For the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures Newsletter September-October 2006


Interview with Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, winner of the 2006 Euro-Mediterranean Award for Dialogue on ‘Mutual respect amongst people of different religions or any other belief’ for the Deir Mar Musa Monastery, Syria’: questions Dr. Traugott Schoefthaler(TS), Executive Director of the Anna Lindh Foundation.



Question 1: Father Paolo, let me first of all congratulate you on the Euro-Mediterranean Award for Dialogue for the Deir Mar Musa Monastery in Syria which is under your leadership. The Anna Lindh Foundation, being the youngest Institute of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, wants to promote, with the theme of this award ‘Mutual respect among people of different religion or any other belief’. What is Deir Mar Musa doing to promote such respect?


Father Paolo: First of all, a word of thanks to the Anna Lindh Foundation for the Award itself. I was astonished, as I had no expectations about this, but I am of course very happy for the group that works together, not only monks and nuns, but voluntary workers and others who together form a very interesting and committed group of people. I ask myself why and for what we have been awarded this. Probably this award is an occasion to know each other better and collaborate in the field of inter-religious dialogue in the Mediterranean context.


As to the concept of respect: this is often underlined in European documents; this is strange for us. Sometimes we respect what we are afraid of, as we teach children to have respect for electricity, it is not something automatic. Love, instead, proposes a basic feeling, an attitude that can help to avoid war and the tensions that lead to war. Respect is so far from being enough that therefore it is not on our agenda. Thank you for reminding us of this.


We are interested in the parallel concept of hospitality, to be able to welcome others ‘under our tent’ and accept, receive, appreciate their own hospitality. To be able to respect others, you have to recognize them as subjects worthy of being respected, having characteristics that enable respect. In hospitality, especially Semitic/Arabic hospitality, your guest is not somebody you will take advantage of, nor that you need for your own purposes. By the very fact of being ‘other’ (nation, tribe, religion) he becomes an icon, an embodiment of ‘otherhood’, which, for religious people, is God Himself. In the name of God, the host receives the guest, recognizing in his face the image of God the Guest.


Back to respect: (not easy for me, it is so much “not enough”, there is here a lack of interaction, the need to stay external, without engagement, looking to maintain equilibrium.


So, what is Deir Mar Musa trying to do?

One, it offers a large room in our hearts and minds to Islamic/human/cultural reality, a warm room of consideration, curiosity appreciation, with a desire for friendship, communion and interaction, mystical, spiritual, embodied in a monastery, where there is the priority of prayer in human life. Thus we know deeply that we have brothers and sisters in the Islamic/Sufi tradition. In this monastery, we have been trying to rediscover and re-express, with more awareness and free choice, the ancient structure of inter-relationship between this kind of Christian institution and the still young Islamic community. Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him from the Lord), had been in contact with monks and the monastic tradition from his childhood, when he came in caravans. Monks at that time had been traveling across the desert, to the Gulf, Yemen, Ethiopia. It is a matter of fact that in Syria the monastic concept is considered very positive, the most loved face of Christianity amongst Islam. The Caliphs, the first generation after the Prophet, brought deep respect but also real protection to the monasteries, discovering places of interaction and deep meeting with Christian communities. We have witness of this in Arabic/Islamic literature, throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Even the Crusades and the colonialist occupation were not able to take away from the Islamic spiritual approach the positive connotations towards Christian monastic communities.


We are happy to say that the Moslems of this region consider this monastery as their own. We are honoured to see that Moslems and Christians, Syrians and foreigners, find in Deir Mar Musa a symbol of hope for a common future, to be built with a shared responsibility. Respect is only the always necessary first step.


Question 2: Do you agree with the statement that lack of mutual respect is one of the most burning problems in our Euro-Mediterranean region? And what are the reasons?


Father Paolo: I feel embarrassed in front of this second question. I feel somehow the big difficulty of Westerners to understand why Islam is so aggressive towards the occidental way of life and pyramid of values, principles and life style. Therefore, Westerners feel threatened by this and try to propose respect for at least a base for a common life internationally but also inside the societies.


The West finds it difficult to understand how deep the contention is. Why so much negativity? It depends probably on two things: first, we have to accept that the Islamic world around the Mediterranean has been victim of colonial projects; even Turkey, though not directly, has been ‘Westernized’, and not probably through real free choice but through a tragic process in which Oriental Christians have paid a very high price. After colonialism, the creation of national entities was seen under the direct influence of the West, through a national ideology which is external to the Islamic world. Then immediately, the Zionist nation was created in the heart of the Arab world (Islam and Oriental Christian). Furthermore, two empires, (capitalism and communism) both of them from the West, came to impose their logic and their own internal fight upon the Arab/Islamic world.


Secondly, in the present day, the feeling of being economically colonized is so deep, the regimes being so dependent on Western economic interest – it is so evident. The impression that the Israeli/Arabic war is also a way of expanding spaces for Western markets, arms, and then after the end of the Cold War, this enormous feeling of being victim of a process of globalization, in which Western lifestyle is imposed as being the only reasonable, really human, feasible one, without the people in the West having the capacity to question the model, as to whether it is worthy of being proposed.


Having in Islam an enormous desire for emancipation, having a project for a future built on its own values, hope in its own literature, imagination, desires, aesthetics: Moslems in many different ways feel a need for fighting to resist Western/worldly power, and for fighting back in order to create a space for Islamic hope. It is clear to me that there are many different ‘Islams’ as there are many different ‘Wests’. (Remember that Eastern Churches are more deeply part of Arabic/Islamic civilization than somehow of Western civilization, participating in their own ways. So there are different Islams, from so-called ‘terrorism’ to so-called ‘moderates’. Yes, I believe in respect, but for this, we have to come to an awareness of the lack of respect that characterizes our history; before judging the Islamic reaction, we have to come to an awareness of Western action. Obviously, we can go back to the Islamic conquest of Mediterranean coasts and before we can speak of Byzantine colonialism and Roman imperialism, Hellenistic invasion of the Eastern Mediterranean, and so back to before history. But this would not be a good way to understand the present time.


Western culture, although very plural in its expressions, is in fact very ideological seen from the outside. Once again, I agree about respect, but as something offered rather than requested or expected.


Question 3: Christians in Malta or in Egypt pray to Allah because this is the word for ‘God’ in their language. Most Moslems feel offended when Christians tell them that they would not pray to the same God. What is your position?


Father Paolo: I know that there are Christians believing that their God is not the same God as Moslems. We Oriental Christians have been saying ‘Allah’ with Moslems for centuries, and even before, we have had such deep common experiences of relationship with the Divine. There is also a consciousness of pre-Islamic, pre-Christian Eastern populations, saying to the Almighty the same ancient Semitic common term, Elohim, Iil, El, Aloho Allah.


What a tragedy that more than one billion people are thought to be misguided by a non-existing or non-right God. Our experience in Deir Mar Musa is deeply the one of a common worship and a common relationship with the One God, the Merciful Creator, the One who sides with the poor, oppressed, abandoned, those little ones who are thirsty and hungry for justice.


Question 4: Deir Mar Musa monastery prepares, with partners, for the Abraham Path Project, a pilgrimage from Istanbul through Syria, Jordan to Al-Khalil-Hebron and Al-Quds/Jerusalem. Can you tell us more about this project?


Father Paolo: First of all, let me tell you that Istanbul is not on the path. Now, I would like to say that our monastic community has the name Al-Khalil, the community of Abraham, the friend of God. It is also the name of the town of his tomb in Palestine, known in Europe as Hebron. Therefore, the Abraham, Path has been always interesting as the path of a man open to his future, crossing borders and ‘belongings’ and seeking a universal blessing. Then we discovered that Deir Mar Musa was somehow on the way. So many people come in the name of Abraham, walking, cycling, by public means, and when, during the Barcelona World Parliament of Religions, I came in touch with leaders of the Abraham Path Initiative from Harvard University, I felt that there was something very true to be developed.


We have tried to discover the tracks of this Abrahamic/Islamic/Christian/Jewish memory in our region. We met for a marvelous night of prayer in Harran, on the night of Destiny, in the month of Ramadan, and Harran is the place of the call of Abraham: a decision to leave natural belongings in order to develop a new perspective, not determined by tribal logic.


We want very soon to open a permanent educational project. The Abraham Path will go from Harran, near Orfa in Upper Mesopotamia, to the Euphrates, to Aleppo, to the River Oront, then to Deir Mar Musa and on to Damascus. Deir Mar Musa will be one of the way stations. From there to the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem, to end in Khalil in Hebron, at Abraham’s tomb, keeping in mind that the importance is not so much to knowwhere, he physically and materially walked, but to recognize a kind of symbol, a complex one, not easy because apart, from common elements, there are as many Abrahams as there are communities. Everyone agreed that he was a true Faithful, he came out facing a universal blessing, he was generous and hospitable, and so spiritually concerned for others. Abraham is also the one understanding the relationship with God as a face-to-face one. Facing God instead of the Divine, and thus becoming a person.


Somehow the symbol of Abraham is important because he is a pre-religions Faithful, and probably we are all called to be post-religions Faithfuls. I would not be astonished if New Age People take Abraham as their own spiritual ancestor.


More concretely, the Abraham Path Initiative is a project for cultural/spiritual tourism with a strong environmental aspect, an educational project for inter-cultural harmony-building and we hope that it will be also a means of local economic development and a cultural instrument, in order to create a base for a long-lasting and just peace in the Middle East.


Question 5: Inter-faith dialogue meetings usually end with conclusions on common values. What can we do in order to agree also to mutual respect of differences?


Father Paolo: OK for mutual respect about differences, but what about liberation processes from unjust regimes, from aristocratic privileged systems, old-fashioned kingdoms or remnants of tyrannical, hyper-nationalistic power systems? What about liberation of territories from illegal occupation, what about this prison of border-control, unobtainable visas? What is concretely the most universal system is mafias, by now international and on the way to being global. Respect is not a passive attribute, it is a fight.


After the unfortunate communication accident of Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg which provoked unwillingly a deep wound in Islamic feelings because it touches the very person of the prophet of Islam, a press communiqué came saying very sincerely that the Pope was sorry to have caused pain, and he confirmed to them his feelings of esteem and respect. I am happy after al that in the story, the question of the status of the prophet Mohammed and the need for esteem and respect come to be tied together. I see here a program for the future of deep dialogue.


Question 6: Between different religions, it is normally not too difficult to agree on the value of equal dignity of all human beings. It seems, however, very difficult to apply the United Nations principle of “Equal dignity of all cultures, provided that Human Rights are respected” to the coexistence of different religions. What can we do in this respect?


Father Paolo: This is a difficult issue and I’m not sure if I have the right cultural background to address this. I am not a scholar in UN History and Human Rights. From an Islamic point of view, the UN organization depends so much on the culture of the Western countries that won the Second World War, that even the Declaration of Human Rights is felt to be a product of Western priorities. This doesn’t mean that these are foreign, unknown, to Islam. For Islam, even the concept of the person is not like in the West, where it is centered on the individual in his rational capacities. The human person is more of a secret person whose value comes from his being created by God and being called to a relation ship with God, and, consequently, with others. Some questions arise here about how to find equilibrium between the rights of individuals and groups, between religious tolerance, and conscience freedom on one side and, on the other side, the right to self-promotion and defense of cultural/religious identities. Once again, the concrete possibility of leading together depends on the concrete capacity of care for each other, not only respecting but with mutual recognition of others’ values and by opening ourselves to living complementarily and with reciprocal consciousness of dynamic function integration.


Somewhere, this will create dynamic, successful societies, somewhere else, more a patchwork of ghettoes. I hope that we will have as few ‘walls’ as possible, not only the Sharon Wall but bureaucratic walls, the walls of cultural discrimination. Fighting for the right of people to move in a world that belongs to all of us.


We need to provoke each other on the theological/philosophical level, kindly but deeply, to pay attention to other desires and come to a sharing of desires, hoping and willing to have harmony as a destiny. It is important to create successful models and examples in order to fight pessimism.


Question 7: Most religions have a word for –non-believers-, such as ‘heathen’, goijim’ or ‘kafir’. In practice, many members of religious communities have negative or even hostile associations with these words. In some cases, groups consider other groups, even within the same major religion, as non-believers. How can we change that?


Father Paolo: The category of non-believing is a negative one, someone lacking something. On this level, it seems that our times are no longer times of polemic, active atheisms or agnostic movements. There is a shared new interest for spirituality and religious experience. But there is also, not only in the West, a more or less large part of the population that do not identify themselves with belonging to a religious belief community. That is why, somehow, universally, there is room for deep tolerance and cultural and spiritual complex identities, based more on syncretism than on exclusive belonging. This is an important component of modern human culture. I will not speak any more of ‘non-believing’ but on dynamically moving and complex beliefs.


This component of contemporary human culture is in different ways a challenge for traditional religious identities and I have been remarking more and more that, compared to the minorities of youth who are choosing religious sectarianism and exclusionism, there is appearing somehow a majority of youth who are judging the authenticity of the religious identities by their capacity for inclusiveness and desire for participation in building pluralistic harmony. The youth passing through Deir Mar Musa ask: How are you able to achieve harmony between faithfulness to your tradition and deep, non-formal interest and welcoming to other traditions? In a sense, the less you are inclusive in your vision, and tolerant, the less ‘believable’ you are.


Question 8: The Catholic Church has appointed a Cardinal for relations with non-believers. What can we do to improve relations between churches and other religious organizations of such non-believers?


Father Paolo: There was in fact a special office in the Vatican, created after Vatican Council II, for dialogue with atheism: it was in the time of Communism. Then this office was dismantled and its role has been played by the Pontifical Council for Culture. The risk now is that some people are asking also to dismantle the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, reducing it to just inter-cultural dialogue.


I’m personally afraid that some Christians wish to see the Catholic Church as the symbolic representation of the superiority of the Western cultural model, to be proposed as truth for all humanity. These people are afraid of cultural pluralism and relativism, and they look at history as the confluence of nations allover the world coming to the highest human civilization model conceived, celebrated and realized by the Hellenistic Judeo/Christian-rooted West, just keeping, perhaps, some light folklore particularization. I do not believe this is the right way of imagining the future. I hope for Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Moslems around the Mediterranean to be able and to have the passionate desire to build together a pluralistic civilization. I believe in a stainless steel resistance to Western assimilation and forced global acculturation to keep and preserve treasures of human wisdom and divine experience for future generations. This is also true for other religious traditions. I look with great hoper to the deep spiritual traditions of India and China, as well as to the valuable spiritual personalities of pre-Christian black Africa and South America. Islam is probably the most efficacious system of resistance to globalization. Obviously I do understand the need to avoid terrorist attacks: it is a need for a capacity to choose strategies and refuse suicide tendencies. But nevertheless, the priority is to pay attention to the Islamic demand and contestation. The Islamic criticism of the Western economic, capitalistic model, secularized society and desecrated personal and family life, stays as a voice to be heard and paid attention to.


Going back to non-believers, we have in Arabic literature a real tradition of polemic skepticism, considered, at the end of day, as healthy for the society. In a perspective of a less polemic relationship with the West, we can easily foresee an Islamic world more open to its internal questioning, even through the dialectic between faith and atheism. Until now, atheism is felt as a Western product and therefore radically refused.


Question 9: The international community imposed on Bosnia and Herzegovina, after the atrocities of the war between Serb-Orthodox, Croat-Catholics and Bosnian-Moslems, a core curriculum for all schools on “the culture of religions”, providing a minimum of knowledge of all regions in this country to the young generation. It has been proposed to promote this also in the whole Euro-Mediterranean region. Would you support this proposal? And how could such learning about religious pluralism be organized?


Father Paolo: Yes, I agree, and I am ready to participate if your organization wants to promote it. I don’t think so much about a kind of universal inter-religious catechism but more an elaboration of a pluralistic pedagogy in meeting others and conceiving ‘otherness’ that will then help to rewrite new catechisms for the different traditions, and for different ages, children, youth, adults, with their own particular exigencies. I have an old dream of writing a nice and very illustrated catechism for Arab Christian kids living in very little minorities in the midst of Arabic/Islamic societies, to develop for them a possibility of identification not based on opposition to otherness and resistance to assimilation, but on discovery of positive interaction and of function in a society in which I understand, as a child, that my family tradition has a positive role for the good of the given society, blessed with Islam but also blessed by my little presence in it. I think particular examples like that can help to develop larger projects.


Question 10: 30 years ago, there was a majority in the ecumenical movement, organized by the World Council of Churches in Geneva, in favour of stopping proselytism, missionary activities, as a means to promote peace among religions. Today, this majority no longer exists. What is your position?


Father Paolo: My position is that it is very difficult to stop missionary movements and proselytism attitudes without wounding the principle of conscience freedom and religious freedom. At the same time, those same movements provoke violent reactions of identity defensiveness. Probably it would be good to develop laws that, without fighting directly against proselytism, are able to fight against the worst expression of it, starting from concrete “criminal” behaviour, such as lack of respect for the education responsibilities of families for minority-age youth, attraction of people through economic or sexual power appeal, use of cult violence (like in forms of Satanism), practice of non-transparency without the control by the believers on the behaviour of their religious leaders,. sexual/racial/social discriminations. Such laws are to be determined pragmatically through democracy, accepting pluralism between one society and another in the definition of these “criminal” attitudes. But at the same time, seeking as much as possible the building of common universal principles.


Question 11: In Europe and in the whole Mediterranean area, some or even many Christians, Jews and Moslems pretend to know exactly God’s will and, therefore, try to impose it on others. Should we promote more modesty in this regard, as a means to further mutual respect?


Father Paolo: Paradoxically, I am tempted to say that it is because we do not know enough God’s will that by consequence we try to impose our own issues on others, in order to heal the anguish that comes from fearing an undefined world and an unknown future. I do feel that if the children of Abraham deepened their knowledge of the will of God, they

would discover a marvelous place of harmony. It needs the active and particular participation of each of them.


Question 12: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on universal values which don’t allow any discrimination according to origin, race, colour, language, religion or any other opinion or belief. The Barcelona Declaration, signed by all 35 governments of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, includes the commitment to ensure “respect of thought, conscience and religion, both individually and together with other members of the same group.” What should churches and other religious communities do to remind Governments of this obligation?


Father Paolo: For the Catholic Church, that I know better, I have noted a regular and dynamic activity of using all the possible opportunities to remind Governments about moral principles underlining the importance of human rights declarations and international agreements. From this point of view, the Vatican diplomacy can have a very positive impact certainly larger than the interests of the Catholic Church itself. In different ways, also other Churches and religious Jewish and Moslem organizations feel the duty to remind Governments about their obligations. It is a matter of fact that often religions ask Governments for privileges and to consecrate discriminations according to what they consider their own interests. I think that we need today more and more a movement of global democracy where the religious organized membership is balanced by transversal opinion movements, organized like syndicates, surely larger than nations and more universal than religions, although not violently opposing religions. I dream of a system of dynamic, internet-based federations in which the elaboration of common current aims defines an opinion front, able to put pressure on both civil and religious authorities. Something in the mood of No Global Forums.


In the end, and looking to the seminar in Alexandria, I want to express my desire to be there, to pay attention to the intentions/desires of the youth, perhaps discussing, if they like, the opinions here. Let me also thank my friend Mary Campbell for the help she offered for the edition of this interview.


At the end of this painful summer of the war in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Sudan, let us rejoice that a bigger majority of human beings is coming to the deep conviction that worshipping force and violence is not worthy of human spirituality. Coming to the strong belief that the active will of peace and justice, of so many people, around the Mediterranean Sea, will determine the direction of human history from now on.