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12 March 2012
A parishioner leaves St. Elijah Church in Ain Kawa, a mostly Christian neighborhood outside Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital and largest city. (photo: Safin Hamed)
In the November 2011 issue of ONE, we reported that much of Iraq’s Christian population had found a haven in the Kurdish controlled north. Many had fled hostile cities like Mosul and Baghdad and were ready to start a new life in the Kurdish north. Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that Christians are now abandoning the area — due, in part, to lack of employment opportunities and security concerns:
“The consequence of this flight may be the end of Christianity in Iraq,” the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote in its most recent annual report, summarizing the concerns of church leaders.
In January, the International Organization for Migration found that 850 of 1,350 displaced Christian families it was tracking in northern Iraq had left in the past year. Many cited fears about security as well as the strains of finding work, housing and schools in an unfamiliar place where they had few connections and spoke only Arabic, and not Kurdish.
“No one has done anything for us,” said Salim Yono Auffee, a member of the Chaldean/Assyrian Popular Council, a Christian group in northern Iraq. “These people are trying to figure out how to build their futures, to find homes, to get married. And they are leaving Iraq.”
Even in the relative safety of Kurdistan, some Christians say they still live in apprehension. A kidnapping of a Christian businessman in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, and a recent outbreak of riots and arson attacks against Christian-owned liquor stores in Dohuk Province — the northernmost in Iraq, along the Turkish border — have deeply unsettled Christian migrants to the area.
For more, read the Times’ article Exodus From North Signals Iraqi Christians’ Slow Decline.
7 March 2012
Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians War
Syrian refugees receive humanitarian aid from an Islamic organization in Tripoli, Lebanon, 6 March. (photo: CNS/Omar Ibrahim, Reuters)
As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, a new humanitarian crisis is unfolding. Issam Bishara, our regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, puts it in context:
In February 2012, Syrian government forces carried out a major attack on Homs. This resulted in the deaths of over 700 inhabitants, including women and children, and led to the widespread condemnation by world governments and various non-governmental organizations. On 29 February, the Free Syrian Army withdrew in a strategic retreat from Homs, in order to save the civilians still in the Baba Amr district.
During the past few days, some 2,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon, many of them from Homs, and particularly its opposition stronghold of Baba Amr. The majority of them, being Sunni, found refuge in border villages where they have relatives and mainly in the cluster of Wadi Khaled in Akkar-North Lebanon and in the East Bekaa border, in a no man’s land area called “Al Masharih.”
As for the Christian population: according to both Sister Marie Claude Naddaf, the superior general of the Good Shepherd congregation and Father Eliane Nasrallah, a good friend of CNEWA and the Greek Catholic parish priest of Al Qaa village (a Lebanese village located on the eastern border with Syria), the majority of the Christian families of Homs and the surrounding villages left during the escalations and found refuge in three areas:
- The Valley of Christians (inside Syria). It’s around 60 kms away from Homs on the international road between Homs and Tartous, which is a popular tourist site in western Syria, close to the Lebanese border. Most people in the area are Christians (Greek Orthodox, in particular.)
- The coastal city of Tartous (inside Syria). The Sisters of the Good Shepherd screened around 150 Syrian Christian families who escaped from Homs and found refuge in that area in addition to around 50 families who found shelter in Damascus.
- The Lebanese village of Al Qaa. Father Nasrallah says that at present 40 Christian families found refuge at their relatives’ homes within his parish. After visiting a majority of them, he reported that all of them are needy and living in very difficult conditions.
All displaced Christian families are struggling with severe weather. They are without power and basic necessities. They need emergency assistance such as food, foam mattresses, blankets, heating fuel and medications.
Christians are concerned about the repercussions of the events taking place in the region. They fear that the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon — which took place against the backdrop of a civil war — could play out again in their own lands. These concerns haunt the Syrian Christians, and have only been exacerbated by the death of more than 200 Christians in Homs as a result of the violence in the area, where the only victims have been civilians. It was reported that Christian residents of Hamidiya had been stopped from leaving Homs by anti-government forces, and were forced to evacuate their homes in the mosque to use them as human shields for protection against government troops. Further, the Virgin Mary Church, one of the oldest churches dating back to the early Christian era, was attacked by terrorists on 24-25 February. The surrounding commercial area, mainly owned by Christians, was also attacked. The same pattern that emerged in Iraq is now playing out in Syria: Islamic militants are now kidnapping and killing Christians.
At present, the priority of the local church is to help the displaced Christian families in Lebanon and inside Syria. Displaced Muslims are supported by Muslim NGO’s (mostly religious and Salafi institutions) and are receiving substantial funds from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Christians are finding refuge with Christian communities where none of the Arab aid is available. The church is their only hope.
CNEWA is in the process of raising funds to assist some 260 families inside Syria and in Lebanon in coordination with Caritas Lebanon, which has already started providing some necessary items such as blankets to some families, regardless of religious affiliation. Click here to help!
It is worth mentioning: the Lebanese government has adopted a policy of remaining unbiased to the conflict in Syria. Accordingly, it is allowing demonstrations and free speech for both sides, without discrimination.
6 March 2012
Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees Middle East Christians Relief
The Pontifical Mission-built reservoir in Deir El Ahmar holds up to 13.2 million gallons of water. (photo: Laura Boushnak)
Like the dysfunction in the electricity, internet and public sectors in Lebanon, the country’s patchy water sector is also seen, by many Lebanese, as an apt reflection of its hobbled government. Since the civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, Lebanese have learned how to manage as private citizens and not rely on the government for support and protection. This mentality continues to this day and while it serves them well in surviving and managing during power and water cuts, it is also harmful in that few Lebanese seek to hold the government accountable for these shortcomings.
There is a widespread conviction here that political corruption does more harm to water supply than global warming. For example, there are precious few Lebanese initiatives to unmask and end such systemic problems in governance and thereby improve the provision of basic services, like water, once and for all.
In Lebanon, politics and business run very, very close, and for every advocate for reform to the government’s handling of basic services, there is another government figure with business interests in the given sector that run counter to the interests of the larger public. Private water provision is big business in a country where the government runs short of public water demand by some 30 percent.
Unlike its neighbors of Syria and nearby Jordan, Lebanon is a water-rich country and sees enough rainfall and snowfall (in the mountains) to more than provide for its annual needs. Its problems are a lack of water collection and storage infrastructure, an antiquated network of pipes that leak some 40 to 50 percent of the water, and an almost complete lack of water treatment facilities to clean polluted water.
To improve many of Lebanon’s daily woes, like water shortage, a clean up of governance culture and a stamping out of corruption is required. In the meantime, the NGOs, church groups and foreign governmental funds are providing a stopgap role that certainly helps, but will only become truly sustainable when Lebanon has a political culture that can take such initiatives and scale them up nationally.
For a personal take on Lebanon’s water woes, check out A World Without Water. And for more on what’s being done to help the people affected, read Springs of Hope in Lebanon in the January issue of ONE.
1 March 2012
Tags: Lebanon Water
In this photo taken in 1998, novices of the Bethany community prepare food at their residence near Kottayam, India. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Day 3, 1 March 2012
Early this morning we left Trivandrum for the town of Marthandam in the state of Tamil Nadu. There we joined Vincent Mar Paulose, the Syro-Malankara Catholic bishop, for a delightful breakfast. Mar Paulose had honored us with a visit during a recent trip to the states, so I looked forward to spending some time with him on this pastoral visit. He introduced us to his vicar general, who had served in Philadelphia for a few years, and also four deacons who are anxiously awaiting their day of ordination in the middle of April. By the way, these deacons specifically asked of you, the CNEWA family, for your prayers as they approach this momentous day.
After our breakfast, Mar Paulose gave us a thumbnail sketch of his eparchy, which is relatively young and began with no Catholics. He also shared with us that his priests are very young and he is blessed with more than 50 seminarians, and expressed profound thanks to the CNEWA family for our sustained assistance in support of seminarians, needy children and many other outreaches. He ended our visit by promising to remember all of you in his prayers.
One of the highlights of the day followed when we visited Vimala Orphanage. Here, we were warmly greeted by the house superior, Sister Rose Francis, and the house director, Sister Savio, and a bevy of beautiful young girls. Sisters led us inside where about a 140 girls — all orphans or abandoned and neglected — were assembled to greet us. This contingent of smiling girls represented three different orphanages, all of which are directed by the Daughters of Mary.
The main feature of our visit was to be entertained with songs and dances by these very special children. Their intricate hand and foot motions, their obvious delight in sharing their gifts with us and their genuine happiness overwhelmed me. The simplicity and the sincerity and the faith of these children were an inspiration to all of us.
After the entertainment, I had the privilege to chat with the girls. I shared with them a very simple message: That each one of them is a part of God’s family and that God loves each and every one of them as he loves children everywhere. I further shared with them that they have family in North America, in Canada and the United States, members of the CNEWA family who lovingly support them. Some of them even referred to you as their aunties and uncles to whom they have written. Please know how much they love you and how they promise to remember you in their prayers.
After completing a tour of the facilities, which included a visit to a beautiful museum dedicated to their founders, we departed for Thiruvithancode, where we visited the famous “half church” built by St. Thomas the Apostle. This was a very interesting visit and its history extends to the year A.D. 63, when according to tradition the doubting apostle built this edifice. After many years of change of administration, it is presently being well maintained by the Syriac Malankara Orthodox Church.
Our next stop was to join the Daughters of Mary in Pilankalai, where they run a home for the physically and mentally challenged. We stopped for lunch and a brief tour. The sisters went all out to make us welcome and to remove any hint of hunger on our part.
After driving for nearly two hours, we arrived in Kanyakumari at St. Joseph’s Balika Bhavan to be greeted by the Bethany Sisters, formerly known as the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, and a delegation of the orphaned girls who reside there. These lovely girls also had prepared an entertainment program for us of song and dance. Their poise and their skills in every facet of this entertainment were very enriching. Afterward, we spoke about me, my role at CNEWA, the work of CNEWA and their important role in the future of India. Here again, I stressed with them that each one is special in God’s eyes and I also reminded them of God’s call to do something special for him and his people.
The girls then insisted on leading us by hand to show us their residence. They were very proud to show us their dining room, their kitchen and their laundry facilities — with great pride they spoke of being part of St. Joseph’s Balika Bhavan. As I found out later, some of these girls are the children have Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy. And although their parents are cared for at another Catholic institution, they themselves are not able to live with their parents.
Less than a mile away we paid a visit to Stella Maris Social Center, which is administrated by Sister Anila Christy of the Daughters of Mary. Sister Anila is no stranger to CNEWA or to New York as she served in the Archdiocese of New York and its chancery and canon law offices for a number of years. This humble woman, well educated in canon law, is at her best working with the poor.
Sister Anila and her colleague, Sister Monica, who is the former mother general of the Daughters of Mary, welcomed us and introduced us to two other sisters working at Stella Maris. After our fifth coffee break of the day (!), we were taken on a tour of the rather extensive campus. The sisters’ outreach includes community development, programs to empower women, care for people with Hansen’s disease, housing for abandoned people, vocational training and even a piggery, where the animals are sold for income. Being introduced to a group of women in training to be community leaders, it was obvious that they had great respect appreciation and admiration for Sister Anila. We certainly look forward to see Sister Anila again, and she has promised to visit us at our offices in New York this summer.
Much emphasis today was related to God’s little ones, especially those who are orphans. I share with you again their profound thanks for your sponsorship and support and their promise of prayers for each of you. As I end this day, which has been a very long one, I say a prayer of thanks for having been blessed to be in the presence of these children. May God allow us to be like them.
1 March 2012
Tags: India Sisters Indian Christians Orphans/Orphanages Thomas Christians
Mar Musa, named after St. Moses of Ethiopia, is an ancient Syriac monastery famous for its medieval frescoes. Today, the monastery draws tourists and Christians and Muslims committed to interreligious understanding. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
This morning we received word from our regional director in Beirut, Issam Bishara, that a monastery north of the Syrian capital of Damascus was ransacked by masked gunmen around 6 p.m. on 22 February.
Deir Mar Musa is home to religious men and women under the protection of Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III. The following is a press release from the monastery describing the events that transpired:
Events of Wednesday, 22 February 2012, at Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi
Wednesday evening at 6 p.m., the following happened:
Around 30 armed men — all, except their commander, had their face covered — stormed the monastery’s sheepfold, where some employees were dwelling. They turned the premises upside down, looking for weapons and money, and asking for the father in charge. One of the shepherds was forced to lead some of the armed persons to another part of the monastery. Four of the sisters, who were about to go to the prayer, were confined to a room under surveillance. Right after, some of the aggressors entered the church. The monastic community, gathered for meditation, reminded them that this was a place of prayer, and as such should be respected. The armed men forced the people present to assemble in a side aisle of the church. Then, they forcibly intercepted other persons at the monastery. They went on searching for weapons and money, but to no effect, destroying all means of communication they could find, but without causing any major damage.
During the aggression, the individual responsible for the group was taking photos with his mobile phone. After having permitted that the prayer goes on, he ordered the people present to remain in the church for an hour.
The superior of the monastery was in Damascus, and could not return before daybreak on Thursday.
It is noteworthy that those with authority among the armed persons declared straight away that they did not have the intention to harm the people present at the monastery, and in fact, they kept their word during the aggression.
Naturally, the question arises as to the identity of the armed group. At the moment, it seems impossible to give a definite answer. For sure, those men were familiar with weapons, seeking material interests. The reason why they were looking for weapons at a monastery that has been well known for years for its choice and promotion of nonviolence remains obscure.
We thank God for the protection of his angels, and we prayed during Mass for our aggressors and their families. In spite of these painful events, we did not lose our inner peace nor the desire to serve reconciliation.
Deir Mar Musa
29 February 2012
Tags: Syria Damascus Syriac Catholic Church Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan
The Syro-Malabar Church in Palayur, Kerala, features the largest statue of St. Thomas in the world, and depicts the boat landing where he arrived in India. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Msgr. John Kozar, president of CNEWA, is beginning a pastoral visit to India “in the footsteps of St. Thomas.” He’ll be filing reports for this blog, along with pictures and video, over the next several days — introducing us to the many sisters, religious and lay people doing some remarkable work in that corner of the world.
It’s a corner regular readers of our magazine know well. Two years ago, writer Sean Sprague took a similar journey and described it in the pages of ONE:
“St. Thomas definitely landed on this very spot,” says Philomena Pappachan, caretaker of a chapel that marks where the doubting apostle arrived in southern India in the year A.D. 52. Located a few feet from the cemented banks of the Periyar River, the chapel is dwarfed by a grove of palm trees and a 30-foot cutout of the saint, who is depicted with a staff and an open book on which “my Lord and my God” is printed in English.
No archaeological evidence exists to substantiate or refute her claim. Yet for nearly two millennia, countless numbers of Christians and Hindus have believed “the holy man” journeyed through Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and finally India, where Thomas died a martyr’s death in the year 72.
Based on oral tradition, the fathers of the church — notably Clement of Alexandria, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome and Gregory of Tours — all write of his travels, deeds and faith.
In works such as the “Ramban Song,” an ancient lyrical poem, Indians remember Thomas’ miracles and the places where he preached, baptized and founded seven churches. Today, these shrines are major pilgrimage sites for Thomas’ spiritual heirs.
Read more in In the Footsteps of St. Thomas from the March 2010 issue of ONE.
And be sure to check One-to-One in the days ahead for updates from Msgr. Kozar.
28 February 2012
Tags: India Indian Christians Msgr. John E. Kozar Thomas Christians
In Syria, a group of men in the Christian village of Al Meshtayeh socialize over a board game. (photo: Sean Sprague)
As the conflict in Syria intensifies, Pope Benedict XVI has called on all involved to begin a process of dialogue, recently describing the situation there as “increasingly worrisome.”
Last week, a Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, the Holy See’s delegate to the Arab League, attended an international summit in Tunisia seeking to resolve the crisis.
Last year, writer Sean Sprague reported on Syria’s Christian Valley in the pages of ONE magazine:
Syria is a cradle of Christianity. The word Christian was first coined in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch — which has been a part of Turkey since the borders were redrawn in 1939. The apostles Peter and Paul settled there, nurturing a church that eventually emerged as the center of Christian thought in the eastern Mediterranean. Antiochene theologians, from both the Greek– and Syriac–speaking communities, played leading roles in the Christological controversies that eventually divided the early church, differences that are now understood as cultural and linguistic.
Even as masses of Arab Muslim troops invaded and conquered the Middle East in the seventh century, eventually receiving the majority of its population into Islam, Syrian Christians persevered, living peaceably with their Muslim neighbors.
Today, Christians make up about a tenth of Syria’s 22 million people. Half of these two million souls belong to the Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Antioch, the preeminent Christian institution in the country. As many as 500,000 people belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church, and another 125,000 belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Catholics number around 400,000 people and belong primarily to the Armenian and Melkite Greek Catholic churches.
The vast majority of the population of Wadi al Nasarah are Christian, 98 percent of whom belong to the Orthodox Church. The rest attend Melkite or Roman Catholic churches.
For this and more, read the January 2011 issue of ONE.
17 February 2012
Tags: Syria Middle East Christians Middle East Syriac Orthodox Church Antiochene church
Sister Bellegia Shayaf, the mother superior of St. Thecla’s Convent in Maaloula, holds an orphaned girl. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
Over the years, we have featured many stories on Christian life in Syria in the pages of ONE. With the ongoing violence and bloodshed in Aleppo, Homs and elsewhere, this beautiful image of a nun holding one of her orphaned charges from the ancient village of Maaloula serves as an important reminder of what is at stake for Syria’s Christians. Taken in 2007, this unpublished photo is from the story Echoes of Jesus From Syria’s Mountains in the May 2008 edition.
13 February 2012
Tags: Syria Middle East Christians Middle East Village life
Late in the day, dusty hills surrounding Jericho prepare for sunset. (photo: Gabriel Delmonaco)
CNEWA’s Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., and Gabriel Delmonaco are accompanying a group of friends and benefactors on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Saturday, 11 February
As if modern Magi, we are looking for the birthplace of Jesus, but unlike them we are not following complicated astronomical trajectories. Our comet and guiding star is a Palestinian named Tony and instead of slow camels we are using a much faster and reliable Hyundai minivan. Unlike the Magi of the East, we came from the United States with one thing in common: we, in different ways, work for a papal agency that strives to support Christians in the Middle East and other troubled countries in the world. We don’t carry precious gifts ... only our desire to learn more about the situation of Christ’s followers and the way CNEWA is making a difference in their lives.
The Holy Land of the Magi has changed a lot. Villages on the shores of the Sea of Galilee are now inland; the waters are receding at a remarkable rate. Others are only remembered on dusty plaques; their ruins have been swallowed by earthquakes or ravaged by wars. The Magi didn’t have to go through Israeli checkpoints to adore the Christ child. Today, they wouldn’t even have been able to cross the River Jordan since the country traditionally associated with the Magi, Iran, isn’t exactly on good terms with Israel.
Despite all these differences with our predecessors, Father Guido, Steve, Joe, Al, Mary and I are motivated by the same desire of learning more about the man who changed our lives so much.
In Nazareth, at the site of the Annunciation, we reflected on the feelings of Mary when she was announced the great news. In Capernaum, a flourishing town in the time of our Lord, we walked through the sites where he performed his ministry and called some of his disciples. Although this village is now a quiet archaeological site, we could easily imagine what life must have been like. As we walked from the house of Peter to the Synagogue Jesus attended on the Sabbath, we brought the life of the town back again.
As Father Guido read the pages of the Gospel, we heard Jesus say, “Which is easier to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven, ’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
On the Mount of the Beatitudes, we could still hear the awe of the people listening to his message and witnessing the multiplications of loaves and fish. Steve Marcus, a Maronite deacon of the Eparchy of Brooklyn and a loyal benefactor to CNEWA, said that he’ll never hear the Gospel the same way after this trip. As we travel and listen to the Gospel, he avidly takes notes for future homilies.
Mary and her father Al from Boston cannot believe how beautiful these biblical places are and how torn by political issues they have become today. Joe, a retired lawyer, reflects silently, overwhelmed by this experience.
Sunday, 12 February
On the second day, on board our air-conditioned and comfortable four-wheel camel, we circumnavigated the Sea of Galilee. From Tabgha, we drove north and then east and south, through the occupied Golan Heights, once a part of Syria. Observing the level of infrastructure that has been built since the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, it seems unlikely these lands will one day be returned. The hilly Golan Heights strategically overlook Galilee and the land beyond.
As we approached Jericho, Father Guido noticed how unusually green and lush the soil was. Our comet, Tony, explained that there has been an unusual, steady rain in the past few days.
Before reaching Jericho, we stopped at the rocky and deserted area of Qumran. What appeared before our eyes, although blinded by the strong midday light, was a monumental excavation site that brought to life the place where the Essenes, a monastic religious Jew community, once thrived. The area is important, for it is here that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin in 1947.
After a quick look at the Dead Sea, where we saw swimmers floating on the salty waters, we entered the lowest and oldest city of the world: Jericho. Described in the Bible as the city of palm trees, today it is inhabited by 20,000 people. When I last visited in 2009, I had to go through two check points: first an Israeli followed by a Palestinian. Today, only the Palestinian one is active and the soldiers greeted us cheerfully. Jericho is an important biblical site. The Old Testament describes Joshua’s army of Israelites marching around the city, blowing their trumpets and destroying its walls. The New Testament documents the conversation between Jesus and the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, on a sycamore tree.
Before the sun disappeared completely behind the mountains beyond Jericho, we decided to walk through an impervious canyon carved out of a rocky deserted mountain to reach the monastery of St. George of Koziba. Located in Wadi Qelt, in the eastern West Bank, minutes from Jericho, this Orthodox monastery is built into a cliff and it took us about 2,000 steps to reach it at the bottom of the canyon. After praying in a crypt and meeting some of the monks, we decided to head back. What on the way down had been a pleasant walk now seemed a harsh and steep climb. Two in our group didn’t feel they could handle the hard walk. They closed a deal with Bedouins and returned on the back of a donkey. Unfortunately, we have a gentleman’s agreement and I cannot disclose their names ... But I guess I can tell you one is a deacon and the other a lawyer.
After a typical Middle Eastern dinner, we returned to our modern camel and headed toward Bethlehem.
9 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Holy Land Pilgrimage/pilgrims
Residents inspect the damage inside St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church after a bomb attack in central Kirkuk, Iraq, 15 August. A parked car bomb and a motorcycle bomb killed one person and wounded 12 others in central Kirkuk, hospital and police sources said.
(photo: CNS / Ako Rasheed, Reuters)
This week’s cover story in the U.S. magazine Newsweek features a provocative, bloodstained image of Christ with the even more provocative tag line that reads, “The War on Christians.” Authored by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch activist, the article is laden with anecdotes about anti-Christian violence in the Muslim world.
“A wholly different kind of war is underway,” she writes, “an unrecognized battle costing thousands of lives. Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion. It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm.”
The author believes this war has been unreported or worse, ignored, by the mainstream media for fear of encouraging fear of Islam, or Islamophobia.
“But a fair-minded assessment of recent events and trends leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the bloody Christophobia currently coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other,” she writes. “The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance has to stop. Nothing less than the fate of Christianity — and ultimately of all religious minorities — in the Islamic world is at stake.”
Wow. Surprising words for a self-proclaimed atheist with strong opinions about all religions, not just the Islamic faith of her ancestors.
No doubt, violence directed against Christians in the Muslim world has increased, particularly since the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the pages of our bimonthly magazine, ONE, and on the news feed on our web site, CNEWA has covered the violence directed against Christians in the Middle East. Catholic media have also diligently reported on these events, as have the mainstream media, including The New York Times.
Last September, the conservative blog Catholic Culture reported on Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria, quoting Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama of Jos.
“At least 14 people have died in tribal clashes in central Nigeria in the early days of September . Although the violence has pitted Christians against Muslims, a Catholic bishop insists that religion is not the fundamental cause of the conflict,” the report begins.
“The violence began when Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan were attacked. Their assailants were described as Christians, but local church leaders did not recognize them. ‘I do not know who these people are and what denomination they belong to, ’ the archbishop said.
“In response to that attack, Muslims raided several Christian villages on Sunday and Monday. The bloodshed occurred around Jos, in the center of the country, where the mostly Muslim north meets the Christian south.
“Archbishop Kaigama said that the violence reflected a breakdown in overall security. ‘It is very convenient for those in authority to say that the whole crisis is about religion,’ he observed.
“ ‘Christians and Muslims are fighting. Yes, I don’t deny that,’ the archbishop continued. ‘But then, the factors that are fueling that crisis are not certainly only religions.’ He pointed to old tribal animosities, complaints about theft of cattle, and the influence of outside agitators.”
The archbishop is not denying Christian-Muslim violence. But unlike Ms. Hirsi Ali, he sees other forces at work, and believes there are factors unrelated to faith identity also fueling these hostilities. The same is true throughout the Arab world. These factors are socio-economic, political, tribal. And they are playing out in a culture beset by enormous change that even dictators cannot suppress.
“Islam is experiencing an identity crisis,” a colleague said during a recent editorial team meeting. And when a faith community experiences a crisis of identity, extremists act on their fears.
Is there a global Islamic conspiracy to create “pure” Muslim societies? If there is, which form of Islam? Sunni or Shiite? Sufi or Ibadhi? What about Alawi and Druze? As ONE magazine reported back in 2007, “the very nature of the Islamic faith, with its lack of a governing religious authority and reliance on group consensus for legitimization of Islamic identity, ensures that the continuing proliferation of splinter groups, large and small, is inevitable and will result in variations in doctrine and practice until the ‘last days.’ ”
To be sure, the author of the Newsweek piece admits no conspiracy exists: “No, the violence isn’t centrally planned or coordinated by some international Islamist agency. In that sense the global war on Christians isn’t a traditional war at all. It is, rather, a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities.” But pulling atrocities out of context, and ignoring that context, is irresponsible — as are misleading banners and headlines.
“News reporting” such as this does not contribute to the dialogue that is necessary if Christians and Muslims are going to continue to live together.
Tags: Middle East Christians Middle East Violence against Christians Holy Land Christian-Muslim relations