Issues of light and darkness, evil and goodness are prevalent in all the great religions of the world. These are concerns that everyone grapples with in life — and we are reminded of this once again today, as Hindus begin the festival of Diwali, the Festival of Lights.
There are many different spellings of the word and many variations of the festival in different places in India and elsewhere. In southern India, where CNEWA works with the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches, Diwali is celebrated by our Hindu neighbors.
As is the case with some holidays in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the date of Diwali depends upon the moon. It is a five-day festival which begins with the new moon between the Hindu months of Asvin and Kartika, which translates into sometime between the middle of October and middle of November on the Gregorian calendar. This year Diwali begins on 19 October.
Diwali celebrates the victory of the god Rama. His story is found in the epic poem Ramayana, which is well over two thousand years old and contains over 240,000 verses, making it one of the longest poems in the world. In it Rama with his wife Sita and half-brother Lakshmana is exiled from his kingdom. While in exile in the forest, Rama’s wife, Sita, is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. A battle ensues, Rama is victorious and all return in glory to Ayodha, where Rama is king.
Diwali is a joyful and extravagant feast, with an emphasis on sweet foods, exchanging of gifts and decorating of houses. Since it is the festival of lights, lamps, fireworks and wonderful decorations called rangoli abound. Each area and even each family will have its own tradition of how the rangoli is designed. It is a complicated piece of art composed of colorful symbols and complicated patterns. It is often surrounded by burning lamps. In some places floating candles are launched onto lakes and rivers or colorful paper lanterns released into the sky by the thousands.
As the world becomes smaller and religions must learn to interact with respect and peace, it was good to hear that in southern India Christians send Diwali cards and greetings to their Hindu neighbors. Even in some parts of the U.S. and Canada, Diwali is becoming a festival that is familiar to non-Hindus.
Read the Vatican’s message for Diwali 2017 here.
19 October 2017
U.S. Franciscan Rev. Michael Perry, minister general of the order, center, leads the ceremony for the opening of the celebrations of the anniversary of 800 years of Franciscan presence in the Holy Land on 16 October at the Church of St. Saviour in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Franciscans serving in the Holy Land have had an impact on Christian pilgrims, said Franciscan Rev. Michael Perry, minister general of the order.
“The Franciscans’ care for pilgrims, their attention to detail, their efforts to demonstrate the love of God, the mercy of God through different religious services and ... how they welcome people in hospitality houses, these become elements that people themselves, Christians and others, take back to (their) countries,” said Father Perry.
Father Perry spoke to Catholic News Service in Jerusalem during official celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. The celebration included three days of prayer, reflections, music and conference meetings, which discussed the history and archaeology of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, head of the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches, was among those who attended.
The service of the Franciscans “should be a call to go beyond division, a call to recognize each other truly as brothers and sisters belonging to the one same family, whether you call it family of God or the one human family,” Father Perry told CNS following the celebrations’ opening ceremony on 16 October. “I think their service is absolutely essential; that is why in the 14th century, the Holy Father at the time asked the Franciscans to dedicate energy and personnel to care for the holy sites.”
In his missionary service, Father Perry said, he has seen pilgrims from many countries talk of the gratitude they felt for the way the Franciscans welcomed them and guided them, offering them an opportunity to meet Jesus, to meet the living God, giving real witness to their Christian faith.
He said he witnessed one of the strongest examples of the Franciscan dedication both to the local Christians and to the holy sites in Syria, which he visited in April. There, two Franciscan friars remained with 300 Christian families in two villages under the rule of the Islamic State group in order to “guarantee Christ’s presence ... and the presence of Eucharist and a presence of church” for the families, he said.
He added that although these friars were not able to cross over into Aleppo to see him, he did see how other Franciscans there were active in organizing the laity to help themselves.
“The Franciscans really serve as a cornerstone for coordinating and implementation and getting the funding in ... and also empowering laity to become partners in caring for their own people in Syria, so the laity in Syria, the young people in particular, were involved in this dire service to their own people, and not just to Christians, but to Muslims as well. This was an amazing witness to me,” he said.
Reflecting on the significance of the 800th anniversary, Father Perry said two words came to mind: “inter gentes,” Latin for “among the people.”
“This going among the people, becoming a brother to other people: I think the significance of this event is not simply to look back at 800 years of ‘oh what a wonderful job we have done,’ although in many ways I think the brothers have given up a tremendous witness of faith, hope and love, but I also think the significance of this event is to propel us toward the future,” said Father Perry. “This new perspective ... means we have to be open and sensitive to where other people are, because we recognize God’s presence, the Spirit’s presence, already there. We are not there to convert people, we’re there to recognize with them what God is doing.”
The 800th year anniversary is one of celebrating the work that God continues to do in the Holy Land, he said.
“All of us have to reach out, not only to all human beings, but ‘Laudato Si,’ to reach out to all of creation to safeguard the future of our planet for all of humanity,” Father Perry said, using the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 environmental encyclical. “This is what the holy sites tell me, this is what the place of the burial of Jesus tells me, the cross and the event of the resurrection. I think this is what it tells us as Franciscans. He calls us forward.”
19 October 2017
In this image from January, the pope’s envoy to Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari, shakes hands with Muslim religious leaders during a visit to the Great Mosque of Aleppo.
(photo: AFP/George Ourfalian/Getty Images)
Fleeing Raqqa, ISIS left behind boob-trapped toys, corpses (The Washington Post) Islamic State fighters fleeing their self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria, have left behind an unprecedented array of deadly improvised explosive devices, U.S. officials say, forecasting what’s expected to be a years-long effort to purge them. Only about 100 militants remain in the city, but the sophisticated explosives they’ve rigged are slowing efforts to declare a full victory there and could pose grave challenges for Raqqa’s residents as they begin to rebuild after the months-long battle to expel the Islamic State...
Envoy: everyone suffers in Syria, but Christians are ‘weakest link’ (Crux) Italian Cardinal Mario Zenari, the pope’s ambassador in Syria, avoids interviews: “Because of the work I do,” he says, and not without his reasons. Syria is in the midst of a civil war that began seven years ago, a conflict that’s been described as the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II...
Jordan lab developing solutions to refugee crisis (The Jordan Times) The Mahali Lab has been recently inaugurated in Jordan, aiming to offer an innovative platform for identifying and solving challenges caused by long-term displacement of people due to regional crises...
Pope addresses ‘Religions for Peace’ delegation (Vatican Radio) “Religions, with their spiritual and moral resources, have a specific and unique role to play in building peace,” Pope Francis said on Wednesday. “They cannot be neutral, much less ambiguous, where peace is concerned,” he told a delegation of 80 members of “Religions for Peace,” who met him in the Vatican...
18 October 2017
Sister Luma, from the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, enters her destroyed convent in Qaraqosh. Once a thriving Christian town, it was liberated recently from ISIS militants. On the wall is an inscription left by the militants: “There is only one God.” (photo: Raed Rafei)
In the current edition of ONE, photojournalist Raed Rafei reports on Iraqi Christians returning to their homes, and facing a very different existence along with some Hard Choices. Here, he adds some additional impressions.
Driving around the desolate town provoked an eerie feeling. How does one make sense of a once-thriving town that had witnessed for so long the daily hustle and bustle of people walking its streets, shopping from its stores and praying in its churches, now condemned to terrifying silence?
Batnaya, an Assyiran town north of Iraq, is one of the most heavily destroyed places after last year’s ferocious fighting between ISIS militants and Kurdish forces. Entering the town, one sees entire streets of one collapsed building after the other, an apocalyptic awe-inspiring scene.
Driving me through the mayhem, Rani Salam Asmaro, 31, points to a large empty piece of land. He remembers with disbelief the large soccer tournament organized on that field few years ago. It is hard to imagine how life can be sucked out of a place like this.
In the old town, we walk in the narrow streets where Islamists had left so many signs of a hateful ideology. At the entrance of a church, a handwritten sentence reads: “There is no place for the Christians in the land of Islam.” For Asmaro, a fitness trainer and an aid to a priest, the most painful aspect of the conflict is the realization that Christians who had found home in Iraqi land thousands of years ago would be “abhorred” by their Muslim neighbors and attacked so savagely because of their faith. Asmaro says that he always had Muslim friends but that he cannot trust them anymore after everything that happened.
I heard about this feeling of betrayal from many Iraqi Christians. For centuries, Christians have been an integral part of society sharing life with their neighbors from other ethnic groups. What the latest conflict has most tragically produced is the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Christians, but also further isolation for those who remained. Beyond the reconstruction of homes and churches, this will be the most challenging aspect of life in Iraq for Christians for the coming years. How can Christians feel trust again towards their Sunni neighbors and re-establish relations with them? For the Church leaders I talked to, the time is now still too early to talk about reconciliation. People need time to heal their wounds first.
Asmaro believes that the intolerance he has experienced as a community in Iraq has only strengthened his Christian faith and his determination to remain in the land of his ancestors. Asmaro is planning to get married to his fiancé soon and start a new family. I met many young men and women who were still marrying and having children despite the many uncertainties they faced.
Asmaro comes from the town of Al-Qosh, the only Christian enclave that was not occupied by the Islamic State. The inhabitants of Al-Qosh are people who are very proud of their Christian heritage and refuse to sell land to anyone whose origins are not from that town. They believe that this policy had protected their village from losing its character.
What makes the town historically significant is the ancient tomb of the Jewish prophet Nahum.
Many believe that this sacred place protected the town from invasion from Islamist militants. Others say that the strong Christian faith of the town’s people kept it safe. A more rational explanation is that Al-Qosh lies beyond an international road vital for commerce between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Regional powers would not have allowed the disruption of traffic along that road where goods and oil are transported, some say.
Asmaro’s brother, a professional singer, has composed many songs to express his love for his town. One of his video clips hails the resistance of Al-Qosh in the face of invaders and shows proud men in traditional clothes carrying arms and stationed in the mountain overlooking the town.
Asmaro remembers how, in 2014, he stayed with these men to protect their town from a possible invasion. Families had been evacuated to nearby safer towns.
“Despite the danger, with a friend of mine, we would sneak into the town to exercise for few hours at the gym there,” he said.
Read more in the September 2017 edition of ONE.
18 October 2017
People displaced by fighting eat lunch inside a heated tent at a train station during evacuations in 2015 in the Ukrainian city of Slaviansk. The Catholic bishop responsible for eastern Ukraine has backed calls for the deployment of international peacekeepers and praised “pressure from below” to end the four-year war. (photo: CNS/Anastasia Vlasova, EPA)
The Catholic bishop responsible for eastern Ukraine has backed calls for the deployment of international peacekeepers and praised “pressure from below” to end the nearly four-year war.
With the Ukrainian government ready to establish conditions for a peacekeeping force, “there are now good signs this could happen,” said Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, whose diocese includes rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk.
“Although some politicians still hope to use this conflict for their own power interests, pressure for reconciliation is spreading up from below among the people who’ve had enough of it. This is a positive change, and it brings a real chance of peace,” he told Catholic News Service 18 October.
Peacekeeping proposals were being debated by European Union and U.N. officials in mid-October to end the conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russia-back separatists.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said he has been in continual contact with people on both sides who believe pressure from the U.S. and Western governments would induce Russian President Vladimir Putin to “talk and reach agreements.”
“Those whose decisions led to this war, and who saw it as a way of making dirty money, will naturally stand by policies they’ve staked their reputations on,” Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said. “But people at large are demanding their leaders do something to end this terrible bloodshed. Peace will come sooner or later, from below if not from above.”
Ukrainian church leaders have accused Western governments of ignoring continued suffering in their country, where war has left more than 10,000 dead.
Ukraine’s armed forces have been substantially rebuilt with $857 million in “non-lethal” Western military aid. Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, chief of the military’s general staff, predicted in mid-October he could recapture Donetsk and Luhansk from the separatists with defensive weaponry requested from the U.S., but only at a heavy cost in lives.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said his church’s Caritas-Spes charity was helping needy Ukrainians on both sides of the conflict.
However, he added, more than 100,000 displaced people, a fifth of them children, were living in industrial containers, abandoned barracks and railway sheds in Kharkiv alone as winter approached. Effective humanitarian aid would be essential to any peace process, he said.
“Ukraine cannot stand alone. It needs support, and we’re grateful to people of goodwill in Europe and the U.S. who are engaging and showing solidarity with us,” the bishop said.
“The feeling we’re not abandoned has been very important for unifying Ukraine during this war. Although opinion was once divided between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups, no one now doubts our salvation lies in moving closer to the European Union,” he said.
18 October 2017
In the video above, U.S.-backed forces in Syria celebrate the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, the militant group’s self-proclaimed capital. (video: CBS News/YouTube)
Syrian fighters capture Raqqa (Al Jazeera) The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces backed by the US, have announced the capture of Raqqa city after a four-month operation to drive out ISIS fighters. SDF spokesmen announced the takeover of the strategic Syrian city on Tuesday after a final battle at a sports stadium where ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) made its last stand...
Iraq declares mission accomplished in Kirkuk (Al Jazeera) Iraq’s military says it achieved its objectives in a lightning-quick operation that saw troops sweep through disputed Kurdish-held territory in a punishing riposte to an independence vote last month...
ISIS militants stage attack outside Coptic church (AP) The militants drove into the city center of el-Arish in the morning, then split into two groups. One group traded gunfire with the guards outside the Church of Saint George, security and military officials said. Services at the church were suspended months ago, following a wave of attacks on Christians in Sinai.In a brazen daytime attack, about a dozen Islamic militants robbed a local bank, lobbed grenades and traded gunfire with security forces guarding an unused church in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Monday, killing seven people, including three civilians, officials said...
Vatican sends Diwali message to Hindus (CNA) With tensions between Christians and Hindu nationalists in India increasingly on the rise, the Vatican sent a message marking the Hindu feast of Diwali, urging members of both religions to go beyond mere tolerance of one another, and to foster a genuine mutual respect. Diwali is a Hindu festival of lights, and is being celebrated this year on 19 October...
American woman becomes Ethiopian princess in Orthodox wedding (The Independent) Fairytales are not known for beginning in a Washington DC nightclub, but for one American woman it was where she met the Ethiopian prince who would go on to become her husband...
17 October 2017
A patient chats with staff at Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Lebanon. Read more about this hospital and other institutions working to assist Lebanon’s most vulnerable in Reaching the Margins, from the September 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Don Duncan)
17 October 2017
A member of the Kurdish-led S.D.F. coalition, backed by U.S. special forces, looks out from a building at the front lines in Raqqa on 16 October. (photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
ISIS makes last stand at a stadium in Raqqa, its doomed ‘capital’ (NPR) The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are in the process of kicking ISIS out of Raqqa, the extremist group’s self-declared capital. Now ISIS fighters are reportedly bottled up in a stadium complex in the Syrian city. As of Tuesday local time, the S.D.F. controlled “more than 90 percent” of Raqqa…
New tensions rise on the Nineveh Plain (Fides) A local formation of militias that include many Christian fighters among their ranks have told the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to abandon all areas of the Nineveh Plain under their control…
Crimes against Dalits on the rise (Fides) “The growing atrocities on the Dalits give the impression that India is returning to the age of Manusmriti, when Dalits were treated worse than slaves,” said Thomas Menamparampil, archbishop emeritus. His remark refers to the Hindu text that informed the country’s ancient caste system, in which Dalits occupy the most oppressed position in society. “The media reported recently that a 21-year-old Dalit man was beaten to death allegedly by a group of men belonging to a [higher] caste in Anand district, Gujarat. According to the news, he was killed only for reasons of caste,” the church leader says…
Diwali 2017: When is it and how is it celebrated? (Al Jazeera) Diwali, also known as the festival of lights, is the biggest festival celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists around the world. Its date changes every year and commemorates different things depending on local tradition and culture. As per India’s official holiday calendar, Diwali in 2017 will be on October 19, coinciding with the 15th day of Kartik, the holiest month in the Hindu lunar calendar. In southern India and in Singapore, Diwali will be observed on October 18, which is also an official holiday in Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Sindh province in Pakistan…
Roman theater uncovered at base of Jerusalem’s Western Wall (Washington Post) Israeli archaeologists on Monday announced the discovery of the first known Roman-era theater in Jerusalem’s Old City, a unique structure around 1,800 years old that abuts the Western Wall and may have been built during Roman Emperor Hadrian’s reign. The edifice’s elegant masonry was found during excavations carried out in the past two years below the Western Wall tunnels, a warren of ancient subterranean passageways running alongside a contested Jerusalem holy site built by King Herod in the first century B.C…
16 October 2017
A shepherd leads his flock down a street between the Christian villages surrounding the city of Kerak in southern Jordan. (photo: Nader Daoud)
Dale Gavlak visited villages in Jordan for the current edition of ONE, and here offers some further impressions of a people working to preserve an ancient way of life.
I first met The Rev. Boulos Baqa’in in the CNEWA office in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Dressed in his black clerical shirt and white collar, the immense energy Father Boulos exudes is directed into confronting the crisis in his rural home area of Karak, south of the capital. Youth are leaving in droves due to little or no employment opportunities.
The area is the historical heartland of Jordan’s Christian Bedouin tribes, boasting the country’s last two remaining entirely Christian villages of Smakieh and Hmoud. But with the flight of youth to Amman or further afield to the Arab Gulf and their parents aging, there is serious concern for the future of the area’s Christian heritage.
These villages have also supplied the bulk of Latin and Melkite Catholic priests, as well as Orthodox priests and religious for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
That’s why Father Boulos is meeting with Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s regional director for Jordan, who is encouraging him to enter uncharted territory.
Father Boulas leads the liturgy at the Greek Melkite Church in Ader, in Jordan. (photo: Nader Daoud)
They’ve devised a plan to set up a powerful Internet connection between the CNEWA community center in Amman and one initially established at the Ader Greek Melkite Church to provide long-distance training of practical skills, such as IT by professionals.
Relevant teaching on pertinent health, education and cultural issues will also be provided to the villagers in a bid to educate the youth and older people alike. The hope is that the venture might also encourage telecommuting job opportunities with new found IT and other skills.
“It’s time for this project to move ahead,” Mr. Bahou says. This is how we will open these villages to the outside world. We need these villages to survive and these people to cope with what is going on.”
“Fresh ideas and thinking are wonderful for the old. We also hope to make skills for the youth and allow job prospects to take root in the villages,” Father Boulos says.
Father Boulos and his wife have their own bittersweet experience of the problem endured by many of the older residents in Kerak and the surrounding villages.
“In my family, I have two engineers and an economist,” he says. “These children are professional people, having gone to university, and are now working in Amman. My situation reflects that of the families in these villages. This is our problem now.”
16 October 2017
The Rev. Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas is a priest of the Chaldean Church. For the past 16 years he has been patriarchal vicar for northeastern Syria. Read his account of what it is like to lead his flock in A Letter from Syria in the current edition of ONE. (photo: Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas)