28 July 2014
Catholic Near East Welfare Association has launched a campaign to rush emergency assistance to tens of thousands of Christians forced to flee their homes in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Ordered by ISIS extremists of the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate to convert, pay a special tax or die, Mosul’s Christians have instead fled to the Christian villages of the Nineveh Plain — some just a few miles from Mosul — or to the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
“These Christian families have arrived with only their clothes, having fled the city on foot, forced to leave everything behind in Mosul,” said CNEWA’s regional director for Jordan and Iraq, Ra’ed Bahou. “At ISIS checkpoints, militants then stole whatever dollars they had in their pockets, even their passports and identification papers.”
Christian families have found refuge in churches, convents and monasteries, he added. With Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Moshe of Mosul and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena — who themselves are homeless — the clergy, religious and villagers are trying to provide the basics. But the refuge, especially in the villages of Alqosh, Bakhdida (Qaraqosh), Bartella and Tel Kaif is tenuous at best, as ISIS has cut the electricity and water supply, and has announced its intentions to overrun the region. “These villages are in the hands of God,” Mr. Bahou said, “as ISIS says their next ‘gift’ will be the villages of the Nineveh Plain.”
CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, announced CNEWA will rush support to the bishops, clergy and religious, “who in the frenzy are courageously providing water, food, mattresses and medicines to their flock,” wherever their flight takes them.
“We are witnessing, at the hands of extremist thugs, the eradication of a cradle of Christianity in the cradle of civilization,” Msgr. Kozar said. CNEWA’s emergency support will provide the “shepherds of this flock to tend their sheep, with the basics they need for survival now,” he continued. “We will help them even if their flock is dispersed, providing for their well-being, body and soul.”
Fewer than 150,000 Christians remain in Iraq from a high of more than a million before 1991.
An agency of the Holy See, Catholic Near East Welfare Association works throughout the Middle East, with offices in Amman, Beirut and Jerusalem. On behalf of the pope, CNEWA works for, through and with the Eastern churches, rushing aid to religious caring for orphaned and abandoned children; caring for displaced or refugee families; providing maternity and health care for the poorest of the poor; offering formation and catechetical programs for children and young adults; supporting the education of seminarians, religious novices and lay leaders; and assisting initiatives for the marginalized, especially the elderly and disabled.
CNEWA has been active in Iraq for more than 50 years, but redoubled its efforts among the vulnerable Christian population in 1991.
A religious charity registered in the State of New York, all contributions are tax deductible. Donations can be made online at www.cnewa.org, by phone at 800.442.6392, or by mail, CNEWA, 1011 First Avenue, New York, NY 10022-4195.
24 July 2014
Tags: Iraq Violence against Christians Iraqi Christians War Iraqi Refugees
Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks outside the northern Gaza Strip on 22 July. (photo: CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters)
This week in Our Sunday Visitor, CNEWA’s Communications Director Michael J.L. La Civita offers some thoughts on the explosive crisis of the Middle East:
The artificial geopolitical construct that is the Middle East — with its national borders drawn arbitrarily by the Western Allied powers after World War I — is collapsing. In an article for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, a French seminarian working with the patriarchate writes that a number of factors have contributed to the latest conflicts.
“Recently we witnessed the end and the failure of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, in particular because of the refusal of Palestine to recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ and the continued construction of illegal Israeli settlements, which led to a new wave of pessimism and despair,” Pierre Loup de Raucourt wrote. “The discovery of the three dead Israeli teenagers and the revenge that followed, leading to the horrific death of a young Palestinian, were sufficient to ignite a wick. And one does not know how big the powder keg is to which this wick is attached.”
That powder keg is huge.
In Iraq and Syria — by far the largest states created from the smoldering remains of the Ottoman Turkish Empire — the powder kegs have exploded, unleashing violent forces so extreme even al Qaeda has repudiated the bloodletting.
Iraq, once awash in cash thanks to its oil reserves, has collapsed — its people exhausted by more than 30 years of constant war. Syria, once the bedrock of regional stability, has disintegrated — its people maimed and displaced. Meanwhile, extremist militias have overrun vast swaths of devastated territory and proclaimed an Islamist caliphate, an empire akin to those that dominated the region for centuries.
In Israel and Palestine, (as of this writing) leaders on both sides remain unyielding.
Read more in the current edition of Our Sunday Visitor.
23 July 2014
Tags: Syria Iraq Middle East Israeli-Palestinian conflict Middle East Peace Process
An Iraqi Christian woman fleeing the violence in the Iraqi city of Mosul sits inside the Sacred Heart of Jesus Chaldean Church in Telkaif, Iraq, on 20 July. (photo: CNS/Reuters)
Editors’ note: We received the following report this morning from Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana, an Iraqi-born priest of the Assyrian Church of the East now based in Germany. His report, which he has given us permission to post, provides a wide-ranging and comprehensive view of the tragedy now unfolding in northern Iraq, with some details that have gone largely unreported. It makes for sobering, heartbreaking reading.
We can only echo his words at the conclusion: Please keep Iraq’s suffering church and people in your prayers. The needs now are greater than ever. To learn what you can do for our suffering brothers and sisters in Iraq, visit this link.
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Greetings from Duhok, Iraq.
I enclose for your information the attached report, which I hope will help bring a deeper understanding of the current crisis in Iraq.
I would like to share with you the following information/points:
First: All Mosul churches and monasteries — about 30 — have been seized by ISIS. The cross has been removed from all of them. Many of them are burned, destroyed and looted. Many others are being used as ISIS centers. The following are a few examples:
Mar Ephraim Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in Al Shurta district (east side of Mosul): ISIS installed loudspeakers and is converted to mosque for prayers.
Syriac Catholic church in the old part of Mosul was looted and set on fire.
Mar Gewargis (St. George) monastery is looted.
Mar Thomas (St. Thomas) Syriac Catholic historical and old church was looted after the doors were broken. Now it is guarded by ISIS.
In addition, Mar Behnam (St. Behnam) Syriac Catholic monastery in the ancient Assyrian town of Nimrod is been controlled by ISIS.
For more information about Mar Behnam monastery, visit this link.
The religious Sunni, Shiite and Christian tombs in Mosul have been destroyed. This is according to the ISIS Sharia. This destruction is endangering very ancient sites, such as the prophet Jonah’s tomb, which, according to many reports, was looted last week. The Shiite mosques (named “Hussayniya” in Arabic) are being demolished as well.
Second: All non-Sunni communities are being targeted by ISIS. In addition to Christians, this includes Yazidi (a very ancient religion) and Shiites.
Indeed, Yazidi had fled Mosul a couple of years ago (starting 2004 — 2010). They fled to Yazidi towns/townships/villages in Nineveh Plain, Duhok and Erbil. I doubt there were any Yazidi left in Mosul before 10 June. The Shiites in Mosul city and Nineveh governorate can be categorized as follows:
Turkman Shiites who were in Mosul city, Mosul west suburbs (Rashidiya, Gubba and Sherkhan) and in the big city of Telafar (North East of Mosul towards Syrian borders). Turkman Shiites were targeted and forced to flee. Their houses have been seized and many of them destroyed. In Talafar, Turkman Sunnis joined ISIS to persecute their fellow Turkman Shiites. Hundreds of Turkman Shiite families from the above-mentioned places, where they lived for centuries, fled towards Erbil in their way to be evacuated to Shiite provinces south of Iraq. The Iraqi central government (headed by Shiite and a Shiite Prime Minister Al Maliki) is facilitating this evacuation. A governmental flights program is ongoing to fly from Erbil airport to Najaf (Major Shiite city in the south of Baghdad) airport to evacuate these families and to be resettled in Shiite provinces. Another route is ongoing for the same purpose where convoys of buses and vehicles are evacuating these families through Erbil to Kirkuk to Sulemaniya and down to Khaniqin and then to southern provinces. This long route is because the road from Kirkuk to Baghdad is blocked.
Shabak Shiites are in Nineveh Plain, mainly from Mosul to Bartilla. Most of their townships are under Peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] protection but there are few of their villages (between Bartilla and Mosul), which are under ISIS control or in the front line to ISIS. The Shabak Shiites of these ISIS-controlled villages fled. The Shabak Shiites who were living in Mosul fled as well. They fled to Shabak towns in Nineveh Plain and dozens of them fled seeking settlement in Shiite provinces south of Iraq. The same like Shiite Turkmans. The Turkman and Shabak Sunnis are not targeted.
This reflects how deep the sectarian conflict is and how long it will take to recover — if any recovery is to come. Can anyone really expect the Turkman and Shabak Shiites who are fleeing to Shiite provinces in southern Iraq — leaving their roots, existence and economy of a couple of centuries in — will return to Talafar and Mosul? Personally, I doubt it. What political impact does it have upon the Iraqi political and administrative structure? A big question.
The current situation reflects how the Iraqi structure was a fragile one. Is there really a common Iraqi people feeling that they are one people and one country?
The situation is clearly a deep social and political crisis. It is not a security or military battle between ISIS and Iraqi Army. The solution, if any exists, can only be achieved through reviewing and restructuring Iraq to convince all. This applies for Christians as well. The question and challenge is how to convince Christians that they have a future in Iraq. The nice words and sympathy statements are not enough. There should be deeds and practices.
According to a majority of Iraqi Christian politicians and people, the starting point is to grant the province (governorate) status for Nineveh Plain where the intensive Christian, Yazidi and Shabak demography exists.
The public relations statements — such as: we are all Iraqis and all Iraq is ours — are like a person who is issuing bank checks but he doesn’t have a bank account.
Third: Last night, ISIS tried to take over a medicine factory northeast of Mosul and west of Telkeif. There was a confrontation with Peshmerga who control and protect the area. ISIS terrorists were forced to go back after a short fighting. However, hearing the sound of the guns was enough to cause Christian families of Telkeif and Batnaya to escape and flee to the north in direction of Alqosh. The Peshmerga checkpoint nearby Alqosh prevented them and asked them to go back simply because there was no threats and no battles field. They went back to their homes. This reflects the fear and horror of the people.
Fourth: Yesterday, there was a bishops’ meeting in Erbil. It was headed by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I to discuss the situation. In addition, there was a meeting of all Christian political parties for the same purpose. The parties called upon a demonstration for tomorrow in Ain Kawa and to go to the United Nations office there, demanding that the International community protect the Iraqi Christians.
Fifth: The following is a summary from my visit last week to Qaraqosh (Hamdaniya), Bartilla and Bashiqa. In Qaraqosh I met Mr. Anwar Hadaya, the Christian member of Nineveh Governorate Council; Bishop Jerjis Qas Mousa, Syriac Catholic Patriarchal Vicar; and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Saliba Shamoun. In Bartilla, I met Mr. Monther, President of Syriac Community Council of Bartilla; board members of the council; and Father Jacob of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The council is the acting body and reference for the Syriac community of Bartilla. In Bashiqa, I met Syriac Orthodox Father Daniel and his church committee.
I will try to summarize the information that I learned from the people I met:
The major Christian town in the region. It has 45,000 to 50,000 inhabitants, 97 percent of them Christians. They confirmed the majority (almost 80 percent) of the inhabitants returned to Hamdaniya after they fled it because of the confrontation between ISIS and Peshmerga.
They confirmed the confrontation was initiated by ISIS, as it thought occupying Hamdaniya will lead to a fast and dramatic fall of other Christian and Shabak (Shiite) townships of Karmles, Bartilla and surrounding villages, and reaching Bashiqa (mixed Christian, Yezedi and Shabak town).
The current security situation is calm but the fear and horror is there as well. The suffering of the people includes the basic needs of daily life, such as:
Hamdaniya, Karmles, Bartilla, Bashiqa and surrounding villages were connected to Iraqi Electricity Network coming from Mosul. Now it is been cut by ISIS. They do not have electricity. The generators are not providing enough hours and the price is too high because the diesel is very expensive.
The above-mentioned towns were provided from Salamiya water station (a huge one on Tigris). The main pipe was connected from Salamiya to Hamdaniya and from there was pumped to Karmles, Bartilla, Bashiqa, etc.
Salamiya is currently controlled by ISIS, who cut the water from this region.
They told me that at first they were in contact by telephone with the Iraqi staff at the Salamiya water station. The Iraqis were providing them with water for one or two hours every day. But then the Islamic princes instructed the staff to cut off the water completely. The princes spoke over the phone and insulted the Christians who were calling the Iraqi staff. They told them: You don’t deserve to drink water.
So, there is no drinking water at all. The alternatives are the wells. However, the possible alternatives are different from one town to the other. For Hamdaniya, the alternative is to dig water wells and connect them to the existing pump station.
Of course, ISIS is not providing the hospital of Hamdaniya with medicine. There is a huge shortage and great need for medicines.
There are no salaries paid to the governmental offices, simply because there is no Iraqi government in Mosul. Islamic State does not pay Hamdaniya, nor other regions that are not under ISIS control.
Indeed, we also learned from sources inside Mosul that ISIS sorted out the lists of governmental offices staff and will not pay for any non-Muslim staff, even if that person shows up at work. We don’t think there are Christians to stay in Mosul and work in Islamic State offices. In addition, the banks are closed and the people do not have access to their cash. The private sector is almost paralyzed. All of this together makes the challenges of life very hard on the people.
The cleaning and other services have totally collapsed. The machinery and vehicles are not working. In addition, the coworkers from the surrounding Sunni villages are not working as their villages are controlled by ISIS and are not able (even if we suppose they like) to come to Hamdaniya.
The tendency to migrate is there, and is expected to increase. Many families are not migrating now because they don’t have their cash in hand as it is in the banks. In addition, they are waiting to sell their properties before they depart. The properties market is frozen for now.
The future scenario
Depends on the political agreements/disagreements between Iraqi political powers. So far, the indicators are for more and deeper conflicts and disagreements between Shiites on the one side, and Sunnis and Kurds on the other side. However, it is not expected ISIS will try to expand the control to Nineveh Plain for the following reasons:
the Peshmerga will prevent such attempts
the Iraqi military pressure on ISIS in Tekrit will push ISIS to avoid such battles against Peshmerga
the region is not an Arab or Sunni region to accept or cooperate with ISIS
In addition, many Sunni powers are in opposition to [Prime Minister] Al Maliki are in Erbil. This reduces the tension of Sunni areas against Kurdish and Peshmerga controlled regions.
The suffering is the same. Shiite Shabaks of Bartilla had already seized land and properties of Christians. The Iranian council was a regular visitor to Bartilla. All Shiite political parties have centers in Bartilla. This created a Sunni position against Bartilla.
The poverty is everywhere in Bartilla. However, hundreds of Shiite Shabaks from Mosul, Bartilla and surrounding villages fled to south of Iraq to the Shiite provinces of Najaf, Karbala, etc. This plan to flee the Sunni region and to be hosted in southern Shiite provinces is a clear solid indicator on how deep the conflict is, and how long it will take. No one is expecting the Shiites of Mosul and Nineveh Plain, now fleeing to the south of Iraq, will return.
Water needs of Bartilla
The alternative in Bartilla is to install units to purify the water they can get from the existing wells. They asked for two units to be installed in two of the wells they have in the church property. Lacking the drinking water, electricity, medicines, etc., has increased cases of disease.
Bashiqa and Bahzany
The same problems: Some 210 displaced Christian families from Mosul are hosted by the church. This is good but it is an extra burden upon the church, whose resources are limited. The solution of the water problem in Bashiqa is to provide a tanker to transport the water from the existing wells.
Keep Iraq’s suffering church and people in your prayers.
Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana
21 July 2014
Tags: Iraq Violence against Christians Iraqi Christians War Iraqi Refugees
Palestinians flee following an Israeli airstrike on a house in Gaza City on 9 July. (photo: CNS/Majdi Fathi, Reuters)
This morning, Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, wrote an email to Msgr. John E. Kozar, president, about recent developments in Gaza. Mr. El-Yousef recently visited Gaza and shared a report on the status of Christians in the region.
Dear Msgr. Kozar,
The situation on the ground is horrific. The attack on the Shajaia neighborhood yesterday was very ugly, leaving 50 people dead — including 17 children, 14 women and 4 senior citizens — as well as 210 wounded and 70,000 displaced. You will recall that Shajaia is home to one of the three Near East Council of Churches clinics that we support in Gaza, as well as home to the largest N.E.C.C. Vocational Training Center operating there. Those who visited the neighborhood during the two-hour humanitarian ceasefire yesterday reported bodies of women and children scattered in the narrow streets.
This morning I spoke to Dr. Issa Tarazi, Director of N.E.C.C., and he said that the clinic was broken into, but given the intensity of the fighting, no one could get close to inspect the damage. They will not be able to get there until a formal ceasefire is reached.
I also spoke to contacts in both the Latin Church and the Greek Orthodox Church and they both opened facilities to receive those displaced, mostly from Shajaia. Luckily, so far, there has not been any human loss affecting Christians and property damage is limited to broken glass and minor damage. Let’s hope it remains this way. The most serious damage to the community is clearly psychological.
We are continuously assessing the situation and continue to pray for an end to this madness. I will keep you posted with developments.
To learn more about some of the N.E.C.C. institutions that CNEWA supports, read Behind the Blockade, from the March 2012 issue of ONE. To help Gaza’s suffering families, click here.
11 July 2014
Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank War Israeli-Palestinian conflict Holy Land Christians Palestinians
A Palestinian boy carries his belongings as he walks past the rubble of his family’s house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on 9 July. The Israeli army intensified its offensive on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, striking Hamas sites and killing dozens of people in a military operation it says is aimed at quelling rocket fire against Israel. (photo: CNS/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)
On 8 July 2014, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land issued a statement entitled, “Call for a Courageous Change.” The document is in response to the increasing violence that has followed upon the murder of three Israeli teenagers and the revenge murder of a Palestinian teenager. The response of the Israeli government and the Palestinian organization Hamas has been to escalate the violence and revenge. Each side with some justification sees itself as the aggrieved partner seeking justice, which is often little more than blood vengeance. Each side — again with some justification — sees the other as the aggressor and occupier. As has so often been the case in the past, the conflict conceives itself as a battle of the righteous against the unrighteous and then feeds upon itself getting larger and more violent.
With clarity and courage, the commission analyzes what it sees to be the main forces driving the crisis. The commission also is very clear as to where it sees responsibility on both sides. The statement clearly mentions “the irresponsible language of collective punishment and revenge that breeds violence” and lays responsibility on “many in position of power and political leadership [who] remain entrenched, not only unwilling to enter into any real and meaningful process of dialogue, but also pouring oil on the fire with words and acts that nurture the conflict.”
Following in the path of Pope Francis, the commission in its statement attempts to “speak truth to power.” It recognizes that no side in this conflict is pure victim and no side is pure victimizer. The roles go back and forth. The statement’s critique of that common human trait to see where I am right and my opponent is wrong, while overlooking the instances where I am wrong and my opponent is right, traces its roots to the saying of Jesus, “Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own” (Matt 7:3). The commission’s “Call for a Courageous Change” also throws strong light on one of the major problems in the conflict — namely, the mutual demonization of the other.
The statement makes a very important point that is often selectively overlooked in the media: “We need to recognize that resistance to occupation cannot be equated with terrorism. Resistance to occupation is a legitimate right, terrorism is part of the problem.” Throughout the entire document, however, there is the constant call for non-violent solutions and the commission condemns violence regardless of the side from which it originates.
In a region where polarization has become a way of life, “Call for a Courageous Change” is a light shining in the darkness. However, in a region where both sides have become “comfortable” with polarization, one wonders how much impact the document will have.
Read the statement here.
10 July 2014
Tags: Middle East Holy Land Israeli-Palestinian conflict Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land
A Christian woman who fled from the violence in Mosul, Iraq, holds her daughter as her baby sleeps on 27 June at a shelter in Erbil, Iraq. (photo: CNS/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters)
I can think of only two words to describe it: total chaos.
I’m talking about the tidal wave of violence that’s sweeping across Iraq, as the extremist group called ISIS battles for control of the country.
Thousands of Christian and Muslim families remain trapped
in the deadly crossfire.
Here at Catholic Near East Welfare Association, this has us completely alarmed. It’s why I hope you’ll click here to help them.
Only days ago, two sisters and three young Iraqi Christians disappeared, and it’s feared they’ve been kidnapped by militants. The extremists also shelled the city of Qaraqosh, where CNEWA supports an orphanage. And in ISIS-held areas, Christians unable to flee are now forbidden to display crosses and other religious symbols.
As for the thousands of families who’ve escaped, they have no idea if their homes still exist. Many are elderly. The majority are women and children. All live in fear of what tomorrow may bring.
As the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church has said, “We are losing our community.” He fears Christianity in Iraq will soon come “to an end.”
Pope Francis has urged us to pray for these victims of violence.
But they also need something else: your support.
At CNEWA, we’re committed to helping scores of nuns, priests and lay workers care for these displaced innocents — Christian and non-Christian alike. But I’m afraid their overwhelming situation is growing worse.
A simple donation, whatever you can give, will allow CNEWA
to help these terrified families.
Won’t you join us? With their world turned upside down, these families have never needed you more. So please help them. All you have to do is click here today.
Thank you and God bless you.
Donate HERE to support Iraq’s Christians and their neighbors
Donate HERE to support CNEWA’s work worldwide
8 July 2014
Tags: Iraq Refugees Iraqi Christians Iraqi Refugees Relief
In this photo from January, Latin Patriarch Faoud Twal of Jerusalem leads an annual pilgrimage at the baptism site on the Jordan River. (photo: CNS/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)
“We need your solidarity, your advocacy and yes, your material help,” said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem during his visit today with CNEWA.
“But we need you to be courageous, courageous to tell the truth.”
The patriarch is in the United States on a three-week journey that will include the priestly ordination of an Arab American man, who will serve the patriarchate as a pastor.
“For us, things have gotten worse since the pastoral visit of the Holy Father to the Holy Land in late May,” the patriarch said. “His gestures, his simplicity, his words moved our people,” he continued, “but the day after the pope prayed for peace with the patriarch and the presidents of Israel and Palestine, the Israelis announced the building of 3,000 more apartments for settlers.
“And now,” he said quietly, shaking his head, “the terrible deaths of those three young Israelis, the death of the two Palestinian men the Israelis say are responsible, the death of that boy in East Jerusalem, and now Gaza…” his voice trailed off as he thought about the cycle of tit-for-tat violence that has haunted Israelis and Palestinians for decades.
When the Holy Father visited the Holy Land, “he could not avoid the politics in our region. He had to meet with the refugees, Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian. He had to be clear that the drama of Syria cannot go on.
“Outsiders cannot decide Syria’s future,” the patriarch added. “Who appointed outsiders to police the Middle East? And why start with Syria?” There are other Middle Eastern regimes, he said, where extremists are harbored and Christians and other minorities, discriminated against.
The patriarch expressed his gratitude for the support of CNEWA and other organizations such as Caritas and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, solidarity he said that gives good witness to the followers of Jesus in the land of his birth.
“Our people, especially the refugees I meet, are conscious of their dignity,” the patriarch said softly. “They say, ‘help us find work, abuna [father], all we want is to keep our dignity, to keep our pride.’ ”
The patriarch ended his interview reminding readers: “Don’t be satisfied with what you read in the newspapers.” Dig deeper, he urged, there you’ll find the truth.
Click here to learn how you can help Middle East Christians reclaim that dignity cited by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem.
3 March 2014
Tags: Middle East Holy Land Israeli-Palestinian conflict Holy Land Christians
Msgr. John E. Kozar visits with a patient at the hospital run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal el Dib, Lebanon. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)
During this pastoral visit to Lebanon, Msgr. John Kozar and I have met many graceful people — graceful in the truest sense of the word.
On Friday, we traveled to the Armenian village of Anjar, which lies in the Bekaa Valley some 34 miles from the walls of the Syrian capital of Damascus and just miles to the Syrian frontier. The visit to Anjar entailed a drive along the international highway connecting Beirut to Damascus. Stunning scenery competed with smog and car exhaust. Climbing, twisting and turning gave way to a descent into the Bekaa and a mass of humanity shopping, planting, driving, walking.
Anjar was a welcome relief. A drive lined with palms and young geraniums revealed a well-planned town designed by the French military for Armenian refugees in 1939.
“It feels like Palm Springs!” I told the laughing mayor. But Palm Springs it is not.
Anjar is overwhelmed with Syrian refugees — Armenian Syrians and non-Armenians alike.
Evidently, the neighboring village of Majdel Anjar is a hotbed of Sunni extremists. Reportedly including immediate family members of one participant in the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
CNEWA, through its Beirut office of the Pontifical Mission, has deep roots in Anjar, having provided support to its Catholic school and boarding house for orphaned boys founded by Cardinal Gregory Peter Agagianian (1895-1971), former Armenian Catholic patriarch and prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Today, CNEWA partners with the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Cooperation, a lay group that provides a host of services — especially health care — to the Armenian Community throughout Lebanon, Syria and Armenia.
I felt as if the little oasis, with its clinics, its schools, its churches, its restaurants and its palm trees, was as fragile as the tender leaves sprouting from the fruit trees in its fields.
Just as we were leaving, the pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Armenian Catholic parish, Mekhitarist Father Mesrob Topalian, grabbed my arm and said: “Don’t forget us, Michael, and pray for us — especially for the children.”
As I left, another visitor took my place: the 75-year-old sister who runs the parish school, a resident of Anjar who arrived as a penniless refugee from Turkey at 4 years of age.
I looked back as they waved and offered blessings in French as the bells of the newly dedicated church tolled.
“Life goes on,” I thought, “until passion and ideology and fear and hate appear on the doorstep.”
Our drive back to Beirut was rather quiet.
On Saturday, our team, led by Msgr. Kozar, visited the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross at their hospital in Jal el Dib. Led by Mother Marie Makhlouf, these are tough women doing some of the most thankless work throughout the Middle East.
In this image from 2010, Mother Marie Makhlouf greets a young man in one of centers operated by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal El Dib, Lebanon. (photo: CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
They care for the poorest of the poor: children and adults who are profoundly physically and mentally handicapped, those with mental illnesses, substance abusers and the abandoned.
And they do it with tenderness and compassion. You know it when you see it and when you hear it.
As the sisters took us through their facility that clings to a cliff high above Beirut, beds shook loudly, voices screeched, patients applauded raucously and scores sought their attention.
Things quieted down only when one sister pulled out her rosary, and the elderly and broken men struggling to cope with life and its troubles joined her in praying this familiar Catholic devotion — in Arabic.
Having visited the sisters before, I knew that they have a hard time finding the resources to feed and clothe the 1,000 or so forgotten souls entrusted to them.
But as I pondered this, half listening to the hospital’s rehabilitation therapist, Msgr. Kozar was busy creating commotion from one room to the next. Hugging, laughing, blessing and taking portraits of the patients, he connected with almost every one we visited, focusing on the individuals entrusted to these good sisters and their staff, and the desire of each patient to communicate. The joyful atmosphere roused me from my thoughts.
“Somehow they do it,” I said to myself, and then I thought about Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, especially its final and bloodiest stage in spring 1990, when Christian militia shelled Christian militia and an embargo prevented even bread from getting into the enclave. I asked one sister, “how did you do feed your patients in 1990, when bread did not exist?”
She looked at me over her glasses, and said, “I don’t know how we did it, and I pray we never come to that again.”
And with that she lovingly patted the head of an abandoned boy with autism and cradled him to her side.
Ah, to be this graceful and loving in the face of real adversity and real enemies.
Finally, on Sunday, before spending a lovely afternoon at the home of our regional director, Michel Constantin, his wife Lynn and three children, Peter, Sasha and Mark, we joined Msgr. Kozar in celebrating the Eucharist with the Filipino migrant community in the old church of the Maronite parish of Mar Elias, the largest Catholic parish in the Middle East.
No one knows the true number of Filipinos — almost all of whom are women — living and working throughout the Middle East. “With few job opportunities in the Philippines and families to support, these women come to the Middle East,” we reported in ONE magazine in 2011, “where jobs in the ‘care-giving industry’ are plentiful. Motivated by the promise of comparatively high earnings, most of which they intend on sending home to their families, they often accept without complaint long hours, little personal time or freedom and substandard living accommodations.”
Reporter Nicholas Seeley had also spoken with a local pastor:
“I understood that the first task was to give people a place where they could be at home,” said Jesuit Father Kevin O’Connell, who pastors the large Filipino community in Amman, Jordan. “For these people, just the ongoing, regular liturgy — with Filipino music, with people reading, with them being able to participate in whatever way they want — gives a strand of consistency and continuity. It’s their home. It’s their place. In most cases, there’s no place else they can gather.”
Very much at ease with the Filipino congregation, who spilled outside the doors of the lovely stone church, Msgr. Kozar addressed them directly throughout the liturgy, reminding the women that God hears the prayers of the poor and that “we who are poor always have our God-given dignity.” And he praised them for being a model to the rest of the world in their compassionate response in caring for one another after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the islands last November and killed more than 6,200 people.
Michel and I heard many a sniffle. The Filipinos, as they left Mass, asked Msgr. Kozar to come back next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that!
After the final blessing, as Msgr. Kozar greeted each and every worshiper personally, Michel and I chatted with a young German man, who, with a number of his friends, has committed ten months between high school and college to volunteer with the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross and their hospital in Jal el Dib. Clearly moved by the singing and participation in the liturgy, and the homily directed to the migrant workers, he said that when he returns to Bonn, he will look back on “all of this as if it were a dream.”
I asked him if he was worried that the dream would vanish. He looked at me, showed me the chaplet of St. Charbel he now wears on his right wrist, and said, “I’m now half Lebanese … anything could happen.”
14 January 2014
Tags: Lebanon Refugees Syrian Civil War Beirut Maronite
Children gather in a makeshift classroom in the Al Waer neighborhood of Homs. (photo: Ziad Hilal, S.J.)
“Evil appeared in an unprecedented way.”
That is how Father Ziad Hilal described the nightmare that is now Syria when he wrote to us. His Letter from Syria in the summer issue of ONE painted a stark portrait of a world torn apart by war — and of the innocent children he is desperately trying to save.
CNEWA, with the generous support of its donors, is making a difference in the lives of those children and so many others. To learn what we have been able to do, we invite you to read the latest report compiled by our regional offices in Amman and Beirut. To learn how you can help, you can also visit our Syria giving page.
“Hope is what CNEWA has helped us provide,” Father Hilal wrote. “I believe it has been a lifeline from God — helping us and guiding our efforts to glorify the name of the Lord.”
Thank you to all who have made this lifeline possible!
21 October 2013
Tags: Syria Refugees CNEWA Syrian Civil War Violence against Christians
Bob Pape is director of major gifts for CNEWA.
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure to visit with the Golden Lions of St. Pius X Catholic High School in Atlanta, Georgia, at the invitation of Msgr. Richard Lopez, a longtime friend of CNEWA. He had asked if I could speak to the students about the current situation faced by our brothers and sisters in Syria and CNEWA’s efforts to assist.
Entering the school, I had the feeling that I was in a very special place for students to learn and grow, to develop their unique talents and to strengthen their faith. Enthusiasm and positive attitudes abound not only among the students, but the faculty as well. The motto of the school is Domini Sumus — “We are the Lord’s.” I was reminded of this phrase throughout my visit.
I met with a large group of students in the auditorium. They were most welcoming, polite and respectful. I asked them if they had an opinion of Pope Francis and their response was overwhelmingly favorable. This reaction gave me a glimpse into just how well the Holy Father must have been received during World Youth Day in Brazil. I next gave a brief history of the Eastern churches. I simply tried to present the idea that Christianity has its original roots in the Middle East and the church of the Apostles.
I spoke about the current plight of the Christians in the Middle East in general — specifically, the suffering of the Christians in Syria. The students were very receptive. I tried to present the information in a way that would break down some of the misconceptions and stereotypes that seem to be ever present when the topic of Christians in the Middle East is discussed. For example: “Aren’t all Arabs Muslims?” — or, put another way, “Is there such a thing as an Arab Christian?”
When I reached the topic of the current state of the civil war in Syria, I realized how difficult it is to explain exactly who is fighting and why. I did the best I could. One point I was able to make clear, though, was the suffering endured by Syrian Christians who are caught in the middle of the conflict. When you start mentioning the number of Christians who have been killed, injured and displaced by the violence, you realize the magnitude of this crisis. I also wanted the students to be aware of the toll the violence has taken on the children of Syria in terms of physical injury, hunger, homelessness and lack of consistent education.
After I explained the work of CNEWA in assisting Christians in Syria, we got into a discussion of how students in Atlanta can help those suffering in Syria. Many good ideas were mentioned and the power of prayer was clearly mentioned as a way each of the students could help. This was very gratifying to hear.
I urged the students never to doubt that life can and will improve for our brothers and sisters in Syria, and even reminded them of Pope Francis’ direction: “Don’t let yourself be robbed of hope!” But I think I was the one who came away with the strongest feeling of hope. I was uplifted by the hope found in these young people who embrace their faith in their daily lives and who understand the need to get involved to help others. I was inspired by the hope that comes from knowing that the future of our faith is in good hands — such as those of the students of St. Pius X, who will grow up to be genuine witnesses to our faith throughout their lives. I thank the Golden Lions for giving me hope.
If you’d like someone from CNEWA to pay a visit to your church or school, drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you want to help the suffering Christians of Syria, visit this link.
Tags: Middle East Christians CNEWA Syrian Civil War Middle East Violence against Christians