whoever is the winner of the elections in the countries of the great western decision-makers! This does not mean that Syria in fact wants to enter into a revolutionary process because instead, the keyword still is that of “reform by degrees”.

In the end, I maintain that optimism will be the winner, especially if it is able to go along with a flexibility capable of managing the contradictions and incongruences of a social body violently pressed from the outside and profoundly stirred up internally. In my opinion, the essential thing is not to give in to an immoral and Machiavellian logic, either at the local or the international level. Our behavior wants to be that of a constructive transparency, moved by an ideal which avoids ideology and prefabricated solutions… We want to be sincere and disinterested partners. Some tend to use the beautiful Syrian inter-religious comprehension for other types of interest… as a consequence, others, both inside and outside the country, no longer believe in this beautiful comprehension. We continue to believe in it and we want it to develop without masks. Moderation and mediation are not only the means; but they make up a style and ascesis of life.

This year, our concern for Lebanon has been serious. As the year ends, the situation is a little better: it seems that nobody wants to set off a civil war. Our Christians suffer a particular anxiety because, for the oriental Christians, Lebanon is a great symbol and represents unconsciously a kind of “lifeboat”…

It is impossible to find two Lebanese who offer the same analysis of the situation, which remains nevertheless rather delicate. Many believe that a constitutional change is necessary.

The Shiites have become more important in the country compared to the time of its independence. They therefore demand a corresponding weight. They believe to have saved the honor of the country with the resistance against Israel and with the victory of last summer. The others (many Sunnis, many Druzes and a large part of the Christians) fear especially an “Iranian” Lebanon. They want it to be independent (especially as regards Syria), inclined to the West and in good economic relationship with the Sunnite Arab Gulf.

It is also true that the Shiites represent a desire for social and cultural emancipation which is popular also amongst people belonging to other communities. It is not so surprising that the populist Aun has sided with them with his now small Christian party.

The sentiments of the Palestinians in Lebanon are probably not unanimous, but in their desire for emancipation, they can do nothing other than side with the Hezbollah, although they did not participate in the war during the summer.

The number is increasing of those who think that the solution is in a cantonization of Lebanon, as well as safeguarding their essential unity. This would be a question of recognizing the real weight of the different communities and to avoid the outbreak of civil conflicts, as well as keeping intact the rights to auto-determination and autonomy of the weaker communities, as is the case of the Christians. But maybe the Lebanese will surprise us again, inventing something else; it is often true that temporary solutions can be better than definitive solutions which are not (yet) advisable or possible. Let’s continue to follow the dossier and pray!

What is there new to say about Iraq? This is not the place to develop a comprehensive analysis. I would simply like to draw attention to the fact that the situation has rendered life difficult, often impossible, for the Christians, with the exception of the Kurdish canton. Their insecurity is total, the people are fleeing. This is true for everybody, not just the Christians. The Sunnis and the Shiites are now at war, one against the other. They each have a project and want to conquer or defend a space, but the Christians are very much in the minority everywhere and without defense on their territory, unable almost everywhere to organize a self-defense on tribal or community basis. Already, in the ‘90’s, they had emigrated en masse from a country in a suicide drift… Now their diaspora in the world attracts the rest. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis hope to find in Syria the jumping-off place for a definitive emigration. For the Christians, it is culturally more definitive than for the others. When one thinks about the marvelous Christian communities of the Syriac language which were developed in Mesopotamia (but also in Iran, as far as Afghanistan, in India, in China) before Islam, but also in the full Islamic epoch, with an active participation, genial towards the creation of the Arab civilization, one cannot but regret the culpable incapacity of the West, in this case especially American, of imagining anything other than “genial anarchy” and facile invasion.

It is this Western cynicism that disgusts us (yes, it is not the only cynicism in the world, but it is the most powerful at the moment). It is this cynicism that makes, of dictator regimes, customers (as with Libya), or they presume to pass immediately to “eschatological” democracies (as with Afghanistan) just as subjected to the logic of liberal profit as the preceding dictators and no less corrupt. Now, the fact is that the project is not functioning quite as well as the “Neoconservatives” might have dreamt!

I confess to have been mistaken! I thought that the appearance of al-Qaeda in Iraq would have been temporary and inconclusive. The opposite happened. A vast field of action has been created for all the extremists. And the Sunni extremism has, as I might say, been encouraged by the American strategy.

In Iraq, two apparently incompatible logics are operating concurrently. The first is that of the inter-community civil war. The second, which is interwoven with the first, is, once again, that of the war of resistance against the West. This is certainly not conducted by non-violent saints. Nor is it either capable of expressing, in general, social and anthropological projects in harmony and in keeping with the vision of the Declaration of Human Rights neither with the non-violent and inter-religious universalistic avant-garde nor with the more open and critical Islamic sets. But careful, if the movement is not in line with the word of command of the libertarian elite, this does not mean that they do not convey authentic needs and express legitimate demands.

However, we cannot be surprised to note that the popular masses in our regions hope that soon Iran will be a nuclear power. It is certainly true that a certain caution of Shiism is increasing among the Sunnis; nevertheless a majority is siding in favor of a claim largely considered justified by the behavior of the older nuclear powers, in particular Israel and the United States.

The Palestinian quagmire remains very difficult to understand. Blocked by Israel who is always blindly supported by its allies, the Palestinians are beginning to kill each other amongst themselves. It’s disgusting! The logic would be that of pushing the Palestinians, with a brutal and often criminal violence, to ask on their knees for whatever kind of peace. We do not want to understand that Hamas represents culturally the Palestinian local incarnation of a worldwide Islamic claim, and instead there is the insistence on the global terrorist connection precisely in order to negate the legitimacy of the claim for justice of that movement.

Some people in fact say that without a solution to the Palestinian question, it will be impossible to pacify the region and combat efficiently Islamist terrorism. It will moreover be necessary that the planned solution is a just one in order that one might hope that it will be efficient. At the same time, it will be necessary to address other questions, both on the banks of the vast Moslem ocean as well as in the womb of that world.

Obviously, the Moslems themselves must work for their own evolution, but not in a closed container. There is and there must be a space for the reflection and supportive participation of other actors. Our Community would like to represent a very small aspect of the service of the Church towards an evolution of Islam which we hope to be happy for the consolation of all. We also think that Islam in its complexity can do much to favor an evolution of the Churches which we maintain is timely and urgent. But this is a theme to deal with another time!


Dear Friends,

If you land here having read the whole letter, then well done! While if you have come to read the conclusion right away, then you are welcome just the same! We will not try to make a résumé. We will simply repeat here our cordial thanks to each one for the help offered in thought, word and deed…

The eternal and final God is in the same way God who comes into our life, our efforts, dreams, developments, our friendship, solidarity and presence one to the other… In the Church, it is the life of the mystical Body of Jesus of Nazareth, the Saviour; in Islam, it is the efficacy of the invisible solidarity of those who believe in the One, called to a cult of sincerity, as brothers in the adoration, who realize in this way their common humanity. It is with these sentiments that we conclude this letter in order to participate in the evening meditation and in the office of intercession that follows, in the infinite and invisible ranks of those at prayer.

The Community of al-Khalil



Father Jacques with Daniel and Youssef


News about Deir Mar Elian

The year 2006 has been full, at both the human and environmental levels, of actions and emotions. So we want to share with you our joy after these last days of abundant rain which for us, who live in the desert, have been a true blessing.

The archeological site

The work began in March in a large space of the monastery courtyard, with the work of a team of the General Direction of Antiquities and the Museum of Damascus. Ceramics and other objects dating back perhaps to the 13th and 14th centuries have been found, and also tombs of monks, of which we will have more details once the analysis of carbon 14 has been done.

A large part of the door of the ancient church of Mar Elian, dating from the 7th century, is presently under restoration at the Museum of Damascus, where soon it will be on display. The tree of life, animals and flowers are carved into its cedar wood. A significant section of this same door can be found at the Museum of the Emperor Frederic in Berlin. For the monastery, we would like a copy to be made of the whole door, which is a major unique work of art.

The construction of the new monastery

April 9th was a great day in the progress of the monastery. We organized, with the parish council and members of the Moslem community of Qaryatayn, a feast marking the end of the work on the first part of the monastery, built to the north of the ancient archeological site, with stone gathered from the desert and left uncut. It consists of a salon, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. According to the tradition of the local houses, the roof is wood with beams.

For the occasion, artisan products and antique work tools, still recently in use by the people of this region, were on display. Many people were invited: representatives of both Moslem and Christian families of the whole town, which has about 30,000 inhabitants, the leader of the Qaryatayn Moslem community, Sheikh Assad, the priest of the Orthodox community, Abuna Barsum, the director of Archeology and of the museum at Homs, and the heads of various public offices…

Under a Bedouin tent, which is a symbol of the daily life of the past and of the present, connected to the identity of the people, we welcomed the visitors with a cup of Arabic coffee, a style of welcome in keeping with local tradition.

Then Father Jacques recounted the life of Mar Elian (St. Elian), the story of the ancient monastery and the important role it had in the region. Then he introduced the monastic Community of Deir Mar Musa, which, in the name of the Church, has taken on the task of restoring the monastery and renewing its spiritual and cultural role. He also explained that the new monastery will host monks dedicated to God in prayer, to evangelic simplicity, work and the parish and social life of Qaryatayn.

At the end, Father Jacques spoke of the necessity of setting up tourist and economic projects in the area. According to information obtained by archeological data of the sites of Mari on the Euphrates and of Qatna, near Homs, the civilization of the Qaryatayn oasis would date back to the third millennium before Christ. The numerous springs of fresh water attracted merchants, caravans, pilgrims and all those who traveled the ancient roads of the Orient. Evidence of this presence is in the caravanserai around the city. In fact, throughout their history, the inhabitants of Qaryatayn lived from agriculture, animal breeding and commercial relations with the nomads and caravans. The Bedouins came form the region of Hawran, to the south of Syria, and from the Arab peninsula (many Moslem families in Qaryatayn are originally from those areas). This was the life of the inhabitants until the beginning of the 20th century. With the French mandate and the construction of railways, travel developed, roads were asphalted and the telegraph system arrived, then, a little later, the telephone. Then, since about thirty years, the land has become more arid and the springs have dried up; those that remain give little water. Added to this problem of water scarcity is the settling in the area of some Bedouin tribes and an incisive and rapid population increase. The agricultural activity is not sufficient; poverty and emigration are on the increase. At the beginning, emigration was limited to people who left for the Gulf countries and to people, especially the more educated ones, who established themselves in the big cities like Damascus and Homs. In the course of the years, the Christian population has decreased very much and most of the youth (Christians more than others) left, and are still leaving, to look for work.

The conclusion of Father Jacques was that, with conscience and with love, we want to develop the region together, for ourselves, our children and for the future generations.

After this speech, Miss Wurud, director of the excavations, pointed out, with the aid of aerial photos, the geographic role of Qaryatayn, the archeological and historical interest of such a site and its importance to the people of the region. The monastery of Mar Elian, one of the few situated in the desert, is in fact the only one in Syria to benefit from archeological digs. In conclusion, she cited the discoveries that have been made and that demonstrate that the monastery was active from the 6th to the 18th century.

Diane, from our Community, an agricultural engineer who helps us at Deir Mar Musa, underlined the economic and aesthetic importance of the agricultural project of the monastery, and the sign of hope that it represents. She also spoke of the experiments in medicinal, aromatic and fodder plants.

The last speaker, Mr. Fadlalah, a member of the parish council and a teacher in the technical school in Qaryatayn, is from a local Christian Bedouin family, and he has been involved since the beginning in the agricultural project at the monastery. He recounted with both force and emotion the different steps of the rebirth of the region, his joy and his hope; then he stressed the importance of the olives and the vines of Qaryatayn (known for their quality). He also mentioned the ongoing cultivation of other trees: apricot, almond and pomegranate, which are traditional here and well-suited to the area. At the end, he also stressed the importance of the practice and necessity of the dropping irrigation system.

After a cup of tea, a round table was organized. Father Paolo spoke of the “Abraham Path” and of Qaryatayn which could set up a way station on this path. Everyone insisted on the importance of small projects, such as the manufacturing of traditional products which is relevant to the tourist and economic project of the town. The day finished with a great Bedouin dinner.

The reconstructed church

In 2004, civil engineers and archeology experts took the decision to take down the church of 1938 (the time of Bishop Yusef Rabbani) and rebuild it near by, which was in an unstable condition and built on the foundations and supporting walls of a church that was very ancient and archeologically very important. The tomb of Mar Elian is in this ancient church. For the reconstruction of the church, the original white stones, which were very decorative, were taken down, substituting the earth bricks with uncut stone of rust color. This reconstructed church will be in service of the liturgical life of the monastic community and of the life of the parish, while the ancient church, now uncovered and restored in a very simple way, is to be for meditation and pilgrim visits.

The building went on throughout the year, and the church was finished for September 9th, the day of the feast of the hermit Mar Elian (who died in 364). On this very special day, more than 1500 people came together under the leadership of the bishop of the diocese of Homs, Mons. Teofilo George Kassab, who celebrated the Mass under a large tent put up for the occasion. After reading the Gospel and in a solemn procession, he consecrated the new church with holy oil, accompanied by the apostolic Delegate, the monastic community of Deir Mar Musa and other priests taking part in the celebration. Everyone was very impressed by the new church, which, with its particular architecture and colors, is in harmony with the region around and well-rooted in the liturgical tradition of the Syriac Church of Antioch. The following day, Father Jacques celebrated the first Mass there, with his parish community.





The new church of the monastery of Elian


The tomb of Mar (Saint) Elian


The parish of Mar Elian

At Mar Elian, we are going ahead together with courage to build up a spiritual and economic project that should meet our needs. But it can succeed only with the commitment and help of friends around the world. We want to manufacture handmade and traditional products, such as carpets and Bedouin cloaks. We want to set up a cold olive press, because the olive plantation is thriving in our region. It is rare to find diseases in the olives and the olives and the oil are of excellent quality.

Our fundamental aim is to find a market for our products which can help the economy and development of our region and which enables us to fight against the poverty and emigration. We also need funds essential for the advancement of the archeological excavations.

We want life to be still possible in the desert, hoping that the dryness of its nature will make springs of good will explode in the hearts of men. We wish also that when he gazes into the distance of the desert, he will feel inspired to build a civilization based on faith and love and more respectful of the value of what God has created for the joy and the good of all.

We trust in what God has put on our path; we believe in the work of Providence through all the people of good will.

We thank everyone who enables us to follow our path and all those who have supported and encouraged us in our work.

Father Jacques Mourad





Thank you!  This is truly beautiful and I loved reading it

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