22 February 2012
A procession during Holy Week in Jerusalem taken in 1988. (photo: Paul Souders)
Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season. It is a time of preparation for the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is also a time for reflection and sacrifice. What will you be doing this Lenten season?
CNEWA actually has a Lenten Giving Plan that may interest you. Check it out on our website.
21 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Jerusalem Easter
Al Lagan, CNEWA donor, Joseph Hazboun, Jerusalem office manager, and Sami El Yousef, regional director for Palestine and Israel, chat outside the CNEWA-Pontifical Mission office in Jerusalem. (photo: Gabriel Delmonaco)
CNEWA’s Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., and Gabriel Delmonaco recently accompanied a group of friends and benefactors on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Last Wednesday, 15 February, was an important day. Early in the morning, after crossing the New Gate and entering the Christian Quarter, only after a few steps on the uneven cobble stones, we saw the emerald-green iron gates of CNEWA’s office in Jerusalem (known locally as the Pontifical Mission). Sami El Yousef, the regional director, was already waiting for us on the threshold of the door with a welcoming smile. “Marhaba,” he said and introduced us to his devoted staff members ready to discuss with us the mission and operations of the office.
CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission recently celebrated its 60th year in the Holy Land. In 1949, right after the war and the subsequent exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Pope Pius XII decided to create a pontifical agency for the relief of refugees. Born as a temporary organization to respond to an emergency, the Pontifical Mission has grown in its scope and outreach, step by step with the problems of this troubled land.
Sami recalled that some Palestinian families who had lived in western Jerusalem for generations fled to the eastern part of the city and sought temporary refuge in his parents’ house that had some extra room. They told Sami’s family that they felt this war would be over in a few days and they could return to their homes soon. They fled with a few possessions and most importantly with the key to their house that they jealously kept. Days, months and more than 60 years went by and none of these families were able to return home. All the initial members died with the hope to receive justice and now their children carry the same dream. Some of them very cynically said that they’ll never see peace during their lifetime, but they still preserve the key of their parents’ house.
Gathered around a table with staff members, during the first 20 minutes of our meeting we watched a moving video presentation prepared to mark the 60th anniversary of this office. As the images and the voice of the narrator went through the six decades of struggle and hope, we realized how much was accomplished in the name of the Holy Father by a rather small staff. Food, housing, support, jobs, restoration of churches and negotiations are just some of the important needs addressed by the Pontifical Mission.
As the conversation proceeded, Sami presented the geopolitical and demographic analysis of the area. We all realized something very important, which explains the dedication and unity of this office. Our staff members are all Palestinians; they lived through the struggles and challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian violence. Some had their land confiscated, so that a dividing wall could be built in the name of security. Others saw their children emigrate abroad. All have to go through the indignity and inconvenience of crossing through check points to visit our programs and projects. But in the middle of all this, the Pontifical Mission provides hope and comfort, thanks to a dedicated staff who can understand this conflict because they are part of it. All our benefactors on this trip acknowledged the sacrifice and stoicism of these unknown heroes.
As the day unfolded, we continued with the visitation of other holy sites, following in the steps of Jesus in Jerusalem. I believe that whenever any of us knelt to pray, we could not stop thinking of how fortunate we are to enjoy freedom in our own country. We could not stop thinking of how fortunate we are to entrust the work of CNEWA in the Holy Land to such a dedicated and concerned staff. Shukran!
17 February 2012
Tags: CNEWA Palestine Israel Jerusalem Unity
Sister Bellegia Shayaf, the mother superior of St. Thecla’s Convent in Maaloula, holds an orphaned girl. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
Over the years, we have featured many stories on Christian life in Syria in the pages of ONE. With the ongoing violence and bloodshed in Aleppo, Homs and elsewhere, this beautiful image of a nun holding one of her orphaned charges from the ancient village of Maaloula serves as an important reminder of what is at stake for Syria’s Christians. Taken in 2007, this unpublished photo is from the story Echoes of Jesus From Syria’s Mountains in the May 2008 edition.
15 February 2012
Tags: Syria Middle East Christians Middle East Village life
Hana Habshi sits in the unfinished St. Charbel’s Maronite Catholic Church in the village of Deir El Ahmar, Lebanon. (photo: Laura Boushnak)
In the January 2012 issue of ONE, Don Duncan reported on water scarcity in Lebanon and how CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, is helping to remedy the problem as well as empower the beneficiaries, such as Hana Habshi pictured above:
The project has jump-started the local economy and is helping to revitalize Deir El Ahmar. Residents have pooled money to build a new church dedicated to St. Charbel. Still under construction, the Maronite church stands on a once desolate lot. Now, a lush, landscaped lawn and garden cover the grounds. On summer afternoons, locals often gather on the cool lawn in the shadows of the church to relax and take refuge from the sun’s sweltering rays.
“Water has brought us back to the lands,” says Mr. Habshi. “It has breathed life back into the community, and now it assures the completion of our church. What’s more, now I can afford to move back from Beirut and retire here.”
The reservoir is just one of many water projects the Pontifical Mission has spearheaded in Lebanon since 1993, when it became a key nongovernmental partner in the country’s post-war reconstruction. In the early days, the agency focused on restoring damaged water systems in rural communities, to ensure clean drinking water as well as to irrigate farms. In recent years, projects also include water collection and sewage treatment.
For more, read Springs of Hope in Lebanon featured in our January 2012 issue.
13 February 2012
Tags: Lebanon CNEWA Middle East Water Church
Late in the day, dusty hills surrounding Jericho prepare for sunset. (photo: Gabriel Delmonaco)
CNEWA’s Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., and Gabriel Delmonaco are accompanying a group of friends and benefactors on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Saturday, 11 February
As if modern Magi, we are looking for the birthplace of Jesus, but unlike them we are not following complicated astronomical trajectories. Our comet and guiding star is a Palestinian named Tony and instead of slow camels we are using a much faster and reliable Hyundai minivan. Unlike the Magi of the East, we came from the United States with one thing in common: we, in different ways, work for a papal agency that strives to support Christians in the Middle East and other troubled countries in the world. We don’t carry precious gifts ... only our desire to learn more about the situation of Christ’s followers and the way CNEWA is making a difference in their lives.
The Holy Land of the Magi has changed a lot. Villages on the shores of the Sea of Galilee are now inland; the waters are receding at a remarkable rate. Others are only remembered on dusty plaques; their ruins have been swallowed by earthquakes or ravaged by wars. The Magi didn’t have to go through Israeli checkpoints to adore the Christ child. Today, they wouldn’t even have been able to cross the River Jordan since the country traditionally associated with the Magi, Iran, isn’t exactly on good terms with Israel.
Despite all these differences with our predecessors, Father Guido, Steve, Joe, Al, Mary and I are motivated by the same desire of learning more about the man who changed our lives so much.
In Nazareth, at the site of the Annunciation, we reflected on the feelings of Mary when she was announced the great news. In Capernaum, a flourishing town in the time of our Lord, we walked through the sites where he performed his ministry and called some of his disciples. Although this village is now a quiet archaeological site, we could easily imagine what life must have been like. As we walked from the house of Peter to the Synagogue Jesus attended on the Sabbath, we brought the life of the town back again.
As Father Guido read the pages of the Gospel, we heard Jesus say, “Which is easier to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven, ’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
On the Mount of the Beatitudes, we could still hear the awe of the people listening to his message and witnessing the multiplications of loaves and fish. Steve Marcus, a Maronite deacon of the Eparchy of Brooklyn and a loyal benefactor to CNEWA, said that he’ll never hear the Gospel the same way after this trip. As we travel and listen to the Gospel, he avidly takes notes for future homilies.
Mary and her father Al from Boston cannot believe how beautiful these biblical places are and how torn by political issues they have become today. Joe, a retired lawyer, reflects silently, overwhelmed by this experience.
Sunday, 12 February
On the second day, on board our air-conditioned and comfortable four-wheel camel, we circumnavigated the Sea of Galilee. From Tabgha, we drove north and then east and south, through the occupied Golan Heights, once a part of Syria. Observing the level of infrastructure that has been built since the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, it seems unlikely these lands will one day be returned. The hilly Golan Heights strategically overlook Galilee and the land beyond.
As we approached Jericho, Father Guido noticed how unusually green and lush the soil was. Our comet, Tony, explained that there has been an unusual, steady rain in the past few days.
Before reaching Jericho, we stopped at the rocky and deserted area of Qumran. What appeared before our eyes, although blinded by the strong midday light, was a monumental excavation site that brought to life the place where the Essenes, a monastic religious Jew community, once thrived. The area is important, for it is here that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin in 1947.
After a quick look at the Dead Sea, where we saw swimmers floating on the salty waters, we entered the lowest and oldest city of the world: Jericho. Described in the Bible as the city of palm trees, today it is inhabited by 20,000 people. When I last visited in 2009, I had to go through two check points: first an Israeli followed by a Palestinian. Today, only the Palestinian one is active and the soldiers greeted us cheerfully. Jericho is an important biblical site. The Old Testament describes Joshua’s army of Israelites marching around the city, blowing their trumpets and destroying its walls. The New Testament documents the conversation between Jesus and the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, on a sycamore tree.
Before the sun disappeared completely behind the mountains beyond Jericho, we decided to walk through an impervious canyon carved out of a rocky deserted mountain to reach the monastery of St. George of Koziba. Located in Wadi Qelt, in the eastern West Bank, minutes from Jericho, this Orthodox monastery is built into a cliff and it took us about 2,000 steps to reach it at the bottom of the canyon. After praying in a crypt and meeting some of the monks, we decided to head back. What on the way down had been a pleasant walk now seemed a harsh and steep climb. Two in our group didn’t feel they could handle the hard walk. They closed a deal with Bedouins and returned on the back of a donkey. Unfortunately, we have a gentleman’s agreement and I cannot disclose their names ... But I guess I can tell you one is a deacon and the other a lawyer.
After a typical Middle Eastern dinner, we returned to our modern camel and headed toward Bethlehem.
13 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Holy Land Pilgrimage/pilgrims
Folk songs remain very popular in both rural and urban areas in Georgia.
(photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)
Last night, people around the world tuned in to what many consider “music’s biggest night” — The Grammy Awards. Music also plays a central role in the lives of the families and communities CNEWA serves. Traditional songs, dances and spiritual hymns contribute to the rich cultures of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe. In this photo, a family in Georgia sings a folk song in celebration of a wedding.
9 February 2012
Tags: Cultural Identity Georgia Tbilisi
Residents inspect the damage inside St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church after a bomb attack in central Kirkuk, Iraq, 15 August. A parked car bomb and a motorcycle bomb killed one person and wounded 12 others in central Kirkuk, hospital and police sources said.
(photo: CNS / Ako Rasheed, Reuters)
This week’s cover story in the U.S. magazine Newsweek features a provocative, bloodstained image of Christ with the even more provocative tag line that reads, “The War on Christians.” Authored by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch activist, the article is laden with anecdotes about anti-Christian violence in the Muslim world.
“A wholly different kind of war is underway,” she writes, “an unrecognized battle costing thousands of lives. Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion. It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm.”
The author believes this war has been unreported or worse, ignored, by the mainstream media for fear of encouraging fear of Islam, or Islamophobia.
“But a fair-minded assessment of recent events and trends leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the bloody Christophobia currently coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other,” she writes. “The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance has to stop. Nothing less than the fate of Christianity — and ultimately of all religious minorities — in the Islamic world is at stake.”
Wow. Surprising words for a self-proclaimed atheist with strong opinions about all religions, not just the Islamic faith of her ancestors.
No doubt, violence directed against Christians in the Muslim world has increased, particularly since the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the pages of our bimonthly magazine, ONE, and on the news feed on our web site, CNEWA has covered the violence directed against Christians in the Middle East. Catholic media have also diligently reported on these events, as have the mainstream media, including The New York Times.
Last September, the conservative blog Catholic Culture reported on Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria, quoting Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama of Jos.
“At least 14 people have died in tribal clashes in central Nigeria in the early days of September . Although the violence has pitted Christians against Muslims, a Catholic bishop insists that religion is not the fundamental cause of the conflict,” the report begins.
“The violence began when Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan were attacked. Their assailants were described as Christians, but local church leaders did not recognize them. ‘I do not know who these people are and what denomination they belong to, ’ the archbishop said.
“In response to that attack, Muslims raided several Christian villages on Sunday and Monday. The bloodshed occurred around Jos, in the center of the country, where the mostly Muslim north meets the Christian south.
“Archbishop Kaigama said that the violence reflected a breakdown in overall security. ‘It is very convenient for those in authority to say that the whole crisis is about religion,’ he observed.
“ ‘Christians and Muslims are fighting. Yes, I don’t deny that,’ the archbishop continued. ‘But then, the factors that are fueling that crisis are not certainly only religions.’ He pointed to old tribal animosities, complaints about theft of cattle, and the influence of outside agitators.”
The archbishop is not denying Christian-Muslim violence. But unlike Ms. Hirsi Ali, he sees other forces at work, and believes there are factors unrelated to faith identity also fueling these hostilities. The same is true throughout the Arab world. These factors are socio-economic, political, tribal. And they are playing out in a culture beset by enormous change that even dictators cannot suppress.
“Islam is experiencing an identity crisis,” a colleague said during a recent editorial team meeting. And when a faith community experiences a crisis of identity, extremists act on their fears.
Is there a global Islamic conspiracy to create “pure” Muslim societies? If there is, which form of Islam? Sunni or Shiite? Sufi or Ibadhi? What about Alawi and Druze? As ONE magazine reported back in 2007, “the very nature of the Islamic faith, with its lack of a governing religious authority and reliance on group consensus for legitimization of Islamic identity, ensures that the continuing proliferation of splinter groups, large and small, is inevitable and will result in variations in doctrine and practice until the ‘last days.’ ”
To be sure, the author of the Newsweek piece admits no conspiracy exists: “No, the violence isn’t centrally planned or coordinated by some international Islamist agency. In that sense the global war on Christians isn’t a traditional war at all. It is, rather, a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities.” But pulling atrocities out of context, and ignoring that context, is irresponsible — as are misleading banners and headlines.
“News reporting” such as this does not contribute to the dialogue that is necessary if Christians and Muslims are going to continue to live together.
9 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Christians Middle East Violence against Christians Holy Land Christian-Muslim relations
In this unpublished photo, taken in 2003, two young boys play in front of a church in a Christian Village near Homs, Syria. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
As the situation in Homs, Syria, continues to grow more bloody and violent by the day, Independent Catholic News reports that many Christians have fled the city in large numbers, including three bishops:
This is not because they have received threats — most churches and places of worship have escaped attack — but because the situation generally is “becoming more dangerous by the hour.”
Three bishops — one Catholic and two Orthodox from the Dioceses of Homs and Hama, have left. Syria’s third largest city is now mainly inhabited mainly by Alawites (President Bashar al Assad’s tribe) and Sunnis.
Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the United States closed its embassy in Syria as a result of the escalating violence.
To learn more about the history of Christian villages in Syria, read Syria’s Christian Valley from the January 2011 issue of ONE.
7 February 2012
Tags: Syria War Emigration
Sister Mariam Almiron of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word spins a small child around following Sunday Mass at the Holy Family Catholic Parish in Gaza. There are only about 3,000 Christians in Gaza, of which a little more than 200 are Catholic.
(photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey)
As a small minority in many countries of the Middle East, Christians often face great challenges. Last summer Sami El-Yousef, regional director of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission for Palestine and Israel, paid a visit to Gaza to see how the Christian community there is faring:
Life in Gaza is not easy. While the government there tolerates Christian institutions and the Christian presence, it is clear that adopting a more conservative Islamic way of life does conflict at times with the more open society these Christian institutions and individuals are accustomed to.
There is an uneasy balance that seems to be maintained and holding thus far. It is certainly not easy for a teenage girl who follows a literary Tawjihi stream and finishes tenth grade and has no option but to complete her high school education in the public school system and finds herself being veiled to go to school. Neither it is easy for college-age females who are locked up in Gaza due to the blockade and want to get a college education and have no choice other than the Gazan universities and again must be veiled to go to classes. This also applies to men and women, boys and girls engaged in joint sports activities at the local YMCA who feel that they are under the watchful eye of a conservative class that does not approve of gender integrated activities.
There are other trivial matters that affect Christians, too, such as the Muslim ban on the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. These may be little inconveniences and some of them actually may be good for you, but these are additional restrictions Christians have to deal with on top of the pressures and restrictions of the occupation and the blockade. There are no easy answers, but one needs to be aware of the difficulties of daily life in Gaza, especially to the Christian community, and to appreciate the need to strengthen the Christian institutions and the Christian presence. There are many possibilities for assistance, and we hope to be able to fundraise and implement some of the projects in the near future.
After all, Christian institutions promote Christian values of worship, love, respect, honesty, humility, hope, forgiveness, compassion, integrity and self discipline among others. Gaza can only be a better place if these values are ingrained in society, and what better way to do this other than to strengthen the Christian institutions and empower them to continue to provide their services to all Palestinians alike with these values in mind.
You can read much more here. And visit our website to learn how you can join CNEWA and support Christians in the Middle East.
6 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Christians Gaza Strip/West Bank Middle East
The faithful proceed to St. George Kvashveti Church in Tbilisi, Georgia for its patronal feast.
(photo: Molly Corso)
In the March 2007 issue of ONE, Molly Corso wrote about the return of Orthodox traditions and practices in Georgia some 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and imposed atheism:
A crowd swelled around Bishop Tevdora Chuadze as he blessed the faithful in Tbilisi’s St. George Kvashveti Church on 23 November, the feast of St. George.
Hundreds of believers filled the church, spilling into the adjoining courtyard where they waited to kiss and venerate the patronal icon of St. George. That afternoon, all of Georgia’s television stations broadcast the baptism of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s son by the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.
On that day, some 15 years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Communist-imposed atheism, it seemed the Georgian Orthodox Church had made a full recovery. A recent poll by the Caucasus Research Resource Center found that 63 percent of Georgians “fully trust” the church. (About 80 percent of Georgia’s 4.7 million citizens belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church.) In contrast, only 22 percent placed similar trust in President Saakashvili.
“The Georgian people were very strong, and did not lose their faith,” said Father Giorgi Getiashvili of the Kvashveti Church, one of the capital’s premier parishes.
Under Communist rule, people continued to go to church in secret. And after the fall of the Soviet Union, the church was reborn, Father Giorgi explained. “It was freed.”
For more, read A Georgian Revival.
Tags: Georgia Georgian Orthodox Church