16 November 2017
Alawites celebrate a festival in Banyas, Syria during World War II. (photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain)
Of all the religious minorities in the Middle East, perhaps the ‘Alawi or Alawites are the most familiar to people outside the Middle East. In the world CNEWA serves, one of the most prominent political rulers in the region is an ‘Alawi: Bashar al-Assad, the strongman ruler of Syria. His father, Hafiz al-Assad, was also a member of the faith.
The ‘Alawi are also known in history as the Nuṣayri; that is now considered pejorative and was replaced by ‘Alawi. There are significant ‘Alawi minorities in Lebanon (180-200,000), Turkey (500,000-1 million) and Syria (1.5-3 million). The ‘Alawi faith is — like many of the minority religions of the Middle East — highly syncretistic, i.e. comprised in part of beliefs and practices taken from other religions — often with changes that make them unrecognizable. It is generally agreed that the religion has its origins in Shi’ite Islam, but its adherents are considered to be a in ġulāt, “extreme” and heretical, although Muslim opinions about the ‘Alawi religion have vacillated over the centuries.
If syncretism is common among minority religions in the Middle East, so is secrecy, and the ‘Alawi are no exception — though some studies about the faith have been undertaken over the last century. The ‘Alawi belief revolves around a trinity or, perhaps better, a triad. They believe in one god, who is referred to as the “Essence” or “Meaning” (Arabic: ma‘nā) from which emanate two further manifestations: the “Name” or “Veil” and the “Gate.” These can take different manifestations in history, the most common being ‘Ali b. Abi Talib as the “Essence,” Muhammad as the “Name” and Salman al Farisi as the “Gate.” Other figures from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament appear in differing roles.
The ‘Alawi believe that they were originally astral lights who fell from grace and descended to earth. Salvation is achieved through a series of rebirths (metempsychosis). Those who are judged to have been evil are reborn as women — considered to be demonic and excluded from rituals — along with members of other religions, such as Christianity, etc. Salvation consists of achieving contemplation of the “Essence” after having journeyed through the seven heavens. The exclusion of women from rituals has brought about a type of female piety that differs from that of male adherents and tends to be quite syncretistic.
One of the more unusual practices of the ‘Alawi is the quddas, a highly secret and important ritual, open only to males; during this ritual, wine is consecrated and consumed. At times ‘Alawi have been particularly concerned to keep this ritual secret from Christians. ‘Alawi also have holidays. They celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian (Zoroastrian) New Year, as well as Christmas, the Epiphany and the feasts of Mary Magdalene.
The fate of the ‘Alawi over the centuries has been varied. Generally regarded as heretics, they were spared by the Crusaders because the Crusaders thought they were not Muslims. During the time of the Ottoman Empire there were attempts made to convert the ‘Alawi to Sunni Islam, the dominant religion of the empire. After World War I and the Sykes-Picot Treaty, France took control of northern Syria and southern Turkey, where a large number of the ‘Alawi lived. Perhaps as part of a divide-and-conquer tactic, the French were favorable towards the ‘Alawi. For a while there was an ‘Alawi province. It later became the Government of Latakia and was finally subsumed into the modern Syrian state.
There is an unusual variety of opinions among Muslims as to the nature of the ‘Alawi faith. Some, like the medieval Muslim theologian ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), believe that the ‘Alawi are infidels and subject to jihad. Generally Shi’ite Muslims consider them “extremists” and heterodox. On the other hand, Haj Amin al-Husseini (d. 1974), the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, for political reasons recognized the ‘Alawi as Muslims. Some scholars and observers think that, since taking control of Syria in 1971, the al-Assad family has worked to “sunnify” the ‘Alawi to make them more acceptable to the Sunni majority in Syria. Whether this is true and, if true, effective, remains to be seen. However, it needs also to be noted that historically the strongest allies of the al-Assad family have been the Iranian Shi’ites.
Unlike other religious minorities in the Middle East, the ‘Alawi do not live under the threat of extinction.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 2: The Shabak
16 November 2017
An Indian Christian woman prays on 2 November, All Souls’ Day, at a cemetery in Bhopal. A Catholic bishop has sought protection for the Christian community in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh after Hindu nationalists marched through the streets waving burning torches and denouncing missionaries. (photo: CNS/Sanjeev Gupta, EPA)
A Catholic bishop has sought protection for the Christian community in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh after Hindu nationalists marched through the streets waving burning torches and denouncing missionaries.
The marchers on 10 November accused Sagar district authorities of not acting upon complaints they filed against missionaries for violating a law that restricts religious conversions. They said if the administration failed to act within two weeks, they would start an indefinite strike in front of a Catholic-run orphanage in the area.
Ucanews.com reported the trouble in Sagar started in September after government officials evicted a Catholic priest working in the orphanage and closed a 20-year-old mission following a dispute over the land title. Church leaders say the government action was instigated by Hindu groups.
The leaders of the fundamentalist religious awakening co-ordination committee, which organized the march, told media that the church's social services and work in education and health care are all a facade to convert gullible people to Christianity.
The protesters said they were working with the government for a national law against religious conversions and to check missionary activities. Madhya Pradesh and five other Indian states already have laws that make religious conversion through allurement and force illegal.
“We are under tremendous pressure,” said Bishop Anthony Chirayath of Sagar, who submitted a memorandum to district officials and the state chief minister and governor seeking their intervention for the protection of Christians.
Ucanews.com reported the bishop wanted the administration to take immediate steps to end this “false and malicious campaign” in the media that projects Christians as “out to convert Hindus, violating laws.”
The facts disproved the propaganda, he said. Sagar has some 300,000 people. But since its beginning in 1986, the diocese has only 1,000 Catholics.
“Our number has not grown in years. Still, we are accused of converting people,” he said.
The district has only 5,000 Christians among its 2.3 million people, 92 percent of whom are Hindus. In the predominantly Hindu state, Christians form less than 1 percent of the 72 million population.
Christian leaders say the state, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, has been tacitly supporting violence against Christians orchestrated by Hindu nationalists, pushing to establish a Hindu-only nation in India.
Missionaries in the diocese say the campaign by hardline Hindu activists has made their work increasingly difficult as villagers view them as criminals.
16 November 2017
Syrians prepare merchandise for sale during a celebration in Aleppo’s historic souk as it reopens on 16 November 2017. Next week, Russia, Turkey and Iran will hold talks in Ankara about the future of Syria. (photo: George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia, Turkey and Iran to hold talks on Syria (Bloomberg) Russia, Turkey and Iran will hold summit talks on Syria next week as Ankara threatens a possible attack on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces and tensions rise between Moscow and Washington over the future of the war-torn state...
Lebanon’s Hariri accepts invitation to visit France (CNN) Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has accepted an invitation to leave Saudi Arabia and go to France, an Elysee Palace spokewoman told CNN on Thursday. It comes a day after Lebanon’s President accused Riyadh of holding Hariri “captive”...
Saudi media on cardinal’s visit: fraternity and peace (AsiaNews) The historic visit of Maronite Patriarch Bechara Raï to Riyadh, the first for a Christian leader to the ultraconservative Wahhabi kingdom, has had a great deal of echo in local media, accompanied by lots of photos. The main newspapers emphasize the “fraternal” relationship that binds the two countries, as well as “the importance of religions and cultures” against extremism. However, the clamor and celebrations are overshadowed by the controversial story regarding the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, considered to be under “Saudi seizure”...
ISIS audio clips calls for ‘lone wolf’ attacks in Kerala (The Times of India) In a shocking audio sent presumably from Afghanistan, the Islamic State has exhorted its supporters in Kerala to mount an “lone wolf” attack in state to finish off the “idolators and disbelievers.” Abdul Rashid Abdulla, the youth from Thrikkarippur in Kasargod district who is believed to be in the IS stronghold in Nargarhar, sent the audio clip through the Telegram app two days ago...
Ukraine votes for new holiday on 25 December (Digital Journal) Ukrainian lawmakers on Thursday voted for a new public holiday on 25 December in a move which they said would allow the country to distance itself from Russia, which celebrates Orthodox Christmas in January. Ukraine is majority Orthodox and 7 January will remain a public holiday in the country even though the Western Christmas day is now officially recognized...
15 November 2017
Pope Francis blesses a Lamborghini presented by representatives of the Italian automaker at the Vatican on 15 November. The car will be a auctioned and the proceeds given to support charities, with a portion helping displaced Iraqi Christians. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)
While a Lamborghini would make a stylish popemobile, Pope Francis has decided to auction off the one he was given by the Italian automaker to aid several charities close to his heart.
The pope was presented with a one-of-a-kind white and gold Lamborghini Huracan by the luxury car manufacturer 15 November, just before making his way to his weekly general audience in the standard popemobile.
The pope signed and blessed the automobile, which will be auctioned off by Sotheby’s. The proceeds, the Vatican said, will be given to the pope, who already has chosen to fund three projects: the resettlement of Christians in Iraq’s Ninevah Plain; support for women rescued from human trafficking and forced prostitution; and assistance to the suffering in Africa.
15 November 2017
Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch Cardinal Beshara Raï meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia on 14 November 2017. (photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
Lebanon’s cardinal meets Saudi prince, former Lebanese premier (AsiaNews) Regional politics and terrorism, interreligious dialogue and Lebanese issues were at the center of Maronite Patriarch Bechara Raï’s recent trip to Riyadh, the first historic visit of a Christian leader to the Saudi kingdom. Over two days Cardinal Raï met King Salman, hereditary prince Mohammed bin Salman (Mbs) and former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri, who assured that “within the next two days” he will return to Lebanon...
Vatican confirms construction of Syriac church in Istanbul (Daily Sabah) Pope Francis confirmed construction of a Syriac church in place of the former Latin Catholic Cemetery in Turkey’s Istanbul, Vatican Ambassador Paul Russell said while visiting Istanbul’s Bakirköy Municipality Mayor Bülent Kerimoglu...
Priest: Christians face worse situation in Iraq now (AsiaNews) The situation of Christians “is worse than the arrival of ISIS” because they are “caught up in this clash between Arabs and Kurds, Shiites and Sunni,” which “hinders” the return of refugees to Mosul and the Nineveh plain, and “there is no longer any help.” The Rev. Samir Youssef, pastor of the diocese of Amadiya (Kurdistan), tells AsiaNews that part of the Christian families have “returned to Alqosh and Dohuk” for fear of violence in the Nineveh plain. “They spent two nights in the car, or delayed their departure for the danger of new clashes...”
St. Thomas Missionaries in India mark 50th anniversary (AsiaNews) A conference (13-16 November) on missiology is currently underway in Palai (Kerala) on the ‘Role and Relevance of Missionary Societies and Congregations in Mission ad Gentes and New Evangelisation’. Organised by the Missionary Society of St Thomas the Apostle (MST), the event marks the group’s 50th anniversary and is a venue for participants to reflect on its missionary vocation...
Pope gets special edition Lamborghini to auction for Christians in Iraq (CBS News) Luxury sports car maker Lamborghini has presented Pope Francis with a brand-new, special edition Huracan that will be auctioned off with the proceeds donated to charity...
14 November 2017
Daily life at the Greek Catholic seminary in Hungary includes a little free time for socializing. Learn more about what it takes To Be a Priest in Hungary in the March 2007 edition of ONE.
(photo: Tivadar Domaniczky)
14 November 2017
Workers remove wreckage after yesterday’s airstrikes in northern Syria. At least 57 were killed.
(photo: Abdurrazzak Sekirdy/Andalou Agency/Getty Images)
Airstrikes kill dozens in Syrian market (The New York Times) Dozens of people were killed in airstrikes on a market in northern Syria on Monday, according a monitoring group and a news agency run by activists. The attacks left rescuers and survivors digging late into the evening to search for residents still buried under the rubble...
Lebanon’s patriarch arrives in Saudi Arabia on historic visit (Catholic Herald) Catholic leaders in Lebanon have urged the international community to bring peace to the Middle East, amid the “state of deadlock” the country is in following the resignation of its prime minister. The Catholic Council of the Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon said it was a message that Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch, would carry to Saudi Arabia on his visit this week...
Lebanon’s former prime minister blames Hezbollah for country’s crisis (Arab News) Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon at the behest of Iran is the cause of the country’s political crisis and his own resignation as prime minister, Saad Hariri said in a dramatic and emotional TV interview on Sunday night. “I am not against Hezbollah as a political party but it should not be the cause of the destruction of Lebanon,” Hariri said...
Rescue workers search debris after quake kills over 500 (AP) Rescuers on Tuesday used backhoes and heavy equipment to dig through the debris of buildings toppled by a powerful earthquake on the border between Iran and Iraq that killed over 530 people, with weeping women crying out to God as aid workers found new bodies...
Pope sends condolences to Iran and Iraq (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis sent a pair of telegrams to Iraq and Iran on Monday, expressing his condolences for the damage and loss of life caused by Sunday’s severe earthquake...
Indian Christians hoping for solution to lack of burial ground (Christian Daily) Christians in Borivli East in Mumbai, India, are hoping that the government in the state of Maharashtra will provide them with more burial spaces for their community so that they will no longer be forced to shell out a lot of money to bury their dead in the west...
Pew Research Center: a closer look at Orthodox Christians (Pew) Recently, we sat down with George Demacopolous, a professor of theology at Fordham University, to examine trends and issues in the Orthodox Christian world. Demacopolous is a noted expert on Orthodox Christian history and the author and editor of six books...
13 November 2017
Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, says Catholic relations with the Orthodox in the Holy Land today are “very, very good.” (photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn)
The metaphorical but impenetrable walls that separated Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox in the Holy Land are beginning to crumble.
What is formally called a “status quo,” but for generations had the effect of an excuse for inaction, is now being replaced by collaboration, said Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land. Father Patton, elected and papally approved, is responsible for the region’s most sacred sites.
“The renovation of the (Church of the) Holy Sepulchre has been a great occasion for dialogue among the three communities,” said Father Patton. “Under the status quo, it is impossible to do something if the three communities are not together.”
“All the work was done on time,” said Father Patton. “We have to sign off (on) a new agreement for the second step,” which would put electrical systems underground, upgrade the sewage system and install humidity controls, he added.
Relations with the two Orthodox communities are now “very, very good,” Father Patton told Catholic News Service in a 10 November interview in Washington, where he visited the Franciscan monastery in the city — which also falls under the custos’ responsibilities — and met with patrons.
Members of the three churches “all know we are a minority,” Father Patton said. “We (Christians) are only 2 percent when we are together. When we are not together, each of us are less than 2 percent.” He said the different communities try to support each other on issues that affect just one of them.
Along the same lines, Father Patton said he saw unity and harmony among Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land. While some would prefer to reduce the role of religion in the region, “the meeting of the three Abrahamic communities” is essential, he added. “You can’t solve the problem excluding religion. You can solve it only by including religion.”
The Franciscans want to undertake further restoration initiatives at holy sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth, in the West Bank and elsewhere. He said they want to build housing for Christians who work at the holy sites so they will not have as far to travel to get to their jobs, including facing delays at Israeli checkpoints.
While there has been some success at preserving sacred sites as they were in antiquity, Father Patton does not begrudge residents’ businesses.
“If there are no jobs, there are no people,” he said.
Father Patton added that he expects tourism to be brisk, especially at Christmas.
“Last year was a good year,” he noted. “When there is no violence, there are pilgrims.”
“One-third of Israel’s tourists are coming to see the sacred places,” he added.
13 November 2017
A woman mourns next to a dead body following an earthquake in Sarpol-e Zahab, Iran, on 13 November. The 12 November earthquake killed more than 400 people and injured more than 6,000 in Iran and Iraq. (photo: CNS/Tasnim News Agency via Reuters)
Pope Francis sent messages of condolence to people in Iran and Iraq after a magnitude 7.3 earthquake killed more than 400 people, mostly in Iran.
The pope “assures all affected by this tragedy of his prayerful solidarity,” said the nearly identical messages, released on 13 November.
“In expressing his sorrow to all who mourn the loss of their loved ones, he offers his prayers for the deceased and commends them to the mercy of the almighty,” said the telegrams, signed by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.
As he often does in emergencies, Pope Francis also asked for the “blessings of consolation and strength” for first responders and civil authorities.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 12 November quake was centered 19 miles outside Halabja, Iraq. It was felt as far west as the Mediterranean coast.
The hardest-hit area was Iran’s western Kermanshah province, which sits in the Zagros Mountains that divide Iran and Iraq. The Associated Press reported residents in the rural area rely mainly on farming to make a living.
Caritas MONA, the regional branch of the church’s charitable aid agency in the Middle East and North Africa, sent tweets asking people to join Caritas Iran and Caritas Iraq in prayers for those affected.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with our brothers & sisters in Iraq and Iran following yesterday’s devastating earthquake that hit the border region,” said another tweet.
13 November 2017
A woman in Delhi, India, sits amid the rubble of her home destroyed by local authorities in a bid to relocate the residents in this 2 November photo. Pope Francis will celebrate the Catholic Church’s first World Day of the Poor on 19 November. (photo: CNS/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters)
Amnesty report warns of crime against humanity in Syria (Al Jazeera) Amnesty International says the Syrian government’s ‘surrender or starve’ campaign targeting civilians constitutes a crime against humanity. It is calling for an end to what it calls ‘the dark stain on the world’s conscience’...
Pope to lead celebration of World Day of the Poor (CNS) Pope Francis will celebrate the Catholic Church’s first World Day of the Poor 19 November by celebrating a morning Mass with people in need and those who assist them. After Mass, he will offer lunch to 500 people in the Vatican audience hall...
Refugees in Lebanon face eviction (Al Monitor) Thousands of Syrian refugees residing in several municipalities across Lebanon are under threat by eviction campaigns that have ramped up in recent weeks. Aid workers from several humanitarian organizations say that reports of refugee evictions have increased in a number of predominantly Christian areas...
Hundreds take part in reconciliation marathon in Gaza (Middle East Monitor) Hundreds of men and women took part in a reconciliation marathon organised by the Palestine Athletic Federation (PAF) in Gaza on Friday, MEMO’s correspondent in the enclave has reported. The race involved runners, cyclists and paralympic athletes in a celebration of the reconciliation between the Palestinian political factions, sending what was described as a “message of hope” to the world...
New threats reported against Copts (Fides) Coptic Christians in Egypt do not accept the condition of submission imposed on Christians in Islamic societies; they continue to build churches and even promote television networks to spread the Christian proclamation. This is why they must be attacked as “infidel fighters”, and their churches must be blown up. This is, in short, the message of instigation — to carry out new violence against Egyptian Copts — contained in a dossier widespread in recent days by the Wafa Media Foundation...
Orthodox church not opposed to sex education in Russian schools (RT) The church does not oppose sex education in schools, but urges caution as it can corrupt young minds, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate external relations department has stated...