The impassioned letter from a Milanese priest to Monsef, a boy who left for Syria

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:57

In viaggio verso Allah.jpgReview of Claudio Burgio, In viaggio verso Allah, Lettera di un prete a Monsef, giovane combattente islamico, Paoline, Milano, 2017


To call it a letter is reductive: streams of consciousness, intimate confessions and profound experiences and feelings are all harmoniously interwoven with lucid analyses of the European jihadist phenomenon and what it means to educate people in openness towards the “religiously other.” Its author is father Claudio Burgio, a priest from the Diocese of Milan and founder of Kayrós, which runs residential communities for young people. The addressee is Monsef, a twenty-one-year-old Moroccan. Welcomed in 2010, when he was only fifteen, he stayed in the community until 17 January 2015. That same day, Monsef took a plane for Syria with his friend Tarek, thereby becoming the youngest jihadist to leave from Italy.


Two years later, father Claudio feels the need to write to him, going back over their relationship in the community and the period that followed it. The priest confesses that he is incredulous: a “father figure” who doesn’t know how to explain “his boy’s” choice; a priest who can’t get over being considered “an infidel” by that prodigal son whose return he awaits. So it is a letter that he owes Monsef, in order to let him know that he doesn’t want to forget him; but it is also a letter he owes himself, his fears, his incomprehension and the pain he feels at such a loss; lastly, it is a message to the other Muslim boys in his community, who did not leave.


Sensitively retraced in its everyday details, Monsef’s story offers a recurring profile of the foreign fighter. One in which the priest discerns a confirmation that “disorder does not give birth to freedom”; that it is from the “disintegration of the authority principle” that the quest for a rigorist normativity arises; that fundamentalism is born of the deculturation of religion and that it is not a clash of civilizations that we are witnessing but, rather, one of non-civilizations.


Episodes from life alternate with profound insights: reflections on Monsef’s way of talking, on his way of relating to authority or otherness and on the role of schooling; on the West’s spiritual impoverishment, on the levelling of every complexity or the distortions occurring in the media debate, on young people’s social integration, on the responsibility of believing and welcoming the other; on the limitations of a merely welfarist or securitarian response; on ontological human vulnerability; on testifying to one’s faith and proselytism; on the meaning of paradise and on eternal life.


The evident therapeutic effects of otherness are striking. The (wholly interior) journey of the priest himself is quite clear in the book and it leads him to attach a new meaning to the other i.e. to Monsef. At the beginning of the letter, the priest confesses that he feels like “Peter at the moment of Christ’s arrest and crucifixion, impotent in the face of Evil and ready to deny” that he knows Monsef. He is facing an educational failure and is transfixed with (real) fears that there might be an attack on himself, his colleagues or Milan Cathedral, where he celebrates mass. He disowns the other. Slowly, however, the dialogical experience penetrates him: “Dear Monsef, I am not afraid of the culture that has shaped you because I know that God talks to me through the world that surrounds me and, therefore, also through the drama of your story. I know that the cry of those excluded from history contains a mystery that still needs to be understood. A cry, like the cry of Ishmael, that the Church in which I live cannot fail to recognise and accept. A cry, like the battle cry you utter in combat, that always has something to do with the history of salvation all the same.”


Guided by prudence, father Claudio once again finds in Monsef “the other as an extraordinary vessel of humanity,” thereby turning the former perspective on its head: only love transforms, just as it is only by recognising ourselves to be Judases that it becomes possible to be forgiven. Monsef therefore becomes the opportunity to go beyond one’s fears and go back to fixing one’s gaze on Jesus. “Nothing will be lost, not even our relationship […] we will belong to each other for all eternity […] Monsef, you are my great opportunity. Precisely your desperation and your story of a mistreated, excluded life stripped of its dignity will make you my judge.”