Current Issue
December, 2018
Volume 44, Number 4
25 October 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

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This image from last summer shows some of the thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority persecuted by ISIS, who live in Lalish, Iraq, near Kurdistan.
(photo: Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

With the chaos prevalent in the Middle East — and especially with the violence of ISIS against all those who are not allied with it — there is much talk about religious minorities in the Middle East. Now seems a good time to take stock of the challenges these minorities are facing — and what those challenges mean to the rest of the world, particularly the world that CNEWA serves.

In the West, the major portion of the discussion revolves around Christians and whether Christian communities which date back to apostolic times will survive in the places of their origin. The focus on the Christian minority in the Middle East is understandable. Numbering over 18 million in the region, Christians form the largest minority population in the Middle East. Christianity, including its nominal adherents, is the largest religious group in Europe and the Western Hemisphere.

However, Christians are not the only or even the oldest minority in the Middle East. The land mass going eastwards from the Mediterranean to India has been the birthplace of most of the great religions of the world. The western part was the birthplace of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Iranian-Indian subcontinent saw the birth of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism.

From the most ancient times, explorers, adventurers and merchants risked the perils of the huge Eurasian continent, bringing with them trade goods, inventions, ideas and religions. Contacts between the two areas were relatively constant and a type of cross-pollination was inevitable. Many of the large religions saw groups break off and form traditions of their own, some of which were considered acceptable, most of which were considered “heretical.”

Although relatively well known to Christians in the Middle East and to the people of CNEWA who work with them, many of these smaller religions are, for all practical purposes, unknown in the West except to scholars. Some of these religions are very limited geographically and have very few adherents in comparison with the major religions of the world. While Christianity and its continuance in the Middle East are under severe stress — and its viability there is open to question — there is no question of Christianity disappearing from the face of the earth. But that is not the case with some of region’s other minority religions. Groups such as the Yazidis are not threatened with extinction in merely the Middle East; they are faced with total extinction from the planet.

In the next several weeks, we will be looking at some of these religious minorities. Some are related loosely to Islam, such as the Alawis and the Shabak; others are related to Christianity and Middle Eastern gnostic theosophy like the Mandaeans; still others like the Yazidis have roots that antedate the present religions in the region. While many of these religions are monotheistic, i.e. believing in one God, they are not all monotheistic in the way that Judaism and Islam are. Some of them are ahl ul-kitb, “People of the Book” in Muslim dominated countries. Thus Jews, Christians and Mandaeans in Muslim countries are “protected” and enjoy some rights. They are, however, second class “citizens.” Other groups such as Yazidis, however, which are not “People of the Book,” enjoy no such protection. As a result, they often seek out remote regions in the area where they are at best ignored by the dominant religions. Often, however, they are objects of violent persecution — as was the case with the Yazidis in Sinjar, an Iraqi mountain town, which was fiercely attacked by ISIS. ISIS gave Christians the choice: convert to Islam; pay the jizya or poll tax; go into exile; or face certain death. Yazidis were given a much harsher choice: convert or be killed.

In the past, I have compared the religious and cultural situation in the Middle East to an extraordinarily beautiful and complex carpet, for which the region is justifiably famous. The carpets are woven from many colors and involve incredibly complex patterns. It is precisely the variety of the colors and the complexity of the patterns that make the carpets “magical.” With that in mind, it seems to me that for centuries the people of the Middle East formed a type of oriental carpet. Although the relations between the religions were sometimes tense and at times even violent, the carpet held together. Now in the 21st century, that carpet is quickly becoming unraveled. A synthesis which existed in some shape or form for thousands of years is now coming undone.

What are we to make of this? In the days ahead, we will look at some of the non-Christian minority religious “colors and patterns” in this “carpet.” In particular, we will explore religious minorities mostly in the area of Syria and Iraq where, for a variety of reasons, their very existence is threatened.

It is our hope that this will help us realize a fundamental truth: the world will be poorer if these ancient traditions are lost. We need to treasure the many threads binding together the Middle East and, indeed, our planet.

25 October 2017
Joseph Hazboun

Sister Davida Twal has made a big difference at the Rosary Sisters Elementary School in Bethlehem. Here, schoolchildren greet her and Mrs. Alexandra Bukowska-Mccabe, Representative of Poland to the Palestinian Authority, during a recent visit. (photo: CNEWA)

When Sister Davida Twal was entrusted with the responsibility of running the Rosary Sisters Elementary School in Bethlehem — a few steps from the “King David Wells” mentioned in the Bible (2 Sam 23:15) — little did she know that her leadership skills and long experience in school administration in Jerusalem and later in Gaza would be crucial to help turn the school into a wonderful safe haven for the children of Bethlehem.

When she arrived, in 2014, the kindergarten had around 16 children; the whole school, which goes up to 7th grade, had a total of 294 students.

Today, thanks to Sister Davida — and in close cooperation with CNEWA and a few other partner donors — the school has around 67 children in kindergarten, and a total of 415 students. The school is at full capacity and has had to turn away students. But thanks to a generous grant through CNEWA (Shaheen Endowment), the school will be able to expand, adding three more classrooms to enable more children to enroll.

25 October 2017
Greg Kandra

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A picture taken on 23 October 2017, in the southern Gaza Strip, shows diggers searching for tunnels on the Egyptian side of the border with the Palestinian enclave. Reports indicate they were looking for three Palestinians who went missing. (photo: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

Mideast church leaders look to U.S. to help obtain peace (CNS) Two prominent Mideast church leaders told a U.S. audience that they were looking to the United States for leadership to obtain peace in the Middle East. “We look to America to lead the international community in so many ways,” said Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch...

Thousands of ISIS supporters return home (Al Jazeera) Thousands of foreign ISIS supporters have returned to their home countries after leaving Syria and Iraq over the past two years, a US-based security analysis group has said. At least 5,600 people from 33 countries left ISIS-held areas in that period, with numbers increasing as the group began to suffer territorial losses, the Soufan Center said in a report published on Tuesday...

Israeli bulldozers raze land along Gaza border (Ma’an News Agency) Several Israeli bulldozers entered into the “buffer zone” in the central Gaza Strip, along the border with Israel, and leveled lands in the area on Tuesday morning. Palestinian security sources told Ma’an that four Israeli bulldozers entered dozens of meters into the Juhr al-Dik area and razed lands as drones flew overhead...

New Quebec law deemed ‘discriminatory’ against Muslims (Catholic Register) The new Quebec law on state neutrality on religion is under fire, as many deem it “discriminatory” against some Muslim women. Bill 62, officially “Act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies,” was adopted 18 October. This legislative text requires that, from now on, all public services be given and received without anything covering a person’s face...

Sharing cultures and religions at Sunday dinner (Huntington Herald-Dispatch) For more than 40 years, parishioners at Holy Spirit Antiochian Orthodox Church have treated the Tri-State to taste of their heritage at its annual Middle Eastern dinner, hosted Sunday, 22 October at the church in Huntington. From the heart of the Bible Belt to the Mediterranean coast and beyond, Sunday dinner holds a special place in the hearts of Christians worldwide — a time for family and friends to enjoy the Sabbath’s rest over a plate of home cooking from wherever home may be...

24 October 2017
Greg Kandra

Seniors play chess and backgammon in a Yerevan, Armenia park. (photo: Armineh Johannes)

ONE magazine has been chronicling the struggles of Armenia’s elderly for many years. In 2008, for example, we took a look at Pensioners in Crisis:

Most senior citizens depend on pensions to survive. And though the average pension has increased by $10 over the last five years, the cost of living has risen, mitigating the effectiveness of any increase. Today a typical pension pays a third of what is considered necessary for the average person to maintain the minimum standard of living in Armenia.

“The problem with raising pensions is quite difficult,” said Anahit Gevorgian, who heads the Elderly Issues Division in the Ministry of Labor and Social Issues. “Paying higher pensions is impossible in a country with widespread unemployment.

“Today there is just 0.9 worker for every pensioner, when there should be at least two workers to pay for one person’s pension.” About 11 percent of Armenia’s citizens are 65 or older.

In addition to the high unemployment rate, many Armenians work in the country’s substantial but informal economy. These “black market” jobs undermine the national pension system since neither the employee nor the employer pays taxes on salaries. Tax evasion of this kind plagues Armenia’s economy; the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund recently urged Yerevan to address the problem swiftly, which poses a principal hurdle to the country’s economic health.

Though pensions continue to fall short, the government is taking measures to make primary medical care freely available to pensioners in need; but those requiring specialized care must register in the hospital system. Generally, patients in Armenia pay for at least a portion of their medical costs. Under a special state-issued order, however, hospitals are required to waive their fees for pensioners, including those associated with specialized examinations and procedures.

Unfortunately, the order, signed into effect by the health minister, has had little success in compelling profit-driven hospitals to waive fees for pensioners.

“Each time we take an elderly person to the hospital using the state-issued order, they simply refuse the patient. In cases where we manage to have them admitted, we are forced to pay for everything,” said Karine Hayrapetian, a social worker with Mission Armenia, a social service agency serving the needs of elderly Armenians.

All too aware of these and other gaps in the health care system, Ms. Gevorgian says the breadth of the problem reaches farther than anything the Elderly Issues Division can tackle alone. A solution demands an overhaul of the entire national health care system.

For generations, Armenia’s seniors lived out their golden years in the company and loving care of their children. Their plight today comes as an alarming wake-up call to many in a society deeply rooted in traditional family values. A crisis that cannot be chalked up to inadequate pensions alone, it reveals a fundamental change of the family’s role in contemporary Armenian society.

Read more.

24 October 2017
Greg Kandra

A displaced Iraqi Christian family is seen in 2014 at a camp in Erbil. Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl has issued a letter calling for Catholics to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world. (photo: CNS/Ahmed Jalill, EPA)

Pope meets delegation from Tel Aviv University (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis met on Monday with a delegation from Tel Aviv University, stressing the need to develop a culture of wisdom that can form future leaders who are sensitive to the profound ethical issues facing our societies...

Cardinal Wuerl urges solidarity with persecuted Christians (Catholic Standard) Reliable reports indicate that some 200 million Christians worldwide, simply because of their faith in Jesus Christ, are still enduring or are at risk of physical violence, arrest, torture and death. Christians, in greater number, also face varying levels of oppression and restrictions on fully living their faith. Ironically — and tragically — the place where persecution of Christians is being most severely experienced is in that region of the world that is the birthplace of Christianity. Last July, His Eminence Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the designation of Sunday, 26 November 2017 as a day of prayer for persecuted Christians which also initiates “Solidarity in Suffering,” a week of awareness and education. The Solemnity of Christ the King is a fitting time to reflect on religious freedom and persecution...

Migration causing drop in Christian population in Kerala (Times of India) Migration is leading to a significant dip in Christian population in Kerala, and studies have indicated their share may come down from the current level of 17 to 10% by 2030, according to writer and former DGP Alexander Jacob...

Humanitarian aid convoy headed to Gaza (Petra News Agency) The Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), in cooperation with the Jordan Armed Forces-Arab Army, on Tuesday dispatched a humanitarian aid convoy to the Gaza Strip...

Syrian refugee with love for icons knows God is guiding his life (The Catholic Leader) Murhaf Obeid, packing his bag to fly from Lebanon to Australia, had first thoughts, not for toothbrush, clothes or shoes, but for his art. It was about a year ago, and the Syrian refugee was preparing to fly out with his wife Rim and their sons Michel, now four, and Marc, one. Among thousands of people forced to flee the region in the wake of ISIS’ brutal takeover of large parts of Syria and Iraq, the Obeids were desperate for a new life in Australia. And life, for Murhaf, has to include art and especially his love of creating icons...

23 October 2017
CNEWA staff

In the video above, members of the community gather for the great consecration ceremony at St. Martin Orthodox Church in Corvalis, Oregon, on Saturday 21 October. (video: YouTube)

The video above offers a fascinating glimpse at the consecration of a new Orthodox church in Oregon.

From the Corvalis Gazette-Times:

Even before the archbishop arrived to start the great consecration ceremony at St. Martin Orthodox Church, members of the community were there, praying and singing psalms.

And their worship would continue for hours, as an archbishop, two bishops and nine other priests worked to consecrate the church and construct and sanctify its altar.

The complex ceremony, in the eyes of the church’s congregants, makes the space where the altar was built holy ground, which should never have anything else built on it again.

“To receive a great consecration is very much a reception of God’s grace,” said Father James Baglien, the church’s rector for 15 years.

The ceremony is only done once in the life of a church, Baglien said, and is so rare that people came from Greece just to see it.

Read more.

23 October 2017
Greg Kandra

Sisters at St. Mary Monastery in Bediani, Georgia tend the community’s vineyards. Learn more about Georgian women choosing Alternative Lifestyles of prayer and service in the September 2007 edition of ONE. (photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

23 October 2017
Greg Kandra

Pope Francis greets Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III at the Vatican. (photo: Vatican Radio)

Pope meets Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis met on Monday with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, calling for an end to violence and discrimination against people of different faiths in the Holy Land...

Calls to set up ‘safe zones’ for Christians in Iraq (Middle East Monitor) Researchers at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies have called for a “safe zone” to be set up for Christians in Iraq, Arab48 has reported. Speaking at a conference on Christian Arabs in the Greater Arab Mashreq, Yahya Al-Kubaisi said that the number of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, in particular the Christians, have become the subject of a political dispute...

Dozens of bodies found at site of Syrian ‘massacre’ (USA Today) The bodies of at least 67 Syrian civilians have been found in a central Syrian town in the aftermath of the government reclaiming control from the Islamic State, according to The Associated Press. The bodies were found in Qaryatayn, a strategic town the Islamic State had seized in August 2015 to defend the historic city of Palmyra...

Pope sends letter for World Mission Sunday (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has sent a letter to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, on occasion of the 2017 iteration of World Mission Sunday. In the letter, the Holy Father reflects on the upcoming centenary of the great missionary charter of the 20th century, the Apostolic Letter Maximum illud of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XV, promulgated on 30 November 1919...

Coptic group seeks funds for persecution data base ( A Coptic human rights organization seeks funding to build a database on incidents of persecution against Copts in Egypt. Coptic Solidarity (CS) is an organisation dedicated to the rights of Egyptian Coptic Christians. CS are aiming to raise $12,000 to build a database documenting incidents against Copts...

Palestinian girl wins Arab reading challenge (Middle East Monitor) A Palestinian student was crowned champion of the Arab Reading Challenge. Now in its second year, the competition saw seven million entrants vie for the awards in Dubai, UAE, which saw Palestinian Afaf Sharif from Al-Bireh Secondary School for Girls come top. Palestinian Minister of Education Sabri Saydam stressed that this victory will illuminate the path for other Palestinian children during “their hard work and perseverance to be at the forefront of children of the world...”

20 October 2017
J.D. Conor Mauro

Children socialize outside St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Ader, Jordan. Read more about this ancient community of Bedouin Christians, and how they work to adapt to a changing world in Jordan’s Christian Shepherds, from the September 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Nader Daoud)

Tags: Children Jordan Cultural Identity Village life Bedouin

20 October 2017
J.D. Conor Mauro

An Iraqi soldier stands guard as another raises the national flag from an oil silo at the Bai Hassan oil field, west of the multi-ethnic northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, on 19 October. (photo: Ahmad Al‑Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi workers return after oil fields retaken from Kurds (Al Monitor) Turfed out three years ago by Kurdish forces, Iraqi oil workers are donning their overalls and inspecting equipment as they look to get down to work at installations snatched back by Baghdad…

Chaldean patriarch calls Iraqi politicians to national reconciliation (Fides) The “unprecedented circumstances” that the country is going through are “the result of all that happened in Iraq from the north to the south for years and until now,” says Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I. Therefore, the church leader says, this critical phase requires a comprehensive and national collaboration…

Expansion of Gaza fishing zone ‘pointless PR stunt’ (Al Jazeera) For the 4,000 registered fishermen in the besieged Gaza Strip, a proposed Israeli plan to let them temporarily fish farther out from shore is “far from enough.” Fishermen told Al Jazeera that Israel’s move to slightly expand the fishing zone limit from six to nine nautical miles, implemented this week, will have little effect in reality. “It makes no difference whatsoever to us,” Nizar Ayash, head of Gaza’s fishermen’s union, told Al Jazeera. The expansion, which will last for six weeks, is not applicable to boats in Gaza’s northern port…

Delhi covered in toxic haze after night of Diwali fireworks (The Guardian) Air pollution in Delhi has hit 18 times the healthy limit and left the city under a thick, toxic haze after Diwali was celebrated with a night of fireworks — despite a court-ordered ban on their sales…

Amman design fair pays homage to disappearing crafts (Al Monitor) For Rana Beiruti, the co-founder of Amman Design Week, the beauty of an object is linked to the story behind it. That is why she and her colleague Abeer Seikaly put the craftsmen, particularly those whose crafts were disappearing, at the heart of their design event this month…

Tags: India Iraq Gaza Strip/West Bank Jordan

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