6 September 2013
In this image from last fall, a refugee child from Syria stands outside a makeshift shelter in the village of Jeb Jennine, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey)
The Catholic News Service (CNS) has established a special page on its website devoted to news and information about the crisis in Syria.
Along with the latest headlines from the Middle East and the Vatican, the site also has video, interviews and resources that can guide readers thorugh the sometimes complicated details of this critically important story.
Visit the page, titled “Praying for Peace in Syria,” and check back often. It’s updated several times a day. Saturday, it will feature a livestream of the pope’s prayer vigil at this link.
6 September 2013
Children at Our Lady of Armenia summer camp pose for the camera. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
In 2007, we paid a visit to central Armenia, and met children at a flourishing camp:
Diramayr is a refuge for Armenian orphans living in state orphanages as well as children invited by social workers and the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, an Armenian Catholic community that sponsors the camp.
For Sister Arousiag, who returned to the land of her ancestors in the summer of 1990, the camp strengthens the emotional well-being of children scarred by abandonment and poverty and deepens their exposure to their Armenian culture and heritage.
“I like to think that here the children are camping with Christ,” Sister Arousiag said. “Many of the kids had never been to church before coming here.”
Religious devotions and catechism constitute a significant portion of the day at Diramayr. Days begin and end with prayer, while catechism class is a daily feature. Sunday mornings are reserved for the celebration of the Soorp Badarak, the Divine Liturgy.
Because few Armenians belong to the Armenian Catholic Church (just 220,000 of its 2.9 million citizens), most of those who attend the camp nominally belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the historic faith community of the Armenian people. The two churches share the same culture, liturgy and traditions (only full communion with the Church of Rome distinguishes Catholic from Armenian Apostolic Christians), thus sparing the camp from religious discord.
Sister Arousiag said she would not let a child’s religious background become an admissions factor. “How can I turn down a needy child just because they aren’t Catholic?”
Summer camp would not be summer camp if the campers had their heads stuck in their Bibles or catechisms all day. Children study languages (French or English), art and computers and also have plenty of time for sports and outdoor activities such as hiking and canoeing. They also take day trips to nearby Lake Sevan and visit the ancient historical monuments that dot Armenia’s countryside.
While most of the day is scheduled, the campers also have free time to horse around in the playground or chat with their friends.
Read more about the Kid’s Camps in the Caucasus from the November 2007 issue of ONE.
6 September 2013
In the Bethlehem Icon Center’s temporary classroom at Bethlehem University, students watch as Ian Knowles demonstrates the steps involved in painting an icon of the face of Christ, also known as the Mandylion. (photo: Nicholas Seeley)
In the Summer edition of ONE, writer Nicholas Seeley reports on one man’s efforts to pass on the art of icon writing. Here, the author describes for us how he first got to know the man behind that project.
I first met Ian Knowles in 2010, in Jordan. I was working on a story for this magazine about how the kingdom was trying to capture a bigger slice of the fast-growing faith tourism market. One of the lesser-known pilgrimage sites I visited was the Shrine of Our Lady of the Mountain, in the northern town of Anjara. It was one of five spots in Jordan the Vatican had highlighted as important destinations for pilgrims, but it was far from a tourist trap: a tiny church and convent in a tiny town, struggling to make ends meet and to provide services to a community facing growing economic hardship.
But in the nave of the Anjara church hung a pair of extraordinary wooden panels — giant triptychs painted with scenes from the life of Christ. They caught my attention immediately. There was a vibrancy, a sense of intention and inner light to the stylized figures that smashed through the musty vision of iconography I had taken away from art history classes. Though the work was very traditional, these pieces felt new, alive with message. And, while I knew that the tradition of icon creation was most associated with Greece and Russia, these pieces felt powerfully Middle Eastern — from the choice of colors and tones, to the names in Arabic script, to the many tiny references to the sacred geometry that is the center of Islamic art.
As it happened, in the church that day there was also a man up a ladder, busily putting the first shades of burnt sienna on the figure of the transfigured Christ that would become the center of the third panel. I stayed to take some pictures and to ask him about the church, and we fell to talking for some hours about tourism, history, and icons. And that’s how I met Ian Knowles.
I learned that it was his third trip to Anjara; he had been coming since 2009, staying for two or three months at a stretch to work on the panels. Though most of his work as a professional iconographer was in England, he had spent much of his time over the past two years in the Middle East, teaching and volunteering: painting new pieces for churches here, or restoring old ones. In the creation of icons, he found a way to offer something spiritual to Christian communities faced with an increasingly difficult social and economic situation.
He described how visiting the region had reinvigorated his art, and nurtured his growing interest in the Byzantine period, and the origins of iconography.
“I go back to the Byzantine period in the Middle East for a lot of my inspiration, because that’s when it was a truly Arab culture, but also a truly Christian culture; and rooted here; and of universal significance,” he said. “You wander around Beit Jala or Mar Elias, and you suddenly come across some fantastic Byzantine ruins. And they’re everywhere!”
And, of course, he mentioned his most ambitious idea: he was running a course in creating icons in Bethlehem, and he had the dream of starting a non-profit, a school where talented young Palestinian artists could come and learn the craft.
As he spoke about the essence of icon writing, I began to understand what was so powerful about his work. The icon is an object in which faith and prayer are made manifest, a physical expression of the religious context. Years on from that conversation in Anjara, it is truly exciting to see Ian Knowles’ dream of an icon school becoming a reality, and to have the opportunity to watch him pass along his remarkable gifts.
6 September 2013
People walk near destroyed buildings and debris in Deir al-Zor, Syria, on 4 September.
(photo: CNS/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters)
U.S. orders diplomats out of Lebanon (AP) The State Department on Friday ordered nonessential U.S. diplomats to leave Lebanon due to security concerns as the Obama administration and Congress debate military strikes on neighboring Syria. In a new travel warning for Lebanon, the department said it had instructed nonessential staffers to leave Beirut and urged private American citizens to depart Lebanon. The step had been under consideration since last week when President Barack Obama said he was contemplating military action against the Syrian government for its alleged chemical weapons attack last month that the administration said killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus. “The potential in Lebanon for a spontaneous upsurge in violence remains,” the department said...
Divisons remain over Syria at G20 summit (Vatican Radio) World leaders are continuing their discussions on the final day of the G20 Summit in St Petersburg, Russia. Divisions still remain on what sort of action to take on Syria. President Barack Obama told G20 leaders the United States has high confidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons and underlined the need to uphold an international ban on the use of such weapons.But Russia, China and the EU are still opposed to a military solution...
Vatican’s Foreign Secretary meets with diplomats to discuss Syria (Vatican Radio) The Vatican’s Secretary for Foreign Relations Archbishop Dominque Mamberti has met with world ambassadors accredited to the Holy See to discuss Pope Francis’ initiative calling for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria on Saturday 7 September. In a briefing for journalists about Thursday’s meeting, Director of the Vatican Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, denied “in the most complete manner” that Pope Francis had telephoned Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Fr. Lombardi was responding to reports in Italian media which he described as “devoid of foundation”...
Cardinal McCarrick: no strikes in Syria; don’t repeat mistakes of Iraq (CNS) Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, said he opposed U.S. military intervention in Syria, adding that he was “not in favor of going to war to make peace.” “We made the mistake in Iraq. I hope we don’t make the mistake again in Syria,” he told Catholic News Service 5 September after visiting some of the nearly half-million refugees who had fled to Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbor. When asked what was worst, either allow Syria to use chemical weapons and do nothing or go in with limited military strikes, he quickly responded: “Neither is the proper answer”...
Archbishop Pendergast heartened by aid projects in Ethiopia (Catholic Register) Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast returned from a recent visit to Ethiopia pleased with how money is being spent in projects being funded by Canadian Catholics. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace had launched campaigns to raise funds to avert food crises in both the Sahel Region and the Horn of Africa in recent years. Prendergast was part of the delegation formed so Canadian Catholics can see what is being done with their money. “Ethiopia was considered the safest option and, though (D&P) has had involvement there for many years, no one had visited,” he said...
5 September 2013
In this image from last fall, rubble is seen near the altar inside a church damaged during shelling in Homs, Syria. (photo: CNS/Shaam News Network, handout via Reuters)
Once again there is talk of the United States being involved in military action in another Middle Eastern country. Having worked with Middle East issues for decades and now doing the same at Catholic Near East Welfare Association, I know people will ask my opinion about what is going on and the possibility of military action.
I have asked myself, “How many times have you found yourself in this situation?” I thought of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the so-called First Gulf War to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the bombing of Libya. It got me wondering about how often the United States has been involved in military action in a foreign country. I was born in 1944. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. A very unscientific run through the “archives” of my brain have led me to realize that — with the exception of Jimmy Carter — every U.S. president in my 69 years of life has been involved in military action in a foreign country. If, as I fear, engaging in this kind of military action can be addictive, this is a very disturbing thing.
I have visited Syria. I have dear friends there. I know Syrians who have personally lived through the horrors of the bombing of Aleppo. A relative of people I know took her two grade-school children and left their home in a Damascus suburb the day before the poison gas attack.
Christians and Muslims have lived together in peace in Syria for a long time. A Muslim colleague pointed out to me proudly that one of the minarets of the ancient Umayyad Mosque was called “Our Lord Jesus.” In the past two years, however, the situation of Christians has gotten increasingly more precarious. They have been driven out of villages where they have lived for centuries. Two archbishops have been kidnapped and their whereabouts unknown. Christians have been killed, churches destroyed and it seems as if life will never again return to normal.
Yet, Christian voices from Syria are almost unanimous in stating that outside military intervention — be it in the form of bombing or the sale of weapons — will not only not help, but will make their situation worse. The Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch in Damascus and the Chaldean patriarch in Baghdad have spoken out against a U.S. attack on Syria. Pope Francis has repeatedly called for a non-violent political solution to the carnage in Syria. Everyone condemns the use of poison gas. It is evil, a crime against humanity that cries out to God. However, over 100,000 Syrians have died already through conventional warfare. Is this means of killing any less evil?
Pope Francis has declared a period of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria and the Middle East this Saturday, 7 September. Christians, Muslims and all people of good will need to give witness to the belief that violence begets violence and that the only peace that can hold is one based on non-violence and mutual respect.
To help displaced Syrian families, click here.
5 September 2013
Syrian refugees, fleeing the violence in their country, cross the border into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq on 4 September. (photo: CNS/Haider Ala, Reuters)
The USCCB president and chair of CNEWA Cardinal Timothy Dolan has written to President Obama on the worsening crisis in Syria.
His letter says, in part:
As our nation contemplates military action in Syria, we want to assure you and your Administration of our prayers. We know that the situation in Syria is complex and appreciate the patience and restraint that your Administration has exercised to date. We affirm your decision to invite public dialogue and Congressional review of any possible military action, and want to contribute to that discussion from our perspective as Catholic pastors and teachers.
We join you in your absolute condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. These indiscriminate weapons have no place in the arsenals of the family of nations. With you we mourn for the lives lost and grieve with the families of the deceased. At the same time, we remain profoundly concerned for the more than 100,000 Syrians who have lost their lives, the more than 2 million who have fled the country as refugees, and the more than 4 million within Syria who have been driven from their homes by the violence. Our focus is on the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria and on saving lives by ending the conflict, not fueling it.
We have heard the urgent calls of the Successor of Saint Peter, Pope Francis, and our suffering brother bishops of the venerable and ancient Christian communities of the Middle East. As one, they beg the international community not to resort to military intervention in Syria. They have made it clear that a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences. Their concerns find a strong resonance in American public opinion that questions the wisdom of intervention and in the lack of international consensus.
We make our own the appeal of Pope Francis: “I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people. May no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries.”
Read the entire text at the USCCB website.
5 September 2013
Pope Francis exchanges a gift with Catholicos Baselios Mar Thoma Paulose II, head of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, during a private audience at the Vatican on 5 September.
(photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
5 September 2013
In this image from last March, U.S. Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, arrives for a prayer service with eucharistic adoration in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Cardinal O’Brien calls for prayers for Syria (CNS) As threats of military intervention against Syria escalate and the country’s future remains uncertain, a U.S. cardinal said that, no matter what transpires, prayer is urgently needed. Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, said that “whatever happens, if there is going to be peace in Syria and anywhere, prayer has to be a part of it.” The cardinal spoke on 5 September during a Vatican news conference presenting the chivalric order’s consultative meeting that will see a revision of its statutes and its upcoming pilgrimage to Rome as part of the Year of Faith. The order, which has members in 35 countries, particularly in North America and Western Europe, supports the pastoral and educational work of the church in the Holy Land...
Pope seeks Putin’s support in stopping Syrian air strikes (Catholic Register) In an open letter to Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis has appealed to the Russian President and world leaders gathering in St. Petersburg for a G-20 Summit to find a non-military solution to the crisis in Syria. “To the leaders present, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,” the Pope wrote. “Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.” The Pope’s letter came as world leaders arrived for a two-day summit that was intended to focus on the world economy but now will be dominated by the looming threat of U.S. intervention in Syria. Congress will vote early next week on whether to support President Barack Obama’s call for air strikes on military targets in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack allegedly directed by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad that killed 1,429 people, including hundreds of children...
Syrian Christians say Western attack would make matters worse (NCR) Although President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron are consulting their own legislatures before using force in Syria, there’s a constituency with far more at stake they might also poll that would likely deliver a resounding no: Syria’s Christians. Those Christians may be no fans of the regime of President Bashar Assad, but they generally prefer it to what they see as the likely alternative — rising Islamic fundamentalism and Iraq-style chaos, in which religious minorities such as themselves would be among the primary victims. “We heard a lot about democracy and freedom from the U.S. in Iraq, and we see now the results — how the country came to be destroyed,” said Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo in a recent interview. “The first to lose were the Christians of Iraq.” “We must say that, what the U.S. did in Iraq, we don’t want repeated in Syria,” Audo said...
Christian, Muslim leaders examine challenges of Arab Christians (CNS) For decades, Arab Christians have been fleeing the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East in droves, mainly because of violence. Within the past two-and-a-half years, some 450,000 Christians are believed to be among the 2 million people who have fled the civil war in Syria, an ancient land of historic churches, the country where St. Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Some 70 high-ranking Arab church leaders, together with their Western counterparts, and Muslim clerics gathered in Amman for a meeting on 3-4 September aimed at tackling “the challenges of Arab Christians.” The Christian and Muslims leaders aimed to find a way to end the sectarian strife threatening their people and countries. “We must confront extremist trends,” Archbishop Fouad Twal, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the gathering. He said it was the duty of religious leaders and their communities to work jointly “to get the new generation to accept ‘the other,’” in order to “isolate these trends”...
4 September 2013
In this image from 2008, many buildings in Maaloula, Syria wear washes of blue paint in honor of the Virgin Mary. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
The news from Syria is increasingly grim. From the Associated Press today:
Al-Qaida-linked rebels launched an assault on a regime-held Christian mountain village in the densely populated west of Syria and new clashes erupted near the capital, Damascus, on Wednesday — part of a brutal battle of attrition each side believes it can win despite more than two years of deadlock.
In the attack on the village of Maaloula, rebels commandeered a mountaintop hotel and nearby caves and shelled the community below, said a nun, speaking by phone from a convent in the village. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
With the world focused on possible U.S. military action against Syria, there were new signs of fragmentation in rebel ranks, with a small group of jihadis from Russia announcing it has broken away from an umbrella group known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Syria conflict, which began with a popular uprising in March 2011, has been stalemated, and it's not clear if U.S. military strikes over the regime's alleged chemical weapons use would change that. President Barack Obama has said he seeks limited pinpoint action to deter future chemical attacks, not regime change.
Tragically, it’s not the Maaloula we remember. In 2008 we profiled the village, a place rich in religious history that we described as notable for “martyrdom and miracles”:
The sleepy Syrian town of Maaloula once seemed decades from the bustling city of Damascus, which lies some 30 miles away. Since the first century, when Christianity penetrated the barren mountains that shield Maaloula, its residents have commemorated the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and his martyred followers. Generations observed fasts and feasts, clung to traditions, passed on superstitions and developed new customs. And as the world around them changed — Muslim Arabs conquered Christian Syria in 634, making Damascus their capital in 661 — Maaloula’s sons and daughters remained steadfast in their Christian faith, maintaining even their distinctive language, Aramaic, which they shared with Jesus.
But Maaloula slumbers no more. Its churches and shrines, less than 45 minutes by car from the Syrian capital, host tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims each year, swelling the small town of 2,000 residents.
Maaloula is synonymous with martyrdom and miracles. Scaling the cliffs that tightly contain it, Maaloula’s sacred and secular architectural wonders rise several stories, usually wearing a wash of blue distemper. Were it not for the vineyards and olive and apricot orchards that carpet the surrounding valley, a casual visitor might ponder how the townspeople have survived the mountains’ sun-dried, barren landscape for millennia.
Maaloula’s most distinctive feature, however, is the language its residents speak, the same dialect of Aramaic spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. Predating Arabic — the most widely used language in the region for more than a millennium — Aramaic originated more than 900 years before Christ and, in its many forms, was the Middle East’s lingua franca from around B.C. 1200 to A.D. 700.
4 September 2013
Jewish worshippers pray at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in Jerusalem’s Old City, ahead of the Jewish new year, which begins tonight. (photo: CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters)