Syria: victimising coexistence

“Methodological fetishism is the condition of a microphysical analysis in which the part or detail becomes an entry point from which the reconstruction of larger processes, events, and social relations, conjunctions of actors and practices,

structure and technologies, may take place” (Eyal Weizman, The least of all possible evils, London: Verso, 128-129)

Mar Musa monastery in Nebek. Photo: Franco Pecchio, December 24, 2007

In February 2011 – when I had only just come back from a six-weeks fieldwork in Lebanon and only just settled back in the British academic routine – I missed the opportunity to visit, with some Beirut-based friends, Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (the monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian), located on the dramatic peaks of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range overlooking the town of Al-Nabk, 80 km north of Damascus.

There are many places in Syria I would have liked to visit before the ongoing conflict took its toll on them, and Deir Mar Musa is, unfortunately, one of these.

On August 6th, Italian news agency ANSA reported the assault of the monastery – until recently run by Italian Jesuit Padre Paolo dall’Oglio – and confirmed that the site has been looted and that the attackers stole everything there was to steal. Fortunately, no person was hurt: few members of the monastic community remained in the complex, by now void of its once numerous visitors.

The attack against Deir Mar Musa adds to the long list of architectural treasures already damaged in the conflict in Syria. As Beirut-based Independent journalist Robert Fisk pointed out recently, the destruction of cultural heritage witnessed during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is being repeated in Syria. Several monuments have been destroyed in crossfire between fighting forces; others have turned into contested battlegrounds – like the medieval crusaders’ castle Crac des Chevaliers, near Tartous. Other sites have instead been targeted more clearly in a deliberate and unilateral manner. Deir Mar Musa is one of these.

The monastery hardly constitutes a military target. It is also far from the lines of confrontation between the regime forces and the Free Syrian Army: its isolated location and dramatic surrounding landscape has been the site for hermits, and then monks, for centuries and plays a big part in facilitating the search for peace and spiritual reflection of its visitors. There was nothing there of much material value, apart from some tractors and other farming tools.

The importance of Mar Musa, instead, was its being a place that welcomes difference, allowing people of every religion (or no religion) to encounter each other in dialogue, prayer, and sharing a common search for peace. In addition, it was, of course, a Catholic monastery. Restored following collaboration between the Syrian and the Italian governments in the 1990s, the monastic community runs Deir Mar Musa as an inter-faith spiritual refuge. Making hospitality a “political programme” (as stated by Padre Paolo dall’Oglio in an interview with Christian Science Monitor in 2006), guests receive free accommodation in exchange for helping with cooking and housework, and keeping the surrounding environment clean.

Far from being ‘collateral damage’, or an opportunistic act of looting for wealth, the pillage of Deir Mar Musa appears instead to be a deliberate, unilateral, and selective attack. By targeting the monastery, the perpetrators damaged the material premises that make it possible to practice inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, coexistence, and community-building. As the place suffered a very serious infrastructural setback, the community practices typical of Deir Mar Musa are no more. And the loss is profound.

Unsurprisingly, the attack has triggered much discussion about who the perpetrators might be: is it an extremist act of Jihadist groups increasingly operating in Syria against a Christian site? Is it the sectarian act of Mar Musa’s neighbours in the nearby town of Al-Nabk? Or is this yet another atrocity committed by the Assad regime (or its militias), which from the start of the Revolution in 2011 has been keen to invoke the spectre of sectarianism as the only alternative to the fall of the regime.

Let’s not romanticize the destruction of Syria as an exception in the middle of the desert. In neighbouring Lebanon, a different conflict with (partly) different actors, practically wiped out the country’s socio-material fabric of multiplicity from 1975 onwards. I am not saying that, before 1975, Lebanon was a Shangri-La of genuine coexistence and harmony in diversity. But there were many places – like the city centre of Beirut, the National Library, the National Museum, the international hotel area, and the now incalculable churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, civic buildings, agricultural fields, shops, streets, refugee camps, squares all around the country – where life went on, convivially, despite politico-sectarian differences, splits, and moments of tension. And yet, and perhaps precisely because of this conviviality across difference, places like these were pillaged, looted, robbed, emptied out, bombed, burnt, destroyed, divided, closed, cut, blocked, sniped.

During the early hours of Lebanon’s civil war, there were no social media, mobile phone videos, satellite images of every single bomb crater and damaged building, and NGOs documenting the damage, like it has been done for the Balkans, Iraq, Homs or Aleppo. Today, we have very little reliable data about that damage. But it does not take much to draw parallels between the pattern of hostility against the places of hospitality and difference in Lebanon, and those in Syria. They are the places that blur the lines that the different fighting parts want to keep solid.

Unlike the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia, Mar Musa has not and will not constitute the ‘last straw’ that brings about decisive international action. It received scant attention in the mainstream Western media busy with cycle pursuit, hurdles, and dressage. Besides (and fortunately so) there is already plethora of activist videos, embedded journalism, and satellite imagery out there that map, count, and document the pillage of myriads of sites of cultural value in Syria. The attack against Mar Musa is just another deliberate attempt to damage Syrian places of coexistence in order to damage the Syrian society.

Beyond the battle for representation between those more or less critical of the Assad regime, whatever way we choose to make sense of the conflict, there is a material constant that everyone, from any side, should take extremely seriously if they want to build an evidence-based discussion on Syria. It is the systematic destruction of the sites of coexistence, of multiplicity and dialogue that constituted the societal makeup of contemporary Syria: homes, religious buildings, public, private, and civic spaces. Protecting these places of religious minority and inter-communal coexistence and encounter, is crucial if a post-Assad Syria is to be for all Syrians.

On the damage to the built environments in Syria:

Sara Fregonese


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