Hadi Ayya: How a Prison Became a Priest’s Monastery

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Al-Akhbar Management

By: Ahmad Mohsen

Published Thursday, August 25, 2011

In 1989 Hadi Ayya and two other priests were on board a cargo ship heading to the Italian coast when they were arrested by Syrian security forces. The priests were taken to a Syrian maritime prison in Tartus, and it was there that Ayya began his relationship with prisons. Until this day, Father Ayya, who was then still a monk, doesn't know why there were arrested. Three years later, in 1992, Ayya visited Lebanon's notorious central jail, Roumieh, working as the translator for French cleric Father Fashroux who was ‘looking after’ the prisoners.

Following this introduction to Roumieh, Ayya's monastery gave him permission to conduct his prison visits twice a week, but two days were barely enough. At the time, the prison was a forgotten relic of Lebanon's collective memory preoccupied with the disasters of the civil war. “Who used to ask about the prisoners? Who?” Father Ayya asks passionately, when recounting his experience there.

The prison was akin to a neglected vault in the 1980s, he explains. His infatuation with the world that existed and still does within the walls of the prison coupled with neglect of its inhabitants turned the two-days-a-week visits into five-day ones. During his stays, Ayya learned what life was like inside and the primary concerns of inmates. He moved around Beirut, visiting different prisons. He found that once inside the prison walls, sectarian divides were erased among prisoners. Ayya insisted on becoming more involved in Roumieh, as if an invisible hand was tugging on his black robe, pulling him toward the prison.

To avoid blunders while dealing with the prisoners, he avidly studied subjects he was not taught during his religous training in France and Italy. He tried to relate his studies to his social work with prisoners. When he studied economics, he thought of how prisoners could spend their resources the same way they spent their time. When he learned sociology, he pondered ways of weaving bonds among the inmates, with the hopes of turning them into a 'small family.' After his graduation, Ayya and a number of colleagues tried to establish ‘Justice and Mercy,' an association specialized in prisons and prisoner issues. But their application for a permit was turned down by the Lebanese minister of interior at the time, Michel al-Murr.

In 1998, the permit was granted. The association started by setting up a table outside the prison to attend to prisoners' grievances. More than a decade later, the table has turned into a small blue building swarming with people, including relatives of prisoners, trying to vouch on behalf of their loved ones. Ayya witnessed most of the transformation of Roumieh prison (both physical and emotional) and much that has transpired at Roumieh, including the expansion of facilities, and the steady increase of inmates.

In Ayya’s opinion, the prison should not be a building guarded by the state, but a balanced institution of just punishment. Today, it is a hellhole: an exaggerated image of the outside world.

Within the prison, Ayya mingles with both the rich and the poor, those with connections and those without. During his time there, he learned to empathize the most with the non-Lebanese prisoners, who he described as the scapegoats for the rest of the prisoners. Ayya explained that the power of each prisoner is determined by four factors: His material status, such as his ability to buy cigarettes; the extent and degree of his ‘contacts’ with security personnel; his physical strength; and the charge against him (incestuous rape and collaboration with Israel rank lowest, while those accused of sodomy also face harsh treatment).

In the context of the prison's complex hierarchies of power and privilege, Ayya lamented the pressure put on his association to achieve certain expectations in comparison with the limited amount of resources available to them.

The priest has not left the prison premises since the latest ‘uprising’ staged in April by the prisoners and their families, who were demanding amnesty and better conditions.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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