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Volume 43, Number 3
4 January 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Iranian and Turkish demonstrators hold pictures of executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr as they protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, on 3 January 2016.
(photo: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

The year 2015 was filled with violence and bloodshed in the Middle East. The New Year does not promise much better. On 2 January, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia executed at least 47 people in a single day. Even for a place like Saudi Arabia — where, unlike most other places in the world, executions have been increasing — 47 executions in one day is extraordinary.

Mass executions are always signs of danger ahead, but the fact that Sheikh Nimr Baqir al Nimr was one of those killed is particularly ominous. Sheikh al Nimr was a Shiite religious leader who lived in Al Awamiyyah in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. Al Awamiyyah is home to a significant Shiite minority and it is near Bahrain, where Saudi troops have successfully helped the Sunni regime put down demonstrations of its majority, though disenfranchised, Shiite population.

Sheikh al Nimr was a leader of Shiite protest movements in the area that called for equal rights for Shiites in a Saudi Arabia ruled by Sunnis of the Wahhabi movement. While harsh in his critique of both Sunni and Shiite rulers, and while indicating that Shiites might secede from Saudi Arabia, Sheikh al Nimr during protests in 2011-2012 called for “the roar of the word” and not violence.

His death, therefore, has caused outrage in the Shiite world and has resulted in Saudi Arabia breaking diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, predicted divine retribution for the execution.

Once again people are asking about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The divide began with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. From the outset Muslims disagreed — often violently — as to who should succeed him. Those who believed the successor (Arabic khalifa, Caliph) should be chosen by an election are Sunnis; those who believed it should be one of the direct descendants of the prophet are Shiites.

While the two groups hold a great deal in common — e.g. the creed, daily prayers, alms giving, fasting and Ramadan and the Hajj to Mecca — the outlook of each has increasingly diverged.

Shiite Muslims revere the imams, the descendants of the prophet. Different groups of Shiites revere different numbers of imams — mostly seven or twelve — but the largest group by far forms “Twelver Islam,” the official religion of Iran. Centuries of persecution have promoted a deep sense of martyrdom in Shiite Islam. Most Shiites believe that all of the imams were somehow murdered by their enemies and revere their burial places along with those of other holy people. This is tantamount to apostasy for Sunni Muslims, especially the Wahhabi. Shiite Islam has developed deep mystical and philosophical roots. The religious structure of Shiite Islam with people holding titles such as Grand Ayatollah, Ayatollah, Hujjatulislam, etc., reflects a long tradition of theological and philosophical learning.

Sunnis, on the other hand, tend to be more austere in their approach to Islam. While there are four schools of jurisprudence and centers of learning such as Al Azhar in Egypt, the structure is much looser and there is really little or no hierarchy. Thinkers such as Al Ghazali (1058-1111) and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) still exert a powerful influence over many Sunnis. While these thinkers could in no way be considered anti-intellectual, they were very much against speculative religious thought. In the 20th century, the thought of Ibn Taymiyya has enjoyed a revival on several different but related fronts. The official form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, called Wahhabi by many and Salafi by most Saudis, relies heavily on Ibn Taymiyya and the Hanbali School of Islam.

Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian member of the Islamic Brotherhood, further developed — some would say deformed — and radicalized some of the Salafi and neo-Hanbali strains that had been developing in Saudi Arabia, which was nevertheless often strongly opposed to Qutb. ISIS carries the trajectory of these developments even further — some would say, to their logical conclusions.

Competition between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has been continuous throughout history, with Sunni Muslims usually having the upper hand. Sunni empires have struggled with Shiite empires over the centuries, without significantly changing the ratio of approximately 85 percent Sunnis to 15 percent Shiites in the world.

As Sunnis and Shiites developed in different directions, the 20th century witnessed several important events. Ibn Saud (1875-1953), a fervent Wahhabi Sunni, took over Arabia after World War I and renamed it Saudi Arabia — the only country in the world named after a family. With the discovery of huge oil reserves, Saudi Arabia became incredibly wealthy and influential. Saudi Arabia used its resources to propagate its particular brand of Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim world.

Iran, on the other hand, was a powerful center of Shiite Islam. Under the shah and his government’s close ties to the British and the United States, Iran seemed to be moving toward a Western-oriented modernization. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, however, set Iran on a radically different course. The now Islamic Republic of Iran also sought to spread its self-described revolutionary form of Islam to other parts of the Islamic world. Conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia moved beyond the theological to include the geo-political.

As in most religious conflicts, outsiders can rarely grasp the issues involved or even see the differences between the two groups. Thus for the non-Muslim the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are difficult to see (Muslims have similar problems with Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans). However, for Muslims those differences are deep, very real and also connected with differing political agenda.

Recently there has been some hope that all the parties in the Middle East might work together, at least temporarily, to end the unprecedented chaos and destruction. Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved in discussions with other world powers about possible solutions in the region. Whether the execution of Sheik al Nimr will bring that incipient détente to an end is not yet clear.

One thing, however, is for certain: the death of Sheikh al Nimr will not help the progress towards peace and stability in the Middle East.

Tags: Middle East Muslim Islam Sunni Shiite

4 January 2016
CNEWA staff

Here’s a late Christmas gift you may not have expected: the Winter edition of ONE.

You can view our beautiful digital version at this link. The print edition will be arriving in mailboxes in the next few days.

Among the highlights: our cover story about the life of a priest in Galilee; an inspiring look at Kerala’s House of Hope in India, where children with special needs are receiving extraordinary care from dedicated sisters; a visit to “Nineveh, U.S.A.,” where Chaldean Catholics are settling in the American southwest; and a homecoming like no other in Turkey, where Syrian Christians are returning to their homeland, despite the nearby threat from ISIS.

That and much more — including news, updates and links to exclusive online content — is now just a mouse click away. Check it out.

Thanks for reading — and Happy New Year!

4 January 2016
Greg Kandra

Pope Francis kisses a figurine of the baby Jesus as he arrives to celebrate Mass marking the feast of Mary, Mother of God, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican 1 January 2016.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

4 January 2016
Greg Kandra

Bishop Thomas Mar Eusebius Naickamparambil was nominated to be the first bishop of the newly-erected Syro-Malankara Eparchy of St. Mary, Queen of Peace, of the United States and Canada.
(photo: Vatican Radio)

Pope Francis erects new Syro-Malankara eparchy in the United States (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Monday erected the Syro-Malankara Eparchy of St. Mary, Queen of Peace, of the United States and Canada, nominating Bishop Thomas Mar Eusebius Naickamparambil as its first Bishop. The Eparchy consists of 11,500 faithful, especially in the US states of Illinois, Texas, Michigan, Florida, New York, and Washington, D.C., served by 19 priests in 19 parishes or missions. Three women religious Institutes also operate within the Eparchy’s territory. The Eparchy’s seat will be at St. Vincent de Paul Malankara Catholic Cathedral in Elmont, New York...

Saudi execution has “catastrophic effects” throughout Middle East (Fides) The sentencing to death of Shiite Imam Nimr Bakr al-Nimr, commissioned by the Saudi government on 2 January “has as immediate effect the worsening of the Lebanese institutional crisis, but its catastrophic effects are already being registered on all the scenarios of conflict that plague the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq and Yemen.” This is how Maronite priest Rouphael Zgheib, National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in Lebanon, describes the consequences triggered following the execution of the Shiite religious leader...

Holy See, State of Palestine Comprehensive Agreement goes into force (Vatican Radio) The Holy See announced on Saturday (2 Jan 2016) that the Comprehensive Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine has come into full force. The Comprehensive Agreement was signed by the Holy See and the State of Palestine on 26 June 2015. It “regards essential aspects of the life and activity of the Church in Palestine, while at the same time reaffirming the support for a negotiated and peaceful solution to the conflict in the region...”

Ukraine bans Russian food products Ukraine says it will ban food products from Russia starting on January 10 in response to a similar measure taken by Moscow. The announcement comes amid East-West tensions over clashes in Ukraine between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists...

Starvation as a tool in the war in Syria (Al Jazeera) Fighting from within, bombed from above, and now starvation. Syria's struggling population continues to dwindle as lives are lost to war and hunger. More than half of all Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance. The UN says it is unable to help around two million children because they're blocked by fighting or siege. In some areas, the price of food has skyrocketed so that a kilogramme of rice now costs $100. While civilians are starving in Syrian towns, the international community is stalled on a political solution...

Earthquake rocks northeast India (Reuters) A powerful earthquake struck northeast India and Bangladesh on Monday, killing at least 11 people and injuring nearly 200, with efforts to reach remote areas where people may be trapped hampered by severed power lines and telecommunication links. The U.S. Geological Survey said the 6.8 magnitude quake was 57 km (35 miles) deep and struck 29 km (18 miles) west of Imphal, capital of India’s Manipur state, which borders Myanmar...

30 December 2015
J.D. Conor Mauro

The Rev. Androwas Bahus, a Melkite Greek Catholic priest working in Galilee, shares the view from the roof of St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Akko, Israel. To learn about Father Bahus and the Israeli Catholic communities he serves, read A Day in the Life of an Israeli Priest, the cover story of the new Winter 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: Ilene Perlman)

Tags: Israel Holy Land Cultural Identity Melkite Galilee

30 December 2015
J.D. Conor Mauro

In this 1996 photo, worshipers walk to the entrance of St. Mariam’s Orthodox Cathedral in Asmara, Eritrea. Earlier this week, the funeral of the fourth patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church was held in this distinctive cathedral. (photo: Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma‑Rapho via Getty Images)

Funeral held for fourth patriarch of Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church (AllAfrica) A funeral for the fourth patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, Abune Dioskoros, was held on Saturday, 26 December, following a night-long vigil at St. Mariam Orthodox Cathedral in Asmara. Abune Dioskoros has led his church since his election by the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in April 2007. Due to controversy surrounding the removal of his predecessor, Abune Antonios, several Oriental Orthodox sister churches — such as the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo churches — disputed the legitimacy of the election of the late patriarch…

Ecumenical patriarch: ‘Refugee Jesus’ is authentic guardian of refugees (Pappas Post) In his annual Christmas message, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, described as “truly a disgrace for the entire human race” the fact that children who have a right to life, education and development within their own family are forced to leave their homeland. Offering help and assistance to these brothers and sisters is “the most precious gifts of the wise men to the newborn Lord.” Forced to flee Herod’s murderous intentions, the child Jesus “is the authentic guardian of today’s refugees…”

Chaldean patriarch: Christian persecution a crime against humanity (National Catholic Register) “In one night, 120,000 Christians left their homes just with their clothes and have been living in camps for one and a half years. Is this not a crime against humanity?” Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I of Baghdad spoke of this and other serious hardships and persecutions against Christians at a recent Rome conference on religious freedom…

Moscow archbishop: A holy year to boost Catholic and Orthodox collaboration (AsiaNews) The Jubilee of Mercy is an opportunity to boost the cooperation and communication between Catholics and Orthodox, in support of the family, the poor, prisoners and the disabled, says Roman Catholic Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Mother of God at Moscow…

Syrian army backed by Russian jets enters rebel-held southern town (Daily Star Lebanon) Syrian troops fought their way into a rebel-held town in the southern province of Dara’a Wednesday in an assault which rebels said was supported by the heaviest Russian aerial bombing campaign so far in the south…

Israeli group helps blockaded Gazans negotiate path to outside world (Christian Science Monitor) The phone calls from Gaza start in the morning. There are students trying to get to universities abroad; a daughter trying to see a terminally ill parent in the West Bank; a bride trying to get to her own wedding in Jordan. On the other end of the line — at a cluttered desk in a cramped Tel Aviv office — sits Shadi Bathish, a 39-year-old paralegal who helps Palestinians navigate the Israeli military’s sometimes Kafkaesque bureaucracy and obtain the rare permits to exit the blockaded coastal territory. The job makes Mr. Bathish one of the few Israelis with a direct line to the hardships of Gaza residents, many of whose homes and neighborhoods were destroyed by the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel…

Tags: Syria Gaza Strip/West Bank Christian Unity Eritrea Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I

29 December 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

An Orthodox priest holds a cross during the Meskel festival in Asmara, where thousands of people have gathered in the Eritrean capital to celebrate the finding of Christ’s cross by Saint Helen, some 1700 years ago. (photo: Nicolas Germain/AFP/Getty Images)

Though Eritrea’s political history began some 23 years ago, this northeast African nation has rich cultural roots dating back some 3,000 years, when Semitic peoples from the Arabian Peninsula first crossed the Red Sea and settled in the Horn of Africa. These cultural roots are not exclusively Eritrean, but a shared legacy with its symbiotic neighbor to the south, Ethiopia.

While Eritreans and Ethiopians share many elements of a common history and culture, Eritreans have forged a separate identity. Perhaps the single greatest element binding the two nations — the Christian faith and its cultural expression — may best have influenced the evolution of Eritrean self-determination.

Of the nation’s 6.3 million people, more than 50 percent are Christian. Although Catholics and evangelical Protestants are prominent in various ministries, most Christians belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. About 45 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim; animists and unbelievers make up the balance of the population. There have been some tensions among the religious communities, particularly with the influx of evangelical Christian missionaries from the United States, but generally these communities coexist harmoniously.

Historically, Eritrea’s Orthodox Christians have played a prominent role: advocating common bonds with Ethiopians; condemning Ethiopian atrocities and sheltering soldiers in monasteries in times of war; issuing calls for peace with their Ethiopian colleagues; providing care to all Eritreans in need, regardless of creed. Since independence, Eritrea’s Orthodox Church has been reorganized, its strengthened administrative structure poised to make an even greater impact.

Eritrean youth celebrate in Asmara during a colorful Epiphany festival. The festival, also known as ‘Timkat’ in the local Tigrinya language, is a commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus observed annually among the Orthodox Christians. (photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Until 1991, Eritrea’s Orthodox Christians formed a single diocese of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In July 1993 — just a few months after Eritreans overwhelmingly approved independence from Ethiopia — a delegation of Eritrean Orthodox Christians, bearing a letter of support from Eritrea’s respected Orthodox leader, Abune Philipos, visited the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, in Cairo. They appealed for his support for the canonical erection of an independent Eritrean Orthodox Church that would nevertheless remain in full communion with the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

Pope Shenouda subsequently recognized their request. A signed protocol provided for strengthening cooperation between the two churches, including a joint general synod at least every three years; the formation of a common theological dialogue team; and the creation of a permanent committee to tackle theological formation, catechesis, youth and family programs, social services and development projects.

The then patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Abune Paulos, also sanctioned the new church’s self-governance and issued a joint statement with Abune Philipos pledging mutual support.

In July 1994 Pope Shenouda consecrated five bishops, all drawn from Eritrea’s monasteries, who were elected to serve as diocesan bishops. These five men formed the nucleus of a synod that eventually elected the 96-year-old Abune Philipos, heralded by Eritreans as “the father of resistance to Ethiopian oppression,” as patriarch in 1998.

Click here to read more about the church and its subsequent development.

Tags: Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Eritrea

29 December 2015
J.D. Conor Mauro

Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic Bishop Milan Sasik, C.M., shows off a model of a church in the distinctive Rusyn style, built from wooden joints without the use of nails. To learn more, read our recent profile of Bishop Milan, or our feature on his rapidly reviving church, Out From Underground. (photo: Igor Grigoryev)

Tags: Ukraine Cultural Identity Carpatho-Rusyn Ruysn Ruthenians

29 December 2015
J.D. Conor Mauro

Farmers harvest crops from their fields in October in Alaga, Ethiopia. (photo: Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images)

In Ethiopia, drought threatens to overshadow progress (Newsweek) This year’s drought comes despite Ethiopia’s strides in economic development over the past decade. The country’s GDP growth hovered around 10 percent between 2013 and 2014, ranking it among the fastest-growing economies in the world. But the county’s economy is heavily invested in agriculture, which accounts for 38 percent of Ethiopia’s GDP and 80 percent of nationwide employment. If the drought continues it will undoubtedly affect Ethiopia’s economy…

Too early to cheer victory over ISIS in Ramadi, experts say (AINA) Washington is hailing Iraq’s recapture of Ramadi from ISIS as a key step forward in the global battle against terror, but it may still be too early to celebrate. Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, was seized by the militant organization in May. On Monday, Iraqi government forces finally declared victory after months of fighting, with televised images showing the Iraqi flag flying at a government complex. “They are still clearing out pockets of the city, there’s going to be a long process before they can call Ramadi secure. And then, there’s still the continuing threat from IS, which still holds Fallujah and other areas in Anbar,” said Iraqi General Ismail al Mahlawi, head of military operations in Anbar.

Refugees find freedoms and dangers in Brazil (Los Angeles Times) For many newly arrived Syrians in Sao Paulo, it is hard to find work, hard to communicate, hard to live in constant fear of street crime. They think of it as temporary refuge en route to more permanent homes, in more familiar lands. But in this freewheeling megacity of horizon-to-horizon skyscrapers and vertiginous freedoms, some also find space to remake themselves, in ways large and small…

A refugee’s journey: After risking everything to reach Europe, what next? (The Guardian) Earlier this year Patrick Kingsley met a Syrian family in Cairo and learned about their harrowing journey to Egypt. Patrick followed the father, Hashem al Souki, as he gambled on crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum for them all in Sweden. Six months later he catches up with Hashem to see what happened next…

Syrian rebels shell Shiite villages after local truce, residents say (Daily Star Lebanon) Syrian rebels shelled two Shiite villages in the northwest of the country on Tuesday, killing at least one person, residents said, a day after pro-government fighters and civilians left the area for Turkey under a local ceasefire agreement…

Tags: Syria Iraq Refugees Ethiopia Drought

28 December 2015
J.D. Conor Mauro

Iraqi Assyro-Chaldean refugees play at a summer camp in Qartaba, Lebanon. To learn more about Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon, read In Limbo in Lebanon from the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)

Tags: Lebanon Iraqi Christians Iraqi Refugees Youth Iraqi

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