Mar Musa Monastery, Syria

Muslims and Christians Sharing Spirituality

In 1983, a Jesuit Father rediscovered an 11th century monastery in the Syrian desert. Twenty years on, it is a place where monks and nuns live together and where Muslim visitors sometimes even pray with Christians. By Christina Förch

photo: Christina Förch
The Mar Musar Monastery, a spiritual oasis in the middle of the Syrian desert

​​ It stands isolated, in the middle of the Syrian desert. The name of the monastery is Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi. In the sixth century, it is said, an Ethiopian hermit lived in a cave there. He was not just any Ethiopian – he was Saint Moses of Abyssinia, son of a king. He refused the crown, preferring to strive toward the Kingdom of God, and died as a martyr.

After his death monks built a small church, founding a monastery in his name. For the past two hundred years it stood vacant, fallen into disrepair, until 1983, when the monastery was rediscovered by the Italian Jesuit Father Paolo dell'Oglio. He spent ten days there in meditation, finally deciding to restore the monastery and found a new religious community.

In 2003, the renovation of the church was finally completed, bringing to light frescoes from the 11th and 12th centuries. Long before completion the little jewel in the middle of the desert began to attract pilgrims – and it proved so popular that the little monastic community decided to add several more buildings in a simple, archaic style to house visitors and pilgrims.

photo: Christina Förch
The Mar Musar frescoes, preserved by the dry desert climate

​​ Today eight monks and nuns live in Mar Musa, all of them around thirty years old. It may be the only monastic community in the world where men and women pray and work together, while living separately.

A new building houses the nuns' quarters and the wing for female visitors. The men's quarters have been expanded as well. The monastery dwellers lead a very simple life – having chosen poverty voluntarily, they dress in dark cotton habits.

They tend the garden, keep goats and bees. But the monastery also has computers and an Internet connection – for Mar Musa exists in the virtual realm of the Internet.

Recognizing Islam as an equally valid religion

This monastery has many unusual aspects. "We've always had a somewhat difficult relationship with the Vatican," says Brother Frederique from France, who has lived in the monastery for a year now. The major problem was not that it is a mixed monastery. Rather, it is problematic that the nuns and monks recognize Islam as an equally valid religion.

In Syria Muslims and Christians have been living together peacefully for centuries. And the inhabitants of Mar Musa hope to continue strengthening and deepening this dialogue.

"Many Syrian visitors come on the weekends – for them the monastery is a place to go on a normal outing," says the monk. All visitors are welcome. After the strenuous climb they can rest in a Bedouin tent, drink a glass of water or share a simple meal with the monks.

Hospitality and communication are priorities – in part because monks in the Middle East have always cultivated the tradition of accommodating visitors.

Muslim visitors praying with Christians

"Receiving visitors is like welcoming Jesus Christ," feels Brother Frederique. This has nothing to do with proselytizing, however. Muslims often admire the frescoes, and sometimes even pray together with the Christians.

"Our shared spirituality is based on the simplicity of our life, on peace and the recognition of Islam and Christianity as religions of God." The different religions are part of the "mystery that is humanity".

The monks maintain contact with Islamic scholars, priests and intellectuals and hold joint seminars on religious, social and political issues. Mar Musa is also committed to the concerns of Syrian Christians, who are leaving the country in ever-increasing numbers. "We've come to see that Syria's plurality is threatened by the fact that minorities are emigrating," the monk explains.

The language of liturgy is Arabic

The monastery follows Syrian rites, and the language of the liturgy is Arabic, although the nuns and monks come from Italy, Switzerland, France and Syria. They invite Syrian Christians to the monastery on a regular basis.

But of course this alone is not enough to keep Christians from leaving the country. That is why Mar Musa is also committed to local social projects. For example, the monastery helped renovate old houses to provide homes for young families – or to enable émigrés to return.

Upcoming projects focus on ecology, with the goal of preserving creation for the good of humanity. For example, an ecologically-friendly goat farm in the desert is meant to provide young families with a source of income.

In a country with a population which is growing as fast as Syria's, it is especially important to preserve one's natural resources.

Ultimately, however, Mar Musa is an oasis of tranquility, meditation and self-discovery far removed from the region's political, social, economic and ecological problems. And that, too, is the main goal of the monastery inhabitants.

"The desert has a spirituality of its very own," feels Brother Frederique. And, he says, it is always a very special thing to encounter the spirit of God – or Allah – in the desert.

Christina Förch

© 2004

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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