16 April 2015
Mayor Akel Biltaji of Amman speaks with the group of pilgrims. (photo: Greg Kandra)
If you were looking for a figure representing the diversity and religious harmony of Jordan, you couldn’t do much better than a man who was born in Gaza, was raised a Quaker, married a Muslim, and now serves as the mayor of the capital city of Amman.
Meet Mayor Akel Biltaji.
I did Monday night — along with the other religious bloggers and writers who are touring Jordan this week at the invitation of the Jordan Tourism Board. The mayor agreed to give us some time to talk about issues facing his city and his country. So a little after 6 p.m., we boarded our bus and made our way to Amman’s imposing city hall.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
We were ushered in through security and up a winding stairway to a large conference room.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
And there we suddenly saw the mayor: an elegant figure with a shock of white hair and a trim moustache, greeting each of us at the entrance to the room, shaking our hands, making chit-chat and asking us where we were from. We took our places around a large square conference table. The mayor’s communications staff also joined us.
Dapper, warm, talkative, effusive, the 64-year-old mayor is the very model of modern major politico. He’s also a born diplomat. When one of our bloggers asked him which cities in America he liked the most, he slyly worked his way around the room and extolled the virtues of every home town of every writer at the table.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
He has an instinct for people. And his background in management is impressive. From his official biography:
Raised and educated in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, he obtained his High School Diploma and the London General Certificate Examination at the American Friends Schools (Quaker) in 1959. Mr. Biltaji graduated in the summer of 1962 with a degree in education and joined the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) the same year. In the summer of 1969, Mr. Biltaji returned to Jordan to join the National Carrier ALIA, the Royal Jordanian Airlines as a senior management officer. In his 28-year distinguished airline career, Mr. Biltaji served in different capacities, the last of which was senior vice president.
His Majesty the Late King Hussein appointed him in March 1997 as the country’s minister of Tourism and Antiquities, where he continued to serve in this portfolio under His Majesty King Abdullah II until June, 2001, when he was appointed by King Abdullah II as chief commissioner to the newly declared Region of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority
In February, 2004, His Majesty King Abdullah II appointed Minister Biltaji as His Majesty’s advisor on Tourism Promotion, Foreign Direct Investment and Country Branding. In November 2005, he was also appointed as a member of the House of Senate, where he served as chairman of the Tourism and Heritage House Committee, and member of the Foreign Relations and Education Committees.
You would think the mayor of a major world capital would have better things to do than chat with writers after business hours on a Monday night. But for over an hour, Mayor Biltaji — in between extolling the virtues of his city and selling it to all those in the room — entertained questions on a number of topics.
On Jordan’s significance to the world: “This is the land of the sunrise of faith. … Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The mix is here. The heritage, the antiquities, it’s all around. This is the source of a spirit of compassion. When we count the apostles and the prophets that have touched this land, we are blessed. It means they left something and it stayed, and we hope to be the custodians to these relics and antiquities.”
On the importance of religious acceptance: “What is so unique about us here is acceptance. It’s not tolerance. Tolerance is a bit condescending, you know? That’s not coexistence. What matters is acceptance. Once you accept, you find yourself falling into taking the other in and being taken in, too, by the other. Once you surrender to that, that’s how things should be. “
On how Jordan is coping with refugees: “We’re managing. We are sharing with them whatever we can and making them feel at home. Just imagine if one-third of the U.S. just crossed the Mexican borders into the U.S. We have one-third the population, 30 percent of people living here have come from other places and are sharing very scarce resources. But this is part of our idea of acceptance. This is what is unique about Jordan. To have [been] born in Gaza, brought up in Jaffa, become a Jordanian — now I’m the mayor of four million people. Where else in the world can you do that? Lebanon? You can’t. They have kept the refugees in something like a ghetto. Here, certain refugees who came here years ago and made a life here have insisted on staying in camps as a symbol of the right to return. Some are members of parliament, members of city council, but they are Jordanians living in the camp. The identity is there. Refugees are included here in the political life of the country. Lebanon is different. It’s very sectarian. But here? We have 1.6 million Syrians — 20 percent of our schools in the north are full of Syrian refugees. But this, again is a sign of resilience, of compassion.”
At the conclusion, he wished us well and thanked us for coming to his country — and for helping to tell its story. He acknowledged that many people misunderstand Jordan and don’t realize that in a corner of the world rife with turmoil and terror, the Hashemite Kingdom remains stable, modern and secure. Again and again he attributed that to the leadership of the king, and what the mayor called a sense of “acceptance” of many cultures and faiths.
I think we all left the meeting wishing nothing but the best for the mayor and the land he so clearly loves. In comparison to the storms raging around it, Jordan is a sea of tranquility. Let’s pray it stays that way. The Middle East needs more Jordans — and more cheerleaders for the region like Akel Biltaji.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
13 April 2015
Tags: Middle East Jordan Holy Land Amman
The Divine Liturgy is celebrated at the Easter Vigil in Sts. Peter and Paul Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Amman, Jordan. (photo: Greg Kandra)
What can you say about a day that began with the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the streets and ended with an exuberant Catholic liturgy celebrating the Resurrection?
That marked Saturday, my first full day in Amman, Jordan. To call it memorable would be an understatement; this was a day that I will not, cannot forget — and it is for days like this that I wanted to make this particular trip.
I’m here, really, by chance. I was invited to represent CNEWA as part of a group of a dozen other bloggers and journalists to take part in a tour sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board. In addition to visiting some famous sites — the Dead Sea, Bethany, Petra — we would be in this corner of the Holy Land during one of the most sacred times of the year, as Catholics and Orthodox here together celebrate Easter (according to the Julian calendar). Later in the week, I’ll get a firsthand look at some of the projects CNEWA has been supporting over the years — notably at the Italian Hospital in Amman — and get to meet some of the people we’ve writing about in ONE magazine and on this blog. The opportunity was impossible to resist.
Friends and family, when they heard about this trip, were baffled — and a little alarmed. “Aren’t you scared? Isn’t it dangerous? What are you thinking?” But the fact is: Jordan remains one of the most safe and secure countries in the Middle East; tensions and wars rage around her borders, but Jordan remains stable. (Local businesses are doing their part: Our hotel, as do many in the region, requires that everyone entering pass through a metal detector, submit bags to be x-rayed, and consent to be lightly frisked. It’s like going through security at the airport, every day.)
So… after arriving Friday afternoon and settling in, I awoke early to the unfamiliar but haunting sound of the Muslim call to prayer. I rolled over and looked at my cell phone. It was a little after 4 in the morning. I had slept fitfully anyway — a 10-hour flight and seven-hour time difference will do that to you — so I decided to get up and, answering the call, pray Morning Prayer. I clicked on my breviary on my iPad and began my day.
Our group spent most of this first day on a bus, driving two hours north of Amman to visit the ancient city of Umm Qais, overlooking the borders of Syria and Israel. The day was cold and rainy; we couldn’t see far (though we were told, on a clear day, you could actually spot the Sea of Galilee many miles to the north). Umm Qais was also known at one time as Gadara, and it is believed by some scholars to be the region where Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, drove demons from a man and into a herd of swine.
From atop the rolling hills of Umm Qais, a visitor can see the Golan Heights of Israel in the distance (photo: Greg Kandra)
The cold steady rain had a very different effect on our group, though. It drove us from the open air and into the bus.
Unquestionably, the highlight of the day came in the evening, when we experienced two Easter Vigils, from two very different Catholic traditions.
The Easter Vigil begins in St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Amman. (photo: Greg Kandra)
Our evening began at St. Peter’s, a Latin Catholic Church in Amman, where we arrived in a space full of flickering candles as the deacon stepped into the ambo. He took a breath. And in the hushed silence, he cried out the first phrases of the ancient chant that I know so well, the very chant I had proclaimed just a week earlier at my parish in Queens: “the Exsultet,” or Easter Proclamation. “Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven … exult, let angel ministers of God exult. Let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph…”
Every note was familiar to me. I knew it by heart. But I had never heard this before: The deacon was chanting the proclamation in Arabic. This moved me in a way I hadn’t expected; here was the universal church, our faith, unfolding before me. What I had sung in a parish in Queens was now being sung in this parish in Amman — and in countless other churches large and small, in languages ancient and new, throughout the world. I found myself blinking back tears. To be a part of this moment was an extraordinary gift.
The deacon chants the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, in Arabic. (video: Greg Kandra)
After a little while into the Mass, we had to leave to head to another vigil, this one Sts. Peter and St. Paul, a Melkite Greek Catholic Church a short drive away.
This was only my second experience of an Eastern liturgy; it included copious amounts of sprinkling, singing, processing, chanting and incense.
The Rev. Nabil Haddad incenses the congregation. (photo: Greg Kandra)
I found it spellbinding and beautiful. One of the writers on our trip, David Rupert, a Protestant, captured the essence beautifully on his blog, describing the view of an outsider who nonetheless felt a sense of belonging and kinship:
I walked into the Melkite Greek Catholic church in downtown Amman, Jordan, graciously invited by others. The Sts. Peter and Paul Church was small, with probably 150 people already gathered. We were late. The service was led by the Rev. Nabil Haddad, a gracious man who is working at bridging the gap in the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian world as the leader of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center.
I resisted the urge to find a way to make my way outside. I was so out of my element. This was a different culture, a different faith expression in a Middle Eastern tradition. And the service was in Arabic. To an outsider it was nonsense. Chants. Singing. Repetition. Kneeling. There was no music except for the melodic, hypnotic voices of chants that seemed to bring in a mix of Gregorian, Semitic and Arabic influence. I irreverently imagined a Jew in a vestment singing from a minaret. It was disruptive and disquieting. But as the service continued, it was powerful.
Across the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, believers are becoming a smaller and smaller slice of the population, losing the baby war. And they are oppressed and tormented and killed in some places. Yet, they survive and even thrive because of their love for each other and for God.
So here I am, standing among Christians who have been in the area for more than a thousand years. I am unworthy, ignorant, and just a little shocked. Who do I think I am? I have no idea what these people have to endure on a daily basis. and yet they embrace me and call me “brother.”
After the liturgy, we had a chance to spend time with Father Haddad and some of his flock. He’s a longtime friend of CNEWA, and was delighted to meet someone from the agency. He promised to get in touch the next time he visits New York.
I rode back to our hotel weary but grateful — and stirred by so many emotions. Several days back, overwhelmed with a thousand details demanding my attention — getting through the Triduum, finishing our taxes, ironing out all the details for this particular trip — I told my friend and editor Elizabeth Scalia that maybe I should back out of the Jordan trip. It was getting to be too much.
“You know,” she told me, “maybe you should look at what God has for you in the trip. There is a gift somewhere.”
After my experience Saturday night, I realize: She was right.
9 April 2015
Tags: Middle East Jordan Holy Land Holy Land Christians Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Girls smile during art class at Don Bosco youth center in Istanbul. (photo: CNS/Elie Gardner)
Some Iraqi and Syrian refugees are making a new start in Turkey. Catholic News Service notes:
Basima Toma teaches English to about 40 children at the Don Bosco youth center.
A young Iraqi boy stands at the chalkboard with a plastic ruler in his hand and spells out the words W-I-N-T-E-R, S-P-R-I-N-G, S-U-M-M-E-R, A-U-T-U-M-N.
Toma and her family have been in Istanbul long enough to see each of these seasons come and go, more than once. In 2012 Toma, her husband and four children left their home in Baghdad.
Toma and her family are Chaldean Catholics. In Baghdad, as Christian-owned businesses were targeted and destroyed, Toma worried more and more for her children’s safety. One of her daughters was the only Christian in her classroom.
“Now I don’t fear for my children,” Toma says. “I put my head on my pillow and am not afraid when they are not with me.”
“Here we don’t ask anyone what religion they are or what political party they belong to,” said Salesian Father Andres Calleja Ruiz, head of the Don Bosco youth center. “We just want to help them.”
Read more at the CNS link.
9 April 2015
In this image from August, a woman in Germany cries over the loss of her daughter during a protest of ethnic Yazidis against the persecution of their people by ISIS in Iraq.
(photo: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)
ISIS releases 200 Yazidis in Iraq (BBC) Islamic State militants have released more than 200 members of the Yazidi religious community being held in northern Iraq, Kurdish security officials have said. Most of the 216 prisoners were in poor health and bore signs of abuse, General Hiwa Abdullah told the Associated Press. About 40 children were among those freed, while the rest were elderly...
Rights group reports on executions in Ukraine (Vatican Radio) A human rights group says it has evidence that pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine summarily killed four Ukrainian soldiers in their captivity. Meanwhile in Lithuania, a Russian television channel was taken off-air over pro-Kremlin propaganda...
Canadian warplanes carry out first airstrikes against ISIS (CNN) Canadian fighter jets have carried out their first airstrike against ISIS in Syria, hitting one of the Sunni militant group’s garrisons. The CF-18 Hornets bombed near ISIS’ de facto capital of Raqqa, Canada’s Department of National Defence said Wednesday. It described the strike as successful...
Thousands of Copts flock to Jerusalem, despite ban (Gulfnews.com) For Coptic Christian Nadi Salib, going to occupied Jerusalem was a dream of a lifetime that only came true last year. Salib, now 56, was one of thousands of Copts who have made the pilgrimage to the Israeli-occupied city in recent years despite a decades-old ban from Egypt’s Coptic Church. “It was a joy unmatched by any other thing in this life to go to the Holy Land and visit the places blessed by Jesus Christ,” said Salib...
Photographer captures images of Gaza’s “wonder women” (The Telegraph) Photographer Ovidiu Tataru has been in Gaza for nine months working with Doctors Without Borders, and has created a series of photos with women dressed in a superhero cape...
8 April 2015
Tags: Syria Iraq Ukraine Jerusalem Coptic
A nun farms a small plot in Ethiopia’s countryside. Read more about the lives of women in Ethiopia in “An Uphill Battle” from the May 2009 edition of ONE. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
8 April 2015
In this image from March, a priest gives Communion to Ukrainian soldiers in Yavoriv, Ukraine.
(photo: CNS/Mariana Karapinka)
Coptic church attacked in Alexandria, Egypt (L’Osservatore Romano) The Church of Raphael the Archangel in the quarter of Al Agami in Alexandria was attacked by a group of individuals who, after shooting repeatedly at the building, fled the scene. At least four people, including a police officer, were injured. Officials in Egypt have launched a large-scale operation to search and capture the assailants. The attack, carried out in the night between Sunday and Monday, coincided with the celebration of Palm Sunday by the Coptic Orthodox community...
Ukraine soldiers receive Easter gifts (Vatican Radio) Ukraine is preparing to celebrate Orthodox Easter amid concerns over ongoing ceasefire violations in the east where government forces fight against pro-Russian separatists. People from around the country try to give at least some hope to soldiers fighting on the front lines this Easter season...
Caritas to run mobile clinic in Gaza (Fides) Caritas Jerusalem is preparing the launch of a mobile clinic designed to provide health services to the residents of the Gaza Strip. This was reported to Agenzia Fides by Father Raed Abusahliah, director general of Caritas Jerusalem...
Archeologists defy militants in Iraq (BBC) Archaeologists from the University of Manchester have been working in Iraq and making “significant discoveries,” while Islamic State militants have been bulldozing historic Assyrian sites. “If the militants think they can erase history we are helping to make sure that can’t happen,” said archaeologist Jane Moon. They have been excavating a Babylonian administrative centre from 1500BC. It has provided more than 300 artefacts for the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The Manchester archaeologists, believed to be on one of only two international teams operating in non-Kurdish Iraq, have returned to the UK after three months of fieldwork, near to the ancient city of Ur...
Christianity poised to continue its shift from Europe to Africa (Pew Research Center) The global Christian population has been shifting southward for at least a century and is expected to continue to do so over the next four decades, according to new demographic projections from the Pew Research Center. Overall, the share of Christians in the world is expected to remain flat. But Europe’s share of the the world’s Christians will continue to decline while sub-Saharan Africa’s will increase dramatically...
7 April 2015
Tags: Iraq Egypt Ukraine Gaza Strip/West Bank Coptic Christians
People light candles in front of a Catholic church during the Easter vigil in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, on 4 April. (photo: CNS/Ilya Naymushin, Reuters)
7 April 2015
In the video above, Pope Francis during the Easter Monday Regina Coeli address condemns the persecution of Christians around the world. (video: Rome Reports)
Pope offers Urbi et Orbi message, calling for peace in Middle East (Vatican Radio) Tens of thousands of people gathered in Saint Peter’s Square on Sunday morning, despite the cold and the rain, to take part in Solemn Mass with Pope Francis in celebration of Easter. Following the Liturgy, the Holy Father gave the traditional Blessing Urbi et Orbi — to the City [of Rome] and to the World...
Ukraine’s president agrees on autonomy referendum (Vatican Radio) Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has for the first time publicly lifted his objections to a referendum that could give more powers to regions controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Monday’s announcement came while nation faces its first anniversary of a year-long insurgency and more deaths...
Has the world “looked the other way” while Christians are killed? (The Washington Post) The atmosphere in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square turned from celebratory to somber as Pope Francis devoted his address Monday to the bleak subject that has occupied most of his recent remarks. “Our brothers and our sisters ... are persecuted, exiled, slain, beheaded, solely for being Christian,” he said, his expression tense, his cadence slow but deliberate. The persecution of Christians is a theme that ran through most of the pope’s speeches this weekend...
Jordan to host exhibition for companies to rebuild Gaza (Haaretz) Jordan will host about 300 companies supporting the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to rebuild the Gaza Strip at an exhibition in September, Jordan’s Petra news agency reported Monday. The International Exhibition for the Reconstruction of Gaza will include construction companies, producers of construction technology and building materials, contractors and architects, the report said...
Kerala Christians celebrate Easter (NewKerala.com) While some people went to churches for a pre-sunrise Easter Mass, others turned up after sunrise. The Easter service ends in most churches when the priest offers a piece of cake. At some places, a teaspoon of wine is first served. Starting from Palm Sunday last week, Christians, who form nearly a quarter of Kerala’s 33 million people, were busy with rituals and festivities associated with the Holy Week (also known as Passion Week), which ended with Sunday's morning Mass...
2 April 2015
Tags: India Ukraine Gaza Strip/West Bank Middle East Kerala
In this image from 2014, Christians carry a cross during a procession along Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City on Good Friday. (photo: CNS photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters)
2 April 2015
In this image from November, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople congratulate each other after signing joint declaration at patriarchal Church of
St. George in Istanbul. (photo: CNS/Grzegorz Galazka, pool)
Patriarch: “urgent need” for reconciliation with Catholic Church (CNS) Reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches is urgently needed, said Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in an extensive interview with a prominent Jesuit journal. Due to great suffering and injustice around the world, “today, perhaps even more than 50 years ago, there is a greater and more urgent need for reconciliation,” he told Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of Civilta Cattolica. In the interview, which was available online 1 April, the patriarch suggested collaborating with Pope Francis in “common action” on social justice issues...
Church leaders say Easter offers hope amid violence (Vatican Radio) The leaders of Christian Churches in Jerusalem have issued a message for Easter, calling the Holy City a source of hope that “springs from the Resurrection” and urging “people everywhere not to fall into despair” over the recent violence threatening the region. The Church leaders express deep distress over the level of violence “still being falsely perpetrated in the name of religion in parts of the Middle East and elsewhere in recent times...”
UN: Syria and Iraq are “finishing schools” for extremists (The Guardian) Iraq and Syria have become “international finishing schools” for extremists according to a UN report which says the number of foreign fighters joining terrorist groups has spiked to more than 25,000 from more than 100 countries. The panel of experts monitoring UN sanctions against al-Qaida estimates the number of overseas terrorist fighters worldwide increased by 71% between mid-2014 and March 2015...
Kerala’s capital becoming “woman-friendly” (The Times of India) If all goes well, travel woes faced by solo women travellers to Trivandrum will be a thing of the past. In a first of its kind move in Kerala, Trivandrum Corporation is all set to launch a short stay home for women at Sreekandeshwaram by mid-April, which can be boarded up to three days while travelling, for a nominal rate. The authorities say that it is just the first, and one of the many steps towards making the capital a woman-friendly city...
Tags: Syria Iraq Pope Francis Jerusalem Kerala