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Spring, 2014
Volume 40, Number 1
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In this 1996 image, children attend a festival in New York celebrating Greek heritage. (photo: Karen Lagerquist)
  
8 July 2014
Michael J.L. La Civita




In this photo from January, Latin Patriarch Faoud Twal of Jerusalem leads an annual pilgrimage at the baptism site on the Jordan River. (photo: CNS/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)

“We need your solidarity, your advocacy and yes, your material help,” said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem during his visit today with CNEWA.

“But we need you to be courageous, courageous to tell the truth.”

The patriarch is in the United States on a three-week journey that will include the priestly ordination of an Arab American man, who will serve the patriarchate as a pastor.

“For us, things have gotten worse since the pastoral visit of the Holy Father to the Holy Land in late May,” the patriarch said. “His gestures, his simplicity, his words moved our people,” he continued, “but the day after the pope prayed for peace with the patriarch and the presidents of Israel and Palestine, the Israelis announced the building of 3,000 more apartments for settlers.

“And now,” he said quietly, shaking his head, “the terrible deaths of those three young Israelis, the death of the two Palestinian men the Israelis say are responsible, the death of that boy in East Jerusalem, and now Gaza…” his voice trailed off as he thought about the cycle of tit-for-tat violence that has haunted Israelis and Palestinians for decades.

When the Holy Father visited the Holy Land, “he could not avoid the politics in our region. He had to meet with the refugees, Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian. He had to be clear that the drama of Syria cannot go on.

“Outsiders cannot decide Syria’s future,” the patriarch added. “Who appointed outsiders to police the Middle East? And why start with Syria?” There are other Middle Eastern regimes, he said, where extremists are harbored and Christians and other minorities, discriminated against.

The patriarch expressed his gratitude for the support of CNEWA and other organizations such as Caritas and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, solidarity he said that gives good witness to the followers of Jesus in the land of his birth.

“Our people, especially the refugees I meet, are conscious of their dignity,” the patriarch said softly. “They say, ‘help us find work, abuna [father], all we want is to keep our dignity, to keep our pride.’ ”

The patriarch ended his interview reminding readers: “Don’t be satisfied with what you read in the newspapers.” Dig deeper, he urged, there you’ll find the truth.

Click here to learn how you can help Middle East Christians reclaim that dignity cited by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem.



Tags: Middle East Holy Land Israeli-Palestinian conflict Holy Land Christians
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26 June 2014
Michael J.L. La Civita




In this image from last fall, a woman in Lebanon clutching a rosary prays for peace.
(photo: CNS/Hasan Shaaban, Reuters)


Elizabeth Scalia, the managing editor of the Catholic portal at the spiritual website Patheos, asked me to share some thoughts with her readers about the worsening crisis among Christians in the Middle East.

The picture is grim:

Today’s headlines are dramatic; the emotion raw: “Middle East Christians Feel Abandoned.” “Beleaguered Christians Make Final Stand.” “Christians Wonder if it is Time to Leave.” “Christians Last Journey.”

As the artificial geopolitical construct that is the Middle East collapses, millions of lives are altered irrevocably and indiscriminately each day: young and old, male and female, city sophisticate and nomadic shepherd, Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Armenian, rich and poor. In Iraq and Syria — by far the largest states in the region created by the Western Allied powers after their victory in World War I — the pressure cookers once controlled by strongmen have exploded, unleashing violent forces so extreme even Al Qaeda has repudiated the bloodletting.

Iraq — once awash in cash thanks to its oil reserves — has disintegrated, its people exhausted by more than 25 years of constant war. Syria — once the bedrock of regional stability — has crumbled, its people displaced and maimed. Meanwhile, extremist militias overrun vast swaths of devastated territory to restore an Islamist empire akin to those that dominated the region for centuries.

Middle East Christians bear the brunt of these brutalities. Though descendants of those who first received the Gospel almost 600 years before the advent of Islam, Christians are perceived by the extremists as imports from the West and, therefore, as enemies of Islam. Spread from Egypt to Iraq, and numbering no more than 15 million, Middle East Christians possess neither powerful allies supplying arms, nor an exclusivist ideology capable of rallying and uniting a diverse community with distinct traditions, rites and histories. And so to survive, Middle East Christians do what they have always done during similar waves of violence in their long history: they head for the hills.

Observers describe the current wave of violence in the Middle East, and the flight of its minorities — especially its Christians — as an existential threat. Can the Middle East survive without its Christians and other minorities? Sure, but can a region thrive though overwhelmed by extremist ideologies at odds with mainstream Muslims?

Check out Elizabeth Scalia’s blog, The Anchoress, for more.

To help Iraq’s besieged Christians, visit this page. And remember them, please, in your prayers.



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6 June 2014
Michael J.L. La Civita




Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople venerate the Stone of Unction in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre on 25 May. The two leaders marked the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. (photo: CNS/Grzegorz Galazka, pool)

The Holy See announced this morning the structure for this weekend’s prayer with the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, and confirmed the participation of the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople.

From the Vatican Information Service:

During a briefing held this morning, the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa O.F.M., custodian of the Holy Land, and the Rev. Federico Lombardi, S.J., director of the Holy See Press Office, presented the details of the “Invocation for Peace” initiative scheduled to take place in the Vatican on Sunday. Pope Francis has invited the presidents of Israel and Palestine, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, to join him in a prayer encounter.

Peres and Abbas will arrive at the Vatican within a few minutes of each other (the former at 6:15 p.m. and the latter at 6:30). The Holy Father will receive them at the entrance of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, and will then speak briefly with each. All three will then join together, along with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and will then proceed by car to the Vatican Gardens where the event will take place, beginning with a musical introduction and an explanation in English of the structure and form of the celebration, which will follow the chronological order of the three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

At around 7 p.m. there will be a prayer (creation) in Hebrew, a brief musical interlude, a prayer invoking forgiveness, another musical interlude, a prayer invoking peace, and finally, a Jewish musical meditation. The Christian part will follow the same structure, but the first prayer will be in English, the second in Italian, and the third in Arabic. Finally the Muslim part of the celebration will proceed as above, in Arabic.

The reader will then introduce in English the final part of the celebration, beginning with Pope Francis’ discourse invoking peace. The Holy Father will then invite each of the two presidents to formulate his own invocation. Shimon Peres will begin, followed by Mahmoud Abbas. As a gesture of peace, in which the Patriarch Bartholomew will also participate, they will all shake hands and the Pope will then accompany them in planting an olive tree, symbol of peace.

At the end of the celebration the four will remain side by side while the delegations pass by to greet them. The Holy Father, the two presidents and the Patriarch will then proceed to the Casina Pio IV to speak in private.

Finally, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas will leave the Vatican, while Pope Francis and the Patriarch Bartholomew will return to the Domus Sanctae Marthae.



Tags: Pope Francis Vatican Ecumenism Middle East Peace Process Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I
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5 June 2014
Michael J.L. La Civita




Pope Francis stops in front of the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, Palestine, on 25 May. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano, pool)

On the feast of Pentecost, Sunday, 8 June, the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, and the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, will gather in the Vatican with Pope Francis to pray for peace in the Holy Land.

“In this place where the Prince of Peace was born, I desire to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, and President Shimon Peres, to raise together with me an intense prayer to God for the gift of peace,” the pope said while in Bethlehem in late May.

“And I offer my house in the Vatican to host you in this encounter of prayer.”

The pope has made it clear that this gathering is not a summit or an act of mediation, but an act of prayer.

“Everyone wants peace, many people build it every day with small gestures, many suffer patiently and bear the fatigue of many attempts to build it. And everyone — especially those who are at the service of their people — have a duty to be the instruments and builders of peace, above all in prayer.

“Building peace is hard,” Francis concluded, “but living without peace is a torment. All men and women of this earth and of the whole world are asking us to bring before God their ardent desire for peace.”

Since this is a private act of prayer among the sons of Abraham, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, the form this prayerful gathering will take remains private among the participants. But prayers for the pope and presidents, who will meet in the Vatican in the afternoon, are encouraged.

So, on this sacred feast celebrating the birthday of the church, join Francis in praying for peace in the land of the Prince of Peace.



Tags: Pope Francis Israel Middle East Peace Process West Bank Separation Barrier
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9 May 2014
Michael J.L. La Civita




Msgr. John Kozar and Cardinal Timothy Dolan meet with the CNEWA staff to discuss their just-completed pastoral visit to Jordan. (photo: CNEWA)

Fresh from his pastoral visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan — he only returned last night — an exuberant Cardinal Timothy Dolan met with the members of the CNEWA team in their New York offices this morning.

“You are making great things happen in Jordan,” the cardinal said, his arm resting on his traveling companion and CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John Kozar.

We are very close to the local churches there, the cardinal said of CNEWA. “We do not lord over them, but accompany them, walking with them every step of the way.”

Though Jordan’s Christian community in Jordan is tiny, maybe two percent of the population, he said, it is well respected and faithfully lives the Gospel for all those in need, Christian and Muslim. “They don’t preach the culture of life,” he exclaimed, “they live it!”

“And isn’t the work of the women religious something, Monsignor?”

Follow our special coverage on the pastoral visit to Jordan here. You can also read more from Cardinal Dolan on his blog, The Gospel in the Digital Age, or on the blog of Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, who as a member of CNEWA’s board of trustees, joined the cardinal for the pastoral visit.



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3 March 2014
Michael J.L. La Civita




Msgr. John E. Kozar visits with a patient at the hospital run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal el Dib, Lebanon. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)

During this pastoral visit to Lebanon, Msgr. John Kozar and I have met many graceful people — graceful in the truest sense of the word.

On Friday, we traveled to the Armenian village of Anjar, which lies in the Bekaa Valley some 34 miles from the walls of the Syrian capital of Damascus and just miles to the Syrian frontier. The visit to Anjar entailed a drive along the international highway connecting Beirut to Damascus. Stunning scenery competed with smog and car exhaust. Climbing, twisting and turning gave way to a descent into the Bekaa and a mass of humanity shopping, planting, driving, walking.

Anjar was a welcome relief. A drive lined with palms and young geraniums revealed a well-planned town designed by the French military for Armenian refugees in 1939.

“It feels like Palm Springs!” I told the laughing mayor. But Palm Springs it is not.

Anjar is overwhelmed with Syrian refugees — Armenian Syrians and non-Armenians alike.

Evidently, the neighboring village of Majdel Anjar is a hotbed of Sunni extremists. Reportedly including immediate family members of one participant in the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

CNEWA, through its Beirut office of the Pontifical Mission, has deep roots in Anjar, having provided support to its Catholic school and boarding house for orphaned boys founded by Cardinal Gregory Peter Agagianian (1895-1971), former Armenian Catholic patriarch and prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Today, CNEWA partners with the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Cooperation, a lay group that provides a host of services — especially health care — to the Armenian Community throughout Lebanon, Syria and Armenia.

I felt as if the little oasis, with its clinics, its schools, its churches, its restaurants and its palm trees, was as fragile as the tender leaves sprouting from the fruit trees in its fields.

Just as we were leaving, the pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Armenian Catholic parish, Mekhitarist Father Mesrob Topalian, grabbed my arm and said: “Don’t forget us, Michael, and pray for us — especially for the children.”

As I left, another visitor took my place: the 75-year-old sister who runs the parish school, a resident of Anjar who arrived as a penniless refugee from Turkey at 4 years of age.

I looked back as they waved and offered blessings in French as the bells of the newly dedicated church tolled.

“Life goes on,” I thought, “until passion and ideology and fear and hate appear on the doorstep.”

Our drive back to Beirut was rather quiet.

On Saturday, our team, led by Msgr. Kozar, visited the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross at their hospital in Jal el Dib. Led by Mother Marie Makhlouf, these are tough women doing some of the most thankless work throughout the Middle East.

In this image from 2010, Mother Marie Makhlouf greets a young man in one of centers operated by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal El Dib, Lebanon. (photo: CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

They care for the poorest of the poor: children and adults who are profoundly physically and mentally handicapped, those with mental illnesses, substance abusers and the abandoned.

And they do it with tenderness and compassion. You know it when you see it and when you hear it.

As the sisters took us through their facility that clings to a cliff high above Beirut, beds shook loudly, voices screeched, patients applauded raucously and scores sought their attention.

Things quieted down only when one sister pulled out her rosary, and the elderly and broken men struggling to cope with life and its troubles joined her in praying this familiar Catholic devotion — in Arabic.

Having visited the sisters before, I knew that they have a hard time finding the resources to feed and clothe the 1,000 or so forgotten souls entrusted to them.

But as I pondered this, half listening to the hospital’s rehabilitation therapist, Msgr. Kozar was busy creating commotion from one room to the next. Hugging, laughing, blessing and taking portraits of the patients, he connected with almost every one we visited, focusing on the individuals entrusted to these good sisters and their staff, and the desire of each patient to communicate. The joyful atmosphere roused me from my thoughts.

“Somehow they do it,” I said to myself, and then I thought about Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, especially its final and bloodiest stage in spring 1990, when Christian militia shelled Christian militia and an embargo prevented even bread from getting into the enclave. I asked one sister, “how did you do feed your patients in 1990, when bread did not exist?”

She looked at me over her glasses, and said, “I don’t know how we did it, and I pray we never come to that again.”

And with that she lovingly patted the head of an abandoned boy with autism and cradled him to her side.

Ah, to be this graceful and loving in the face of real adversity and real enemies.

Finally, on Sunday, before spending a lovely afternoon at the home of our regional director, Michel Constantin, his wife Lynn and three children, Peter, Sasha and Mark, we joined Msgr. Kozar in celebrating the Eucharist with the Filipino migrant community in the old church of the Maronite parish of Mar Elias, the largest Catholic parish in the Middle East.

No one knows the true number of Filipinos — almost all of whom are women — living and working throughout the Middle East. “With few job opportunities in the Philippines and families to support, these women come to the Middle East,” we reported in ONE magazine in 2011, “where jobs in the ‘care-giving industry’ are plentiful. Motivated by the promise of comparatively high earnings, most of which they intend on sending home to their families, they often accept without complaint long hours, little personal time or freedom and substandard living accommodations.”

Reporter Nicholas Seeley had also spoken with a local pastor:

“I understood that the first task was to give people a place where they could be at home,” said Jesuit Father Kevin O’Connell, who pastors the large Filipino community in Amman, Jordan. “For these people, just the ongoing, regular liturgy — with Filipino music, with people reading, with them being able to participate in whatever way they want — gives a strand of consistency and continuity. It’s their home. It’s their place. In most cases, there’s no place else they can gather.”

Very much at ease with the Filipino congregation, who spilled outside the doors of the lovely stone church, Msgr. Kozar addressed them directly throughout the liturgy, reminding the women that God hears the prayers of the poor and that “we who are poor always have our God-given dignity.” And he praised them for being a model to the rest of the world in their compassionate response in caring for one another after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the islands last November and killed more than 6,200 people.

Michel and I heard many a sniffle. The Filipinos, as they left Mass, asked Msgr. Kozar to come back next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that!

After the final blessing, as Msgr. Kozar greeted each and every worshiper personally, Michel and I chatted with a young German man, who, with a number of his friends, has committed ten months between high school and college to volunteer with the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross and their hospital in Jal el Dib. Clearly moved by the singing and participation in the liturgy, and the homily directed to the migrant workers, he said that when he returns to Bonn, he will look back on “all of this as if it were a dream.”

I asked him if he was worried that the dream would vanish. He looked at me, showed me the chaplet of St. Charbel he now wears on his right wrist, and said, “I’m now half Lebanese … anything could happen.”



Tags: Lebanon Syrian Civil War Refugees Beirut Maronite
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27 February 2014
Michael J.L. La Civita




Good Shepherd Sister Hannane Youssef greets CNEWA president Msgr. John E. Kozar at the clinic she runs in Beirut. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)

Note: CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, and Michael La Civita, chief communications officer, are on a pastoral visit to Lebanon, focusing on the works of the local churches caring for displaced Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese families.

To most of Lebanon’s visitors, Beirut sprawls along the Mediterranean coast and climbs the steep mountain range that gives this country of 4.5 million people its name. What most do not know is that Beirut is a collection of municipalities and districts with distinct personalities and histories inhabited by families who hail from villages long lost to development. One such neighborhood is Jdeideh in the eastern district of Metn, an industrial area almost entirely populated by Christians. Churches and roadside shrines — often dedicated to the Maronite monk St. Charbel or the Prophet Elijah, better known here as Mar Elias — are as common as colorful vegetable stands. This is the Christian East Beirut of the 1970’s and ‘80’s.

Yet in the middle of Christian Jdeideh rises a Shiite Muslim neighborhood. Ramshackle structures of cinderblock, concrete and tin climb the hill of Rouweissat Jdeidet, which is capped with a snow-white mosque. Long the home of Shiite Muslims, the neighborhood is densely populated with young families, roosters and feral cats. At the base of the hill, the Good Shepherd Sisters run a dispensary that treats some 100 people a day. Founded more than 15 years ago by a Lebanese ascetic known throughout Lebanon as Pere Nour, the dispensary draws the poorest of the poor from the local community and, increasingly, Iraqi and Syrian refugee families. Most of those seeking assistance are Muslim.

Good Shepherd Sister Hannane Youssef was happy to welcome back Msgr. John Kozar, who first visited the clinic during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon in September 2012. “So much has changed since you were last here!” she said. Indeed, the facility had expanded to include more room for gynecological and psychological care, pediatrics, and eye, ear, nose and throat care. But the facility is not a fancy structure — it does not even meet the requirements necessary for accreditation by the Lebanese Ministry of Health.

“This is built with containers, prefabricated materials I myself designed and ordered,” she said.

The modest facility, which is spic-and-span and well lighted, hosts some of the finest medical professionals in Lebanon — more than 35 doctors and health care professionals — who offer their services and talents weekly to the sisters in their care for the poor. In addition to providing treatment, the sisters commission focus groups, who work street by street in the area to determine best the health needs of the community, especially the women.

“We believe the poor deserve the best,” Sister Hannane continued, and “Providence blesses us with these volunteers and support and prayers from our friends.” Moved by the generous spirit of the sisters and their team, Msgr. Kozar pointed out that the CNEWA family was privileged to support the sisters and their work.

“The spirit hasn’t changed,” Msgr. Kozar added. “This is the church of the Middle East at its best!”



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4 February 2014
Michael J.L. La Civita




Our good friends at Salt+Light Television have produced an excellent series entitled, “The Church Alive.” Dedicated to the New Evangelization, individual episodes in the series tackle subjects as diverse as interfaith dialogue, economics and the consecrated life.

One recent episode focused on the Eastern Catholic churches, looking at their histories, liturgies and challenges confronting these ancient churches, fully Eastern and fully Catholic. You can watch this episode below and, while you are at it, take some time to watch some of the other programs available on their station on YouTube.



Tags: Ecumenism Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Media Eastern Catholic Churches
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21 November 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita




Thomas Varghese, U.S.C.C.B.’s Declan Murphy, Caritas Armenia director Anahit Mkhoyan and Michael La Civita in front of the Caritas office in Gyumri. (photo: CNEWA)

The romantic notions I may have had about traveling through “Middle Earth” dissipated when I met Syrian Armenians living in the Yerevan residence of Armenian Catholic Archbishop Rafael Minassian. Arriving the other evening, my colleagues and I began chatting with a Syrian Armenian Catholic seminarian who facilitates the care of these 13 families for the archbishop. Originally from the city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria, Pierre (for security purposes his family name will not be published) was passionate about what life was like before the civil war ravaged his country.

“We had liberty, we had freedom,” he said, “My brother is a famous drummer in Syria, he used to be hired for many parties and weddings … but now there is nothing.

“He also taught in the university, but now it is closed.” Ironically, Qamishli was settled by Assyro-Chaldean refugees fleeing Ottoman Turkish soldiers who began slaughtering the empire’s Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean and Greek Christians in 1915.

As Pierre looked to the ground, a young woman came running up the stairs to talk. “I heard your conversation, and I needed to be here.”

A graduate student in architecture in Armenia, she, too, spoke of the former Syria as if it were a lost Eden. “I was the only Christian on my street in Damascus. All my friends were Muslim — Sunni, Alawi, Druze. We didn’t care about which religion the other may have been. And we are still friends.”

She and her Armenian mother are living in Yerevan, but she has heard nothing from her father, an officer in the Syrian army.

Speaking with the archbishop’s staff and the Yerevan team of Caritas Armenia, who are working with a hundred Syrian Armenian refugee families now living in the capital city, we learned that most families have been torn apart; the husband remains behind to mind the property and assets while sending his wife and children to safety — perhaps Armenia, Lebanon or points farther west.

Aram Khachaturyan, who directs the refugee work of Caritas in Yerevan, said 11,000 Armenians have arrived in the country, but already some 2,000 have left. “Some have already returned to Syria; others have settled in Sweden.”

His colleague, Aida Khachatryan, added that the Syrian Armenian families from the cities, especially Aleppo and Damascus, have had an easier time adapting to life to Yerevan.

“They are integrating better,” she said, by learning Russian — the lingua franca in the Caucasus. “Some are already employing their skills as goldsmiths, jewelers and shoemakers.” But most families are desperately poor, arriving in Armenia with nothing.

As the charity of the Armenian Catholic Church, Caritas Armenia is helping to settle these families in apartments, providing initial rent payments, food, sanitary supplies and mattresses. Resources are tight. I asked the seminarian, who has been ordained a subdeacon, how the church — which has almost no resources in Armenia and Georgia — can afford to support these families.

“Archbishop Minassian says it is in the hands of Jesus,” said Pierre, pointing upward. “The archbishop says we have to do this: ‘These are the children of the church!’ ” Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical Armenians are welcome in this home of the archbishop; as we have seen throughout these weeks in the Caucasus, poverty does not discriminate and nor does the outreach of the local churches.

(photo: Michael La Civita)

This visit to the churches and peoples of Georgia and Armenia ended on a poignant note, visiting the monastic complex of Geghard. Founded in the fourth century by the apostle to the Armenians, St. Gregory the Illuminator, most of the structures — freestanding or hewn from the rock of the river gorge where it is located — date to the 12th century. Fog shrouded the gorge as we approached the site, a place of pilgrimage for Armenian Christians.

(photo: Michael La Civita)

As we entered the darkened churches, partially illuminated by the candles lighted by pilgrims, I thought about this extraordinary journey, and the extraordinary people I have had the privilege to meet.

My colleagues and I have much to think about as we work together to plan how to best serve these people, their initiatives and their faith. But one thing is clear: Never have I met such generous people. Regardless of their poverty — and the Armenian Catholic Church in particular needs support these days — I met people who gave from their heart.

“Love! Love is why we do these things!” Aida Khachatryan of Caritas exclaimed yesterday. She looked at her uncle, Father Grigor Mkrtchyan, who, while not knowing English, understood her absolutely.

This terrific parish priest, who accompanied us through much of the visit, nodded his head in agreement, looked at me and said simply: “Thank you.”

Never have such simple words meant so much.

(photo: Michael La Civita)



Tags: Cultural Identity Armenia Caucasus Caritas U.S.C.C.B.
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20 November 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita




Khachkars adorn the shoreline of Armenia’s Lake Sevan. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Yesterday’s drive from the northwestern city of Gyumri to the Armenian capital of Yerevan was another stunner. At one point, overcome with the natural beauty of the country, I said to myself: “God has kissed this land, but why such hardship?” I am not sure of the answer even as I write these words 24 hours later.

We spent our last day in Gyumri visiting two centers operated by Caritas Armenia, the official charity of the Armenian Catholic Church. The Primary Health Care Center operates in a modest facility near the center of town. Nevertheless, its two doctors have 1,807 registered patients who typically visit the clinic five times a year. Most of the patients waiting yesterday were pensioners. Some of their typical health concerns, said one doctor, are diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and underactive thyroid conditions.

The bustling clinic offers its services free of charge, thanks to its many donors. This is particularly important to the shrinking population centers in the country’s northern districts. While the population and economy in and around Yerevan are growing (largely due to international investments from financial institutions and assistance from donor agencies, as well as foreign remittances), the urban centers of the north, such as Gyumri and Vanadzor, are losing people as unemployment in some areas reaches more than 50 percent.

The many rusted Soviet-era factories that dot the landscape — damaged by the 1988 earthquake and shuttered permanently a few years later with the dissolution of the Soviet Union — indicate a once heavily industrialized economy offering full employment. Not unlike the so-called Rust Belt in the United States, such as my hometown of McKeesport, near Pittsburgh, these areas now offer few opportunities to the young, who are moving out, leaving behind an elderly population dependent on services such as those offered by Caritas Armenia.

Today, said Aida Khachatryan of Caritas, young adults and youths have few opportunities, and wile away their days doing little. Many of the people in the north of Armenia have no idea what to do, she said, adding that the earthquake and its aftermath created conditions of dependency and apathy that many find hard to escape.

(photo: Michael La Civita)

After visiting the clinic, we headed to a Caritas-supported day care center for the elderly run by Flora Sargsyan — “the soul of Caritas Armenia,” said its director, Anahit Mkhoyan. We arrived just as the center’s members were arriving. Tchaikovsky played on the radio as the women and few men hung up their coats, wiped down the tables, made conversation and prepared their places to sit for coffee or tea.

Mrs. Sargsyan, whose grandfather served as a priest in Vanadzor, looked on her friends with the loving eye of a mother, and tended their souls much as her grandfather did.

“So many of these people are left alone, with no family, no grandchildren to help care for them,” she said, as two young college students arrived to help her. The volunteers spend not just an occasional hour or two, she said, but work in the center regularly — as many as five days a week. The spirit of the place was energizing, spurring impromptu poetry recitals, the singing of folk songs and even traditional dance. An octogenarian woman pulled my colleagues into the circle, and CNEWA’s Thomas Varghese impressed the ladies with dance moves influenced by his Indian heritage.

Leaving the center smiling from ear to ear, we left Gyumri and traveled east to the town of Vanadzor, only to be reminded again of the sorrow of Armenia’s past.

(photo: Michael La Civita)

As we climbed yet another mountain, we arrived at a bend of the road marked by a prominent monument and khachkars, or cross stone. There, Arevik Tumasyan of Caritas pointed to the “Gorge of Massacres,” a place where, during World War I, soldiers of the Ottoman Turkish Empire pushed tens of thousands of Armenian women and children into the gorge hundreds of feet below. While the subject of the Armenian Genocide has surfaced these days only in passing, this was our first encounter with it on Armenian soil. The site, much like the area’s emptied factories and villages, seemed ghostly, eerily quiet. We moved onward.

Arriving in Vanadzor, we spent some time at a child day care facility of Caritas Armenia: the Little Prince Center. The engaging team of social workers and psychologists met with us to discuss their demanding work with children, all of whom come from the poorest families in a community devastated by unemployment and “seasonal migration.” In addition, we met with a group of concerned parents and child care professionals who formed their own organization with the support of Caritas Armenia to provide tutoring and additional educational opportunities in conjunction with the Little Prince Program. Here, we found a child care program that cared for children’s emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being.

(photo: Michael La Civita)

Toward sundown, we traveled to Yerevan via Lake Sevan, a spectacular lake some 6,200 feet above sea level. There, on a peninsula that was once an island, we visited two ninth-century churches, the major one dedicated to the Mother of God and the smaller dedicated to the Holy Apostles. The churches appeared quiet, if not solitary in the strong wind and the setting sun.

The peninsula and its churches resembled the ancient monasteries of Ireland and, for a while, as I traced my fingers through the gorgeous khachkar that marked the holy ground, I felt I was again transported to someplace wholly fantastical. Yet, just below the ancient churches, I could hear the sound of young men playing basketball.

Indeed, just feet from these holy sanctuaries, seminarians from the Armenian Apostolic ChurchSevan is the site of a seminary for the church — could be heard, playing a New World sport.

(photo: Michael La Civita)



Tags: Health Care Poor/Poverty Armenia Caring for the Elderly Caucasus
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