SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) — Interfaith dialogue is a life and death issue to Father Paulo Dall’Oglio and the people of Syria.
The Catholic monk, expelled on June 16 from war-torn Syria for protesting the repressive regime of President Bashar Assad, has been in Vancouver in part to get out the message that the religiously diverse residents of this city can help save lives in the Middle East.
Dall’Oglio said the civil war in Syria, which has so far claimed about led to roughly 19,000 deaths, is exacerbated by bitter rivalries between the Sunni Muslim majority and the minority Shia sect known as the Alawi, to which Assad and his powerful ruling family belong.
Sunni-Shia distrust is growing in many other Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East. But the priest finds it remarkably hopeful that Metro Vancouver’s many Sunni and Shia Muslims show each other tolerance and respect.
“Sunni and Shia live together peacefully in Vancouver. I hope Vancouver will offer a very important service in advancing Sunni-Shia dialogue around the world,” said Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit whose commitment to interfaith understanding includes following the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began July 20.
Even though the majority of the roughly 80,000 Muslims in Metro Vancouver are Sunnis from all over the world, one of the largest single groups is made up of Shia Muslims from Iran, which is one of the many foreign countries embroiled in Syria’s 16-month war.
When Dall’Oglio met last Wednesday with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, he called on Canada to use its “neutral” diplomatic connections with Russia to help negotiate the end of the conflict in Syria, in which the U.S. and Europe have strategic interests.
Russia and China continue to support Assad in spite of the bloody crackdown on the democracy movement, which has led to the U.S. and Europe placing economic sanctions on Syria. More than 115,000 people have already fled the country amid savage violence.
Much of the tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are over “geo-politics,” said the priest, who many years ago revived a small sixth-century Christian monastery 100 kilometres north of Damascus.
But Dall’Oglio said global rivalries over land and power are made worse when leaders fan the flames of inter-religous suspicion, including among the roughly 10 per cent of the Syrian population that is either Orthodox Christian or Catholic.
It was with great regret the monk said that many of Syria’s Christian leaders have also sided with Assad’s oppressive regime. “They [Christian leaders] made a real mistake and miscalculation,” he said in an interview.
The 58-year-old Italian, who has spent the past 30 years in Syria, is becoming appreciated among Muslims around the world for his dogged efforts to build better relationships among Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians.
His global fame has expanded since he was expelled from Syria in mid-June, after receiving death threats and having masked men visit his monastery looking for weapons. His friends, including in Canada, feared for his life.
Dall’Oglio is on a mission to encourage the world’s leaders to become more involved in ending the conflict that is devastating the 21 million people of Syria, while also building support for greater interfaith dialogue.
The Syrian National Council and the Syrian Canadian Council are among those sponsoring Dall’Oglio on his speaking tour of North America, with stops in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York. He spoke Sunday night at the Vancouver Public Library.
During his talk the monk criticized the way that backers of the Assad regime, which has one of the worst human rights records in the world, dismiss their opponents as “terrorists.”
Dall’Oglio called that a “lie,” while acknowledging that Syrian rebels are receiving support from Muslims and Arabs throughout the Middle East during what is often called an “Arab Spring.”
With so many foreign countries wanting to hold onto their piece of power in strategically situated Syria, Dall-Oglio urges the U.S. and Russia to negotiate a new structure for the country, which could include geographically separating it’s sectarian populations.
Despite widening division between Sunni and Shia, Dall-Oglio remains hopeful for the world’s. 1.2 billion Muslims. “I see Muslims in deep evolution, like Christians,” he said.
Even though all religions have extremists, the Catholic monk continues to believe in the possibility of “a dialogue of light and culture and spirituality” - especially among those of his beloved Syria.
“I have so many Muslim friends who are really dreaming about a new kind of country.”—www.shafaqna.com/english
Source: Vancouver Sun