A hundred kilometers north of Damascus, the monastery of Saint-Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Moussa al-Habachi) had become from the 90s a center of Islamic-Christian dialogue at the initiative of the Italian father Paolo Dall ‘Oglio.

“We want people to come back, to pray and meditate in this place where they may find a space of calm, silence and contemplation,” Father Abbot Jihad Youssef told AFP.

Built on several levels, the monastery has some of the oldest frescoes in the Christian East.

It also features a church dating from the 11th century and wall inscriptions with Muslim and Christian connotations in Arabic, Syriac and Greek.

After the start of the war in 2011, triggered by the regime’s repression of pro-democracy demonstrations, the monastery suffered no material damage, but the disappearance of Father Paolo in 2013 in an area held by jihadists dealt it a blow. hard.

– Interreligious dialogue –

In 2010, 30,000 people visited the site.

Today, only a few people, including two monks and a nun, live in the monastery, which has several guest rooms, a large library and a bird shop. They live in self-sufficiency.

“We live in a simple and modest place. There is no Internet or telephone network, it’s good to get away from the city” and its noise, says Father Jihad.

This serenity, the monastery had lost during the war.

In 2013, fierce fighting between opposition groups and government forces broke out in the town of Nabek, 16 km from the monastery.

Then, the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) notably controlled a nearby region between 2015 and 2017.

“We were very worried (…) especially after the arrival of IS in two neighboring villages and the kidnapping of the Christian inhabitants” in 2015, recalls Father Jihad.

The spirit of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio still breathes on the site.

It is thanks to him that this Christian monastery has become a symbol of interreligious dialogue, with its openness to Islam.

An essential figure of Mar Moussa, this Jesuit father was expelled from Syria in 2012 for having supported the uprising against the regime, but returned there clandestinely a year later.

He disappeared in the summer of 2013 in Raqa, a city in northern Syria which a few months later would become the self-proclaimed “capital” of IS in this country, where he had gone to plead for the release of kidnapped militants.

– “Blow” –

“ISIS probably abducted him. And we have no reliable information to say whether he is alive or dead,” Father Jihad said, adding that no ransom demand had been made.

With the presence of IS not far from the monastery, “we were afraid, we were isolated, a situation which prevented people from visiting us”, he continues.

IS was eventually defeated in 2019, but for the past two years the Covid-19 pandemic has further delayed the reopening of the monastery, which features as a tourist site in many guidebooks published before 2011.

The monastery finally decided to reopen its doors at the beginning of June, welcoming a small group of visitors.

Located in a desert region and difficult to access by road, the place enjoys absolute tranquility.

Youssef Al-Halabi, 48, has been a monk there for 16 years. He does not hide his boredom all these years, for lack of visitors.

“Sometimes we had no visitors all year,” he says.

After his morning prayer, the white-bearded monk used to go to a nearby cave to make candles. Sometimes he works the land.

This monk, who devoted his life to God and to the service of visitors to Mar Moussa, hopes that tourists and worshipers will return there.

“It’s a place to breathe,” he says.