11 October 2018
In this image from 1968, Pope Paul VI greets children as he visits the Church of St. Leo the Great in Rome. (photo: CNS/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)
As the world prepares to mark the canonization of Pope Paul VI this weekend, we are reminded of his remarkable legacy — and how a significant part of that touches the people and places we serve, most notably in the Holy Land.
There, an extraordinary event occurred in January of 1964. Pope Paul VI became the first Bishop of Rome, the pope, to visit the Holy Land since St. Peter left it almost 2,000 earlier. That alone would have been enough to make history. However, Paul VI was committed to the spirit of Vatican II, which included a call for the Catholic Church to be ecumenical. So, while in the Holy Land, the pope met with Athenagoras, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. The significance of this cannot be overstated: this marked the first time a pope had met with the patriarch since the Great Schism of 16 July 1054, when the legate of Pope Leo IX announced the excommunication of Patriarch Michael I Cerularius — who, in turn, then excommunicated the pope. Despite efforts over the centuries, the break between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches showed few signs of healing. Thus the meeting of the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople was by any and every measure historic.
However, the Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land was not merely an opportunity to meet with the patriarch. It was also an opportunity for him to meet the people of the land—Israelis and Palestinians. Popes had historically shown concern for the Palestinian people through the establishment of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine by Pope Pius XII in 1949, which is presently the operating agency for CNEWA in the Middle East. Paul VI was no exception.
Even before the 1967 War and the occupation of the West Bank by the Israelis Pope Paul VI saw that the situation of Palestinians was dire. Palestinians were leaving the Holy Land — and Christian Palestinians, often more educated than the general population, were emigrating in alarming numbers. After 1967, the situation became and has remained worse.
In an effort to improve the situation of Palestinians, Pope Paul VI suggested opening some kind of educational facility. The schools of the Latin Patriarchate were always in need of teachers and so originally the idea was for an institute to train teachers. However, in 1973 Brother John Manual, FSC, suggested a university—the first of its kind on the West Bank. Brother Manual’s community, the Christian Brothers of De La Salle, had been active in education in the Holy Land for decades. The community offered property which they owned in Bethlehem for the new project.
Bethlehem University was opened at the suggestion of Pope Paul VI and today continues to serve students of all faiths in Palestine. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Like the other schools the brothers ran in the Middle East, the new university would be built on “La Sallian” principles of education and ethics, providing higher education opportunities for Palestinians. The university opened in 1973 with three religious brothers, some Palestinian faculty members and 112 students. Over the decades, Bethlehem University has become one of the premier universities in the region. With the goal of providing not only education but also employment opportunities to its students, the university over the years has added schools of nursing, business, education and an Institute for Hotel Management and Tourism — critical for handling the vast numbers of pilgrims who visit the region from around the world.
The university now has more than 15,000 alumni and an enrollment of over 3,200 students. As the Christian population continues to diminish, Bethlehem University continues to serve all Palestinians—Christian and Muslim. By having Christian and Muslim students study together and get to know each other, the university is promoting a pluralistic culture of friendship and cooperation between Christians and Muslims in Palestine.
CNEWA has been intimately connected with Bethlehem University over the decades. The Pontifical Mission for Palestine is engaged with the university and the president of CNEWA sits on the university’s board of directors. Bethlehem University refers to its students and alumni as “the bright stars of Bethlehem.” One can hope that those “stars of Bethlehem” can lead the Palestinian people to a new and brighter future.
That is certainly what Pope Paul VI — soon to be St. Pope Paul VI — would have wished.
Read more about The Perseverance of Bethlehem University in the November 2004 edition of ONE magazine.
27 September 2018
Tags: Bethlehem Pope Bethlehem University
The lulav (palm fronds), a silver etrog box and the etrog (large lemon) are displayed during Sukkot, the last of the Jewish high holy days. (photo: Wikipedia)
CNEWA works in places with many different cultures, faiths and traditions — and during this time of year, we are reminded in a particular way of the rich religious and cultural traditions of the Jewish people.
In the fall — starting with Rosh Hashanah, moving through Yom Kippur and ending with Sukkot — Jews mark the ”high holidays” and issue in the New Year of their calendar with prayers and celebrations. This week, Jews throughout the world celebrate the feast of Sukkot, sometimes referred to in English as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, the latter from the Latin tabernaculum, “tent.”
Sukkot is one of the three great pilgrim festivals in the Old Testament: Passover, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost and Sukkot. Long before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Sukkot was an agricultural festival celebrating the end of the harvest. This is clear in Exodus 34:22 where it is called the Feast of the Ingathering (ha’asîf) at the end of the year and is paired with the Feast of Weeks, which is earlier in the year at the wheat harvest.
Sukkot runs for seven or eight days depending on whether one is in Israel or in the diaspora. The festival is outlined in detail in Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-43. It is to last seven days and the first and eighth (!) days are to be a “sacred assembly” on which no work is to be performed. It is a feast of celebration: “On the first day you shall take choice fruits, palm branches, boughs of leafy trees…and you shall rejoice in the presence of the Lord.” It is required that the people live in sukkot, “huts, shelters, booths,” made from branches of palm trees and other leafy trees. This is perhaps the most obvious practice that a non-Jew would notice. Jews throughout the world will build sukkot for the week. In major cities such as New York, it is not uncommon to see sukkot popping up on balconies of high rise apartments. For seven days, Jews will take their meals in the booths and some will even sleep in them. According to Leviticus, the booths are to remind the Israelites that their ancestors lived in shelters such as these during the Exodus.
During one of the central days of Sukkot, there is the ceremony of drawing water, reminiscent of the purification ceremonies at the Temple. This ceremony is specifically mentioned in the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel and may have provided the occasion for Jesus’ exclamation: “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me! Let the one come and drink, who believes in me” because he is “living water” (John 7:37-38).
Also during Sukkot, Jews will display the etrog and the lulav. The etrog is a large citrus like a lemon but considerably larger, while the lulav is palm fronds which are often artfully woven in ways familiar to what some Christian cultures do with palms on Palm Sunday.
Depending upon where one lives—in Israel or the diaspora—there are two different endings to the week of Sukkot. The first is Shmini Atzeret, the “eighth assembly/congregation” which closes the festival. The second, for those in the diaspora, is the festival Simhat Torah, “the joy of the Torah.”
Perhaps most significantly, though, the ending of Sukkot signals, in fact, a beginning — the start for Jews of a new year, full of promise and possibility.
20 September 2018
Smoke rises from a government-held area of Aleppo, Syria, after an explosion in December 2016. (photo: CNS/Omar Sanadiki, Reuters)
Every year on 21 September the United Nations observes International Peace Day. In 2001 the UN General Assembly called on the member states to observe the day through non-violence and ceasefires.
How well that has been observed is tragically clear for all to see.
There are many ways to calculate “armed conflict,” which can cover everything from a full-blown war to local terrorist attacks. Generally speaking, armed conflicts are registered in terms of casualties per year: over 10,000, 1,000-9,999, and 100-999 deaths. Using this metric, it is estimated that there are 38 armed conflicts raging in the world during 2018. These range from smaller local conflicts to larger ones involving massive loss of life in places like Syria, Yemen and Burma.
Almost every religious tradition speaks of peace, although some would limit that peace to fellow believers. Christians speak of pax and eirene, Jews speak of shalom and Muslims of salaam. The religions of the Indian subcontinent speak of shanti and ahimsa (non-violence). Leaders from every world religion speak with some frequency about the importance of peace. International groups and movements such as Religions for Peace and the Parliament of the World’s Religions work tirelessly to promote peace and understanding.
Yet for all this talk and all these efforts, there is still tremendous violence in the world. If we are honest, all too often the conflicts have religious components. It is common for religious people to claim that this or that conflict is political and not religious. In some cases that might be true. However, denying religious components to many conflicts is built on the naïve and faulty assumption that religion cannot be politicized. It can and it is. While religion may not be the only factor in some major conflicts, it definitely plays a role: Buddhists vs. Rohingya Muslims in Burma; Sunni vs. Shi’ite Muslims in Yemen and, to some extent in Syria; Muslims against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq; Hindus against Christians in part of India; and majority Christians against minority Christian groups in places like Russia. One is reminded of the verse in the book of the prophet Jeremiah: “Peace, peace, they say, but there is no peace” (Jer 6:14; 8:10).
If almost all religions speak of peace, if so many religious leaders around the world speak of the importance of peace, why is there so much conflict and not just conflict but conflict involving religion? Perhaps a partial answer can be found in the UN International Peace Day. It is a day not when governments and religious leaders speak of global peace and peace on the much touted macro-scale; it is, rather, a call for not just religions but individual believers to practice peace and non-violence. As long as religious people do not see themselves obliged by their faith to be active agents of peace and reconciliation — but rather allow and even promote conflict in their families, workplace and neighborhoods — conflicts will continue to rage in our world.
CNEWA, of course, is no stranger to conflict. We work in war-torn areas such as the Middle East and the Horn of Africa; we also work with refugees, those quintessential victims of violence, in refugee camps and displacement centers throughout the world. We serve in areas where there are intra-religious conflicts like Ukraine. The words of Jeremiah ring often in our ears.
International Peace Day provides us with an opportunity and a challenge: an opportunity to evaluate our role as believers who work actively to promote peace and reconciliation, and a challenge to bring that peace and reconciliation into our daily lives and local communities.
13 September 2018
Tags: Middle East United Nations
In this image from August, Muslim pilgrims touch Kaaba's wall and pray at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (photo: CNS/Sedat Suna, EPA)
In countries where CNEWA serves, there are sizable—often majority—Muslim communities. And, of course, in the Holy Land, there is a majority Jewish community.
But in a rare coincidence, both Islam and Judaism are observing their respective New Years this week.
On 10 September, Jews around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head of the year,” and the following day Muslims observed the first of Muharram, the New Year in the Muslim calendar. Although Muslims and Jews (to some extent also Christians) follow a lunar calendar of twenty-nine days, Jews and Christians in different ways “correct” the lunar calendar to keep it in line with the 365-day solar calendar. Muslims, however, do not and the Muslim calendar year is 10-11 days shorter than the “corrected” calendar used by Jews and Christians. As a result, festivals like Ramadan, the Breaking of the Fast and New Year move “backwards” through the calendar commonly used. Thus 1 Muharram fell on 14 October in 2015 and will fall on 10 August in 2021. It is unusual, therefore, that 1 Muharram and Rosh Hashanah occur so close to each other.
There is some interesting history behind all this. The Islamic calendar — and hence, New Year — is calculated from the Hijra or emigration/flight of Muhammad and the Muslim community in 622 from a hostile Mecca to Medina where the community would thrive. After enduring more than a decade of often violent persecution in Mecca, Muhammad and his community were invited by the people of Medina, an oasis city over 200 miles north of Mecca, to move there and for Muhammad to govern the city. The story of the Hijra is tense and thrilling. As the Muslims were leaving the city, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s son-in-law, disguised himself as Muhammad in the Prophet’s bed to throw off those who were trying to kill him. Muhammad and his faithful companion Abu Bakr hid from the pursuers in a cave for three days before finally beginning the trip and arriving safely in Medina.
It is important to understand the relationship between the Hijra and the Muslim New Year. It is estimated that the Hijra took place in June of 622. The 1 Muharram after the Hijra is the beginning of the Muslim calendar, which is abbreviated AH (anno hegira). One of the four “sacred months” in the Muslim calendar, Muharram is second in holiness only to the month of Ramadan. Muharram is traditionally a time of non-violence. War, fighting and even hunting is forbidden during the sacred month.
The 10th day of Muharram is Ashura, which for Shi’ite Muslims is a day of great mourning, recalling the murder of Hussein ibn Ali, the Prophet’s grandson, in 680. Ashura is extremely important for Shi’ites who observe the martyrdom of Hussein with re-enactments of his death and mourning rituals. Sunnis do not observe Ashura in this way and in some parts of the world this leads to conflict between the Shi’ite and Sunni communities.
Both Judaism and Islam observe their particular New Years in different ways, with different ceremonies, with rich and varied meanings for those communities. However, the New Year is always a time for looking back and looking forwards — the Roman god Janus, for whom January is named, is portrayed with two faces, one looking forward, the other backwards.
It is a time for remembering the past and correcting what needs to be corrected and a time for looking forward in faith and hope for the year to come.
6 September 2018
Tags: Muslim Islam Jews
A sister greets a young friend at the St. Rachel Center in Jerusalem, which primarily serves those in the migrant population. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Last week, we looked at “charity” as it is understood and practiced in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We saw that care for the weak, the poor and the suffering was central to each of these faiths, although each approached it in a slightly different way. This week, we are looking at how CNEWA embodies Christian charity as it responds to the command of Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
The command to love one another is not an abstract one for Christians. Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus manifests love by showing compassion to those around him. When in Matthew’s Gospel John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to ask if he is the “one to come,” Jesus responds by saying “the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are healed and the poor hear the good news of the Gospel” (Matthew 11:4ff.). Jesus sees his identity and mission as coming to those who are burdened under sickness, poverty, oppression and sin. Caring for the poor and the outcast is not, therefore, merely a side event to being a follower of Jesus, nor is it a theoretical obligation. It is central to salvation.
In Matthew’s Gospel, salvation or damnation are presented as dependent not on orthodoxy, not on liturgical practice, but on how one treated the poor. In this Gospel narrative, whether one enters eternal life or punishment depends entirely on whether or not one fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, took in the stranger and visited the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-36).
For over 90 years, CNEWA has taken that teaching to heart, making Christian love visible by caring for the poor. It is a love that extends far and wide. Recognizing the challenge of Jesus, “if you love only those who love you, what thanks can you expect” (Luke 6:31), the cover of CNEWA’s publication ONE even proclaims that we serve the one “God, one world, one human family and one church.” Originally working in the Middle East, CNEWA’s mission has expanded to also serve those in need in northeast Africa, Central Europe, the Caucuses and India.
The reach is extensive. CNEWA partners with the Eastern Catholic Churches to support hospitals and clinics, to educate children as well as church and community leaders, to care for the handicapped and the outcast. For the past several years, CNEWA has been intensely involved with the plight of refugees in the Middle East—a situation that has been described as the largest humanitarian crisis since World War I.
Although it partners with the Eastern Catholic Churches, CNEWA serves all in need. Serving “the one human family,” CNEWA tries to embody the love of Christ, love which is for all and not just a few. When one of the sisters working in one of CNEWA’s programs was asked if she was caring for Christians, she responded, “I do not help them because they are Christian, but because I am.”
This is the all-embracing love of Christ in action.
Philanthropy is part of all the great religious traditions of the world, and each carries it out differently. The “Golden Rule” of “do to the other as you would have others do to you” exists in every religion. As we have tried to show, love—unconditional and universal love, even of enemies—is a central and unique characteristic of Christianity.
CNEWA tries to make that love visible and effective in the world in which we work.
30 August 2018
In one example of lived charity, Sister Simon Abd Elmalek, the head of Daughters of Charity in Alexandria, Egypt, visits with patients while visiting the dispensary the sisters run. (photo: Roger Anis)
CNEWA is known for its charitable activities around the world — but what, exactly, does that mean? What does the idea of “charity” convey?
In dealing with “charity” in the three great monotheistic religions of the world, it is interesting to note that each faith approaches it in a different way and uses different concepts to describe it.
In Christianity, for example, English-speaking Christians use the word ”charity,” often in relation to the the three “theological virtues” of faith, hope and charity. “Charity” can also be an attitude of kindness and compassion—someone is “charitable,” for example— or it can refer to separate acts of philanthropy, i.e. one gives to charity. This differentiation, however, is actually foreign to the New Testament. Individual acts of philanthropy—as Jesus mentions in Matthew 6—are referred to as “doing eleemosyne,” which comes from the Greek verb eleeo, ”to have pity, mercy.” When we find caritas in Latin translations of the Greek New Testament, it translates the Greek word agape, which is “love.” In Paul’s great treatise on love in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul uses the word nine times. Although the Latin translates these as caritas, modern English translations do not read “charity is patient and kind; charity is not jealous or boastful.” The word used is ”love,” and that is the correct word. Likewise, at the end of the chapter, Paul uses the same word, when he writes: “So faith, hope and love abide…but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13:13).
Therefore, in modern English, “charity” does not always clearly convey the Gospel call — which is, simply, to love. Again and again, Jesus does not call his followers merely to give alms but to love— to love the least among them, to love their enemies, to love as he loves. Love is key—a fundamental message of the Gospels. Thus, even when Christians engage in acts of philanthropy, it is done not so much “out of charity” in the common sense, as it is from the command of Jesus that his followers love.
The approach in Judaism is slightly different. The whole notion of social justice— of care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and stranger—is a resounding message of the Hebrew prophets. Amos, the first of the prophets, preaches against “the crimes of Israel.” He writes: “They have sold the poor person for a pair of sandals; they trample on the head of the poor and push them out of their way.”
In the Hebrew Bible, acts of philanthropy are referred to as tsdaqah and mitzvah — the former with the connotation of that which is right, the latter with that which is commanded. Philanthropy is not an optional or occasional act of kindness. “Charity” in the Hebrew Bible is intimately connected to justice. For the prophets, to ignore the poor and needy is not merely an act of ungraciousness; it is disobedience to God. It is a punishable crime. Even today, a pious Jew will refer to a gratuitous act of kindness as a mitzvah something he or she feels obliged to do because of their faith.
Finally, in Islam, one of the Five Pillars is zakah. It is the donation of 2.5 percent of their holdings (differently calculated in different Muslim schools of theology), which Muslims are obliged to give annually for the support and help of the poor. Most Muslims would look upon that as the absolute minimum for them to do. The Arabic root zkh indicates purity, righteousness and goodness. Muslims also use the word sadaqa to refer to acts of kindness and compassion. It is basically the same word used by the Jews, although the root sdq in Arabic has an additional connotation of truth, authenticity and friendship.
I have looked at “charity” in Christianity, Judaism and Islam not because they have a monopoly on it. In fact, all religions require their adherents to be compassionate towards the weak and the poor. I looked at these three faiths because CNEWA’s work embraces all three; it is a Christian association working with Christians but not only Christians. Paradoxically Christian “charity” just for Christians would not be Christian at all.
In the world of the Middle East, where CNEWA does so much, the three religious traditions offer their adherents a call, a challenge and, indeed, a command: to take responsibility for the weak, the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
This is the very essence of charity.
And we are called to do all this not merely because it is a nice thing to do — but because the one God we worship demands it of us.
23 August 2018
Tags: Christianity Islam Judaism
Pilgrims pray at the Stone of the Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Christians believe this is the stone on which the body of Jesus rested as it was prepared for burial. (photo: Don Duncan)
This week, on 21 August, Muslims all over the world celebrated the eid al adha, the Feast of Sacrifice which occurs every year at the end of the Hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Every Muslim who is physically, financially and otherwise able is obliged once in a lifetime to perform the Hajj with its special rituals.
During this time of year, when so many people are often traveling on vacation, this singular event reminds us of the importance of a specific kind of travel, pilgrimage, in the religions of the Middle East— Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In fact, pilgrimage to a sacred place is something deeply rooted in so many of the people and places CNEWA serves. It’s a tradition stretching back many centuries.
Long before Islam, for example —even before the arrival of Muhammad and the monotheistic faith he preached —pilgrims went to Mecca to worship the over 300 gods revered there.
In fact, the Arabic word hajj is related to the Hebrew word hag, which appears many times in the Hebrew Scriptures to men “festival” in general; specifically, it refers to a festival which involves a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Even in modern Israeli Hebrew, hag sameah means “happy holiday.”
It is interesting to note that although the three great Hebrew feasts of Passover, Shevuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (“booths”) antedated the Temple in Jerusalem—in some instances by centuries—and were originally home or agricultural feasts, the three eventually evolved into pilgrim festivals. Israelites ideally observed them with a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Again and again in the Pentateuch and historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, there are accounts of Jews—including Jesus—making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Christianity, for a number of reasons, did not originally place an emphasis on pilgrimage. The deep-seated belief that the Risen Christ was alive and present in the community rendered pilgrimages to encounter the Lord unnecessary. In addition, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD removed the goal for pilgrimage. Three centuries of intermittent persecution and the struggle to assert a Christian identity that was rooted in Judaism— yet different from it— also reduced the importance of Jerusalem and pilgrimage there in the life of most Christians.
However, when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, emperors and wealthy people began to show their piety by building churches and shrines at places connected with events in the life of Christ.
The Emperor Constantine and his mother Helen were the first in the line of many emperors who restored and built new holy places in the Holy Land. In the first four centuries of Christianity, Jerusalem went from being a Jewish city under Roman control to a Roman city where Jews were forbidden to enter to a Roman (Byzantine) Christian city. Once under Christian control, Jerusalem and the Holy Land gradually became a place for Christian pilgrims. However, it was never the only pilgrim destination or even the most important goal for Christian pilgrims. Christians made pilgrimages to the tombs of Peter and Paul in Rome, the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England, and to the tomb of James the Apostle in Compostela, Spain. In modern times the convenience of air travel has made Jerusalem and “the Holy Land” increasing popular with Christian pilgrims.
While the purposes and goals of pilgrimage vary among the three faith traditions, all three see the period of pilgrimage as a special time, an occasion for the pilgrim to be dedicated totally to God. In all three religions, it is a time of strict non-violence and spiritual reflection.
More pious than a vacation, and more physically involving than a retreat, it is a time when the believers renew themselves and rededicate their lives to following the faith and worshipping the one God.
Pilgrimage is a practice that binds all three religious traditions together — and as such, it is one we should all respect, cherish and appreciate throughout the world CNEWA serves.
14 August 2018
Tags: Middle East Christianity Islam Judaism
The Temple of Bel in Palmyra in Syria is a World Heritage Site that was destroyed by ISIS. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Many of the people and places CNEWA serves are somehow imperiled—whether by war, persecution, economic hardship or drought. Often, the stories we tell in our magazine, ONE, revolve around ways of life that are rapidly disappearing.
We aren’t the only ones chronicling this phenomenon. The United Nations has been involved in this, as well, and has actively taken steps to try and save what otherwise might be lost.
In 1965 the United States, under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, hosted a conference entitled “World Heritage Trust.” The conference recognized the universal human significance of some sites in the world. These sites—both natural and cultural—touch the deepest part of what it means to be human in the best sense of the term. The conference recognized that natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon invoke a sense of wonder and awe that transcends language, culture and religious affiliation. Likewise some sites—buildings, cities, places of worship—also signify the heights human achievement can attain. It was recognized that these sites, while remaining under local state sovereignty, are nonetheless part of the patrimony of the entire human family.
In 1972 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Four years later, the World Heritages Committee was formed, with the express intent of creating the World Heritage List — places and landmarks to be treasured by all. As of 2017, there are 1,052 World Heritages Sites around the world. Of these, 814 are cultural, 203 are natural and 35 are “mixed.” (For a complete list of these sites, visit this link.)
While the World Heritage List revolves around those things both natural and created that bring out and reflect the best in humanity, it cannot be overlooked that in the list of the sites — in addition to noting whether the site is cultural, natural or mixed — there is a note as to whether is it threatened. Many are threatened — and some are threatened by deliberate human activity.
The Middle East, the world of CNEWA’s original mission, is one of the so-called cradles of civilization. Sixteen World Heritages Sites can be found in Jordan, Syria and Iraq alone. These countries have been involved in war for almost a decade. Hence, many of these sites are also the victims of war. Caught between fighting factions, places such as the citadel in Aleppo, the Nebi Yunus Mosque in Mosul and many others have been reduced to rubble. The Islamic State (ISIS), with its nihilist theology, deliberately destroyed many ancient sites because they were considered “infidel.” Ancient statues and artifacts and priceless, irreplaceable manuscripts have been wantonly destroyed.
On 18 August 2015, the 82-year-old Syrian scholar Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by ISIS and his dead body was then publicly crucified. His crime? He refused to reveal to ISIS where the archaeological treasures of the World Heritage Site of Palmyra were hidden. Al-Asaad dedicated his life to studying and preserving the ancient heritage of his country and, indeed, the whole world.
He gave his life to save that heritage.
If the UNESCO World Heritage Sites were created to reflect and bring out the best of humanity, they have also been the victims of the worst of humanity.
While CNEWA does not work directly with UNESCO or the World Heritage Sites, we do strive to reduce the violence and inhumanity in all places where we work. By helping to meet the basic needs of people often left homeless, scarred by violence and war, we hope ultimately to meet their spiritual needs as human beings — beings who are compassionate, just, secure and open to things of beauty like the UNESCO World Heritages Sites, often in their own lands.
2 August 2018
Tags: Syria Iraq United Nations
In 1983, Pope John Paul II met in prison with Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot and wounded the pontiff in St. Peter's Square two years earlier. The pope publicly forgave him. (photo: CNS)
This year on Sunday 5 August—and on the first Sunday of August every year—many people around the world observe International Forgiveness Day. Although the observance is not connected with any specific religion, organizers note:
”Most world religions include teachings on the nature of forgiveness, and many of these teachings provide an underlying basis for many varying modern day traditions and practices of forgiveness. Some religious doctrines or philosophies place greater emphasis on the need for humans to find some sort of divine forgiveness for their own shortcomings, others place greater emphasis on the need for humans to practice forgiveness of one another, yet others make little or no distinction between human and divine forgiveness.”
Since much of CNEWA’s world is home to the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—it’s worth considering how each of these faiths treats the notion of forgiveness.
The three religions all differentiate between God’s forgiveness of humans and human beings forgiving each other. Each of the three monotheistic faiths strongly emphasizes that God is merciful and ready to forgive.
In Judaism, this idea recurs repeatedly. Almost like an antiphon, the phrase “tender and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in graciousness and ready to relent” (Joel 2:13) is applied again and again to God in the Hebrew Bible. The entire book of the Prophet Jonah is dedicated to God’s mercy.
In Christianity, God’s mercy and forgiveness are a constant theme of the preaching of Jesus. In the New Testament, God is presented as a loving Father who is always ready to forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ connects the forgiveness of God with our own readiness to forgive: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
In Islam one finds the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God. They are God’s titles and characteristics. The first two names of God for Muslims are: rahmani and rahim, “the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.” For Muslims these are the two primary and most important characteristics of God. Of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an, all of them except one (Chapter 9, al-Tawba) begins “In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.”
Of course, almost all religions have a form of the “Golden Rule:” do unto others as you would have them to unto you. Nevertheless, forgiveness of those who harm and offend us is treated slightly differently in the three monotheistic traditions. Part of this may be due to the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Qur’an contain legal material and are concerned in some cases with retributive justice. In these scriptures, the action of the offender is important: the offender must repent and ask for forgiveness. The Qur’an 42:41 is, however, instructive here. After reiterating the Law of Talion (an eye for an eye, etc.), it adds “but whoever forgives and brings about reconciliation, his reward is with God.”
But in Christian teaching, the New Testament is unique in its call for “gratuitous forgiveness.” In Matthew’s Gospel (6:14-15) Jesus connects his followers’ willingness to forgive with God’s willingness. When in Matthew 18 Peter askes Jesus how often he must forgive, Jesus responds “seventy times seven” or indefinitely. .” In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus demands something unique in the monotheist faiths: love of one’s enemy. Jesus challenges his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In Luke 6:27-35 he expands the challenge and says “love your enemies and do good, lend without hope of return.” While dying on the cross Jesus asks God to forgive his executioners, although they clearly have not repented of what they are doing.
In our world today, mercy and forgiveness are needed perhaps now more than ever. There is a saying which is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian pacifist: if it is an eye for an eye, it won’t be long before the whole world is blind. Gandhi recognized that while forgiveness is very difficult and at times seemingly impossible, it is ultimately in our own self-interest too.
The world in which CNEWA works has seen more than its share of evil and violence. Genocidal attacks against Yazidis in northwestern Iraq, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, destruction of churches, monasteries and sacred places, rape and slavery as tools of war and other atrocities are all crimes which cry to heaven. The drive towards vengeance can be very strong and very understandable.
But regardless of how strong or how understandable, vengeance must be resisted and must give way to mercy.
Wherever we work, CNEWA tries to be promote understanding, rebuilding of relationships, reconciliation and forgiveness — not only on International Forgiveness Day but every day.
In the words of a well-known commercial: it’s what we do.
19 July 2018
Tags: Christianity Islam Judaism
In this 2014 file photo, a man prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
On Sunday 22 July, Jews around the world quietly observe Tish’ah B’Av (“the ninth of Av”), Av being the fifth month of the Hebrew Calendar, corresponding to July/August. Tish'ah B’Av is a day of fasting and mourning for Jews. It commemorates primarily the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. But, as we’ll see, the events being remembered can have meaning and significance to the wider world, as well— particularly in places CNEWA serves.
According to the biblical text (2 Kings 25:8 ff.), “in the fifth month on the seventh day of the month (587 BC)…Nebuzaradan, commander of the guard, an officer of the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned down the Temple of Yahweh, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem.” It was an unparalleled disaster for the Israelites, bringing the end of the almost 500-year dynasty of David, the end of his city Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple which Solomon built.
In Numbers 13:25-14:38 we find the story of the spies sent to reconnoiter Canaan by Moses. Upon their return, all but two spies give a very negative—and false—report on the possibilities of entering the Promised Land. On hearing the negative report, the people revolted against Moses and God and were punished. According to an ancient Jewish commentary on the biblical text, the Israelites wailed and complained against God for no reason. It was—according to the tradition—on the 9th of Av. God the punished them by making that a day on which they would really have something to mourn.
For Jews, the 9th of Av has become a day which commemorates all the tragedies which have come upon them. Although few of these events actually occurred on the 9th of Av, many have occurred during the months of July/August in the calendar. To name just a few:
· July 70 AD: the Romans entered and destroyed Jerusalem and, with it, the Second Temple, built in the time of Ezra and greatly expanded by Herod the Great (d. 4 BC).
· 4 August 135 AD: the Romans at Betar killed almost half a million people who had been part of the rebellion of Bar Kochba.
· 2 August 1941: the Nazi party approved “The Final Solution,” which brought about the extermination of six million Jews in Europe.
On the 9th of Av the biblical book of Lamentations is read in the synagogue. Jews fast for 25 hours, sit on the ground or low stools and avoid any type of entertainment. Although many non-Jews might not be as aware of the observance of Tish?ah B’Av as they are of Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, it is nonetheless an observance with profound meaning for the Jewish people.
But perhaps the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 587 BC and the Second Temple in 70 AD can have meaning for all people of faiths.
Without taking away from the poignancy of the Jewish tragedies observed on Tish?ah B’Av, we are reminded of the violence against sacred places around the world—and more importantly the persons who hold them sacred: the Buddhist statues in Bamyan, in Afghanistan; the bombing of churches in the Middle East; the destruction of Yazidi sacred sites and on and on.
The lands in which CNEWA works are no strangers to violence against places of worship and the worshippers who hold them sacred. Tish?ah B’Av, a sacred and solemn day to Jews, can serve as a reminder to all people of faiths. As long as one group of believers is the object of oppression and violence, no believer can be secure—and none can afford to be indifferent.
Tags: Israel Jerusalem