The Mysterious Fate of the Dissident Italian Priest Snatched by ISIS

Father Paolo Dall’Oglio turned a desert outpost of Syriac Catholicism into an internationally celebrated inter-faith cultural center. Then he was kicked out by Assad—and taken by ISIS.

Hussein Malla

The last time Hind Aboud Kabawat saw her mentor Father Paolo Dall’Oglio alive, she felt her heart “squeeze in pain.”

The Italian priest who had for 30 years made his home and clerical reputation in Syria was depositing her at Ataturk International Airport, in Istanbul, when he forgot the spiritual form their physical leave-taking always took: prayer. Father Paolo would place his crucifix on Kabawat’s head and chin, and then they would ask the divine to guide them in their daily struggles. Perhaps he was in haste to get her onto her return flight to her hometown of Toronto, but the rite this time slipped his mind. So Kabawat, an Orthodox Christian, reminded the gray-bearded Jesuit and hero of the Syrian people of the valedictory benediction. Father Paolo lovingly obliged. That was three years ago.

The priest was snatched by ISIS not long thereafter while walking through the streets of the caliphate’s capital of Raqqa. He had smuggled himself back into Syria after being kicked out by Bashar al-Assad, Kabawat says, to try to negotiate the release of captive journalists, and was convinced he could reason with the jihadists.

Kabawat is a natural-born worrier, and Father Paolo used to call her “Martha,” after the sister described in the Gospel of Luke as “cumbered about many things” whom Jesus visits at her home. Unlike her attentive sibling Mary, Martha neglects the savior’s counsel. But now the roles were somewhat reversed, and the emissary of Christ was the one who wouldn’t listen.

One needn’t have been especially preoccupied or put-upon to fear an audience with ISIS. “This was 2013—we didn’t really know who they were. But still I told him, ‘Don’t do it face to face.’ He said, ‘No, no, no. If, after three days, you don’t hear from me, then something bad will have happened.’”

Something bad did.

The echo here with the resurrection may have been intentional, though it’s hard to associate Father Paolo with the megalomania of one comparing himself to his avowed role model. On this score, Kabawat is definitive: “He was always telling me, ‘Hind, we can’t be sitting and lecturing others. We need to go to the people. Because this is freedom and democracy, from the people to the people. This is exactly what Jesus wants and what Jesus did. He did not sit in his home.’”

Father Paolo certainly didn’t hang about the house, either, even as he spent the better part of 30 years tending to it. He singlehandedly transformed the Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi—the name means “Saint Moses the Abyssinian”—monastery in Nabk, a town 50 miles north of Damascus, from a desert outpost of Syriac Catholicism into an internationally celebrated inter-faith cultural center. Its portico was traversed by parishioners of all confessions, denominations, and sects, and from all nationalities.

During Ramadan 2011, Kabawat traveled to Deir Mar Musa and personally witnessed Ismailis, the practitioners of a branch of Shia Islam who had stood with the anti-Assad protest movement, as well as Christians hiding out from the mukhabarat, or secret police, the worst perpetrators of state brutality. The Syrian uprising was then still in its infancy but already the opposition, made up of both protesters and defectors from Assad’s army, was starting to fight back. Father Paolo knew that they’d eventually radicalize and threaten the entire edifice of their noble project. The “fight for freedom,” as he later put it, “will be transformed in a civil war, and this will create space for all kinds of extremisms and crimes against humanity and disasters.” So he urged an end to violence.

“I remember that we talked about hudna,” Kabawat says, using the Arabic word for “calm,” which connotes a cessation of hostilities. “He said during Ramadan you have to stop fighting, in the old Islamic tradition. This is very funny because it’s like now,” she says.

We were speaking Sunday night, the second day into an already violated two-week truce orchestrated by the United States and Russia, which no one seriously believes will prove a tourniquet on Syria’s five years of bloodshed. “Then we prayed. Each one of us prayed for something different. I prayed to stop the violence and killing. He said, ‘I will pray for our sons and daughters who are in the prisons.’”

He meant the regime’s.

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Not many Christian prelates openly sided with Assad’s victims or the revolution. But Father Paolo did, much to the embarrassment of other religious institutions, which, at their best, could only mouth platitudes about restoring “peace” while assigning no blame to the original war-maker. When popular Syrian filmmaker and dissident Bassel Shahade was killed in Homs in 2012, his mourners at St. Cyril’s Church in Damascus were arrested or scattered by regime agents. The church’s Melkite Greek Catholic leadership refused to protest the assault on its own holy ground. So Father Paolo let Shahade’s memorial service proceed at Deir Mar Musa. For that “crime,” Damascus issued him a “one-way visa out.”

Had he been a native-born Syrian and not an Italian, he might well have been killed for such a heresy against a long-established collusion between holy orders and the mukhabarat, a subject he addressed trenchantly from exile. He apprehended early on what most Western journalists and policymakers did not, namely that Assad was no opponent of jihadism but rather its principal underwriter. The regime had created a see-through myth that any challengers to its totalitarian rule were operatives of “al Qaeda,” even if they were graffiti-daubing schoolchildren or 13-year-old boys running water to protesters in Deraa. The regime then set about reifying this myth by letting terrorists out of its jails (but not the political prisoners Father Paolo banged on about) and waging expressly sectarian, anti-Sunni pogroms across Syria.

In 2012, Father Paolo wrote to Kofi Annan, then the UN’s special envoy and a man fecklessly trying to sew together one of the first (failed) ceasefires, “you know better than anyone else that the international Islamic terrorism is one of the many streams of the global ‘illegality-opacity’ (market of drugs, weapons, organs, human beings, finance, raw materials…). The interconnected marshland of the diverse ‘secret services’ is contiguous to the galaxy of criminality, often characterized ideologically and/or religiously. It is surprising that a few days were enough for high-ranking UN officials to accept the ‘al-Qaida’ thesis regarding the ‘suicide’ attacks in Syria.”

As for Assad, the soi-disant “defender of minorities,” Father Paolo was not fooled. He pointed to the Syrian army’s mortar destruction of ancient churches in Homs and its forced displacement of 150,000 Christians from that city. “How can we stay silent?” he asked in The New York Times after his expulsion from Syria. We are in solidarity with the repression, not only because we don’t denounce the repression, but also because we negate there is repression.”

Famously, he publicly identified the sinister Sister Agnes Mariam, the Carmelite nun who denounced the opposition from her perch as mother superior of a monastery in Qara, not far from his, as an agent of Syrian intelligence.

“Sister Agnes is very careful when she speaks and this is—and I wish to repeat and emphasize this—nothing more than a clever example of the lying, manipulative work of the Syrian regime,” he told the German website Qantara in 2013. “Sister Agnes states she is the head of a movement that is not present in the country and is called Musalaha or ‘Reconciliation.’ This is a serious problem because her interpretation of events is selective and she believes the revolution is terrorism!”

This was five months before Agnes would gain global notoriety as the purveyor contradictory conspiracy theories about the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks (she said they were both faked and perpetrated by the rebels) and well before she’d help deliver starved inhabitants of the besieged rebel town of Moadamiyah, Damascus, into the hands of the security services. (Prior to all this, she was also implicated in the regime’s murder of French journalist Gilles Jacquier.)

“Other priests were jealous of him,” Kabawat tells me. “Father Paolo was very popular with the poor. He didn’t ask permission. There is corruption with the church. Lots of links between them and Syrian intelligence because the bishopric wants to protect itself.”

Today the priest’s fate remains the subject of periodic rumormongering and unsubstantiated allegation. Sometimes he’s reported alive and well, held by the world’s leading jihadist organization in one of its prisons because even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is fearful of killing a Christian so beloved by Syrians. Sometimes Father Paolo is said to be dead, his body dumped into an ossuary reserved for slain regime operatives and soldiers. But the hope that he still draws breath somewhere is persuasive enough to have impelled Pope Francis to plead for his release in a Vatican sermon last July.

“If he’s dead, he’s dead,” Kabawat says. “If he’s alive and is going to come back, then he comes back. We have to follow his principles. To love the others, to build bridges with the others. To cross the line and make peace and make reconciliation. This was his favorite word.” It may also be the reason that he could not abide by Sister Agnes’s perversion of it.

“The Assad regime wants us to hate the Muslim people, they want the Muslims to hate us. But Father Paolo taught us we must do everything to keep the nation together.”