6 November 2014
A woman venerates Holy Myron — chrism oils consecrated by the catholicos once
every seven years. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
In 2008, we looked at the deep spiritual history of Armenia:
"Etchmiadzin is the spirit and soul of Armenians,” said Father Mkrtich Proshian, dean of the Vaskenian Theological Seminary, which overlooks the shore of Armenia’s Lake Sevan.
“It keeps the diaspora spiritually alive and is the heart of the nation.”
At once referring to the world’s oldest cathedral and a complex of structures — ancient, medieval and modern — Etchmiadzin echoes sanctity and stability. The complex houses the administrative offices of the Armenian Apostolic Church and functions as the repository of its cultural and spiritual heritage. Located west of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, Etchmiadzin enjoys renewed celebrity in post-Soviet Armenia. Yet, it faces daunting challenges as the church struggles to redefine itself in this resource poor and geopolitically fragile country.
“The fact that it was built with stone from Mount Ararat is very symbolic,” continued the priest. Armenians have revered the region’s highest peak for more than three millennia, once believing Ararat to be the home of their pantheon of gods. Here, Noah’s ark rested after the great flood and here God offered his covenant to Noah. Though Ararat remains a national symbol, the mountain lies across the country’s border, in what is now Turkey — a fact that inspires great sorrow among Armenians.
“It is at once a symbol of our covenant with God, a symbol of hope of our promised land and the most poignant reminder of our loss,” said Armenian journalist Levon Sevunts, who immigrated to Canada in 1992.“Being Armenian means being Christian. The national identity and Christian identity are inseparable,” said Father Gevork Saroyan, who serves as dean of Etchmiadzin’s Karekin I Theological-Armenilogical Center. “And thanks to the church we were able to survive”…
…The seamless integration of culture, faith and language, which had forged a unique Armenian identity, enabled the Armenian people to endure (and thrive) for centuries, despite periods of benign neglect or political oppression. But the collective trials of the past had not prepared them for the tragedies that would visit them in the 20th century.
Under Turkish rule since the 14th century, Armenians of the eastern Mediterranean had long moved freely within the Ottoman Empire. But during World War I, the Young Turks — a reform movement under the sultan — forcibly displaced the empire’s Armenians for their alleged ties to the Allies, who were at war with Turkey. This resulted in the deaths of some 1.5 million people. Survivors fled to Lebanon, Syria, Europe and America.
The Armenian clergy in Ottoman Turkey were particularly hard hit; only 47 of an estimated 5,000 priests survived, according to studies conducted by the Armenian Church Research and Analysis Group.
Still reeling from the devastation, eastern Armenia, which included Etchmiadzin and the Armenian heartland in the Caucasus, fell to the Red Army as the Bolsheviks consolidated their power in Russia and forced its weaker neighbors to surrender.
Read more about Where God Descended in the May 2008 issue of ONE.
5 November 2014
Parishioners celebrate the Divine Liturgy at Uc Horon Armenian Apostolic Church in Istanbul.
(photo: Sean Sprague)
A few years ago, we looked at some of the challenges facing Armenians in Turkey:
It’s not easy to be an Armenian in Turkey,” says Robert Koptas, a native of Istanbul, once the city of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Recently, the 30-something publisher cohosted a book release affair in the city’s posh Pangalti district.
“Among the Ruins” is a memoir written over 70 years ago by Zabel Yesayan, an Armenian-Turkish novelist who documented the massacre of up to 30,000 Armenians in the Turkish city of Adana. The party attracted about 100 Armenian-Turkish literati — who consider the novelist a protofeminist.
Mr. Koptas recalls a time in Turkey — only 20 years ago — when members of the Turkish Nationalist Party openly propagated anti-Armenian slogans, making it difficult to host events such as this one. Still, he is the first to admit he came of age in a tolerant Turkey. In college, he says his Armenian identity did not even faze his Turkish peers.
While still a concern, obvious discrimination preoccupies Turkey’s Armenian community less these days than does the disappearance of its cultural identity. A century ago, Turkey’s Armenian community numbered two million people. Today, only 50,000 remain. The tiny community now grapples with ever-stronger forces of assimilation and emigration, which many believe endanger its ancient culture.
The number of Armenian-Turks who speak Armenian, for instance, is steadily declining. It is believed only 20 percent of the community speaks Armenian on a daily basis. In addition, nearly 50 percent of young people marry non-Armenians.
“We are in danger of losing our culture and language, and it is a huge responsibility to keep it all alive,” says Mr. Koptas.
...Istanbul’s Armenian community is widely dispersed throughout the massive metropolis, which straddles two continents. Though some Armenian-Turks continue to live in Kumkapi, others prefer Pangalti and more cosmopolitan neighborhoods. Many more live across town, on the Asian banks of the Bosporus.
Despite its small size, diversity and sparse dispersal, the city’s Armenian community manages to maintain a cohesive identity remarkably well. As is the case in Armenian enclaves elsewhere in the world, the church and its institutions, such as schools and hospitals, are largely to thank for bringing together the community and preserving culture and language.
It helps that Istanbul’s Armenians in general make little fuss about religious differences, be they Apostolic, Catholic or Protestant. With Armenian churches few and far between, most attend whichever church is closest or more convenient — regardless of jurisdiction.
Annie Benlian explains that while she and her husband belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the preeminent faith community of the Armenian people, they prefer taking their young twins, Arax and Sandra, to an Armenian Catholic church near their apartment in Pangalti.
“The service is shorter than at the Apostolic church,” says the Jerusalem-born mother, “and thus more convenient for a busy family.”
“Most of our congregation was not born Catholic, but Jesus loves everybody and our gates are open to all,” explains Father Hagopas Copur, pastor of the parish frequented by the Benlians. “People go back and forth as they please. Our liturgies are similar, though the Apostolic Church is more traditional.”
Read more about Turkey’s Armenians Rising from the Ruins in the November 2010 issue of ONE.
5 November 2014
In this 11 October photo, a man waits in a tent for the opening of a center to help people displaced by fighting in eastern Ukraine. (photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
In pictures: Ukraine’s exposed war-displaced (Al Jazeera) With freezing temperatures creeping over eastern Ukraine, thousands of people in Donetsk find themselves struggling to survive what is expected to be a harsh winter in a time of war…
Chaldean patriarch: Iraqi Christians due more government support (AINA) The Iraq government has given Christian leaders a commitment that it will do more to protect their dwindling followers in strife-torn areas terrorized by the group calling itself the Islamic State…
Life in Raqqa under Islamic State (Al Monitor) Behind the walls of the de facto Islamic State, life in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa goes on. The city, once the summer capital of the Abbasid dynasty, has become a fundamentalist metropolis, where thousands of Islamic State fighters, families, immigrants and locals live under the sort of tailored circumstances that could only fit the society created by its self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi…
Coptic pope links extremist groups to West (Fides) Extremist groups upsetting the geopolitics of the Middle East are a product of strategies pursued in the West, according to Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II…
4 November 2014
Tags: Syria Iraq Ukraine Iraqi Christians Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II
Blankets line a fence where where Iraqi Christians are sheltered by Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena outside a youth sport center in Ain Kawa, Iraq. An early wintery deluge drove out families, adding to the woes for those who recently fled from the brutal Islamic State takeover of Iraq's Christian heartland. (photo: CNS/Dale Gavlak)
CNS today reports on Iraqi refugees who will be facing especially hard times in the months ahead:
Sister Habiba’s kindly face is etched with sadness as she surveyed the muddy field where dozens of tents sheltering displaced Iraqi Christians once stood.
Cold, punishing rains and blustery wind swept through the encampment 20 October, earlier than expected for winter, crashing down the tents in the dead of night. Shoes, slippers and toys were strewn about, stuck in the muddy mess, signaling the mad dash for safety.
The recent wintery deluge drove out families, adding to the woes for those who recently ran for their lives from the brutal Islamic State militant takeover of Iraq’s historic Christian heartland.
“The tents quickly filled with water and collapsed. They were engulfed in mud. Some people had to be taken to the hospital. This happened at 3 a.m.,” said the nun, one of four Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena providing the displaced with shelter, food, hygiene and water.
They, along with a lone priest, serve about 1,500 displaced Catholics from Mosul, Qaraqosh and Bartella, Christian towns in northern Iraq overrun by the Islamist extremists in early August. All were forced to flee rather than convert to Islam, pay a protection tax or be killed.
...The sport center itself is bursting at the seams with the displaced. Mattresses cover the floors of the two-story building like scattered dominoes; tall piles of colorful blankets fill corners. Families camp out helter-skelter within the facility’s rooms, but there is no privacy because space is at a premium. What is left of their worldly possessions is contained in some small suitcases and plastic bags.
Babies cry as people talk loudly; silence is a rarity. A badly traumatized woman wanders from room to room, muttering. But at least these people are living inside a building, rather than exposed to the elements outdoors.
“Our bishop has managed to get about 60 trailers, which are more stable to shelter against rain and the snow we later expect to get in January,” said Syriac Catholic Father Bashar. The trailers can each hold seven family members and now house those whose tents were swept away.
“But we need far more trailers to house the many people coming for aid,” he said. “They have run out of money and there is no safe place for them elsewhere.”
Other displaced Christians have camped out in churches, unfinished buildings and parks scattered throughout the town. But the early onset of winter here has signaled yet another danger to those bereft of safe shelter.
Please keep the people of Iraq in your prayers. The need remains great. To lend your support, visit this giving page.
3 November 2014
A child receives polio vaccination at an informal settlement of Syrian refugees in Bekaa, Lebanon, on 16 October. Msgr. Giampietro Dal Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, who just returned from a visit to Syria, said “the humanitarian situation is worse than I thought.”
(photo: CNS/Mohamed Azakir, Reuters)
A Vatican official who just returned from a visit to Syria said “the humanitarian situation is worse than I thought”:
Msgr. Giampietro Dal Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, told U.S. journalists in Beirut on 1 November that he had seen “the concrete face of suffering” as a result of war.
He also said the humanitarian crisis in Iraq is tied to the crisis in Syria.
“We should begin to look at this crisis as one crisis,” he said. “We have people crossing borders,” so humanitarian agencies must look at the bigger picture, he said. His remarks echoed those of Christian aid officials who work in the region.
Msgr. Dal Toso, the second-highest official at Cor Unum, which coordinates Vatican charitable agencies, said Syria’s middle class has disappeared, but noted, “The whole population is a victim of this war.”
Syria, which had a population of 22 million people before violence began in 2011, has at least 10 million people who are refugees or who are displaced within their own country, according to U.N statistics. The effect of such a shift in demographics has driven up the cost of living, including rent, medicine and even school fees, Msgr. Dal Toso said.
Other countries also are feeling the strain of accepting refugees from Syria and Iraq. For instance Lebanon, a country about 70 percent of the size of Connecticut, has a population of 4 million people, with an additional 1.5 million refugees living within its borders. The refugees are considered guests in Lebanon; they pay rent and work for lower wages than Lebanese. Catholic aid officials working in Lebanon say the government is, in essence, subsidizing the refugees’ garbage collection and utilities, such as electricity, because in many cases the refugees tap into existing utilities.
Msgr. Dal Toso, said “the first priority is to stop the violence,” then negotiate a solution and deal with the humanitarian situation.
To help those now suffering in Syria, visit this link.
31 October 2014
Students perform a folklore dance at the Franciscan School in Abou Kir, Egypt. (photo: Sean Sprague)
In 2002, we took readers to northern Egypt, to a remarkable school run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross:
Abou Kir is a suburb of Alexandria, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean. A fishing village that today numbers about 300,000 people, it has a mixed religious population — about 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian, the latter mostly Coptic Orthodox. This proportion of Christians is relatively high for Egypt, where the average Christian presence is less than 10 percent. Abou Kir’s Catholic school welcomes children of all faiths; here peaceful coexistence is understood as being part of the curriculum — and also of life. Of the student population, 55 percent of the children are Muslim and 45 percent are Christian. Of the school’s 34 teachers, 10 are Muslim and 24 are Christian.
“The continuation of a Christian presence here is very important,” Sister Zeina says.
“We offer a service to the local community by teaching Christians and Muslims to love one another.”
In a land where sectarian violence and mutual suspicion between the two religions are, sadly, not unusual, Sister Zeina holds firm to the belief that Christian and Muslim children need to be educated and grow up in a climate that fosters mutual respect.
“It is my conviction that they must be raised together,” she says.
The hustle and bustle in the muddy streets outside, with their horse carts, piles of garbage and pollution-belching, thundering trucks, was in marked contrast to the cleanliness and order of the school. I stepped across its threshold into a bright sanctuary for learning.
A spotless playground was bounded on two sides by the gleaming new four-story building. A third side was occupied by the old building, which had recently received a fresh coat of paint. Apartments overlook the fourth side. On the day of my visit, some curious women sat on their balconies, enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the all-school assembly in the courtyard.
Some 495 freshly scrubbed children in immaculate uniforms — bright red pullovers for the primary school, navy blue for the kindergarten and preparatory ages — were lined up in perfect formation. They saluted the Egyptian flag and sang the national anthem. A favorite Franciscan hymn followed. Sister Zeina then took the microphone and sweetly crooned a couple of Arabic lullabies, accompanied by a teacher on the organ. Then it was time for folklore class, and 12 girls in native Egyptian costume strutted out to perform a dance.
Their school assembly and folklore class completed, the children then filed from the playground into their classrooms — all smiles, hand in hand.
Read more about how the Franciscans were bringing learning to life in the May-June 2002 issue of the magazine.
30 October 2014
Tags: Egypt Children Education Christian-Muslim relations Catholic education
An Eritrean refugee and her daughter hold candles during a memorial gathering in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 3 October, to mark the first anniversary of the Lampedusa migrant shipwreck that killed 366 migrants near the Italian coast. Catholic bishops and aid agencies have condemned a European Union plan to scale down the rescue of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. (photo: CNS/Tiksa Negeri, Reuters)
29 October 2014
Tags: Ethiopia Migrants Eritrea Italy
Medical staff provide checkups for children brought by the Dominican Sisters to a
CNEWA-supported clinic in Ain Kawa, Iraqi Kurdistan. (photo: Don Duncan)
Over the weekend, Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, submitted a brief report on the needs of refugee children in Iraq:
CNEWA has been in continuous contact with the local church in Erbil and with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, showing solidarity and providing support to ease the suffering of the refugees and the displaced — including religious minorities such as Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims.
In partnership with the sisters, CNEWA is equipping a new dispensary and a new center for people with special needs, and providing children with clothing, milk and diapers.
Presently, there are 120,000 Christian refugees in Erbil and other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, living in schools, churches, monasteries and parks after being forced from their homes in Mosul and other cities of the Nineveh Plain by forces of the Islamic State.
As the needs continue to mount, the condition is continuing to deteriorate for these internally displaced people. Although food and other essential items are being provided through local and international charities, CNEWA is the only organization addressing the need for milk for infants and children and the provision of diapers for babies. Further, thousands of refugees will soon have to endure harsh winter conditions. The climate in Kurdistan is arid, with a temperature that reaches around 120 degrees in summer and falls below freezing in winter.
The 57 Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, who were displaced from Qaraqosh, have been very active in providing support and relief work to the displaced. They have identified 1,794 displaced Christian families in Ain Kawa as those most in need among the displaced.
Among these families, around 1,922 babies urgently need milk, diapers and winter clothing.
CNEWA staff will revisit northern Iraq in mid-November to accompany suffering children and respond to some of their needs. Despite of the efforts of many charity organizations to provide emergency aid, massive efforts are still needed.
To help provide these critical resources to those most in need, click here. Please keep the children of Iraq in your prayers.
(photo: Don Duncan)
27 October 2014
Tags: Iraq Children Iraqi Christians Iraqi Refugees Relief
Franciscan Father Benito Jose Choque of Argentina holds a bucket of olives harvested from trees in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. The trees' history extends to the time of Christ.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
An ancient tradition is continuing in Jerusalem these days, as CNS discovered:
For Salim Badawi, a Greek Orthodox Palestinian from the West Bank village of Beit Jalla, the opportunity to help a group of Franciscan priests harvest olives in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives offers a sense of hope amid the adversaries his family has faced in their own olive groves.
He said much of the olive grove of his extended family has long been unreachable as it was taken years ago to build an Israeli settlement, now considered a neighborhood of Jerusalem.
An uncle tries every year — unsuccessfully — to reach the land, Badawi said.
“Here I feel hope that maybe one day it will be different, maybe we will one day be allowed to go there and pick our olives,” Badawi told Catholic News Service while reaching into the branches of one of the trees that can be traced to the time of Christ. “The olive trees are still there, but we can’t reach them. I feel something special in this holy place where we are picking the oldest olives in the area, maybe in the whole world.”
At the bottom of the tree, Karina Henriquez, a volunteer from Chile, places olives that drop from the branches into a sack. For her, the trees that continue to bear fruit after thousands of years are a symbol of Jesus, who is still giving fruit to all who seek him.
Henriquez does not want to discuss politics, but she knows that Israelis and Palestinians are good people.
“Too bad they can’t solve their problems. We were hopeful with the pope’s visit, but then there was the war,” she said.
Still, Henriquez feels the need to share the pope’s message of speaking to the soul of people about love and peace. “We have to pray so God will place peace and love in the hearts of all people,” she said.
Since the Franciscans retook possession of the small olive grove adjacent to the Church of All Nations in 1681, the Franciscan fathers have tended to eight of what are believed to be the oldest olive trees in the Holy Land. Tradition, backed by modern genetic testing, holds that the gnarled trees were grafted at some point during the Crusader era from a single tree that was a witness to Jesus’ agony more than 2,000 years ago.
Today, the trees are part of the Garden of Gethsemane, fenced off and protected from the crowds of faithful who come on pilgrimage to the site. To accommodate pilgrims, the Franciscans keep a box of small branches pruned from the trees from which people can freely take a memento.
23 October 2014
Dominican Father Najeeb Michaeel works on a manuscript at his restoration laboratory in Qaraqosh, Iraq, prior to 6 August. Father Michaeel and his team moved 1,300 manuscripts dating from the 14th to 19th centuries before Islamic State militants invaded Qaraqosh on 6 August.
(photo: CNS/courtesy of Centre Numerique des Manuscrits Orientaux)
It has gone largely unnoticed, but a remarkable effort is underway to preserve priceless pieces of antiquity in Iraq. CNS notes:
Just as the so-called Monuments Men salvaged European masterpieces stolen by Nazi forces during World War II, a Dominican priest is protecting priceless manuscripts from falling into the hands of rampaging militants in northern Iraq.
Though operating on a much smaller scale, Dominican Father Najeeb Michaeel and the ancient manuscript collections in his care still face a very real threat.
Islamic State militants have been sweeping across the northern Iraq region in their bid to establish an Islamic state. Their campaign has become increasingly brutal in recent months as they continue to lay siege to unprotected towns and villages, murder hostages, threaten residents, confiscate property and, by many reports, desecrate or ransack religious places of worship.
The Dominicans’ collection of medieval manuscripts and valuable documents that already survived centuries of conflict and potential neglect were now under threat once again.
Early 6 August, the Feast of the Transfiguration, the residents of Qaraqosh woke up to the news that the Kurdish regional forces, known as peshmerga and who had been
repelling militant incursions, had packed up and left the city in the dead of night.
“The people woke up and realized they had no protection” and they started scrambling to evacuate the city, said Benedictine Father Columba Stewart, director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, who has been helping Father Michaeel with his preservation work since 2009.
People had to flee on foot as the limited number of vehicles were being used to shuttle children, the ill and the elderly out of the city, he told Catholic News Service on 21 October from Collegeville.
Father Michaeel and his small team managed to pack two open-bed pickup trucks full of nondescript cardboard boxes holding 1,300 extremely fragile and valuable 14th to 19th century manuscripts.
Father Stewart said Father Michaeel was able to save “really important patriarchal manuscripts” from the Chaldean Patriarchate in Baghdad that recently had lent their collection to him for digitizing.
The wave of townspeople, including Father Michaeel, walked 40 miles in scorching August heat to Irbil, capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, carrying whatever they could, said Father Stewart, who remains in almost daily contact with the Iraqi priest.
Just hours before militants invaded, they were able to truck the manuscripts, leaving behind the laboratory and digitizing equipment that had been provided by funding through the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.
Now, in addition to preserving the manuscripts, the priest and his community provide the lion’s share of care of the refugees’ suddenly fragile lives because so many lack any shelter and support, Father Stewart said.
Father Michaeel started collecting and preserving the nation’s cultural and religious heritage as recorded on the manuscripts in the 1980s.
He persuades manuscript owners, monasteries and churches to let him borrow their works to be cleaned and digitized; he then returns the restored originals and gives digitized copies to the owner and specialized archives.
The priest also built a collection of some 750 manuscripts from the Dominican community.
Father Stewart said the early European Dominicans in Iraq “were the first cultural anthropologists” in the area. “They described what they were seeing and left very interesting records,” he said, documenting “their work and the communities they ministered to.”
The Dominicans have been in Iraq for so long, “there’s a lot of depth” and history in the collection, Father Stewart said.
Luckily, Father Michaeel already had digitized the collections in the Mar Behnam Syriac Catholic Monastery, which is now behind the front lines of the militants and rumored to have been destroyed or burned down, Father Stewart said.
Father Michaeel and his staff of six to eight local Iraqis use a simple, inexpensive technique of photographing manuscript pages with a high-end 35mm camera and flash strobe lights for illumination. The digital images are stored on a hard drive, which is then sent to Collegeville.
Staff at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library then makes multiple backups, organizes the data, catalogues it and puts it online for scholars, Father Stewart said.
All training, funding and equipment for Father Michaeel’s work come through the donations, grants and foundation money pulled together by Father Stewart.
Father Stewart said Father Michaeel and his restoration team have made digital copies of 5,000 manuscripts with the library’s support. “It’s amazing what they’re doing on their own,” he said.
They will be getting new equipment as they settle in Irbil, he said, with now a second exodus under their belt. They were uprooted from Mosul in 2008, when the entire Dominican community left, many for Qaraqosh, in the wake of mounting kidnappings and threats against religious.
Father Stewart said as the Iraqi people, especially Christians, continue to be pushed out of their homes and their country and settle elsewhere, their history and heritage gradually will be lost.
“These are communities that no longer exist” as the people have scattered and their traditions fade away, he said.
When communities disappear, their heritage goes with them, he added, so these manuscripts and documents will most likely end up being the only memories that survive.
Even though “they are digital surrogates, it’s not the best, but they are better than nothing,” he said.
The museum and its funders will continue to support the preservation work because, Father Stewart said, “it’s a tiny investment for such a huge boon of conserving cultural memory.”