9 February 2012
In this unpublished photo, taken in 2003, two young boys play in front of a church in a Christian Village near Homs, Syria. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
As the situation in Homs, Syria, continues to grow more bloody and violent by the day, Independent Catholic News reports that many Christians have fled the city in large numbers, including three bishops:
This is not because they have received threats — most churches and places of worship have escaped attack — but because the situation generally is “becoming more dangerous by the hour.”
Three bishops — one Catholic and two Orthodox from the Dioceses of Homs and Hama, have left. Syria’s third largest city is now mainly inhabited mainly by Alawites (President Bashar al Assad’s tribe) and Sunnis.
Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the United States closed its embassy in Syria as a result of the escalating violence.
To learn more about the history of Christian villages in Syria, read Syria’s Christian Valley from the January 2011 issue of ONE.
3 February 2012
Tags: Syria War Emigration
People cheer as a Christian Egyptian raises a cross and declares solidarity with the anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo 9 Feb 2011.
(photo: CNS/Yannis Behrakis, Reuters)
An observant colleague mentioned to me the other day that al-Jazeera, the widely popular Arab news service, was using the expression “Arab Awakening” instead of “Arab Spring.” He wondered if there might be some significance to the difference. It is not easy finding out what the Arabic expression was that al-Jazeera is using and if it represents a conscious change. It does seem, however, that there is an increasing preference for “Arab Awakening” in the media of the Middle East. There are several reasons for this.
“Arab Spring” is an expression that was coined in the West and echoes movements like the “Prague Spring” (1968). For one thing, I am not sure spring holds the same connotation in Arabic as it does in European languages, especially those with traditions of Romantic poetry. In addition, the upheavals in Arab countries havecarried on for a year now and there was even some talk of an “Arab Winter.”
If the word that is being used in the Arabic media for “awakening,” is nahḍa, however, it is extremely interesting. By using the word nahḍa, several things would be accomplished. First, it would represent an attempt by the Arabic-speaking world to give its own name to the phenomenon. Second, and much more importantly, it would represent an attempt to link the events of the past year with an early modernist movement in the Middle East.
The nahḍa, or Awakening, was a political, cultural, linguistic and literary movement that began in Egypt at the end of the 19th century and spread to most of the Arabic-speaking world. Arab intellectuals — Muslim and Christian — began to look at their own societies. By studying — and criticizing — contemporary European achievements, Arabs were able to adapt them to a new situation. The 19th century was a time of change in the Arab world. The Ottoman Empire that had dominated the Arabic-speaking world for centuries was beginning to show serious signs of decay. After World War I, colonialism would also begin to lose its grip on the region. The nahḍa recovered the Arab past and attempted to bring it into the present. New literary forms were developed. The first novel in modern Arabic was published in Syria in 1865. Writers and poets known in the West such as Khalil Gibran and the Nobel Laureate Taha Hussein were products of the Awakening. Politically, the nahḍa engendered a great interest in constitutionalism, democracy, human rights, etc. among intellectuals.
There were several forces that brought the nahḍa to an end. With typical Arabic love for word play, some Arabs see the nakba, or “the Disaster,” which refers specifically to the founding of the State of Israel, as the end of the nahḍa. The reality is probably much more complex. Certainly, the rise of authoritarian governments and dictators in the Arab world with their censorship, secret police and attacks on freedom did equally as much to bring the nahḍa to a close. If the use of the expression “Arab Awakening” is an attempt to see contemporary events in the Middle East as a continuation or revival of the nahḍa — which is still is not clear to me — it would not only be very significant, it would be something that should be welcomed.
25 January 2012
A man stands amid debris inside Holy Family Syriac Catholic Church in central Kirkuk, Iraq, north of Baghdad, 2 August 2011. A car bomb and two unexploded bombs targeted three churches in northern Iraq in coordinated attacks that wounded more than 20 people in the ethnically and religiously mixed city. (photo: CNS /Ako Rasheed, Reuters)
A couple weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI turned his attention to the subject of religious freedom. In his annual “State of the World” address, he told a group of diplomats: “In many countries, Christians are deprived of fundamental rights and sidelined from public life. In other countries, they endure violent attacks against their churches and their homes.”
This prompted John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter to take a closer look at the subject of “anti-Christian persecution.” Specifically, he took on five “myths,” including one that is especially widespread: “It’s all about Islam.”
As Allen writes:
Simply identifying anti-Christian persecution with Islam is misleading. There are compelling examples of collaboration between Christians and Muslims in many parts of the world, which is the basis for Pope Benedict XVI’s vision of an “Alliance of Civilizations.” (One of the major political parties in the Philippines, for instance, is the “Christian Muslim Democrats.”) It also should not be forgotten that the most numerous victims of Muslim extremism are, in fact, other Muslims.
Moreover, radical Islam is hardly the only source of anti-Christian animus. Christians suffer from a slew of other forces, including:
- Ultra-nationalism (as in Turkey, where extreme nationalists tend to be a greater threat than Islamists)
- Totalitarian states, especially of the Communist variety (China, North Korea)
- Hindu radicalism (Anti-Christian aggression has become routine in some regions of India. This week, Hindu radicals armed with sticks and iron bars attacked 20 Pentecostal Christians in a private home near Bangalore, an assault that left the pastor missing a finger on his left hand. When Christians reported similar assaults two weeks ago, a member of the state’s official Commission for Minorities, which is under the control of a nationalist Hindu party, shrugged it off: “If you really knew the teachings of Jesus, Christians should not be complaining,” he reportedly said.)
- Buddhist radicalism (as in Sri Lanka, where, contrary to stereotypes of Buddhist tolerance, mobs led by Buddhist monks attacked Christian churches and other targets across the country in 2009)
- Corporate interests (as in Brazil’s Amazon region, where Christian activists have been killed for protesting injustices by agri-business conglomerates)
- Organized crime, narco-traffickers, and petty thugs (For instance, the 1993 murder of Mexican Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, shot 14 times at the Guadalajara airport by gunmen linked to a drug cartel, or the assassination in the same year of Italian Fr. Giuseppe Puglisi, a bitter critic of the Sicilian mafia.)
- State-imposed security policies (as in Israel, where checkpoints, visa requirements and other restrictions divide Christian families between East Jerusalem and the West Bank and make it virtually impossible for Christians in one location to worship in the other)
- Even, believe it or not, Christian radicalism
If that last entry seems counter-intuitive, consider what happened this past September in the village of San Rafael Tlanalapan, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Seventy local Protestants were forced to flee after a band of traditionalist Catholics issued a chilling ultimatum: Leave immediately or be “crucified or lynched.”
The point is that extremism and intolerance of whatever stripe, not Islam, is the threat.
There are four other “myths” Allen explores — and you might be surprised at what he concludes. Check it out.
10 January 2012
Tags: Middle East Pope Benedict XVI Catholic Interreligious Islam
A Syriac Catholic family discusses the difficulties of securing adequate housing in Jerusalem.(photo: Carl Hétu/CNEWA)
Editor’s note: CNEWA Canada’s national director, Carl Hétu, is in the Holy Land participating in an annual fact-finding trip taken by Catholic bishops from Europe and North America to avail them of the current situation affecting the Christian community in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel. He began his trip in Jerusalem, meeting with the Syriac Catholic community.
On Sunday, we visited one of the smallest of the Eastern churches in the Holy Land, the Syriac Catholic Church. The Syriac Catholic patriarchal vicar, Bishop Boutros Melki, serves some 30 families. The bishop spent more than 25 years serving a parish community in Montreal, Canada, and was named patriarchal vicar in 2004. Despite the lack of resources, he has renovated the patriarchate and made it into a residence for pilgrims. During the celebration of the Eucharist, Bishop Melki mentioned that Christians in the Holy Land only seek to be treated as equal — nothing less, nothing more.
Afterward, I had the occasion to meet with some families. A retired father passed on to his three sons a print shop in the city. Business is good, but for the families their primary concern is adequate housing. One of the sons told me he now has four children, but their tiny apartment is too small to rear the family. Finding housing in Jerusalem, he said, is next to impossible.
The next day, our group met with four leaders in the Christian community to discuss the issue in depth. One of the four was CNEWA’s own Sami El-Yousef, our regional director for Palestine and Israel. The four panelists confirmed that finding adequate housing plagues the community. The fact that it is expensive is one reason, but the issue is also political. The Jerusalem municipality isn’t that eager to have too many new apartments or houses being built for Palestinians, be they Christian or Muslim. It can take up to three years — usually more — to receive the appropriate construction permits on land that already belong to Christians. For Israeli citizens, it is a matter of months, they stated.
Without proper housing, these experts said that many Christians simply leave the region for areas where they can earn a living and bring up their families more comfortably. There is, however, some hope. Many churches in the city, including the Latin Patriarchate, the Lutheran diocese and the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, are all working hard to change the situation. They are purchasing land, applying for construction permits and building units that are offered to Christian families at affordable rates. Of the 11,400 Christians living in Jerusalem, said the Latin Patriarchal vicar, Bishop William Shomali, 400 families — about 1,600 people — are in an emergency situation regarding housing.
Paradoxically, the largest landowner in the region is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. But most of the funds enabling the local churches to combat this housing shortage are from Europeans or North Americans through organizations such as CNEWA.
Syriac Catholic patriarchal vicar, Bishop Melki, celebrates the Divine Liturgy.
(photo: Carl Hétu/CNEWA)
30 December 2011
A woman prays in a church in Deir Azra, a Christian village in Upper Egypt. This is an unpublished photo from the September 2011 story Spotlight: Coptic Women. (photo: Holly Pickett)
2011 was a year of change throughout the world. Many countries in the Middle East underwent political upheavals — the repercussions of which will surely unfold for years to come. The people and churches we serve in the region — from Iraq to Egypt to Syria — were undoubtedly affected. Through it all, and with your generosity, CNEWA has assisted Christians throughout the Middle East.
This year has been one of change for our agency, too. In September, we welcomed a new president, Msgr. John E. Kozar.
With your continued support, CNEWA will remain a lifeline to those in need in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe in 2012! May your New Year be a blessed and prosperous one!
23 December 2011
Tags: Egypt Africa Coptic Christians Coptic Church
Family members look down on the streets of Hamdaniya from their balcony.
(photo: Safin Hamed)
It is said that “history is written by the victors.” What is surprising is how much “editing” the victors often have to do. People who are interested in Eastern Christianity in general and the plight of Iraqi Christians in particular are familiar with the town of Qaraqosh on the Plains of Nineveh in northern Iraq. Qaraqosh is a town of less than 50,000 which has been Christian for a good fifteen hundred years. It is also known as Baghdeda, a name which goes back into truly ancient history. Some scholars believe that Baghdeda existed during the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Indeed Baghdeda may have been the scene of one of the last battles before Neo-Assyrian Empire fell to the Chaldeans from Babylon in 610 BC.
Since the beginning of the most recent Gulf War (2003-2011), Christians from all over Iraq have fled north to Qaraqosh or left Iraq entirely. I heard one person recently question if “all the Christians in Iraq live in Qaraqosh.” Problems arise, however, when the curious wish to find Qaraqosh or Baghdeda. Neither can be found on most modern maps.
The mystery is easily solved, however. One of the common characteristics of authoritarian regimes is to seek legitimacy by rewriting history. These regimes tend to seek legitimacy by connecting themselves with a real or imagined “glorious past.” Saddam Hussein, for example, portrayed himself in one parade as the new Sargon of Akkad, the great Mesopotamian conqueror three thousand years before Christ! When history does not fit the prevailing ideology of a regime, that history is simply rewritten.
Baghdeda or Qaraqosh was an extremely ancient town with roots stretching back 4,000 years. The inhabitants consider themselves Assyrians, the descendants of the great Neo-Assyrian Empire. Whether that is literally true or not, they do not consider themselves ethnically the same as the dominant Arab culture. People in the area speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, which was once the main language of the region. In addition, the town’s population has been overwhelmingly Christian since before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century. Qaraqosh and its inhabitants did not fit the Ba’athist (the political party of Saddam Hussein) portrait of Iraq—a homogeneous, Arab, Muslim country. In an attempt to “Arabize” Iraq in the 1970’s the Ba’athist government changed the name of Baghdeda/Qaraqosh to Hamdaniya. The name refers to the Banu Hamdan, an Arab, Shi’ite Muslim tribe that was politically dominant in the present day northern Iraq and Syria in the 10th century.
While Baghdeda/Qaraqosh may no longer be easily found on contemporary maps, it nonetheless remains there as an increasingly important stronghold of indigenous and ancient Christianity in Iraq, where the Christian presence has been drastically reduced since the American invasion in 2003.
To read more about Christians in Iraq today, see A New Genesis for Nineveh in the November 2011 issue of ONE.
20 December 2011
Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians
Msgr. Kozar visits Archbishop Mar Swerios Murad, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem.
After an early morning Mass with Father Guido in a small chapel at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, we walked through the New Gate of the walled Old City and visited with Archbishop Swerios Malki Murad of the Syriac Orthodox Church. After he warmly received us, I extended to him my congratulations on his recent celebration of his 25th anniversary as a priest. He laughed when I said, “I heard you had quite a party,” and shared with me that Sami El-Yousef, our regional director in Jerusalem, had attended this event, too.
He was a most engaging host and we enjoyed our exchanges. He also expressed his thanks to CNEWA for the seed monies we had provided for various projects of his community. I especially enjoyed our tour of his complex. He invited us to view with him ongoing excavations under his church and chancery. It was a real treat, as we began our tour in the church and then he unlocked for us a room that according to Syriac Orthodox tradition is the Cenacle Room in which Jesus gathered with his Apostles and mother Mary for the Last Supper. There was a real holiness to this space. Then he led us to another area just discovered and very much in need of excavation that has some precious antiquities. What most impressed me was that he personally took us into this work area and very proudly explained his master plan for all of this restoration and development work.
We then proceeded to our appointment with the senior church leader in Jerusalem, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III. The patriarchate is rather newly renovated and is a visual gem upon entry, with a magnificent staircase and beautiful receiving rooms. We were escorted into a medium size room that had about 60 chairs neatly arranged.
His Beatitude entered and greeted us warmly and immediately offered congratulations to me as the new president of CNEWA and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. He introduced us to his secretary and, as is the custom in the Holy Land, he summoned his attendants who offered wine for a toast, then coffee or tea and chocolates. We had what turned out to be a rather lengthy and most cordial visit, which lasted over an hour. The patriarch made light of some things and enjoyed some laughs with all of us. We even exchanged some convivial banter about the Catholic/Orthodox differences. I left in friendship, accepting his invitation to return for another visit when next in Jerusalem.
We returned to the Pontifical Mission office for a special visit with Dr. Bernard Sabella, who represents the Near East Council of Churches. We partner with this organizing committee in supporting three health care clinics in Gaza.
This gentleman, who Pope Benedict XVI invited to participate in last year’s special assembly for the Middle East of the synod of bishops, is a storehouse of knowledge and experience. He is no lightweight nationally and even internationally, as he is a real champion for the cause of Palestinian refugees. Among many insights and shared experiences, he offered thanks to all of you for your support and highlighted Sami’s professionalism, organizational skills and his leadership in the greater Jerusalem community.
We followed up this visit with a lunch with Mr. Tony Khasham, Chair of the Coordinating Committee of the many Catholic agencies involved in working with the Palestinians. He, too, is a most interesting and experienced reference. A professional tour operator, president of the local St Vincent de Paul Society of Jerusalem (which by the way was founded in the mid-1800’s) and chair of this coordinating body, he is most knowledgeable in the history of Christian outreach to the Palestinians, what has worked and what has failed. His words were very affirming to me, in terms of the challenges for CNEWA and the Pontifical Mission as we continue to address the needs before us. And, as with so many people in Jerusalem involved in helping the Palestinian people, he had high praise for the work of Sami and his entire staff.
From this luncheon we traveled out about 20 minutes to visit one of the high visibility projects in which CNEWA and its Pontifical Mission serves as administrator, a housing program that will eventually house 80 Palestinian families. This is not about giving away free housing. Rather, it is a well-thought-out program sponsored by the Latin Patriarchate to offer seed money and loans to Palestinian families who have been approved as good candidates to purchase these housing units, which will be theirs upon completion of payment of their loans.
I was privileged to meet with a group of these soon-to-be homeowners. Even though construction is still in progress and there is no road yet, they are very excited about the dream of having their own “home.” They are most grateful to CNEWA for administering the program and giving them a real future, and one for their children. Rodolf Saadeh from our local office has given his heart and soul to this program as administrator and we are proud of him and the people trust him and love him.
I had the privilege of blessing the buildings. Their joy in seeing their future being built before their eyes could not be contained. A number of their children were there, playing on the piles of dirt, wood scraps and stones, but for them it was their new backyard and future picnic area. This is an exciting project and hopefully will serve as a model for other churches and agencies to imitate.
The final event of the day was a delectable dinner at the Notre Dame restaurant in the company of three specials guests: Archbishop Youssef Jules el-Zereyi, Melkite Greek Catholic patriarchal vicar; Bishop Boutros Malki, Syriac Catholic patriarchal vicar; and Father Pietro Felet, S.C.J., the secretary of the Assembly of Latin Bishops of Arabia. What a delightful trio. Father Guido, Sami and I really enjoyed our company, had a delightful meal and even better conversation. It sounds trite, but I truly felt as if I had known all three for quite some time, as their gentle manner and refreshing spirit of honesty and humility were very uplifting to the three of us. We came together as strangers and parted company as extended family.
Tomorrow we head to Bethlehem for some pastoral visits and end our day with a dinner at Sami’s home. That should be a wonderful family experience, and Sami has also invited some special guests to join us. I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.
May God bless all of you. You are in our prayers and the prayers of the poor.
Msgr. Kozar takes in the sights along the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem. (photo:CNEWA)
Tags: Jerusalem Msgr. John E. Kozar Syriac Orthodox Church