Current Issue
September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
7 November 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

Workers make commercial and liturgical candles and bathroom loofas in Fatka village in the area of Keserwan district on Mount Lebanon. Jihad Lteif, a father of four and the owner of the workshop, is the recipient of a loan from the microcredit program of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Today was a study in contrasts. After spending some quality time with the dedicated folks who make up the team in CNEWA’s Beirut office, Msgr. Kozar and I accompanied two of our colleagues, Michel Constantin and Norma Rizk, on a visit to the village of Fatka.

The village is perched high atop the coastal mountains of Lebanon’s Keserwan district — an almost entirely Christian area northeast of Beirut that resembles Monte Carlo in its gorgeous terrain, vegetation and ostentatious display of wealth. Fatka, which is a Syriac word, is an ancient settlement now smothered with opulent homes, extravagant hotels and luxury high-rise buildings. Yet not all of its residents are wealthy.

After lifting our jaws off the floor, our car made a few hairpin turns and pulled into a narrow unpaved driveway. Walking by some crumbling walls and impressive Ottoman-style arches, we were greeted by Jihad Lteif, an amiable 43-year-old father of four eager to show us his workshops.

Some 15 years ago, Mr. Lteif established a workshop for the production of candles in the ruins of his grandfather’s house. He began with one locally made machine that produced one size of candles. Using cotton wicks from Lebanon and paraffin imported from Greece, Egypt and China, he quickly established a successful business, distributing his candles to suppliers from his workshop.

The cotton string used for candle wicks is made in Lebanon. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Candles are important in a country where every institution, building and house relies on generators, he said. “Electricity supplied by the municipalities is unreliable.”

A year ago, Mr. Lteif applied for a loan from CNEWA’s microcredit program to help purchase a third machine. This machine he designed to produce devotional candles used throughout Lebanon’s many churches, monasteries and shrines. This effort has enabled him to double his daily production of candles from 1,100 pounds to a metric ton, increasing his income by $500 a month.

With help from CNEWA’s generous donors, the workshop has been able to double its production. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Working under images of St. Theresa the Little Flower and St. Charbel, his two workers melted the paraffin, poured it into molds and cooled the candles into shape. Beaming, he took us outside and then into another workshop in which he produces bathroom loofas. Walking through an open door, we entered a large, well-ventilated room — whitewashed — with open windows and spectacular views.

“You and your team have better views than the millionaires who built those houses down there!” Msgr. Kozar pointed out to the proud man.

“My family and I are fighting to stay in our village,” he replied. “I’ve had offers to sell my land, but my family wants to stay here.”

CNEWA’s microcredit program in Lebanon is not a huge government-funded scheme to bolster the nation’s beleaguered economy. Rather, it is a targeted effort that helps people to help themselves, invigorates local economies and encourages families to remain in the lands of their forefathers.

“We have a 99 percent success rate!” said CNEWA’s Norma Rizk, who launched the program in 2003. Ms. Rizk works with each applicant, all of whom are recommended by a parish priest or local religious. She also closely monitors the project, overseeing more than 500 projects in the last decade.

CNEWA’s Norma Rizk explains the process of finishing a loofa. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Turning to Jihad Lteif, I congratulated him: “Your grandfather would be proud.”

“We could have left Fatka,” he replied, “but where would we go? Where would I raise my children?

“Here, we are home and free to live our faith.”

Tags: Lebanon CNEWA Beirut Employment Micro Credit Program

6 November 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

Msgr. John E. Kozar snaps a picture of Sunni Muslim refugee children being taught by the Good Shepherd sisters in the village of Deir el Ahmar, Lebanon. (photo: Michael La Civita)

CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, and chief communications officer, Michael La Civita, are making a round of pastoral visits in Lebanon this week. On Saturday, Mr. La Civita will join Thomas Varghese, CNEWA’s programs officer, for two weeks in the Caucasus, assessing the needs of the churches in Georgia and Armenia.

Today, Msgr. John Kozar and I traveled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley with two of our Beirut staff, Michel Constantin and Kamal Abdel Nour. Driving in Lebanon is not for the faint of heart. Cars, buses and trucks careen through pockmarked streets. Exhaust fumes permeate the air. Chaos reigns. Horns dominate. After more than two hours on the main road linking Beirut and Damascus — which required climbing elevations of more than 4,000 feet — we reached the ancient town of Baalbek. There, we turned west toward a cluster of Christian villages on the eastern slope of Mount Lebanon about 20 miles from the Syrian border. Our destination: Deir el Ahmar, the Red (or bloody) Convent, a village named for a massacre of monks there ages ago.

As we arrived, we were greeted as old friends by Good Shepherd Sisters Micheline Lattouff and Rita Hadchity and their dedicated team of Lebanese and Syrian volunteers. Together, they work to help the nearly 300 refugee families who have made their home in the area as a result of the civil war in Syria. Some 260 of these families are Sunni Muslim, and they have named their settlement of plastic-wrapped cardboard huts Ezzedine after their native village near Homs.

Although the families arrived with nothing, they found friends in a Maronite village community. The village’s Good Shepherd sisters acted quickly — winter was approaching — providing heating fuel, mattresses, blankets, coats, drinking water and food. The sisters then began to visit the refugee families, as well as some 25 Christian families who settled with their kin in the village. Initially, they spent time with the mothers, who naturally worried about their children, whose childhoods have been robbed by violence and their futures compromised by displacement and poverty.

Known worldwide for their care of single mothers, children and the poor in general, the Good Shepherd sisters immediately recognized the signs of posttraumatic stress disorder and decided to intervene, with the consent of the mothers.

This summer, Sister Micheline set up three tents, where she and her volunteers worked and played with the children, winning the support of their parents. Just a few weeks ago, on 21 October, they opened an elementary school program in the sisters’ social center, providing remedial education to some 220 children and utilizing the services of qualified Syrian teachers. Under images of the Good Shepherd and the Blessed Mother, these children, all of whom are Sunni Muslim, are for at least a few hours a day returning to their childhood. They play games, laugh, learn and share secrets so important in childhood. Not exactly a shy soul, Msgr. Kozar livened up the classrooms with joyful questions and riddles, winning smiles and shouts of joy from the children. He won over even the serious teachers who are confronted with the enormous task of teaching these displaced children the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

I was impressed with the facility, which already resembles a typical Catholic school. Order and cleanliness prevail, despite the grinding poverty impacting children living without running water, a sanitary environment, nutritious food or the basics in health care.

After a quick lunch with the children, we visited one large family presided over by a matriarch named Frengieh. Draped in black from head to toe, she took us into her cardboard home, introduced us to her sons and daughters and her grandchildren. Her delightful sense of humor, her sense of hospitality and her warmth made us forget that she was essentially homeless. The fact that she encouraged her family and the sisters to pose for a group portrait by our “staff photojournalist,” Msgr. Kozar, indicated the warmth and trust that exists between the refugees and the sisters. Most refugees fear reprisals back home if their photographs are seen by the enemy, which could be anyone.

Caesar, Abdulahad and Ulah Yakoub, the children in a Syriac Christian family that have fled to Lebanon, relax at home and talk about their new life in the village of Bechouat. (photo: Michael La Civita)

After a cup of tea with Frengieh, we traveled up to the nearby village of Bechouat to meet with Yakoub family, a Syriac Christian family who two years ago fled the extremist rebels in Hassake, near the Syrian border with Iraq. The father, who took time from his custodial concerns for the local Maronite shrine dedicated to Our Lady, recalled the travails of traveling to Damascus on a public bus for more than 18 hours through 17 checkpoints with his wife and three children Ulah, Abdalahad and Caesar. Leaving behind his elderly parents and his younger brother, they hitched a ride to Bechouat, where they live in a small room provided and furnished by the parish. The children, dressed in their school uniforms, spoke to us about the difficulties of attending a French-curriculum school while knowing only Arabic. Ulah, a shy 15-year-old, quietly asked Sister Micheline if the sisters could help them with their studies. “Of course!” she replied, beaming at the chance to lend a hand.

Afterward, over a cup of sweetened Arabic coffee, the exuberant sister told us that the presence of the Good Shepherd motivates her. “I never think I am tired or that we can’t do anything else,” she said. “The Good Shepherd is here; he is here among his people. He loves his people, because he loves his Father.”

“He loves you,” I added with a smile. She lowered her head, looked at me and replied, “I know, and that is why I am happy.”

Today’s visit speaks volumes why it is imperative Christianity thrive in the Middle East. And it speaks volumes why the support given to the churches and peoples of the region through CNEWA by readers such as you is so important: Simple initiatives such as these, brought about by religious sisters and parish volunteers — all motivated by the Gospel — are restoring dignity, self-respect, trust and even joy to Christian and Muslim families once robbed of these basic human values.

Remember them in your prayers.

To learn how you can help, check our Syrian relief page.

Tags: Lebanon Refugees CNEWA Sisters Beirut

17 September 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

In 2004, Father Elias Hanout greeted children in front of the now destroyed St. Elias Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the town of Ezraa, which sits in the Houran plain in southern Syria.(photo: Armineh Johannes)

Southern Syria is a fascinating place. When I visited there in 1998, Roman ruins in basalt littered the rural and village landscapes. Matriarchs hung their laundry from Corinthian capitals to carved posts. Ruined columns served as tables to hold platters of salads and grilled meats. Ancient churches, crude perhaps but ancient nevertheless, served their Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox parishioners as they had for 1,500 years. Attending a liturgy in Ezraa’s simple Melkite Greek Catholic church dedicated to the prophet Elias, I marveled at the cavernous vaults that sheltered Christians from the scorching sun and oppressive heat for more than a thousand years. Today, St. Elias is no more. The civil war in Syria is destroying people, villages, a way of life and humankind’s patrimony.

In an interview yesterday with our partners Aid to the Church in Need, Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop Nicholas Antiba of Basra and Houran noted that his flock were gathering around the center of his eparchy in Khabab, fleeing their villages — many of which developed in former camps of the Roman Legion — devastated by war. Sadly, the sixth-century basilica of St. Elias is one of them. Just nine years ago, ONE magazine visited Ezraa, reporting on its Christian community centered on its ancient Byzantine churches.

Lina Farah, 31, sits in the courtyard of her family home, which is made of black basalt and added to with concrete. The rooms all look onto the courtyard, which has a grape arbor.

“No house is ready to be lived in without being renovated in some way,” she says. Small-town life means “neighbors visit all the time. There’s no such thing as making an appointment. People just drop by.”

Ms. Farah helps out with catechism classes — this time on a Friday — next to Ezraa’s Melkite Greek Catholic church.

“People hold social gatherings like giving congratulations or condolences on Fridays, since people with jobs are busy during the week,” she says. Friday and Saturday make up the official weekend in Syria.

Satellite dishes rise above some old houses and women pace the roofs hanging laundry and chatting on cellular phones. …

Father Elias Hanout, of St. Elias Melkite Greek Catholic parish in Ezraa, points out the Greek inscriptions and religious symbols carved into the beige and dark gray stones of the church, which has withstood earthquakes and other disasters since it was built in the first part of the sixth century.

Today’s atmosphere of coexistence between different faith communities, he says, is buttressed by the hope that flight by Christians from Syria’s southern countryside might be tailing off.

Sadly, little did Father Hanout know that war would come to Ezraa, destroy his church and scatter his community. It is all but a memory now.

Pray for Syria. To learn how you can help, click here.

Tags: Syria Middle East Christians Cultural Identity Village life Melkite Greek Catholic Church

12 September 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

(video: Rome Reports)

The Crusades, for better or worse, get a bad rap. Yet, there were some positive initiatives that surfaced — among them, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. An ancient knighthood of the Catholic Church, its members are charged by the pope with supporting the apostolic activities of the church throughout the Middle East, especially the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

This week, the leadership of the order is gathering in Rome. This report from Rome highlights some of the discussions underway, including the broadening of its mandate to reach out to Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Michael J.L. La Civita is CNEWA’s chief communications officer and a knight commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Tags: Jerusalem Catholic Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem Rome

22 July 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

Today, we received word that a beloved member of our CNEWA family, after a long illness, has died.

Tens of thousands of friends and benefactors grew to know Mercy Sister Christian Molidor from her weekly emails she wrote until her retirement in 2011. But Christian’s work at Catholic Near East Welfare Association began long before the internet; in her self-deprecating style, she would say she joined CNEWA before the alphabet was invented. According to Christian, she arrived one day in 1984. Msgr. John Nolan, then the head of CNEWA, had no idea what to do with the Libertyville, Illinois, native, so he sent her “packing,” she recalled some years ago.

She went to India, where she visited orphans, catechists, priests, senior citizens, the handicapped and her beloved religious sisters. She helped cook and clean. She did the wash and hung the laundry. And she photographed. She took thousands of pictures of smiling children, sisters laughing and patients praying. She collected their stories, wrote them down, squirreled them away in her head and shared them for decades.

In this undated photo from our archive, a group of children play in India. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)

Christian held many positions at CNEWA — everything from communications director to associate secretary general to special assistant to the president — but she loved most documenting the stories and taking the portraits of the people she loved to serve. Christian’s love for and faith in Jesus, and his presence in the lowly, the poor and the marginalized, fueled her being. And she shared this love and faith with everyone she encountered. Everyone!

How fortunate I am to have known, worked with and loved this great woman of God. She taught me much, and she teaches still. Let me end with her last email message to her beloved CNEWA family. Her voice comes through clearly:

As a heartfelt gift to you, (and in my usual opinionated and nagging style), I end with a few suggestions for all:

Mend a quarrel, seek out a forgotten friend, dismiss judgments and replace with trust. Write a love letter, share some treasure, give a soft answer and encourage youth.

Manifest your loyalty in word and deed, keep a promise, find the time; forgo a grudge, forgive an enemy; listen, try to understand, examine your demands on others and think first of someone else. Appreciate. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little, then laugh a little more, deserve confidence, fight malice and decry complacency.

Express your gratitude, go to church, welcome a stranger; brighten the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth.

Speak your love; speak it again. Speak it still once again.

There, I think I’ve covered my parting thoughts. Let’s pray together always; and if you remember, please tuck a prayer in your pocket for me.

Farewell and peace.

Eternal rest grant unto her O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her.

Tags: CNEWA Sisters

31 May 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

In this 2009 photo, Iraqi Dominican Sister of St. Catherine Sara Majeed administers a checkup at the Mother of Mercy mother-and-child clinic in Zerqa, Jordan. (photo: Nader Daoud)

On this date 31 years ago, CNEWA’s Mother of Mercy Clinic opened in the Jordanian city of Zerqa. Mother of Mercy is the creation of not one person, community or organization, but of a partnership.

In 1981, Zerqa’s Latin Catholic community asked the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood and CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, to consider opening a mother and child clinic on the grounds of the Latin parish. A congregation of nursing sisters based in England, the Franciscan Missionaries, had collaborated with the Pontifical Mission in operating mobile health clinics in Jordan’s refugee camps since 1971. Their principle concern at that time was the reduction of the mortality rate — then 40 percent — among babies born to Palestinian refugee mothers. Poor nutrition and the lack of education and health awareness contributed to many of these deaths, as well as to deaths of the elderly.

After a period of review, CNEWA and the Franciscan Missionaries, with the support of the Latin Patriarchate, agreed to open the clinic, receiving monies to build, furnish and operate the center from Canadian members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. After just a few years, the number of patients receiving care at the clinic increased by 214 percent, requiring an extensive refurbishment. In 1985, the German bishops’ relief and development fund, Misereor, provided the necessary funds.

Today, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, an Iraqi community based in Mosul, administer the clinic, which treats more than 33,000 mothers and children a year.

Happy Birthday!

Tags: CNEWA Children Jordan Health Care Dominican Sisters

21 May 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople celebrates an Orthodox liturgy for the feast of the Dormition of Mary at the Panagia Soumela Monastery near Trabzon, Turkey, August 15, 2010. Thousands of Orthodox pilgrims from Greece, Russia and Georgia attended the liturgy at the monastery for the first time since 1923. (CNS photo/Umit Bektas, Reuters)

Waiting for Godot, In Turkey (Archons) The memorable play of Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot,” has become a metaphor for situations in which people wait for someone unlikely to come, or do not even know what they are expecting. They just keep waiting and waiting.

African Children: Invisible and Deprived of Their Rights (Fides) Half of the African children are “invisible” because they do not appear in any population register. This is what emerged in a statement released on the occasion of the XXI Meeting of the African Union (AU) which has just begun in Addis Ababa.

Ethnic Identity Damages Church’s Catholicity (Fides) The attachment to one’s “Chaldean” ethnic and cultural roots should not become fanatical cult of one’s national identity, if one does not want to obscure the church’s catholicity. This is the key message that the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans Louis Sako Raphael I wanted to express in a letter addressed to the clergy of his Church, to share with bishops, priests and religious concerns and hopes on the present moment lived by the church led by him.

Military Chaplains: Serving God and Mother Russia (RBTH) Recruitment of military chaplains is stepping up a gear, as Vladimir Putin’s government builds on traditional Orthodox values to bolster patriotic feelings in society.

One Syrian Village Breathes Easier (France 24) The advance of regime troops on the rebel stronghold of Qusayr in central Syria has come as a relief for at least one village, mostly-Christian, nestled on the shores of Lake Quttina.

Indian Church Helps Syria (Persecuted Church) Extending a helping hand to their war-hit brethren in Syria, the Jacobite Church in Kerala collect 20 million rupees for the rehabilitation of the affected in that country.

20 May 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, is the subject of a comprehensive interview by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica of Canada’s Catholic television network, Salt+Light.

Taped soon after Msgr. Kozar participated in Pope Benedict’s historic pastoral visit to Lebanon last September — and first aired this weekend — the interview includes vignettes from Msgr. Kozar’s travels, CNEWA’s concerns for the plight of the ancient churches of the East, and an invitation to join CNEWA’s mission to build up the church, affirm human dignity, alleviate poverty, encourage dialogue and inspire hope.

17 May 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

According to reports, the Turkish government is preparing to build camps to house Syrian Christian refugees in the Syriac Christian heartland near Mardin, home to the fifth-century Deyrulzafaran Monastery. (photo: Karen Lagerquist)

Why is Turkey Building a Tent City for Syrian Christians? (AINA) Nowhere in the Islamic world has a refugee camp for the Christians of one country been built across the border in a neighbouring country. Now Turkey is building a camp that will hold between 3 and 30 times the number of Syrian Christians currently taking refuge in the country. Why? Why is Turkey creating a small city to handle a flood of Syrian Christians?

Syria’s Christians left in limbo (Haaretz) Christians in Syria find themselves damned if they support the regime of President Bashar Assad, and equally damned if they join the rebellion. With both the regime and Islamists looking to settle scores, the future looks bleak.

Jerusalem family tattoos pilgrims for centuries (Businessweek) Orthodox Christians visiting the Holy Land often return home with more than just spiritual memories. Many drop by a centuries-old tattoo parlor in Jerusalem’s Old City, inking themselves with a permanent reminder not only of their pilgrimage but also of devotion to their faith.

Build Your Own Country (Fides) The Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, Bechara Boutros, addressed a severe reprimand to Lebanese politicians who fail to reach an agreement to prepare a new electoral law and lead the country out of the serious and dangerous political-institutional paralysis in which it has fallen.

Egyptian Christians targeted with blasphemy charges (Dallas News) Blasphemy charges were not uncommon in Egypt under the now-ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but there has been a surge in such cases in recent months, according to rights activists. The trend is widely seen as a reflection of the growing power and confidence of Islamists, particularly the ultraconservative Salafis.

13 May 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

Patriarchs and heads of local churches in Jerusalem condemned the actions of Israeli police that took place during the celebrations of the Holy Fire on Saturday, 4 May.
(photo: CNEWA, Jerusalem)

Jerusalem’s highest ranking Christian clerics — Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant — issued a statement yesterday protesting the actions of the Israeli police during the celebrations of the Holy Fire last Saturday in the Old City of Jerusalem:

“We, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, watched with sorrowful hearts the horrific scenes of the brutal treatment of our clergy, people and pilgrims in the Old City of Jerusalem during Holy Saturday [in the Julian calendar] last week,” the leaders wrote.

“A day of joy and celebration was turned to great sorrow and pain for some of our faithful because they were ill-treated by some Israeli policemen who were present around the gates of the Old City and passages that lead to the Holy Sepulchre.”

According to The Times of Israel, three high-ranking Egyptian diplomats were evicted from the church during the liturgy. A Coptic Orthodox bishop who accompanied the diplomats “was beaten during the incident and briefly lost consciousness. He was treated at a Jerusalem hospital and later released.”

The Times also reported that Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Ze’ev Elkin, offered a verbal apology to Cairo for the “rough treatment” of three Egyptian diplomats on 9 May, a day after “Israel’s ambassador in Cairo, Yaakov Amitai, was summoned by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ministry spokesman Amr Roshdy said in a press conference that Amitai was issued a ‘strongly worded’ complaint about the treatment of the Egyptian diplomats.”

The heads of the churches stated that they “understand the necessity and the importance of the presence of security forces to ensure order and stability, and for organizing the celebration of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Resurrection. Yet, it is not acceptable that under pretext of security and order, our clergy and people are indiscriminately and brutally beaten, and prevented from entering their churches, monasteries and convents.

“We urge the Israeli authorities especially the Ministry of Interior and the police department in Jerusalem, to seriously consider our complaints, to hold responsibility and to condemn all acts of violence against our faithful and the clergy who were ill-treated by the police.”

CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, Sami El-Yousef — a resident of the Old City who belongs to one of Jerusalem’s oldest Christian families — noted that each year Israeli “security” measures surrounding the Holy Fire become more restrictive, bringing back “memories of my ONE magazine article about the same old story that was published in the May 2010 edition. This year, however, was much worse than in 2010 as the Israeli police were brutal.”

In their statement, Jerusalem’s Christian leaders recognized these enhanced security measures, which effectively prevent the local Christian community from participating in the Easter celebrations, stating that “every year, the police measures are becoming tougher, and we expect that these accidents will not be repeated and the police should be more sensitive and respectful if they seek to protect and serve.

“We also denounce all those who are blaming the churches and holding them responsible of the Israeli measures during Holy Week celebrations. On the contrary, the heads of churches in Jerusalem condemn all of these measures and violations of Christians’ rights to worship in their churches and Holy Sites. Therefore, we condemn all measures of closing the Old City and urge the Israeli authorities to allow full access to the Holy Sites during Holy Week of both church calendars.”

Among those who signed the statement were Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, Latin Patriarch Fouad, Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Norhan and the Franciscan custos of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa.

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