27 July 2017
In this image from last year, Christian worshippers pray at Sayydet al-Niyah Church in Damascus, Syria. Centuries before Christianity took root in Europe, it was flourishing in Syria and other countries to the East. (photo: CNS/Youssef Badawi, EPA)
Recently we have been hearing that Christianity risks extinction in the Middle East, the region often described as the “cradle of Christianity.” While Christians in the West lament the possible extinction of Christians in the East, the attitude is often “well, there never were a lot of Christians there any way.”
Each of us sees reality through a very local lens. It often seems as if the unspoken attitude among Western Christians is that, after the Ascension of Jesus, the Apostles got together, Peter decided to go to Rome and the other 11 went into assisted living. The conclusion: from the very beginning Christianity was a European phenomenon.
In fact, nothing could be further than the truth.
For at least the first 500 years of Christianity, most Christians lived east of the Mediterranean in what was then known as Syria and Mesopotamia. Many might be surprised to learn that the Church of the East, often referred to as “Nestorian,” was in China before Christianity reached Denmark and the Slavic countries. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day in the year 800, Timothy of the Church of the East was a metropolitan archbishop in Tibet. Middle Eastern Christians were in India and China 1,000 years before the arrival of St. Francis Xavier (who died in 1552).
The region known as Mesopotamia stretched from the Mediterranean east, all the way to the
Persian Gulf. (photo: Wikipedia)
The Christian presence in the East, from the early days, was fairly extensive. For several centuries after the Muslim conquest of the Middle East (in the seventh century), Christians formed a majority of the population in the two Islamic caliphates. In the first caliphate, the Umayyad (661-750), Christians played a major role in the government. St. John Damascene (ca. 675-749) came from a family of Christian civil servants in the caliphate at Damascus.
There were and remain several different Christian churches in the Middle East, both Orthodox and Catholic, tracing their roots back to the time of the Apostles. Some of the ancient churches of the Middle East had great centers of theological learning like Edessa and Nisibis (respectively Sanliurfa and Nusaybin in modern Turkey). The university in Nisibis antedated the earliest universities in Europe by over 500 years.
One of the interesting characteristics of Middle Eastern theology is that, while Western Christians often used creeds to express their faith, the preferred medium for expressing faith in Middle Eastern Christianity was hymns and poetry. Thus, St. Ephrem the Syrian, one of the great biblical scholars and theologians of both the Western and Eastern churches, left behind not summas, like Aquinas and others, but rather huge volumes of hymns and poetry.
Over the next three weeks, we will look at 2,000 years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia and how these ancient and most interesting churches were founded, flourished and ultimately began to decline; in places where they were once the majority, they are now small minorities, often well under 10 percent.
We hope to help readers not only understand just who these Christians are, but also why their survival is critical to Christians everywhere.
27 July 2017
Young people clap during the World Maronite Youth Days 19 July in Beirut. The event, organized by the Maronite Patriarchate Youth Pastoral Office, followed the World Youth Day model.
(photo: CNS/Johnny Antoun)
They came from around the world, from Australia, South America, Europe and the United States. Some came from Africa, and some from nearby countries in the Middle East.
They clapped and ululated, creating a celebratory atmosphere as nearly 500 young people from other countries joined 1,000 Maronite Catholic youths from Lebanon for World Maronite Youth Days.
Some participants came with a durbakke, a popular Lebanese hand drum, to accent the mood with a rhythmic beat. When a troupe of folk dancers performed the traditional dabke dance, many youths rushed from their seats to form snakes on the perimeter of the seating area, hands joined for the step-and-stomp line dance. Even nuns joined in.
“Everyone is singing songs, outwardly praising,” said Michel Kahwajy, 24, a Maronite Catholic from Richmond, Virginia.
“Meeting people that are my age that are passionate about their Maronite faith, that’s been a really moving thing for me,” he told Catholic News Service.
Although “America is a little bit more diverse ... being a ‘melting pot’ that it is, life is built more around religion here (in Lebanon),” Kahwajy said.
Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, the Vatican nuncio to Lebanon, welcomed the people “with great love” and told them “Pope Francis is among you and encourages you all.” Each participant received the Gospel of Luke in booklet form, a gift from the pope, and the nuncio urged them “to be a living Gospel.”
The World Maronite Youth Days ran 15-25 July. Pilgrims stayed with host families throughout Lebanon’s 13 Maronite eparchies, or dioceses, for the first few days to experience the day-to-day culture and spiritual life in a Lebanese Maronite Catholic parish. Later, monasteries and convents hosted the youth.
Young people gather for an evening event at the World Maronite Youth Days July 19 in Beirut.
(photo: CNS/Johnny Antoun)
Each morning began with Mass, prayers, catechesis and discussion groups. The youth also visited holy sites of Lebanon, including the tomb of St. Charbel, and they trekked through the forest of the famous Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab), cited 103 times in the Bible.
“Despite differences of culture and language, we are bridge builders,” said Father Toufic Bou Hadir, coordinator of the youth pastoral ministry for the Maronite Patriarchate. He told the young people: “In the face of terrorism, violence and conflicts, let’s say: ‘We are strong and courageous.’”
“It changed me a lot, this experience, sharing with a lot of young people, (who are) different, but with the same belief,” 18-year-old Ismael Azar of Buenos Aires, Argentina, told CNS. Even during times of fun, Azar noted, “it’s a spiritual moment too, because the climate of the event is very spiritual.”
“What I’m bringing back to Argentina,” Azar said, “is a lot of (new) friends that treat us like a family,” and a mission “to bring Jesus to the others.”
Sandy Agob, 23, said she and 13 others from the area around Aleppo, Syria, were “trying to stay happy, and that’s why we are here to celebrate with the Maronites, although there are bombs and problems in Syria.”
Agob said she appreciated the fellowship aspect of the event.
“We should stay strong even if all the situation is against us. We need to stay together, all the Christians in the world,” she said.
Watch a video of the event below.
27 July 2017
Kidist Kassahun studies in her room in Dubbo, Ethiopia, near her prayer corner. To learn about how Catholic schools there are succeeding, read Head of the Class in the current edition of ONE.
(photo: Petterik Wiggers)
27 July 2017
A destroyed building is seen in Mosul, Iraq, on 24 July. (photo: CNS/Stringer, EPA)
The hunt for the missing in Mosul (AFP) In Mosul, the missing are everywhere, their families hunting through the ruined Iraqi city for traces of lost husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters...
Gaza power-sharing deal moves ahead (AP) Lawmakers from Hamas and those affiliated with a former Gaza strongman have met for the first time in a decade in Gaza’s parliament building...
Ethiopia’s model drought defenses are put to the test (Christian Science Monitor) If Ethiopia was once the world’s poster child for drought mismanagement, it is now the regional model for early warning and nimble response. As two of the worst droughts in recorded history have swept across the country, a muscular, government-led reaction has driven back the crisis to mostly manageable levels — even as in neighboring South Sudan and Somalia, the same weather conditions have brought populations to the edge of famine...
India’s first Dalit president given a second Christian burial (OutlookIndia.com) A part of the ashes of India’s first Dalit President KR Narayanan, who was cremated on the banks Yamuna following Hindu rituals, was given a second Christian burial, admits his daughter Chitra Narayanan. There was kerfuffle over the discovery of a tomb in cemetery exclusively for Christians in the name of former president KR Narayanan, who was born into a Hindu Dalit family in Uzhavoor village in Kerala and remained so officially until he died on 9 November 2005...
Pushing the boundaries with icons (KALW) In the Russian Orthodox Church, art is much more than just decoration. Small, elaborate paintings known as icons portray Christianity’s most famous persons, and are used as tools for prayer. Today, a number of artists who are neither Russian nor Russian Orthodox are nonetheless pushing the boundaries of this religious art form...
26 July 2017
In this image from April, people from Mosul, Iraq, raise a wooden cross near St. Georges Monastery. (photo: CNS/Omar Alhayali, EPA)
CNEWA Canada’s national director, Carl Hétu published some thoughts recently on the future for Christians in Iraq, after the defeat of ISIS:
The reign of the Islamic State (Daesh) has come to an end in Iraq and it is losing ground in neighboring Syria. Iraqis, with an international coalition supporting them, have finally succeeded in uniting against a common enemy that has caused so much suffering, in particular to Iraq's Christian and Yazidi communities.
What happens now in Iraq? There seems to be no reconciliation in sight between the Shi’ite-led government and Sunnis who led the country under Saddam Hussein. Further north, the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan have clearly expressed their intention for more autonomy — even separation from Baghdad if they have to. The Iraqi central government has already indicated its opposition to such an idea — threatening force to repress any such movement.
Minority groups would be the biggest losers if a new civil war breaks out. Christians have found themselves unprotected and mistreated (threats, kidnappings, torture, assassinations) over the past 14 years in Iraq. While there were some 1.5 million Christians in Iraq in 2003, barely 250,000 remain today — half of whom were forcibly displaced by Daesh in 2014. The vast majority are displaced, living in Iraqi Kurdistan. In three years, some 40,000 have left for Jordan and Lebanon and for the promise of passage to Australia, Europe or Canada.
Iraq’s Christians were once recognized for nurturing excellent relations with other ethnic and religious groups within the country. Entrepreneurially driven, they have been important contributors to the country’s socio-economic development, creating jobs, and establishing effective social services and health-care institutions that provide assistance to the most disadvantaged, regardless of religion. For those who remain, a majority do not see a return to Mosul or the Nineveh Plains as a solution for fear of political and economic instability. Thus, without its Christians, Iraq now faces an enormous brain drain and shortage of qualified labor.
Should armed conflict erupt, the Christian presence in Iraq would suffer yet another blow. Peace, which to some eyes seems within reach, is the only way to save what remains of this ancient community. If members of the international coalition were to invest the same energy and resources as used in their mission to help neutralize Daesh, the country could finally achieve the stability that it desperately needs.
Read more at the Huffington Post.
26 July 2017
Boys play under an overflowing dam along Powai Lake in Mumbai, India, on 20 July. Young Indian Catholics are set to travel to Yogyakarta, Indonesia next month for Asian Youth Day.
(photo: CNS/Shailesh Andrade, Reuters)
Young Indian Catholics set to participate in the upcoming seventh Asian Youth Day in Indonesia are expecting the event to change their perspectives on faith, reported ucanews.com.
They will join about 3,000 young people from 26 Asian countries in the Indonesian city for the summit, with the theme “Joyful Asian Youth: Living the Gospel in Multicultural Asia.”
The Indian participants are mostly youth leaders and aware of “what is happening in the church, its structure, way of functioning,” said Father Thomas.
“Interacting with other youths about their role in the church and ways of working and their exchanging about these experiences will be helpful for their lives,” he said.
Delegation members come from different regions of India and were chosen by their dioceses. All will cover their own costs, Father Thomas said.
Leon Pereira, vice president of the Indian Catholic Youth Movement, said he is among 12 chosen from Vasai Diocese and is looking forward to meeting young Catholics from various nations.
“They are coming from different backgrounds — their role in the church, way of prayers, and cultures will be different,” said Pereira.
“Interacting with them, I’m sure will strengthen our faith, our prayer life and our role in society.&rduo;
The 24-year-old said he was looking to forward to understanding how Catholics from other countries practice their faith.
Jenny Joy, 26, of Delhi Archdiocese said meeting Indians from different regions will be “an experience” because “we are different in our food habit, culture and language.”
Joy said India’s diversity will make it a challenge for the delegation to tell its whole story.
“Life situations, culture and language of Christians from different regions of India vary vastly, making it almost difficult to generalize the situation of Indian Christians,” she said.
26 July 2017
In the video above, a religious sister from Syria describes how Christians there have continued to cling to their faith. (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)
Pressure continues to involve Christians in Kurdistan referendum (Fides) Political leaders of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan continue to try and involve Christians in support of the referendum convened for next 25 September, seeking to proclaim full independence from Baghdad...
Security forces sent to Lebanese Christian town near Syria (Al-Arabiya.net) Security reinforcements were sent to the Lebanese Christian town of Al-Qaa after reports that gunmen may have entered. A number of suicide bombers attacked the Lebanese Christian village last year killing a number of people and wounding dozens more. ISIS was responsible for the bombings in the village of Qaa on Lebanon’s border with Syria...
Syrians rebuild a mosque in Aleppo — and rebuild their community (The Independent) The crumpled heap of stones, all that is left of the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, asks questions of us all. How do we “restore” or “repair” or “rebuild” a jewel of Seljuk civilization from which millions of Muslims — perhaps even Saladin himself — were called to prayer five times each day for 900 years in one of the oldest cities of the world?...
Coptic Church launches campaign against female genital mutilation (Fides) The Orthodox Coptic Church is about to launch an intense awareness campaign among its faithful against the practice of female genital mutilation, which continues to be widespread among Coptic Christians in different areas of Upper Egypt...
Ethiopian Rosh Hashanah blends unique customs (Jewish News Service) Despite relative isolation from their Jewish brethren around the world for millennia, Ethiopian Jews have coveted the same dream of celebrating Rosh Hashanah “next year in Jerusalem.” Though unique, the Jewish New Year festivities in Ethiopia bear many similarities to the holiday’s observance in the broader diaspora...
25 July 2017
Tags: Syria Egypt Lebanon Ethiopia Copts
While visiting CNEWA’s New York offices, Andrij Waskowycz, president of Caritas Ukraine, urged the people of the West to remember the suffering people of his homeland. (photo: Greg Kandra)
We were privileged to welcome a visitor from the East to our New York offices this afternoon: Andrij Waskowycz, president of Caritas Ukraine.
He shared with our staff some of the urgent and important work his organization is undertaking in his corner of the world — in particular, he said, dealing with what he called “the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II,” which has displaced millions throughout Ukraine and parts of Eastern Europe.
Mr. Wascowycz spoke, in particular, of three areas Caritas Ukraine is focused on: assisting the elderly; serving “street children” who have been all-but-abandoned by their families; and helping confront problems in migration and human trafficking.
The needs of the Ukrainian people have only grown since the “Maidan movement” uprisings of 2013, he explained, and the staff at Caritas Ukraine has also grown — from a couple hundred a decade ago to now over 1,000.
Beyond the basic humanitarian needs of the people, he said, Caritas must also try to create a future for them: bringing them jobs and what he called “a normal life.”
“We have to assist them with their whole life,” he said. “We have these highly traumatized people and we have to assist them now and also in 10 years. This is something we have to do, to redirect ourselves.”
Caritas Ukraine, he added, is the “church in action,” but it cannot work alone.
When asked what message he’d like to convey to the world, he put it bluntly:
“Don’t forget Ukraine.”
It is a forgotten war, he said, part of “an invisible crisis,” often overlooked. It doesn’t get a lot of media coverage, or dominate the headlines. But the crisis is real and it is far from over.
“People are suffering in Ukraine,” he said quietly. “Don’t forget them.”
To learn more, check out these stories from ONE:
Out From Underground
A Letter from Ukraine
Prayer and Protest
25 July 2017
A boy carries his belongings in Mosul, Iraq, on 23 July. Some Iraqi Christians who are making their slow return to ancestral lands say it will take time to rebuild their lives and trust of those who betrayed them. (photo: CNS/Thaier Al-Sudani, Reuters)
As some Iraqi Christians make a slow return to the region around Mosul following the defeat of the Islamic State group, many say it will take time to rebuild their lives and even longer to rebuild their trust of those who betrayed them.
“The war isn’t finished yet and neither is the Islamic State. There is no stability and there is still fighting in Mosul,” said Patriarch Louis Sako, head of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church, who visited Mosul on 20 July, touring churches left badly damaged during the city’s three-year occupation by the extremists.
“How can Christians return when there are homes destroyed and there are no services? But most important is safety. The return of Christians needs time,” Patriarch Sako warned, in remarks carried by Radio Free Europe.
Although Iraqi forces declared victory over Islamic State fighters in Mosul early in July, the patriarch said the region remains unstable, leaving Christians uncertain about their future in their historic homeland.
“Trust must be rebuilt because the Christians of this region have endured such abuse and violence, leaving deep wounds,” Patriarch Sako said.
Father Emanuel Youkhana, an Iraqi priest, or archimandrite, of the Assyrian Church of the East, also warned that although Islamic State may be defeated militarily, “it doesn’t mean that its mentality, ideology or culture will be ended.”
Father Youkhana, who runs the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, a program for displaced Iraqis around the city of Dahuk, spoke to Catholic News Service via Skype.
“The mentality of Islamic State in terms of accepting or recognizing others who are different is still there among people. Although we are happy for the liberation of Mosul, in reality, no Christian or Yezidi will go back to Mosul. I say this with pain,” he emphasized.
“Now is the time to think about alternative places to set up public services, health care, businesses and economics in the region,” perhaps to establish these in “one of the Ninevah Plains towns, such as Telaskov, to serve Christians, Yezidis and Muslims,” he said.
Many see Telaskov as a prime location for the reconstruction and rebuilding of lives to start in earnest, because Islamic State militants spent less than two weeks occupying it, so damage is minimal.
Telaskov translates as “Bishop’s Hill” and, before the Islamic State takeover, was a thriving town of 11,000.
“Now, more than 600 families have returned to Telaskov; those formally from the town and nearby Batnaya because it is not possible to return to Batnaya due to huge damage,” Father Youkhana said.
“Life is regained, markets are open, the church is functioning and hoping the schools will be open there as well by the beginning of the school year,” he said.
Christians have expressed concerns that the current military line dividing the once predominantly Christian Ninevah Plains region will harden to become a de facto political/administrative line, dividing their numbers. In the north are towns like Telaskov and Batnaya, and the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters hold sway. Towns south of the line — where Qaraqosh, Bartella, and Bashiqa are found — are now under the control of the Iraqi army and Shiite militias.
Father Youkhana’s CAPNI organization has been able to rehabilitate more than 180 houses and properties and 17 schools north of the military line, where there is greater stability.
He expressed concerns especially for towns south of the military line, like Qaraqosh, once the biggest Christian town of 50,000 before the Islamic State takeover in August 2014.
“The Shiites are now trying to monopolize it and other towns. We have the challenge about how to keep them. We believe there will be a Christian town of Qaraqosh. The question is: Who will rule it? Questions also arise about the physical connectivity of Qaraqosh to other Christian towns in the Ninevah Plains given the different political and military sides that control the divided area.
Father Youkhana also shared a fear expressed by Christians that the victims of Islamic State extremists such as themselves, the Yezidis and other religious minorities will again become victims in the reconstruction process.
“Our people are concerned that Arab Sunni Muslims who hosted and joined Islamic State and helped the extremists against us will be given priority in reconstruction of Mosul, perhaps from the Iraqi government and the Arab Gulf states,” he said. “The victims will be ignored and neglected.”
Christians are calling on the international community, along with the Iraqi government, to help them and other citizens from religious minority backgrounds. Often, Father Youkhana said, there are unfair expectations that all the help will come from Christians themselves or the Western churches.
“It is the government and the international community that should commit to support these people,” he said.
“To rehabilitate a house is not enough to return. Beyond the politics, the security, there is the livelihood of how families can survive. When 30 families are coming to a neighborhood in Qaraqosh, they need a grocery, a bakery, jobs,” he said.
“We fled in one night from the Islamic State; we may take one or two years to return home,” he added.
25 July 2017
A migrant child sits on the deck of rescue ship as it arrives on 19 April in Augusta, Italy. A Vatican representative told the U.N. Monday that the integration of migrants and refugees in host nations must become an opportunity for new understanding.
(photo: CNS/Darrin Zammit Lupi, pool via Reuters)
Vatican on migration: an opportunity for development, fraternity (Vatican Radio) The integration of migrants and refugees in host nations can and must become an opportunity for new understanding, broader horizons and greater development for everyone. This message was at the heart of a statement released on Monday by Father Michael Czerny at the UN in New York during an Informal Thematic Session in New York to gather substantive input and recommendations to inform the Global Compact on Migration...
Tensions continue in Jerusalem (Fides) The Israeli government has ordered the removal of installed metal detectors to control the entry at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. But it is too soon to tell whether this measure will have an impact on the tension and violence unleashed around the Holy City where the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are situated...
A new life in strangers’ clothes for refugees in Canada (Racked.com) Like most refugees, the Syrians arriving in Canada come with very little literal baggage. They leave behind wedding presents and photo albums, family heirlooms and art collections. A threat to physical safety, the need to flee from civil conflict, might seem like it renders material objects irrelevant. But we carry a powerful attachment to tangible things. The things we collect keep us rooted in the earth; our homes, our beds, our bookshelves and frying pans, the sneakers with the shoelaces that always come undone, and the letters collected in a box tell the story of who we are and where we have been...
How Gaza became unlivable (Al Jazeera) The United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory recently released an incisive report on Gaza (PDF), focusing on the humanitarian impact of Israel’s 10-year blockade and the internal political divisions among the Palestinians. Its findings are bleak: Gaza’s impoverishment is entirely the product of human decisions, and not the fate of nature...
Indian Christians observe ‘Martyrdom Day’ (Vatican Radio) A group of Indian Christians have decided to observe Martyrdom Day on 22 July in memory of Christians who are persecuted and killed for their faith. It was the initiative of Shibu Thomas who through his ecumenical movement, “Persecution Relief” said special prayers were offered in Churches across the country. The observance is “part of a concerted effort to encourage those who continue to struggle to cope with persecution and challenge to live a true Christian life,” Thomas told UCANEWS...
Vatican turns off fountains to save water (Vatican Radio) The drought that is affecting the city of Rome and the surrounding areas of the capital has led the Holy See to take measures to save water...