Current Issue
September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
4 December 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

Patriarchs and others attend a meeting in Cairo on 25-29 November 2019.
(photo: CNS/Syriac Catholic Patriarchate)

Amid deadly protests in Iraq, a people’s uprising in Lebanon and continued suffering in Syria, Catholic leaders of the Middle East called upon officials of their homelands to “ensure safety, peace and tranquility and stability for their citizens.”

Meeting in Cairo on 25-29 November, the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East addressed political, economic and social difficulties that many countries are suffering as a result of unrest, violence, extremism and terrorism as well as the situation of displaced people and the inevitability of returning to their villages and homes.

Massive demonstrations against the political ruling class have plagued Iraq and Lebanon since October.

Despite some confrontations with security forces and supporters of established parties, protesters in Lebanon have largely been spared the violent crackdown seen in Iraq. There, about 400 people have died and thousands have been wounded in protests.

In their final statement, the patriarchs called on the political authority in Iraq “to take courageous action to get the country out of this great crisis so that the bloodshed will stop and life will return to normal by building a strong state on sound foundations, in which true democracy, justice and human dignity prevails, combating corruption.” They also called for “revealing who killed and kidnapped peaceful demonstrators” and asked authorities to hand the killers “over to the judiciary.”

The patriarchs appealed to all to work to “uproot the terrorist ideology of the Islamic State.” While acknowledging the “adversity and tribulation” in Iraq, the patriarchs encouraged Iraqi Christians “to take root in their land and preserve the heritage” of their ancestors.

Turning to Lebanon, the patriarchs said they “support the demands of the Lebanese people in general and the youth in particular, in their movement,” expressing their hope that peace and patriotism be maintained.

The Middle Eastern patriarchs urged Lebanon’s political authority to expedite the formation of a new government “whose first task will be to respond with the popular movement to find radical solutions to the current situation, by transcending personal and factional interests and working to achieve the common good, and freeing the national will from all outside interference.” The patriarchs also stressed the need for the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homelands. Lebanon is host to some 1 million Syrian refugees.

While council members said they “are optimistic about the stability achieved in Syria in most of the country,” they expressed their pain regarding human suffering and damage caused by bombings.

The patriarchs called on “all components of the Syrian people to join hands” to rebuild what is destroyed and to promote the economy.

They also called on “global decision-makers to stop interfering” in Syrian affairs and to help “all the good Syrians to work hard to recover Syria from its long-standing ordeal.”

The council expressed “full support for the Palestinian people tormented by the occupation.”

“We reiterate our call on the international community to recognize the Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, within the framework of the two states, and the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes,” the patriarchs said.

As for Egypt, the Catholic leaders commended the Egyptian state’s achievements “that have contributed effectively to improving the situation of Egyptians” at all levels, including “practical steps” in consolidating the foundations of citizenship and society.

During the meeting, the patriarchs met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and urged him to work toward reconciliation and dialogue in the countries of the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

They also met with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II.

Tags: Egypt Patriarchs

27 August 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

In this image from June, Syriac Catholic Archbishop Nathanael Nizar Semaan celebrates his first liturgy as bishop on Pentecost Sunday, two days after his episcopal ordination, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh. He has been named the Diocese of Hadiab-Erbil and all Kurdistan. To the left is Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan.
(photo: Syriac Catholic Patriarchate)

To support the faithful and encourage them to stay in their homeland, the Syriac Catholic Church has reestablished a diocese for the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan celebrated the new diocese at a liturgy at Queen of Peace Syriac Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq, on 24 August. In his homily, he commended the faithful for being “the embodiment of the living faith, and a testimony to the challenge and steadfastness amid takfiri terrorism and in the face of evil forces that wanted to kill hope in your believing souls.”

“I say and repeat: You have carried the cross on the example of the Savior, our divine teacher, and you have persevered in your faith, your heritage and your hope, which has been admired around the world, East and West alike,” Patriarch Younan said.

Archbishop Nathaniel Nizar Semaan heads the new Diocese of Hadiab-Erbil and all Kurdistan. Previously, the area was under the Mosul Archdiocese’s jurisdiction.

Archbishop Semaan was ordained a bishop on 7 June as the coadjutor archbishop of Mosul; then he was named archbishop of the new diocese when it was erected 28 June. He had served as a priest in London for 14 years.

The Hadiab Diocese was founded in the 13th century, but had dissolved by the mid-17th century.

In the summer of 2014, some 120,000 Christians were uprooted from Mosul and the Ninevah Plain by the Islamic State, fleeing to Irbil in the Kurdistan region. While dozens of families have since migrated to the West, some families have returned to liberated areas in the Ninevah Plain, and others have settled in the Kurdistan region.

Patriarch Younan noted that, during their synod in June, the Syriac Catholic bishops decided to revive the diocese “in order to activate the episcopal care of the clergy and believers residing in the Kurdistan region.”

The Kurdistan regional government has provided two plots of land in Ainkawa and Dahuk, each dedicated to the construction of a Syriac Catholic church.

Patriarch Younan also celebrated Mass in the refurbished Syriac Catholic church of St. Behnam and St. Sarah in Qaraqosh, which had been destroyed by ISIS. In his homily during the 25 August liturgy, the patriarch recalled that he had participated in the church’s consecration 18 years earlier.

He referred to the faithful from Qaraqosh, located in the heart of the Ninevah Plain, as “the pearls of our church” as they constitute the largest Syriac Catholic congregation in the world. Noting that immigrating to the West does not necessarily result in happiness, the patriarch reminded Catholics that “the blessed land that was watered in the sweat of our fathers and grandfathers and with their bright blood must continue to bear witness to the Lord Jesus, even if our number is reduced.”

In 2003, there were approximately 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Their presence dates back to apostolic times. Now that number has dwindled to about 250,000.

Prior to visiting Iraq, Patriarch Younan participated in the International Pilgrimage for Politicians and Family Summit in Fatima, Portugal. On the sidelines of the summit, along with Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch Younan met with acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

The patriarchs called attention to the violence, terrorism, kidnapping, killing and uprooting, particularly in Syria and Iraq, and warned that, if it continues, it would lead to Christians leaving the land.

Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians Syriac Catholic Church

13 August 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

More than 100 young adults from Damascus, Syria, pose on 9 August, after arriving at the Liqaa Conference Center near Beirut. Meeting under the theme, "To You I Say Rise," more than 900 Melkite Catholic young people from the Middle East gathered in Lebanon for the first conference especially for them.(photo: CNS/Doreen Abi Raad)

Full of zeal for their faith, 920 Melkite Catholic young adults from the Middle East gathered in Lebanon for the first conference especially for them.

Meeting under the theme, “To You I Say Rise,” the participants, ages 18-35, came from the Palestinian territories, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon for the 9-13 August event, hosted by the Melkite Catholic Patriarchate.

Edward Nazarian, 22, a student in medical devices engineering from Aleppo, Syria, said the conference restored hope for young people, particularly those from Syria.

“After going through so many years of war, we fell into despair. We are here to renew that hope, that confidence and faith,” he told Catholic News Service.

The Rev. Kamil Melhem, spiritual director for young adults, told the group at the opening that the conference would “be the first spark that will illuminate the paths of our faltering lives in the East.” The main venue was the Liqaa (“gathering”) Conference Center, located in a valley beneath the Melkite Patriarchate in Rabweh, 12 miles north of Beirut.

The event combined prayer, educational workshops -- including communication and social media -- and presentations related to the Melkite Catholic identity. Participants also visited holy sites of Lebanon, including Harissa, Our Lady of Lebanon, the tomb of St. Charbel and the biblical coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon in South Lebanon.

Melkite Patriarch Joseph Absi told participants in his opening address, “You came carrying a variety of flags, but one banner unites you, the banner of Jesus Christ.”

He continued, “There are many voices and noises in your life, attracting you, disputing you ... tiring you, but today the voice of Jesus is calling each of you.”

Patriarch Absi advised the young adults: “Open up to each other and communicate. Show each other your dreams and aspirations, and share your fears and concerns. Unite, because you are the power that can create a new Pentecost.”

Emphasizing that young people are precious to the church, Patriarch Absi told them: “Thank God you are here. You have heard the voice of Jesus Christ who says, ‘Rise!’“

“It’s great to see the unity of the church,” said Nadine Zayat, 24, a recent graduate in sociology from Cairo.

“Even though we’re from different countries and different backgrounds, we’re all united in Jesus; this is why it’s so special. It’s great to meet new people, have fun and encourage and support each other to continue our message in our countries. I’m hoping more people get to know Jesus.”

Even though it is forbidden in Egypt to preach in the streets, she said, Christians “are a witness by the way we act.”

At a break time, Father Youssef Achaia of Cairo led an impromptu chorus singing “Immaculate Mary”; the circle they formed grew wider as more conference participants joined in.

“The youth, when they come together are very strong,” Father Achaia told Catholic News Service. “They can do a lot.”

As Christians living among Muslims in the Middle East, he said, “we have to be a light. We’re taking this light from Jesus, and we reflect it, first in our self, and then onto the others.”

For 32-year-old Khaldoon Al Haddad, who works at the Central Bank in Amman, Jordan, the gathering was a chance to exchange and share ideas. He told CNS one of the biggest challenges of working with a youth group in his parish is to engage teens, amid all their activities and the “noise of the world.”

“I hope to come back (to Jordan) with new ideas, new ways and methods to bring youth back to the church,” he said.

During lunchtime the first day, horns bellowed from three buses signaling the arrival of 110 young adults from Damascus, Syria, after more than 10 hours of travel. The journey, under normal circumstances, should not exceed three hours. However, because of their large number, procedures at the border crossing between the two countries caused their delay.

Emerging from the buses, the Syrians’ weariness transformed into exuberance at the celebratory welcome. A group of Jordanians played traditional bagpipes and thundering drums. There was cheering, clapping and waving of Syrian flags. Young adults joined arms for the step-and-stomp traditional dabke dance.

Dina Fares, 26, an English teacher from Damascus, told CNS: “We are so tired. But we are so excited to be here. ... We’re here to say, ‘There are Christians in Syria. We’re still here (in Syria), and we’re not going anywhere.’“

Inside the venue, Patriarch Absi posed for selfies and group photos with the newcomers from his native Damascus.

Elsewhere, Natalie Abou Sada, a 21-year-old graphic designer, was one of 11 young adults from the Palestinian territories.

“I’m very proud to represent my country. From here to Palestine, I want to bring back a message of peace and love. Peace is most important,” she told CNS. “We always pray for a better life.”

Tags: Lebanon Melkite

23 July 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

Syriac Catholic Archbishop John Jihad Battah, newly named to Damascus, Syria, will be installed as archbishop on 28 July 2019. He is pictured on 15 July in the Church of the Monastery of Our Lady of Deliverance in Harissa, Lebanon. (photo: CNS/courtesy Syriac Catholic Patriarchate)

After eight years of war, the faithful in Damascus, Syria, are “so tired,” said their new bishop, Syriac Catholic Archbishop John Jihad Battah. Nevertheless, he is returning to his birthplace with enthusiasm.

“I want to help the people, to give them hope to stay in their country,” Archbishop Battah told Catholic News Service ahead of his episcopal ordination in Damascus on 28 July.

“In all my missions, in Italy, in Lebanon, I was obeying the call of the church. This is the first time I feel great joy and happiness in a new mission, to be going back to Syria,” the 63-year-old archbishop said. He served in Lebanon for the last eight years as bishop for the patriarchal diocese of Beirut and previously in Rome for seven years.

“The most important thing is to take care of the people,” Archbishop Battah said of his new mission. His motto as archbishop is Luke 22:27: “I am among you as the one who serves.”

Damascus did not experience a mass exodus like in war-torn dioceses such as Aleppo. In the Syriac Catholic Archdiocese of Damascus, there are about 1,000 families, compared to about 1,200 families before the war, the archbishop said.

However, the sanctions against Syria are taking a toll on the Syrian people.

“It’s leading people to leave the country to search for a better future,” he stressed.

“The economic situation is very bad. Everyone is in need now,” he said. The cost of basic necessities has skyrocketed, and medicine is very expensive. “People are dying from lack of medicine.”

“We need prayers for the removal of sanctions. If the sanctions are removed, the people can at least live with dignity,” Archbishop Battah said.

The government in Syria “is a positive government that respects all religions,” Archbishop Battah noted.

He cited the Syriac Catholic youth gathering in Damascus in early July, when Syrian President Bashar Assad visited with the more than 200 young people for three hours, answering their questions in an open forum.

Archbishop Battah said his “main mission is to give Christians hope in the future, to stay in their country.”

“My message to the West is to help the Christians in the Middle East to stay in their homelands. Their presence is vital,” the archbishop said, noting that Christians are an “equilibrium, a bridge between all the religions.”

“The Christians are the light of the world. The light should stay in the Middle East,” Archbishop Battah said.

Tags: Lebanon Syriac Catholic Church

25 June 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

Syriac Catholic bishops from around the world met for their annual synod in Lebanon last week, led by Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan. (photo: CNS/courtesy Syriac Catholic patriarchate)

Faced with the migration of Christians from Syria and Iraq, Syriac Catholic bishops meeting in Lebanon for their annual synod called upon church members “scattered everywhere in the East and West” to cling to their faith with hope so they “can be witnesses to the joy of the Gospel wherever they are.”

In a statement at the conclusion of the 17-22 June gathering led by Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, the bishops acknowledged the suffering of the faithful in the face of “endless wars, persecutions, acts of violence, terrorism, displacement, murder and destruction, and the uprooting of a large number of nationals from the land of fathers and grandparents -- Syria and Iraq -- and their dispersion throughout the world.”

Yet the bishops stressed that they also are optimistic, “thanking God for the return of many displaced people to their villages” in Iraq and Syria.

The prelates noted that Christians “are an authentic component and founder in these two countries.” They called for solidarity among all citizens to build peace, hope and unity.

Synod participants came from dioceses and patriarchal and apostolic offices in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the United States, Venezuela and Australia. They were joined by the patriarchal vicar in Rome.

In studying pastoral service in the countries where Syriac Catholics relocated -- primarily Europe, the Americas and Australia -- the bishops acknowledged the plight of migration “to the country of alienation and painful assimilation” and the importance of sending “priests of good quality.” They pointed to visits from the patriarch and bishops to Syriac Catholics worldwide in which the faithful were called “to preserve the deposit of faith and trust for their churches, the Syriac heritage and native lands.”

The bishops reiterated their demand to stop wars and “resolve disputes through dialogue and peaceful means, and to achieve a just, comprehensive and lasting peace.” They called for the return of all displaced persons, refugees and abductees to their homelands.

The synod also stressed “the right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and establish their state on their land,” emphasizing that Jerusalem “is a holy city for the followers” Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

They called on Lebanon’s president, prime minister “and all concerned” to find an immediate solution to the country’s economic recession and crisis in the housing sector that pushes Lebanese youth, in particular, to emigrate.

In their statement, the prelates welcomed efforts made “to obtain the official recognition of our Syriac Church in Jordan.”

They also praised the establishment of a Syriac Youth Meeting in Syria in early July and plans for a World Youth Meeting in 2021, which both follow the first World Youth Meeting in Lebanon in the summer of 2018. The bishops recommended such meetings be held in eparchies and other countries.

Tags: Syriac Catholic Church Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan

10 June 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

Syriac Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Nizar Semaan is seen during his 7 June 2019, episcopal ordination at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, Iraq, his birthplace.
(photo: CNS/Syriac Catholic Patriarchate)

Syriac Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Nizar Semaan begins his new mission in Iraq with hope “that Christianity will flourish again” in his homeland.

Bishop Semaan chose the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, Iraq, his birthplace, as the site of his episcopal ordination on 7 June.

Still scarred from the Islamic State group and not yet fully restored, the church, Bishop Semaan said, is “a symbol of what happened to our cities and villages in 2014 until the liberation (in 2017) from ISIS.”

It’s also the church where the new bishop was ordained a priest in 1991.

Located in the Ninevah Plain, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian city in Iraq. Its 50,000 residents -- all of them Christian -- were expelled by Islamic State forces in a single night during the summer of 2014. They were among 120,000 Christians uprooted from Mosul and the Ninevah Plain that summer.

Of his new mission as a bishop, Bishop Semaan told Catholic News Service his ministry is “all about challenges: political challenges, economical challenges, spiritual challenges, social challenges.”

Yet he is optimistic.

“I’m sure with the help and prayers of many people who are interested in the Christians of Iraq, we will carry our mission and we will go ahead for a brighter future,” he said.

In his homily during the ordination Mass, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan acknowledged the challenges facing the church in northern Iraq. Pointing to the “terrible calamity” that affected “the most precious diocese in our Syriac Catholic Church,” he said his people’s resilience is “an example of the heroic testimony and the steadfastness in the face of the evil forces that wanted to kill hope in your believing souls.”

The patriarch noted how parishioners “carried the cross,” following the example of Jesus. “Your hope has won the admiration of the faithful around the world, in the East and West.”

Bishop Semaan, who spent 14 years as a priest in London, said he plans to focus on building: not just in the physical sense with new construction, but especially restoring relationships among Iraqis and to work on healing “the psychological and spiritual injury of our people.”

“It wasn’t easy for our people, who lived here their entire life and in one night, suddenly, immediately they lost everything, and found themselves without a piece of bread to eat, sleeping in the street, to be forced to live as refugees in the north, Ankawa, Kurdistan, Irbil,” he said.

Such horrific trauma, he explained, left deep wounds in people’s hearts and minds.

Stressing the pastoral role of priests and bishops, he said that establishing peace, political stability and security in Iraq is not in the hands of the church.

“For this, we need the help of the international community,” to put pressure on the Iraqi government so that people can live in dignity, with democracy and respect for human rights, he said.

Without security, Bishop Semaan noted, it is difficult for Christians to be expected to stay in Iraq and restart their lives. Likewise, he said, the lack of security hinders economic investment.

He urged Christians in the West to encourage their government “to look at the situation of Christians in Iraq and try to find a political solution.”

“We need their support and prayers, as well as economic help,” Bishop Semaan said.

While touring Qaraqosh before his installation, the new bishop said he was struck by how, in two years, the community was able to rebuild again, citing as evidence numerous homes, shops and restaurants.

“It’s kind of like a miracle,” he said. “This is a sign of hope, really.”

More reconstruction is needed, Bishop Semaan told CNS, and for that the Christian community in the region must depend on the continued help from international charities and church groups.

Although there are no exact figures, Bishop Semaan said about 20,000 people have returned to Qaraqosh, where he will be based initially.

Bishop Semaan said his return to Iraq is grounded in the hope “that Christianity will flourish again in Iraq, and every Christian will play his positive role in rebuilding the new Iraq.”

“Everyone around the world should care about what is happening to the Christians of Iraq,” Bishop Semaan said, adding that without help, “in 20 years we will vanish from here.”

Bishop Semaan noted that Pope Francis “is always talking about the importance of Christianity in the Middle East, the importance of staying here, giving testimony to our faith. We need help to continue our mission in the Middle East.”

In 2003, about 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq. Their presence dates to apostolic times. Now that number has dwindled to about 250,000, according to international observers.

For his motto as bishop, Bishop Semaan chose Galatians 5:22: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness. “Most important is peace and patience,” he said.

He said he hopes to bring that inspiration to the people of Iraq.

“If you look at the faces of our people and what they endured, you can see the sadness in their eyes,” he said. “They need a happy person.”

Tags: Iraq Syriac Catholic Church

20 May 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

Cardinal Nasrallah P. Sfeir, Lebanon's retired Maronite Catholic patriarch, died on 12 May 2019. He is pictured in a 2010 photo. (photo: CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Church bells could be heard ringing throughout Lebanon on 12 May mourning Cardinal Nasrallah P. Sfeir, the country’s retired Maronite Catholic patriarch known for defending his country’s sovereignty and independence.

Cardinal Sfeir would have been 99 on 15 May.

“The Maronite church is orphaned and Lebanon is in mourning,” said a statement from Bkerke, the Maronite patriarchate, announcing his death.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch since 2011, said in his Sunday homily at Bkerke a few hours later, “In this patriarchal chair, where 63 years of continuous life has lived a priest, bishop, patriarch and cardinal, we lose an icon, but we all have gained a patron in heaven.”

In a telegram of condolence released 14 May, Pope Francis said that as an “ardent defender of the sovereignty and independence of his country,” Cardinal Sfeir would “remain a great figure in the history of Lebanon.”

Governing the Maronite church with “gentleness and determination,” he was a “free and courageous man” on the public stage, wisely knowing how to bring people together in the name of peace and reconciliation, the pope said in the message to Cardinal Rai.

Cardinal Sfeir served as Maronite patriarch from 1986 to 2011. His last public appearance was at Easter Vigil Mass at Bkerke. He was hospitalized a few days later with a pulmonary infection, his condition later worsening.

The cardinal was considered a respected power broker during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, which saw bitter infighting between rival militias, including opposing Christian factions.

“The national arena will miss the presence of the patriarch, a man of solid faith in his national positions and in defending Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence at the most difficult stage,” said Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

“The Maronite Church lost one of the most prominent patriarchs who had fingerprints on church affairs, heritage and traditions,” added Aoun, a Maronite Catholic.

Cardinal Sfeir was “a very simple, humble person, always ready to listen,” said Maronite Archbishop Paul Sayah, patriarchal vicar for foreign affairs, of the prelate he had known for more than 30 years.

“He spoke very little and listened a great deal. If you asked him a question, he would answer with a few words, but always deep and down to the point,” the archbishop told Catholic News Service.

The cardinal was a man “who was always open to dialogue, a man of peace and reconciliation,” Archbishop Sayah said.

“He believed very deeply in the Christian-Muslim coexistence. On the other hand, he was very adamant about safeguarding freedom: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. One of his famous sayings was, ‘Lebanon could not exist unless it were free,’“ Archbishop Sayah said.

In September 2000 Cardinal Sfeir issued, with the Maronite bishops, an appeal for an end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which began during the war in 1976 and lasted until 2005.

“No one dared at that time” to take such a step and “break the taboo” predominating in Lebanon to speak out against the Syrian hegemony, “but he had the courage, the foresight,” Archbishop Sayah said.

For this stand, Cardinal Sfeir was referred to as the father of Lebanon’s second independence.

As patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir often told the faithful that despite the difficulties of current times, their circumstances now were simpler than “the miseries and persecution that befell our people throughout the ages. Our church is a church struggling for excellence.”

He is credited with organizing the 2004 Maronite Synod of Bishops, the first full Maronite synod to take place in Lebanon in 150 years, and the first in which women participated. It resulted in an 800-page document, an extensive study of the identity of the Maronite Catholic Church and its mission in the world.

In his later years, still at the patriarchate, Cardinal Sfeir continued to participate in church activities. He spent his time in prayer, and also reading and writing.

“He had a fantastic habit of writing in his diary every day,” Archbishop Sayah noted, and could be found writing, revising on his laptop at his desk.

“His legacy will remain for a very long time,” Archbishop Sayah said.

“He had that beautiful smile, that really reflected a deep internal peace,” Archbishop Sayah noted, attributing it to the cardinal’s life of intense prayer and meditation. He was even smiling as he was going into the hospital, the archbishop recalled. “I saluted him.”

“We are sad, but we rejoice at the legacy he left us,” Archbishop Sayah said.

Sheikh Abdul Latif Daryan, grand mufti of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, described Cardinal Sfeir as “a role model for moderation, openness, wisdom, dialogue, love and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”

Born in 1920 in Rayfoun, Lebanon, Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir was ordained a priest in 1950 and ordained bishop in 1961.

He was appointed cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994.

Cardinal Sfeir was fluent in Arabic, French, English, Italian and Latin, as well as Syriac, the historical spiritual language of the Maronites.

He served as president of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon and was a founding member of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs in the East.

Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation in 2011.

His death leaves the College of Cardinals with 221 members, 120 of whom are under 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave.

Tags: Lebanon Maronite Catholic

24 January 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

In honor of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 18-25 January, Middle East Christian leaders attended an ecumenical prayer service at St. Severus the Great Church in Atchaneh, Lebanon. (photo: CNS/courtesy Syriac Orthodox patriarchate)

At a gathering of Middle East leaders coinciding with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Syriac Orthodox patriarch emphasized the need to unify efforts against extremism and terrorism.

“A hundred years after the genocide during the Ottoman Empire and major displacements,” Christians in the region are still facing similar circumstances, said Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch.

“Many of our churches have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of our Christian brothers have been forced to migrate from the land of their fathers,” Patriarch Aphrem said. “To whose benefit is it if the region is emptied of Christians?”

He opened the 22-23 January executive committee meeting of the Middle East Council of Churches, which he hosted at the patriarchal residence in Atchaneh, Lebanon.

Members of the executive committee attending the meeting included Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of Chaldean Catholics; the Rev. Habib Badr, senior pastor of the National Evangelical Church of Beirut; and Souraya Bechealany, acting secretary-general of Middle East Council of Churches; as well as bishops and representatives from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches in the Middle East.

Patriarch Aphrem called for regular meetings, at both the spiritual and political levels, to unify efforts against extremism and terrorism, as well as “to promote the principles of coexistence, human values, religious freedom and the spiritual and social values that exist.”

“We know that our future is the future of living together with our Muslim brothers,” the patriarch said, adding that “if we want to have a secure future,” all must work together.

The patriarch lamented “the great silence of the great world powers” regarding the fate of two bishops kidnapped in Syria nearly six years ago, Orthodox Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo and Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna of Aleppo.

In its final statement, the executive committee called on “the international community and the Arab world to work for the release of the kidnapped bishops” as well as priests and lay abductees.

It called for “the establishment of peace in Syria and the dignified and safe return of displaced persons to their homeland and for the restoration of Iraq’s recovery and the return of uprooted children to their land.”

It rejected the decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of “the occupying power” and called for the “realization of the state of Palestine stipulated in the relevant international resolutions.”

It also condemned “all forms of extremism and terrorism,” expressing their hope for the “cooperation between churches and Islamic authorities to build a religious discourse” based on “the values of love, peace, social justice and dialogue.”

Tags: Middle East

11 January 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

Young Catholics from around the world pray at a church in United Arab Emirates in this undated photo. Approximately one million Catholics reside in the UAE as expatriate workers, according to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia. Pope Francis will visit Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital next month. (photo: CNS/Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia)

Catholics from around the world living in the United Arab Emirates are waiting with great anticipation for Pope Francis’ 3-5 February visit, the first papal trip to the Arabian Peninsula.

“Pope Francis is the ambassador of peace, courageously crossing borders and fostering personal encounters with religious leaders, heads of states and humanitarian organizations in the Arab world,” said the Rev. Johnson Kadukkan, parish priest at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, where Pope Francis will stop for a private visit on 5 February before celebrating Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium.

There are eight Catholic churches throughout the seven emirates of the UAE, with a ninth church under construction. Each church offers an extensive schedule of “weekend” Masses, all of which are full. Since the UAE is an Islamic country and Friday is considered a day of prayer for Muslims, Catholics attend weekend Mass on Friday or Saturday; Sunday is a workday.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, for example, has about 90,000 parishioners, with eight priests celebrating nearly 20 Masses during the weekend in various languages: Arabic, English, Tagalog, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Korean, Polish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Sinhalese and the Indian languages of Konkani, Malayalam and Tamil.

“The rulers of the UAE have been benevolent and tolerant, allowing us to practice our faith in the places of worship, and for this we are very thankful,” Father Kadukkan said.

Reflecting on the significance of Pope Francis’ visit, Joseph Khadige, a Lebanese who has been working in the UAE since 1982, told Catholic News Service that Pope Francis’ visit is “a sign from God. It is something we never thought would happen in our lifetime, for a pope to visit the UAE. The world should understand: This is not a small thing.”

Some people in the West confuse the UAE with Saudi Arabia, Khadige noted.

“So, when we say that 70,000 people attend a single church, they might say ‘impossible,’“ he said, in reference to the approximate number of parishioners at his parish, St. Michael’s in Sharja, an emirate close to Dubai.

On the contrary, Khadige said, “Here in the UAE, we practice our faith in full.”

From his experience, Khadige, general manager for an Italian global firm, has noticed that many Christians from the West who are lukewarm or practically atheists when they first arrive in the UAE as expatriate workers eventually are influenced by their active Christian peers.

“They see a lot of staff in their companies and organizations are going to church.” Little by little, he said, they are inspired to return to the church.

“They are now believers, and they are calling the priests to bless their house, to bless their children. And they enroll their children in catechism classes to be more active,” Khadige said, noting that in every church, there are around 5,000 children enrolled in such classes.

“It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about what is happening in a Muslim country,” he said.

Ed Magbag of the Philippines, a project manager with a design and engineering firm who has worked in the UAE for 14 years, notes that the UAE “is like a home away from home for all Christians.”

Parishioners of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, he and his wife are active in Couples for Christ, a global lay ecclesial movement, which has about 15,000 active members in the UAE.

Pope Francis’ visit “will show the world that despite different cultures, races, religions and practices, there is respect, love and coexistence of all local people and expatriates in the UAE,” Magbag told CNS.

Magbag considers Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE as “the best gift,” that “rekindles the fire in the heart of the faithful,” who are expecting spiritual nourishment.

Like many fellow Catholics in the UAE, the Magbags cut short their vacation to their homeland to be present in the UAE for Pope Francis’ visit.

“This is one experience we must not miss,” he said. Many workers are asking for a day of leave for the Pope’s 5 February Mass at the stadium.

“Pope Francis symbolizes God’s presence on earth and so, when the Pope Francis is visiting the UAE, it is as if God is visiting his children in the Middle East, not only Christians, but our Muslim brethren as well,” Magbag added.

“Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” is the theme for this papal visit, taken from the opening words of the Prayer of Peace of St. Francis Assisi, from whom Pope Francis has taken his name. The logo of the visit is a dove bearing an olive branch.

“Pope Francis is building bridges and creating an environment for peaceful dialogue to achieve peace and harmony globally,” Father Kadukkan told CNS.

“The UAE government has made huge strides by inviting Pope Francis to the country, and this is a step in the right direction to achieve tolerance, both within the Emirates as well as within the region,” the Indian priest told CNS.

The UAE government is organizing the visit with support from the Catholic Church.

Additionally, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE president, has declared 2019 as the Year of Tolerance.

Approximately 1 million Catholics reside in the UAE as foreign workers, according to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia.

They come from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, with the majority from India and the Philippines.

Tags: Muslim Arabian Peninsula

2 October 2018
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service

Some 500 members of the Fraternities of the Youth of Virgin Mary sing the group's anthem on 30 September at St. Joseph School in Cornet Chewan, Lebanon, during the annual commemoration of the Marian group. (photo: CNS/courtesy Congregation of the Youth of Mary)

Church youth groups provide an escape from life’s pressures and help in forming strong friendships, young Lebanese Catholics said at the annual meeting of their Marian group.

Under the theme, “Mary is Our Captain,” some 500 members of the Fraternities of the Youth of Virgin Mary met on 30 September at St. Joseph School in Cornet Chahwan, north of Beirut.

Celebrating Mass for the gathering, Maronite Bishop Michel Aoun of Jbeil urged the young people “to be like eagles,” to rise up above the world and to keep their eyes on Jesus.

“That’s how the Christian life should be,” he said.

“You were chosen by God to be a light. You can be a witness to others who don’t know Jesus,” Bishop Aoun said, noting the 3-28 October Synod of Bishops to discuss “young people, the faith and vocational discernment” at the Vatican.

After the Mass, Christine Zaghrini, 27, told Catholic News Service: “This group is my escape. It’s a place where I meet God.”

“With all the chaos and stress we face, it’s easy to ‘lose’ God. But I know that on the day we have our weekly meeting ... I can be refreshed in my faith,” said Zaghrini, who works in information technology.

“I feel the presence of the Lord when I’m with this group,” Zaghrini said. “The church listens to us. The church helps us,” and young people need its support, she said.

The Fraternities of the Youth of Virgin Mary has membership for young people, ages 20-35, in 17 regions throughout Lebanon, with around 1,200 members in 121 local groups. The organization also has groups for children, teens and adults over 35.

“I grew up in this group,” said Nassib Achkar, 25, a talent agent. “I have good friends here, and I found a special love and bond, like brothers and sisters.”

Working in the entertainment industry, Achkar often encounters atheists and people with little faith, he said.

“They are lost. Sometimes they make fun of me,” he said, noting that his faith is “something they can’t understand.”

“I feel I have a responsibility to be a witness. God put me in this profession for a reason, to help people to believe,” Achkar said.

Joe Allam, 26, in his first year as a seminarian, told CNS that the youth fraternities helped him to discover his vocation.

After all the spiritual retreats, “I could hear Jesus talking to me and inviting me to this road,” he said, noting that “when you are close to Jesus ... you become familiar with his voice.”

“Every young man and woman has to know that their church has a past, and the older generation should feel assured that the church has a future -- we are the future of the church,” Allam said.

Concelebrating the Mass with Bishop Aoun was the Rev. Marcellino Assaf, who was ordained in September and heard his calling to the priesthood as a member of the Fraternities of the Youth of Virgin Mary.

Bishop Aoun told the young people it is every Christian’s vocation “to be a message of life and love.”

Families and work “should be a means to gain the kingdom of God, so that God is the only constant in your life,” he said, noting that through Mary’s help, “everything you do can lead you to God.”

Especially with the synod happening in the same month, it is good to see Lebanese youth “gathering with such joy and enthusiasm,” Msgr. Ivan Santos, charge d’affaires of the Vatican Embassy in Lebanon, told Catholic News Service.

“They are the hope of Lebanon,” he said.

Msgr. Santos urged the young people to follow Pope Francis’ call to pray the rosary each day in October.

“Young people, you are the answer for the church and for your country,” he said.

Tags: Lebanon Beirut

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