Raqqa is another great Syrian city, a provincial capital it is located in the fertile Euphrates valley and has a long and proud cultural history.

It was liberated from the control of the Syrian regime in March 2013  and for a period experienced a flourishing of democratic hope, with civic organisations springing up and a local council elected to run its public services. It had a particularly warm relationship with the Italian priest, Father Paolo dall’ Oglio, a long-standing champion of Syria struggle for freedom.

Tragically, in June the city fell under the control of the brutal ISIS organisation who pushed other groups out of the city and consolidated its hold in an orgy of public executions.

Father dall’ Oglio attempted to intervene in this situation and visited the headquarters of ISIS in July 2013 to plead for the release of Raqqa residents they had taken prisoner. He has never been seen since and is reported to have been executed by ISIS – the first of many sincere friends of the Syrian people to die at their hands.

Under ISIS an oppressive and intolerant regime has been established in the city, prefiguring how their “Caliphate” would operate. A picture of life under ISIS rule has been provided by a Raqqa teacher who worked for a while in a school controlled by ISIS.

Resisting ISIS

The first voice to be raised against ISIS was that of a courageous friend of Father Paolo, Souad Nawfal, who mounted a one-woman demonstration against their rule  throughout much of 2013. Souad describes her protest as “The Woman in Pants” HERE.

More recently a resistance group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” has been formed to try and provide information to the outside world about what is happening in the city, documenting how civilians are being targeted both by ISIS and by Assad’s air force.

Father Paolo dall’Oglio: “A lover of Islam, and believer in Jesus”

Father Paolo dall’Oglio, a staunch and steady supporter of the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy, and a tireless worker for inter-communal harmony over many years prior, was kidnapped in the Syrian city of Raqqa, reportedly by militia of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), on the 29th July 2013. There has been no news of him since that date.

Father Paolo served for three decades at Deir Mar Musa a 6th-century monastery, 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Damascus. He has been credited with the reconstruction of the Mar Musa complex and its reinvention as a centre of interfaith dialogue.

From the very inception of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 Father Paolo supported the young democracy campaigners against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad. He wrote an article pleading for a peaceful democratic transition in Syria, based on what he called “consensual democracy” and he also met with opposition activists and participated in the funeral service for the 28-year-old Christian filmmaker Basel Shahada, who had been killed by regime forces in Homs. This political engagement led to his exclusion from the country by the regime in June 2012.

Father dall’Oglio retained his commitment to the cause of Syrian democracy even when the opposition forces turned to armed struggle – even though it was not his way. While abroad he campaigned ceaselessly to bring the Syrian cause to the attention of western public and political leaders, and pressed for UN assistance for the Syrian people, both in the form of humanitarian aid and military assistance for the opposition cause.

He also played a very important role in countering the regime-sponsored propaganda about alleged maltreatment of Christians by the Free Syrian Army, consistently exposing the falsehoods spread by people who had credibility in Catholic circles. But working abroad was never going to keep Father dell’ Oglio satisfied, and in 2013 he started to enter the country illegally to do what he could for both the Christian and besieged Muslim communities.

Father Paolo interviewed on the situation in Syria in July 2012

The circumstances surrounding his disappearance are testimony to his extraordinary commitment and courage. He initially went to Raqqa – a city liberated by rebel forces in January 2013 – in order to try and mediate in the conflict between some of the Islamist groups in the city and local Kurdish forces, who had been locked in a conflict which had given rise to deaths and hostage taking.

The very idea of a Jesuit priest trying to insert himself into this turbulent situation beggars the imagination – but that was Father dall’ Oglio, who doubtless thought that as an outsider he could mediate in what he must have seen as a tragic and needless conflict between groups who should have seen themselves as fighting a common enemy.

He continued to visit the city after ISIS had taken control and in July undertook a personal mission to try and secure the release of some of the local residents they had taken prisoner. It seems that on this occasion he tragically misjudged the situation.

The monastery of Mar Musa - Father Paolo’s great work

The story of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio and the picturesque craggy Deir Mar Mousa

Article by Alisar Iram on Father Paolo, written in September 2013 – © Alisar Iram

This is the story of a priest who fell in love with an ancient country and its people, a colourful country with amazing diversity and vitality, a country which watched the first steps of mankind towards civilization. One day on a visit to Syria, the Italian priest climbed high up a mountain and came across a fairy spot where heaven and earth seemed to meet and the intersection between the worlds rested for a moment in an old crumbling monastery, humble and ruined, yet rising like a fortress commanding the Kalamoun mountains around it and overlooking hills and mountains as old as time and a landscape where men walked thousands of years ago. The priest nearly fell to his death, and was injured, but he later recovered to dedicate thirty years of his life to the service of this sacred spot, rebuilding the monastery compound with the help of other good people. In his heart, he knew that God had many names and that all the names of God are equally holy and equally important. Thus began the spiritual journey  and the indefatigable quest for the Holy Grail of love and understanding of the young priest whose course and destiny not even  a Revolution followed by a war could alter or halt. When he heard God calling to him atop the hills of Kalamoun in that lonely glorious spot, he felt an unbreakable bond grow between him and the humble simple people in the rambling villages all around him, simple peaceful people who lived a life of semi poverty and worked terribly hard to raise their children and feed their families.

As time passed the young priest, the monastery and its little church, adorned with lovely old frescoes, the steep lofty hill where it stood and the panoramic vastness of the Kalamoun became one, indistinguishable from the earth and the spirit of Syria.

At the very heart of this living archaeological sacredness lived a holy man, brother to the stars, Father Paolo. His spirit filled the sacred place with the beauty of his longing and love. Yes, there lived Father Paolo, a man both Christ and Mohammad would have loved and honoured.”

I had visited many great churches, cathedrals and monasteries all over the world, lavishly decorated and constructed, mighty in their splendour, but the church of Mar Mousa, rock-ringed and held in the arms of the mountain, lit by gentle shafts of sunlight in the morning and in the evening the moon, with its congregation kneeling or sitting on the carpets like in a mosque, while all around slumbered the images of  Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints in  their halos along the walls and under the simple arches, awakened only by the desire to tell their stories – that rocky solitary church and its frescoes spelled to me the kind of beauty and hushed richness that only the soul can dwell on and recollect as a moment lost in time but found in a memory that does not die.

Father Paolo made the Syrians his family, therefore we who love him, have made him a part of our family too. We are responsible for him. A few weeks ago, I posted this plea on Facebook to the kidnappers, asking for the release of Father Paolo:

We, the Syrians, would like you to know that Father Paolo was and still is in our hearts. He is our Father Paolo, our brother, our son and shepherd. We loved the devout learned man of God and we loved his love for us, for our land, for our mountains. We loved his gentleness and his moral integrity. We loved that he lived like the poor and loved the poor. Release our Father Paolo. You are responsible for his life because he came to you as a messenger of peace in order to beseech you to release the innocent citizen prisoners captured by your soldiers. He went to you by his own free will, with nothing but his trust and faith in your generous response. Where are the Arab code of honour and the laws of hospitality which oblige you to return him safe and unharmed? Father Paolo is honoured by all of us, Muslims and Christians, alike.

According to accounts the monastery was first mentioned in the 6th century, which does not mean that it might have existed before. The frescoes are dated between the mid-11th to the beginning of the 20th century. It is important for me to get the dates right because as a researcher in Arab Islamic art, the art of Christian Syria is of paramount importance to the beginning of Arab art, in particular the art of illumination and miniature painting: the art of manuscripts.

The Frescos at Mar Musa

I consider the frescoes of Mar Musa as unique not only in the history of Christian art in Syria but in the history of Christian art as a whole. The first fresco paintings in the Christian era in Europe date back to the late Medieval period and the early Renaissance ( mid-13th century), while the first cycle of the frescoes of Mar Musa were created about mid eleventh century. The frescoes of Mar Mousa seem to me like enlarged miniatures because the relationship between them and the art of manuscript painting cannot be mistaken or ignored.

Alisar Iram was a blogger who wrote extensively on the Syrian Revolution.