26 September 2013
King Abdullah II speaks at the United Nations on 24 September. (photo: U.N./Marco Castro)
King Abdullah II, ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, gave an extraordinary speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 24 September 2013. The king, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and his family have long been engaged in dialogue with Christians and other religious faiths. Although the number of Christians in Jordan is small, they have enjoyed freedom to practice their faith under this king and his predecessors.
In his speech, King Abdullah spoke of what a modern Arab state needs to be: free, with freedom of opportunity and equality for all its citizens. However, the stability of Jordan is being put under tremendous pressure by the large number of refugees entering its borders, including Christians from Iraq and war refugees from Syria. The king noted that the number of refugees in Jordan equals 10 percent of the entire population — and that percentage could rise to 20 percent. No country can easily absorb that amount of refugees. As a comparison, if the United States were required to take the same percentage of refugees, the number would exceed the present populations of New York and New Jersey.
Put bluntly, Jordan needs all the help it can get. As one of the few areas of stability in the region, it is also one of the few places where Arab Christians are free to live their faith. It is developing democratic institutions and could in the future be one model for democracy in the region. The refugee problem threatens all of this. Jordan has shown typical Arab hospitality in welcoming refugees. However, the country’s economy cannot bear the strain that this brings. If Jordan is to survive, the international community needs to help it with feeding, housing and, if necessary, resettling the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have come there seeking safety.
You can read the full text of the king’s speech at this link.
17 September 2013
Tags: Syrian Civil War Refugees Jordan Iraqi Refugees United Nations
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In 2004, Father Elias Hanout greeted children in front of the now destroyed St. Elias Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the town of Ezraa, which sits in the Houran plain in southern Syria.(photo: Armineh Johannes)
Southern Syria is a fascinating place. When I visited there in 1998, Roman ruins in basalt littered the rural and village landscapes. Matriarchs hung their laundry from Corinthian capitals to carved posts. Ruined columns served as tables to hold platters of salads and grilled meats. Ancient churches, crude perhaps but ancient nevertheless, served their Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox parishioners as they had for 1,500 years. Attending a liturgy in Ezraa’s simple Melkite Greek Catholic church dedicated to the prophet Elias, I marveled at the cavernous vaults that sheltered Christians from the scorching sun and oppressive heat for more than a thousand years. Today, St. Elias is no more. The civil war in Syria is destroying people, villages, a way of life and humankind’s patrimony.
In an interview yesterday with our partners Aid to the Church in Need, Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop Nicholas Antiba of Basra and Houran noted that his flock were gathering around the center of his eparchy in Khabab, fleeing their villages — many of which developed in former camps of the Roman Legion — devastated by war. Sadly, the sixth-century basilica of St. Elias is one of them. Just nine years ago, ONE magazine visited Ezraa, reporting on its Christian community centered on its ancient Byzantine churches.
Lina Farah, 31, sits in the courtyard of her family home, which is made of black basalt and added to with concrete. The rooms all look onto the courtyard, which has a grape arbor.
“No house is ready to be lived in without being renovated in some way,” she says. Small-town life means “neighbors visit all the time. There’s no such thing as making an appointment. People just drop by.”
Ms. Farah helps out with catechism classes — this time on a Friday — next to Ezraa’s Melkite Greek Catholic church.
“People hold social gatherings like giving congratulations or condolences on Fridays, since people with jobs are busy during the week,” she says. Friday and Saturday make up the official weekend in Syria.
Satellite dishes rise above some old houses and women pace the roofs hanging laundry and chatting on cellular phones. …
Father Elias Hanout, of St. Elias Melkite Greek Catholic parish in Ezraa, points out the Greek inscriptions and religious symbols carved into the beige and dark gray stones of the church, which has withstood earthquakes and other disasters since it was built in the first part of the sixth century.
Today’s atmosphere of coexistence between different faith communities, he says, is buttressed by the hope that flight by Christians from Syria’s southern countryside might be tailing off.
Sadly, little did Father Hanout know that war would come to Ezraa, destroy his church and scatter his community. It is all but a memory now.
Pray for Syria. To learn how you can help, click here.
3 July 2013
Tags: Syria Middle East Christians Cultural Identity Village life Melkite Greek Catholic Church
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Students relax on the grounds of Bethlehem University. (photo: Steve Sabella)
Yesterday, I was privileged to meet with an unusual group of “ambassadors” at the United Nations Church Center. These “ambassadors” consisted of eight students and (very recent) graduates of Bethlehem University in Palestine. (CNEWA was one of Bethlehem University’s cofounders and Msgr. John Kozar, president of CNEWA, serves on the university’s International Board of Regents.) The young Palestinians — male and female, Christian and Muslim — were working mostly in the field of business and economics. They came from different parts of Palestine. Two of them were from Hebron/Khalil, a town that has seen a great deal of conflict between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. These were students who had to overcome incredible obstacles to study and graduate. Nevertheless, their enthusiasm and energy were palpable.
While in New York, the contingent was meeting with a variety of ambassadors and United Nations agencies. Sponsored by, among others, Caritas Internationalis, CNEWA and Catholic Charities, they also met with members of the U.N. Israel/Palestine Working Group, whose members include not only Catholics but also Lutherans, Presbyterians and Mennonites. They also visited Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.
After several days of meetings in New York, the group will break up and individual members will spend the summer in different places around the United States, including Washington, D.C., Seattle and Tucson. They’ll have a chance to experience life in the United States — and give folks in the United States a chance to meet firsthand some Palestinians. Almost all of the students spoke of an “image” that Americans have of Palestinians that does not correspond to the reality. They expressed the desire that their stay in the United States would help Americans to realize that Palestinians are not terrorists or radical extremists.
Seeing their idealism and their youth certainly made me believe that these “ambassadors” can make a real difference in helping Americans better understand Palestinians. And, once they return to their homeland, perhaps they may help Palestinians better understand Americans.
31 May 2013
Tags: Palestine United States United Nations Palestinians Bethlehem University
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In this 2009 photo, Iraqi Dominican Sister of St. Catherine Sara Majeed administers a checkup at the Mother of Mercy mother-and-child clinic in Zerqa, Jordan. (photo: Nader Daoud)
On this date 31 years ago, CNEWA’s Mother of Mercy Clinic opened in the Jordanian city of Zerqa. Mother of Mercy is the creation of not one person, community or organization, but of a partnership.
In 1981, Zerqa’s Latin Catholic community asked the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood and CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, to consider opening a mother and child clinic on the grounds of the Latin parish. A congregation of nursing sisters based in England, the Franciscan Missionaries, had collaborated with the Pontifical Mission in operating mobile health clinics in Jordan’s refugee camps since 1971. Their principle concern at that time was the reduction of the mortality rate — then 40 percent — among babies born to Palestinian refugee mothers. Poor nutrition and the lack of education and health awareness contributed to many of these deaths, as well as to deaths of the elderly.
After a period of review, CNEWA and the Franciscan Missionaries, with the support of the Latin Patriarchate, agreed to open the clinic, receiving monies to build, furnish and operate the center from Canadian members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. After just a few years, the number of patients receiving care at the clinic increased by 214 percent, requiring an extensive refurbishment. In 1985, the German bishops’ relief and development fund, Misereor, provided the necessary funds.
Today, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, an Iraqi community based in Mosul, administer the clinic, which treats more than 33,000 mothers and children a year.
20 May 2013
Tags: CNEWA Children Jordan Health Care Dominican Sisters
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A woman prays in Al Qaa’s Greek Catholic church. Flooded with Syrian Christian refugees, the church is often filled to capacity. (photo: Tamara Hadi)
In the Spring 2013 issue of ONE, journalist Don Duncan writes about Syrian refugees settling in Lebanon. Below, he offers some further reflections.
One of the frustrations for me while living in Lebanon was the reputation the country has in the West. The word “Lebanon” conjures up dark images of war, sectarian tensions, political crises and humanitarian displacement. These are, of course, salient features of Lebanon’s past and present; it is on this image, and the preoccupation with it in the West, that my livelihood as a journalist depended to a large degree.
But the more time I spent as a resident of Lebanon, the more I saw things in the country that are rarely reflected in Western media. I also met with strange disinterest from editors when I pitched ideas that didn’t involve some form of conflict or misery.
Lebanon is unique in the region for many reasons. It is small yet crucial to the balance of power between the West, its Mid-East allies, and “non-aligned” countries like Syria and Iran. It also has the most diverse demographics of the region, which are both a curse and a blessing. There are 17 officially recognized sects sharing governmental power in a slow, halting political system of compromise. But while this particular system of confessional politics entrenches sectarian mentalities, it also keeps a fragile kind of peace. In addition, it makes Lebanon a place to which many people from around the region feel they can flee in times of danger and crisis. Here is the paradox: While Lebanon is often a zone of conflict, it is also a perpetual refuge — now for Syrians, but in the past also for a diverse group including Iraqis, Palestinians and Armenians, among others.
Lebanon is a refuge for the exact same reason that it is also a weak political entity and prone to conflict: It contains a wide and diverse population that is loosely held together in a national pact. This loose configuration can sometimes lead to conflict, but its looseness also means that there are pockets of liberalism and conservatism that coexist; there are spaces where many kinds of people can be — and feel — safe. So while Lebanon is a place where people may run and emigrate from in times of war, it is also a place where many kinds of people can run to. It can be home to all kinds of people. It can be both a heaven and a hell and, in my experience living there, heavenly and hellish experiences tend to coexist in close proximity.
My frustration has been that Western media tends to focus on the hellish aspects only. This is why it was a pleasure to report this story, looking at Lebanon’s most recent incarnation as a refuge — one for Syrian Christians and Muslims. A bishop I interviewed for the story said, with respect to Christians leaving Iraq and Syria, “The Middle East without Christians is not the Middle East.” By the same token, I would say this: The Middle East without a pluralistic, open, welcoming Lebanon is not the Middle East.
Read more about Syrians Crossing the Border into Lebanon in the Spring 2013 issue of ONE.
14 May 2013
Tags: Lebanon Unity Cultural Identity Interreligious Dialogue
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Life in Gaza weighs heavily on children, and often one sees this reflected in their eyes. CNEWA-sponsored psychosocial activities at NECC kindergartens in Gaza City provide an opportunity for children to unload their pent-up frustration. (photo: CNEWA-PMP)
Sami El-Yousef is CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel. He paid a visit to Gaza in late April. Below is an excerpt from his report on that visit. The full report can be read here.
It was a pleasure to return to Gaza to check on our various projects there and, more importantly, to show solidarity with the people and to affirm they are not forgotten.
On a rather positive note, there are no longer long lines at gas stations, as the supply of fuel is steadier. We did not hear many complaints about the shortages of basic food or medical supplies or building materials. Other aspects of life seem unchanged. The electric company still provides about 10 hours a day of electricity, while noisy, inefficient, polluting makeshift diesel generators offer power the rest of the day to homes and institutions.
On the other hand, there are still travel restrictions that neither Israel nor Egypt has eased; most of the population continues to complain about the “prison-like” environment in which they continue to live. On the political end of things, few in Gaza believe that the much-talked-about “reconciliation efforts” between Hamas and Fatah are leading to anything meaningful. They remain very skeptical about any such discussions. Most feel that neither party is ready for real reconciliation and that it will not happen anytime soon. There is also a deep distrust between Israel and Hamas and a sense that both sides may be planning the next offensive. Many believe it is only a matter of time and that the civilians will again pay a hefty price. Let’s hope I picked up the wrong signals, and that peace will prevail. Keep Gaza and its people in your prayers, especially the small, brave Christian community.
Though recent measures are not specifically directed against the Christian community, it is this community with its relatively liberal orientation that is directly affected. Here are a few measures and incidents that will illustrate the general mood:
The Hamas government recently put into practice the “education law” that forces the segregation of boys and girls in all educational institutions starting at the fourth grade level (age 9 and beyond). It further mandates that female teachers should not teach boys and vice versa.
As far as trade is concerned, Hamas has also mandated that in clothing shops, it is illegal for men to sell women’s clothes and for women to sell men’s clothes, again segregating the sexes.
Male teenagers who have long hair or wear fashionable clothes are now arrested, reportedly beaten, forcibly shaved and sent back on the street with stern warnings to abide by “decent” appearance.
Students who attend the public school system are subjected to weekly classes in fundamentalist Islamic indoctrination, with students being drilled and raised with no tolerance toanything that is not Islamic — a truly sad dimension of life in Gaza under Hamas, and certainly not an environment based on respect, human rights, tolerance and acceptance of the other.
For more, read the entire report on the trip to Gaza here.
1 May 2013
Tags: CNEWA Palestine Israeli-Palestinian conflict Gaza Strip/West Bank CNEWA Pontifical Mission
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This photo, taken in March, shows the property of the Cremisan Salesian Fathers and Sisters. Visible in the distance is the settlement of Gilo, built on land formerly part of Beit Jala. The plan is to expand the settlement of Gilo into the valley and connect it to another settlement called Har Gilo on the other side of the Cremisan property. CNEWA is a long-time supporter of the Salesian Sisters’ School, located on the premises. (photo: CNEWA)
A legal decision announced on Friday by an Israeli court has far-reaching implications for Palestinian farmers who own and work their lands near the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It also directly impacts Catholic religious institutions nestled in a region known as the Cremisan Valley.
The Cremisan Valley is a green, fertile stretch of land on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It is estimated that there are more than 50 families, most of them Christians, who own and farm the land. Although the valley is well within the borders of the Palestinian West Bank — i.e., not on the Israeli side of the Green Line or the 1967 demarcation dividing Israel proper from the West Bank — the Israeli government is planning to continue its Security Barrier through the Cremisan, in effect splitting the valley in two.
The United Nations estimates that the barrier stretches some 440 miles, more than twice the length of the 198-mile-long Green Line. Most of the barrier, about 70 percent, is either completed or under construction. The largest portion (about 85 percent) will run inside the West Bank, and cuts off almost 10 percent of Palestinian land from Palestinian control. About 6,500 Palestinians who live between the barrier and the Green Line are caught in what is called a “Seam Zone.” Therefore, those Palestinians over the age of 16 must obtain “permanent resident” permits to stay on land where they and their families have lived for centuries.
In addition to the farming families in the Cremisan Valley, there are two religious institutions on the land, run by the priests and sisters of the Salesians of Don Bosco. The priests came to the valley about 1870 when the area was still under the control of the Ottoman Empire. They opened the Cremisan Cellars, using the fertile hillsides to grow grapes and produce wines — including the sacramental wines used by Catholics in the Holy Land. In 1960, the Salesian sisters opened a school in the valley; today, it enrolls an estimated 450 students. CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, has provided grants to the sisters’ school to support the staff and install solar panels to provide electricity.
If the security barrier is constructed, Palestinian Christian farmers will be separated from their fields. Although there will be “agricultural gates” to allow farmers entry, similar openings already built elsewhere provide only limited access to the fields for short periods of time, making it virtually impossible for farmers to prune their olive trees or fertilize their crops and keep them properly maintained for successful farming.
The barrier will also separate the two Salesian communities. The priests will be isolated from the West Bank and will live in the Israeli-controlled “Seam Zone.” The sisters will be on the Palestinian side although the barrier will be erected around three sides of the property, creating a situation that the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land describes as “prison-like … surrounded by military barriers and check-points.”
Recognizing the already precarious position of Christians in the region, the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land, the Society of St. Yves — the legal and human rights office of the Latin Patriarchate — and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have expressed their opposition to the extension of the security barrier through the Cremisan Valley as it will further deteriorate the situation of Palestinian Christians, whose emigration from the Holy Land has hastened since 2000.
29 April 2013
Tags: Middle East Christians Palestine Israeli-Palestinian conflict Farming/Agriculture Separation Barrier
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Canadian Senator Anne C. Cools introduces the documentary “Across the Divide” to Christian leaders in a Parliament building in Ottawa. (photo: CNEWA/Antin Sloboda)
On 15 April, CNEWA Canada joined with the office of Senator Anne C. Cools to organize a special event in Ottawa highlighting the situation of Christian communities in the Holy Land.
The Parliament Hill event brought over 30 community leaders representing a variety of Christian faith traditions, including Eastern Christians, Anglicans, Catholics, Mennonites, Presbyterians and others. The highlight of the conference was the screening of a documentary about the Bethlehem University, “Across the Divide.” The film is a production of the Salt + Light Media Foundation. CNEWA Canada sponsored its presentation across many Canadian cities in 2012.
Through Bethlehem University, we can see how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had a negative impact on the local Christians, who desire only to live in peace. Besides presenting the challenges these Christians face, the film also offers signs of hope. It shows how the leadership of the university and the students of many faiths together are committed to working for the benefit of all.
After the screening, participants shared their communities’ experiences in promoting peace in the Holy Land. Carl Hétu, national director of CNEWA Canada, moderated the constructive dialogue. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, C.E.O. of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, played an important part in stimulating the discussion as a panelist.
Senator Cools concluded by encouraging leaders of the Ottawa Christian communities to continue working together so one day peace might become a reality for all in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.
If you would like to order the film, contact Salt + Light Television.
And to learn how you can support Bethlehem University, click here.
26 March 2013
Tags: Middle East Christians Israeli-Palestinian conflict Middle East Peace Process CNEWA Canada Bethlehem University
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As we mark the holiest week of the Christian calendar, we can’t help but think about our suffering brothers and sisters in the Middle East — those living in the land where Jesus walked, in the region that became home to the very first Christians.
The faithful are desperate for a sign of hope. I pray you will be that sign.
Please watch the video below to learn more. Then, visit this page to learn how you can help.
25 March 2013
Tags: CNEWA Refugees Middle East Violence against Christians War
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CNEWA works for, through and with the churches of the East to serve those in need — such as this young Iraqi refugee, pictured last year in Amman, Jordan. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Last week, Catholic News Agency profiled some of the urgent work CNEWA is doing right now, particularly in the Middle East:
Catholic Near East Welfare Association is working with local Churches in and around Syria to help refugees and those who have been displaced by the country’s civil war, now beginning its third year.
“Our concern is not just for the Christian community, but for all people who are caught in the middle; the vast majority of people in Syria, as in any part of the world, just want peace,” Michael La Civita, the association’s communications director, told CNA on 18 March.
“They want to get back to normal, to rear their families and cope as best they can, and of course this makes it quite difficult for them, because the violence is just getting worse and worse.”
The Syrian conflict marked its second anniversary last week. On 15 March 2011, demonstrations sprang up nationwide, protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president and leader the country’s Ba’ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war.
United Nation’s estimates show that 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict. More than 1 million refugees have flooded into Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and inside Syria another estimated 2.5 million are internally displaced.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association works through local Churches to help the poor and partners with the Jesuits, Armenian Catholics, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and Melkite Greek Catholics.
“They come to us with needs, let us know what they need, and we provide them with the resources, whether its food, gear for children or schools,” La Civita said.
The group helps internally displaced people in Syria, those who have been forced out of their homes. These families are mostly from Homs and Aleppo, in the north and west of the country.
“They lived in the older quarters, and now they’re either in the suburbs or they’ve fled to a place called the valley of Christians, which is still in the hands of the government and is reasonably secure,” he explained.
Read the rest. Want to know what you can do? Take a moment to visit our page devoted to helping Middle East Christians, and make your voice heard!
Tags: CNEWA Refugees Middle East Eastern Churches
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