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Mass grave in Syria may explain disappearance of famous Italian Catholic priest

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

The case of a missing Italian Catholic priest, internationally known for his interfaith efforts in Syria and criticism of President Bashar al-Assad, may come to a tragic conclusion with the recent

The case of a missing Italian Catholic priest, internationally known for his interfaith efforts in Syria and criticism of President Bashar al-Assad, may come to a tragic conclusion with the recent finding of a mass grave near the city of Raqqa.

A grave of at least 100 bodies, suspected of being ISIS victims, was discovered in northern Syria, Italian media reported on May 26, in the same area where Italian priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio went missing in July 2013.

There have been conflicting reports regarding the disappearance of the then 58-year-old Catholic leader - some claim Dall’Oglio was killed, while others claim he is still alive and held by his abductors.

Dall’Oglio: Man of dialogue and dissent

An Italian Catholic priest, Dall’Oglio first visited Syria to study Arabic in the 1980s and was responsible for the restoration of an ancient monastery near the capital city of Damascus and its transformation into an interfaith center known as the Monastery of Saint Moses, or Deir Mar Musa in Arabic.

Dall’Oglio organized interfaith dialogue seminars and his community of priests and nuns “tirelessly strove to facilitate better interreligious relations in Syria, employing workers from all backgrounds, and celebrating both Christian and Muslim festivals,” according to Shaun O’Neill, who met Dall’Oglio in 2011 just before the civil war and is author of the book A Church of Islam: The Syrian Calling of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio.

More controversially, Dall’Oglio’s monastery was always open and subsequently “gave shelter to political dissidents and victims of regime torture before and during the Syrian Civil War,” said O’Neill in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

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When war erupted in 2011, the relationship between Dall’Oglio and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime fractured.

At odds with Al-Assad

Dall’Oglio told Al Arabiya in a 2012 television interview that his community’s interreligious dialogue activities were also paired with working “against corruption, which caused a cloud to hang over our head” in the country.

He advocated for a non-violent transition of power in Syria and the establishment of a team of 50,000 international observers – both ideas which caused tension with the country’s leadership and led to his expulsion from Syria.

“I never held my silence in Syria because I was not suited for silence…I spoke because the country was drowning,” he said in the interview with Al Arabiya, after being expelled from the country in June 2012.

“The people are living the challenge of a civil war, people are slaughtering each other in the streets backed by whoever is benefitting from this to protect the old regime,” said Dall’Oglio, adding that as a monk he was committed to non-violence.

Syria should be a country of peace “instead of being the boxing ring for the Iranian revolutionary fighters,” Dall’Oglio added, referencing Iran’s military presence, training, and funding in the country.

Iran has spent over $16 billion since 2012 supporting al-Assad and other partners and proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, according to a 2018 report by the US State Department’s Iran Action Group.

Disappearance of Dall’Oglio

After Dall’Oglio was expelled from Syria in June 2012, he eventually returned under the protection of the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups. The details of Dall’Oglio’s disappearance in Raqqa in July 2013 remain incomplete, according to O’Neill, who said that Dall’Oglio was in Syria “negotiating the release of political prisoners as he had done many times before.”

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“But something went wrong: ISIS was encroaching upon the city at this time,” said O’Neill.

ISIS made Raqqa into its de facto capital in 2014, one year before two other Christian priests were abducted in the area - just before Dall’Oglio went missing.

“Father Paolo knew too well the increasing risks of being a religious figure in these areas. He knew what was at stake,” said O’Neill, who said Dall’Oglio’s “bullish nature” encouraged his return to the country.

Now the uncovering of a mass grave in Raqqa, believed to hold victims of ISIS, may provide clues into the circumstances of Dall’Oglio’s fate. Syrian authorities have been discovering mass graves in Raqqa since ISIS was driven out of the city in 2017.

If it is confirmed that Dall’Oglio’s remains are in this mass grave in Syria, his death could make him “a martyr for the opposition as he continues to be a thorn in the Ba’ath party’s side,” said O’Neill.

“Dall’Oglio held all power to account – state and religious - and unflinchingly tried to tell the truth. It seems he paid the ultimate price for his candor,” he added.

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