On July 27, 2012, the Mosaic Institute welcomed Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a peace activist and Jesuit priest, to provide his first-hand account of the current situation in Syria, which he has chosen to call home for more than three decades. More than 25 members and friends of the Mosaic Institute, including members of the media, academics, students, and the NGO community, gathered to hear Father Paolo’s personal story of being exiled because of his opposition to the government’s role in the ongoing conflict. All were challenged by his clarion call for increased international action to protect civilians and to find a peaceful solution to the mounting violence in his adopted country.
Throughout his career, Father Paolo has encouraged inter-faith and inter-community dialogue. He first went to Syria to oversee the rebuilding of Mar Musa, a once-famous Byzantine monastery, and to turn it into a physical and spiritual meeting point for Christians and Muslims. After the current uprising began in March 2011, Father Paolo organized inter-community discussions as part of a non-violent protest, earning the government’s anger. Nonetheless, because of the respected position he held in the Syrian church, he was able to travel freely to some of the more dangerous locations in the country and negotiate for the return of people who had been abducted by various factions. He was also able to provide detailed evidence of human rights abuses to UN delegations while they were in Syria. The continued shelling and siege of Homs and the displacement of its inhabitants ‐ including 150,000 Christians ‐ drove him to openly criticize the regime’s repression, including some church leaders both inside and outside of Syria who failed to condemn the shelling of civilian neighbourhoods. Despite the regime’s disapproval, Father Paolo went on to meet with activists in the town of Qusayr in Homs after it descended into extreme violence.
Ultimately, Father Paolo was given a one‐way ticket out of Syria in June 2012 after inviting friends of opposition filmmaker Bassel Shahade (a Syrian Christian killed in Homs in May) to the Mar Musa Monastery to pray without impediment and to mourn Shahade’s death. Since then, he has been using his exile to travel and encourage the international community to impress upon the United Nations the need for a larger UN presence in Syria, as well as to invite the engagement of non-governmental organizations that can help protect civilians and strengthen civil society in Syria.
Father Paolo spoke in depth to the guests of The Mosaic Institute about the history of Syria, and how the discontent of those trying to strengthen civil society has been simmering for at least a decade. According to him, “when people say that Syria has been harmonious and peaceful it is a lack of memory,” as the government has been repressing citizens for many years. In this way, Father Paolo placed the current conflict in Syria within a broader context of civilian discontent living under a heavy-handed regime. While his history of Syria demonstrates that the movement is not solely a youth movement, Father Paolo noted that the older generations were “astonished” to see youth – whom they thought had been brainwashed by the regime, by economic promises, or by other influences – being “truly Arab and (promoting) a system based on democracy and dignity.” He stressed that it is the struggle for dignity that truly inspires the Syrian people, and he held a moment of silence for all those who have lost their lives in pursuit of this basic human right.
Father Paolo also commented on the way in which the international community has been divided in its response to the ongoing crisis, with most western countries, Turkey, and some Gulf States supporting the rebels while Iran, Russia and – to a somewhat lesser extent – China have all sided with the government.
Since the crisis began some 16 months ago, more than 20,000 people have been killed, and almost 40,000 have disappeared. In addition, some 2 million people have been displaced from their homes as a direct result of the conflict.
Those in attendance at the Mosaic event asked Father Paolo what Canadians could do to help address the humanitarian crisis in Syria. In response, he urged them to encourage the Canadian government to take a more proactive and more vocal role in speaking out against the violence in Syria. He also encouraged them to provide support to organizations assisting Syrian refugees who have fled into neighbouring countries, including Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. In the words of one member of Canada’s Syrian diaspora who attended the event, “What gives worth to our lives is the moral stance we take in our lifetimes. And there has been a lot of silence in the West.”
Students affiliated with the Mosaic Institute’s UofMosaic initiative (www.uofmosaic.ca) have already heeded Father Paolo’s call. Since March 2012, students from York University, Ryerson University and the University of Toronto who participated in the UofMosaic’s Young Canadians’ Peace Dialogue on the Middle East have been raising money for Médicins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (“MSF”) to support their work providing medical care to Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon. The goal of these UofMosaic students – who are calling their fundraising project “RefugeAID” – is to collect at least $10,000 by April 2013.
Those wishing to help these UofMosaic students reach their goal are invited to send donations directly to MSF at the following address: Doctors Without Borders Canada, 720 Spadina Avenue, Suite 402, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2T9. Donors should reference “RefugeAID Fundraising for Syrian Refugees” on the Memo line of their cheques. More information about how to support MSF’s efforts to assist Syrian refugees can also be requested in writing from firstname.lastname@example.org.