- A Church of Islam: The Syrian Calling of Father Paolo Dall'Oglio by Shaun O'Neill
When, in 1982, the Italian Jesuit Paolo Dall'Oglio made a retreat outside Damascus among the ruins of an ancient monastery, Deir Mar Musa, one of the most daring, innovative, and hope-filled projects in the history of Christian-Muslim relations was born. Overseeing the reconstruction of the monastery and the restoration of its eleventh-to-twelfth-century church frescoes from 1984 through 1991, and having transferred to the Syriac Catholic rite, Dall'Oglio along with Jacques Mourad founded the al-Khalil monastic community (Friend of God, the title of Abraham in Islam). The community stands upon three pillars: contemplative prayer, manual labor, and Abrahamic hospitality, especially toward its surrounding Muslim neighbors. When unrest came to Syria in 2011, Dall'Oglio was outspoken in his criticism of the regime. He became a symbol of the burgeoning revolution and a "vociferous advocate for the opposition" (101). Having put his own life and those of his fellow monks and nuns in danger, he was exiled from the country. Over the following year he attempted to organize an international intervention, and in 2013, he surreptitiously returned to Syria but not to the monastery. In July of that year he entered Raqqa to negotiate for the release of hostages with leaders of what would later be known as ISIS. He has not been seen since.
That the larger-than-life Dall'Oglio and DMM remain obscure in the Anglophone world is "lamentable," so O'Neill begins to redress the "paucity of writing … in English" about them (xxiv). His scope is broad, briefly covering the history of DMM's founding and examining the community's efforts at Christian-Muslim dialogue with an emphasis on the dialogue of life among monastery guests. O'Neill touches on the often-difficult relationships between Dall'Oglio and the local Christian hierarchy, the Vatican, the Jesuits, and the [End Page 319] Syrian state, describing him as sometimes "blunt" and "caustic" (62), "inflexible" (82), vain and "grandiose" (111). Dall'Oglio, who so longed to be an insider among Muslims, ironically, remained an outsider to a number of Syrian Christians. Critics accuse him of being too Asaad-friendly before the uprising and too Asaad-critical after. The book is based partly on texts and interviews by Dall'Oglio but mainly upon O'Neill's interviews with a few people close to Fr. Paolo, some anonymous.
O'Neill's book opens several lines of inquiry that demand further study. First, although the book's titular phrase "Church of Islam" does not appear until page 72, O'Neill offers several understandings of Dall'Oglio's enigmatic formulation, ranging from inculturation and Incarnation, to exchange, synthesis, or even the unfortunate "non-denominational spiritualism" (84). Key for understanding Dall'Oglio's ecclesiology, O'Neill observes, is the Gospel image of the yeast in the dough. Future efforts, however, must further mine Dall'Oglio's conviction that Christianity is principally an animating spirit rather than an institution. In his provocatively titled article "In Praise of Syncretism," Dall'Oglio insists, for example, that there is no specifically Christian way of fasting. Such particularities are appropriated from whatever religio-cultural-symbolic space the Church inhabits. One implication for Christian-Muslim relations is to build a Church not only of Islam but for Islam, promoting Islamic values and aiding the development of the Ummah.
Second, O'Neill refers to Dall'Oglio's being a "firm believer in the power of nonviolent resistance and dialogue" (101). Dall'Oglio once insisted that, in the event of conflict, he and DMM would remain in neighborly solidarity with all Syrian parties no matter their political affiliations. When the moment arrived, although he personally may never have carried a weapon, he lent vocal support to those who did on one side of a civil war. Such a position may be explainable, even justifiable, but the tension between his decision to accompany the opposition and Dall'Oglio's commitment to nonviolence...