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Interfaith tourism in Syria
Not the worshipers at Deir Mar Mousa monastery. This medieval Christian monastery is a pilgrimage center for Christians and Muslims alike thanks to an open policy of worship and tolerant religious discussion.
Christians make up about ten percent of Syria's population and there are churches in many cities, like the one in Hama pictured here. Byzantine monasteries dot the countryside, although most have been empty for centuries.
Deir Mar Mousa is located atop a rugged hill in the desert fifty miles north of Damascus. Long abandoned, its buildings and historic frescoes were restored over the past two decades and it's now open to all. Pilgrims are welcome to stay the night for free in a stone hut in exchange for light work such as cleaning the dishes. Much of the pilgrims' time is spent participating in long, patient discussions with people who believe differently than they do. Sounds a bit like the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
You don't have to be of a particular religion or indeed any religion to stay, but getting there is a bit complicated and you'll need some basic equipment. Instructions are on the monastery's website.
The monastery is run by the Jesuit priest Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio and a group of monks, nuns, and lay volunteers. This group has taken a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience like in most monastic communities, but unusually they have also dedicated themselves to "being in service and love for the Muslim world." People gather regularly for prayer meetings that involve silent meditation, multilingual services, and interfaith discussion.
Father Dall'Oglio explains his life's work by saying, "Jesus loves Muslims, the same Jesus who is alive in me."
When speaking with the New York Times for a recent article, he put it more simply.
"We're all in this together."