16 January 2014
An elderly refugee from Azerbaijan sits in an unsanitary government housing project. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
A few years ago, we took a close look at the hard lives of the elderly in Armenia:
Since settling in Armenia 17 years ago, Sonya Sargsian can only recall losses, hardships and heartbreaks.
“When we escaped Azerbaijan in 1988, the state gave us temporary asylum here with assurances we would receive an apartment later,” said the 80-year-old widow. “But they forgot about us,” she continued, repeatedly pressing her face into her open hands.
A “refugee,” Mrs. Sargsian is among the thousands of Armenians who fled their homes in neighboring Azerbaijan in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
“Who needs a life like this? I don’t want to live in these inhumane conditions,” she added, gesturing at her run-down studio apartment.
Sonya Sargsian resides in a dilapidated government-owned building housing impoverished pensioners and the homeless — one of three clustered in a forgotten suburb of Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Built as a student dormitory after World War II, the building has not been renovated since its construction. Residents share a common bathroom, which barely functions. Decrepit plumbing supplies water at irregular intervals.
“We can’t take a bath for months. We walk a district away to get water. Those unable to make the trip try to forget they have basic human needs,” Mrs. Sargsian said, pointing to the sewage leaking through the ceiling.
Complicating matters is the disappearance of her son and his family. “When the war began,” she said, “I sent my son and his children to his in-laws’ home in Chechnya. I had no idea they would escape one war only to find themselves in another.”
She has received no news of their whereabouts; attempts to contact them have not yielded any leads. “Their home has been shelled and ruined. Nobody lives there,” she concluded.
For many elderly Armenians such as Sonya Sargsian, a normal life is but a memory.
A small landlocked nation of 2.9 million people, Armenia has paid a high price for its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Once part of a mammoth state-controlled centralized economy, Armenia has had to go it alone. Soviet-organized trading patterns collapsed and state-subsidized industries decayed.
Read more about Pensioners in Crisis from the January 2008 issue of ONE.
And to learn how you can help, visit our giving page for Eastern Europe.
15 January 2014
Tags: Armenia Poor/Poverty Caring for the Elderly Caucasus Pensioners
In Alaska, pilgrims bring to the tomb of St. Herman their well-worn travel icons. (photo: Clark James Mishler)
Deep in the heart of Alaska, there’s a thriving community of Christians, members of the Orthodox Church in America. We visited the community a few years ago and saw first-hand their deep faith:
Deep in the old-growth forest of Alaska’s Spruce Island, 8-year-old Julian Griggs made the Sign of the Cross before dipping his plastic bottle into the cold spring water. “Umm,” he said after a sip. “That tastes sweet.”
Up the trail, Julian’s parents joined other adults for a three-hour liturgy near the Orthodox church that enshrines the tomb of St. Herman of Alaska. But here in the forest, beside a small wooden shelter of candles and icons, the children were partaking in another Orthodox tradition.
The spring water that Julian was drinking is considered holy. According to local tradition, the spring was discovered by the monk Herman, a starets (or spiritual father in Russian), who came to Alaska from Russia in 1794. Until his discovery of the spring, the island was thought to be without fresh water. Pilgrims credit the spring water with healing a number of medical and spiritual ills.
“It’s really good, even if it’s a little brown,” said Xenia Hoffman, 12. The spring, and all that surrounds it, drew her family to Alaska. They moved here from California last year “because of St. Herman,” she said. “We wanted to be closer to him.”
Each summer, the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of Alaska organizes a pilgrimage to Spruce Island, an hour’s boat ride from the fishing town of Kodiak. Most come from the Alaska Native villages in the Kodiak region, but some come from as far away as Eastern Europe.
St. Herman was not the first Russian to come to Alaska. Legend holds that Russian settlers first established a colony in 1648. And in the early 18th century, Russian explorers and merchants sailed to Alaska by way of a strait (later named for one such explorer, Vitus Bering, who was in fact a Dane in the employ of Peter the Great) separating Asia from North America. They returned with sea otter pelts, which proved very valuable.
Read more about Orthodox Alaska in the November 2006 issue of ONE. And you can learn more about the Orthodox Church of America in a profile from 2012.
14 January 2014
Tags: Cultural Identity United States Orthodox Church Pilgrimage/pilgrims
Alexander and Margarita Mamin prefer to work on icons with their religious themes rather than papier-mâché boxes and plates with secular motifs, which the Soviets had insisted upon. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Ten years ago, we paid a visit to Palekh, a village in Russia that was enjoying a kind of renaissance, with a resurgence of artists creating religious icons:
Under Soviet rule, Lenin, national achievements, cosmonauts, industrial workers and agricultural collectives were most often featured in the traditional style, with a touch of Socialist Realism — the Soviet standard for all art.
Examples are on display at the Palekh museum. To date, the village has resisted mass production; replicas remain forbidden. Most artists in Palekh paint boxes, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many have reverted to icons.
Alexander and Margarita Mamin have been married 15 years and are both artists and graduates of the Palekh Art Academy. They live with their two children — both of whom want to be artists — in a log house surrounded by a vegetable garden.
“These days we paint everything from miniatures to big paintings in churches,” Mr. Mamin said. “For years we had worked on small boxes, but now we prefer to paint icons, especially large ones for iconostases.”
Palekh artists are doing more religious painting than before, especially the younger ones.
Read more in New Reality, Same Artists from the March-April 2004 issue of the magazine.
13 January 2014
Tags: Cultural Identity Russia Art Icons Soviet Union
Pope Francis greets members of the Catholic Committee for Cultural Collaboration, which promotes exchange between Orthodox churches and Oriental Orthodox churches, during the 50th anniversary of the committee at the Vatican on 11 January. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
10 January 2014
Tags: Pope Francis Ecumenism Christian Unity
Men help a wounded boy who survived what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus on 7 January. (photo: CNS/Bassam Khabieh, Reuters)
Recent images, like the one here, remind us of the ongoing suffering of children in Syria. Last summer, Ziad Hilal, S.J. described efforts to save the children of war:
It is worth mentioning that the people most affected by the war in Syria are children with special needs; their situation has deteriorated substantially. The ravages of war have destroyed two centers for handicapped children located in downtown Homs. Both centers operated under the administration of the Jesuit Fathers and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
In response, we opened two centers in safe areas to shelter these vulnerable children. The first center has enrolled 30 children at St. Savior Convent. The second is located at the Maronite convent outside of Homs. Both centers provide the children with necessary supervision in addition to therapeutic sessions and a hot meal every day.
Our mission has not been easy. At first, we had planned to work on a limited scale and within a limited period of time not exceeding three months, after which we had hoped that the war would have ended and the displaced would return to their homes. However, the sheer magnitude of destruction and the increasing needs of those displaced have made such plans impossible.
Caring for more than 3,000 displaced families and providing support to 2,000 children who need continuous care on all levels is indescribably heavy. And until now, few organizations have assisted us with our mission. I still remember how CNEWA took the initiative at the beginning of the harsh winter and provided 1,000 families with winter kits to help the children in our schools survive the cold and the poor housing conditions.
We have had some difficult cases of children who have lost one or both of their parents. One such child is a 12-year-old whom I will call “Rita.” Her father was shot in the head and has been in a coma since last year; her mother had a nervous breakdown and is being treated in a specialized center. Rita is currently living with her aunt, who is also displaced. Rita refuses to go back to school and she isolates herself from the world. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, along with a psychologist, are trying to support her morally and to assist her in her studies at home. However, she has thus far rejected these efforts to help her.
Maybe our efforts will not be enough to satisfy the huge needs of the displaced families and to relieve their sufferings. But what we are trying to do is simply shine a small spot of light on the shadow of violence.
Read more about the Children of War.
And to learn how you can help them, visit our Syria page.
9 January 2014
Tags: Syrian Civil War Children War Relief
Iraqi refugees celebrate the liturgy in Amman. (photo: Nader Daoud)
Some years back, we profiled the Chaldean Catholics of Iraq, fleeing the war and hoping to make a new start in Jordan. Like so many refugees we have encountered over the years, they found solace in their faith:
The refugees carry on with their lives as best as possible. Father Mousalli celebrates baptisms, eucharistic liturgies, marriages and eventually funerals for his refugee flock.
Churches in Amman and Beirut have organized informal schools for children to make up for time lost out of school. The church has also enrolled university students in English and computer courses.
But despite their great belief in God, Chaldean refugees are filled with despair. They did not want to leave their beloved homeland and nearly all want to return if the political situation changes.
Read more about what they endured in Waiting for the Future from the March-April 2003 issue of the magazine.
8 January 2014
Tags: Lebanon Refugees Iraqi Christians Chaldean Church Amman
A mother holds her newborn in the maternity ward of the Tiramayr Narek Hospital. (photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)
While much of North America copes this week with a “polar vortex” of near-zero temperatures, we were reminded of the hard winter others face in different parts of the world.
In 2009, we focused on Armenia, visiting a hospital that can be difficult to reach during winter:
Natives of Shirak often refer to the area as the Armenian Siberia and consider themselves exiled from much of the country’s cultural and economic life, especially the prosperity many compatriots in Yerevan, the nation’s capital, have been enjoying in recent years. Indeed, the gap between the socioeconomic development in Yerevan and the lethargy of Armenia’s rural, impoverished north widens by the day. Whereas newly constructed supermarkets, boutiques and luxury high-rise buildings illuminate Yerevan’s streets, the only signs of modern life in Ashotzk are the occasional car and Tiramayr Narek Hospital.
Ashotzk rises some 6,600 feet above sea level and is covered in three to five feet of snow six months out of the year. During the winter months, temperatures often drop to 40 degrees below zero and many of the roads are closed.
One road, known as the “life road,” is kept accessible throughout the winter and is used only in the case of medical emergencies. It extends 17 miles from the village of Berdashen, the neighboring community closest to Armenia’s northern border, directly to the hospital. Before the hospital commissioned the construction of the “life road,” residents had no way of reaching medical care in the winter months. To this day, residents still try to plan their pregnancies so that mothers give birth between the months of April and October.
“Getting to the medical center in Gyumri was impossible in winter before there was the hospital,” said Mariam Simonian, a nurse who lives in Berdashen.
Read more about the Armenian Winter in the March 2009 issue of ONE.
7 January 2014
Tags: Children Health Care Armenia Poor/Poverty
A woman dressed as a character from a Nativity scene puts a lamb around the neck of Pope Francis as he arrives to visit the Church of St. Alfonso Maria dei Liguori in Rome on 6 January. Read more about the pope’s visit at this link. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
7 January 2014
Tags: Pope Francis Catholic Rome
A boy in a live Nativity scene carries a dog as Pope Francis visits the display at the Church of St. Alfonso Maria dei Liguori in Rome on 6 January. Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar are celebrating Christmas on 7 January. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Millions celebrate Orthodox Christmas (RT.com) Millions of Orthodox Christians across the globe are celebrating Christmas on Tuesday with one of the most revered Christian relics: the Gifts of the Wise Men, brought to Moscow after leaving Greece for the first time in more than 500 years. 7 January is Christmas Day for Russian Christians, the Jerusalem Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, as well as for some Protestants who use the Julian calendar. According to the Julian calendar, the holidays come 13 days after the Christmas festivities in the Catholic Church. One of the most important Christian relics, the Gifts of the Wise Men to the newborn Jesus, were delivered from Thessaloniki to Moscow on the eve of the Orthodox Christmas. The holy Gifts have left the Agiou Pavlou (St. Paul’s) monastery on Mount Athos for the first time since the 15th Century. The sacred relics brought from Greece are to be displayed in the Russian capital until 13 January. At present they are drawing queues of five hours...
Latin Patriarch hopes pope’s visit will be a “cry for peace” (Catholic News Service) Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem welcomed the announcement of Pope Francis’ May visit to the Holy Land and said he hopes the pilgrimage will be a “cry for peace,” particularly for Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians and others beset by conflict...
Russia ramps up security in Sochi (Vatican Radio) Russia says it has launched one of the biggest security operations in Olympic history, after two suicide attacks killed dozens of people. The announcement comes a month before the start of the Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Russian authorities say they are deploying more than 30,000 police and interior ministry troops and limiting access to the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Yet, protecting the expected thousands of athletes and spectators at a time of suicide bombings in the country has become a major challenge, officials acknowledged...
Syrian rebels battling for control of key city (Los Angeles Times) Syrian rebel groups battled one another Monday for control of a provincial capital, part of a vicious round of score settling targeting an Al Qaeda affiliate that gained stature fighting President Bashar Assad but alienated many by imposing strict Islamic law. Fighting for control of Raqqah followed several days of heavy clashes in rebel-held territory farther west in which disparate militias advanced against fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In March, Raqqah was the first major Syrian city to fall completely to rebel forces, and it has been one of the main bases of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Why Christians are crucial to the Middle East (National Catholic Register) Thomas Farr is the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center and a visiting associate professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. A former American diplomat, he is a leading authority on international religious freedom. In December, the Religious Freedom Project hosted a Rome-based conference titled “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.” “From Cairo and Damascus to Tehran and Beijing, religious freedom is under siege. Ironically, it is Christianity — a faith that contributed decisively to the rise of religious liberty — that now finds itself increasingly persecuted around the world,” the conference organizers noted. On 30 December, Farr offered further reflections on the reasons for the sharp rise in anti-Christian violence in the Middle East and the West’s failure to intervene...
6 January 2014
Tags: Pope Francis Middle East Christians Syrian Civil War Russia Patriarch Fouad Twal
In this 1996 photo, Abune Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, douses a crowd with holy water. Abune Paulos passed away in 2012. (photo: Asrat Habte Mariam)
Christians around the world are celebrating Epiphany today. Several years ago we explored how this feast is observed in Ethiopia:
Since time immemorial, Ethiopians have worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus, the Apostles and saints. According to an ancient tradition, Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, carried the Ark of the Covenant off to Aksum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia. This same tradition holds that the Ark, which the Hebrews believed symbolized the presence of God among them, remains in Aksum, enshrined in the cathedral complex of St. Mary of Zion. Within the sanctuary of every Ethiopian Orthodox church, a tabot rests on the altar, a reminder of God’s revelation in word and sacrament.
As evening drew near, the city’s clergy, balancing the sacred tabots, slowly converged on Jan Meda, the “Field of the King.” In my youth Jan Meda was considered the preserve of the monarch. Situated on this majestic field is the Pool of Temqat. This pool, considered holy by believers, was to be blessed by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, after vespers and an all-night vigil.
Elaborately decorated tents, erected on the field for the occasion, housed the sacred tabots. Meanwhile, two rows of priests, deacons, monks and debteras were formed. Separated by a patch of earth, but facing one another, the clergy began to chant the psalms rhythmically, the pace set by a priest-drummer. Throughout the night, in the tents where the tabots rested, the clergy recited prayers and chanted the holy office while the laity kept vigil in the open air.
Early on the morning of the feast Abune Paulos arrived at Jan Meda. Dressed majestically in white, and surrounded by his retinue of bishops, the patriarch took the place of the emperor, the “King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah,” the central figure of these ceremonies when Ethiopia was considered a Christian realm.
The celebration began with a series of sermons, which contemplated the meaning of Jesus’ baptism and the significance of God’s words: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Delivered by monks from the country’s remote monasteries, these often lengthy reflections were followed by prayers and hymns.
Finally the patriarch, encircled by his clergy, solemnly blessed the waters of the Pool of Temqat with a golden cross. The rite was simple: the patriarch plunged the cross into the waters while the assembly chanted hymns and antiphons. The crowd stirred when the patriarch sprinkled the dignitaries and faithful with the blessed water — with a hose!
Read more about this celebration in Temqat: Celebrating Epiphany in Ethiopia.
Tags: Ethiopia Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch Abune Paulos Epiphany