22 June 2018
The life-size icon of St. Ephrem, the patron saint of the Syriac Catholic Church, is seen in this undated photo. The icon features stanzas from the liturgy and prayers in Syriac text and notes. (photo: CNS/courtesy of Mothana Butres)
When Islamic State fighters overran Qaraqosh, Iraq, in the summer of 2014, Mothana Butres was able to grab only a single volume from his father’s collection of thousands of Syriac books and manuscripts.
The handwritten, 600-year-old book of Syriac hymns now inspires much of Butres’ work as an iconographer.
From a modest walk-up apartment in Zahle, Lebanon, a city not far from the Syrian border, the Syriac Catholic iconographer and refugee creates his sacred art in a sparsely furnished living room. As he works, he sings the hymns he has committed to memory from the sole book he managed to save.
Butres is the creator of the Our Lady of Aradin icon, a centerpiece of the first Catholic shrine dedicated to persecuted Christians. The shrine is housed in St. Michael’s Church in New York City and was dedicated on 12 June.
“The inspiration when I was working on Our Lady of Aradin was that it was the Virgin Mary who was protecting the Christians,” Butres told Catholic News Service.
He chose to present Mary in the traditional wedding dress of the Aradin area of Iraq “to represent that the Virgin Mary will always be a part of the Christians in Iraq and that she is the protector of Christians in Iraq and all the Middle East,” Butres said.
He said that when faced with an ultimatum by Islamic State fighters, Iraq’s Christians gave up their land but refused to give up their faith.
“The people who were persecuted, their blood is a stronger message than anything I could ever convey,” he said. But the recent persecution and the oppression suffered by his ancestors led him “to the way I think and the way I do my work.”
Butres said he believes his icons can be an instrument for intercessory prayer. The prayers of the people who visit the shrine in New York and pray before the icon of Our Lady of Aradin are joined with those of the persecuted Christians.
“Based on what Jesus told us, that ‘if two people are gathered in my name, I will be among them,’“ he said.
The Syriac book Butres treasures from his father’s library collection also awakened him to the lost practice of writing books by hand, especially in the Syriac language, which is spoken by Christians in certain areas of Syria and Iraq, including Qaraqosh. Syriac also is used in the liturgy of some Eastern churches, including the Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Maronite Catholic churches. The language is related to Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
“I’m trying to revive the value of the handwritten texts. Books used to be handwritten,” Butres said.
As part of an ongoing personal project, Butres intends to write out the entire Bible in Syriac on a long scroll of leather just over a foot wide. In three months of work, the tiny, intricate text he has etched extends 16 feet in length and comprises the first five chapters of the Old Testament.
“I believe that in writing out the Bible, we can discover it in a new, deeper perspective, more than just reading it,” he said.
In his icons, Butres often incorporates streams of handwritten text related to the image, which contributes to preserving the Syriac language, heritage and spirituality. The icon of Our Lady of Aradin, for example, includes the Hail Mary in Syriac.
Butres’ introduction to iconography began at age 12; a deacon at his church in Qaraqosh taught him the ancient art as well as formulas for producing colors and varnishes from natural products, for example, using eggs and wine for shades of red, using beeswax for varnish and using deer musk to give the icon a scent.
Prayer and religious formation were part of Butres’ daily life growing up in a Syriac Catholic family as one of 16 children.
“We were very close to the church,” said. “Every day at dusk, we went to the church to pray,” he recalled, adding that for “anyone who didn’t participate, there was no dinner.” The same went for missing Sunday Mass: no lunch and dinner.
That pious upbringing fostered vocations, he said. One of Butres’ sisters became a Dominican nun. His brother, Nimatullah, is a priest serving the Syriac Catholic Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance, which is based in Bayonne, New Jersey. Father Butres attended the dedication ceremony for the Our Lady of Aradin shrine in New York.
The artistic Butres became a deacon at age 20 and studied theology at Holy Spirit University in Lebanon, earning a bachelor’s degree.
Butres intended to complete his master’s degree in theology, carrying out his research in Qaraqosh, but had to abandon all he had accomplished there when Islamic State attacked his childhood home.
That home, overtaken, gutted and ruined by Islamic State, is under repair now. From Lebanon, Butres created the Our Lady of Qaraqosh icon as a gift for his family, intending it as “a protector of the house where she was always present.”
8 June 2018
Tags: Syria Iraq Icons
Msgr. John Kozar visits St. Anne’s Orphanage in Trichur, India. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
7 June 2018
Tags: India Sisters
Deacon Kevin Mundackal recites prayers during his 5 May ordination to the priesthood at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Forane Church in Somerset, N.J. He is the first U.S.-born priest to be ordained for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. (photo: CNS/Ed Koskey Jr., The Catholic Spirit)
5 June 2018
Tags: Syro-Malabar Catholic Church
Archbishop Joseph Jbara, center, visited CNEWA’s staff in Amman, Jordan, on 31 May. (photo: CNEWA)
We recently received the following email and accompanying photograph from Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s regional director in Amman:
Earlier this year 2018, Pope Francis approved the proposal presented by the Synod of the Melkite Roman Catholics to transfer Bishop Joseph Jbara from the Diocese of Our Lady of Paradise in Sao Paulo to the Greek Melkite Catholic Archeparchy of Petra and Philadelphia. He thus became an archbishop.
Archbishop Jbara visited CNEWA’s office on 31 May. His visit was a gesture of love and thanks to all who attended his installation ceremony in April. I briefed him on all our projects and programs involving the Melkite churches and parishioners, and was privileged to give him a tour at our community center.
4 June 2018
Tags: CNEWA Jordan Melkite
Children kick around a soccer ball near statue of the Virgin Mary at the refugee camp in Dbayeh, on the northern outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon. To learn more, read Defining Dbayeh, from the September 2007 edition of ONE. (photo: Dalia Khamissy)
29 May 2018
Tags: Lebanon Refugees Children Refugee Camps
Melkite Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi (in red) strolls through the ancient Mediterranean coastal city of Sidon in southern Lebanon on 26 May with Melkite Archbishop Elie Haddad of Sidon, left. The Melkite Eparchy of Sidon hosted an iftar banquet that day. The patriarch’s visit to Sidon was the first to southern Lebanon since becoming patriarch in June. (photo: CNS/courtesy National News Agency of Lebanon)
Christians and Muslims gathered in Sidon, Lebanon, for an iftar, the fast-breaking meal after sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“What a beautiful gathering we have on this memorable day of the holy month of Ramadan,” said Melkite Patriarch Joseph Absi to the more than 300 guests assembled for the 26 May banquet hosted by the Melkite Eparchy of Sidon, the ancient Mediterranean coastal city in southern Lebanon.
“And what is more beautiful is that we Christians and Muslims meet in the subject of our faith in God almighty,” he said.
Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset during Ramadan.
The patriarch noted that for Muslims and Christians, their respective time of fasting — Lent for Christians and Ramadan for Muslims — has the same aim of “drawing closer to God.”
“What we are witnessing now in this gathering is the model that we believe in and we are holding on to … not just because it is our destiny but because the Bible scriptures teach us that Jesus put all his efforts and himself for the well-being of every human being.”
The patriarch praised Melkite Archbishop Elie Haddad of Sidon for his development and social projects for Christians and Muslims alike that “witness the message of Lebanon of living together in a rich and diverse environment.”
Guests dined at the grounds of Dar el Einayeh, an orphanage and school founded by the late Melkite Archbishop Georges Kwaiter of Sidon. The Sidon Eparchy has hosted an iftar annually since 2007.
The patriarch, pointing to the iftar gathering he attended with various faith leaders hosted by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Catholic, at the Presidential Palace noted that “the Ramadan tables in Lebanon are no longer an Islamic matter, but are of a national nature.”
“Ramadan tables are the tables of fraternity and affection,” the patriarch said.
It was Patriarch Absi’s first official visit to southern Lebanon since becoming patriarch in June. He is based in Damascus, Syria.
Sidon’s Shiite Mufti Mohammad Ousaylar told Catholic News Service that even apart from the iftar banquet “it was our duty to honor him and welcome him” to the city on his first visit to the south.
“Sidon has always been a model of coexistence, welcoming, respectful and loving to its guests,” he said.
He said that welcoming the patriarch and jointly celebrating the iftar, is “a message that the people — Christians and Muslims — love each other and coexist and that the people want to be all united together.”
Unity, he said, “is important to everyone.”
Of Lebanon’s approximate population of 4 million, not counting refugees from war-torn Syria, about 40 percent are Christian.
25 May 2018
Tags: Lebanon Melkite
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.”
24 May 2018
Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians
An injured Palestinian lies on a bed at a hospital in Gaza City on 15 May. (photo: CNS/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)
Already in a precarious state, Gaza’s health system faces a medical emergency, with more than 1,000 people injured in the recent Gaza border demonstrations that flared up since 30 March.
Hilary Dubose, country representative for Catholic Relief Services, said hospitals have already been suffering from lack of medicine, proper medical equipment and enough electricity to run them, but the sudden swelling of injured patients has pushed the hospitals over the edge.
“They were pushed to the breaking point even before the demonstration injuries,” said Dubose, who visited Gaza on 22 May. “The injuries have pushed them [past] that point now. It is important that humanitarian actors support the medical system.”
Humanitarian organizations such as CRS, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency that receives some of its funds from the U.S. government, are hampered in their work, she said. The government has withheld funds not only to UNRWA, the U.N. organization tasked with providing assistance to Palestinians refugees and their descendants, but also has put a hold on all U.S. funding to Palestinians pending an “administrative review.”
“We can’t provide any humanitarian aid. It is making the situation worse. We don’t know what impact it will have,” Dubose said, noting that there are 155,000 people going without humanitarian assistance in Gaza because of the freeze.
CRS has had to make drastic cuts in its programs, she said, and has retained only a skeleton staff in its Gaza office. CRS programs in the West Bank are not affected because those do not receive U.S. government funding, she said.
People are at the end of their ropes, said Dubose. Gazans get only four hours of state-provided electricity per day; 95 percent of water in Gaza contaminated; unemployment in Gaza is 44 percent among the general population and 62 percent among young people.
“People can’t earn a living and support their families. Young people can’t get married, because here to get married they need a house and a means of supporting their bride,” she said. “People can’t accomplish their very simple dreams of getting married and having a family.”
During her visit with the Missionaries of Charity in Gaza, she heard the story of a young man who had been engaged for two years but had not yet been able to marry because he had no way to support a family or provide a house.
“His sister told us that he had gone to the demonstrations feeling prepared to die, and he did,” Dubose said. “Conditions are bad, with no hope for change. There is so much hardship and frustration.”
After 11 years of an international blockade people are getting desperate, she said. There is a lack of freedom of movement, and young people are unable to travel for job or educational opportunities, she said. If there were some signs of hope, of change, people would not feel so desperate, she added.
“There has really been marked shift in [the ability of people to hope]. People are really reaching levels of frustration I have not witnessed before,” said Dubose. “It is so claustrophobic. People are so stuck. There is a loss of hope.”
23 May 2018
Tags: Palestine Israel Health Care Israeli-Palestinian conflict
People fish in Topapoli, India, on 10 April. Bollywood actor Aamir Khan has inspired thousands of young Indians to join a water conservation movement using methods originally advocated by Swiss Jesuit Father Hermann Bacher. (photo: CNS/Stringer, EPA)
Thousands of young Indians have joined a water conservation movement led by popular Bollywood actor-producer Aamir Khan to fight drought using methods originally advocated by a Swiss-born Jesuit.
Ucanews.com reported more than 150,000 college students from drought-prone western Indian cities joined Khan in early May to dig trenches ahead of monsoon rains in more than 100 villages across 24 drought-prone districts of western Maharashtra state.
Saurabh Vishal, a student from Symbiosis International University in Pune, said he was proud to be helping.
“It was like doing something for the nation, for the village and our people,” said Vishal, who assisted digging of trenches in Savargaon.
“I felt honored to join villagers in their hard work to make their village drought-free,” the 25-year-old told ucanews.com.
Khan, 53, said his movement originally planned to enroll 100,000 university students to offer free physical labor to help remote drought-prone villages. It’s all a part of the actor’s nonprofit Paani [water] Foundation, which he established in 2016.
Khan said it takes about 45 days to prepare a drought-prone village for water conservation. The method requires digging trenches to allow rainwater to collect and seep into the earth, where it will help replenish over-exploited ground water sources.
The work was to be completed in May, ahead of the June-September monsoon season. The water percolation and collection will make the village self-sufficient in water for the following summer.
The Paani Foundation works with the Watershed Organization Trust as its “knowledge partner.” The trust provides both technical support and training to the foundation, Khan said.
The actor-producer said he appreciated the pioneering water conservation work carried out by Swiss Jesuit Father Hermann Bacher who founded Watershed Organization Trust with Crispino Lobo, a former Jesuit priest, in 1993.
The trust was established to help villagers fight drought in arid regions and is now active in eight Indian states.
The idea of seeking free physical labor for water conservation “was conceived and implemented by Father Bacher in [the] 1980’s, which inspired the other volunteer groups to follow suit,” Lobo said.
Jesuit Father Joe D’Souza, director at Jesuit-run Social Center at Ahmednagar, which helps empower marginalized farmers, said Father Bacher “foresaw water crisis 50 years ago when he launched a drilling team in 1966 to dig wells” in Ahmednagar district to collect water.
In Maharashtra, more than half of its 43,665 villages were declared drought-stricken in 2016, reported ucanews.com.
“Our dream is to make Maharashtra drought-free in five years,” Khan said.
“We found that wherever the water issue had been solved,” he said, “the solution lay in people’s collective efforts and labor.”
22 May 2018
Tags: India Water
A French pilgrim prays during a special service for peace in the Holy Land on 19 May at the Church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Even in times of violence and despair, the power of joint prayer for peace can be felt, said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Local Palestinians, religious and foreign worshippers gathered at the Dominican Church of St. Stephen on 19 May, answering the archbishop’s call for a joint peace prayer in the face of 16 May violence along the Gaza-Israeli border, in which 62 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,000 were injured.
“We feel helpless for the killing of innocent people and the obstinate refusal to find alternative solutions,” said Archbishop Pizzaballa. “We must go through the strength of prayer to still believe we can change [the situation] and our land will one day be with peace and justice. We want fear and suspicion to give way to knowledge, where differences are opportunities.”
Though it may not be possible to change things as one would like in the wider world, the faithful must continue to try to change things in their own smaller communities, he said.
Their faith, he said, will give “courage to defend justice.”
Palestinian demonstrations along the border began 31 March, protesting the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and marking the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call Al Naqba, or catastrophe — the establishment of the State of Israel. Israel says it has been using live ammunition to prevent Palestinian protesters — whom they say are being incited by Hamas — from breaking through the Gaza border fence, raising fears that they would carry out terrorist attacks on neighboring Jewish villages.
Rosary Sister Virginia Habib, director of the Catechetical Center of the Latin Patriarchate, said during difficult circumstances such as these, she urges the young people “not to forgo hope.”
“We are surrounded by lots of violence in all the Middle East, not just here; we as Christians should not feel frustrated — our Christian faith tells us that the Lord will help us defeat death,” said Habib.
At Pentecost, the faithful are still in the spirit of the Resurrection, she said, and there is hope that evil will not have the final word in their daily life.
“We live our lives, and we continue to come here to pray and keep praying to offer all our mortifications so that peace will take place,” Sister Habib said. “Peace will not happen in our land until peace has taken place in our own heart.”
She said she tells young people that, as Christians, they are called upon to react to the injustices they see following the teachings of Jesus. She said they listen to her because she is living the same experiences as they are.
LaSallian Christian Brother Peter Iorlano said Christians must be witnesses to peace, especially those living and working among Jews and Muslims, to speak out about injustices but in a “level-headed” way.
“You don’t want to fuel the fire,” he said. “You have to be aware of your [surroundings] and how we can be seduced into being violent. We need to be really self-critical and conscientious and say: This is not just. In a way everyone is suffering but … people with power are the ones who can make a difference.”
Archbishop Pizzaballa told Catholic News Service the Christian community draws strength from supporting one another and not allowing the conflict to enter in their hearts. The strength of their daily life, taking care of their children and family, is what frees them to have hope and be positive, he said.
“Life is difficult, but we must always pray for peace,” said Faiyad Elias, 55, of Jerusalem.
Christy Bandak, 43, of Bethlehem, said the only hope people have is in their faith.
“Negotiations have failed, human means have failed. … Peace is a gift from God. That is the only way out,” said Bandak. “Christians, if they are really Christians, are peacemakers. When you hear [about] the bombings and the shootings, one can be afraid. It is a reason to pray to strengthen your faith. We can’t fall into the abyss of desperation.”
Souad Handal, 49, of Bethlehem, West Bank, said as Palestinian Christians, they experience the same injustices as Muslim Palestinians, said but though the situation is getting harder, they do not believe in violence.
“Palestinians want our freedom [but] we [Christians] believe in Jesus as a peacemaker,” Handal said. “We ask for the peace of the land. We can ask only God to help us.”
Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, who also attended the prayer service, said Christians must raise their voices in the call for justice and be ready to offer themselves as bridges of peace.
Tags: Jerusalem Palestinians