13 January 2017
A woman prays during Christmas Mass at a church in Bashiqa, Iraq.
(photo: CNS/Khalid al Mousily, Reuters)
A wide variety of issues, both domestic and foreign, have been raised during the presidential transition. One that hasn’t received much notice is the situation of the beleaguered Christian community in the Middle East.
Given the interest in, and media coverage of, those other issues, it’s an open question as to just what the United States would do for the Middle East’s Christian minorities under the presidential administration of Donald J. Trump.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, said he would reintroduce a bill he first introduced in September that would ensure U.S. aid specifically reaches Christian refugees and internally displaced people in the region.
Another feature would be to allow genocide victims — “at least the persecuted Christians,” Smith said — to apply as a family and get asylum in the United States.
“It gives him the ability to get the interviews. It doesn’t guarantee that they will become an asylee in the United States, but it gives them the opportunity.”
Smith said he gave a copy of the bill on 4 January to Vice President-elect Mike Pence. “I told him that everything in this bill you could do administratively,” he added.
Stephen M. Colecchi, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, was leaving for a mid-January fact-finding mission in the region, with the first stop being Erbil, Iraq, a Kurdish-controlled zone in the northern part of the country where many Iraqi Christians have fled.
Two of Colecchi’s traveling companions will be Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.
“I imagine we will meet with a fair number of internally displaced Iraqi Christians. We will also be meeting with some Syrians who have fled to the Kurdish region because of the violence there,” Colecchi told Catholic News Service. Also on the itinerary are visits to CRS projects that assist all groups, including Yezidis and Shiite Muslims, “who have been affected by the terrible conflict,” he said.
The U.S. bishops’ stance on policy matters relies in large part on the experiences of the bishops in the affected region or country. “We look for situations where there is clear church teaching, guided by the local church,” Colecchi said. “We consult with the Holy See and make sure our positions are consistent with the Holy See. And we look for situations where the United States can make a difference. The United States is heavily involved in the region and needs to take leadership to help those who are suffering.”
“There’s lots of confusion” when it comes to consensus on solutions, said Michael La Civita, communications director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a Vatican agency.
“There’s lots of folks advocating for their people to return to their native communities, the ones that have been freed or liberated. The problem is that 80 percent of these places have been destroyed. There’s a lot of rubble. In order for people to return to their villages and their towns, they need proper housing, and they need infrastructure and they need security — and guarantees that they’re not going to be exposed as they were a few years ago.”
“No one knows what the future will hold,” La Civita added. “Should we have safe havens? Christians are saying no,” he said. “‘How can we be Christian witnesses to the Gospel if we live in the Christians-only zones?’ Others are calling for the swift emigration of Christians out of the Middle East.
“Washington will talk and talk and talk, as Washington often does, but I can stay this: Unilateral action by the United States in that part of the world typically has had consequences for the vulnerable communities, often for the communities these unilateral actions are intended to help.”
The Department of State’s declaration of the Islamic State’s murderous sprees since 2014 as genocide “allowed the international community to come full circle and really realize the gravity of the situation. Communities were being wiped off the face of the earth. They were going extinct, basically,” said Philippe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians.
Nassif said the fate of Christians will improve in some places, but likely not in others, citing “fundamentalism” in Egypt directed against the nation’s Coptic Christians.
In Defense of Christians has the creation of a Christian autonomous region in the Ninevah Plain of Iraq as one of its legislative priorities. Another is to have Congress recognize the genocide with aid money to relieve its effect. A third is to support the security and stability of Lebanon, which Nassif noted has “the most populous and stable Christian population" and which could serve as a model for political cooperation between Christians and the majority Muslim populations elsewhere in the region.
“To be honest, I find that politicians from both parties and the Congress seem to be very concerned about the crisis in the region,” Colecchi said. “I know there have been dramatic increases in U.S. assistance.” However, Smith complained to CNS about U.S. funds being sent to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees camps, where very few Christians have gone.
Colecchi added, “What I’m fearful of is that political commitment will come up against fiscal challenges. It’s in our best interest that the fabric of those communities be re-knit. It will be interesting to see. Most Americans, if you ask them, are quite supportive of federal aid, and they think it’s about 20 percent of the federal budget.
When you ask them how much it should be, they think, not that much, about 10 percent.
When you tell them that it’s less than 1 percent of the budget, they’re shocked.”
CNEWA’s La Civita is grateful for the more than $9 million generated from a special collection in fall 2014 to help Middle East Christians. CNEWA received 25 percent of that, and CRS the other 75 percent. But absent stability, cash infusions are not a cure-all.
Regardless of whether the Christians are in Iraq, Syria or the Palestinian territories, he said, “If the prospects for peace and economic and political stability are grim, then so is their future.”
13 January 2017
Tags: Syria Iraq Egypt Lebanon Middle East
Girls practice during a dance class sponsored by Caritas Georgia. For two decades, Caritas Georgia has provided a wide range of services — including classes and health care — to the most vulnerable populations of the Caucasus. Learn more in A Letter from Georgia in the Winter 206 edition of ONE. (photo: Antonio di Vico)
13 January 2017
Palestinian men and children warm up in front of a fire on 30 December at the Khan Younis camp in the Gaza Strip. Crippling power cuts have reduced Gazans to having electricity only three or four hours a day, which prompted a massive protest yesterday.
(photo: CNS/Mohammed Saber, EPA)
Syria says Israel attacked military airport (NPR) The Syrian government says Israel has attacked a military airport west of Damascus, and warns of “repercussions” without promising any specific retaliation. The Syrian state news agency SANA reports that rockets fired by the Israeli air force caused a fire at the al-Mezzeh airport just after midnight local time on Friday morning. The report did not identify if there were any casualties...
With electricity in short supply, 10,000 protest in Gaza (The New York Times) The nearly two million residents of Gaza have been suffering through a cold winter of crippling power cuts, receiving electricity for only three or four hours a day. The popular anger over the cuts erupted on Thursday in a large protest. In a rare display of defiance against the Hamas authorities who control the Palestinian territory, about 10,000 people took to the streets in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip...
Iraqi forces clash at Mosul University (BBC) Iraqi forces have met heavy resistance after launching an attack to recapture Mosul University from so-called Islamic State (ISIS), military officials say. Elite troops entered the compound on Friday in an attempt to secure the area in the last major IS stronghold in Iraq...
Irish men help rebuild in Lebanon refugee camp (The Irish Times) On the bustling streets of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, locals are drawn to an Irish man fielding impromptu questions. One person asks when she can move into a new apartment; another wants to shake hands and say hello; another asks about building extensions to their homes. All of them know that Waterford native John Whyte can get things done...
What to expect when the pope meets with president of Palestine (CAN) Pope Francis’ private audience with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on 14 January will be a delicate diplomatic moment for the Holy See...
12 January 2017
Tags: Syria Iraq Lebanon Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine
The canal running through Izbet Chokor, called Al Bahr by locals, acts as a lifeline to the village.
(photo: Don Duncan)
In the current edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan writes about the ways Christians and Muslims are Finding Common Ground in one Egyptian village. He offers some addition reflections on his visit below.
I was living in Lebanon when the series of national revolutions known as the “Arab Spring” broke out. At the time, I was covering the region as a freelance journalist. While I had been to Tunisia shortly after that inaugural revolution of the Arab Spring had kicked off, once the news started to hit that Egypt was following suit, everyone knew that this was big, big news.
Many in the region view Egypt as the “beating heart” of the Middle East. It is a large country — in terms of population and of historical significance — and it acts as a sort of fulcrum between various parts of the Arab world: between the Levantine countries; the Arabian Gulf area and Iraq on one side and the Maghreb and the other Arabic-speaking African states on the other, such as Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan.
Sitting in my living room in Beirut, with my flat mate Dia, we watched agog, as pictures of thousands of people streaming onto Tahrir Square in Cairo flickered across our TV screen. Within a few days, I myself was in Egypt covering the events as they unfolded. But it wasn’t until months later, when the dust started to settle, that the new dynamic and primary currents in post-revolution Egypt began to come into focus.
In early 2012, a year after the beginning of the Egyptian revolution stated, I returned to Cairo to make a video documentary for the website of The Wall Street Journal about these new currents in Egypt. Among the various changes apparent in post-revolution Egypt, some of the big changes we covered in this documentary included the sudden rise and expanding power of the previously repressed Muslim Brotherhood organization. In parallel, another current was the growth in persecution against Egypt’s Christians, who represent some 9 percent of the country’s population of 80 million. The vast majority of that number is Coptic Orthodox, but it also includes minorities within the Egyptian Christian arena: Coptic Catholics, as well as various Protestant churches.
Across the broader Middle East region — since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the other Arab Spring revolutions post-2011 — the same narrative has played out: dictatorial regimes have fallen, giving rise to the emergence of hitherto repressed Islamist movements, leading to increased persecution of Christians. Apart from the Egyptian example, this has occurred most notably in Iraq and Syria.
However, on arriving at Izbet Chokor, I found a completely different picture to the one that had been so often presented by the media. Izbet Chokor, the village on the outskirts of Al Fayoum city, some 60 miles southwest of Cairo, is the place I traveled to in order to report my most recent story for ONE magazine. There, I found a village with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims who live in peaceful co-existence and love. This was due, in large part, to the Service Center, run by the Coptic Catholic church there, which offers educational, healthcare and social services to all the residents, regardless of religion.
It was a big surprise to me to learn that the major center of religious tension in Izbet Chokor was not between Christians and Muslims but rather one that was intra-Christian in nature — between Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic.
According to many people I spoke with, some of them members of the church, the rivalry and tensions between the majority Coptic Orthodox and minority Coptic Catholics in Egypt are fierce, mostly manifesting itself in the form of verbal attacks, intimidation, and bullying.
This is a religious face-off I have never heard of in the current context in the Middle East. I wondered why. Is it because it is of less geopolitical value than the Muslim vs. Christian narrative? Is it because it is happening within a minority? Is it because Christians prefer not to air their “dirty laundry?”
Regardless of the reason(s), this discovery showed me that inter-religious fear and animosity can exist anywhere where ignorance is allowed to breed. It is not about some clash of civilizations or age-old incompatibilities, as the media subtext regarding Muslims and Christians seems to suggest. It is about ignorance and manipulation by politicians or the media, often both.
So, in this time of heightened tensions, misunderstanding and suspicion between the West and the Muslim world, I feel it is incumbent on us as Christians and human beings to do our utmost to re-inject humanity and nuance into the divisive, fear-inducing and dehumanizing media discourse we are subjected to by our politicians and media.
Read more in the Winter 2016 edition of ONE. Meantime, get another glimpse of the Service Center in the video below.
12 January 2017
Tags: Egypt Muslim
Children greet visitors in the village of Garora, on the outskirts of Delhi, India. To see more images and read about Msgr. John E. Kozar’s visit to India, check out his essay in the Winter 2016 edition of ONE. (photo: John E. Kozar)
12 January 2017
In this image from December, Syrian pro-government forces walk in the ancient Umayyad mosque in the old city of Aleppo. There are growing concerns that ancient antiquities such as this are in serious danger of being lost forever in the wake of the country’s civil war.
(photo: George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)
Aleppo’s heritage sites ‘in danger’ (Al Jazeera) Urgent action is needed to protect damaged buildings in the Old City of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to Syrian antiquities officials. “What happened in Aleppo is a disaster,” Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s Director General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview from Damascus this week...
Loss and fear linger in Mosul (Reuters) The trauma accumulated over 2-1/2 years of the jihadists’ repressive rule also often pours out unprompted — loved ones brutally murdered, homes looted and destroyed, livelihoods decimated, dreams extinguished. Some people are unafraid to air their grievances or finger their transgressors, but others are more cautious, fearful that Islamic State supporters remain at large and are watching...
Gazans living with four hours of power a day (Reuters) For weeks, Gazans have been making do with less than half their usual electricity supply — barely a few hours a day — with no sign of the shortages alleviating anytime soon, fuelling distress and frustration among the population. Normally, Gaza’s power alternates on eight-hour cycles, with generators providing electricity to those that can afford it in the down times. But since late last year, there have been only three or four hours of electricity a day in total...
Sex-selective abortions rising in Armenia (Fides) In Armenia, a country strongly characterized by the link with its cultural and spiritual traditions, there is the third highest global rate of selective abortions motivated by sex of the unborn, and data show a drastic increase of the phenomenon over time following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which was also part of the Caucasian Republic...
Plans underway to revive ‘Way of the Holy Family’ in Egypt (Fides) The revival of the “Way of the Holy Family,” an itinerary to make pilgrimages to the places that, according to ancient local traditions, were crossed by the Holy Family during their exile in Egypt, continues to be the focus of initiatives, proposals and lively debate involving politicians and Egyptian tourism operators...
‘Tear down this wall’: Ecumenical week focuses on overcoming division (CNS) When a group of German Christians was asked in 2014 to prepare materials for the 2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, their choice of a “wall” as a symbol of sin, evil and division explicitly referred to the Berlin Wall. The German reflections on the power of prayer to bring down walls and the Gospel call to reconciliation were adopted by the World Council of Church’s Faith and Order Commission and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and proposed to Christians worldwide for the 18-25 January octave of prayer...
11 January 2017
A priest in Ethiopia prepares a censer with the help of young parishioners. Ethiopia is finding new ways to spread the Gospel, using both religious and lay catechists to inspire young people. Read about this and more in Ethiopia’s Sleeping Giant in the Winter 2016 edition of ONE.
(photo: James Jeffrey)
11 January 2017
In this image from 8 January, a member of Free Syrian Army plays with a dog as the FSA members advance to al-Bab district of Aleppo during the ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ in Syria.
(photo: Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Lebanese president, a Maronite Christian, mends fences with Saudi Arabia (Fides) The President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, began his first trip in the Arabian Peninsula with the intent of mending relations with Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday 10 January, the meeting which took place in Ryiad between President Aoun and Saudi King Salman, according to many analysts, could open a new page in the relations between the two countries, contributing to the stabilization of the Middle Eastern area...
Report: Assad dropped 13,000 barrel bombs on Syria (The Independent) A UK-based Syrian war watchdog has published data tallying the number of violent incidents targeting civilians carried out by all parties in the bloody conflict for last year. The report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) found that Syrian regime helicopters dropped 12,958 barrel bombs in 2016 in total. The strikes resulted in the deaths of 653 civilians, SNHR found, including 166 children and 86 women. Most were dropped on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, followed by Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, Daraa and Homs...
Commander: Mosul could be liberated in three months (AP) A top Iraqi commander told The Associated Press that the operation to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group could be complete in three months or less. “It’s possible” that Mosul will be liberated in in that time frame, Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati said in an interview with the AP on Tuesday evening. However, he warned it is difficult to give an accurate estimate of how long the operation will take because it is not a conventional fight...
Catholic-Muslim dialogue opens to support Islamic American communities (CNS) An emerging Catholic dialogue with Muslims aims to show public support for Islamic American communities. The dialogue stems from concerns expressed by U.S. bishops in the wake of “a serious uptick in violence against American Muslims ... to make sure that they are sensitive to what is going on in the (Muslim) communities,” said Anthony Cirelli, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops...
Study: Christians in India increasingly under attack (The Guardian) The persecution of Christians in India has risen over the past year, pushing it up a league table of countries where the practice of the faith is a high-risk activity, according to a monitoring organization. The world’s second most populous country has risen to No 15 on the 2017 World Watch List, up from 31 four years ago. The list, compiled by Open Doors, is headed by North Korea for the 16th year in a row...
Vatican migration office announces first media campaign (Vatican Radio) The Migration and Refugee Section of the new Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development has announced it is launching its first media campaign. Although the Dicastery is run by Cardinal Peter Turkson — who had been serving as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — the Migration and Refugee Section is being led for the time being by Pope Francis himself, to show his particular concern during the ongoing refugee crisis...
10 January 2017
Tags: Syria Iraq India Muslim ISIS
Sister Souad Nohra, the director of the Santa Lucia Home in Egypt, teaches blind children “there is nothing they can’t do.” (photo: Holly Pickett)
One of the more inspiring projects CNEWA supports is the Santa Lucia Home, a boarding facility for blind children run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Alexandria, Egypt. The director is Sister Souad Nohra, who never tires of teaching the children the art of the possible:
In Egypt, children with special needs have many disadvantages. Yet at Santa Lucia, the nurturing environment and commitment to higher learning provides some balance. Named for the fourth-century saint and patron of the blind, St. Lucy — who, according to tradition, was blinded before her martyrdom — the home encourages children to rise above their limitations. They are taught that nothing is beyond their reach, and the children are expected to shine.
“We teach them independence,” says Sister Souad Nohra, the director of the home.
At the home, children who once might have spent their lives in the shadows — helpless or hopeless — are receiving an incalculable gift. Darkness is giving way to light.
The center cares for 5 girls and 11 boys between the ages of 4 and 18. Most students come from poor farming villages in Upper Egypt or the outskirts of Alexandria. The sisters provide for every need — from clothes and books to food and extracurricular activities, such as sports and music. They also organize field trips to the beach.
Upstairs in the center’s immaculately clean dormitory, the children have their own numbered cupboards. The children are expected to dress themselves. At meal times, students procure their own cups and silverware from dining room drawers, and then clean up after themselves.
“They have to know they can do these things by themselves. They are very proud; they don’t have to depend on anyone,” says Sister Souad.
And many of the children do indeed learn to live independently:
Sister Souad says they begin preparing children for the task from day one.
“We tell them, ‘One day, you will leave here and go to university with all kinds of people around.’ Since they are prepared, the transition is normal. We encourage them to take recorders to class, then listen again at home. They study normally.”
One of their students recently received a scholarship to study in the United States.
“I hope other blind children learn that going away from their family is not that difficult; it can be much better for their future,” Abanoub says.
“We teach them there is nothing they can’t do,” Sister Souad says proudly. “They are normal children. The only difference is they cannot see, but that doesn’t mean they can’t live a normal life.”
Sister Souad and the other sisters at the home are heroically making the impossible possible — giving hope to those who so often feel like outcasts, helping to bring light to those born in darkness.
10 January 2017
Tags: Egypt Sisters
The Apostleship of Prayer has released an inspiring new video to accompany Pope Francis’s prayer intention for the month of January.
As Vatican Radio describes it:
Pope Francis’ prayer intention for January is for Christians serving the challenges facing humanity, in which he asks that full ecclesial communion be restored in order to serve the challenges facing humanity.
Check out the video below.
Tags: Pope Francis Christianity Christian Unity Interfaith