5 October 2016
Sami El-Yousef, left, surveys damage to a home in Gaza where a Christian woman was killed during the 2014 war. (photo: CNEWA)
In the Autumn 2016 edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan profiles Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, as part of our special look at the Catholic Eastern churches. Here, He offers some further reflections on what it means to be a Christian in Gaza.
I remember hearing a story from another journalist I knew when I was living in Beirut about a Christian woman in Gaza who had been dragged from her car by people loyal to Hamas who berated her for not wearing the headscarf in public.
There were several things that were shocking about the story: the fact that, in Gaza under Hamas, Palestinian and Muslim were now conflated with no room for other identities; the fact that women in Gaza were now being policed and confronted for their non-adherence to a conservative version of Islam; and the fact that when the woman in question protested yelling “I am Christian,” this made no dent on the men accosting her.
When I got to Jerusalem to do an interview for ONE with Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, I met up with an old photographer friend. She had just left Gaza where she had been on assignment. It had been her first time there and she was quite affected by it. She has lived in the West Bank for periods in the past but that did not fully prepare her for Gaza. The hardship of life there, the lack of security and the inhumanity of the siege imposed on the strip by Israel got to her, but so too did the heavy-handed, centralized conservatism of Hamas. Being in Gaza as a woman, she said, reminded her of being in Saudi Arabia, where she had been many times on assignment.
When I finally met with Mr. El-Yousef in his office in the Old City of Jerusalem, Gaza featured prominently during the interview.
He gave me a much more nuanced insight into the unique position of Christians in Gaza, who now number only 1,200 out of the population of two million. Their welfare and the conditions of their day-to-day lives are very much dependent on Hamas but even more so on the geopolitics in the immediate region — especially the political tones in Egypt and Israel, with which the strip shares its borders.
As in many other countries in the Middle East, the Christian population in Gaza punches above its weight when it comes to its contributions to the non-governmental health and education sectors. But this doesn’t seem to matter so much, Mr. El-Yousef told me, when political tides turn in the region. For example, when the Egyptian Revolution happened and the Muslim Brotherhood finally came into power across the border, Hamas in Gaza found itself with a powerful natural ally and was soon at the height of its power. This was bad for Christians in Gaza who suddenly found more restrictions on their ability to live by their faith. Christmas symbols such as the Christmas tree were ordered to be taken down. Steps were taken to segregate schools by sex. Christian students at the Islamic University of Gaza were obliged to take courses in Islamic law, etc.
Then, when Hamas is at a low — as happened when Israel launched the military “Operation Protective Edge” on Gaza in 2014 — the pressure on Gazan Christians is released. Unfortunately, it is during times of conflict and crisis that Christian hospitals, clinics and schools can shine the most in how they offer non-discriminatory help of all those affected.
Since that last war in Gaza, says Sami el-Yousef, there has been a change in the attitude of the Hamas leadership towards the Christian presence in Gaza: something of a turnaround. Christmas trees were once again permitted behind churches. The project to segregate schools by gender stalled and Hamas representatives actually showed up at churches to wish them a happy Christmas.
The above pattern disturbs me and it is a pattern I have seen facing Christians in Iraq, in Lebanon, Egypt and now in Palestine. When trouble looms and there is a crisis, unity and solidarity prevails and Christians and the value they bring to society are welcomed and utilized. But when things are relatively stable, old distrust and bigotry seem to emerge. It’s a sad cycle and it appears to me to be repeating itself without variation.
I wonder then, why does violence and war have to be such a key ingredient to the embrace and valuing of Christians in the Middle East? Are there any alternatives? By what means could a “majority rules, minority rights” system be encouraged or developed?
Read more about Sami El-Yousef and the Church of Jerusalem in Where It All Began in the latest edition of ONE.
5 October 2016
Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine War Holy Land Christians
A young student in Ethiopia offers a warm greeting as he begins another school day. CNEWA’s president Msgr. John E. Kozar paid a pastoral visit to the Horn of Africa earlier this year. See more images from his trip and learn more about the challenges this part of the world faces in this pictorial essay from the Summer 2016 edition of ONE. (photo: John E. Kozar)
5 October 2016
Tags: Ethiopia Children Education Africa Horn of Africa
Pope Francis reflected on his recent trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan in his general audience Wednesday. (video: Rome Reports)
Pope reflects on trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan (Vatican Radio) At his general audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis reflected on his recent apostolic voyage to Georgia and Azerbaijan. The Holy Father said: “This visit complemented my visit to Armenia in June, and fulfilled my desire to visit all three nations of the Caucasus to confirm the Catholic community and to encourage all the people in their journey toward peace and fraternity.” He concluded his address with the prayer, “May God bless Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and guide his holy people in those countries…”
Four Copts, including a child, kidnapped (Fides) Four Coptic Christians, one of whom is a 9-year-old boy, were kidnapped on 3 October in the city of Manfalut, in the province of Assiut, about 220 miles south of Cairo…
Syrian government forces advance on Aleppo (Al Jazeera) Syrian government tanks crossed the frontline in the battleground city of Aleppo for the first time in four years, as a Russian-backed offensive to retake the rebel-held east escalated on the ground. Pro-government forces were “gradually advancing” after street battles on Tuesday in the divided city’s rebel-controlled neighborhoods, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights…
The refugee camp at the foot of the Washington Monument (NPR) Sabrina Chang, 30, didn’t know much about the global refugee crisis. “I think I could spit out headlines that I’ve seen, but that’s about it,” she says. But then she found herself — for a moment — in refugees’ shoes. Chang visited Forced From Home, a touring interactive exhibition hosted by Doctors Without Borders, the medical aid group. The exhibit is a re-creation of a refugee camp, about the size of half a school gymnasium, with a store, a hospital and places to sleep. It began its run in New York last month and is at the foot of the Washington Monument until 9 October, then moves to Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh…
India announces day of interfaith prayer in response to Kashmir crisis (Fides) “We announce a major national prayer to be held on Sunday, 16 October 2016: all the bishops, all the priests, religious and laity, will animate Masses, liturgies, vigils and prayers for the good of the nation. We call on all men and women of good will to join us and pray for our beloved country, invoking God’s blessing on our population.” This is the appeal launched by Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church and president of the interreligious Episcopal Conference of India, in response to the Kashmir crisis and the escalation on the border region with Pakistan…
4 October 2016
Tags: Syria India Egypt Pope Francis Caucasus
Constantine Dabbagh was a key collaborator with CNEWA for many years, spearheading efforts to help the poor in Gaza. (photo: Miriam Sushman)
How do you bring hope to those for whom life seems hopeless?
Constantine Dabbagh, the former executive director of the Near East Council of Churches (N.E.C.C.) in Gaza, spent much of his life answering that question — helping to support clinics and other facilities backed by CNEWA in that troubled, war-torn corner of the world. “He was our greatest collaborator there for the longest time,” said CNEWA’s regional director Sami El-Yousef in a recent email.
We profiled the work of N.E.C.C. in our magazine in 2001, and Mr. Dabbagh explained his efforts to reach out to all in need, regardless of faith:
“Jesus did not help only Christians,” noted Constantine Dabbagh, executive secretary of the council’s Committee for Refugee Work. “This is the Holy Land where Jesus started his mission. It is natural for Christians to witness in this part of the world.”
Two examples of Christian outreach are the Darraj and Shajaia clinics, located in two of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in Gaza City. Both provide pre- and postnatal care as well as general healthcare to approximately 9,500 families. …
At the Darraj clinic, on Well Baby Day, dozens of mothers in traditional Muslim headscarves and long dresses entertain fidgety infants waiting for checkups. Several women have older children in tow. Pregnant women wait in another corridor. A third waiting area is reserved for patients suffering from everything from gastrointestinal distress and colds to diabetes and cancer.
Eager to teach Gaza residents the rudiments of preventative health care, the medical staff has hung posters, some hand-made, detailing the dangers of leaving small children unattended and the health risks of unrefrigerated food. They encourage breast-feeding, good hygiene, especially when handling food or changing a baby, and proper overall nutrition — not an easy task for those who live in poverty.
This heroic work continues in Gaza to this day — and we cannot forget people like Constantine Dabbagh who have helped to make it possible.
4 October 2016
Tags: CNEWA Children Gaza Strip/West Bank Education Health Care
President Msgr. John E. Kozar welcomes Bishop Bosco Puthur to CNEWA’s New York offices. (photo: CNEWA)
Yesterday, the bishop of a young eparchy in Australia stopped by for a visit, and had a chance to share his thoughts about the unique challenges his church faces Down Under.
Bishop Bosco Puthur hails from the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle in Melbourne — an eparchy established by Pope Francis less than three years ago. Meeting with CNEWA’s president Msgr. John E. Kozar, Bishop Puthur described a small group of faithful — about 50,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics live in a country of some 23 million people — but a group that is young and growing.
“About 85 or 90 percent of my faithful are below 45 years of age,” he said, “and almost 50 percent of those are below 15 years. It is a very young church, very promising. But unless we give proper faith formation to the children, they will get lost in the secular society.”
Bishop Puthur mentioned two primary challenges for his young eparchy: forming clergy and building churches.
“I had to bring in a lot of priests,” he explained. “We have 22 priests, but not all are fully working for me. Six are full time for our community and the others are shared with the Latin diocese. So our first challenge is to bring in priests.” He said a number of seminarians are now being formed in Kerala, and then transferred to Australia for theological training.
“Our second challenge,” he went on, “is getting facilities for eucharistic celebrations. There is a practical problem of getting time allotted in the Latin churches for our Sunday celebrations.”
But for all these challenges, he sees a church brimming with possibility and hope.
“To live a Christian life is challenging,” he explained. “My mission is to empower the people, so they live their Christian life in their families, in the parish communities, and share their Christian values with others. There is a mission dimension. There is evangelization involved.”
He added that part of his message to his flock is the necessity of giving back.
“I tell people, ‘One who only receives is a beggar.’ Unless we are able to contribute something to the society, and remain only on the receiving end, that is not a Christian human life.”
You can learn more about the new eparchy at its website. And to discover the rich history of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, read our profile in the pages of ONE.
4 October 2016
Tags: Eastern Christianity Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Eastern Catholic Churches Australia
Sister Hakinta Muradyan drives children to the Catholic church in Tashir, Armenia. Many of the children in the town are fatherless. To learn more about the challenges they’re facing, and how the church is helping them, read Armenia’s Children, Left Behind in the Summer 2016 edition of ONE. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
4 October 2016
Tags: Children Sisters Armenia Catholic
A man inspects the damage at a wedding hall on 4 October, a day after a suicide attack targeted a Kurdish wedding party in the village of Tall Tawil in the Syrian Hassake province. (photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)
Suicide bomber kills dozens at Kurdish wedding in Syria (BBC) At least 30 people have been killed in a suicide bomb attack at a Kurdish wedding in northeastern Syria. The explosion occurred on Monday night at a hall in Tal Tawil, outside Hassake city, reportedly while the bride and groom were exchanging vows…
Report: Ten countries host half of the world’s refugees (Al Jazeera) Ten countries — which account for just 2.5 percent of the global economy — are hosting more than half the world’s refugees, a rights group has said, accusing wealthy countries of leaving poorer nations to bear the brunt of a worsening crisis. In a report published on Tuesday, Amnesty International said the unequal share was exacerbating the global refugee problem, as inadequate conditions in the main countries of shelter pushed many to embark on dangerous journeys to Europe and Australia…
‘ISIS module’ arrested in Kerala (The Indian Express) A graphic artist with a right-wing local newspaper, a Malayalee working in Oman for the last five years and an engineering student who dropped out are among the six members of the alleged Islamic State module busted in Kerala on Sunday, who are suspected to have been engaged in propagating the terror group’s ideology, according to NIA…
Israel tightens security for Jewish new year (Reuters) Israelis went to the market on Sunday for last-minute purchases as they prepared for the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown, amid tightened security and the closure of the Palestinian territories. Rosh Hashanah, the two-day Jewish new year, will conclude at nightfall on Tuesday…
Catholic, Anglican bishops seeking closer partnership in mission (Vatican Radio) Closer practical cooperation between Anglicans and Catholics in countries across the globe: that’s the primary goal of a two day visit of Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, to Rome this week. The Anglican leader arrives on Wednesday and is scheduled to join Pope Francis for Vespers at the church of San Gregorio al Celio in the afternoon…
3 October 2016
Tags: Syria India Refugees Israel Christian Unity
St. Thomas Seminary now serves as the pastoral center for the Archdiocese of Hartford in Connecticut. (photo: CNEWA)
Saturday morning, CNEWA paid a visit to the Archdiocese of Hartford. We dropped by the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Connecticut, to speak to deacons and their wives about the ongoing crisis in the Middle East — and, in particular, the plight of persecuted Christians.
CNEWA offered a presentation to about 50 deacons and their wives from the Archdiocese of Hartford. (photo: CNEWA)
The Rev. Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D., offered some stark statistics about the continuing exodus of Christians from the region, and I shared some of the personal stories of displaced Iraqis — including the dedicated Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena who so selflessly serve the people in need.
Father Elias presented an overview of the hardships Christians face in the Middle East. (photo: CNEWA)
The goal was to give deacons the tools to help spread the word about what is happening in the Middle East — and let them know how people in their parishes can help. We want to extend a special note of gratitude to Deacon Bob Pallotti, director of the diaconate program in Hartford, for his warm welcome and hospitality.
We love being able to share CNEWA’s story — so if your church, clergy group or parish would like us to visit and talk about the work we do, just drop us a line. Contact our development director Norma Intriago at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re happy to tailor a presentation for your particular parish or organization!
Deacon Greg Kandra, CNEWA’s multimedia editor, Norma Intriago, director of development, and Father Elias Mallon. (photo: CNEWA)
3 October 2016
Tags: Middle East Christians CNEWA Middle East United States
Pope Francis meets with Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia at the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Paying honor to the steadfast faith of Orthodox Christians in Georgia, Pope Francis nevertheless urged them to draw closer to other Christians and work together to share the Gospel.
Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II, who recently has been cautious in his relations with leaders of other churches, greeted Pope Francis when he arrived at the Tbilisi airport on 30 September, welcomed him to the patriarchal palace that evening and hosted him again on 1 October at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.
Walking into a meeting hall at the patriarchate on 30 September, Pope Francis helped the 83-year-old Patriarch Ilia, who moves with great difficulty because of Parkinson’s disease.
More than 80 percent of Georgians are Orthodox; Catholics from the Latin, Armenian and Chaldean churches form about 2 percent of the population.
In the 1980’s, the Georgian Orthodox Church was deeply involved in the process of seeking Christian unity, but its participation has waned in recent years in conjunction with a stronger assertion of Georgian identity, including its language and Orthodox faith.
When the pope arrived in Georgia, small groups of Orthodox faithful gathered on the road outside Tbilisi airport holding signs protesting the his visit. One sign called him a “heretic” and the other accused the Catholic Church of “spiritual aggression.” The same groups were present the next evening outside Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the spiritual center of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox groups most opposed to dialogue with Western Christians have expressed fear that closer ties with the West will lead to what they see as moral decadence.
Patriarch Ilia told Pope Francis that while globalization is not “a negative phenomenon per se, it contains a lot of dangers and threats,” including the possibility of creating what he described as a “homogenous mess” that erases specific cultural and moral values.
While the world has experienced progress in many ways, he said, “humanity has taken steps backward in spirituality, in belief in God.”
Nevertheless, the patriarch spoke warmly of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and practical cooperation and he welcomed the pope, saying, “This is truly a historic visit. May God bless our two churches.”
Pope Francis began his speech by making a personal, improvised comment: “I am profoundly moved by hearing the ‘Ave Maria’ composed by Your Holiness. Only a heart profoundly devoted to the Mother of God could compose something so beautiful.”
“Faced with a world thirsting for mercy, unity and peace,” Pope Francis told the patriarch and members of the Georgian Synod of Bishops, God asks Catholics and Orthodox to “renew our commitment to the bonds which exist between us, of which our kiss of peace and our fraternal embrace are already an eloquent sign.”
While the Georgian patriarchate traces its origins to the preaching of the apostle Andrew, the church of Rome — the papacy — was founded by the apostle Peter. The two apostles were brothers, Pope Francis noted, and the churches they founded “are given the grace to renew today, in the name of Christ and to his glory, the beauty of apostolic fraternity.”
“Dear brother,” the pope told the patriarch, “let us allow the Lord Jesus to look upon us anew, let us once again experience the attraction of his call to leave everything that prevents us from proclaiming together his presence.”
“The Lord has given this love to us, so that we can love each other as he has loved us,” Pope Francis said.
The love of God and love for God, he said, should enable Catholics and Orthodox “to rise above the misunderstandings of the past, above the calculations of the present and fears for the future.”
Pope Francis praised the strength of the Georgian people and the Georgian church, which “found the strength to rise up again after countless trials.”
Pope Francis and the Orthodox patriarch of Georgia met on 30 September and pledged to witness to the Gospel of peace. (video: CNS)
The Georgian Orthodox Church, like the Catholic churches, is still recovering from harsh repression under Soviet rule. In 1917, there were almost 2,500 Orthodox churches in the country, but by the mid-1980’s only 80 were open for worship. The Catholic parishes suffered a similar fate, with church property confiscated and used as museums, offices, social halls or given to the Orthodox.
“The multitude of saints, whom this country counts, encourages us to put the Gospel before all else and to evangelize as in the past, even more so, free from the restraints of prejudice and open to the perennial newness of God,” the pope said.
When differences arise, he said, they must not be allowed to be an obstacle to evangelizing together, but a stimulus to get to know and understand each other better, “to intensify our prayers for each other and to cooperate with apostolic charity in our common witness, to the glory of God in heaven and in the service of peace on earth.”
Pope Francis ended his remarks by praying that the Georgian martyrs would intercede to bring “relief to the many Christians who even today suffer persecution and slander, and may they strengthen us in the noble aspiration to be fraternally united in proclaiming the Gospel of peace.”
Vatican officials had hoped that Patriarch Ilia would an official delegation to the pope’s Mass in Tbilisi on 1 October, which did not happen, but the patriarch warmly welcomed the pope to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral that evening, explaining the importance of the site in the history of Georgian Christianity and describing it as a symbol of stalwart faith in the face of the harshest persecution.
Pope Francis responded by praising the way the Georgian Orthodox treasure their history, but he also said that Christian identity is maintained when it not only is deeply rooted in faith, but “also when it is open and ready, never rigid or closed.”
Georgian Orthodox tradition holds that a chapel in the cathedral houses the seamless tunic of Jesus, a garment the pope described as symbolizing “a mystery of unity.”
Contemplating that seamless garment, he said, should make Christians feel “deep pain over the historical divisions” among them. “These are the true and real lacerations that wound the Lord’s flesh.”
3 October 2016
Tags: Pope Francis Ecumenism Christian Unity Georgia Georgian Orthodox Church
The video above details some of the highlights of Pope Francis’s trip this past weekend to Azerbaijan, including his visit to a newly dedicated mosque. (video: Rome Reports)
Pope visits mosque in Azerbaijan, issues plea for tolerance (CNS) As the spiritual leader of a tiny religious minority in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis told the leaders of the country’s other religious communities that they share a responsibility to help people grow in faith, but also in tolerance for the faith of others. “The blood of far too many people cries out to God from the Earth, our common home,” the pope said on 2 October during a meeting with religious leaders hosted by Sheik Allahshukur Pashazade, the region’s chief imam, in Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Mosque…
Pope meets charity workers in Tbilisi (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis met Catholic charity workers in the Georgian capital and encouraged them in their work, saying “the poor and the weak are the ‘flesh of Christ’ who call upon Christians of every confession, urging them to act without personal interests, following only the prompting of the Holy Spirit.” The meeting took place in the grounds of the Camilliani health clinic in Tbilisi and was attended by its director and the head of Caritas Georgia. Also present were staff and volunteers working for various Catholic charitable organizations in Georgia as well as patients and medical staff from the Camilliani clinic…
Syrian cave hospital shut down after attack (CNN) A hospital inside a cave in northeastern Syria has been forced to shut down after being hit by suspected “bunker-buster” missiles, according to an international aid organization. The hospital just outside of Hama — about 27 miles north of Homs — was hit Sunday, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations…
Al Azhar University will organize international conference on peace (Fides) The Islamic University of Al Azhar will organize in early 2017, in cooperation with the Muslim Council of Elders, an international conference on peace, coexistence and interreligious dialogue, which will also include the active representatives of the Christian Churches of the East…
Ukrainian church in Canada destroyed by fire reopens (CBC) After a devastating fire, which burned St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church to the ground in April 2014, the Brampton church has now reopened, and to celebrate the church held its opening liturgy and consecration on Saturday. Hundreds of parishioners and guests from around the world attended, including head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, His Beatitude Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who flew in from Ukraine to preside…
Tags: Egypt Pope Francis Georgia Canada Azerbaijan