22 November 2013
Pope Francis attends a meeting with the patriarchs and major archbishops of the Eastern Catholic churches in Syria, Iraq and and other parts of the Middle East, at the Vatican on 21 November. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
Eastern Catholic churches committed to interreligious dialogue (VIS) The Congregation for the Eastern Churches today concluded its plenary session, held from 19 to 22 November, which focused on the balance of conciliar ideas regarding the Eastern churches 50 years after Vatican Council II. Appreciation was expressed for the beauty of conciliar ecclesiology and the value of diversity in unity, also underlining that the recognition of the apostolic origin is a theological and juridical affirmation…
Strife fuels polio’s return to Middle East (Der Spiegel) Polio is making a comeback in a decimated part of Syria, but the delicate politics of the war are making vaccination campaigns difficult. “We have been warning them for more than a month that polio is spreading, but [the WHO] refuse[s] to send the vaccine!” said Dr. Khalid Milaji, a Syrian doctor and part of the Polio Control Task Force, a group trying to rein in a new polio epidemic. And yet, for weeks, WHO had blocked a vaccination campaign aimed at containing what is probably the most dangerous outbreak in years, in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. The United Nations organization even tried to stop the analysis of virus samples. The reason: WHO has a policy of cooperating exclusively with the government in Damascus, even in times of war, despite the fact that the central government has long since given up on Deir Ezzor…
As Syrian war grinds on, a new flock of refugees takes flight (New York Times) Syria’s pigeon collectors, hamemati as they are known back home, are among the most ardent in the Arab world. They do not breed or race them. They will trade and sell them, but mostly they just keep them as treasured pets. So it comes as little surprise that some have gone to great lengths to pursue their hobby in exile, especially since no one expects Syria’s two-and-a-half-year civil war to end anytime soon…
Jordanian official asks heads of churches to promote pilgrimages (Fides) Nidal Katamine, the Jordanian minister of tourism, has issued a strong appeal to the heads of local churches to promote and concretely support pilgrimages to holy sites in Jordan. The invitation was expressed during an ad hoc meeting convened in Amman, at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Archepachy…
Ecumenical prayer across India for justice and reconciliation (Fides) Over 6,000 churches across India have come together to coordinate a simultaneous, ecumenical prayer service on 30 November. “We call on all Christians in the nation to join in this prayer to bless the nation,” said Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi, president of the organizing committee of prayer. The idea of a national ecumenical prayer was founded in 2012 by a meeting between different Indian Christians leaders…
A look at the West Bank’s Monastery of St. George (Huffington Post) Hiding in folds of the Judean Desert are ancient monasteries which, since ancient times, have given hermits the desolation of their dreams. Orthodox Christians — whether from Palestine, Greece, Russia, or Ethiopia — enliven these monasteries today, as they have since the sixth century. The dramatically set Monastery of St. George welcomes pilgrims and tourists alike. For 15 centuries, the faithful have ventured to this spot, hiked into the ravine, quenched their thirst, and nourished their soul…
21 November 2013
Tags: Syrian Civil War Jordan Health Care Ecumenism Congregation for Eastern Churches
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Thomas Varghese, U.S.C.C.B.’s Declan Murphy, Caritas Armenia director Anahit Mkhoyan and Michael La Civita in front of the Caritas office in Gyumri. (photo: CNEWA)
The romantic notions I may have had about traveling through “Middle Earth” dissipated when I met Syrian Armenians living in the Yerevan residence of Armenian Catholic Archbishop Rafael Minassian. Arriving the other evening, my colleagues and I began chatting with a Syrian Armenian Catholic seminarian who facilitates the care of these 13 families for the archbishop. Originally from the city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria, Pierre (for security purposes his family name will not be published) was passionate about what life was like before the civil war ravaged his country.
“We had liberty, we had freedom,” he said, “My brother is a famous drummer in Syria, he used to be hired for many parties and weddings … but now there is nothing.
“He also taught in the university, but now it is closed.” Ironically, Qamishli was settled by Assyro-Chaldean refugees fleeing Ottoman Turkish soldiers who began slaughtering the empire’s Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean and Greek Christians in 1915.
As Pierre looked to the ground, a young woman came running up the stairs to talk. “I heard your conversation, and I needed to be here.”
A graduate student in architecture in Armenia, she, too, spoke of the former Syria as if it were a lost Eden. “I was the only Christian on my street in Damascus. All my friends were Muslim — Sunni, Alawi, Druze. We didn’t care about which religion the other may have been. And we are still friends.”
She and her Armenian mother are living in Yerevan, but she has heard nothing from her father, an officer in the Syrian army.
Speaking with the archbishop’s staff and the Yerevan team of Caritas Armenia, who are working with a hundred Syrian Armenian refugee families now living in the capital city, we learned that most families have been torn apart; the husband remains behind to mind the property and assets while sending his wife and children to safety — perhaps Armenia, Lebanon or points farther west.
Aram Khachaturyan, who directs the refugee work of Caritas in Yerevan, said 11,000 Armenians have arrived in the country, but already some 2,000 have left. “Some have already returned to Syria; others have settled in Sweden.”
His colleague, Aida Khachatryan, added that the Syrian Armenian families from the cities, especially Aleppo and Damascus, have had an easier time adapting to life to Yerevan.
“They are integrating better,” she said, by learning Russian — the lingua franca in the Caucasus. “Some are already employing their skills as goldsmiths, jewelers and shoemakers.” But most families are desperately poor, arriving in Armenia with nothing.
As the charity of the Armenian Catholic Church, Caritas Armenia is helping to settle these families in apartments, providing initial rent payments, food, sanitary supplies and mattresses. Resources are tight. I asked the seminarian, who has been ordained a subdeacon, how the church — which has almost no resources in Armenia and Georgia — can afford to support these families.
“Archbishop Minassian says it is in the hands of Jesus,” said Pierre, pointing upward. “The archbishop says we have to do this: ‘These are the children of the church!’ ” Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical Armenians are welcome in this home of the archbishop; as we have seen throughout these weeks in the Caucasus, poverty does not discriminate and nor does the outreach of the local churches.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
This visit to the churches and peoples of Georgia and Armenia ended on a poignant note, visiting the monastic complex of Geghard. Founded in the fourth century by the apostle to the Armenians, St. Gregory the Illuminator, most of the structures — freestanding or hewn from the rock of the river gorge where it is located — date to the 12th century. Fog shrouded the gorge as we approached the site, a place of pilgrimage for Armenian Christians.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
As we entered the darkened churches, partially illuminated by the candles lighted by pilgrims, I thought about this extraordinary journey, and the extraordinary people I have had the privilege to meet.
My colleagues and I have much to think about as we work together to plan how to best serve these people, their initiatives and their faith. But one thing is clear: Never have I met such generous people. Regardless of their poverty — and the Armenian Catholic Church in particular needs support these days — I met people who gave from their heart.
“Love! Love is why we do these things!” Aida Khachatryan of Caritas exclaimed yesterday. She looked at her uncle, Father Grigor Mkrtchyan, who, while not knowing English, understood her absolutely.
This terrific parish priest, who accompanied us through much of the visit, nodded his head in agreement, looked at me and said simply: “Thank you.”
Never have such simple words meant so much.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
21 November 2013
Tags: Cultural Identity Armenia Caucasus Caritas U.S.C.C.B.
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This 2006 photo depicts a street scene in the Gaza strip, a poor and crowded land with one of the highest population densities in the world. (photo: Steve Sabella)
In the January 2007 issue of ONE, Paul Watcher wrote about health and health care clinics in Gaza:
A study by Johns Hopkins University and Jerusalem’s Al Quds University, commissioned in 2002, found that nearly 20 percent of children under the age of 5 suffered from malnutrition while anemia affected more than half of women under 40, and 45 percent of children.
A year later, Al Quds et al. published the 2003 Nutritional Assessment of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which compared its findings across years:
Comparisons of 2003 with 2002 median daily energy intakes demonstrate concerning trends:
In both age intervals, there is a significant decrease in median daily energy intakes: for 1-3 year olds, an 8.3 percent drop, for 4-5 year olds, a 13.2 percent drop [and as high as 19.2 percent in Gaza]
In stark contrast to 2002 and any other normally eating society, older children in the 2003 sample are consuming on average fewer calories than the younger children. Arguably this drop in daily calorie intake as children age is a marker for increasing food insecurity.
The State of Nutrition for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, published in 2005 by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health in association with the World Health Organization and UNICEF, included a chart further illustrating the relationship.
Time has passed, but this problem has not gone away. This 2010 UNICEF assessment observes that malnutrition rates “have been increasing since 1996, especially with respect to chronic malnutrition.” The WHO’s May 2012 report on health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories agrees that these circumstances persist:
For malnutrition in children under five years, stunting (chronic malnutrition) is not improving and may be deteriorating. A high prevalence of anemia is revealed among women visiting prenatal services (39.1 percent of pregnant women in the Gaza Strip and 15.4 percent in the West Bank).
These problems are further exacerbated by factors such as the Israeli blockade and, as Al Jazeera discussed yesterday, “Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on the Gaza-Egypt underground tunnels,” which have supplied Gaza through much of said blockade.
Much remains to be done, and every small effort has the potential to change lives. To learn how you can help the people of Palestine through its churches and men and women religious, click here.
21 November 2013
Tags: Children Palestine Poor/Poverty Gaza Strip/West Bank Hunger
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Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem waves to the crowd upon his arrival for the International Day of Faith Mass on Mount Precipice in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on 17 November. The Mass celebrated the Year of Faith declared by Pope Benedict XVI in October 2012. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Faithful from across the globe gather in Nazareth for Year of Faith end (CNS) Using Abraham from the Old Testament and Mary from the New Testament as role models, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal extolled the power of faith in a special Mass marking the conclusion of the Year of Faith. Some 7,000 local Catholics and international pilgrims gathered on Mount Precipice, overlooking the city of Nazareth, on 17 November. The patriarch said he was confident that the prayers and fasting for Syria called for by Pope Francis in September had contributed to the defeat of those advocating the option of war in that conflict. Though Christians in the Middle East have been a part of the great suffering of the region, they must remain strong, never losing faith, he said…
Pope Francis appeals for religious liberty in Middle East (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis appealed for universal respect of the basic right to religious liberty on Thursday, especially in lands where Christian communities constitute struggling minorities. The call came in the second of two related addresses to the patriarchs and major archbishops of Eastern churches, who are here in Rome this week for the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, and to the full body of participants in the assembly. In his remarks to the church heads, Pope Francis thanked his brothers for their visit, saying their coming together gives him the opportunity to renew his esteem for the spiritual patrimony of Eastern Christianity…
Ukrainian church leader discusses ‘ecumenism from the bottom up’ (Vatican Insider) “We cannot leave ecumenism in the hands of diplomats, politicians or theologians alone: we need to preach it in the parishes,” said His Beatitude Svjatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic. Of conditions in Ukraine, he says: “Our situation is a very complex one and our Christianity is very fragmented: only we Catholics are present here with three churches sui iuris. … We are trying to be witnesses of unity amongst ourselves above all. … Many Christians are tired of divisions and are asking for unity. There is a growing ecumenism from the bottom up…”
Flight of Iraq Christians resumes amid surge of unrest (France24) The patriarch of the Iraq-based Chaldean church, due to join other Middle Eastern Christian leaders at a meeting with Pope Francis this week, has urged Christians to stay and spoken out against Western countries offering visas to the rapidly shrinking minority. But many still say they have no choice, as their tenuous optimism after a brief improvement in security starting in 2008 has been dashed by a surge in bloodshed this year…
Turkey and Greece feud over Haghia Sophia (Business Standard) Turkey and Greece were locked today in a war of words over the possible conversion of Haghia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s most stunning landmarks, into a mosque. The feud over the 1,476-year-old World Heritage site is the latest to erupt between the two neighbors over religion. Greece reacted furiously to remarks by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc that he hoped to change the status of Haghia Sophia, which is now a museum. “Recurrent statements made by high ranking Turkish officials about converting Byzantine Christian churches into mosques are offending the religious feeling of millions of Christians,” the Greek foreign ministry said in a statement. But Turkey bluntly retorted today that it has “nothing to learn” from Greece about freedom of religion…
20 November 2013
Tags: Pope Francis Iraqi Christians Christian Unity Patriarch Fouad Twal Haghia Sophia
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Khachkars adorn the shoreline of Armenia’s Lake Sevan. (photo: Michael La Civita)
Yesterday’s drive from the northwestern city of Gyumri to the Armenian capital of Yerevan was another stunner. At one point, overcome with the natural beauty of the country, I said to myself: “God has kissed this land, but why such hardship?” I am not sure of the answer even as I write these words 24 hours later.
We spent our last day in Gyumri visiting two centers operated by Caritas Armenia, the official charity of the Armenian Catholic Church. The Primary Health Care Center operates in a modest facility near the center of town. Nevertheless, its two doctors have 1,807 registered patients who typically visit the clinic five times a year. Most of the patients waiting yesterday were pensioners. Some of their typical health concerns, said one doctor, are diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and underactive thyroid conditions.
The bustling clinic offers its services free of charge, thanks to its many donors. This is particularly important to the shrinking population centers in the country’s northern districts. While the population and economy in and around Yerevan are growing (largely due to international investments from financial institutions and assistance from donor agencies, as well as foreign remittances), the urban centers of the north, such as Gyumri and Vanadzor, are losing people as unemployment in some areas reaches more than 50 percent.
The many rusted Soviet-era factories that dot the landscape — damaged by the 1988 earthquake and shuttered permanently a few years later with the dissolution of the Soviet Union — indicate a once heavily industrialized economy offering full employment. Not unlike the so-called Rust Belt in the United States, such as my hometown of McKeesport, near Pittsburgh, these areas now offer few opportunities to the young, who are moving out, leaving behind an elderly population dependent on services such as those offered by Caritas Armenia.
Today, said Aida Khachatryan of Caritas, young adults and youths have few opportunities, and wile away their days doing little. Many of the people in the north of Armenia have no idea what to do, she said, adding that the earthquake and its aftermath created conditions of dependency and apathy that many find hard to escape.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
After visiting the clinic, we headed to a Caritas-supported day care center for the elderly run by Flora Sargsyan — “the soul of Caritas Armenia,” said its director, Anahit Mkhoyan. We arrived just as the center’s members were arriving. Tchaikovsky played on the radio as the women and few men hung up their coats, wiped down the tables, made conversation and prepared their places to sit for coffee or tea.
Mrs. Sargsyan, whose grandfather served as a priest in Vanadzor, looked on her friends with the loving eye of a mother, and tended their souls much as her grandfather did.
“So many of these people are left alone, with no family, no grandchildren to help care for them,” she said, as two young college students arrived to help her. The volunteers spend not just an occasional hour or two, she said, but work in the center regularly — as many as five days a week. The spirit of the place was energizing, spurring impromptu poetry recitals, the singing of folk songs and even traditional dance. An octogenarian woman pulled my colleagues into the circle, and CNEWA’s Thomas Varghese impressed the ladies with dance moves influenced by his Indian heritage.
Leaving the center smiling from ear to ear, we left Gyumri and traveled east to the town of Vanadzor, only to be reminded again of the sorrow of Armenia’s past.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
As we climbed yet another mountain, we arrived at a bend of the road marked by a prominent monument and khachkars, or cross stone. There, Arevik Tumasyan of Caritas pointed to the “Gorge of Massacres,” a place where, during World War I, soldiers of the Ottoman Turkish Empire pushed tens of thousands of Armenian women and children into the gorge hundreds of feet below. While the subject of the Armenian Genocide has surfaced these days only in passing, this was our first encounter with it on Armenian soil. The site, much like the area’s emptied factories and villages, seemed ghostly, eerily quiet. We moved onward.
Arriving in Vanadzor, we spent some time at a child day care facility of Caritas Armenia: the Little Prince Center. The engaging team of social workers and psychologists met with us to discuss their demanding work with children, all of whom come from the poorest families in a community devastated by unemployment and “seasonal migration.” In addition, we met with a group of concerned parents and child care professionals who formed their own organization with the support of Caritas Armenia to provide tutoring and additional educational opportunities in conjunction with the Little Prince Program. Here, we found a child care program that cared for children’s emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
Toward sundown, we traveled to Yerevan via Lake Sevan, a spectacular lake some 6,200 feet above sea level. There, on a peninsula that was once an island, we visited two ninth-century churches, the major one dedicated to the Mother of God and the smaller dedicated to the Holy Apostles. The churches appeared quiet, if not solitary in the strong wind and the setting sun.
The peninsula and its churches resembled the ancient monasteries of Ireland and, for a while, as I traced my fingers through the gorgeous khachkar that marked the holy ground, I felt I was again transported to someplace wholly fantastical. Yet, just below the ancient churches, I could hear the sound of young men playing basketball.
Indeed, just feet from these holy sanctuaries, seminarians from the Armenian Apostolic Church — Sevan is the site of a seminary for the church — could be heard, playing a New World sport.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
20 November 2013
Tags: Health Care Poor/Poverty Armenia Caring for the Elderly Caucasus
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Father Jorge distributes blessed bread following the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Honduras. (photo: Carina Wint)
In 2006, we visited a surprising corner of the world with a small but thriving Arab population — Central America:
Today, there are as many as 220,000 Arab-Hondurans. While they represent only 3 percent of the total population of 7.3 million people, they have had an outsized influence on the nation. They are most visible in business and only slightly less so in politics. Centro Social’s president, Juan Canahuati, a textile magnate with numerous other entrepreneurial activities, is considered the country’s top businessman. Coffee exporter and former Industry and Commerce Minister Oscar Kafati’s ancestors immigrated to Honduras in the late 19th century from Beit Jala, a Christian town adjacent to Bethlehem. Former President Carlos Flores Facusse’s mother came from Bethlehem.
Arab immigration to Latin America is not unique to Honduras nor are such success stories. To take just two prominent examples: former Argentine President Carlos Ménem (1989-1999) traces his roots to Syria; Mexico’s telecommunications titan, Carlos Slim Helu, the world’s third richest man, is of Lebanese descent.
Nearly all Arab-Hondurans claim Christian Palestinian origins, making the Arab-Honduran experience unique. Proportionally, there are more people of Palestinian descent in Honduras than any other Latin American country.
Arab Palestinians first came to Honduras in the 19th century, but the largest waves arrived after 1896, the year the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which then controlled Palestine, first allowed emigration. Numerous factors motivated the early emigrants. In 1909, the Ottomans included in the military draft Christians and Jews, who were once forbidden to serve, but required to pay tribute instead. Economic incentives also drove Arabs abroad. Tourism and commerce, areas in which many Christians worked, declined during World War I. And increasingly Palestine’s Arab Christians found themselves competing with the growing Jewish population, largely secular Zionist immigrants from Europe, in their entrepreneurial activities. Just as today, there seemed to be more opportunities for enterprising Arabs abroad.
But why Honduras?
Some researchers have suggested the earliest emigrants boarded ships without knowing their final destination. The choice of Honduras was not a choice at all; it was happenstance. But after conducting interviews in 1979 with many Arab-Hondurans, geographer William Crowley concluded that “many, and maybe the majority, of the early immigrants headed intentionally for Honduras.”
Most of the Arabs from Palestine who immigrated to Honduras were Orthodox. But until 1963, Honduras’s Orthodox community lacked a church, and by then many immigrants had joined the Catholic Church, the predominant Christian community in the country.
Today, the country’s only Orthodox parish, the Iglesia Ortodoxa de Antioquena San Juan Bautista in San Pedro Sula, serves more than 200 families. It is pastored by Father Jorge Faraj, a married priest whose grandparents came to Honduras from Beit Sahour, another Christian town near Bethlehem.
Father Jorge estimated that about 45 percent of Arab-Hondurans remain Orthodox, including a small number of Hondurans from Lebanon. “But I’m the only Orthodox priest, so it is difficult for me to serve the entire country,” he said.
While most Arab-Hondurans live in San Pedro Sula, there are also large numbers in Tegucigalpa and other cities. “These cities don’t have their own Orthodox parishes, and I can visit them only so often,” said the priest. “So, these people tend to attend Catholic churches. But then, they’ll come to San Pedro Sula for a visit, and they’ll always come to an Orthodox service here.”
Read more in Middle Eastern, Central American Style in the September 2006 issue of ONE.
20 November 2013
Tags: Cultural Identity Immigration Palestinians Arabs
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In this photo from May, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III receives Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, in the patriarchal residence in Raboué, north of Beirut. (photo: Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate)
Pope to meet with patriarchs of Eastern churches (Middle East Online) Pope Francis is meeting with the patriarchs of the Eastern churches to discuss the future of Christians in the Middle East, the Catholic Church’s role in Arab countries, its relations with the Orthodox Church and the problems of stability in the region. Maronite Patriarch Bechara Peter I, Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Louis I, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III, Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III and Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX are expected at the three-day meeting that will focus on the Eastern churches in the 50 years since Vatican II. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, will lead the meeting…
Melkite patriarch urges Christians to stay in Syria (Daily Star Lebanon) Patriarch Gregory III of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church has called on his fellow Christians to stay in Syria, despite the brutal conflict raging in the country. “I say to my children, stay in your country, the future will be difficult, but it will be better, God willing,” the Syrian patriarch told AFP. “I say to the European countries that want to help, help people … but don’t encourage people to emigrate…”
Carrying weapons the new norm for Iraqi youth (Al Monitor) Many young Iraqis have started carrying knives and other bladed weapons whenever they leave their homes, to the extent that it has become an almost indispensable part of their persons. That is how Barea Saeed, 18, from Baghdad described it to Al Monitor; he claims to feel weak and threatened whenever he finds himself without a knife in hand. While most young Iraqis claim that they have no intention of using the weapons in their possession except as a matter of last resort, the day-to-day reality of street stabbings and proliferating knife wounds tells a different story…
Iraqi refugees work to realize the American dream (Al Arabiya) The Iraqi diaspora is now dispersed throughout the world, with the United States accepting well over 90,000 Iraqi refugees since 2003. Many refugees sent to the United States are moving to Dearborn, Michigan, largely due to the fact that there is a large Lebanese community establishment there, as well as a “newer” Iraqi immigrant base that came to the United States in the early 1990s after the first Gulf War.
Attacks on Egyptian military could signal nascent insurgency (Christian Science Monitor) Ten Egyptian soldiers were killed after a car bomb exploded next to their bus in the northern Sinai Peninsula today. The number of attacks in the Sinai has increased since the July 3 military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, raising concerns that sporadic attacks will flare into a sustained insurgency. More than 100 Egyptian security forces have been killed in the Sinai since Mr. Morsi’s removal, according to the BBC…
19 November 2013
Tags: Egypt Refugees Iraq Christian Unity Melkite Patriarch Gregory III of Antioch
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The Armenian Catholic village of Ghazanchi is located in the Shirak region of Armenia, in the far northwestern part of the country. (photo: Michael La Civita)
Cold has descended upon the plateau on which sits Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city. Located nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, the city has been swept by a dusty wind, its broad boulevards and low buildings offering little protection.
Before the great earthquake that devastated this region in December 1988 — killing more than 25,000 people — some 222,000 people lived in this cultural center, then known as Leninakan. Today, fewer than 146,000 remain. The population of the city, and the villages that surround it, continue to lose people as men seek work abroad as “seasonal migrants.” Some, said Anahit Mkhoyan of Caritas Armenia, settle first in Holland, then Belgium and finally France, rootless and distant from their families in Armenia. Some return, their children unfamiliar with the Armenian language, and Caritas has worked to reintegrate more than 150 families. Others leave for Russia.
“Usually, the men go as laborers, sending remittances back to their families,” she said, noting that 90 percent of Armenia’s gross domestic product is in the form of remittances. “But after a while, their families lose contact, as the men find Russian wives and begin another family.”
The remains of this Soviet-era school, wrecked by the earthquake in 1988, have been further destroyed by neglect and subsequent vandalism. (photo: Michael La Civita)
The depopulated region, dotted with ruined Soviet-era structures; the rugged, wind-swept landscape; and the arid weather and lack of vegetation belie the warmth and hospitality of the people. At a meeting of the Caritas team, after a rather depressing discussion about the region’s many problems — record levels of unemployment, a rise in HIV infections, emigration and more — one program manager said: “Those seated here are real Armenian patriots. This is our Motherland, and we can’t leave it.”
We first visited the construction site of the new Aregak Center for Children. A rehabilitation facility of Caritas for children with multiple disabilities, it has received funding from a number of donors, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and CNEWA. Afterward, we visited the current facility, located in cramped quarters in a historic part of town.
The activities of the professionally trained team, assisted by a group of closely directed and carefully selected volunteers, include physical rehabilitation, art therapy, and basic education and exercises in communication for some 30 children. The new facility will expand the efforts to assist a hundred more. Stay tuned for more developments!
A young patient and her mother wait to be seen at Redemptoris Mater Hospital. (photo: Michael La Civita)
We later drove to the northernmost town in Armenia, Ashotzk, located in the Shirak region. There, we visited the Redemptoris Mater Hospital, which was built with funds from CNEWA and Caritas Italy and given by Pope John Paul II as a gift to the Armenian people after the 1988 earthquake.
“Natives of Shirak often refer to the area as the Armenian Siberia and consider themselves exiled from much of the country’s cultural and economic life, especially the prosperity many compatriots in Yerevan, the nation’s capital, have been enjoying in recent years,” wrote Gayane Abrahamyan in the pages of ONE magazine in March 2009:
Indeed, the gap between the socioeconomic development in Yerevan and the lethargy of Armenia’s rural, impoverished north widens by the day. Whereas newly constructed supermarkets, boutiques and luxury high-rise buildings illuminate Yerevan’s streets, the only signs of modern life in Ashotzk are the occasional car and Tiramayr Narek [Armenian for Redemptoris Mater] Hospital.
Ashotzk rises some 6,600 feet above sea level and is covered in three to five feet of snow six months out of the year. During the winter months, temperatures often drop to 40 degrees below zero and many of the roads are closed.
One road, known as the “life road,” is kept accessible throughout the winter and is used only in the case of medical emergencies. It extends 17 miles from the village of Berdashen, the neighboring community closest to Armenia’s northern border, directly to the hospital. Before the hospital commissioned the construction of the “life road,” residents had no way of reaching medical care in the winter months. To this day, residents still try to plan their pregnancies so that mothers give birth between the months of April and October.
The hospital is the cleanest facility I have ever entered. This, says Camillian Father Mario Cuccarollo, who administers the facility, is the work of Sister Noel. A Belgian Little Sister of Jesus, the petite Sister Noel runs a tight ship — I do not think I saw one scuff mark on the floor or walls. And it is busy, serving more than 150,000 patients annually from as far away as Gyumri (62 miles south) and Vardenis (124 miles southeast) to many of the Armenian populated villages in the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. The hospital’s talented surgeons — including Dr. Sargis Vardanian, named the country’s leading surgeon in 2013 — conduct about 1,800 complicated surgeries per year.
But the hospital is in danger of closing, as Father Mario finds it increasingly difficult to find the million euros needed to keep it operating. This would be a tragedy, as the facility is the only one to offer excellent care in a wretchedly impoverished region for a nominal fee for those few who can pay — or gratis for most of those who cannot.
“Were it not for the hospital, people all around this region would be dead by now,” one woman told ONE in 2009.
“This is no exaggeration; they would not survive.”
After visiting the region, entering its stark and lifeless villages, traveling its unpaved “paved” roads and meeting its rugged people, I have no doubts about the effectiveness and necessity of the local church and its mission of accompanying a suffering people. Without these women and men I have been fortunate to meet — priest, religious and lay — these people would not survive. Indeed, this is no exaggeration.
Many villages suffer severely from neglect, some seeing no significant construction in upwards of 30 years. (photo: Michael La Civita)
19 November 2013
Tags: Children Cultural Identity Health Care Poor/Poverty Armenia
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A seminarian walks down the corridor of the St. Athanasius Greek Catholic Theological Institute in Hajdúdorog, Hungary. As part of its mission, the institute provides seminarians and lay students an education in both the Byzantine and Latin rites. To learn about life as a seminarian in Hungary, read Jacqueline Ruyak’s To Be a Priest, from the March 2007 issue of ONE. (photo: Tivadar Domaniczky)
19 November 2013
Tags: Eastern Christianity Seminarians Hungary Greek Catholic Church Hungarian Greek Catholic
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During the Mass to conclude the Year of Faith, Pope Francis will hand out 35 hard copies of his first apostolic exhortation. (video: Rome Reports)
Pope Francis to release first apostolic exhortation (Catholic News Agency) The Vatican announced today that Pope Francis will officially deliver his first apostolic exhortation to coincide with the end of the Year of Faith. During an 18 November press conference, the Holy See revealed that the title of the new document is “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel,” which will be publicly proclaimed by the pope during the closing Mass for the Year of Faith on Sunday, 24 November. The exhortation is a concluding document of last year’s Synod of Bishops, which centered on the theme of “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith…”
Lebanon blasts hit Iran’s embassy in Beirut (BBC) At least 22 people have been killed and more than 140 injured in a double suicide bombing outside the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital Beirut. The Sunni jihadist group Abdullah Azzam Brigades said it was behind the attack. The Iranian ambassador in Beirut had earlier confirmed the death of Ebrahim Ansari, Iran’s cultural attaché, saying it was not clear if he had been in the embassy itself or one of the residential buildings nearby. However, the Iranian foreign ministry now says he is alive…
Suicide bombing in Beirut; sectarian violence plaguing the Middle East (Fides) Paul Karam, director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in Lebanon, responded to the bombing in Beirut with the following statement: “Unfortunately, today’s bombing is not an isolated incident. Sectarian violence serves a purpose, and wants to set fire in order to destabilize the entire Middle East. For their delirious plots they do not have any qualms about killing children who go to school, or adults who go to work or return home. As Christians, we share the pain of our people, and we keep saying that in no way can similar acts of terror seek justification…”
Syria fighting in Qalamoun triggers new exodus to Lebanon (Washington Post) A new Syrian offensive in the mountainous terrain bordering Lebanon has triggered a fresh exodus of thousands of Syrians into a country already burdened by the largest number of refugees in the region, United Nations officials said Sunday. A thousand families sought shelter between Friday and Sunday in the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal after government forces attacked their villages in Syria, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees…
Aid workers struggle to get polio vaccine to Syrians (Christian Science Monitor) Syria was declared polio free in 1999. But with at least 10 recent confirmed cases of the paralyzing virus, international health workers are worried about a regional outbreak of the virus, particularly given the constant flow of Syrians to neighboring countries. Before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, the vaccination rate in Syria was above 90 percent, bolstered by a relatively strong public health system. But after almost three years of violent and destructive civil conflict, that figure has dropped to 68 percent…
Coptic Orthodox Church names three new bishops (OCP Media Network) Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II installed three new bishops on Sunday, 17 November, at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. Two bishops will serve in Egypt; the third will preside over the newly formed Eparchy of New York and New England in the United States…
Tags: Lebanon Syria Refugees Pope Francis Beirut
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