11 January 2018
This version of a 19th engraving by an unknown artist shows a traveler putting his head under the edge of the firmament, depicting the gap between the earth and the heavens. The movement of the earth through the heavens continues to guide the Church’s seasons. (photo: Wikipedia Commons)
At the start of the new year, we all start following a new calendar, as Earth charts another course around the sun. It’s a good opportunity to look at how the Church marks the year — and that can get complicated.
For the Catholic Church and many other churches in the West, the liturgical year is divided into several sections or “seasons.” Two great seasons dominate the year. In order of chronological appearance, the first great season is the just-concluded Advent-Christmas Season, which runs from the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Epiphany. The second — but more important — season is the Lenten-Easter Season, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the day after Pentecost Sunday. Although Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and from the day after Pentecost until the First Sunday of Advent, once had different names, those Sundays are all now referred to as “Ordinary Time.”
As is the case with so many things we humans consider “ordinary” or “normal,” a closer look at world-wide Christianity reveals that “ordinary” and “normal” really mean “how we do it” and not “how everyone does it.” This is certainly the case with the Christian calendar. The difference in observances and traditions begins in the Christmas season. For example, while most Christians in the West celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December, Armenian Orthodox celebrate it on 6 January and many Orthodox Churches celebrate it on 7 January.
But the differences become more noticeable and important when it comes to the celebration of Easter.
After centuries of discussions and arguments on when to calculate the date for Easter, the Western Church opted to celebrate it on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the beginning of spring). The problem arose from the fact that the existing Julian calendar estimated the year to be 365 days and 6 hours long. The calculations, while good for the time, were off; the year is really 10 minutes and 48 seconds shorter than the Julian calendar reckoned.
Of course, that did not make a great difference at first. But over centuries it made a big difference. By the time of Pope Gregory XIII (1582), the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, was falling on 11 March and not 21 March. Pope Gregory moved to reform the way we calculate our days, and instituted what we now call the Gregorian calendar. On 24 February 1582, the new calendar was inaugurated and 10 days were just dropped.
Even though it was far more accurate than the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar was not immediately accepted around the world. That fact that it came from Christians made is suspect to some non-Christians; the fact that it came from the pope, made it suspect to non-Catholics, both Protestant and Orthodox who were not about to let the pope of Rome tell them what to do.
What this means is that in many, if not most, of the countries where CNEWA serves, Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter (and to some extent Christmas) on different days.
Eventually the entire world took over the Gregorian calendar. Other cultural and religious calendars like the Muslim, Jewish, Iranian, Chinese, etc. remained. The Gregorian calendar. however, became standard for all “secular” transactions.
But then there’s Easter. The calculation of Easter is, however, most definitely not a secular transaction. As a result, the Orthodox churches, existing in countries which accept the Gregorian calendar, nevertheless continue to use the Julian calendar to calculate Easter. Since the vernal equinox is central to the calculation, the problem is that the two calendars have different times for it. The Gregorian calendar, as we noted, has the first day of spring on 20 or 21 of March. The Julian calendar has it 13 days earlier and it gets earlier ever year. By 2100 the Julian first day of spring will be 14 days earlier than the Gregorian.
So once again, what is “normal” is normal for us and not normal for others.
The problem of Christians celebrating Easter at different times — sometimes almost a month apart — is seen by some as a sign of disunity among Christians (it is) and a weakening of Christian witness to the Resurrection (it might be) to the non-Christian world. As a result, there have been several recent attempts to “normalize” Easter Sunday so that Christians all over the world might celebrate it on the same day. Still, despite support from popes and patriarchs, the attempt has met with mixed success at best. Consensus has been impossible to achieve. Easter still awaits a unified date.
For Catholics, “Ordinary Time” in 2018 began on 7 January. Recognizing that what is ordinary for us is not ordinary for all Christians provides us with an ecumenical challenge. Instead of “ordinary” here being ho-hum, run of the mill, it can provide us with a challenge — a challenge all the more important since the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18-25 January. Ordinary time — by the very fact that it is not “ordinary” — thus challenges us to work together so that once again Christians all over the world can celebrate the Resurrection of the one Lord on the same day.
4 January 2018
A mosaic depicting the adoration of the Magi in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo dates to the sixth century. (photo: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The feast of the Epiphany, also known at the feast of the Three Kings and Twelfth Night, officially brings the Christmas season to a close this weekend — but in many of the places CNEWA serves, particularly those with deep Orthodox and Byzantine roots, it is just as grand a feast as Christmas, with distinct traditions and celebrations.
The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek ἐπιφαίνω
(epi-phaino), which means “to shine forth, manifest, reveal.” The feast celebrates the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, which is recounted only in the Gospel of Matthew — and even there, with very little detail. Despite the traditions that have grown up around the feast, Matthew does not tell us who these visitors are, where they came from other than “from the East,” or even how many there were. Christian tradition has “filled in the blanks” for 2,000 years and has had as many as 14 visitors, coming from all over Asia and Africa (which is not “from the East”) and even given them different names. Ultimately in the West, Christians settled on the number three because of the number of gifts. San Apolinare Nuovo, a sixth-century church in Ravenna, Italy, has a magnificent mosaic of three Magi, named Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, indicating that the tradition was beginning to solidify at least in the West just a few hundred years after the time of Christ.
For Matthew, who is writing primarily for Jewish converts to Christianity, it is important to stress the universal mission of the Messiah born in Bethlehem. Regardless of how many there were or where they came from, it is absolutely clear that the Magi are Gentiles. In Matthew’s Gospel the Gentiles are among the first to recognize Jesus. For Matthew the visit of the exotic strangers is truly an epiphany in that the true person and mission of Jesus “shines forth” and reveals itself. Jesus is not merely the hoped for Messiah who has come to save the Jews, but he is also the “shining forth,” the revelation of God’s Son to the entire world, Jew and Gentile alike.
Many local traditions have grown up around the feast of the Epiphany. In many Latin countries, the visit of the Three Kings is celebrated with parades and gift giving. In German villages, there is often a procession through the town. The pastor, accompanied by three children dressed as “Magi,” goes through the town blessing the homes. As each home is blessed, the letters C M B and the year are written in chalk over the main door of the house. The letters C M B stand not only for Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar but also for Christus Mansionen Benedicat — “may Christ bless the house.”
Liturgically since very ancient times, the Epiphany and the end of the Advent-Christmas season was seen as part of a series of epiphanies. The Gospel readings at the eucharistic celebration immediately following the feast of the Epiphany have traditionally dealt with the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and the Marriage Feast at Cana.
The Gospel accounts of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan are found in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and each recounts a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the “Beloved Son.” In all the Gospel accounts, including John, a voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove form an epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus is and what his mission is.
The Wedding at Cana appears only in the Gospel of John (2:1-12) and is also an epiphany. At the end of the account of Jesus turning the water into wine, the evangelist comments: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee and manifested (ἐφανέρωσεν from φαίνω, “to shine forth, manifest”) his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
In sum, this period after Christmas is a time of light and revelation — and, really, three epiphanies.
The first epiphany is what we traditionally refer to as “the Epiphany” and is the shining forth of Jesus as a “light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). The second epiphany at the Jordan reveals Jesus as the Beloved Son of the Father and the third and last epiphany of the season is the revelation of Jesus as the worker of might deeds and miracles at Cana.
Thus by the end of the Christmas season the Church through the liturgy not only proclaims that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but also teaches who he is and what his mission is.
21 December 2017
Tags: Christianity Christian
The adoration of the Magi is depicted in this icon by artist Ayman Fayez. The observance and celebration of Christmas vary around the world, with some places putting greater emphasis on Epiphany, and the visit of the Three Kings. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
Christmas is the most beloved feast in the Christian calendar. We see this again and again throughout the world CNEWA serves, with varying traditions and customs in different regions. This is true even if it is not the most important feast — which is, of course, Easter.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast these two feasts and how they are observed.
Christmas and Easter differ in many interesting ways, beginning with the date.The entire church year revolves around Easter, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Although it is always a Sunday, it can occur on any date between the first and second full moon of spring. The reason for this is that it is known that Jesus died on Friday the 13 or 14 of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. Christmas, on the other hand, is always on the 25th of December. The date for Christmas, on the other hand, is arbitrary, since nowhere in the Bible is it mentioned on which day or even month Jesus was born. The December date for Christmas was probably chosen to replace the Roman Saturnalia and other pagan celebrations which greeted the “return” of the invincible sun (sol invictus) after the winter solstice.
The feasts also differ in their liturgical observance. The liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are unique and occur only once a year, but the liturgy at Christmas is really no different from that of any major feast with its own readings and prayers.
Then there are scriptural differences. The events of Holy Week and Easter are recounted in each of the four Gospels and echo throughout the entire New Testament. The conception and birth of Jesus, however, appear only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and are quite different from each other.
Matthew, for example, has the story about the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the innocent children and the flight into Egypt. This Gospel also mentions that the Magi visited the Holy Family in a house (ὀικία Matthew 2:11).
Luke, on the other hand, makes no mention of the Magi, the massacre or the flight into Egypt. For Luke, the fact that Jesus is lying in a manger (φάτνη Luke 2:7, 12) is a “sign” to the shepherds in the field at the time of the birth.
Perhaps because of the varying accounts in the Gospels, Christmas is much more open to creative expression and observance. That is perhaps one reason why it is celebrated so differently around the world. In some parts of the Western Church the emphasis is strongly on 25 December; in other parts of the West, the focus is placed on the Epiphany, the feast of “Three Kings.” But were there really just three? Matthew does not say how many Magi visited the Holy Family — over the centuries, the tradition has been as high as fourteen! — but, the number three has become standard for the simple reason that there were three gifts. No one came empty-handed.
The very “openness” of Christmas to attract to itself new and different traditions is sometimes lamented and even condemned. While things certainly can get out of hand, for the most part, the “adaptability” of Christmas is, I believe, very much in line with what this great feast is about.
Christmas is the celebration of our belief that the Eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became human, i.e. “one (tested) like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Over the centuries some Christians have attempted to deny the full humanity of Jesus and hold that he only “appeared to be human.” The Church has always rejected that but has not always appreciated its full meaning. As the feast celebrating the humanity of the Word of God, Christmas shares in all those things which are human — diversity, adaptation, change, a certain unpredictability, even messiness. If Christmas is, in a sense, the most physical and bodily feast of the Christian calendar, that is because it is supposed to be precisely that — the celebration that God has taken on our nature, our physicality in all things but sin.
The Eternal Word was made flesh — and that is what Christmas is about.
14 December 2017
French President Vincent Auriol speaks during the opening ceremony of the third United Nations Assembly at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris on 10 December 1948, the day when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Sixty-nine years ago this week — on 10 December 1948 — the newly formed General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR; res. GA217A). It could not have been more timely or urgent. Not half way through the 20th century, the world had experienced two world wars in which tens of millions of people — mostly civilians — were killed; it had experienced the Armenian genocide in the Middle East; it had witnessed the Holocaust of Jews in Europe and the dropping of two atomic bombs. CNEWA, in many ways, is a product of this century, one that has been called the century of “megadeath,” and our work is inextricably bound to those still suffering the aftershocks of so much war and slaughter.
The United Nations itself was the result of nations recognizing that wars and killings on this scale must not be allowed to continue. Something new needed to be created which could promote peace and restrain killing, especially of civilians.
In 1946, at the first session of the General Assembly, a draft document was prepared to complement the UN Charter and to guarantee the lives of rights of the peoples of the world. A preliminary draft was send to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for refinement. ECOSOC set up a Committee on Human Rights consisting of 18 people from around the world. The driving spirit behind the Committee was its only woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The draft was accepted by the General Assembly two years later (1948).
The UDHR attempted to “set a common standard of achievements for all people and all nations (setting out) for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected...” As such, the UDHR became the basis on which international law was built in the 20th century.
The Preamble recognizes “...the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all the human family” as “the foundation of justice and peace in the world.”
There were far fewer founding members of the UN in 1946 — only 51 — than the present 193 member states of the General Assembly. However, the UDHR, though often attacked and often ignored, remains the basis for the role of the UN in the world.
The UDHR is celebrated every year on 10 December. In a real sense it is a living document and continually evolving, as the nations of the world recognize new rights — such as the right to protection. The original UDHR contained 30 Articles delineating what the particular human rights are. As the notion of Human Rights has grown, members states agree to uphold different conventions (like treaties) protecting the expanding rights of their citizens.
It would be naïve in the extreme to think that each and every member state of the UN recognizes, much less protects, all the rights in the UDHR, even though the nations have signed protocols to protect those rights. Although the coercive power of the UN is extremely limited, it has considerable moral power. One of the ways it holds member states accountable is the Universal Periodic Revue (UPR) presented the UN Human Rights Committee. This, according to the UN, is:
“ ...a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. As one of the main features of the Council, the UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed.”
Every five years member states report to the Committee on how they have fulfilled their obligations to the conventions they have signed and on the state of human rights in their countries.
This is also a time when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often present reports critical of the country under periodic review. In very many instances, the NGOs are the (unwanted) conscience of the country being reviewed — keeping it honest and pointing out failures the country may not want to admit.
The UN is often — and often enough, justifiably — criticized for many things. It is not a strong organization in the sense that it has little or no authority to force a nation to do something or to refrain from something. However, for all its weaknesses and failures, the UN stands as a monument of — and perhaps the only present instrument for attaining — the highest and noblest possibilities open to the planet: a place of peace, justice and responsibility; a place where the common good is promoted and the rights of all protected.
7 December 2017
In this image from 2015, Mandaeans take part in a religious ritual on the bank the Shat al-Arab river in the southern city of Basra, south of Baghdad.
(photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
The Middle East has always been a crossroad to soldiers of fortune, traders and missionaries. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find some of the most exotic religions in the world there. One of these would be the Mandaeans, whose name comes from the Aramaic (manda ‘ḥay, “teaching/knowledge of life.”)
Almost at the same time as Christianity appeared in the Middle East, gnostic (from Greek γνῶσις, gnosis, “knowledge”) religions began to appear. The gnostic religions are very different each other, yet show a remarkable ability to take over beliefs from Indian religions, Greco-Roman religions, Judaism and Christianity itself. For over 300 years, Christianity resisted incursions of gnostic religion into its faith. One of these, Manichaeism — a dualist, anti-body form of Gnosticism — provided a major threat to orthodox Christianity. In fact, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the great theologian and saint, was a follower of Manichaeism before his conversion to Christianity.
The Mandaeans are within this large tradition of gnostic religions — one of many that interacted with Christianity in the region for centuries. It is estimated that Mandaeism took form in the 1st through 3rd centuries AD in Iraq, at the same time and place where Eastern Christianity was beginning to grow.
Traditionally, they were found in southern Iraq along the great rivers, which isn’t surprising. Water is very important for Mandaeans, since baptism is one of their major and frequently performed rituals. In fact, they are sometimes referred to as “baptizers.” Many years ago, I had an Arabic teacher from southern Iraq who told me she was a “Baptist.” I thought it strange because Baptists Christians are extremely rare in the Middle East, but one day I asked her if she was manda ‘ḥay. She lit up and said, “You know of us?” She was, of course, a Mandaean. While fascinated, I could not say I knew a lot about her faith.
As “baptizers,” Mandaeans hold John the Baptist in extremely high regard, though they do not consider him divine. They look upon Jesus as a false Messiah who corrupted the message of John the Baptist.
Mandaeans believe in a supreme deity from whom there are emanations into the created world. In their teaching, human beings were originally astral beings (stars) that have fallen to their present state. Such emanations from an original divine being are common in gnostic religions.Through observing the “Mysteries” — secret rituals — the believer is able to move through higher states of being until ultimate returning to his astral identity.
As is often the case in gnostic religions, there is a strict “caste” system. The “enlightened” are those who have achieved the teaching of life. Among the enlightened are the priests who hold the highest in rank. The majority of believers form the laity, whose task it is to purify themselves through repeated baptisms and to seek ever deeper awareness of the manda ‘ḥay until ultimately reaching enlightenment.
Most of the religious minorities we have dealt with in the past several weeks are secretive. For many of them, however, secrecy is a survival strategy, a way to protect themselves from the dominant religion in the region. Secrecy for gnostic religions, however, is an essential part of a faith which places great stress on the esoteric, i.e. secret, saving knowledge.
Time and history may have finally caught up with this religion, though. The Gulf War which began in 2003 forced many Mandaeans to flee. Living between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf along the two rivers, they found themselves in a battle zone. Already a tiny, minority faith, many Mandaeans fled to different places around the world — including the United States, where a small Mandean community of about 2,000 people resides in Worcester, Massachusetts.
At present it is estimated that they are between 60-70,000 Mandaeans in the entire world. Whether they will survive the 21st century is an open question.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 2: The Shabak
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 3: The ‘Alawi
30 November 2017
An icon of apostles and brothers Sts. Peter and Andrew is pictured on a wall at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican The icon was given by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to Pope Paul VI in 1964. Sts. Peter and Andrew are considered patrons of the Roman and Orthodox churches. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
When I worked for what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, I often had to travel from Geneva, Switzerland, to Rome for meetings at the main office of the Secretariat. In the main meeting room, I could not help but notice the icon above, which hung on the wall. It always fascinated me. It shows the brothers, Sts. Peter and Andrew, embracing. There is a Greek inscription which reads: “The Holy Apostle Brothers.” Next to Peter are the words: Peter, the koryphaios (“leader, head”) and next to Andrew are the words: Andrew, the prtokltos (“first called”). Andrew is the “first called” because he was the first of the Apostles called by Jesus (John 1:40).
I later learned that the icon was a gift of Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to Pope Paul VI as a remembrance of their meeting in the Holy Land in January 1964 — the first between a pope and a patriarch of Constantinople in well over a thousand years.
But the icon is more than merely a remembrance of the meeting. It has powerful symbolic importance — and it is especially significant today, the Feast of St. Andrew.
Peter is, of course, the patron saint of Rome. He and Paul were martyred in Rome and the bishop of Rome is the successor of St. Peter.
Andrew, however, is revered as the patron saint of Byzantium — and the patriarch of Constantinople is his successor. In a real sense, the icon represents not only Peter and Andrew embracing, nor even just Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras; it represents the hoped-for unity between the Eastern and Western Churches.
Although in the icon the apostles are embracing, the relationship between their successors has not always been so warm. In 1054 the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other and began the Great Schism which has divided the Eastern and Western churches for almost a thousand years.
The meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoros began a change in the relations between the churches. In 1965 each of the leaders revoked the anathemas (excommunications) of 1054. Peter and Andrew were beginning the road to reconciliation. Since that time there have been great advances toward unity between the two churches, although admittedly there are still problems to be solved.
One of the most beautiful outcomes of the initial encounter of pope and patriarch was an annual exchange of visits. On 29 June, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, patrons of Rome, the Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, sends a high level delegation to celebrate the feast with the Pope in Rome. I was privileged to be at the celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1995 when the patriarch himself attended. Likewise, on 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew, patron of Byzantium, the Holy See sends a high-level delegation to the Phanar to join in the celebration. Thus, twice a year, on 29 June and 30 November, two churches — represented by the brothers Peter and Andrew — work together to restore the bonds of love and communion between them after over a thousand years of estrangement.
The Patriarchs of Constantinople have personally taken part in the celebrations in Rome at least three times (1995, 2004, 2008) while Pope John Paul II took part in the celebrations at the Phanar (1979), as did Pope Benedict XVI (2006) and Pope Francis (2014). When the pope or patriarch is unable to attend, a high-level delegation is sent.
Since the Feast of St. Andrew comes during a busy time in the West — during the season of Advent, when Catholic parishes and homes throughout the world have begun preparing for Christmas — it can be easy to overlook this day. But we shouldn’t. It speaks to a deep and prayerful yearning that goes back to the very words of Christ, “that all may be one.”
We at CNEWA collaborate closely with our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Churches — supporting and celebrating any actions which can bring our two Churches closer together — and we join our prayers this day with all work diligently for Christian unity.
Pope Francis’s 2017 Message to Patriarch Bartholomew
16 November 2017
Alawites celebrate a festival in Banyas, Syria during World War II. (photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain)
Of all the religious minorities in the Middle East, perhaps the ‘Alawi or Alawites are the most familiar to people outside the Middle East. In the world CNEWA serves, one of the most prominent political rulers in the region is an ‘Alawi: Bashar al-Assad, the strongman ruler of Syria. His father, Hafiz al-Assad, was also a member of the faith.
The ‘Alawi are also known in history as the Nuṣayri; that is now considered pejorative and was replaced by ‘Alawi. There are significant ‘Alawi minorities in Lebanon (180-200,000), Turkey (500,000-1 million) and Syria (1.5-3 million). The ‘Alawi faith is — like many of the minority religions of the Middle East — highly syncretistic, i.e. comprised in part of beliefs and practices taken from other religions — often with changes that make them unrecognizable. It is generally agreed that the religion has its origins in Shi’ite Islam, but its adherents are considered to be a in ġulāt, “extreme” and heretical, although Muslim opinions about the ‘Alawi religion have vacillated over the centuries.
If syncretism is common among minority religions in the Middle East, so is secrecy, and the ‘Alawi are no exception — though some studies about the faith have been undertaken over the last century. The ‘Alawi belief revolves around a trinity or, perhaps better, a triad. They believe in one god, who is referred to as the “Essence” or “Meaning” (Arabic: ma‘nā) from which emanate two further manifestations: the “Name” or “Veil” and the “Gate.” These can take different manifestations in history, the most common being ‘Ali b. Abi Talib as the “Essence,” Muhammad as the “Name” and Salman al Farisi as the “Gate.” Other figures from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament appear in differing roles.
The ‘Alawi believe that they were originally astral lights who fell from grace and descended to earth. Salvation is achieved through a series of rebirths (metempsychosis). Those who are judged to have been evil are reborn as women — considered to be demonic and excluded from rituals — along with members of other religions, such as Christianity, etc. Salvation consists of achieving contemplation of the “Essence” after having journeyed through the seven heavens. The exclusion of women from rituals has brought about a type of female piety that differs from that of male adherents and tends to be quite syncretistic.
One of the more unusual practices of the ‘Alawi is the quddas, a highly secret and important ritual, open only to males; during this ritual, wine is consecrated and consumed. At times ‘Alawi have been particularly concerned to keep this ritual secret from Christians. ‘Alawi also have holidays. They celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian (Zoroastrian) New Year, as well as Christmas, the Epiphany and the feasts of Mary Magdalene.
The fate of the ‘Alawi over the centuries has been varied. Generally regarded as heretics, they were spared by the Crusaders because the Crusaders thought they were not Muslims. During the time of the Ottoman Empire there were attempts made to convert the ‘Alawi to Sunni Islam, the dominant religion of the empire. After World War I and the Sykes-Picot Treaty, France took control of northern Syria and southern Turkey, where a large number of the ‘Alawi lived. Perhaps as part of a divide-and-conquer tactic, the French were favorable towards the ‘Alawi. For a while there was an ‘Alawi province. It later became the Government of Latakia and was finally subsumed into the modern Syrian state.
There is an unusual variety of opinions among Muslims as to the nature of the ‘Alawi faith. Some, like the medieval Muslim theologian ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), believe that the ‘Alawi are infidels and subject to jihad. Generally Shi’ite Muslims consider them “extremists” and heterodox. On the other hand, Haj Amin al-Husseini (d. 1974), the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, for political reasons recognized the ‘Alawi as Muslims. Some scholars and observers think that, since taking control of Syria in 1971, the al-Assad family has worked to “sunnify” the ‘Alawi to make them more acceptable to the Sunni majority in Syria. Whether this is true and, if true, effective, remains to be seen. However, it needs also to be noted that historically the strongest allies of the al-Assad family have been the Iranian Shi’ites.
Unlike other religious minorities in the Middle East, the ‘Alawi do not live under the threat of extinction.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 2: The Shabak
9 November 2017
In this image from 2015, a displaced Iraqi child from the Shabak community, who fled fighting between ISIS and Peshmerga fighters around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, stands at the Baharka camp, a few miles west of Erbil. (photo: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)
There are several minority religions in Mesopotamia which are distantly related to each other and to Islam. For the most part, these religions are considered heterodox by the dominant Sunni Muslim population. In addition, some contain elements taken from Shi’ite Islam that go beyond what its adherents would find acceptable. In parts of the region, these religions are persecuted for being heterodox or considered as simply Shi’ite — a “proof” to some that Shi’ite Islam is also heterodox.
Included in this group would be the Shabak.
The Shabak people are concentrated in northern Iraq to the east and north of Mosul. CNEWA encounters them in the clinics we support in the Iraqi province of Dohuk. It is estimated that the Shabak presently number between 500,000 and 550,000.
The Shabak faith is remotely related to the Alawi sect which is in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. The al-Asad family, the strong man rulers of Syria, belongs to the Alawi sect in western Syria. However, the relation between the two faiths is remote.
The Shabak take the basic Muslim creed that there is no God but God (Allah), Muslim reverence for the Prophet Muhammad and the Shi’ite reverence for Aly, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and combine them in an unusual way. For Shabak Allah, Muhammad and Aly form a type of trinity in which Aly is the primary manifestation of the divinity. While all Muslims have a deep, emotional reverence for the Prophet and while Shi’ite Muslims add to that a deep, emotional reverence for Aly (and his second son, Hussein), it is totally unacceptable for Sunni and Shi’ite alike to consider Muhammad and Aly as divine in any sense of the word. This Shabak belief alone is enough to bring on them the opprobrium of the dominant Muslim population.
The faith of the Shabak is hierarchically ordered. Each person and family comes under a pir, which is a type of priest/spiritual director. This pir is to be differentiated from the pir which is a spiritual authority/teacher in the Sufi traditions of Islam, although the two may be related. The pir is responsible for carrying out all the worship services in which he is assisted by a functionary called a rehber.
For the three great festivals of the year, 12 functionaries must take part in the ceremonies. The first festival is New Year, which is in December; the second is Ashurah, a Shi’ite memorial of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and the Night of Pardon. During the Night of Pardon, the Shabak confess their sins — a practice common in Christianity, but unknown in Islam. In fact, public confession of sins, consumption of alcohol and pilgrimages to shrines of saints are practices (above and beyond their belief in a trinity) which sharply differentiate the Shabak from Islam.
The Shabak suffered greatly under ISIS. They are not considered a People of the Book and were hence faced with the stark choice of conversion to Islam or death. Since it is not clear to which ethnic group the Shabak belong — Turkic, Arab, Kurdish, Iranian — they are inevitably caught up on the ethnic conflicts of the region.
As a result, as is the case with many of the religious minorities of the Middle East, the survival of the Shabak is very precarious.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis
2 November 2017
A Yazidi man prays in Lalish, Iraq, near Kurdistan. (photo: Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Most people in the west had never heard of the Yazidis before ISIS attacked them with genocidal fury in August 2014. Thousands of Yazidi men were captured and killed. Yazidi women and young girls were sold as sex slaves in the market place of Mosul. Many Yazidis took refuge on Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq and were threatened with starvation and lack of water. The world watched in horror as entire families faced starvation and death at the hands of ISIS. (There were even accounts of desperate mothers throwing their children from the mountain to keep them from being slaughtered by the Islamic militants.) Thus, the Yazidis entered the consciousness of the West as people of great tragedy and even greater mystery.
The Yazidi religion is not well understood. It tends to be very inward looking and secretive. The five daily prayers — an echo of Islam — are not said when outsiders are present. It is an endogamous faith that allows marriage only between a Yazidi man and Yazidi woman. Anyone marrying outside the faith is automatically considered to have converted to the other religion — and is effectively excommunicated.
Scholars refer to Yazidi belief as being syncretistic — that is, one faith taking over elements of another. This is common among almost all the religions of the world to some extent. (Christians, for example, took over the Roman pagan feast of Saturnalia, “baptized” it and made it into Christmas, despite the fact that the Bible is totally silent on what time of year Jesus was born.) In the Yazidi religion we see elements of Islam (the five daily prayers), Judaism (Saturday as a day of rest and the names of the seven “angels”) and other ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia.
Similarly, their beliefs contain echoes of other faiths. Yazidis believe in one God who is the creator of all. However, their God is a remote deity that has little to do with creation. Rather there are seven “angels” who are emanations of this God; this is a characteristic found in Gnosticism, another ancient religion of the region. Of these angels, the head is Melek Ta’us or the Peacock Angel. Melek Ta’us is responsible for the world and its inhabitants. Two beliefs about Melek Ta’us have proven fateful for Yazidis. Because he is responsible for everything that happens in creation, Melek Ta’us is the source of both good and evil. Even in the earliest parts of the Bible we see a struggle as to who or what the source of evil is (see 2 Samuel 17:14 God overturns the advice of Ahitophel because God wanted “to bring evil on Absalom.”)
In addition, Yazidis have a story about God creating humanity and asking the angels to bow down to Adam. A similar story appears in the Qur’an (2:35 and elsewhere). In Yazidi faith, Melek Ta’us refused to bow; in Islam, Iblis refused to bow. For Yazidis this was a sign of Melek Ta’us’ loyalty; for Muslims Iblis becomes identified with the Shaytan, “Satan.” Because of this, ISIS considers Yazidis devil worshippers worthy of death. While ISIS offers Christians a choice between conversion, paying the jizya tax, exile or death, the choice for the Yazidis is much starker: conversion to Islam or death.
Yazidis also have the interesting belief that, while they are descended from Adam, they are not descended from Eve but through a special creation. Thus they see themselves as unrelated to those tainted beings who are descendants of Adam through Eve.
The origins of the Yazidis and even their name are not clear. While they hold the second Umayyad Caliph, Yazid I (647-683) in high regard, it is not clear what role that plays in either their practice of the faith or their name. The Sufi leader ?Adi ibn Musafir (died 1162) also plays an important role in Yazidism and his tomb not far from Mosul is an important place of pilgrimage.
Yazidis have lived for centuries in the Kurdish parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. For the most part, they were ignored and left alone by the Muslim majority. In recent times, however, there has been increasing hostility towards them. It is estimated that there are between 200,000 and one million Yazidis in the world. Many have left the Middle East for Europe, Australia and parts of North America. With the brutal attacks by ISIS, the number of Yazidi refugees has understandably increased greatly.
The Yazidis are very much a part of CNEWA’s world — and we number many of them among those we serve. CNEWA is active in northern Iraq and has a clinic in the city of Dahuk in the Iraqi Province of Dahuk. Many Yazidis make use of the clinic as they try to get their lives back together and face a future that is not only uncertain, but possibly very bleak. If it is true that Christians face the possibility of extinction in the Middle East, Yazidis face the possibility of extinction in the entire world.
Religious Minorities in the East — Introduction
25 October 2017
This image from last summer shows some of the thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority persecuted by ISIS, who live in Lalish, Iraq, near Kurdistan.
(photo: Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
With the chaos prevalent in the Middle East — and especially with the violence of ISIS against all those who are not allied with it — there is much talk about religious minorities in the Middle East. Now seems a good time to take stock of the challenges these minorities are facing — and what those challenges mean to the rest of the world, particularly the world that CNEWA serves.
In the West, the major portion of the discussion revolves around Christians and whether Christian communities which date back to apostolic times will survive in the places of their origin. The focus on the Christian minority in the Middle East is understandable. Numbering over 18 million in the region, Christians form the largest minority population in the Middle East. Christianity, including its nominal adherents, is the largest religious group in Europe and the Western Hemisphere.
However, Christians are not the only or even the oldest minority in the Middle East. The land mass going eastwards from the Mediterranean to India has been the birthplace of most of the great religions of the world. The western part was the birthplace of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Iranian-Indian subcontinent saw the birth of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism.
From the most ancient times, explorers, adventurers and merchants risked the perils of the huge Eurasian continent, bringing with them trade goods, inventions, ideas and religions. Contacts between the two areas were relatively constant and a type of cross-pollination was inevitable. Many of the large religions saw groups break off and form traditions of their own, some of which were considered acceptable, most of which were considered “heretical.”
Although relatively well known to Christians in the Middle East and to the people of CNEWA who work with them, many of these smaller religions are, for all practical purposes, unknown in the West except to scholars. Some of these religions are very limited geographically and have very few adherents in comparison with the major religions of the world. While Christianity and its continuance in the Middle East are under severe stress — and its viability there is open to question — there is no question of Christianity disappearing from the face of the earth. But that is not the case with some of region’s other minority religions. Groups such as the Yazidis are not threatened with extinction in merely the Middle East; they are faced with total extinction from the planet.
In the next several weeks, we will be looking at some of these religious minorities. Some are related loosely to Islam, such as the Alawis and the Shabak; others are related to Christianity and Middle Eastern gnostic theosophy like the Mandaeans; still others like the Yazidis have roots that antedate the present religions in the region. While many of these religions are monotheistic, i.e. believing in one God, they are not all monotheistic in the way that Judaism and Islam are. Some of them are ahl ul-kitb, “People of the Book” in Muslim dominated countries. Thus Jews, Christians and Mandaeans in Muslim countries are “protected” and enjoy some rights. They are, however, second class “citizens.” Other groups such as Yazidis, however, which are not “People of the Book,” enjoy no such protection. As a result, they often seek out remote regions in the area where they are at best ignored by the dominant religions. Often, however, they are objects of violent persecution — as was the case with the Yazidis in Sinjar, an Iraqi mountain town, which was fiercely attacked by ISIS. ISIS gave Christians the choice: convert to Islam; pay the jizya or poll tax; go into exile; or face certain death. Yazidis were given a much harsher choice: convert or be killed.
In the past, I have compared the religious and cultural situation in the Middle East to an extraordinarily beautiful and complex carpet, for which the region is justifiably famous. The carpets are woven from many colors and involve incredibly complex patterns. It is precisely the variety of the colors and the complexity of the patterns that make the carpets “magical.” With that in mind, it seems to me that for centuries the people of the Middle East formed a type of oriental carpet. Although the relations between the religions were sometimes tense and at times even violent, the carpet held together. Now in the 21st century, that carpet is quickly becoming unraveled. A synthesis which existed in some shape or form for thousands of years is now coming undone.
What are we to make of this? In the days ahead, we will look at some of the non-Christian minority religious “colors and patterns” in this “carpet.” In particular, we will explore religious minorities mostly in the area of Syria and Iraq where, for a variety of reasons, their very existence is threatened.
It is our hope that this will help us realize a fundamental truth: the world will be poorer if these ancient traditions are lost. We need to treasure the many threads binding together the Middle East and, indeed, our planet.