Letter to the Friends of the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi, October 2002

Dearest friends,

Last June, our small community went on pilgrimage to Antioch, capital city of ancient Syria and nowadays a small town on the Turkish border. There, Christians and Muslims venerate the Apostles (cf. Surat "Yassine") and the early Church in Asia. From there, we continued eastwards unto Harran, in ancient Mesopotamia, now southern Turkey. It is from Harran that Abraham left for the Land of Canaan. Nearby northwards, lies Urfa which is the old capital city where people spoke Syriac and Armenian and nowadays Turkish and Kurdish. Muslims venerate Abraham the Patriarch there and his monotheistic faith, on the shores of a small lake that was a place of worship in its "pagan" age, full of carps protected by popular devotion.



We split there, some of us in tears. Jens, Huda and Paolo went, with far too much luggage, by terrestrial and shipping means, through Greece, the Adriatic Sea and Italy, until Cori, south of Rome. The good Padre Ottaviano received us with abrahamitic hospitality. There with the help of the Providence will settle the community of our student monks and nuns.

The Bishop Giuseppe Petrocchi, in the name of the Latina Diocese, gave us the permission to use, in the future, the old church and the convent of the Holy Savior (San Salvatore) in Cori. Once restoration is completed, and after an experiment of two years, we will have four students there. For the moment, Jens stays in the parochial house and Huda, nearby, at Sylvestra's, a very sympathetic and hearted woman.

Our two students, in philosophy and theology at the Gregorian Pontifical University, spent all summer getting familiar to Dante's language. They also got used to going to Rome by train. They found their own rhythm of prayers and presence in the parish community. Our aim is also that they can promote the local dialogue and friendship with immigrated Muslims.

You can find, at the end of this letter, their address, e-mail and the San Salvatore's Student's bank account in Cori. We are now trying to find permanent scholarship, in order to feel more relaxed facing our cultural responsibility for the quality of our Church service in the Muslim world. That is why we wish to be able to sustain a dozen of students, from the Community as well as training lay "associates". For this, we need help either to get funds, or to imagine ways to invest them perhaps in Cori itself. We can imagine also finding foundations interested in collaborating with us in a regular way. In this, we trust your creative collaboration.

Let us come back to the journey. The other Community members came back to Deir Mar Musa through Mardin in Turkey, ancient Syriac patriarchal head. Mardin is also the birth place of so many Syrian Christian grand-fathers who moved south at the time of the genocide and the expulsion of the Armenian and Syrian communities, during and after the First World War. In Mardin's vicinity, our pilgrims visited the Syriac orthodox monastery of Mar Gabriel in order to reinforce friendships between our two monastic communities.

Through different ways, we keep friendship links with the Christians in Turkey which enlarges the net of prayer and dialogue. We wish this could produce signs of hope in a world of violence and incomprehension that wants to assert itself as the only real and realistic. We think especially of Barbara in Antioch, Ugolini's family and Father Andrea in Urfa, as well as Father Pierre in Trabzon.

Our Community is then scattered in three different places: Deir Mar Musa, the San Salvatore's Student's House in Cori and Deir Mar Elian in Qaryatayn.

For the past two years, Father Jacques has been parish priest in Qaryatayn and organizes the archeological work in progress in the Monastery of Deir Mar Elian. Our very dear friend Dr. Emma Loosley, from the University of York, is in charge of the scientific direction. We hope that, one day, people can wander through the Monastery’s 5th century walls! Our community’s integration in the village is going on positively and creates optimism for the local Christians, in a rising atmosphere of friendship and collaboration with the Muslim majority population.

During this last year, we wrote in Arabic a new edition of our constitution, trying to harmonize our experience with the canonic law Code of the Oriental Catholic Churches. We wondered how our “monastic confederation” should be named. For many reasons, that deserve a whole letter, we decided to name it “the al-Khalil Community”. [In Arabic, al-Khalil means "the Friend" as Abraham is named "the Friend of God", in the Bible (Isaiah 41, 8; Chronics 20, 7; Jacques 2, 23) and in the Koran. It is also the name of the Palestinian town where this Patriarch, Father of all believers, is buried. The town (Hebron in English) is painfully known for the terrible violence of the relations between Zionist settlers and Palestinian partisans.] May the Friend of God, host and intercessor, spiritual Patriarch of Hebrews, Christians and Muslims, inspire in us a model for our monastic vocation centered on building Islamic-Christian harmony and a brotherhood between Ishmael and Isaac. Maybe one day, one of our monastic communities will settle down in Palestine, in the desert, near al-Khalil, as many other hermits from the first Christian centuries did. This precious dream helps us to look beyond the daily horrors.

We also hope that, through this letter to the friends and through your testimony, our vocation will be known to a larger circle of people, animated by strong and generous spiritual desires. Then, growing in number and quality, we will prophetically participate in the creation of a way out of the dead-end, in which the actual global society wants to drown, especially facing the relation between the “Judeo-Christian” West and the “Islamic” East.

So far, as a community, we still feel ourselves in the childbirth pains. This pushes us to ask forgiveness to those who suffered with us and moved on for many different reasons. We feel responsible for the effort and the commitment of all those who came here, if only for one day and who helped us, if only by one thought!

Among the signs of maturity and growth, one must underline the collaboration and the increasing team spirit of our lay partners in Deir Mar Musa. Marwa and Marwan are now parents of a pretty little girl who spends a few days per week with us, so that mum and dad can participate to our community life. Basel received his scholarship from the British government to achieve a Master in “eco-touristy projects’ management” in Oxford. Meyhar, now an electrician and computer technician got engaged and is preparing his future house. Amin should move soon in his new house, for the coming of his third child.

We postponed, due to lack of money, the building work of five houses in Nebek for local families, on land bought three years ago. This project is linked with the work in progress in Deir el-Hayek, next to Deir Mar Musa. Indeed, we plan to use the stones from the demolished houses in Nebek for the construction of the monastery of Deir el-Hayek, before starting the building of new apartments. Our friends' help makes it easier for few families to settle in the village, so avoiding the endemic immigration.

Recently, we have been asked to help the Nebek infant school, which is an important and delicate part of the local Christian community's stability. We asked for a detailed report: we feel it is our duty to help this infant school to reach out of crisis.

A certain number of friends spend a few months with us and give us a hand for the monastery’s life and its hospitality. Claude and Mathilde, recently married, will soon come from Geneva to collaborate with us in Qaryatayn. It is important to notify some young families’ interest for our life. We want to stay a monastic community that does not mix all kind of vocations, but, on another level of ecclesiastical association, we imagine and foresee the participation of some families to a common ministry of presence in the Muslim World.

In June, Paolo went to Milan to baptize Andrea and Rafaela’s son (the family in charge of our previous Association of the Friends of Deir Mar Musa) and Marco and Chiara’s son. Then he went to Geneva where we maintain good ecumenical relations, especially with two Jesuit friends, Joseph and Jean-Bernard.

Last September, our brother Boutros’s affective and vocational crisis afflicted us. He spent some time with his family and is now in Homs where he has found a job. We really hope he can find his own way, his consolation and his self realization. In a year, should such be the case, we will bring the question up again of his monastic vocation.

Jihad is carrying on his third and last year of novitiate and will join Cori in spring to start learning Italian. He is a man of 25 we can rely on. We hope he will become a good Biblicist because he is gifted for languages. He will come back to pronounce his monastic vows, insh’ Allah, in September in Deir Mar Musa before going back to Italy for studying philosophy and theology.

Ramona from Damascus, novice of 30, shoulders the gap left by our students. She lives a passion for justice and responsibility, to begin with through the community life and the Church. In a year and a half, we will also bring up the question for her to go to Cori.

Deema, 23, from Homs, graduated in English, joined the Community as a postulant. She still hesitates between academic and monastic life! She takes care of the library and of a hundred of other things, but most of all, of her spiritual growth.

Frédéric, 29, has finally arrived from France and is starting his monastic path regarding all his rich past experiments. Poet on the guitar, he came first three years ago, led by a mysterious intuition. After a month of spiritual exercises, a pilgrimage to India and a year with the Jesuits in France, the intuition grew stronger and became a vocation: Here he is now, back among us.

Mazin has just finished his military service and is discovering his vocation. Other young Syrians visit us, thinking with us over their spiritual desires.

Among the Community, also lives Nafea, 16; he has no monastic life desire at all, but he is happy to be with us. One reason is that he can not stay with his family. Our friend Majd has been a mother to him as much as she could. It is not easy to make him study, but he is very kind!

Bashir’s father died and maybe Bashir preceded him in the Land of Forgiveness because it has been now three years that we have not heard from him. We would like to gather his nice notes and diaries so that this dear and gentle friend would keep a presence in our Community. This brother, psychically ill, is one of the founders of Deir Mar Musa. We still hope to see him appear suddenly, magically; that would make us happy.

Fortunately, we have achieved the educational triennial program about inter-religious dialogue, which was financed by The European Union. We had to make a strict and coherent revision of our organization, and doing so, we could work on our administration. Last year, we had not been able to organize a lot of cultural activities, due to a chronic tiredness in the Community and the departure of Jens and Huda. However, a very interesting seminary took place in spring, about the "spiritual retreat in Islam and in the Church", during which, we again explored our friendship with the local and national Muslim community.

Paolo was invited to give a conference about Islamo-Christian dialogue in the Arab Cultural Center of a small nearby town. It was the first of this kind and the people's interest was surprising. One of the consequences is the growing number of visits to the Monastery from the local population. We are very pleased to notice the visits of families, friends, work colleagues, Muslims and Christians together. On such occasions, the visit to the Monastery becomes an opportunity for a conscious celebration of such inter-religious friendship.

In May during a week, we received a group of about thirty people from different nationalities and religions (even Buddhists and Hindus) on the occasion of a Peace pilgrimage to Syria, which was organized by a western Sufi confraternity. Elias and Rabia, two passionate leaders, native from the USA, will soon arrive in Baghdad with groups of peaceful partisans to try to make civilian protection easier through the mobilization of the media.

A young Iraqi monk spent two months with us last summer and a priest from Mossul stayed for a week. We were honored by visits of Iraqi refugees, tourists and pilgrims who helped us to feel closer and in deep communion with this noble and unfortunate people. Some Sudanese refugees also came to us on a beautiful pilgrimage. They were happy to find in our church, the icon of their Sainte Bakhita.

A few days ago, a seminar took place about "the impact of the mystic experience on the social evolution". Present, a Muslim Circasian theologian, advocate of non-violence, and a Sufi leader from Aleppo who came with his great friend, an Armenian pastor! We talked a lot about spirituality and democracy, in the will of taking advantage of the western social evolution, without loosing Abraham's Semitic soul.

We hope being able to develop a Deir Mar Musa publication sector. Yet, we foresee three books from our seminar's texts… in Arabic obviously!

We continue developing our website (<www.dermarmusa.org>). You will find, in Italian, the article Paolo wrote about September 11th. It would be nice if someone could be willing and able to translate it into other languages. The same applies to this letter and if so, please get in touch with Jens (<info@sansalvatore.org>) or ourselves (<deirmarmusa@mail.sy>). We gratefully thank, for their collaboration and work on the site the Orseri foundation, Dario, Jens and Gianni.

Next November, we will resume, after an eight year interruption, the restoration of our chapel's frescoes in collaboration with the Rome's Central Institute of Restoration and the Syrian Direction of Antiquities and Museums, under European Commission financing. Here again, it is a precious occasion for meeting and sharing: we are happy to meet our old Italian and Syrian friends again. More than 100 sq meters of Middle Age frescoes remain to restore and the church's roof is to be done again.

The asphalted road leading to the Monastery's car park makes the visitor's life easier, and ours, more difficult: we will have to deal now with the increasing number of tourists. We have already built four toilets near the car park and are now working, with stones coming from old houses in Nebek, to build an open roof construction for meetings, groups, conferences or simply family picnics. Indeed, especially on Fridays, there is not much space left in the Monastery and we have to convince the major part of the visitors to get down without delay.

A local tradesman offered to the Monastery the construction of the large stone stairways leading from the garden up to the historical building. It is essential since many accidents occurred on the old difficult path. The work is going on well and we hope to finish it in January 2003.

The photo of Deir Mar Musa's artificial lake will be taken when, insh' Allah, rain will have filled the dam which was finished in last April, above the old olive trees. We can count on a maximum of 1800 cubic meters of water if we get torrential rains. So far, we are far from it! Once the picture is taken, you can see it on the web site, but please, start now the dance for rain!

Concerning ecology, we are still waiting for the application of the ministry's decision for the creation of an eco-touristic park in our mountain. The general atmosphere has yet to initiative spirit. We will need more time and persistency!

Every year, in March, one morning is dedicated at Deir Mar Musa, with local authorities and civilian society's representatives, to the common study of the different questions linked to the Monastery's participation in the region's development. A local Ministry's Commission for biodiversity has been constituted and we work on the project of transforming Nebek's rubbish waste into a botanical garden (built on local vegetation). This waste is located on one of the region's most scenic route, along the road leading to Deir Mar Musa.

Early 2003, we will resume, insh' Allah, the construction work of Deir-el Hayek, the Weaver's Monastery, dedicated for nuns, but also spiritual exercises and more motivated groups. Meanwhile, we already use, quite frequently, the available rooms and the experience shows the potential of this "crazy project"! We are still, after one year, waiting for the occasion to build the next storey, where the conference room and the kitchen are to be located. Slowly but surely!

Dearest friends, you may wonder whether we live on another planet and whether we do not notice what is happening around us. We deeply feel the suffering and the contradiction that tears the Muslim World to pieces and we are particularly wounded by the Iraqi and Palestinian situation. The terrorist phenomenon makes up a tragedy that, first of all, threatens our society's future; the democratic, social and economical evolution is endangered; Islam's role and universal vocation is deviated. Together with these very serious internal dangers, we are facing some other, equally serious dangers; the Israeli-American arrogance and violence, based on military hyper power; the population's unjustified assimilation to the dictatorial regimes they have to endure; the ideological travesty of the oil and strategic expansionist objectives; last but not least, the instrumental and unfaithful relation with the United Nations.

It is obvious that the international situation is now unbearable and thousands of ways will be needed to find remedies. Each individual can only act according to his own consciousness and each consciousness can only operate according to its own cultural frame. It is impossible then to speak as judges, although each of us should express his own open and evolving, opinions, depending on the postulate we should tend – and even have to – for a growth in humanity and harmony.

Our role is to bear witness of the necessity of finding alternative ways to the violence's dead end. However, it is vital to save these values, methods and perspectives allowing the rebuilding culturally and spiritually the people's cohabitation, after the war's tragedy. Anyway, only those values can put an end to war.

Our asceticism, during these dark times, will be to live in the virtue of Hope, to swarm for the next generations and to reopen ways that seemed blocked and impracticable. When problems, like the Israeli-Palestinian or the Iraqi one, do not find answers with human means, it becomes realistic to think that the solution is more depending on spiritual perspectives and methods. We will have to seek for it, not moving around, not minimizing, not negating the problem, but, on the contrary, meeting it face to face at its epicenter. That is possible by offering to everyone's hope, including our own, the creative imagination of really radical and global alternatives; an imagination ready to act and not only to dream.

Let us take an example that is deep in our hearts. As the Palestinian Islamic movement believes it impossible to give up the project of liberating the whole historical Palestine, as the Zionistic religious movement believes also it is impossible to give up the project of conquering the whole of the presumed biblical Israel, then in the end, the solution will not be to separate or divide, but to live together, on the same Land, in a bi-national and bi-lingual state that some generous and "magnanimous" ("mahatma") prophets (as many Hebrew as Arab), already proposed, in the 1930's, as the worthy solution of human dignity. Maybe, in the near future, two states, with an ethnical and territorial separation, will come up. But if the wished Spirit of hope for common life and good neighbouring does not gain ground, life will be simply unbearable on both sides of Sharon's wall.

The braver the dream, the most realistic the project! Look for example to Europe's dream after Second World War.

Here, in Syria, the braver dream is to have a real democratization, without causing prejudice neither to the rights of the ethnic and religious minorities, nor to the legitimate desire of the majority for a sustainable and lasting democracy, even on the security level. This requires guaranties, and inter-Arab and international co-responsibility. Independence is now an aspect of the harmonious integration in the global frame!

In the end moral and practical problems due to the lack of mature democracy, (problems experienced by everyone, even the "powerful ones"), gravitate to such a scale and become so unbearable, that they lead towards choosing the braver solution.

But, for this, people have to get culturally and spiritually prepared; catalysts for progress and pacification have to be activated; "places" to educate and consider the Other as your neighbour, your associate rather than as your enemy, have to be found.

"Islam pessimists" think that nothing can be done, that the Muslim World is not ready for a mature democracy and that it is better to deal with the governing regimes and "make the most of it as much as we can", either strategically or mostly economically.

If this were the only realistic perspective, the only wise men would be those who emigrate, why not swimming, to the "western paradises". We, in Deir Mar Musa, would definitely be the most stupid ones! But we have decided not to surrender to these "darker than death" realisms. We devote ourselves to prepare and experiment, right now, an alternative to hate and fear.

The Ambassador of big European country came to visit us. He stopped for a long time in our chapel, drowned in his thoughts. As he left, he turned round and said: "diplomacy can do nothing anymore; your prayer is the only alternative weapon". We did not rejoice, but yes, it confirmed our essential responsibility.

Dear friends, know and feel that we are close to you, in joy as in sadness, in feast as in solitude. From all our heart, we thank you for the help you offer us.

Please, do us this favour, print this letter and distribute it to those who know us but do not have e-mail address, and why not, publish it more widely on the net.

United with you all, men and women, in the effort of a large Jihad of the Spirit, we only have to wish you all, through Jesus of Nazareth, a year full of Consolation and Blessing.


The al-Khalil Community.