Divine Intervention

Is the Pope Negotiating for a Forgotten Hostage Priest’s Release?

Despite countless rumors, nothing has been heard of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio since he went missing in Syria two years ago. Now Pope Francis has sparked hope for the priest’s return.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

ROME—No one has ever heard a credible word about the fate of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a 60-year-old Italian Jesuit priest who was kidnapped as he walked along the shelled-out streets of Raqqa, Syria, on July 27, 2013.

Raqqa had become the de facto capital of ISIS, but Dall’Oglio felt at home there, having spent nearly four decades living and working in Syria. There have been countless rumors of his brutal death at the hands of jihadi terrorists, and just as many often fanciful stories of his miraculous survival because of his well-known opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. But there have never been claims of responsibility from ISIS about holding the priest, and Dall’Oglio’s family says he is instead being held by a group connected to al Qaeda, although they say no one has ever demanded ransom.

Italians are no strangers to kidnappings in conflict zones. Several high-profile journalists were kidnapped and let go during the height of the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, including Giuliana Sgrena, whose rescuers were inadvertently shot by American soldiers as they barreled through a checkpoint to take her to Bagdad International Airport in 2005. More recently others have been picked up and let go in Syria, including Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo, two young aid workers who were freed in January amid speculation that Italy paid a handsome ransom for their release. But there is scant mention of Father Dall’Oglio and nary a poster of his gray-bearded face hanging in public spaces like there were of the other missing.

But on Sunday, Pope Francis pleaded for the priest’s release in a somewhat surprising aside during his weekly Angelus blessing, leaving many wondering if the Holy See knows something about the priest’s whereabouts or if, perhaps, it is negotiating his release. “In a few days, we will mark the second anniversary since, in Syria, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio was kidnapped,” Francis said to thousands in St. Peter’s Square. “I make a heartfelt and urgent appeal to local and international authorities for the freedom of this esteemed religious man.”

Dall’Oglio was no ordinary priest. He was fluent in Arabic and lived for most of his life in Syria, where he converted the Deir Mar Mousa, the Abyssinian monastery in An-Nabk District, into a religious community to foster Christian-Muslim dialogue and cooperation. He nearly died after falling down a crumbling wall of the decaying hilltop building, which is reportedly what gave him the inspiration to dedicate his life to the project. He has written a number of important texts, including one based on his doctorate dissertation called “About Hope in Islam.”

In 2011, Dall’Oglio wrote a widely published open letter to Assad, condemning him for the civil war and urging him to stop killing his people. The priest had seen the devastation firsthand and reported in vivid detail the loss of life and torture among the people he ministered to, and those Muslims who were his friends. Assad replied by expelling the priest from Syria. He resisted for several months but finally left in June 2012 and lived for a time Iraqi Kurdistan. But he returned to Syria in early 2013, against the wishes of almost everyone but his loyal Syrian friends and followers.

Dall’Oglio made such powerful enemies because he understood and often spoke in warning tones about the complexity of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, says Riccardo Cristiano, a journalist for RAI in Italy who recently formed the group Journalist Friends of Father Dall’Oglio to advocate for the return of the priest and act as a conduit for credible information about the prelate.

Cristiano points to a video lecture Dall’Oglio gave shortly before Raqqa fell to ISIS in which the priest aptly predicted, “Syria, which ought to be the place where harmony and fraternity amongst these varying beliefs could be experimented, instead risks becoming fragmented and broken into pieces.”

Cristiano believes the Holy See may have begun dialogue with Dall’Oglio’s captors. “There is a thread of hope,” Cristiano said after the pope’s address. “The phrase ‘an esteemed religious man’ is a beautiful expression. And ‘I appeal to local and international authorities’ is very interesting—is there a channel open? Is this Vatican diplomacy at work? It would seem so. We hope…”

Italy’s Foreign Ministry refused to comment to The Daily Beast on any ongoing negotiations for the priest’s release, but immediately after Francis’s appeal, Italy’s foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, tweeted: “Thank you @pontifex for the appeal to free Father Dall’Oglio.”

Until there is credible news of the pacifist priest, hope may continue to spring eternal. Even though the aid workers Ramelli and Marzullo were questioned about their time in ISIS captivity, there has been no official word whether they saw the priest—or any other of a handful of known hostages still in ISIS hands. Shortly before the pair’s release, however, an ISIS supporter tweeted that the girls and the priest would be released soon. Only the girls made it to freedom.

Last year, Francis met with Father Dall’Oglio’s family, but the pope has never publicly appealed for the priest’s release until Sunday. Now it is a waiting game to determine whether he did it to mark the two-year anniversary of the priest’s disappearance or to herald his return.