27 May 2015
In this image from 2012, Israeli-Arab fourth-grade students attend the Aramaic language class at Jish Elementary School in Jish, Israel. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
For centuries Christians in the Middle East have been in the forefront of education and health care. They have made important contributions to Muslims societies throughout the Arab world. One need only think of places like the Universities of Beirut and Cairo, the Jesuit al-Hikmah University in Baghdad, closed by Saddam Hussein, Bethlehem University and many primary and secondary schools, to say nothing of the countless Christian sponsored and run hospitals to see the major benefits the societies in the Middle East have from Christian institutions.
Christian educational institutions in the State of Israel are now facing new challenges, including cuts in funding that threaten their mission and could impact tens of thousands of students. On 27 May 2015 Christian educators held an unprecedented demonstration in the front of the headquarters of the Israeli Ministry of Education.
According to the press release of the Office of Christian Schools in Israel, the schools serve more than 30,000 students both Christian and Muslim. The press release states “These schools belong to the ‘recognized but not public’ classification of schools...and receive partial funding from the Ministry (of Education). The rest of their funding comes from fees that are collected from the parents.”
The Ministry of Education has reduced the funds going to Christian schools by 45 percent over the last ten years, making the schools’ survival increasingly dependent on tuition paid by parents. Now, according to the news release, the Ministry has “issued new regulations that even limited the ability of Christian schools to collect feels from parents.”
As a minority in Israel, Christians see the latest moves as threats to the ongoing sustainability of Christian education in the Holy Land — a service Christians have been rendering for centuries.
To learn more about the challenges facing the Christian minority in Israel, check out “Caught in the Middle” in the March 2010 edition of ONE.
26 May 2015
A picture taken on 14 March 2014 shows a sculpture found in the ancient Syrian oasis city of Palmyra, 130 miles northeast of Damascus, and now displayed at the city’s museum. From the first to the second century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. (photo: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
Now that ISIS has gained control of Palmyra — and, some fear, could destroy many of the priceless artifacts in the ancient Syrian city — an important Muslim voice has been raised, calling on the world to protect and defend these treasures.
Al Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world and a center of Sunni Muslim learning, has declared that “protecting archaeological sites from destruction and plundering is the battle of all humanity.” The Cairo-based institution has called on the world community to prevent ISIS from “destroying the cultural and archaeological landmarks of the city.” As one of the most authoritative voices in Sunni Islam, Al Azhar stated that the destruction of world heritages sites and artifacts is haram — that is, forbidden by Sharia law.
Al Azhar has reason to be concerned for Palmyra.
In March 2001 the Taliban shelled and destroyed the giant statues of Buddha that had been erected in the Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan. Scholars estimate that the statues were built between 507 and 554, before the birth of Muhammad and the arrival of Islam. It was the most widely publicized destruction of antiquities in recent times.
Unfortunately the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was not an isolated example of barbarism in the name of religion. Since 2001 — and with increasing frequency recently — religious extremists have been attacking artistic and ancient artifacts in the name of religion. The most notorious of these desecrators of what the U.N. calls objects of World Heritage has been the self-proclaimed Islamic State, known in the Middle East by its acronym Daesh.
The present rampage of wanton destruction of the art and history of the Middle East is unparalleled in magnitude since the Mongol invasions under Hulagu Khan in the 13th century. The Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258 and brought the Golden Age of the Abbasid Caliphate to an end. Ironically ISIS, which claims to have reestablished the caliphate, is behaving in the same way as those who brought the caliphate in that part of the world to an end.
With the fall of Mosul in July 2014 ISIS members sacked the Mosul Museum which had been home to many artifacts dating from the Old through the New Assyrian periods (2015-612 B.C.). While some of the plundered artifacts were sold on the black market, many of the irreplaceable objects were simply and wantonly destroyed.
The world can only hope that the voices of concern raised by Al Azhar will be heard — and heeded.
7 April 2015
Tags: Syria ISIS Art Historical site/city
Catholic bishops visit the Cremisan Valley in January.
(photo: Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales)
In a victory for the Christian community in the Palestinian West Bank, the Society of St. Yves, a legal aid group of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, announced on 2 April that the Israeli Supreme Court had accepted the many petitions of Christian groups and rejected the plans to build an extension of the Israeli separation wall in the Cremisan Valley.
The barrier, which has been planned for many years, would have run down the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem, severing some 50 Palestinian farming families from their farms, and separating the community of Salesian priests and brothers from that of the Salesian sisters. In addition, the 30-foot-high wall would have surrounded on three sides the school run by the sisters.
The St. Yves group noted: “The planned route was designed to confiscate a huge share of the privately owned lands of the people of Beit Jala in Cremisan as well as the Vatican church land owned by the two Salesian Monasteries. The planned route was to further separate both monasteries from each other and from the local population they serve.”
The issue of the separation wall has been an international concern for many. On 11 February 2015, Bishop Oscar Cantú, who chairs the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to the chairs of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs expressing concern for the impact the wall would have not only on the Palestinians in the Cremisan, but also on the peace process.
Earlier, on 30 January 2014, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, president of the Canadian Conference of Bishops, had written a letter expressing the deep concerns of the Canadian Catholic bishops regarding the separation wall. Archbishop Durocher’s letter was addressed to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, with copies sent to the Israeli Ambassador to Canada, the Canadian Ambassador to Israel and Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom.
Concerned about the impact of the proposed wall on the local community, including the works of the Salesians in the valley, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, as a non-governmental organization (NGO) accredited to the United Nations, took action. CNEWA provided an information packet on the Cremisan Valley to a coalition of more than 40 Catholic NGO’s at the United Nations on 30 April 2013. This resulted in many of those NGO’s writing letters against the building of the wall to the Israeli and United States ambassadors to the United Nations as well as to the U.S. Secretary of State.
“This is Holy Week and tomorrow is Good Friday and Easter,” said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal at a news conference after the ruling was announced on 2 April. “This is an advance Resurrection. Even if tomorrow is Good Friday, we are very happy and can celebrate. We thank God for this.”
The patriarch acknowledged the important role played by the global church and the diplomatic community in advocating against construction of the wall.
This wall was illegal and justice has prevailed,” the patriarch said. According to Catholic News Service, the legal victory, the patriarch said, was the result of a joint effort among the Catholic Church, landowners, the three neighboring municipalities, and Israelis who supported their case. Some efforts were made openly, he said, while some were behind the scenes.
It is very good news that the rights of the people of the Cremisan Valley have been upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court. It’s a further sign that individuals and organizations can make a difference in the struggle for peace and justice in the Middle East.
13 February 2015
An Iraqi man carrying a cross and a Quran attends Mass at Baghdad’s Mar Girgis Church
on 20 July 2014. (photo: CNS photo/Ahmed Malik, Reuters)
In the Winter 2015 edition of ONE, we’ve just posted an online exclusive, wherein I look at at some of the challenges facing Muslims as they deal with Islamaphobia spreading through the West:
To be honest, the statement that “Islam is a religion of peace” is seen by many as less and less credible. This is not simply due to prejudices in the West, but to the actions of some Muslims themselves. While the West has played a devastating and regrettable role in destabilizing Iraq, in the past 10 years more than a million Christians have suffered; Christians have been killed, their assets have been plundered, and survivors have been forced into exile as refugees by Islamic movements in northwestern Iraq. ISIS’s aim to spread the caliphate around the world characterizes it as a religio-political ideology. Talk of the black flag of ISIS flying over the White House and other Western capitals does nothing to calm xenophobia in Europe and the West. Even paranoids can have real enemies.
Atrocities such as the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by the Boko Haram in Nigeria and the recent slaughter of more than a 120 students in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Taliban all have one thing in common: their actions are done in the name of Islam, using the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad as justification and support. ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban are not small, isolated, fanatical splinter groups. They are not connected to Hinduism, Buddhism or any indigenous traditions. Rather, they are large and powerful Islamic movements. Their symbols are taken from Islam as is their supposed legal system. Often enough, their reading of the Quran and the Sunna is not weird or idiosyncratic, but straightforward and literal.
It is clear that many — indeed most — Muslims do not approve of such behavior and do not interpret the Quran in such exclusive and violent ways. Often without recognition from the West, Muslim scholars have done a great deal to counteract the ideology of ISIS. I totally agree with those Muslims who hold that these organizations are acting contrary to the values of Islam. However, it comes across as morally disingenuous to then absolve oneself simply by declaring that these movements are not Islamic. At times, some Muslim responses appear half-hearted — as if to avoid deeper, more disturbing questions. One sometimes gets the impression that the argument is: Because it has done these horrible things, ISIS is not Islamic.
There’s much more. Read the full essay in the online Winter edition of ONE.
22 January 2015
Father Paul Wattson, who co-founded the Friars of the Atonement and CNEWA, also launched the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. (photo: CNS/courtesy Society of the Atonement, Graymoor)
Once again the time has come for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January). Started in 1908 as the Octave for Church Unity by Rev. Paul Wattson, an Anglican priest, the Week of Prayer has spread throughout the world.
It’s just one part of Father Paul’s remarkable legacy. He founded an order of Franciscans — the Friars of the Atonement, to which I belong — with the express intent of working for reconciliation and Christian unity. In 1909, the community was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church.
With that, his efforts to work for Christian unity moved to a broader context. The Octave was approved and encouraged for the entire Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XV in 1916. Today, it is observed by Christians of many churches around the world.
Central to Father Paul’s desire for Christian unity was his reading of a verse from chapter 17 of the Gospel of John: “That they all may be one...” From my youth I was aware of the quote from John 17:21 and the role it played in the founding of the Friars of the Atonement. It is a quote that evoked two questions in me. “Who are the ‘all’?” and “be one what?” The “all” is clearly that — everyone who is the Other, the Outsider. And Jesus himself explains the What as he continues the prayer. “One” is that great mystery of love and community; one is the Trinitarian life of the Godhead.
The Other can be not only different but unsettling, frightening, and even threatening. The Other — whether it be Orthodox or Protestant Christians, Jews, Muslims or members of other world religions — can be something we are more comfortable avoiding than engaging. Long before Vatican II challenged the Catholic Church to engage the Other in dialogue, Father Paul Wattson was seeking out other Christians — Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican — to engage them in the mystery of becoming ”one.”
After the Second Vatican Council, 20 years after the death of Father Paul, his initial vision was expanded to include engagement with members of every faith. To be sure, the goals and methods of engaging other Christians are different from those of engaging Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. But true to the vision of Father Paul, no one was to be excluded, ignored or left out. From the very concrete and Christian event of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the inclusiveness of the “all” was taken very seriously.
As the External Affairs Officer at Catholic Near East Welfare Association — which Father Paul also co-founded — I work with Christians of every variety in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Southern India. The schools, hospitals and clinics we support welcome Muslims and members of other religions. Tragically, the Near East has become a dangerous part of the world — not only for Christians, but for all people who oppose violence in the name of religion and the oppression of the Other.
The vision of Father Paul as the founder of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and co-founder of CNEWA finds its expression in his desire to bring things together as one. And his legacy may now get even wider recognition. Recently, the Vatican gave approval to begin the process for the beatification and canonization of Father Paul.
In one of those coincidences that life often provides us, the masthead of CNEWA’s magazine, named ONE, answers the question of my youth “one what?” and intersects with a wider view of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:
One God • World • Human Family • Church
To read more about Father Paul and his CNEWA connection, check out this profile from The Catholic Register.
27 October 2014
CNEWA’s Rev. Elias D. Mallon and Bishop David Motiuk, Ukrainian Catholic Bishop of Edmonton, Canada, attend the conference on Eastern Catholic churches at the University of Toronto.
Recently, CNEWA Canada’s Antin Sloboda and I attended a conference at the Unviersity of Toronto which examined one of the documents of Vatican II: the decree Orientalium ecclesiarum, which recognized and underlined the importance of the Eastern Catholic churches. It was published almost exactly 50 years ago, in November 1964.
As part of the conference — sponsored by The Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute — I delivered a paper looking at what has transpired over the last five decades, with special attention to CNEWA’s involvement with the Eastern churches:
While CNEWA sees itself primarily as “accompanying” the Eastern Catholic churches as a partner, many Eastern Catholic churches see themselves as accompanying their Orthodox brothers and sisters and the long, dangerous journey to peace, justice and even survival. In the long and often complicated discussions on shared communion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in the sacramental body and blood of Christ, Eastern Catholics and Orthodox are now painfully experiencing communion in the suffering body of Christ, which is the churches in the Middle East. This communion is real and is experienced daily.
You can read that paper in full at this link.
29 September 2014
Tags: CNEWA Canada Ukrainian Catholic Church
In this image from July, demonstrators from various religions gather during a protest in Irbil, Iraq, against militants of the Islamic State. Last week, Muslim leaders issued two important documents condemning the use of violence and the actions of ISIS. (photo: CNS/Azad Lashkari, Reuters)
In the past week two important documents have been published from Muslim organizations which respond to the often-heard question: “Why don’t Muslims speak out against what is happening to Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria?”
The first document, “In the Face of Conflict,” is a statement of principles published on 26 September by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in New York. Without mentioning any specific conflict or specific religion or faith traditions, the document condemns violence, terrorism and hate speech. It also condemns what it calls the “instrumentalization of religion to make war.”
A more interesting and more important document appeared 25 September 2014. It is an open letter to “Dr. Irahim Awwad Al-Badri, alias ‘Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’” (who is the head of ISIS and self-declared Caliph) and “to the fighters and followers of the self-declared ‘Islamic State’” and it is signed by 126 Sunni leaders from around the world.
The lengthy letter is in the form of a traditional Islamic fetwa or legal decision. Far from being a statement of general principles, the letter deals with concrete events and persons. In the best of Muslim legal tradition, the letter uses principles from the Quaran and from the Sunna—the sayings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad—along with ideas from the great Muslim thinkers and commentators of the past, and from historical events.
At the beginning of this complicated and tightly reasoned letter there is an Executive Summary which contains 24 principles. Although each one is extremely important, some of the most notable and pertinent ones are:
- It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings (#5),
- It is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers (#7).
- It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture (#11).
- The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus (#12).
- It is forbidden is Islam to force people to convert (#13).
- It is forbidden in Islam to torture people (#17).
- It is forbidden in Islam to declare a caliphate without consensus from all Muslims (#22).
Each of the points is derived from careful deduction according to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). While this may make the document difficult for the non-Muslim or the non-scholar to read, it is precisely what makes the document so magisterial and very important. It is a clear statement in the most Islamic terms possible that the Islamic State (variously IS, ISIS, ISIL) is neither a valid reinstatement of the Caliphate nor Islamic in any sense of the word.
13 August 2014
Tags: Syria Iraq Muslim
Children flee violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinjar, Iraq, on 10 August.
(photo: CNS/Rodi Said, Reuters)
Faced with the unrelenting reports about the sufferings of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, even Christians who are friendly toward Muslims can be perplexed and ask, “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against these atrocities?” The answer is: Muslims have been speaking out in the strongest terms, condemning the crimes against humanity committed by ISIS (or, as it is increasingly called, IS) and others in the name of Islam.
So, why do we not hear more of this?
The first reason is because Islam is not a structurally centralized religion. Unlike, for example, Catholicism, there is no one person or institution that can speak with authority for all Sunnis or even all Shiites — to say nothing of speaking for all Muslims around the world.
The second reason is that there is a huge number of newspapers in Muslim countries throughout the world. Many, if not most, of these newspapers appear in languages unfamiliar to people in the West. Sometimes, it is not a question of Muslims speaking out, but of others just not hearing. Often, the “not hearing” happens because people do not have access to sources or just do not speak the same language. But the voices are out there. And an important media monitoring group has turned up the volume, to make sure more hear them.
MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), which could never be accused of being apologetic to Islam or Muslims, has just published a “Special Dispatch,” in which it gives a platform to several significant editorials written by Muslims in important Middle Eastern newspapers — condemning the atrocities taking place in Syria and Iraq in no uncertain terms.
In a scathing July 24, 2014 editorial on the issue, the London-based Qatari daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi stated that the targeting in Mosul of Christians, who have been part of the history and culture of Iraq for centuries, is the most extensive ethnic cleansing of modern times, and a black mark upon the reputation of Islam and the Muslims. The paper went on to call on moderate Muslims to condemn these terrible actions of the “cancerous” and “terrorist” IS, lest they become complicit in a crime against humanity. It also urged them to denounce extremist fatwas, such as the one by Sudanese cleric Muhammad Al-Jazouli, who cited a hadith permitting the killing of “infidel” men, women and children. The paper mentioned that this fatwa was widely published by MEMRI (view this clip on MEMRI TV here). It should be noted that, although the newspaper called this hadith “false” and “unreliable,” it actually appears in the Abu Dawud collection and is considered authentic.
Egyptian sociologist and human rights activist Sa’d Al-Din Ibrahim wrote in his weekly column for the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm that the IS’s barbaric, racist and murderous treatment of Christians, unprecedented in the history of the Arab East, is reminiscent of the Nazis and Tatars, and does great harm to Islam. He called upon the Arab League to condemn the IS’s actions.
Columnist Ahmad Al-Sarraf used a scathingly sarcastic tone to express his outrage. In his column in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas, he told the Christians to leave the Arab lands, because the Arabs no longer have any use for progress, civilization, tolerance or coexistence, but only for backwardness, fanaticism and violence.
Read more at the MEMRI link. There are many more critical voices out there in the Arab world. They deserve to be heard.
8 August 2014
Tags: Syria Iraq Violence against Christians Muslim Islam
Two years ago, I wrote a piece on religious minorities in the Middle East. At the time the civil war in Syria brought the Alawites to the consciousness of the Western world. In my essay, I tried to cover briefly as many of the religious minorities as possible. Most people in the west had never heard of these groups and they were more curiosities than newsmakers.
But in the ongoing tragedy that is the contemporary Middle East, yesterday’s curiosities become today’s headlines. With the brutal onslaught of the forces of ISIS, Christians and other minorities have become targets for extermination. One of these minorities is the Yazidis. Though virtually unknown outside the Middle East, they are now front page news in the western media, as ISIS engages in an act of genocide against them. Who are these people? What do they believe?
Here’s a glimpse, from ONE magazine in 2012:
The Yazidis constitute one of the smallest and most interesting religious minorities in the Middle East. It is estimated that there are less than 100,000 of them living in parts of Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They believe that they are not descended from the biblical Eve and, hence, hold themselves apart from non-believers.
Though they believe in one God, that deity is not interested in the running of the cosmos. That task has been handed over to Mal’ak Tus (“peacock angel”), who together with six other angels manages creation.
Yazidis do not believe in the existence of evil but believe that purification occurs through the transmigration of souls, similar to what is believed in the religions of India. Influences of Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be found in the practices of the Yazidis.
Who could possibly be the next targets of Sunni extremism in the Middle East? There are a number of minorities who could be at risk. Read more in Religious Minorities in the Middle East from the March 2012 edition of ONE.
25 July 2014
Tags: Iraq War Iraqi Refugees Yazidi religious freedom
Jordan’s Prince El Hassan bin Talal is pictured in an orange garden outside his palace offices in the Jordanian capital, Amman. (photo: CNS/Dale Gavlak)
In a region and world of increasing polarization and intolerance, Jordanian Prince El Hassan bin Talal has for decades been a beacon of tolerance and understanding in the Middle East. As founder and chair of the Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies and co-founder and chair of the Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue, Prince Hassan has been the voice of conscience where conscience is being drowned out by religious extremism. He is also, not insignficantly, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims are often criticized for not speaking up against the atrocities that are being committed in the name of Islam. Such criticism, while understandable, seems totally unaware of the incredible work the prince has done for decades. Yesterday he issued a statement, co-signed by several other religious and secular leaders in the region, condemning violence in the name of religion:
In recent days, we have read with horror about Christians being asked to leave the city of Mosul within 24 hours. We have also heard about the desecration of Christian holy spaces and their symbols — the bombing of churches and a cross being removed from St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Mosul.
These actions are an appalling blot on the proud tradition of pluralism in a region that has been home to Chaldeans, Assyrians and other churches of the East for more than 1,700 years. Indeed, the destruction caused by the violence has engulfed all of the diverse populations that make up Iraq — the Turkmens, the Yazidis, the Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and tens of thousands of Arab families who have been uprooted from the region in fear of their lives. These horrors continue to unfold on a daily basis and follow a brutal period of fighting in Syria. Today, the United Nations estimates that one out of every three Syrians is in need of urgent humanitarian aid. We cannot stand idly by and watch as the lives of the most vulnerable, our women and our children, are destroyed in the name of religion.
We have also viewed with concern the ongoing situation in Gaza and Israel, and leaving aside the horror of that situation for a moment, have been particularly distressed by how the name of religion has been invoked to justify the murder of ordinary people. Statements posted by young people on social media justifying the taking of innocent lives as “commandments from God” are a testament to how the pressure of living under the threat of violence can cause the minds and moral compass of not just the military and seekers of power, but also that of ordinary civilians, to atrophy. We should do all that we can to end the violence even as the numbers of casualties rise on a daily basis. Now, more than ever, we should all remember the quote of Malachi 2, verse 10: “Have we not all one father?”
In these troubling times, when we bear witness to a moral crisis of unparalleled dimensions, we should recall the Islamic concepts of “haq el hurriya” and “haq el karama,” the rights to freedom and to human dignity that are to be enjoyed by people of all faiths. To quote the words from the Quran: “We have honored the children of Adam and carried them on to land and sea” (Quran 17:70).
Read the entire statement here.
Tags: Jordan War Religious Differences