The letter to the friends of the Monastery of St Moses, Deir el-Hayek, November 2001


Very dear friends of Deir Mar Musa,


I am writing in one of the rooms of the newly built Monastery of the Weaver (Deir el-Hayek) which is about 200 metres from the main monastery. It was erected in a rocky hermitage that took its name from an ancient monk, who worked in a cave weaving rags from goat hairs for tents and carpets on a rudimentary loom that some local elders swear they can still see. One third of this "crazy" project is already realised. A new path makes its way down from the terrace of the old monastery and across the valley over an 18-metre-long, courageous iron bridge. More than 200 steps along the rocky slope take you southeast to Deir el-Hayek. After many trips, we now take less than five minutes to get there and back.


In the Monastery of the Weaver, we already use ten rooms and four toilets. A small temporary kitchen has been set up in a shaft where an elevator will be later built, with God’s will, by a future generation of monks to assist the elderly...

The section of the monastery already built is separated from the building area by a door so we can use rooms while work continues.

At the moment, Deir el-Hayek hosts five people -brothers and sisters- engaged, with my help, in a month of spiritual exercises.

An iron spiral staircase leads to a large, ancient hermitage where a cave chapel has been set up for people in retreat to pray and meditate. The place is silent, and opens to a boundless view of the mountain and desert plateau. The cave chapel has a special resonance; you can feel the spiritual life of many generations of hermits who prayed here over the centuries.

Twelve volts of electricity are distributed by batteries, which are recharged via an electrical cable from the well’s power generator. The well’s generator is located far away at the eastern entrance to the valley, near the large car park at the end of the new asphalt road leading to the monastery. The same generator powers the 500-metre cableway that carries materials from the bottom of the valley to the Deir el-Hayek building site.

Water is pumped from the eastern well via the old monastery. We can also access the west well using two kilometres of pipes passing by another hermitage at the top of the mountain.

(This hermitage was built for Little Brother Domenico. Since he left, we now share it with the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus from Syria and Lebanon.)

The pipes also connect the pneumatic drill to the diesel compressor located at the top of the mountain near our first and glorious cable station.

The pneumatic drill has been an essential tool for building the path to Deir el-Hayek and laying foundations. Now it is used to plant trees and bushes, and constructs the small, but strong, stone-dam behind the ancient olive trees. We expect the dam to form a small seasonal lake that will extend along the wadi to the old cemetery cave west of the monastery.

(We plan to restore this cemetery, and build a wall to keep out goats as well as plant olive trees and grape vines.)

The dam works are at a good point. Currently, we are able to store more than 900 cubic metres of water. However, we have had very little rain recently, and the valley is dry. When the dam is finished, we will have the capacity to store twice this amount of water which will be used to irrigate the controlled pasture at the foot of the monastery, the tree nursery and future plantations. We are very proud that with ten years experience, our staff, led by the engineer, Mr Ziyad, has been able to move big, heavy stones, using simple means and various techniques.

Our building activity might be considered somewhat frenzied. However, this has to be understood in the context of our region’s quick social and territorial change.

Changes in the meaning of land and land ownership, caused by the population boom in a more technical and individualistic world, has meant traditional agro-pastoral equilibrium has been lost. Because of this, a new way of defining land ownership must be applied. That’s why the monastery must realise these projects to keep this vital space and the necessary silence to fulfil its spiritual role for the common good. The transformation of our region has been deep and change has been fast, since restoration work began 20 years ago. It soon became clear that we had to anticipate the changes to our environment to ensure the monastery’s future, and hopefully keep its meaning for the good of all.

In this context, the Syrian Government has established the Natural Park Valley of Deir Mar Musa to back our fight against desertification of this region.

It is within this large general panorama, that Deir el-Hayek must be realised to ensure a space of silence and solitude, as well as to create a more autonomous space for the women of our Community.

Model Hayekfina2 14-12-200

The finished project will include a multi-purpose hall to hold 70 people for spiritual and cultural activities, a kitchen, a porch - that will link and enlarge the space in front of the cave chapel - and 20 individual rooms for members of the monastic Community and their guests.

International tourism to Syria, and hence the monastery, has dropped to a historical low since September 11. (You can find my open letter to the USA Ambassador in Damascus on our website.) Local tourism is slower than usual because of economic stagnation. This is why we need to work hard to overcome these difficulties. The traditional workshop in March will be dedicated to discuss environmental tourism and will bring together representatives from the region. We also seek an institution willing to fund the construction of a large welcoming centre near the car park for pilgrims, visitors and tourists. This will make visits to the monastery more silent, respectful of the natural environment and, therefore, more spiritual.

In spring 2002, together with the Italian Syrian School of Restoration, we plan to restart the restoration of frescoes - initially with European funds and later, hopefully, with Italian help. As part of this program, we aim to rebuild the church roof that was restored in a hurry with inadequate documentation in 1984.

We have organised several initiatives, such as courses and workshops with a cultural and inter-religious character, in the last few years, with help from the European Commission and the Orseri Foundation.

Our library has also grown with a clear focus on inter-religious dialogue.

Last September, we had a constructive meeting of young Christian leaders from across the Middle East. The meeting was entitled “I put my hope in you”. Some good Muslim friends made positive contributions to the conferences and discussions. We will publish the texts of speeches and discussions from the meeting in Arabic soon. An English summary will be published with a translation of the final declaration on our website after May 2002.

This Letter to Friends is starting to look more like a company annual report. However, it is a matter of fact that our friendly association is important, not only to us personally, but also to our Church and society

In the last years, we have increased our efforts to help young Christians families in Nebek, to discourage them from emigrating. We want to avoid the irreversible deterioration of the inter-community equilibrium between the Muslim majority and Christians - a valued characteristic of the local social and cultural panorama.

Some good has already come from our efforts. Loans without interest have helped at least four families to decide to stay.

We want to do more to assist families and wish to raise money to build five houses in Nebek for the employees of the monastery on land we have bought near the town parish church.

Let us proceed to the human resources chapter.

An important development is the improved quality of our group of lay associates. Marwan ended his military service and married Marwa last August. They remain very committed to the Nebek parish service. Marwa spent some months in Rome learning how to restore books in the laboratory of friends of Deir Mar Musa. She returned to her activity as the Monastery’s librarian with new ideas.

Marwan is still engaged in monastery activity, while at the same time completing a university law degree. He is in charge of building relationships with institutions and organisations active in the region, which have shown interest in our development projects.

After completing his military service, Basil finished a degree in English. After he completes two more years of study in England, we hope he will be a key to furthering our engagement with alternative tourism.

Nawras finished a masters degree at the University of Aleppo, focusing on farming wild almonds. He plans to start a doctorate. In the meantime, he will launch a new project in the monastery’s nursery, cultivating medicinal plants and local spices organically.

Generally, all the staff has grown in the past years, becoming more professionally committed, responsible and motivated.

We have created, both psychologically and spiritually, a community aware of its role as evangelical yeast and its vocation of positive interaction with the Islamic society, within which we live. We also note more, and deeper, relationships between the members of our Community - both monks and lay people - with members of the local Islamic society. My good relationship with the Town Mayor is well known. Also good, is Marwa’s relationship with her neighbours and school friends; as is the relationship between Huda and the wife of the director of a very important Islamic centre in Damascus. The moustached Amin, the foreman of our various projects, gets along well with the families of workers and tradesmen he deals with.

These relationships, even more than official relationships, have given birth to a spirit of dialogue. From this, an authentic and common hope has grown, clearing for each one of us - as well as the local society - a path in life based on the spiritual way that the Lord traced for this monastic community.

On another level, our relationships with individuals and families, from both this region and the world, have been very positive, sharing essential aspects of our spirituality and showing concrete commitment toward us.

At this point, I want to thank our friend Mr Stefano Bigi who lead the Association of Deir Mar Musa Friends with much love and commitment for many years. He has now passed on this responsibility to Mr and Mrs Toffanelli, very old friends of the monastery. Father Paolo will baptise their first son during his visit to Milan in June. Professor Gianni Piccinelli is now the editor of our website. Thank you very much to these volunteers and to all who have helped them.

For the members of the monastic community, there has been a slow growth and consolidation of the individuals who make up the traditional nucleus of the Community.

Now we must discuss the exigent and difficult decision to send Brother Jens and Sister Huda to study theology in Rome. We are waiting for scholarships to allow Huda and Jens to attend the Gregorian University to study philosophy and theology for at least five years. In summer, they will return to Syria so we can be together at Deir Mar Musa.

In 2003, at the end of his three-year noviciate, Brother Jihad will join them to study in Rome and Sister Ramona, aged 30, from Damascus, will follow the next year.

We are pleased to tell you about the great gift of the divine providence and Church solidarity. The Bishop of Latina, south of Rome, has accepted our request to use the small, artistic and ancient church and convent of the Holy Saviour on the old roman temple of the Sun, located in the medieval, picturesque town of Cori, half an hour by train from Rome.

Obviously the church will need some restoration and adaptations, which will proceed with the backing of our friends.

We must admit that for a young community like ours, our vocational dynamism is insufficient. We are aware that our vocation is not easy to understand and practice. The consecrated life is not very fashionable these days and our Christian East remains in a state of painful sociological crisis, which is forcefully projected as a longing for the West.

Because of this, we consider media interviews useful to enlarge our sociological base - although some criticise this as equivocal ‘publicity seeking’ and ‘showing off’. However, we feel that we have something to say and to give witness to. We want to collaborate with the Holy Spirit, the one that sends workers for the reaping of the Kingdom of Heaven. We must pray for vocations: for those who are already here, so that they can grow in strength and faithfulness; for those who come, we pray that they can be generous and in adequate numbers for the future of our Church function.

Now is the time to speak about Father Jacques. He has been the parish priest in the little town of Qaryatayn for the last one-and-a-half years. With the help of our friends Emma and Daniel, two excellent British archaeologists, he is in charge of restoring the nearby monastery of Mar Eliyan. Deir Mar Eliyan is a very ancient desert monastery, 50 kilometres north-east of Deir Mar Musa. The first archaeological expedition has been very promising. Some rooms have already been restored and foundations have been laid for a new reception centre...

Father Jacques stays at Deir Mar Musa with his monastic community for half the week, and moves easily within the territory of his parish, taking care of the small, ancient Christian community in danger of extinction. He also encourages them to integrate with the Islamic environment. We have bought a small Romanian car to help Father Jacques travel in his parish region, because of his back problems.

Based on Father Jacques’ successful pastoral service, his role in our Community has grown. We foresee that Deir Mar Eliyan will evolve into a monastic community dependent on Deir Mar Musa, to form one monastic body.

In the coming months we will re-write the Constitution of the Monastic Community of Deir Mar Musa, to ask the Holy See of Rome to approve our form of religious life. Our approval is dependent on the sympathy and paternal feelings of the Vatican’s Oriental Congregation Chief, Cardinal Moussa Daud, who has been our Bishop and the Patriarch of our Antiochian Church.

For the future, remembering our Pakistani and Iranian - and God knows where else - dreams, we have thought to give to our Community the canonical shape of a confederation of monasteries, with Deir Mar Musa as the mother monastery and the coordination centre. As well, we think that our Syriac Church can, and has to be, a missionary Church able to express, on the basis of its historical experience within the Islamic World, its universal concerns.

We are now at the end of our “annual report”. It will be published on the Internet, but I hope that those who receive this letter will print it and distribute it to people interested in what we are doing at Deir Mar Musa.

Let me be frank: the future of the Monastery depends on the solidarity of every one of our friends, for now, and perhaps for the next 50 years!

There are many ways to help us, as outlined at the end of this letter, but the most beautiful way is to show your support by coming to visit us and by giving us some of your time and your prayer while at home.

We consider ourselves - a community of monks and nuns consecrated to the love of Jesus for the Islamic World - as a fruit of your friendly solidarity. Very spontaneously and regularly, we remember you and your kin in front of the Lord.

Much sweet wishes to all of you and your families for all the beautiful and holy feasts of the year and for every day truth.

A kiss of love to all of you.

Father Paolo