6 July 2016
A worker from the Piacenti restoration center works on a mosaic in the Church of the Nativity
on 5 July in Bethlehem. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
An Italian team has completed restoration of Crusader-era mosaics in the Church of the Nativity, but the mosaics will only be unveiled publicly after work on lighting, electricity and the fire alarm system is also finished.
The work involved removing the layers of centuries-worth of soot and dirt — a result of the smoke of candles lit by pilgrims coming to venerate the site traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus — from about 1.55 million tiny mosaic pieces that were reviewed and restored.
“I think all the churches want to save this church because here Jesus was born,” said Giammarco Piacenti, CEO of Piacenti restoration center, which began work on the church starting with the rotting wooden roof in April 2013. “It is important for all Christianity. For my professional life, this occasion is incredible.”
Only 1,400 square feet of mosaics remain from the original 21,528 square feet that adorned the wall, he noted. The others were destroyed by rain leaking through the roof, he said.
Made of stone, mother of pearl, and glass and gold leaf, the mosaics portray different scenes in the life of Jesus and the church, including the disbelief of Thomas, the Assumption and Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Piacenti said the mosaic of the disbelief of Thomas shows the date of 1155 and the names Ephraim and Basilius, presumably artisans who created the work. Some pieces of the mosaics remain missing and will not be replaced, he said, based on the theory of restoration that there should be a minimum of intervention on any piece.
“Really, it is only conservation,” he said.
One special moment came when restorers cleared away plaster from the wall bordering the roof in the main section of the church and discovered a seventh mosaic of a golden angel, in addition to the six they already knew existed. The angels’ arms gently direct pilgrims toward the grotto traditionally thought to be the site where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
During the Ottoman Empire, the angels’ faces were disfigured with gunshots to the nose and so here the missing pieces have been replaced, said Piacenti.
Both Islam and Judaism prohibit graven human images.
“They were shot in the nose to destroy, to kill them,” Piacenti said. Restoration gave them “a second life.”
The Church of the Nativity is shared by the Franciscans, and the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches. It is governed by the traditional Status Quo, the 1852 agreement that preserves the division of ownership and responsibilities of various Christian holy sites. In years past, the denominations have been known to jealously guard over their sections of the church, to the extent of fist fights breaking out over who could clean which part of the stone floor.
Relations among the churches have become progressively more cordial over the past decade, and the three churches were able to come together under the auspices of a special committee formed by the Palestinian National Authority. Through joint discussions they reached a working agreement permitting the much needed restorations on the Church of the Nativity to begin.
Once funds are raised, the next stage of the project will include restoration of the church’s 50 pillars and the study and restoration of the church floor and the mosaics underneath.
The different denominations have come to similar agreements in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, allowing for restoration projects to begin there as well.
6 July 2016
Rebel fighters carry their weapons as they take part in military training 19 June in Daraa, Syria. The Syrian military has declared a three-day truce during the Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr.
(photo: CNS/Alaa Al-Faqir, EPA)
Syria declares 72-hour truce (BBC) The Syrian military has unilaterally declared a three-day truce covering the whole country, state media report. A statement by the general command said the “regime of calm” began at 01:00 on Wednesday (22:00 GMT on Tuesday) and would last until midnight on Friday. The period covers the Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr...
Pope’s visit to Armenia has left spiritual legacy (Vatican Radio) The head of the Catholic Church in Armenia says Pope Francis’ recent visit to the country has helped to strengthen and confirm people in their faith. The Pope visited the Armenian capital Yerevan, the northern city of Gyumri and the ancient monastery of Khor Virap on the Turkish border from 24 to 26 June. He will return to the region for a visit to Azerbaijan and Georgia at the end of September...
Coptic nun killed by stray bullets (Fides) It was not a targeted attack, but a tragic accident caused the death of Sister Athanasia, the Coptic Orthodox nun killed yesterday, Tuesday, 5 July, while she was traveling by car on the road connecting Cairo to Alexandria, heading towards the monastery of Mar Girgis in Khatatba. The vehicle in which the nun was travelling with the driver and two of her sisters was involved in a shooting in progress on the road between two local family clans. A few stray bullets reached the car, causing the death of Sister Athanasia...
Floods deal ‘staggering’ blow to families recovering from Ethiopia’s drought (UN News Centre) The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) announced that floods across Ethiopia have severely impacted the recovery processes, particularly for livestock-dependent families, following more than 18 months of dry spells and poor rainfall induced by an El Niño drought phenomenon. Estimates rose significantly in June, as updated reports from the Ethiopia’s National Flood Task Force show that close to 690,000 people are now likely be affected, with over 320,000 estimated to be displaced, said the agency in a report...
Patriarch urges mediation to end Middle East crises (America) The plight and vulnerability of Lebanon, enwrapped by the chaos of Syria on its north and east and threatened by the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its south, were brought into sharp focus during a U.S. visit by Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church. During his cross-country pastoral visit, Cardinal Rai stopped in New York at the headquarters of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association on 27 June where he implored reporters to remain mindful of the precarious state of Lebanon as it grapples with the region’s various crises...
Fundraiser launched for demining site of Christ’s baptism (Fides) The demining project of Qasr al-Yahud area, which extends around the west bank of the Jordan River, the site where many Christian traditions believe Jesus was baptized, will last two years and cost at least $4 million to complete the demining. For this reason, the Halo Trust, a UK based demining group, has launched a subscription to finance the project, aimed in particular at Churches and Christian communities all over the world...
5 July 2016
The Rev. Mikael Khachkalian chats with a member of his congregation at the
Armenian Catholic Center. (photo: Molly Corso)
The Rev. Mikael Khachkalian does some amazing work in a far-flung corner of Georgia — and he does it virtually on his own. He’s the only Catholic Armenian priest serving in the capital, Tbilisi — long one of the centers for Armenian Catholics in the country.
He is one busy priest:
Father Khachkalian ministers to his people by both preaching the faith and preserving a culture. From celebrating the liturgy every morning in Armenian to Saturday language lessons with the youth, he is a full-time advocate for Armenian identity in Georgia.
After daily liturgies in the Armenian Catholic Center near downtown Tbilisi, the faithful explore the language of the liturgy as much as its meaning, sounding out unfamiliar Armenian words and practicing the proper pronunciation with the young priest and an assistant.
For Father Khachkalian, learning the language is paramount to understanding the faith, preserving the community’s Armenian Catholic identity and encouraging its growth for the future. But these evangelical efforts are facing stiff headwinds in a country experiencing a revival in Georgian nationalism and Georgian Orthodox Christianity.
...Father Khachkalian believes that 90 percent of self-identified Latin Catholics in Tbilisi are Catholic Armenians. Despite their numbers, however, there is no official Armenian Catholic church in Tbilisi — or anywhere in Georgia outside of the small village parishes in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
In a recent report, the priest outlined the need for a separate Armenian Catholic church in Tbilisi.
“The Armenian Catholic community in Tbilisi is going through difficult times,” he writes. “It’s divided and weakened.” He highlights that the parish center needs “major repairs” and is not big enough for the entire community to meet at one time and celebrate their faith.
“It is also a problem for us to build a church. We have not seriously tried yet, but I think we will have problems,” he adds. While Georgian law nominally does not prohibit Armenian Catholics — or any other faith — from building a church, in reality, it is very controversial.
“Discrimination — if you start to do something, then you feel it.”
...From morning until night, Father Khachkalian witnesses to the faith and culture that make Armenian Catholics a unique part of the universal Catholic faith.
The people are both dedicated and devout, as we noted in 2014:
To spend time with Georgia’s Armenian Catholics is to rediscover the deep reservoirs of piety and purpose — and a remarkable strength of character — that have defined them for generations.
It is also to realize, above all, that the story of Georgia’s Armenian Catholics is one of unwavering faith.
Read more about the Armenian Catholic community in A Firm Faith. And discover the heroic work of Father Khachkalian in this profile.
5 July 2016
Suhaila Tarazi, left, meets with patients at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital. (photo: John E. Kozar)
The Summer edition of ONE features a powerful Letter From Gaza written by Suhaila Tarzai, director of the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. She describes the challenges of living in a land decimated by war:
The war has greatly harmed Gaza’s vulnerable health system, which had not functioned well beforehand. Many services and specialized treatments are not available to Palestinians inside Gaza. There is a lack of medicine for cancer treatment, drugs for cardiovascular diseases, life-saving antibiotics and kidney dialysis products.
Working in such dire conditions is too much for any human to cope with. Hundreds of the displaced were taking refuge in safer areas and we had our share of them at the hospital. They filled whatever little space we could find; they sat in the gardens and slept in the open. Our staff spared no effort in alleviating their suffering; I even hired extra help to give some staff a break. We offered them meals and water and blankets. (I have to record here my deepest gratitude to all of our donors, including CNEWA, for their support and generosity. Without them, we would not have succeeded.)
...A year and a half has elapsed since the war ended. And little of the money pledged from donor countries to rebuild Gaza has been received. The suffering in what many call the world’s largest open-air prison continues and it seems the rights of Gazans do not matter. According to several reports issued by the United Nations, Gaza will be “uninhabitable” by 2020.
For us Christians, all this suffering, depression, melancholy and despair should not sadden us, but render us more mature to confront the horror of the occupation and serve the needy. When I look into the eyes of our children wandering in the rubble, or when I see their stare on television screens, expressing their angry feelings to reporters, I know that nonetheless there is hope. Palestine will never be forgotten; it will remain deeply anchored in the conscience of the world. ... I pray that justice will eventually be done.
Read more of the Letter From Gaza. And check out the short video below, for another glimpse at life in the hospital.
5 July 2016
In the video above, released Tuesday, Pope Francis urges a political solution to the war in Syria.
(video: Caritas Internationalis/YouTube)
Death toll from attack in Baghdad reaches 175 (Associated Press) As Iraqis mourned in shock and disbelief, more dead bodies were recovered Tuesday from the site of a massive Islamic State suicide bombing this weekend in central Baghdad, bringing the death toll to 175, officials said. The staggering figure — one the worst bombings in 13 years of war in Iraq — has cast a pall on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and which begins Wednesday in Iraq...
Pope supports ‘Peace is possible’ campaign for Syria (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis is urging governments to find a political solution to the war in Syria. In a video message released on Tuesday in support of a new Caritas Internationalis campaign, “Syria: Peace is Possible,” the Pope reiterates his belief that “there is no military solution for Syria, only a political one...”
Holy See: Peace is possible in Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Vatican Radio) The Permanent Observer to United Nations Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič has offered an intervention at the United Nations International Conference in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace. “The Holy See believes that the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians can move forward only if it is directly negotiated between the Parties,” Archbishop Jurkovic said, with the strong support of the international community, as this international conference is meant to catalyze...”
Patriarch Twal: ‘My mission continues’ (Fides) “I have reached the end of my mission as Patriarch, however my mission as a priest, friend and citizen continues,” says the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, who has reached the age limit of 75 years and is about to retire. In an interview published on the website of the Latin Patriarchate, the patriarch also talks about the legacy that he now leaves in the hands of the new Apostolic Administrator, the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “Among the assets that the new Administrator can count is the fact that he served for 12 years as Custos of the Holy Land and was the Vicar of the Latin Patriarch for the Hebrew speaking Catholic community. He knows very well the challenges and problems of the Church in the Holy Land...”
Ethiopian cardinal celebrates 40th anniversary of ordination (Vatican Radio) Ethiopia’s Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel, C.M., celebrated his 40th anniversary of priestly ordination Monday 4 July 2016. He used the occasion to recall the harsh reality of time in Ethiopia when citizens professing religious belief were persecuted. As a young priest, the Cardinal was himself arrested and isolated in a dark room for one month. On this 40th anniversary, the Cardinal says he thanks God for the protection bestowed on him...
1 July 2016
Faithful process to celebrate the liturgy in a camp for people displaced by war in Ain Kawa, northern Iraq. (photo: Paul Jeffrey)
The Summer 2016 edition of ONE features a riveting photo essay, chronicling the recent trip CNEWA’s chair, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, made to Iraq:
In the midst of evil, how does one offer love? Being with those in need is a start.
“I was raised with a high value on visiting people, especially when there was adversity,” wrote Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, upon his return from Iraqi Kurdistan in April. “A neighbor a block over had a fire; the next day we visited to see how they were doing and if they needed anything. Uncle Ed had eye surgery; we visited to make sure he was recovering. After my grandpa’s death, we visited my grandma a lot.”
The cardinal visited Iraqi Kurdistan “because,” he continued, “the Christian community there is family, a family in a lot of trouble, with much adversity, and to visit them is a very good thing.”
From 8 to 12 April, the cardinal, who chairs Catholic Near East Welfare Association, led a pastoral visit to Iraqi Kurdistan to be with the families displaced from their homes in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plain since August 2014.
Read more and see additional pictures here. Below, photojournalist Paul Jeffrey, who covered the trip, describes some of what he saw and experienced.
1 July 2016
Airport employees mourn for their colleagues during a 30 June ceremony for victims of the suicide attacks at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in Turkey. Officials now say a Chechen extremist was behind the attacks. (photo: CNS/Murad Sezer, Reuters)
U.S. Congressman says a Chechen extremist masterminded Istanbul suicide bombing (Associated Press) A Chechen extremist masterminded the triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s busiest airport that killed at least 44 people, a U.S. congressman said Friday. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told CNN that Akhmed Chatayev directed Tuesday night’s attack at Ataturk Airport, one of the world’s busiest, which also wounded more than 230. Turkish and Swedish media have also identified Chatayev as the organizer, although Turkish authorities have not confirmed his involvement...
Stranded refugees face a world without food or medicine (The New York Times) For a week, since a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing seven Jordanian security officials, the refugees, now numbering at least 60,000, have not had access to food or medicine, as they had in previous months. Only three times since then have water trucks reached them, carrying what the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders estimated to be equivalent to a 1.5-liter bottle of water a day...
UNICEF says millions of children in Iraq are at risk (ABC Australia) UNICEF is calling for urgent action to protect children’s rights in Iraq after a report found escalating conflict in the country is putting a whole generation at risk. UNICEF’s A Heavy Price for Children report found one in five (3.6 million) children in Iraq are at serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence, abduction and recruitment into armed groups...
Gospel music in Ethiopia (MusicInAfrica.net) The Ethiopian Orthodox church, with a followership of about 44% of Ethiopia’s population, has a long tradition of gospel music. However, over the years its dominance has been challenged by the emergence of various other religious factions. Today Muslims make up an estimated 34% of the population and Protestants an estimated 18%. Nevertheless, any keen listener will notice that the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox church has an influence on most Christian music in the country...
30 June 2016
In this image from December, Syrian refugees Reemas Al Abdullah, 5, Sawsan Al Samman and Aya Al Abdullah, 8, wait to be served at a dinner hosted by Friends of Syria, at the Toronto Port Authority. The Canadian government says thousands of sponsors have stepped forward to welcome Syrian refugees — so many, in fact, that the government can't keep up with the demand. (photo: Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The New York Times today throws a spotlight on Syrian refugees who have found a new home — and a warm welcome — in Canada:
One frigid day in February, Kerry McLorg drove to an airport hotel here to pick up a family of Syrian refugees. She was cautious by nature, with a job poring over insurance data, but she had never even spoken to the people who were about to move into her basement.
“I don’t know if they even know we exist,” she said.
At the hotel, Abdullah Mohammad’s room phone rang, and an interpreter told him to go downstairs. His children’s only belongings were in pink plastic bags, and the family’s documents lay in a white paper bag printed with a Canadian flag. His sponsors had come, he was told. He had no idea what that meant.
Across Canada, ordinary citizens, distressed by news reports of drowning children and the shunning of desperate migrants, are intervening in one of the world’s most pressing problems. Their country allows them a rare power and responsibility:
They can band together in small groups and personally resettle — essentially adopt — a refugee family. In Toronto alone, hockey moms, dog-walking friends, book club members, poker buddies and lawyers have formed circles to take in Syrian families. The Canadian government says sponsors officially number in the thousands, but the groups have many more extended members.
...Much of the world is reacting to the refugee crisis — 21 million displaced from their countries, nearly five million of them Syrian — with hesitation or hostility. Greece shipped desperate migrants back to Turkey; Denmark confiscated their valuables; and even Germany, which has accepted more than half a million refugees, is struggling with growing resistance to them. Broader anxiety about immigration and borders helped motivate Britons to take the extraordinary step last week of voting to leave the European Union.
In the United States, even before the Orlando massacre spawned new dread about “lone wolf” terrorism, a majority of American governors said they wanted to block Syrian refugees because some could be dangerous. Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has called for temporary bans on all Muslims from entering the country and recently warned that Syrian refugees would cause “big problems in the future.” The Obama administration promised to take in 10,000 Syrians by 30 September but has so far admitted about half that many.
Just across the border, however, the Canadian government can barely keep up with the demand to welcome them.
Read more. And to learn more about how the Canadian sponsorship program works, check out this sidebar.
30 June 2016
Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, right, works in Lebanon, offering support to refugees who have fled
Iraq and Syria. (photo: Amal Morcos)
For decades, Sister Wardeh Kayrouz has been a voice for the voiceless — offering hope and help to countless refugees seeking sanctuary. She began her long relationship with CNEWA working in our Amman regional office. Today, she continues to partner with CNEWA in Lebanon, aiding so many who are fleeing violence, terror and war.
From a 2008 profile:
Sister Wardeh and her community, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, have dedicated their lives to helping families secure food, housing, work and other basics. In 2002 the sisters stepped up their efforts and forged a partnership with CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.
An energetic woman with large, round wire-rimmed spectacles, she counsels a growing number of Iraqi families, administers a convent school and teaches catechism classes.
“When they live the word of God, they strengthen their faith, helping them better handle the bad situations they have here,” Sister Wardeh said.
...A social worker by training, Sister Wardeh counsels families struggling with domestic violence and the pain associated with it. Families have come to trust her and rely on her for guidance. She often finds herself at their homes, listening to their fears, holding their hands and helping them cope with their situations.
“Poverty brings out every type of problem between children and their parents. They have no money to go anywhere or do anything. There is no work. Women and their husbands argue over whether they should have left Iraq. They are home all day long, all the time,” Sister Wardeh said.
We revisited her two years ago, for a fresh look at Sister Wardeh’s world, and reported on retreats she is offering for refugees as a way to help them heal from the wounds of war:
It was her own experience with war in Lebanon that led her to her vocation. Born and reared in the town of Bcharri, the legendary mountainous stronghold of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics, she completed a degree in sociology and became a teacher and a principal in her village.
In 1976, just as Lebanon’s civil war set in, Bcharri became a flash point for fighting between Maronite and Palestinian militias. During the war she met a religious sister named Beatrice who transported the dead and wounded with her car.
“Sister Beatrice used to say, ‘It is not I who am doing this, but God is doing it through me,’ and I was greatly affected by this.” Sister Wardeh eventually took her vows at age 27.
“My family lost everything in the war,” she says.
“My father and mother used to pray and they came back to the church and were able to cope with their loss and move on with their lives.
“The disaster did not tear us apart, it united us,” she continues. “I want everyone to know that you can lose everything, but you can still have hope in life.”
To lend your support to the heroic work of Sister Wardeh and others in Jordan, visit this giving page.
30 June 2016
Nirmala Dasi Sister Lovely Kattumattam assists a resident at Ashraya, an elderly care center on the outskirts of Mumbai. To learn more about religious communities facing new challenges in India, read On a Mission from God in the Summer edition of ONE. (photo: Peter Lemieux)