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Volume 44, Number 4
7 October 2011
Gerald Jones

A Demera from one of the many Ethiopian communities celebrating Meskel on 28 September, 2011.

Gerald Jones, Regional Director for Ethiopia, yesterday shared details of an Ethiopian Christian holiday. Meskel is the celebration of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which falls near the Ethiopian calendar’s new year:

Attached is a photo from our recent (28 September) celebration of “Meskel.” Meskel means “cross” in Amharic and it a major celebration (both religious and national) that commemorates the finding of the True Cross by the Empress Helena. Tradition holds that, praying for assistance, Empress Helena had a revelation; she was to light a bonfire, and the smoke would lead her to the resting place of the True Cross.

The picture depicts the celebration on the main square in Addis Ababa. This square itself is called Meskel Square. During the 17 years of Communist rule beginning in 1974, the Communist authorities renamed it “Revolution Square,” but as soon as the Communist government fell in 1991, it quickly reverted to its old name.

The major celebrations occur on Meskel Eve. Around 6:00 pm, huge crowds gather in the Square where many priests assemble to chant in the Geez liturgical language and dance the measured steps of liturgical dance. These days, parish youth groups also gather and sing and dance, and it is wonderful to see young boys and girls actively involved in this traditional celebration.

At the center of the square there is an enormous bonfire (called the Demera), around which the priests parade. Patriarch and dignitaries circle and eventually light the pyre, which is topped by a huge cross. The structure goes up in flames as the crowd cheers and ululates.

At the local level, neighborhoods often each set up their own Demera where they sing, dance, mingle and drink coffee. The overall atmosphere is very festive. The celebration is observed throughout the country; indeed, in the week before Easter, thousands of people leave Addis Ababa to observe Meskel with their families in the countryside.

September is really a “holiday season” in Ethiopia; our New Year is 12 September (by our calendar it is now 2004) and shortly afterwards, we celebrate Meskel!

You can read Mr. Jones' report on the recent drought conditions in East Africa here.

Tags: Ethiopia Africa Ethiopian Christianity

6 October 2011
Michael J.L. La Civita

New Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai looks on during his installation ceremony in Bkerke, Lebanon, March 25. (photo: CNS/Reuters)

Were Maronite Patriarch Bechara and U.S. President Barack Obama scheduled to meet or not? Our good friends at Catholic News Service have dug deeper, unearthing some additional details:

Chorbishop Michael Thomas, Bishop [Gregory] Mansour’s vicar general, told Catholic News Service that, last spring, after the new patriarch was elected, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is of Lebanese descent, visited the new Maronite leader to congratulate him. At that time, LaHood invited Patriarch Rai to visit Washington and meet with Obama, and the patriarch accepted.

Chorbishop Thomas said Bishop Mansour was given the Oct. 3 date early in September. He said that, early the week of Sept. 19, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon visited the patriarch “to ask his stance on certain issues,” including Syria. Chorbishop Thomas said Lahood told Bishop Mansour Sept. 22 that Obama had no intention of meeting with the patriarch because of the Maronite leader’s stance on Syria.

Read more here.

Tags: Syria Lebanon Patriarchs Maronite Church

6 October 2011
Erin Edwards

The Melkite Greek Catholic Warood School in Aleppo, Syria, enrolls 350 students from preschool through sixth grade. (photo: Spencer Osberg)

In the November 2009 issue of ONE Spencer Osberg reported on the diverse community of Christians living in Aleppo, Syria, one of the “oldest continuously inhabited centers in the world”:

The Greek Melkite Catholic Church offers a host of social services. Since his installation in 1995, Archbishop Jeanbart has worked tirelessly to expand existing programs and has spearheaded many new ones.

“I feel as a pastor I have to do my part to help our people to remain, to try and help the youth not to emigrate.”

The archbishop focuses much of his energy on the archeparchy’s numerous educational institutions. Under his watch, the archeparchy has opened six vocational schools that provide training in business, tourism, nursing and other skilled trades. The archbishop expressed hope the schools would enable a new generation of Syrian Christians to “find a good job and encourage them to remain in the country — to continue living in this country where we have been for 2,000 years.”

In addition, the archeparchy administers numerous and well-regarded elementary and secondary schools. Open to all Syrians regardless of creed, these schools are diverse and dynamic centers of learning and culture, often enrolling more non-Christian than Christian students. Depending on a family’s ability to pay, the church awards generous financial aid packages to qualifying students and in some cases waives school tuition and fees altogether.

For more about Aleppo see Aleppo: A Syrian Mosaic by Spencer Osberg. For more about the state of Syria’s Christians, check out last week’s blog post, Syria’s Christians: Are We Next?

Tags: Syria Middle East Christians Middle East Melkite Greek Catholic Church

6 October 2011
J.D. Conor Mauro

For decades, Iraq's Christian population has been in a state of steady decline. Recently, however, Vatican Radio reported on a key exception to this trend. Via Vatican News:

In the last decade, the Christian population in Iraq has plummeted from 800,000 to an estimated 150,000. Many have fled their homes and even the country to escape attacks and religious intolerance. But one area in Northern Iraq is seeing an influx of Christians.

The town of Ain Kawa, a suburb of the Kurdish capital Erbil, has seen an increase from over 8,000 in the mid-1990’s to more than 25,000 today.

“There are two main reasons [for this influx]. One is [that] this is the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, where the safety and general security is thought to be that much better than elsewhere in Iraq. That’s the first reason; the second reason is because that particular suburb … is already quite well populated with Christians,” says Senior Press Officer for Aid to the Church in Need, John Pontifex.

Mr. Pontifex reports to Lydia O’Kane that many Christians are leaving everything behind to make the journey to Ain Kawa.

The full broadcast, clocking just over seven minutes, can be found in mp3 form at the Vatican News site.

Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians

5 October 2011
Erin Edwards

A young girl walks along a decorated wall as she joins her friends before the start of their first communion ceremony, in the Dbayeh Palestinian refugee camp, on the northern outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon. (photo: Dalia Khamissy)

The Pontifical Mission, our operating agency in the Middle East, has provided much support for the Dbayeh refugee camp in Beirut over the years. With the help of The Little Sisters of Nazareth, Dbayeh camp has set itself apart from most Palestinian refugee camps:

Across from the UNRWA office, in the partially derelict school compound that Pontifical Mission, in partnership with UNRWA, built, funded and once administered, 10 youngsters were sitting in a semicircle rehearsing their First Communion. All wore white cassocks; wooden crosses hung around their necks while the girls wore gardenias in their hair. Men and women stood by, offering moral support. Among them was Sister Anita, a Little Sister of Nazareth, a community inspired by the French hermit Blessed Charles de Foucauld. While her two colleagues in Dbayeh are Belgian, Sister Anita is a native of Bshirri, a village in north Lebanon.

The Little Sisters of Nazareth have had a family of three nuns stationed in Lebanon since 1971. Sister Anita and Sister Rosa have served for four years, while Sister Joanna arrived a year ago, though she has long experience in Lebanon. Based first in Jisr el Basha, the sisters left Lebanon briefly for the safety of Jordan after the camp was razed in 1976. But in 1978, the Pontifical Mission approached the sisters and, to ease their return, offered living quarters in Dbayeh.

For more about the Dbayeh refugee camp, check out Defining Dbayeh in the September 2007 issue of ONE.

Tags: Lebanon Refugee Camps Palestinians Beirut Palestinian Refugees

4 October 2011
Michael J.L. La Civita

The head of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Peter Bechara, has stirred up controversy in his home turf of Lebanon, as well as in Europe and North America. Earlier in September — while in France on his first official trip as the patriarch of the world’s 5.5 million Maronites — he voiced his concern for Syria’s Christians should the current government there collapse.

While not supporting the Assad regime, the patriarch expressed alarm about the possibility of a militarized civil war in Syria, which could divide the country along religious lines, and the subsequent rise of a militant Islamic state. While Christians make up 10 percent of the population, they are a protected minority by President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite community, a small sect derived from Shiite Islam. The vast majority of Syrians, 80 percent of the population, are Sunni Muslims.

The patriarch’s remarks created a furor in Lebanon, where Maronite Christians are divided between those who support Syria and their Shiite Muslim allies in Lebanon and those Maronites who have sought alliances with Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims. This controversy has affected the patriarch’s first pastoral visit to the United States, when a meeting with President Barack Obama was canceled. Though no official explanation has been given for the change of plans, Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn has made it clear in an open letter to the president that the Obama Administration rebuffed the patriarch:

“Because he has spoken out expressing his concern for the future of Christians in the Middle East, he has been rebuffed by you and your Administration. It is pure hypocrisy for the leader of the free world to refuse to meet with Patriarch Rai especially since the Prime Minister of Israel can come and completely disregard essential parts of a peace plan and still be given a warm welcome, and the King of Saudi Arabia, where Christians have no freedom whatsoever, can be received with highest honors. Mr. President, you are ignoring the plight of Christians in the Middle East!”

Catholic News Service has more background and information over at their blog.

4 October 2011
Diane Handal

Yesterday, veteran journalist Diane Handal described for us her return to Beirut after five years. She visited the city recently to report on CNEWA’s work with innovative microcredit program – a program she details in the September issue of ONE magazine. Today, she writes of her travels to a town north of Beirut called Amchit, where she met a remarkable man who was one beneficiary of the microcredit program.

Anis Hoayek repairs a broken chair in his weaving shop outside Byblos.
(photo: Dalia Khamissy)

His name is Anis. He is 48 years old, the father of two children.

One some days, he works three jobs. During the day, he is a supervisor in a mattress factory; nights and weekends, he works caning furniture in a tiny shop next to his home. On some nights, he fills in as a disc jockey.

Anis is driven, not just to make a living for his family, but also to give his son and daughter the private school education he never had. Public schools, I am told, are not an option in Lebanon.

Anis had polio when he was just a year old. Because of the polio, Anis was 12 years old when he started school. In fourth grade, the teacher told him he didn’t belong in her classroom but should be in a special school for the handicapped.

At the time, Anis was at the top of his class and exempt from taking exams. He told me he dreamed about becoming a professor. Those dreams were shattered.

Today, his right arm and left leg are both paralyzed. His left foot is twisted to the side and yet he struggles to walk on crutches, not giving in to the wheelchair that sits behind him.

I was in awe of this man. He had an incredibly optimistic attitude about life; he had goals and he was definitely not complaining. He was focused on his work; caning in his tiny shop that neighbors helped to build was what he loved.

Anis had dreams too, of expanding his workshop one day, buying more tools, and “hiring other handicapped people like me,” he said.

He perseveres despite a recent operation to remove his spleen and yet another to fix the crooked fingers in his left hand, the only good one he has.

I wonder what Anis’s life would have been like if he had the opportunity to finish school, go to college. I wonder if he would have been that professor he dreamed of becoming.

I think about my own life and how much I have and how often I forget.

That afternoon, returning to the city, I pass the Four Seasons Hotel, built by Prince Al-Waleed bin Tala, the Saudi businessman. It stands across from multimillion-dollar boats in the harbor.

I hear from friends that business at the hotel is slow. I think it is perhaps because of the “Arab Spring,” the revolutions sweeping across the region, touching so many of Lebanon’s neighbors. But they say not even the Gulf customers are coming.

The former Holiday Inn, a massive gray building, backing up against the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel is still standing but riddled with huge holes, which have turned to orange rust. Green plants sprout through the balconies and what once were windows.

It sits as a testament to the bitter memories and dark shadows of Lebanon’s civil war that began in 1975 and lasted 15 years.

I stop and look up at this building and its scars of war and my mind wanders back to Anis. He too stands firm, refusing to give in to the dark shadows and bitter memories of his past, fighting every single step of the way for survival with grace and with courage.

Read more about Anis and his work here.

Tags: Lebanon Beirut Micro Credit Program

4 October 2011
Erin Edwards

Ethiopian Orthodox priests wear the Tabot, symbolizing the Ark of the Covenant, during the beginning of the celebration of the Ethiopian religious festivity of Timqat/Epiphany in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (photo: Cody Christopulos)

Timqat or Epiphany is 12 days after Orthodox Christmas. It celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. Wikipedia describes the meaning of the beautiful headdresses worn by the priests in the photo above:

During the ceremonies of Timkat, the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant, which is present on every Ethiopian altar (somewhat like the Western altar stone), is reverently wrapped in rich cloth and born in procession on the head of the priest. The Tabot, which is otherwise rarely seen by the laity, represents the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah when he came to the Jordan for baptism.

For more on Ethiopian priests check out the story, As it Was, So Shall It Remain? from the September 2009 edition of ONE.

Tags: Ethiopia Africa Monastery Ethiopian Orthodox Church

3 October 2011
Michael J.L. La Civita

In the 10 October edition of America magazine, the national Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits, CNEWA’s own Father Elias Mallon writes that the “journey toward democracy” in the Arab nations of the Middle East “will be neither easy nor short. These emerging democracies of the Arab Spring need all the help and support they can get.”

But, Father Elias writes, “Those who would help ... must realize that democracy does not mean ‘just like us.’ ”

The rights and treatment of religious minorities in these countries, the friar of the Atonement writes, “provides a benchmark against which the rights of all citizens can be measured.”

“Christianity,” he reminds us, “spent several centuries in conflict and reflection before it found a way of living in societies where members of other religious traditions were equal before the law.”

Read his excellent piece here.

3 October 2011
Diane Handal

Veteran journalist Diane Handal returned to Lebanon recently to report on CNEWA’s work with an innovative microcredit program, which is offering assistance to some of the neediest people in the country. You can read her account in the September issue of ONE. She also sent us these impressions of what it’s like to be revisiting Beirut.

Aerial view of Beirut, Lebanon taken in September 2010.

After five years, I have returned to Beirut. While there are many more cranes rising in the downtown area, not much else seems changed.

I am here to meet with several beneficiaries of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s microcredit program in Lebanon and hear their stories.

The streets are still a mass of broken cement and one has to look down so as not to break a leg. The sidewalks are high and sometimes disappear without notice.

Lebanon is one of the few countries left in the Middle East that is not in the midst of a revolution. Nevertheless, it bears scars from many wars, particularly the civil war that lasted 15 years. What’s more, I am told that the situation between the Sunnis and Shiites is heating up once again.

The weather is hot and humid; the sea is blue; and, despite the absence of a government, Beirut carries on.

I walk along the Corniche and a pale pink line dots the horizon as the sun slips into the sea.

The Lebanese are power walking, passing stately palm trees on their left.

Fishermen line up by the Mediterranean; their eight-foot poles rest on the metal railing. They smoke and chat with one another, waiting.

New black street lamps stand guard along the way.

Men and boys in bathing suits are swimming in the polluted water below and lie on the jagged rocks sunning themselves.

I shudder when I see a Starbucks across the street below the American University of Beirut (AUB) campus, where my favorite Lebanese sweet shop once stood. The BMWs, Range Rovers, and Mercedes are parked in front, their owners sipping mocha lattes and espresso checking their blackberries or talking on their cells. I might as well be in L.A. or New York!

The Corniche is awash with young parents and their little children. Two teenage boys – car doors open, bass-heavy music blaring – are checking out the girls. Cars whiz by and the obsessive horn honking never ends. Chic women in their designer sunglasses and workout clothes pass those from the Gulf, covered in the black abbey, niqaab (face veil) included.

A few blocks away, I hear the call to prayer coming from the minaret next to the mosque. The chanting mixes with the soothing sound of the waves breaking against the rocks.

A boy on roller blades speeds past the walkers; a toddler on a bicycle does a semi-circle twist and almost crashes into me. A mother kisses her curly black-haired baby and cuddles her in her arms.

A young boy rides toward me on a bicycle selling sesame bread that looks like a Frisbee with a hole. A grandfather passes me sharing the flat bread with his grandson.

Further down, a merchant is selling charcoal roasted corn on the cob and people crowd. Some noisy motorboats roar across the choppy sea in the distance.

The next morning, I travel north to a town called Amchit, about two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of the ancient city of Byblos. It was there that I met a truly extraordinary man.

Tomorrow: A Man Named Anis

Tags: Lebanon Beirut

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