The monastery of Mar MusaFather Jihad Youssef is a monk in the al-Khalil community, established in 1991 in the Syrian monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi (St. Moses the Abyssinian), eighty kilometers north of Damascus. The existence of this ancient site of hermitage was discovered in 1982 by Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, kidnapped in Syria in July 2013, who decided to begin the restoration of the site. Tradition says that Moses the Abyssinian, son of an Ethiopian king, refused to succeed his father’s throne and chose a life of hermitage. The tradition adds that upon arriving in Syria, he took refuge in a cave in the mountains where the monastery stands today. Moses the Abyssinian died a martyr some years later at the hands of the soldiers of the Byzantine Empire.
Interview with Father Jihad Youssef
How is life different in Mar Musa from 2011 to today?
There aren’t any more visitors – us monks sleep in the city and visit displaced peoples in the nearby cities of Nebek and Homs. We take turns keeping the monastery open with the presence of only one monk on rotation and workers for its maintenance and, when possible, we go up to the monastery to celebrate Mass, pray together and rest. Since 2011 we have lived four truly contemplative years, we were alone and prayed more. When, in the beginning of 2015, ISIS took Qaryatayn, a few kilometers from the monastery, we dedicated ourselves to pastoral care, visiting people in their homes. From contemplative monks we became diocesans and missionaries.
In December 2013, the militants of Jabhat al-Nusra besieged the city of Nebek for 25 days just a few kilometers from Mar Musa. How were those days at the monastery?
We felt like we were suffocating, for the whole period in which the city was being bombarded we were shut in the monastery. Out of the city’s residents, those who could took refuge in the few basements available. In Nebek, the Christian community counts 250 members. The battle ended just before Christmas, we then went into the city only to discover that the Christian neighborhood was almost completely destroyed. With the help of three Catholic organizations, we worked on a restoration project and in just a few months we rebuilt the houses of 63 Christian families and five poor Muslim families.
How have you lived out your faith during the worsening situation in Syria?
I and the other monks always asked ourselves if we should stay or leave. The affliction was immense. We were put to the test to see if our faith was made of gold or something that burns up and runs out. We asked ourselves why all of this happened. Why did God remain silent before a people that kills one another? It was not easy, every morning we had to decide whether or not to believe. We decided to believe, every day. We chose to go beyond the silence of God.
Do you think that Christian Syrians should stay or flee?
Everyone talks about the need for Christians to stay in their own countries, where the Church is born. Until 2013, I too thought that it was best to encourage Christians not to flee, to hold onto their roots because they lived in those lands long before Muslims. But perhaps we forget that there was always someone before us. I no longer think that way. We are helping those who wish to leave as well as those who wish to stay. The wealthy or the privileged, like us monks, have already fled or can flee when they desire, but the poor are forced to stay. The only Christians remaining in Syria are convinced that they have a mission, or rather that they are a mission, as every baptized Christian is.
What role can eastern Christians have in the construction of a dialogue with Islam?
The Christians in Syria are not the only ones to be persecuted: we are persecuted along with all other Syrians. ISIS destroys our monasteries as well as the mosques and the tombs of Muslim saints. Their militants kidnap and kill our brothers, but they also behead thousands of Sunni Muslims like them. Of course, we Christians are much more fragile because we are a small group. But if the Lord has made us Christians in this land there must be a reason. Our dialogue does not aim to convince the ‘other’ that he is wrong, rather it is an ‘outreach’ with positive, evangelical, unarmed curiosity. Today there is no way of getting around dialogue, either in the Middle East or in the West. We also have to pray a lot for the unity of Muslims, who are more divided than us Christians. There is good for them and for us in their unity.
What would you say to Italy where thousands of refugees are arriving daily?
Refugees arrive, and you cannot prevent this or build walls. If you welcome them with dignity, perhaps one day they will become good citizens; otherwise they will be bad citizens, they will be a cancer. I think that you too should engage in the dialogue. You live next door to Muslims, your children go to school with Muslim children. Have the courage to knock on the door of your Muslim neighbors, bringing Christ with your presence alone. Saint Francis said of the First Rule: “The friars then who go among the infidels, can carry on spiritually among them in two ways. One way is for them to avoid quarrels and fights and to be subject to every human creature for the love of God and to profess that they are Christian. The other way is for them to announce the word of God when they see that this is His pleasure”. It is God’s initiative, He is the one taking the first step, not us.
When the war is over, how will the social fabric be rebuilt and trust between Christians and Muslims be restored?
It will only be possible if everyone is committed to their faith. I, as a Christian, I pledge to live the Gospel. The Gospel rebuilds, and if I rebuild myself maybe I will be able to rebuild others.
It will not be easy, in part because the wounds and the offenses suffered endure over time. The Christians of Maalula, for example, will struggle to trust Muslims because they were betrayed. Or Father Jacques Mourad, one of our brothers – he was kidnapped by someone he knew, someone he had tea with the day before and who handed him over to ISIS. He remained a prisoner for six months before managing to escape.
But fortunately there are also good examples. During the siege of Nebek, the Christians feared that Christian women would have been taken as spoils and the men would have become slaves. The Muslim neighbors offered to accommodate the Christian girls in their homes passing them off as their daughters, thus taking them away from the Jabhat al-Nusra militants.
As for us monks, we live between Syria and Europe to cultivate our studies. When the war ends, Syria will need well-trained people who can preach the Gospel of friendship, of harmony and dialogue, in order to move beyond divisions and hate.
Will you go back to Syria?
I never left.
This article was translated from the original Italian