Italian priest fighting for peace in Syria

Loathed by the Syrian president and loved by Pope Francis. But who is Father Paolo Dall'Oglio and why is he hitting the headlines this week?

Italian priest fighting for peace in Syria
This week Pope Francis raised concern over the whereabouts of Father Paolo. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

Who is Father Paolo?

Father Paolo Dall'Oglio is an Italian priest, born in Rome in 1954, who has lived in Syria for more than 30 years.

He became a Jesuit in 1975 and then travelled to the Lebanese capital of Beirut to study, before moving on to Syria.

In 1982 he discovered the ancient Deir Mar Musa monastery north of Damascus, which was abandoned in the 1800s.

Father Paolo set about restoring the monastery, and formally re-established a community there in 1992.

Why is he in the news?

Earlier this week, activists and media reported that Father Paolo had been kidnapped in Syria. It is incredibly hard to get accurate information from a country in a state of civil war.

Some say he has chosen to break off contact as he negotiates the release of hostages, while others say he was abducted when walking in the eastern city of Raqqa.

An unverified video dated July 28th shows Father Paolo at a Raqqa rally, the day before activists first spoke of his disappearance.

Why is he important?

Father Paolo is praised for fostering inter-faith dialogue in Syria. As leader of the Deir Mar Musa monastery, he gained international acclaim for his work with Christians and Muslims, winning a number of awards including a peace prize from the region of Lombardy in 2012.

How has he fared during the civil war?

Rather than hide away in his monastery, Father Paolo has played an active role in the Syrian uprising, which began in 2011 and quickly descended into civil war.

“In June [2012] I was in Qusayr…in a hospital of the revolution offering my blood to wounded people under the shelling of the regime,” he told France 24.

While Father Paolo has faced personal risk, it is his outspoken views which recently landed him in trouble.

Such as?

“From day one, the Syrian regime chose violence, physical repression and deepening the action of torturing people in jail. They were consistent on their track of repression, that was their style for decades,” he said in an interview with France 24.

President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t take kindly to such criticism and had the priest thrown out of the country in June 2012.

It is believed he crossed the Turkish border back into Syria last week.

What now for Father Paolo?

Whether kidnapped or not, Father Paolo faces great danger in being in Syria during the civil war.

However, he has powerful supporters. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently investigating, while on Wednesday Pope Francis voiced his concern over the whereabouts of the fellow Jesuit. 

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Syrian war documentary wins top Venice prizes

A film that follows two friends through four nightmarish years of the Syrian civil war has lifted some of the top prizes at the Venice film festival, which ends Saturday.

Syrian war documentary wins top Venice prizes
The Venice film festival ends on Saturday. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP
“Still Recording”, a documentary by Ghiath Ayoub and Saeed Al Batal, records what happened to two idealistic art students after they were swept up in the fervour of the Syrian revolution. It picked up two awards at Venice Critics' Week.
Friends Saeed and Milad leave Damascus and go to Douma in 2011, a suburb under rebel control, to set up a radio station and recording studio. There they struggle to keep a flicker of hope and creativity alive as they endure fighting, siege and famine.
Ayoub and Al Batal, who shot 500 hours of footage, told AFP that with so little reporting coming out of Syria it was important to bear witness.
“We started doing this because there wasn't, and still isn't, an efficient working media in Syria because it's not allowed to enter and if it is, it's under the control of the regime,” said Al Batal.
“Art is nothing if it is not resistance, even if there isn't revolution… it is resistance against a huge amount of emotions you have got inside you. Emotions need to come out and expressing them through art can do that.”
The win comes as the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are preparing to launch an assault on Idlib, the northern province that is the last major stronghold of the rebel and jihadist groups which have been trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad for the past seven years.
Al Batal said the situation in Syria “is more dangerous than ever now” because the Russian military are more ruthless than Assad's badly trained soldiers.
“They know where to hit, and how to hit hard,” said Al Batal, who said the “media army behind them” was the same.