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July, 2019
Volume 45, Number 2
19 September 2017
Robert Duncan, Catholic News Service

A Russian Orthodox woman prays, gazing at an icon, in an Orthodox parish in St. Petersburg. Orthodox Christianity has been on the rise in Russia since the fall of communism in 1991. Churches, according to one artist, are becoming centers of cultural life. (photo: CNS/Robert Duncan)

One hundred years after Russia’s communist revolution inaugurated an era of church persecution and state-sponsored atheism, an Eastern Orthodox novel recently won the country’s top literary prize, and a statue of the country’s first Christian emperor was erected outside the Kremlin walls.

The book and the statue epitomize a trend in contemporary Russia where artists from a variety of disciplines are hard at work to respond to rising interest in the country’s religious heritage.

“In modern Russia, there is an excellent trend: Our churches are becoming not only the centers of spiritual life, but also of cultural life,” said Alexey Puzakov, a leading conductor in Moscow.

“It is joyful that in modern Russia, one can express himself inside the church, both in a spiritual and a creative manner,” he told Catholic News Service.

The movement Puzakov highlights contrasts sharply with active participation in a parish. According to a recent study from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, only 6 percent of the Orthodox population in Russia attends church weekly.

But, the study reported, 57 percent of Russians believe Orthodox Christianity is an important feature of national identity.

Religious devotion is reflected in a variety of artistic and cultural forms that are not all tied to the institutional church, Puzakov said.

“Human talent can be realized in different ways: through word, through painting and through sound,” the conductor explained. “All these are gifts from God that we cannot find in any hierarchy.”

Puzakov, who directs the Moscow Synodal Choir in performances by composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, said performers and composers need the inspiration of faith in order to achieve excellence.

“The teaching of Jesus Christ is the root of all Christian art,” he said. “Good church singing is impossible without prayer.”

If, in the liturgy, for example, “a singer does not sing the words of the prayers from his heart, the result will be very formal, there will be no real synthesis of the liturgical rite and the prayers,” Puzakov said.

Another artist, Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, won his country’s most prestigious literature award for his 2012 novel “Laurus,” which is set in religious, medieval Russia.

“I wished to describe a way of life that is far from modern people,” Vodolazkin said, but one that is nevertheless attractive to contemporary readers.

Vodolazkin’s book details the religious quest of a “holy fool” in the Russian Orthodox tradition, a kind of ascetic who humiliates himself in the eyes of others to draw closer to God.

“Humans cannot live only through TV, the internet and shopping,” he said. “This all concerns a horizontal level (of living), while humans are looking for a vertical dimension to life.”

Andrey Antonov, a Russian Orthodox artist and sculptor, combines traditional peasant tools, like nails and sickles, as well as household items into cruciform objects and Christian-themed sculptures. (photo: CNS/Robert Duncan)

Orthodox Christianity is also influencing modern art in Russia. Andrey Antonov, for example, combines traditional peasant tools, like nails and sickles, as well as household items into cruciform objects and Christian-themed sculptures.

“The Russian peasant’s way of life developed from the Christian way of life,” Antonov explained. “Everything in this life revolved around the Christian feasts.”

Salavat Scherbakov, another sculptor, was at the center of a political controversy in 2015 in the run-up to the unveiling of his most recent sculpture: a giant depiction of St. Vladimir, Russia's first Christian ruler.

After public debate about where the statue would be situated and whether St. Vladimir was an appropriate figure to represent modern Russia, Scherbakov’s work was placed just outside the walls of the Kremlin.

“We are coming back to our roots,” Scherbakov said. “We still do not understand these roots well enough; it is a kind of new search for identity.”

Because Christianity was persecuted for 70 years under state-sponsored atheism in communist Russia, the sculptor said, it is to be expected that contemporary Russians are rediscovering their heritage.

“A lot of my mother’s ancestors were members of the clergy, and some were rather famous,” he said. “So my interest in Christianity is not something unusual; it is rather natural.”

In the realm of architecture, Sergey Pavlov said he devotes his free time to designing and restoring churches in Russia.

“The majority of projects I’ve seen recently can be called a kind of search for tradition,” said Pavlov, who works as chief architect of the Peterhof State Museum-Reserve.

But true expertise is needed to properly restore churches, he said, and, unfortunately, many architects are simply trying to imitate previous structures without truly understanding their liturgical purpose.

The Soviet period led to the break of handing on traditional church architecture through master-apprentice relationships, Pavlov said. That rupture makes the building of new churches more challenging.

“We are not the direct heirs of pre-revolutionary Russia, but I hope that the process of rethinking is constructive and creative,” he said. “There is demand for such work.”

19 September 2017
Greg Kandra

Sister Anahid, a Dominican sister of St. Catherine of Siena, administers a primary school in Dohuk. Read more about efforts to keep hope alive in Iraq in ‘God Wants Me Here,’ a web exclusive story from our March 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Paul Jeffrey)

19 September 2017
Greg Kandra

Indian Catholics carry a statue of Our Lady of Good Health Vailankanni at the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Germantown, Pennsylvania. (photo:

Assad: Christians in Syria are ‘no guests or migratory birds’ (Fides) Christians in Syria are “no guests or migratory birds.” They “are part of the origin of the nation, and without them there is no pluralistic Syria.” This is what Syrian President Bashar Assad said on 17 September, to a large delegation of participants in a room of the Damascus Hall at the annual youth gathering organized by the Syriac Orthodox Church...

Pope cites St. Francis Cabrini as a model to ministry to immigrants (CNS) Although she died 100 years ago, St. Frances Cabrini is a shining example of “love and intelligence” in ministering to the needs of immigrants and helping them become integral members of their new homelands, Pope Francis said. Responding to “the great migrations underway today” the same way Mother Cabrini did “will enrich all and generate union and dialogue, not separation and hostility,” Pope Francis said in a letter to Sister Barbara Louise Staley, superior of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which the saint founded...

Indian Catholics welcome new Marian shrine in Pennsylvania ( More than 700 faithful from various Indian and American Christian communities filled the pews and choir loft of the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Germantown on Saturday, 9 September for the feast of Our Lady of Good Health Vailankanni...

Two churches reopened, 60 churches still closed in Egypt (Egypt Independent) Minya and Abu Qirqas Archeparchy reopened on Sunday Anba Paula church in Kedwan village and St.Mary church in Ezzbet al-Furn in Minya governorate, after numerous Copts complained of preventing them from praying in the two churches. His Grace Bishop Makarios, General Bishop of Minya and Abu Qirqas, praised President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts to reopen the two churches, asserting that both Muslims and Copts live harmoniously in both villages...

Pope praises Rome’s first interreligious half-marathon (CNS) After thousands of runners completed the first ever “multireligious” half-marathon in Rome, Pope Francis praised the initiative, which was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture...

Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia? (Aleteia) after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, no one knows for sure where the Ark of the Covenant ended up. The Ark disappeared without a trace (and without any known record of its whereabouts), so the place where it might be found — assuming it had been preserved in the first place — remains today one of the great enigmas not only of history but, particularly, of archaeology. But what is certain is that almost 45 million Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are convinced that the Ark of the Covenant was taken about 3,000 years ago to Aksum, in northern Ethiopia, and has since been jealously cared for by these monks in the modest church of Saint Mary of Zion...

18 September 2017
Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service

U.S. Army veteran Rocio Villanueva, 31, from Escondido, California, prays on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem while touring the Holy Land with the Heroes to Heroes program on 11 September. The program brings wounded veterans to the Holy Land to tour with wounded Israeli veterans. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, U.S. Army veteran Rocio Villanueva fell onto the stone of the unction where tradition holds that Jesus was laid out after his crucifixion and touched her head to the smoothed surface.

Injured during a tour of duty in Iraq and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the 31-year-old engineering specialist and mother of four was raised in a Catholic home but had slowly lost touch with her faith. After almost a week in the Holy Land as part of the second group of women veterans participating in the Heroes to Heroes program, Villanueva felt a spiritual renewal.

“Since the third day I got here I felt a healing in my heart. At the Church of the Annunciation (in Nazareth), I felt so good and able to speak to God,” said Villanueva, a member of St. Mary Catholic Church in Escondido, California.

“My family has been able help me physically, but with the part I have inside of me, it has been really hard to open up. I had so much anger in my heart and was so sad, I could cry about anything. Here I felt my heart open up. I went to confession and I felt that God was talking to me through the priest,” she said.

Since its founding six years ago by Judy Isaacson Schaffer, a Teaneck, New Jersey, marketing and sales professional whose father and grandfather served in the military, Heroes to Heroes has taken 14 groups of U.S. veterans — including those who served in Vietnam — to meet with their Israeli counterparts and visit holy sites. It is a peer-support program with the goal of helping achieve spiritual healing and preventing suicide.

Villanueva’s group was in the Holy Land 5-12 September. Participants visited Bethlehem, were baptized in the Jordan River and joined in the Israeli memorial ceremony commemorating the 9/11 attacks in New York and elsewhere.

With 22 U.S. veterans committing suicide every day, Schaffer said she recognized the need to reach out to those veterans suffering the most from PTSD, just as her father had volunteered with veterans from earlier wars. Because less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the armed forces — a small fraction of whom are women — many veterans feel isolated when they return, she said.

The peer-to-peer encounter with Israeli veterans, some of whom have also experienced traumatic injuries, as well as discussions within their own group allow the U.S. veterans to see that it is possible to move forward from their challenging experiences, Schaffer explained.

Participants are asked to stay in contact with members of their group for a year after the visit.

Most of the veteran services available in the U.S. are geared towards male veterans, and perhaps because of this lack of institutional and communal support, more women veterans commit suicide than men, Schaffer said.

In addition to combat trauma, some women have also been victims of military sexual trauma, she said.

“I will never get over (the trauma), but I can get past it,” said U.S. Army veteran Rory Shaffer, 42. A mother of three, Shaffer served twice in Iraq and was severely injured in a blast which killed three of her friends. She also witnessed the suicide of another friend while on combat duty.

“Within my household, I have support but the rest of my family just thinks I should get over it,” Shaffer said. “I have been suffering. I was not expecting that one-third of the group would say this group saved their lives.”

18 September 2017
Greg Kandra

Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was released from captivity on 12 September, greets journalists as he arrives for a news conference in Rome on 16 September. Father Uzhunnalil, who is from Kerala, was abducted during an attack on a charity care home in Yemen in March 2016 and imprisoned for 18 months. (photo: CNS/Junno Arocho Esteves)

Freed Salesian priest describes his capture, liberation (CNS) Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil was sitting in a room in an unknown location — one of several he had been relocated to during his 18-month imprisonment — when he received some unexpected news. “Those who kept me came to where I slept (and said), ‘I bring you good news. We are sending you home. If you need to go to the bathroom, go. Take a shower, but quickly!’” Father Uzhunnalil told reporters 16 September at the Salesian headquarters in Rome...

As East Mosul comes back to life, West Mosul remains in ruins (NPR) Nine months after Iraqi forces drove ISIS from eastern Mosul, the east side’s main street has come back to life. Wedding convoys decorated with ribbons and flowers honk their horns. Female drivers pull up in front of pastry shops and stalls piled high with fresh fruit...

Understanding India’s only Catholic federal minister ( Recent photos of Indian church leaders meeting with top federal officials almost always include Alphons Joseph Kannanthanam, a Catholic who joined India’s ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2011. Many Catholic officials have accused the party of not treating religious minorities fairly. However, when Amit Shah, the BJP president, visited southern Kerala State in June to meet Catholic bishops, it was Kannanthanam who did the organizing...

Orthodox join procession commemorating Russian royalty (RT) The Russian Orthodox Church has commemorated the memory of Grand Duchess Elisabeth Fyodorovna Romanov and tragic events of the 1917 Revolution in a service and procession, with hundreds of worshipers joining the holiday outside Moscow...

15 September 2017
J.D. Conor Mauro

Syrian refugee families receive Eucharist at the Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Zahleh, a large Christian town in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. To learn more about how Syrian refugees live alongside Lebanese citizens, read Hardship and Hospitality, from the June 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Raed Rafei)

Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees

15 September 2017
J.D. Conor Mauro

Embed from Getty Images
Syrian refugee children play on a street in the Palestinian Shatila refugee camp, on the southern outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut. (photo: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite tension, Syrian refugees find sympathy in Lebanese villages (Al Monitor) Six years since the war in Syria began, tensions in Lebanon between Syrian refugees and Lebanese nationals have continued to intensify, especially in Beirut. It is no secret that Lebanese officials have contributed to the scapegoating of refugees for Lebanon’s socioeconomic and political woes. However, the xenophobic rhetoric seems not to have infected many of Lebanon’s communities near the border in the country’s two most impoverished regions. While tensions do exist, there appears to be a level of mutual understanding over their difficult circumstances…

Life for Aleppo residents creeps toward normalcy (Christian Science Monitor) Life is slowly returning to the desolate streets of Aleppo — men hawk goods on a street corner; teenagers sell bananas off a picnic table. Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says thousands of people have returned to their homes in Aleppo — once Syria’s largest city — from camps for the displaced…

ISIS is on the run in Iraq, but some major battles remain (Washington Post) Iraqi security forces have freed most of northern Iraq from the grip of the Islamic State. But U.S. and Iraqi officials warn that thousands of militants remain in the country and are ready to wage a ferocious fight in a desert region bordering Syria. The bulk of the war against the ISIS was finished when Iraqi security forces reclaimed the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar this summer. But the battle looming in western Anbar province is expected to be one of the most complex to date…

Christians divided on Kurdish independence referendum (Fides) With the approach of the referendum announced by the government of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan to sanction its independence from Baghdad, there are contrasting signs from the local Christian communities…

Violence still plagues Christians in Iraq (Al Monitor) Christian leaders say Iraq’s monasteries and churches could soon become mere relics unless something is done to curb the violence against Christians. During a 26 August press conference, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Mar Ignatius Joseph III of Antioch described Christians as “the most targeted and most vulnerable” minority in the region — and not just because of ISIS…

Catholic-Orthodox dialogue resumes, with greater Russian involvement (AsiaNews) At the end of a summer of intense contacts and visits between the representatives of the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow, the renewed dialogue between Russian Orthodox and Catholics seems to be having the desired result: a resurgence of cooperation and understanding between Catholic Church and Orthodox churches…

Tags: Syria Iraq Refugees Iraqi Christians Catholic-Orthodox relations

14 September 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

In this video from 2010, the shofar, or ram's horn, is blown in Jerusalem for Rosh Hashanah.
(video: Torah Channel/YouTube)

Over the next few weeks, our Jewish friends and neighbors will be marking some of the most important days on their calendar. These holidays have deep, complicated Biblical roots — and help us understand our common heritage.

On Saturday 30 September Jews throughout the world welcome in the year 5777. Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew for “the head/beginning of the year,” issues in the “Days of Awe,” the “High Holidays.”

In Exodus 12, God gives Moses the instructions for observing the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In verse 2, God commands Moses, “This month is to be the first of all others for you, the first month of your year....” Yet we know that Passover takes place on the full moon of the month of Nisan, which is in the spring. However, in Leviticus 23 we note that there is an unnamed “great day of rest (shabatōn)” which takes place on the first day of the seventh month, which is Tishri. This day is sacred and is characterized by remembrance (zikrōn), a blast (trû ’ah) — presumably of the shofar — and a sacred assembly (miqrā’ qodeš).

In contemporary Judaism all of these are connected with Rosh Hashanah.

More significantly, Leviticus prescribes a further holiday. “The tenth day of the seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement (yôm hakkippurîm).” Clearly the unnamed holiday in Leviticus 23:24, ten days before the Day of the Atonement, is the Rosh Hashanah celebrated by Jews today. In the post exilic (586 BC) book of the prophet Ezekiel, the prophet speaks of “...the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month” (Ezekiel 40:1), which most scholars hold to be month of Tishri (September-October).

According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah is calculated from the creation of the world. On this day, tradition has it that all creation passes by God who determines its fate for the coming year. It is the day when God reasserts his sovereignty over the world. As with Christians and Muslims, the day starts not at midnight, but sunset. For Jews, it is a day of celebrating with special foods — with an emphasis on sweets.

It is also a day of prayer and visiting the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah one of the most important ceremonies — as one would expect from Leviticus 23:24 — is the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. It is sounded on the two mornings of Rosh Hashanah (unless one is the Sabbath, as it is this year). The shofar is blown 30 times after the readings from the Bible during the morning worship service. It may be blown up to 70 more times during the day. There are three different “notes” to the shofar each with its own significance. The blast of the shofar is reminiscent of the coronation of the king and is also connected with Abraham’s sacrifice on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22).

This helps lead up to the next big holiday after Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. The days between these two are the most sacred for Jews around the world. Rosh Hashanah, as is to be expected, is a joyful celebration — while, as we shall see next week, Yom Kippur is a solemn day of fast and penance. While it is perfectly good to wish Jewish friends, neighbors and colleagues Hashanah tova, “Good/Happy New Year,” it is not appropriate to wish them a happy Yom Kippur.

14 September 2017
CNEWA staff

Sister Aurelia, 86-years-old, shares a comforting moment with Mother Superior, Sister Bonifatia.
(photo: CNEWA)

CNEWA’s president Msgr. John Kozar and CNEWA Canada’s national director Carl Hétu are on a pastoral visit to Ukraine. Among the places they visited: a crumbling house where elderly religious sisters are living. Mr. Hétu sent us this image and wrote:

We visited three elderly sisters living in awful conditions. No running water, small shack, too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Terrible. Here you are with sisters that lived underground [during the Soviet era] and risked their lives to preserve Christ’s teaching and they live like this. The Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate understand this and are trying to renovate an old building. But there is a long way to go and it is very expensive, and most likely not equipped for people with no or little mobility.

To read more about the church in Ukraine, and the challenges Catholics are facing there, check out these stories from our magazine:

The Displaced

Out From Underground

14 September 2017
Greg Kandra

In the video above, a Coptic bishop speaks of the persecution some Christians are facing in Egypt and says: “Forgiving those who attack us makes us stronger.” (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)

Russia fires on ISIS targets in Syria (The Washington Post) Russia’s military says it fired seven cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour. The Defense Ministry said the Kalibr cruise missiles were launched from two submarines in the Mediterranean on Thursday...

Pope Francis moved by meeting with freed Indian priest (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Wednesday met privately in the Vatican with the Indian Catholic priest who was freed from abduction by gunmen in Yemen...

Ethiopian religions reach out to fight AIDS (AP) The leaders of Ethiopia’s three main religions will launch a national campaign to create awareness about HIV and Aids and attempt to dispel the stigma attached to those who are infected with the deadly disease. The week-long campaign, which is being launched by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council and the Ethiopian Evangelical Church, will begin when Muslims attend Friday prayers, the leaders told reporters late on Wednesday...

Refugees a priority as Canadian parliament resumes (Catholic Register) After a surge of asylum seekers over the summer, Canada’s refugee policies will be the top concern for many faith-based groups when Parliament resumes 18 September...

Devoted few nurture rugby in Iraq (The Daily Mail) t was his only job and sole means of funding his studies, but 20-year-old Mohammed Abbas left it for a chance to play on Iraq’s first national rugby side. In a war-torn country where football has long been the dominant sport, Abbas has joined 19 other young Iraqis training for the Arab Rugby Sevens Championship in Jordan next month. The sport is so new to Iraq that there is not yet the money to pay them...

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