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July, 2019
Volume 45, Number 2
  
25 April 2019
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




Asma Aradeh, quality control manager, and Nawal Aradeh, project manager for SEP Jordan, pose for a photo at their workshop in Jerash, Jordan. Palestinian refugee women are turning their traditional embroidery handicraft into a successful international social enterprise business.
(photo: CNS/Dale Gavlak)


The poorest of Jordan’s 10 camps for Palestinian refugees would seem to be the unlikeliest place from which to launch an international business, but SEP Jordan is no usual enterprise.

Here, 350 Palestinian refugee women -- and a few Syrians -- practice their traditional craft of embroidery, but with a modern twist.

Inside a bright canary yellow-colored building among the camp’s rabbit-warren of narrow alleyways, a beige tote bag is embroidered in an Islamic geometric pattern suggesting sun bursts of orange, pink and yellow, while another captures the colors of the sea in navy, light blue and tan.

Another woman edges a silken white beach tunic in turquoise embroidery, while a lavender cashmere scarf gets embellished with intricate needlework in mauve. Traditional Bedouin red and white and Palestinian black and white kaffiyeh scarves take on a new spin with multicolored embroidery accents.

SEP stands for Social Enterprise Project. Its founder and CEO, Roberta Ventura, is a former Italian stockbroker, who decided about five years ago that she “could no longer just stand and look at the situation in refugee camps deteriorating without private sector involvement.”

“When I see refugees, I see a huge untapped potential, like you and me, who had to leave their homes,” Ventura told Catholic News Service.

Nawal Aradeh, project manager, told CNS that her job with the company “completely changed my life, because it gave me the chance to generate an income at a time when my personal circumstances were dire.”

“It was absolutely necessary for me to help myself and my six children. I felt overwhelmed by how I was going to do it because there are few job opportunities in the camp,” explained Aradeh, a former teacher in her late 40s, dressed in a simple white headscarf and long black cloak.

Aradeh is a Palestinian refugee who was raised in Jerash, 30 miles north of the capital, Amman. Jerash is considered one of the largest and best-preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside of Italy.

Yet it also has the impoverished Gaza Camp, where Palestinians fled during the Arab-Israeli wars. Aradeh and the other Palestinian refugee women participating in SEP Jordan grew up in Gaza Camp.

Selected out of hundreds of social enterprises, SEP Jordan was recognized for its groundbreaking work to improve the lives of refugees at an event in Vatican City hosted by Cardinal Peter Turkson last December.

The same month, SEP Jordan became one of 15 enterprises chosen by the Washington-based Laudato Si’ Challenge organization, inspired by Pope Francis, “to effectively and sustainably improve the lives of 10 million refugees, migrants and internally displaced people by 2020.”

Ventura emphasizes that SEP Jordan’s mission is to “bring thousands of refugees above the poverty line in a way which is driven by their talent.”

Raised a Catholic, she is happy to have quit her finance career to devote herself to working with the refugees, whom she considers artists of their handiwork craft. She also sees her new job as a type of calling.

Ventura and her economist husband, Stefano d’Ambrosio, have grounded the project on solid financial principles, so together with the women and a few men, such as regional manager Mahmoud Al Haj, SEP Jordan is the “first-ever private company ever to be set up in 50 years of the Gaza Camp’s existence,” she said. It is neither a nongovernmental organization nor a microcredit project.

“It helps that the women identify themselves with the brand, and they aren’t beneficiaries of aid. We are colleagues. They had enough of small microloans, fearing they could never pay them back,” Ventura said.

Asma Aradeh, 37, started as an embroiderer at the project and now heads up quality control. She, too, said the employment enabled her to move out of a decrepit, tin-roofed building where rain poured in during winter months and into a safe home for her family.

Besides the obvious economic advantages to the project, Asma Aradeh said it carries the added therapeutic value to their craft.

“Embroidering is relaxing and relieves stress. All the pressures are released when you are making each stitch,” Asma Aradeh, a mother of six, told CNS. “You feel a release from tension, tiredness, financial pressures and other things weighing you down psychologically and physically.”

However, SEP Jordan is not just a “feel-good” project; its high-quality craftsmanship caught the eye of award-winning Hollywood costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who employed some of the women to hand embroider costumes in the film, “Mary Magdalene,” starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix.

The movie portrays Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ most important followers who also witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection. Durran said it was an “incredibly rewarding experience” working with the team of artists at SEP Jordan.

Their creations are also sold in high-end stores such as Harrod’s in London and in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad. A new shop featuring the quality goods has opened in Geneva, and SEP Jordan’s products are also sold at the Landmark Hotel in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

“When the women cross-stitch, they put their feelings and emotions within the threads of their piece,” said Asma Aradeh, summing up the feelings of those involved.

“That’s why every stitch tells a story. And there is a story really behind every piece,” she said.



Tags: Refugees Jordan

19 March 2019
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




In this image from 2018, a young Syrian refugee holds a watermelon at his shop in the Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan. "A lot of young men left Syria because they didn't want to fight in the conflict," Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Catholic News Service. (photo: CNS /Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)

As Syria’s civil war enters its ninth year, citizens in and outside the country find themselves in limbo. Catholic and other aid agencies are urging a swift resolution to the crisis.

Caritas Syria is campaigning for “an immediate end to the violence and suffering” and calling for “all sides of the conflict to come together to find a peaceful solution,” chiefly through reconciliation work.

“We are initiating reconciliation among the various communities to correct misconceptions in the minds of those living in Damascus, Ghouta, Aleppo and elsewhere about people outside their religious community,” said Sandra Awad, communications director for the Catholic aid agency Caritas Syria.

Caritas Syria is the country’s branch of Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Church’s international network of charitable agencies.

Awad told Catholic News Service by telephone from Damascus that a meal involving Christians, Alawites and Muslims brought about a wonderful understanding and compassion for the suffering shared by all.

She said a Christian woman told her at the start of the lunch that she did not want to sit next to a woman wearing a headscarf because Muslims had kidnapped her son. Militants had entered her home and beat her son, resulting in psychological problems for him. They shot another son’s legs, leaving him paralyzed. The militants kidnapped the third son with his wife and child.

But Awad said she told her, “This woman with the headscarf lost her husband from mortar shelling, and her 15-year-old son lost his legs. She is taking care of her children by herself without any income.”

The Christian woman then responded: “Yes, all of us have suffered.”

“I could see her ideas begin to change,” Awad said. “The people spoke about the pain they experienced during the war. They began to feel that people have suffered as much as themselves and perhaps even more,” she said and, as a result, they got along together.

During a Caritas-sponsored visit to the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, a Muslim man questioned why militants were calling for people to be killed, rather than supported.

“Let them see who is helping us,” he said. “A Christian organization is helping us now.”

Caritas’ reconciliation efforts underline the practical support it provides to thousands of Syrians by distributing food baskets, clothes and blankets as well as medical assistance and psychosocial support.

Pope Francis has been closely engaged with the Syrian crisis, consistently calling for an end to the fighting. He has acknowledged the assistance Caritas gives to Syrians regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation as the best way to contribute toward peace.

Syria’s war has killed more than 400,000 people and forced more than 6 million Syrians out of their homes inside Syria; 5.5 million have fled to neighboring countries since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011.

CAFOD, the Catholic international development charity in England and Wales, and Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international aid and development agency, are part of the Caritas network.

In a statement provided to Catholic News Service, CAFOD said it “believes that until a political process addresses the underlying issues that led to the Syrian war, there will be no safe future in Syria for the millions of Syrians caught up in this conflict.

Syrian refugees sheltering in neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, many for longer than they ever imagined, have expressed concern for their future.

“My family believes that we cannot return to Syria because our home was destroyed, so there is nothing to go back to,” Um Mohamed, using her familial name in Arabic, told CNS in the northern Jordanian border town of Ramtha, which abuts Syria. “But we’re also finding it impossible to stay in Jordan because there is no work, my husband is sick, and our savings are running out.”

Another Syrian refugee at the large Zaatari camp, also near the border, said she is worried about her son left behind in Syria.

“He was living in an area controlled by the rebels, although he didn’t fight with them. But because of being in that place, he and other young Syrian men have turned themselves into the Syrian authorities in the hopes of getting a lesser jail term,” Um Sami told CNS, saying the Syrian government views them with suspicion.

“But the fear is that the government will forcibly conscript these men into the Syrian military and put them in frontline positions without any training. Or, what if my son is never seen again?” she said, her eyes welling with tears.

Other Syrian refugees are fearful that the regime considers them “traitors.”

“A lot of young men left Syria because they didn’t want to fight in the conflict,” Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, told CNS.

“A lot of refugees said to me, ‘I left so I don’t kill, and I don’t get killed.’ Even if they go back today, there is a new amnesty law, but there are no guarantees that they won’t be thrown into prison or sent to the frontline,” she explained.

Other refugees around Zahle, near the Syrian border in Lebanon, said they, too, fear a return, but for some there is no other choice.

A Christian aid worker told CNS about a Syrian widow who died unexpectedly in March. She left behind three young children who must go back to Syria to join relatives to care for them. But these family members live in the militant stronghold of Idlib in Syria’s north, making their fate uncertain.

Eight million Syrian children are now in need of assistance, including psychosocial support, according to the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.

“Every single Syrian child has been impacted by violence, loss, displacement, family separation and lack of access to basic services, including health and education. Grave violations of children’s rights -- recruitment, abductions, killing and maiming continue unabated,” UNICEF said on 6 March.

Syrians live without “peace or war,” Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus, told the Vatican news agency, Fides, on 11 March. “It’s an uncertain and difficult situation, which is becoming unsustainable for the weakest,” he said.

Archbishop Nassar warned that Syria’s historic Christian population has decreased in some areas by 77 percent, compared to the time before the conflict.



Tags: Syria Jordan Caritas Relief

25 September 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




French Bishop Nicolas Brouwet of Tarbes and Lourdes, in blue vestment, holds a candle during a vigil with Arab clergy, including retired Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem, second from left, and retired Auxiliary Bishop Salim Sayegh of Jerusalem, at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Naour, Jordan. (photo: CNS/Osama Toubasi, courtesy abouna.org)

Mary makes people grow in Christ and “shows us the way to permanent communion with the church,” the bishop of Lourdes, France, told Catholic clergy and faithful gathered in this town with a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes.

“The Virgin Mary always leads us to Christ and makes our way to the kingdom of God. The Virgin Mary paves the way for us to the Lord, as if she also says that she is not always the focus of our attention, for she said in Cana ...: ‘Do whatever He tells you to do,’“ Bishop Nicolas Brouwet of Tarbes and Lourdes told people gathered at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Naour on 21 September.

The bishop noted that when Mary appeared to St. Bernadette in France in 1858: “Bernadette was afraid of the apparition. She tried to make the sign of the cross, but she could not. Yet, after the Virgin Mary herself made the sign of the cross, Bernadette was able to do so, as if (Mary) were telling Bernadette: ‘Fear not, Christ is present in our midst. I was sent by the Holy Trinity.’

“The second thing that the Virgin Mary did during the apparition is that she did not speak and remained silent while smiling. Sometimes silence between two people is more expressive than talking. It indicates profound trust,” he said.

“The Virgin Mary respected this silent step toward Bernadette, and just made a smile,” he said. “Imagine this smile. It expressed a lot of confidence. The smile was the open door that paved the way for a new relationship. When we smile, everything becomes possible, and it becomes a sign of mental and emotional openness. When the Virgin Mary smiled, she revealed life in the kingdom of God and the life of grace toward God.”

Bishop Brouwet reminded people that St. Bernadette was “poor and sick ... illiterate and was not familiar with Christian education.”

Despite St. Bernadette’s weakness, he said, Mary “showed respect for her and viewed her as a very important person.” Mary does this to everyone, he added.

Among those present for the bishop’s homily were Bishop William Shomali, Latin patriarchal vicar for Jordan; retired Jerusalem Patriarch Fouad Twal; retired Auxiliary Bishop Salim Sayegh of Jerusalem; and Msgr. Mauro Lalli, first counselor for apostolic nunciature in Amman, Jordan.

Priests and deacons from the Latin, Melkite, Maronite and Chaldean Catholic churches as well as nuns from various congregations also attended the accompanying Mass.



Tags: Jordan Mary

13 August 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




In this image from 2017, worshippers pray during Mass at St. George Chaldean Catholic church in Tel Esqof, Iraq, which was damaged by ISIS militants. The Chaldean Catholic Church has concluded a synod in Baghdad offering thanks to God for those who have returned to Iraq after being displaced. (photo: CNS/Marko Djurica, Reuters)

The Chaldean Catholic Church concluded a weeklong synod in Baghdad offering thanks to God for the return of numerous displaced Christians to their hometowns in the Ninevah Plain and for pastoral achievements in their dioceses.

The synod, held 7-13 August at the invitation of Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic patriarch, brought together church leaders and participants from Iraq, the United States, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Canada, Australia and Europe to discuss issues vital for the church’s future both in Iraq and among its diaspora.

Patriarchs and other leaders proposed potential candidates for election as new bishops because several Iraqi clergy are nearing retirement age. Chaldean Archbishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis of Kirkuk, Iraq, told Catholic News Service that no names would be made public until approved by the Holy See.

The final statement said a key discussion point focused on the need for “a larger number of well-qualified priests, monks and nuns” to work in Chaldean Catholic churches to “preserve the Eastern identity and culture of each country and its traditions.”

Synod participants decried the suffering experienced by Christians and other Iraqis over the past four years following the Islamic State takeover of Mosul and towns in the Ninevah Plain as well as the deterioration of Iraq’s political, economic and social institutions. They also praised the humanitarian efforts by the churches and Christian organizations to help those displaced to return home and re-establish their lives.

The synod expressed “sincere thanks to all the ecclesiastical institutions and international civil organizations that supported them during their long ordeal.”

Church officials and the international community have expressed growing concern that unless Iraq’s ancient religious minorities are supported in their rebuilding, many will seek a new life elsewhere.

Observers believe that 400,000 to 500,000 Christians now live in Iraq, compared to 1.5 million before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Chaldeans are the indigenous people of Iraq, whose roots trace back thousands of years.

The synod said that Iraqi Christians still aspire to see the government establish “a strong national civil state that provides them and other citizens equality and a decent living, as well as preserves them in an atmosphere of freedom, democracy and respect for pluralism.”

The religious leaders also expressed support for Cardinal Sako’s multiple efforts to encourage and build national unity in Iraq.

In addition, they urged Iraqi government officials to help the displaced to “rebuild their homes, rehabilitate the infrastructure of their towns and maintain their property” as most of the reconstruction efforts have been at the initiation of the church, international donors and foreign governments. They appealed to the international community to assist them in “a dignified and safe return.”

The synod called for an end to the war and Syria and in other Middle East countries. It also called on the U.S. and Iran to engage in diplomacy to resolve their differences and to avoid punitive measures, saying that “wars and sanctions only result in negative consequences.”

The church leaders offered Muslims warm wishes for the upcoming Eid al-Adha holiday, 21-25 August, and expressed a sincere desire for them both to seek a “common life in peace, stability and love.”



Tags: Iraqi Christians

26 July 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




A clergyman and altar servers process during Mass in 2014 at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq. The upcoming synod for the Iraqi Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad is expected to discuss issues vital for the church's future both in Iraq and among its diaspora community. (photo: CNS/Ahmed Saad, Reuters)

The upcoming synod for the Iraqi Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad in August is expected to discuss issues vital for the church’s future both in Iraq and among its diaspora community.

Chaldean Archbishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis of Kirkuk, Iraq, told Catholic News Service that the clergymen also will discuss during meetings from 7-13 August the election of new bishops as several Iraqi clergy are nearing retirement age. Proposals will be made for potential candidates.

Another concern, Archbishop Mirkis said, is the question of “vocations because there are presently only 15 seminarians in preparation to serve five Chaldean Catholic dioceses.”

Liturgical discussions will focus on the new translation of the Mass and developments to “adapt the Mass to the new communities living in the diaspora,” he said of Chaldeans now found in Australia, Canada, France and the United States.

The role of the deacon in Mass and the sacraments as well as the use of liturgical music are on the agenda as well.

Archbishop Mirkis said the situation of each Chaldean Catholic diocese in the Middle East and abroad will be examined. The Chaldean leaders are seeking ways to augment the spiritual formation of the Chaldean community to increase its vibrancy and vitality in the face of challenges, he explained.

Observers believe that 400,000 to 500,000 Christians now live in Iraq, compared to 1.5 million before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Chaldeans are the indigenous people of Iraq, whose roots trace back thousands of years.

Read more about the Chaldean Catholic Church in this profile from ONE.



Tags: Iraq Chaldean Church

2 July 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




The Musa family fled Bashiqa, Iraq, in 2014 in the face of ISIS attacks and lived in Dohuk, Iraq, for three years. With a grant from USAID, they are rebuilding their home and trying to start over in Bashiqa.(photo: CNS/courtesy Catholic Relief Services)

A Chaldean Catholic archbishop in Iraq said he and other bishops were “delighted” that the United States Agency for International Development is making good on its pledge to help Iraq’s historic Christian, Yazidi and other religious minorities rebuild their lives after attacks by Islamic State militants.

At the same time, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil advised a visiting USAID delegation led by Administrator Mark Green on 1 July that “time is running.”

“The time should be now and the help should be immediate and effective. Foremost, is the need to rebuild houses so there is a community to go back to and be there,” Archbishop Warda told Catholic News Service by phone after the visit.

Plans called for later rebuilding much-needed infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and government facilities.

After months of delay, the USAID is providing $10 million to organizations led by Catholic Relief Services and Heartland Alliance to help Christians and Yazidis restore their communities after attacks by the Islamic State in 2014.

There have been growing concerns, also expressed by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, that unless the ancient religious minorities are supported to rebuild, many will seek a new life elsewhere.

“Our hopes are high now that this delegation will bring some changes. We especially appreciate the efforts of Vice President Pence and USAID to have them deeply involved in this situation,” Archbishop Warda said, adding that the delegation also visited Qaraqosh and other devastated towns.

“The message they sent was important: ‘We do care.’ The American government and the Americans do care about the fate of the Christians, Yazidis and the minorities and want to help,” Archbishop Warda said.

For the Musa family of seven, one of the many Christian recipients of CRS assistance, the U.S. aid provision could not have arrived soon enough. The assistance is helping transform their badly damaged home in Bashiqa on the Ninevah Plain. Forced to flee from extremist militants, the family was shocked to see the devastation when they returned home last fall.

“It was miserable,” the father, Mowfakk Musa, told a CRS worker. “All the furniture was broken, three rooms were burned, clothing in the house that wasn’t ours was burned. A bomb had hit our kitchen and burned the kitchen.”

“Christian” was written on the wall and the family’s crosses and pictures of Jesus were broken and strewn on the floor. The damage was so severe that the family thought of leaving and returning to Dohuk, a town farther north where they had sheltered. In the end, they decided to stay and restore their home.

Because of the extent of the damage, it was difficult for the Musas to complete the repairs. A grant from CRS, funded by USAID, allowed them to repair the charred walls, install new sinks and faucets and fix the electricity.

Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic patriarch, said about one-third of the Christian families who fled the militants have returned to their hometowns because infrastructure and security remain inadequate.

Archbishop Warda acknowledged that security is a concern. “But the fact that there are 7,000 Christian families that are back home, there is a possibility of security, if there is a willingness from all sides to really work hard on this,” he said.

He said that meant that “concerned governments and parties need to bring a dialogue of life that existed before back again” to Iraq’s rich cultural mosaic. “As Christians, there is a commitment also to play positive role in reconciliation and peacebuilding,” he added.

However, only 400,000 to 500,000 Christians now live in Iraq, compared to 1.5 million before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Cardinal Sako said. Other observers put their number even lower at 200,000. Meanwhile, the Yazidi population, victims of Islamic State genocide, also are greatly diminished, with an estimated 500,000 living in and around Sinjar.

Pence said in 2017 that the U.S. would directly support organizations that are helping Christians and Yazidis rather than work through the United Nations in the belief that religious minorities were overlooked as aid went to larger groups of displaced Iraqis. Months passed until it was realized that many groups were still waiting for the promised help.

Funds primarily raised by the church and some Western governments have so far supported rebuilding the devastated ancestral lands of Christians and Yazidis.

“We are grateful for the new additional funding to expand our on-going assistance to Christians and other religious minorities returning to their homes in northern Iraq,” said Kevin Hartigan, CRS regional director for Europe and the Middle East.

Hartigan told CNS that the new funds will “support the peaceful and successful return of minorities in Ninevah, by providing livelihood opportunities to youth from diverse returnee communities and mobilizing faith leaders to promote tolerance and reconciliation.”

The additional USAID funding “will complement our ongoing U.S. government-funded programs to provide housing repair and education to returning minorities,” he added.

“Along with the vital support we get from the Catholic community in the United States, the generous, constant and flexible funding we receive from the U.S. government has enabled CRS and Caritas Iraq to provide education and trauma healing for children, shelter and financial assistance to Iraqis of all faiths, on a large scale,” Hartigan explained.

Another $25 million in U.S. aid is expected to be disbursed in the future.



Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians

25 May 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, center, meets Iraqi Christians who have opened a mobile cellphone shop in the Ninevah Plain following the defeat of ISIS. (photo: CNS/courtesy CAPNI)

In the aftermath of Iraq’s elections, Christians want to see a government formed that is free from the sectarianism that has torn apart the country, and they want Iran’s influence to diminish. Both issues have played a huge role in politics since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East, told Catholic News Service that although fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr has gained the majority of parliament’s seats, Al Sadr’s uncompromising nationalism, stand against corruption and against foreign meddling seem to have struck a chord among ordinary Iraqis, who are fed up with what many call Baghdad’s broken political system.

“Iraq’s Shiite politicians, whose population forms the country’s majority, are of two streams: one pro-Iran and the other freer from Iranian influence, and Sadr is the leader of this latter group,” the priest explained.

“Al Sadr has called for a Cabinet of technocrats, not politicians. So far, he is more acceptable with the public because of his slogans. But can he realize forming a coalition government? In Iraq, it’s very complicated,” Father Youkhana said.

Father Youkhana runs the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq or CAPNI, for displaced Iraqis around the city of Dohuk, partnering with CNEWA, in addition to rebuilding homes and restoring livelihoods in several towns in the Ninevah Plain following its destruction by Islamic State since 2014.

Iraq’s historic Christians and other religious minorities, such as the Yezidis, are also dismayed that the government has so far failed to address and counter the problems that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. And it has not contributed to rebuilding efforts in their communities.

“Now in Germany or the U.S., if a situation happens two or three times, they call for a debate in Congress. But in Iraq, it’s now four years from what happened, and there has been no national debate on what took place, how it happened, and how to prevent it from reocurring,” the priest said.

Yet, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael, now also a Cardinal-designate, has repeatedly called for a serious national dialogue to combat sectarianism in his homeland. So far, those calls seem to have gone largely unheeded.

Iraq’s military and police abandoned Christians and Yezidis in the face of the brutal attacks by Islamic State in 2014 that saw thousands killed, kidnapped, turned into sex slaves, maimed and displaced. The United Nations deemed the Islamic State the perpetrator of a genocide against the Yezidis of Iraq.

These events have left Iraq’s rich cultural mosaic of religious minorities feeling that they are second-class citizens. They sense that Iraq’s political leaders do not represent their interests or concerns.

Iraq’s Christian population, believed to number up to 1.4 million in the late 1990’s, now is estimated to be fewer than 500,000. They have been victims of sectarian violence, driven out of their ancestral homeland. Almost two-thirds of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

They worry that Shiite militias that fought Islamic State militants are staking claim to parts of the historic Christian Ninevah Plain, where they never before resided.

“Bartella is becoming a Shiite town,” said Father Youkhana. “Now when you enter Bartella, you see the photos of [Iran’s ayatollahs] Khomeini and Khamenei. This demographic change is protected and facilitated by the militias,” he said. “This is our concern.”

“The failure of the government goes beyond the material,” said Father Youkhana, referring to the Iraqi government’s lack of funding or efforts to rebuild the ancestral areas destroyed by the Islamic State militants where Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities historically have lived.

Most of reconstruction of these areas have been undertaken by Western governments and various Christian agencies, such as CAPNI, Catholic Relief Services and Caritas.

“I would also partially blame the church for giving the impression that we can do it ourselves. But the reality is that the church single-handedly doesn’t have the resources for that,” the priest said.

“People have been hesitating to return [to their towns] unless the government provides safety guarantees, but so far it hasn’t, and I’m not sure if the new Cabinet will do so,” Father Youkhana said. “I call for a mini-Marshall Plan.”

CAPNI has rebuilt 28 schools and some 300 partially damaged houses in Qaraqosh, Bartella, Bashika and Bahzani. He said these partially damaged homes are the focus of rebuilding efforts by Christian aid groups and Western governments, such as Germany and Hungary, to reinstall electricity, doors, windows, etc. Health centers also are being rehabilitated.

Father Youkhana estimates that about 40 percent of such houses have been reconstructed. Others, which have been burned or completely destroyed, are not being rehabilitated by relief groups.

“Houses are being rehabilitated, but still people need to have livelihoods” if the towns are to be viable, he added.

So far, an estimated 25,000 people have returned to the area’s main town of Qaraqosh, which once housed 50,000 Christians.

Sura Jamiel Hanna, who heads CAPNI’s community development work, said the group provides loans and grants for income generating projects to revive some 20 livelihoods for Christians, Yezidis and Muslims in the towns such as beekeeping, sheep raising, carpentry and hairdressing.

CAPNI, in conjunction with Jesuit Worldwide Learning, also provides English language courses as well as 13 others such as management, math, and ethics for those who already possess proficient English skills.

Teaching of Kurdish to Arabic-speakers, music, sports and studies on Eastern Christianity are also offered.

“This is important for us as a matter of identity,” Father Youkhana said of the latter, adding that advocacy is now vital for Iraq’s minorities to realize their rights in both school curriculum and national and local legislation.

“This is the way to address the roots of the problem,” he said of Iraq’s troubling sectarianism. “We are fighting to keep the hope of our people alive.”



Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians

12 March 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




Residents flee after Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters captured the village of Khaldieh in Afrin, Syria. Christian activists warn that a million Syrian civilians will face certain slaughter in northwestern Afrin, where they allege Turkey and its militant allies have already carried out war crimes. (photo: CNS/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters)

Christian activists warn that 1 million Syrian civilians will face certain slaughter in northwestern Afrin, where they allege Turkey and its militant allies have already carried out “war crimes” and “ethnic cleansing.”

They have appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump and top U.S. officials to stop the bloodshed, warning that failure to act jeopardizes the hard-fought U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State in Syria.

Civilians from other parts of Syria and outside the country have reportedly offered to stand as “human shields” between the Kurdish-backed fighters and Turkish forces set to storm Afrin.

Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria, said, “I have never seen so much violence as in Syria.” In remarks on 9 March, he likened the situation to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The nuncio called the situation in the war-ravaged land “hell on earth,” especially for vulnerable children.

In March, Syria’s conflict entered its eighth year. More than 350,000 people have died, 5 million are refugees and 6.3 million civilians are displaced within the country.

Syria is currently “one of the most dangerous places for children,” Cardinal Zenari said. “It’s terrible. I always say, it’s a massacre of the innocents.”

Two Christian activists, Bassam Ishak and Lauren Homer, told Catholic News Service of the relentless assault by Turkey and militants from hardline jihadist movements, including the so-called Islamic State.

“Turkey has committed war crimes and ethnic cleansing already in Afrin and the Federation of Northern Syria,” or FNS, they told CNS.

Ishak heads the Syriac National Council and is a member of the political bureau of the Syrian Democratic Council. He is a graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Homer, an Anglican, is a Washington, D.C.-based international human rights lawyer.

“Turkey has already ‘cleared’ villages of Yazidis, Kurds, Christians and others, promising to replace them with Syrian refugees. In fact, Afrin already has enlarged its population by 50 percent to house [internally displaced] Syrians, who are among those being killed, injured or captured,” they said.

People in and around Afrin are facing the warplanes, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons of NATO’s second-largest standing army, Turkey.

A local health authority reported more than 220 dead and 600 civilians injured in this mainly Kurdish area of northwestern Syria, some 30 miles from Aleppo.

Videos and photos from Afrin taken by both Kurds and members of the Turkish forces depict bombed-out houses, mangled bodies of children killed by the blasts and civilians being herded away.

Largely untouched by Syria’s deadly conflict until recently, this part of the Federation of Northern Syria succeeded in creating a nonsectarian, pluralist, inclusive government system not seen elsewhere in the Middle East in which there is religious freedom and equal rights are granted to all.

Activists are calling for an immediate no-fly zone over Afrin, enforced by U.S. drones or warplanes; implementation of the 24 February U.N. Security Council resolution requiring a cease-fire by Turkey in Afrin; humanitarian aid and safe passage out for civilians; and mediation of a long-term cease-fire and withdrawal of Turkish troops to its own borders — potentially with promises of U.S. or U.N. border monitors.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish council that governs Afrin demanded the U.N. Security Council establish a no-fly zone over Afrin and forcibly respond to the Turkish offensive.

“This U.N. and U.S. and NATO inaction will go down in infamy as an inconceivable abandonment of our ‘allies’ the SDF and the FNS. Genocide seems to be only something we are interested in in retrospect, to mourn and wring our hands over,” Homer warned.

Anti-aircraft weapons are needed to stop the attacks, observers say, but the Syrian Democratic Forces, composed of Kurdish and Christian fighters, were never given the necessary arms. At this point, U.S. aerial patrols would be needed. The Kurds and Christian fighters largely won the U.S.-led battle against Islamic State in Syria.

“Military solutions are no real solutions. Taking Afrin will not solve any problems, neither the internal problems for Turkey in the long run, nor will it help solve any issue that is part of the Syrian question,” Ishak told CNS. Turkey says it is battling Kurdish “terrorists” as its pretext for invading Afrin.

“Instead, it will just further complicate the situation and increase the level of competition between actors jockeying for influence in Syria,” Ishak said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian military, backed with Russian airpower, carried out intensive ground and aerial assaults on the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. Syrian government forces have reportedly captured more than half of the area.

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders said more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in the area since late February, while almost 400,000 residents are living under heavy bombardment, after having been subjected to nearly five years of siege, lacking food and medicines.

Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the international community to intervene in Syria to help end the violence. Calling the war in Syria “inhumane,” Pope Francis urged for an end to the fighting, immediate access to humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the injured and infirm.



Tags: Syria Middle East Christians War Syrian Conflict

23 February 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




Worshipers pray at St. George Chaldean Catholic church in Tel Eskof, Iraq, which was damaged by ISIS militants. Iraqi Catholic leaders are urging Christians to remain steadfast in this Lenten season as they encounter challenges of ISIS’ legacy in their historic lands.
(photo: CNS/Marko Djurica, Reuters)


Iraqi Catholic leaders are urging Christians to remain steadfast in this Lenten season as they encounter challenges of the ISIS’ legacy in their historic lands.

In a Lenten pastoral letter, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad urged Iraqi Christians to pursue unity with other Christians at this sacred time with “open hearts.”

“Many Christians today live in a crisis of faith and intellect because of the circumstances of war, instability, migration and the dominance of social media on the details of their daily lives,” he wrote in the letter, released on 21 February.

Many Chaldean Catholics lost their homes, properties and other possessions as they fled ISIS militants in the summer of 2014. Many are destitute, still living in camps for the internally displaced or sheltering abroad.

“However, these challenges should not discourage their determination and dissuade them from renewing their faith and deepening it, to witness of the Lord and his church,” the patriarch said, calling on Christians to “increase within themselves strength, confidence and enthusiasm.”

Patriarch Sako also repeated his appeal to fellow Iraqis from different religious backgrounds to recognize Christians as “part of the national fabric of Iraq and to stop their decline, for Christians have had a historical presence in this country, where they have a role and a message.”

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Yousif Mirkis of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah estimates that between “40-45 percent of the Christians have returned to the some of their ancestral villages, particularly Qaraqosh.”

But he and other Catholic leaders told Catholic News Service there are many challenges to those Christians hoping to return home after the ISIS occupation and expulsion.

“There are problems with Bartella. Although Bartella is not far from Qaraqosh, the Shiites have been imposing themselves and using the force of Iran to take over territory, etc. The Christians of Bartella are very upset by this situation,” Archbishop Mirkis told CNS by phone.

“Maybe the Americans and Baghdad government are not very aware of what is happening in these villages,” he said.

“The Christians of Bartella tell me: ‘We cannot go back. We don’t dare to go back.’ So, these people are still sheltering in Irbil or in the camps for internally displaced people in Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah,” Archbishop Mirkis said of the northern Iraqi cities providing Christians with refuge.

“Qaraqosh is a little bit better. There, houses are being repaired. Now, the people are returning, but many houses are burned and are completely destroyed. These Christians cannot afford the prices to reconstruct the houses,” he said.

The archbishop and his dioceses have been helping displaced Christians with material and spiritual support as well as providing transportation for hundreds of their university students. Many Christian supporters claim Christian organizations have been the sole sponsors of reconstruction efforts, without help from the government.

But Father Emanuel Youkhana told CNS that so far, the planned “return, reconstruction and rebuilding movement did not meet our expectations and hopes. Thousands of families are hesitating and/or unable to return, and they are still displaced in Kurdistan.”

The archimandrite, a member of the Assyrian Church of the East, heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI. He spoke to CNS by phone and email.



23 January 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are seen on 22 January near, Afrin, Syria. Churches in Afrin are calling on the world to stop the slaughter of civilians during the Turkish military assault.
(photo: CNS/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters)


Churches in Afrin, Syria, are calling on the world to stop the slaughter of civilians during the Turkish military assault.

“We ask you to pray for us and for our city which, before a couple of days ago, was full of life, but today is not,” said the Rev. Saeed Daoud, a Syrian clergyman whose name has been changed at his request due to fear of retribution.

“The brutal attack of the Turkish military with extremist Islamic groups has been carried out, without any warning,” he told Catholic News Service in an email, referring to Turkey’s relentless shelling and ground offensive since 20 January.

In an appeal for international help, another religious leader wrote: “We are asking for intervention and protection against the violent attacks which are being levied against us at this moment.

“Many lives are in mortal danger,” said the Rev. Hakim Ismael. “We are unable to protect ourselves or our families against these attacks, neither are we able to offer assistance or shelter to the innocents. Please help us.”

The city of Afrin, located in a Kurdish-controlled area of northwestern Syria, is approximately 30 miles from Aleppo.

Father Emanuel Youkhana, an archimandrite of the Assyrian Church of the East, told CNS: “With the military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and the final phase of its defeat in Syria, we prayed and hoped to move forward in a new phase of reconciliation and rebuilding the life toward a future where all people — Christians, Muslims, Yezidis, Kurds, Arab, Assyrians and all — may live in dignity and justice.

“We are shocked by another brutal and violent attack on the people in Afrin. Here again, the innocent civilians are paying the price for political interests under the pretext of fighting against the terrorist,” said Father Youkhana, who runs Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, a Christian program for displaced Iraqis around the city of Dahuk.

“The Turkish military operations against Kurdish and Christian people of the Afrin region cannot be justified. The civilians cannot be attacked under any claim,” he said, calling for an immediate end to the military operations and immediate aid to the people.

“Attacking who fought ISIS is shocking and questionable action,” he said. “We pray for decision makers to work for peace. Battle cannot be a path to peace.”

Dutch human rights advocate Johannes de Jong told CNS: “The civilian population of Afrin is deliberately targeted and being killed off. This is also a specific threat to the Christian church in Afrin.

“The jihadist proxies used by Turkey to invade Afrin have themselves said that there is no room for Christians there,” added de Jong, who closely monitors events in Syria’s North.

“Will the Trump administration allow Afrin’s civilian population to be indiscriminately killed by the Turkish air force and permit jihadist proxies to invade Afrin and kill any Christian they can find?” he asked.

De Jong directs Sallux, formerly the Christian Political Foundation for Europe, based in The Netherlands. For the past several years, he has worked with minorities in Syria and Iraq, including Syriac Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen and Kurds.

The Kurdish-run city of Afrin has only four hospitals, now packed with “injured people and wounded innocent children,” Rev. Daoud said, adding that there are several reported cases of women who miscarried “due to shock and fear.”

Robar Refugee Camp, housing 600 displaced Syrians from the Aleppo countryside, was bombed with many injuries. Camp residents have appealed to the United Nations to intervene to stop the shelling.

In another instance, 11 members of the same family were killed when they tried to escape the bombardment by sheltering in a nearby village.

Turkish war planes began shelling Kurdish positions in Afrin shortly after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the launch of the military operation named Olive Branch. Erdogan has branded the mainly Kurdish YPG militia in the area a terrorist group; however, much of the bombing appears to be hitting civilian areas.

The YPG denies any direct links with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party and is a crucial part of a U.S.-backed alliance effectively battling Islamic State and other jihadists in northern Syria.

“That’s Turkey’s excuse for these raids, but in fact they (YPG) are not terrorists,” Lauren Homer, Washington, D.C.-based international human rights lawyer, told CNS of Erdogan’s claims. “To the extent they have fired weapons at the Turks, it’s in response to constant Turkish shelling of this and other areas along the Turkey-Syria border. It is a humanitarian catastrophe.”

“The bombing is quite indiscriminate. The church there is calling for a no-fly zone,” she said.

Erdogan is scheduled to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican on 5 February.







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