(Reuters) – An Italian priest may seem an unlikely champion of Syrian national unity, yet Paolo Dall’Oglio’s efforts to bridge deep sectarian divisions have gained him a following among a people shattered by conflict.
Bashar al-Assad’s government expelled Dall’Oglio last month, three decades after he revived a monastery on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Syrian desert that became a centre for dialogue between the country’s myriad ethnic and religious communities.
Nouri al-Jarrah, a London-based Syrian poet, called the expulsion a “shameful act”. “He should be given Syrian nationality the day he returns,” he said.
A big man with a loud voice and a calm manner, Dall’Oglio, 57, has reinvented himself as an unofficial diplomat on behalf of Assad’s opponents abroad.
As a deeply-divided opposition movement tried to narrow their differences at a meeting in Cairo on Tuesday, the bearded Dall’Oglio was a key fixture, hurrying among the delegates and relaying messages from embattled activists back home.
“Assad’s regime is so full of lies and spies that it no longer knows what is true or right,” he told Reuters. “I am urging all diplomats I see to help the people and demanding that their countries force Assad to stop the violence and leave.”
Admirers hope the priest can help achieve what Western powers have not – heal deep divisions between Assad’s Muslim, Christian, Islamist and secularist opponents, who often seem united only by their hostility to Assad.
“I perceive faith as a bridge that we all must cross to be better people,” he said. “The drive for power and personal glory is what makes people stray from religion and the extremists among them turn into tyrants like Bashar al-Assad.”
Dall’Oglio revived Deir Mar Musa monastery in 1982. The site 80 km (50 miles) north of Damascus, established by Greek monks in the 6th century, had lain abandoned since the 19th century.
“It was a desolate place filled with insects and snakes, but I saw in it what I needed to convey my message,” he said.
Its small community works with Muslim groups to improve prospects for young people, promote dialogue between religious leaders and instill respect for the local environment.
Opposition leaders say over 15,000 people have been killed since Syria’s uprising began in March 2011. The government says it is fighting an Islamist insurgency.
Dall’Oglio was expelled after visiting the al-Qusair area of Homs city when it was under heavy attack.
“They got angry because I went to support my courageous people in Homs against those liars and violent thugs,” he said. “I am sure that eventually the protesters will win as they are on the right side, fighting for their freedoms.”
Dall’Oglio was told to leave Syria more than a year ago but pressure from supporters, who set up a Facebook group entitled “No to the Exile of Father Paolo”, helped delay his departure.
Dall’Oglio’s email address now begins with “matrudzaalan”, meaning “expelled and angry” in Arabic, “the language of the region I love with all my heart”, he said.
During the Cairo conference, the priest was seen urging western diplomats to step up pressure on Assad. Delegates took him aside repeatedly to ask news from home as he fielded calls from Syrian activists.
“Hang on there,” he told one who called from the town of Talbisa as it came under heavy attack. Asked for the identity of the caller, he said: “One of my children in Syria but I don’t know his name because I never ask. They are all my children.”
To Dall’Oglio, Syria is a country whose hatred of military dictatorship will overcome the fear of chaos and sectarian strife that Assad’s government has encouraged.
It is, he says, a country that can one day bring solutions to region-wide tensions, “rather than a corrosive cancer”.
“People there are very open-minded and mingle very well with one other,” he said. “I have sat with many Islamists and they all say they want a democratic civil state and are very keen to protect the rights of Christians.”