Letter to the friends of the community al-Khalil (Abraham, the friend of God) 2007


An exceptional introduction

Dear Friends, we are now preoccupied by financial crisis. We are not in debt, for even had we wished to take out loans, we simply haven't the revenue to repay any meaningful sums of money. The reasons for our crisis lie in a slow renewal in regional tourism, the decrease of some of our essential sources of aid (generally reliable in the past) the increasing cost of living and the growing value of the Syrian Pound against the Dollar and the Euro, as well as in the urgent demand for aid for the poor, which includes the Iraqi refugee community. Some of you have often said to us: "if you find yourself facing particular difficulties please let us know, your needs are also ours. Let us dream with you, let us feel that Deir Mar Musa is a part of us too!"
We are committed to several projects financed by both public and private organizations, but these funds are inevitably destined for specific purposes. Deir el-Hayek (the women's monastery and centre for spiritual exercises, for seminars etc.) currently lacks the funds necessary for its final phase of construction. 


    For many years we have been sending out this letter, and it always seems to arrive late. This year we had hoped to send our best wishes to you all in time for Christmas and the New Year. As we are writing you this letter, millions of Muslim pilgrims are making their way to Mecca; we remain in spiritual union with our friends and their families in this time of grace and forgiveness.

    In the evening travellers and pilgrims from all four corners of the globe continue to meet in the monastery's beautiful church for silent meditation and Mass. Prayer remains mainly in Arabic, the liturgical language of our consecration of love to Christian-Islamic friendship, and of our common adoration of The Merciful One. The adoration of the incarnate Word of God in the cave of Bethlehem - it is the symbol of a lost and born again peace. Muslims adore God, The One, who communicates to the deepest in each believer. These two adorations are not separate; together they constitute the sincere answer of our hearts to the Love of God, The Highest.
We were talking with a female journalist from Shanghai about Muslims and Christians, how in the Middle Ages they passed through the Himalayas into China. And we dreamt of a place for young people on the Himalaya path, a place to train them about harmony and understanding between religious traditions and faiths.


The Monastic Community

    In Deir Mar Musa, December is the month for the spiritual exercises, and this year Sister Huda guided Youssef the novice in this adventure. This is a beautiful thing, up to now, only Fr. Paolo had offered this service. Huda has successfully graduated from her studies in Rome and is now fully involved in Deir Mar Musa. She is back and shining.
    These days, we have been reading and commenting on Pope Benedict's encyclical letter on hope which has given us the opportunity to think together about the meaning of our life here, of prayer, work, reception of guests, dialogue... So we have made a decision to fight pessimism, that terrible poison that blackens every thing and finally kills it. In community, in our relationships and in our projects we try to always be open to hope. Hope is true, humble, and ever-present in the smallest details and "pleated folds" of everyday life. This is already the life of the Kingdom of Heaven.
    This year there have been numerous signs of hope for us. In September, in his Maronite village Jihad was ordained a deacon in the company of his loved ones and relatives. And we pray, God willing, that next July his father, despite his illness, will have the joy of participating in his ordination to the priesthood.
     After two years with us as a volunteer and a year as a postulant, Diane has postponed her pilgrimage by donkey through the Middle East. Last September, on the eve of the Feast of the Cross, she entered the Noviciate and in January, she and Huda will set out on pilgrimage to the Jordan River to visit the site of the Lord's baptism. This is also the site of the ascension of the prophet Elijah, the crossing of the Ark of the Covenant, and the location of Mary the Egyptian's hermitage. Paolo and Boutros were warmly received by the Franciscans of Mount Nebo and friendship is growing between the two communities.
             Paolo went to the Jordan River with the international group of the Abraham Path Initiative, and Boutros also went there alone in order to worship in this place, the only one in the Holy Land, where Arab Christians can still visit. This is for us a kind of promise, that one day we will travel in peace to Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Hebron (where the tomb of Abraham, al-Khalil, our common patriarch, lies).
        Since the month of October, Daniel, one of the novices, has been spending most of his week with Fr. Jacques in the Monastery of Mar Elyan and there, in Qaryatayn, he is preparing for his school exams. Diane joins them during the week for Arabic lessons and in exchange instructs her teacher's (an expert in Islamic Sciences) children in French. Deir Mar Elyan has begun its rebirth. Part of the new courtyard is already in use and the reconstructed church welcomes the prayers of the little monastic group.
    Last September Fr. Jacques' mother, Mrs. Imelda, sadly left us. This was a significant moment for us, because she had, especially in her years in Qaryatayn, come to adopt us all. Her funeral in Aleppo with the nuns, the companions of her daughter Victoria, and our community around Fr. Jacques, was a consolation for us all. Then, we had the feeling that in the end, this world is shed to reveal a world illuminated by Christ, the Sun that never sets.
       In Cori, near Rome, our students Jens, Jihad and Deema are continuing to deepen their relationship with the parish community that has taken them in. Our home of San Salvatore is also a place of gathering and prayer in communion with the Oriental Churches and the Muslim community. It would be beautiful to establish a fellowship to ensure the continuing presence of our spiritual charisma. This could become a kind of home for our Italian friends.
    This summer Jens went once again to Iran to continue to foster existing relationships there. This should allow us to establish a stable presence there in the coming years.  We are considering Tabriz as a location, though nothing is certain yet.
    Our English friend Mary, who for thirty years was a practicing psychotherapist in Tuscany, spent a year with us here in Deir Mar Musa waiting for a sign from the heavens. After leaving us in the autumn she returned to Italy for a month where sadly she was violently attacked by a mentally ill person, leaving her in very critical condition. But thankfully the Lord intervened and now Mary is better. Many people are eagerly awaiting her return to Syria: Iraqi refugees, members of the local community, people in need and all her friends here.


Globe Trotter

    This year Paolo was a little overambitious in his world travels. After three days in Finland in December 2006 and the annual trip to Europe in February (for fundraising, among other things), Paolo went to New Zealand in May for a UN seminar organized by The Alliance of Civilisations. In July he was in Brittany to take part in the Islamic-Christian pilgrimage of the Seven Saints and to visit the tomb of his revered master, Louis Massignon. He continued his journey to New York and Washington to participate in two Jesuit seminars dedicated to dialogue with Hebraism and with Islam. In September, he went to Northern Iraq to offer spiritual exercises to members of the Chaldean and Syrian clergies of Mossul. This relationship of solidarity with the Iraqi people and the Church of Iraq is very significant to us, as a means of doing whatever we can, however small, in the face of such grave circumstances. In a visit to the Vatican in October, Paolo met the new president of Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Cardinal, J. L. Tauran, and the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Cardinal L. Sandri. These visits proved to be a great source of consolation for Paolo. We would like to reiterate our gratitude to Cardinal Musa Daoud, our Bishop and Patriarch in the 1990's who followed the growth of our community from Rome. He raised some important questions which helped facilitate the Holy See's acceptance of the validity of our vocation and our theological perspective, especially our perspectives on the issue of Islamic-Christian relations. In Barcelona, Paolo administered the spiritual exercises to members of the Communities of the Ark of Jean Vanier for the mentally handicapped. Finally, in Paris, he participated in a colloquy on the future of the Christians of the East sponsored by the Quai d'Orsay. In his address he took position facing the pessimism widespread. He put forth a vision other than one of Islamic-Christian competition or of an improbable evolution towards secularity in those societies, and suggested it would be better to speak of evolutions in pluralism seeking cultural and theological complementary common life and on convergent hopes.


Communion in the Local Church

    We can appreciate the worries of our dear bishop, his grace George Kassab, and that of the community concerning our globetrotter, particularly during this phase in which the Church is in the process of elaborating a more definitive decision on our vocation here. Paolo maintains that his journeys have been an exceptional experience and have given him a feel for the universal scope of our Abrahamic perspective and the common aspiration of women and men of all continents, for peace in the justice of God.
    Our bishop George Kassab considered it his duty to represent the difficulties of some members of the local Church in regard to our commitment to dialogue and our inter-religious Visitor Centre project which will be located in the environmental park in the valley of Deir Mar Musa. The community committed itself more radically to ecclesial dialogue and once again we realised the force and power of prayer, which opens ways to wonderful and unexpected comprehension and understanding. Prayer also makes obedience to the hierarchy of the Church fruitful even when it comes at a cost. Now, thanks to God, everything is going better. But we have decided to postpone any decisions for the canonical foundation of the community because of the current state of uncertainty in the whole of the Syriac Church. We advance, step by step, in peace and in the most ecclesial way possible, comforted by the Roman approval of our monastic rule. More than twenty-five years ago the Lord showed this path to the young Italian Jesuit.  And for more than twenty years the local Church and the Holy See in Rome watched over this journey with care and encouraged its course. So we try and remain faithful and peaceful.

Cultural Commitment

Our regular seminar took place in July, but this year, due to negative ecclesial reactions, we were forced to abandon the specifically inter-religious aims of the seminar in favour of only inter-cultural ones. The result proved encouraging. A hundred youth from all corners of Syrian society met for three days to interact together and to discuss the issue of "Intercultural exchange and the youth of tomorrow". They all agreed on the worth and importance of going forward together on a common path, in common spirit. The press covered the initiative with interest and sympathy and the youth still pay us regular visits. During the seminar there was also an opportunity for inter-musical "dialogue" bringing together young European Baroque musicians and their young Syrian counterparts. After two days of rehearsal they performed an inspiring concert in the Visitor Centre's portico for our bishop and for more than five hundred friends from Nebek. They uplifted us with a feeling of harmony and honest beauty. Diane introduced each of the pieces in Arabic and with passion. The second performance in Hama was also a great success.

    In October, we inaugurated our small but precious library for dialogue. This was after Ramadan. We wished to express our gratitude and consideration towards all the people and institutions that had played a part in its creation and development. Among them we offer our warmest thanks to l'Oeuvre d'Orient (a Parisian Catholic organisation), which contributed greatly to the construction of the new reading room. These past few years the library has benefited from the commitment of two French volunteers from SCD (Service for Co-operation and Development in Lyon). The first was Eglantine and, since September 2006, Nathalie. Although having returned to France, Eglantine continues to collaborate closely with us. Together with Paolo she is preparing a book about the theology of dialogue. Nathalie, whom most of you know, takes care of the monastery's complex secretarial work with skill, much love and supreme patience. Professor Consorti of the Remo Orseri Foundation and the University of Pisa came for the inauguration, representing the president of the foundation, Professor Pietro Scoppola. Professor Scoppola had wished to be present, but the Lord, just a few days before, had called him back to heaven. The Orseri Foundation has been close to us for a long time and supports our cultural commitment. Its new president, Professor Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Roman Christian Community of Sant Egidio is an old and dear friend of Paolo's. We look forward to continuing our effective collaboration in the future.
    The people present at the inauguration were highly qualified and motivated. The local Mufti expressed his solidarity, and insisted on the value of The Book as the origin of the world's meaning. On this occasion, an intensive moment of silence and prayer was dedicated to the memory of our friend and master Pietro Scoppola added meaning to our meeting. It seemed to call each of us to greater responsibility. Representatives of different libraries and local universities came together in a round-table discussion about the challenges facing libraries today. Professor Consorti held a conference the next day in the Italian Cultural Institute in Damascus, which was very warmly received. The conference focused on the idea of the secular state in the Mediterranean region. The transcript of this conference will be posted on our website, as well as that of the Orseri Foundation's.

The Publishing House

    Adib and Huda are living in a small, restored house belonging to the monastery in Nebek. They are now the parents of a very sweet baby girl. Adib is now responsible for the monastery's publications, and Huda works as our accountant. The name of our government-recognised publishing house is el-Khalil lin-Nashr. This name refers to Abraham the friend (Khalil) of God. We have already published a volume on the issue of "the recognition of the Other", a translation of Louis Massignon's articles on the Holy Land, as well as a report on the ecumenical meeting of the youth of 2001 entitled "I Place My Hope In You". A collection of conference transcripts on "spiritual experience and its social impact", a translation of the spiritual directory of the blessed Charles de Foucauld and a book of songs are currently in preparation for publication.
    Two young friends from Damascus are working with Adib and Jens to create a website entirely in Arabic titled "Al-Khalil". You will find the link on Deir Mar Musa's website once it is ready, which, Insha'Allah, will be soon.

The Agricultural and Environmental Dimension

    Raphaël, our volunteer from the DCC (The Catholic Delegation for Co-operation) arrived in Deir Mar Musa in October. He has replaced Stéphane Heudes, who joined his fiancée in Algeria after a year of fruitful service. Stéphane left us a marvellous pigeon coop as a souvenir of his time with us. This coop should soon offer us a good complement of protein for our diets. He also took care of our agricultural projects in Qaryatayn and developed our relationship with the CCFD (The Catholic Committee Against Hunger and For Development)
     Raphaël is 26-year-old engineer, a specialist in rural development and is happy to serve the Lord and the Monastery. Two years ago, he spent three months with us, a month of which was spent in spiritual exercises guided by Paolo. At the end of his exercises he requested baptism. This year he expressed the desire to return and get to know the community better.
    In April, the tenth annual Environmental Day took place with several local partners. It was chiefly concerned with the scientific, cultural and social dynamics of the park and Visitor Centre projects. This event and other similar cultural activities have been made possible by the generosity of Germany's Hanns Seidel Foundation, which has been with us faithfully in our endeavours for many years, and has helped us indispensably in the technical training of our lay workers.
    The fourth meeting of the beekeeper seminar was held in November. It is interesting to note that this event is very much appreciated by Muslim people due to the Qur'an's praise of bees, and they hold them to be something like a little nation of "bee-lievers".

The Construction of Deir el-Hayek and Deir el-Huqab

    According to plan, December 2007 saw the pouring of the reinforced concrete on the top of the last major part of the Deir el-Hayek, also known as the women's monastery. Now we have fifteen bedrooms, a kitchen for preparing food for visiting groups, a parlour, a technically equipped multi-function room holding up to one hundred people, a portico with a chapel within the caves of the ancient hermits, water tanks, bathrooms, cellars and attics. In 2008 we look forward to make available six more bedrooms, as well as additional bathrooms, a chapel for thirty people, a laundry room, and a kitchenette. In total there will be twenty-one bedrooms. We would also like to develop our service of spiritual exercises, and in addition to inter-religious conferences we hope to offer courses in theology. Hopefully, with your help, we will be able finish this work within two years. Still to be built in Deir el-Hayek are four more rooms, a large water cistern, a walled enclosure with more isolated cells along its length. We have yet to finish the lift tower that will also act as a steeple. But we will also have to convert the "cableway" for the use of persons in difficulty.
    Many of you remember the goat pen and the caves to the north of the monastery (Deir al-Huqab) where monks and goats once lived to together harmoniously. Due to the opening of the park we moved the goats’ home to a new and magnificent place two kilometres to the west of the monastery (where the garage was built in 1989). It also contains a room for Paolo's spiritual retreats. There he celebrates mass for the shepherds of a Christian Bedouin family from Qaryatayn. The old goat pen and the caves have since been transformed into eight rooms and bathrooms for monks and guests. Our mule has left us for Greener Pastures and the stable will soon be converted into a chicken coop... Dogs, cats, pigeons and chickens all eat from the same trough! Even little birds and foxes stop by.


The Heating System

    An altitude of 1,300 meters means winter at the monastery can be long and hard.  We strive to offer our guests a quiet and comfortable place suitable for reflection and prayer even under such cold conditions.  Since the rebuilding of Deir Mar Musa, we have used “sobias,” (oil-burning stoves) for warmth. This heating system is complicated to use, unhealthy, and not ecologically friendly.  Because it is dangerous for us to leave the stoves burning during the night, often our guests must often suffer through the cold.  We are looking for a more efficient and ecological heating solution. Ideally we would like to install a central heating system in the ancient part of the monastery powered by both solar and gas energy. This area is the most frequently used by our visitors and the monastic community as the centre of daily life and activities. Friends from Vicenza will offer technical support in this venture, but more benefactors are needed for the success of this project.  We hope that upgrading the heating of the monastery will in turn improve the level of hospitality we can offer our guests, hopefully leading to an increase in winter visitors, generating a more stable income for the monastery all year-round. 

The Housing of Nebek

Many of you already know that we have already purchased a large and dilapidated 18th/19th century house close to the church in Nebek. We have demolished this building and recycled its beautiful building stones in the construction of Deir el-Hayek. Now the land is free for development. The high costs of housing in the nearby town of Nebek have forced many young people to move into the cities or emigrate abroad in order to afford the costs of starting a family.  The minority Christian population of the town is dwindling rapidly and will soon be under the critical size of one-percent.  To help maintain the cultural diversity and equilibrium of the town, it is our wish to provide more affordable housing to the Christian youth. Our aim is to build a two-story apartment complex with an inner courtyard, capable of housing up to eight families, and we now have 800 square meters of land available for the undertaking of this project. A foundation of our friends has expressed an interest in this project and we eagerly await their final response. Hopefully our next newsletter will bring you all good news on the progress of this project. 

The Visitors Centre

We wish to update you with the progress of the Visitors Centre of Deir Mar Musa.  This centre is directly connected to the development of the national park, and is managed in partnership with the public administration and local NGOs. The Syrian state government has contributed 35 hectares to this project and will maintain ownership of the land. Our monastery will be able to contract some major services in order to manage the tourist movement with the help of local lay people.  Regarding the basic structure of the Visitors Centre, we will soon create a welcoming point and, if we obtain the necessary funds, we will be able to establish a campground as well. A group of our partners are preparing projects for the centre, including handicraft activities, the processing of agricultural products, and the traditional production of textiles, ceramics and copperware. Insha' Allah, the project will be realised in both Deir Mar Musa and Deir Mar Elyan.
Together with the support of the COSV, an NGO of Milan, and European funds we will be launching a competition for students of fine arts and architecture.  The students will be asked to express their hopes for inter-religious and intercultural harmony in their conception and planning of a spiritual way station for travellers in the Middle East.  The ecclesial and social situation in Syria doesn’t allow us to go into too many details concerning the objective of this competition, but we hope that these restrictions will prove a benefit, rather than a hindrance, encouraging the students to be creative rather than making use of cliché. We want to reap an artistic harvest that will connect the collective symbolic unconscious and the rich local traditions with awareness for the future of today’s youth. In September, as a part of the “Damascus 2008 Capital of Arabic Culture” annual festival, the best projects from the competition will be exhibited in Damascus and thereafter at Mar Musa in October.
We envision three categories for the final structure of the monastery. The first is the welcoming of mass tourism, both local and international. Our objectives for this level are the socio-economic development of the region, and to educate people in the values of inter-religious harmony, social solidarity, and environmental awareness. The second is the initiation to a spiritual and aesthetic experience. The third is the deepening of the monastic and contemplative experience. These three categories will be represented respectively by the Visitors Centre, the Old Monastery (including its fabulous church) and the two monastic residencies of Deir el-Hayek and Deir el-Huqab with the caves and the hermitage. 


A Syrian family's generous donation has allowed us to continue with the construction of the new cloister of Deir Mar Elyan, where Fr. Jacques and Daniel have already moved. There they welcome short-term guests and members of the monastic community who, on their days of rest, come to relax and share in a spirit of brotherhood. On the agricultural level, big steps have been made in the production of olive oil and other products, including medicinal plants.  The shop is on the verge of completion, its traditional dome rising gracefully above the trees.  The easy accessibility of the monastery draws a large numbers of local villagers, the majority of whom are Muslim, for a devotional visit to the church or just a family picnic.  Parish groups and associations have begun frequenting the monastery, and more and more travellers are visiting on their way to and from Palmyra.            


    We would like to congratulate those who have read the entirety of this letter, and even those who skimmed through its pages. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
We hope to see you in Syria, Italy, or wherever our paths may cross.  We stand in that solidarity and empathy of thought and in that friendship on every level that the church calls “the Communion of the Saints”. The union of souls in prayer is surely the most universal element of religions, and its common denominator. We feel blessed by the opportunity to live our vocation, and by your encouragement and support, and we hold you all in our thoughts.

Best wishes and friendship to all,
The Community of al-Khalil