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September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
2 February 2012
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Men pray during an open house at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, N.Y., in 2010. A decade after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 Sept 2001 led to a backlash against Muslims, many Americans are still uncomfortable with followers of Islam and think its teachings are at odds with American values. (photo: CNS / Gregory A. Shemitz)

I was fascinated to see a new study published within the last week: “Shari’a Law: Coming to a Courthouse Near You?” Written by Dr. Julie Macfarlane for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, the study addresses a fear that seems to be rising in some quarters. Recently there have been proposals on ballots to ban Shari’a from the American legal system, treating Shari’a as a threat. Dr. Macfarlane deals with the question of what the Shari’a means for North American Muslims.

Shari’a is often used as a slogan in politics in the Muslim world. Calls to “re-instate the Shari’a” echo back and forth on the news. Often it is the most reactionary Muslims, such as the Taliban, who call for the restoration of the Shari’a, filling the media with images of beheadings, stonings and incredible intolerance. Given that image, the fear of some people is understandable, though not justified.

Even the expression “the Shari’a” is misleading. It is easy to get the impression that “the Shari’a” is a thing like the Declaration of Independence, the UN Charter or any given piece of legislation. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is not a body of laws. There are many different ways that Shari’a is applied and interpreted in different countries and even within countries. The expression “the Shari’a” is often used a slogan for a very particular type of agenda, which most Muslims would reject.

Still the question remains: what do Muslims understand by the Shari’a? Since Islam is a worldwide religion, Muslims in different countries, cultures and circumstances have different understandings of it.

Dr. Macfarlane’s study shows that Shari’a does play an important role in the cultural and religious identity of the vast majority of American and Canadian Muslims. Most interestingly, the study shows that “the practice of shari’a [sic] for the vast majority of American Muslims is focused almost exclusively on private, family matters, primarily marriage and divorce.” However, even in this fairly limited area, 95 percent of the (Muslim) respondents said that it was important to have an Islamic marriage contract and a civil marriage license. In divorce cases Muslims frequently have recourse to U.S. courts to settle disputes such a custody.

To read the full study, visit this link.

Tags: Muslim Interreligious Islam

25 January 2012
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Benedict XVI, seated next to Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, applauds during a concert at the Vatican 20 May 2010. The concert was a gift from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Also pictured is Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, at right. (photo: CNS /Paul Haring)

Today ends the 104th observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a week that has a rich history and a special connection to my own life.

It was begun in 1908 as the Chair of Unity Octave by Rev. Paul Wattson, an Anglican priest who would later become a Roman Catholic. Paul Wattson and Sister Laurana White — founders of my religious order, the Society of the Atonement — were disturbed by the divisions among Christians and were inspired by a vision of Christian unity. So they launched this eight-day period of prayer from 18-25 January, and it’s now grown into a worldwide observance. Pope Benedict XV in 1917 extended the observance to the entire Roman Catholic Church.

A sense of the importance of Christian unity grew among Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox during the first half of the 20th century. For the average Roman Catholic, the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) committed Catholics to work and pray for the unity of Christ’s followers.

What began as a small observance among Roman Catholics has been transformed into a truly ecumenical undertaking. Every year, a commission comprised of members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (Geneva) meets to set the theme for the next year’s observance. The theme for this year has been We Will All Be Changed by the Victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:51-58).

Pope Benedict XVI referred to this special week during his General Audience at the Vatican on Wednesday. Describing Jesus’s priestly prayer at the Last Supper, the pope said, “He asks the Father to consecrate his disciples, setting them apart and sending them forth to continue his mission in the world. Christ also implores the gift of unity for all those who will believe in him through the preaching of the Apostles. His priestly prayer can thus be seen as instituting the Church, the community of the disciples who, through faith in him, are made one and share in his saving mission.”

For the past eight days, Christians have been praying for unity and working together to overcome centuries of mistrust. In a world of increasing division, xenophobia and tribalism, the observance of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity gives witness to the prayer of Christ “that all may be one” (John 17:21).

20 January 2012
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New York, addresses the conference, accompanied by Catholics and Muslims who work together in social service projects in the archdiocese. (photo: Bob Gore)

In a time when great media attention is given to conflicts between Muslims and others, I attended a conference yesterday that was a real eye opener.

The conference was entitled “Catholic-Muslim Social Service Partnerships: Lessons from Manhattan, Bronx and Staten Island” and was sponsored by the Interfaith Center of New York. I represented CNEWA and gave a presentation of the history of Catholic-Muslim dialogue in the Archdiocese of New York. Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, the executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New York was there, along with several of his colleagues. The Muslim community was represented by Ms. Sarah Sayeed and her colleagues from the Interfaith Center and staff from several other groups, including the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in New York and the Islamic Society of North America.

It was amazing to see how many joint projects there are in New York City in which Catholics and Muslims work hand-in-hand. Catholics and Muslims attending the conference spoke of a wide variety of programs on interfaith dialogue, hunger relief, and youth development that they have successfully maintained for several years.

Personally, I found the conference to be immensely encouraging. After all the media coverage last year about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” and the demonstrations against it, one could easily believe that Muslims and Catholics in New York City have little or nothing positive to do with one another. Such a belief was conclusively proven wrong yesterday. While there are still problems, of course, and areas of misunderstanding that need to be discussed — and, hopefully, solved — Catholics and Muslims in New York City have a vibrant, deep and successful history of working together to address the needs and problems of the poorest people in our society.

Tags: CNEWA Muslim Interreligious Catholic

23 December 2011
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Family members look down on the streets of Hamdaniya from their balcony.
(photo: Safin Hamed)

It is said that “history is written by the victors.” What is surprising is how much “editing” the victors often have to do. People who are interested in Eastern Christianity in general and the plight of Iraqi Christians in particular are familiar with the town of Qaraqosh on the Plains of Nineveh in northern Iraq. Qaraqosh is a town of less than 50,000 which has been Christian for a good fifteen hundred years. It is also known as Baghdeda, a name which goes back into truly ancient history. Some scholars believe that Baghdeda existed during the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Indeed Baghdeda may have been the scene of one of the last battles before Neo-Assyrian Empire fell to the Chaldeans from Babylon in 610 BC.

Since the beginning of the most recent Gulf War (2003-2011), Christians from all over Iraq have fled north to Qaraqosh or left Iraq entirely. I heard one person recently question if “all the Christians in Iraq live in Qaraqosh.” Problems arise, however, when the curious wish to find Qaraqosh or Baghdeda. Neither can be found on most modern maps.

The mystery is easily solved, however. One of the common characteristics of authoritarian regimes is to seek legitimacy by rewriting history. These regimes tend to seek legitimacy by connecting themselves with a real or imagined “glorious past.” Saddam Hussein, for example, portrayed himself in one parade as the new Sargon of Akkad, the great Mesopotamian conqueror three thousand years before Christ! When history does not fit the prevailing ideology of a regime, that history is simply rewritten.

Baghdeda or Qaraqosh was an extremely ancient town with roots stretching back 4,000 years. The inhabitants consider themselves Assyrians, the descendants of the great Neo-Assyrian Empire. Whether that is literally true or not, they do not consider themselves ethnically the same as the dominant Arab culture. People in the area speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, which was once the main language of the region. In addition, the town’s population has been overwhelmingly Christian since before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century. Qaraqosh and its inhabitants did not fit the Ba’athist (the political party of Saddam Hussein) portrait of Iraq—a homogeneous, Arab, Muslim country. In an attempt to “Arabize” Iraq in the 1970’s the Ba’athist government changed the name of Baghdeda/Qaraqosh to Hamdaniya. The name refers to the Banu Hamdan, an Arab, Shi’ite Muslim tribe that was politically dominant in the present day northern Iraq and Syria in the 10th century.

While Baghdeda/Qaraqosh may no longer be easily found on contemporary maps, it nonetheless remains there as an increasingly important stronghold of indigenous and ancient Christianity in Iraq, where the Christian presence has been drastically reduced since the American invasion in 2003.

To read more about Christians in Iraq today, see A New Genesis for Nineveh in the November 2011 issue of ONE.

Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians

23 November 2011
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Metropolitan Timotei dons the ceremonial robes and crown in preparation for the celebration of Easter in Macedonia. (photo: Sean Sprague)

On 17 November 2011, at a meeting of the Catholic Patriarchs of the Orient in Lebanon, the bishops once again called on all Christians to agree on a single date for Easter. At present the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches calculate the date of Easter differently than the Orthodox churches. This results in both sets of Christian churches often having different dates for Easter. The bishops believed that all Christians celebrating Easter on the same day would be a sign of Christian unity.

When I was asked to write on this, I thought that there were some deep theological differences involved. Research into the topic made me realize that I was in the exciting area of “things I thought I knew but didn’t.” To understand more, you have to start at the beginning — the very beginning.

I know that the Gospels are not in total agreement about the date of the Last Supper. The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) see the Last Supper taking place on the first day of Passover, which began at sundown on Thursday. John, on the other hand, sees the Last Supper taking place on the evening before Passover, which according to John would have begun Friday at sunset. I was aware of a group of Christians in the early church called the “Quattuordecimans” (”Fourteeners”) who celebrated Easter on the 14th of Nisan, the same day Jews celebrated Passover. For the Quattuordecimans, Easter could fall on any day of the week. Most Christians, however, celebrated Easter on the Sunday after Passover. There were some controversies between the two groups. The Council of Nicea (325), however, settled the matter and decreed that Easter would be on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. The date of the equinox, with some slight astronomical inaccuracy, was determined as 21 March.

It would seem, then, that the question was solved in 325. What was the problem? The problem was not based on a deep, theological or mystical difference. The problem was based on an astronomical calculation: the length of the calendar year. The Julian calendar in use during the first 15 centuries of Christianity assumed that the solar year was 365 days and 6 hours. The problem is that the solar year is about 10 minutes and 48 seconds shorter than that. So what? Well, it really doesn’t make that much a difference — over a short period of time. However, over a longer period of time, it can make a big difference. By the time of Pope Gregory XIII (1582), after whom the Gregorian calendar is named, the difference meant that the spring equinox was falling on 11 March — some 10 days earlier!

Pope Gregory proposed — actually decreed — a new calculation to the calendar, which went into effect on 24 February 1582. In addition to using a more accurate measure for the length of the solar year, the Gregorian calendar “dropped” 10 days when it was inaugurated. It took several centuries before all countries accepted the new Gregorian calendar. Both political and denominational reasons made many hesitant to accept a “popish” change in the calendar. However, the Gregorian calendar slowly won out. When the British Empire and its colonies accepted it in 1752, 11 days had to be “dropped” to bring the calendar in line with the new calculations. The last of the Orthodox Christian countries to accept the Gregorian calendar was Greece in 1923. By that time, 13 days needed to be “dropped.” Thus by the mid 20th century, the Gregorian calendar was the dominant calendar in the world, although other — mostly religious — calendars, e.g. Muslim, Jewish, Persian, etc., still continue to exist.

The “problem” with the date of Easter has to do with when the spring equinox occurs. In the Gregorian calendar, it always occurs on 20 or 21 March. The present difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars is 13 days (thus the spring equinox in the Julian calendar is on about 8 March). In 2100 the difference will be 14 days. To help bridge the gap, in 1923 some Orthodox churches proposed a revised Julian calendar, which was corrected against the solar year by dropping 13 days. However, not all of the Orthodox churches chose to adopt the revised Julian calendar and those that did chose it to calculate the dates of fixed feasts and not the date of Easter. In 1997 at a meeting in Aleppo, Syria, the World Council of Churches proposed that the date for Easter be calculated using astronomical observations for the spring equinox and full moon based at the meridian of Jerusalem. This would have disregarded the question of Gregorian vs. Julian calendar and would have eliminated the disparity in dates. None of the member bodies of the World Council, however, adopted this solution.

For many Christians, especially in the west, the date for Easter is not all that important. For other Christians it is a point of identity. Ultimately the most import issue is whether the common observance of Easter by all Christians would give significant witness to the world. If it would not, then the date or dates of Easter are immaterial. If it would give greater witness, however, the question becomes what theological justification would there be for lessening the impact of Christian witness for what is basically an 11-minute-and-48-second difference in the length of our year?

Tags: Catholic Orthodox Church Easter Christian

26 October 2011
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Archbishop Elias Chacour, the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee addresses the audience at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada. (photo: Elias Mallon)

Anyone wondering about the future of Christianity in the Middle East could find some fascinating answers last weekend in Canada, where a symposium on that topic was held at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa. It was sponsored by the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and CNEWA — and I was invited to take part in a panel discussion.

The main speaker was Archbishop Elias Chacour, the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee. Archbishop Chacour, the first native Palestinian Arab to be named a Melkite archbishop in Israel, refers to himself as “the other man from Galilee.” It is a title he deserves. He has worked for peace, justice and reconciliation between Christians, Jews and Muslims for decades. He is the author of several books, the most famous of which, Blood Brothers, has been translated into 20 languages.

Living for years in poverty in the small Israeli Palestinian Arab town of Ibilin, he worked to bring opportunities for education not only for his own Christian people, but also for Muslim and Jewish children in the area. His goal has been not only to educate the youth academically, but also to acquaint them with their Muslim and Jewish neighbors, defusing hatred and hopefully contributing to a just and lasting peace.

Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Archbishop Chacour has worked tirelessly to make the world aware of the plight of Palestinians. In this he is not different from many others. What makes him stand out is that, while making the oppressed and unjust situation of the Palestinians clear to the world, he is at the same time very careful not to demonize Israeli Jews. Again and again, he warns his readers and his followers against the danger of contributing to a circle of hatred and violence that constantly threatens to engulf the region.

For years I have wanted to meet this other man from Galilee and was fortunate at the symposium to have several conversations with him. The encounters were not disappointing. He has a quick sense of humor. Being with him, you feel that he is somewhere between a prophet and a beloved uncle. In Arabic he is popularly known as abuna ilyas, “Father Elias,” which happens to be what I am called in Arabic, too. We joked about the presence of two “Eliases” at the symposium. He quickly puts people at ease and it is easy to overlook that you are in the presence of a truly great man.

At the symposium, Archbishop Chacour met with members of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches. The future of Christianity is on the mind of these and of all Christians in the Middle East. Emigration, discrimination and outright persecution are factors that are reducing the presence of Christians in the very lands where Christianity was born. Archbishop Chacour’s comments to those who had suffered discrimination and even persecution because they were Christian were extraordinary. He understood their anger and pain; indeed he had experienced many of the same things. However, he reminded them all of the necessity to forgive and to work for reconciliation.

The symposium also included panels with scholars, clergy and the Honorable Jason Kenney, a member of the Canadian Parliament and a minister in the current government. There were lively and informed discussions on the complex problems facing all the peoples, but especially Christians in the Middle East. While no solutions were offered of course, the message of Archbishop Chacour gives us reason to believe that the situation is not hopeless.

Catholic News Service has more on Archbishop Chacour and his background at this link.

Tags: Middle East Christians Christianity Unity Christian-Muslim relations Middle East Peace Process

13 September 2011
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Early today, the leaders of Christian churches in Jerusalem released a communiqué, announcing “the need to intensify our prayers and diplomatic efforts for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.” Among other things, the statement calls for a “two-state solution [that] serves the cause of peace and justice.” You can read the entire statement at this link. We asked Rev. Elias Mallon, CNEWA’s Education and Interreligious Affairs Officer, to help put this in context for us.

At the 66th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations which begins next Monday, it is expected that the Palestinian National Authority (P.N.A.) will apply for membership at the U.N. In order to receive member status the Palestinian application has to be approved by the Security Council, which consists of five permanent members and 10 member states elected by the General Assembly for a two-year term. The Permanent Five have the right to veto; the other 10 members do not. The United States, one of the Five, has made it clear that it will veto any Palestinian bid for member status at the U.N. A veto by any of the Permanent Five stops a proposal.

Given the unlikelihood of the Palestinians achieving member status, they can, nonetheless, upgrade their present status from being an “observer entity” to being an “observer state.” Acceptance as an observer state requires the majority vote of the General Assembly which consists of 193 member states. It is relatively certain that the P.N.A. will be granted observer state status, should it choose to apply. This would effectively recognize Palestine as a state, allow it to be a member of several U.N. organizations and give it the right to access the International Court at The Hague.

While it is relatively certain that the United States will veto a Palestinian application at the level of the Security Council, many other things are not clear. It is not absolutely certain that the Palestinians will actually make application for membership in the U.N. It is not clear how the countries of the European Union will vote, should such an application be made. It is also not clear how much the U.S. will be isolated from the world community by casting its veto or if, having cast the veto, the U.S. will ever again be seen as a credible, neutral partner in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Tags: Jerusalem Middle East Palestine United States

8 September 2011
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

I was sitting at my desk at about 8:30 on the morning of September 11, 2001. Having worked in the Catholic/Christian-Muslim dialogue for almost 20 years, I had been recently hired to set up a new interreligious education program for a seminary in New York City. Our friary is in Greenwich Village. The loud noise of a jet flying over the house startled me enough to stand up from my desk and say, “Wow! That was low!” There was no further noise and I did not think any more of it. I returned to working on my plans for the education program.

At around 9:00 I left the house and noticed a crowd on the corner of Sixth Avenue. Although I normally would have walked in the other direction, I gave in to my curiosity and walked to Sixth Avenue. The Twin Towers, which everyone in the neighborhood used to give tourists and visitors directions, were enveloped in red flames and black smoke. From where I stood I thought the heat of the fires was making the windows of the buildings blow out. I soon realized that the shapes plummeting to the ground were not windows; they were human beings.

As I stood on Sixth Avenue just before witnessing the collapse of the South Tower, it was clear that it was an attack and not an accident. At that early hour, no one knew who was responsible. People were too stunned to think about anything other than what they were witnessing. I saw a young woman wearing a hijab, the scarf many Muslim women wear. I remember being filled with a terrible sadness. I hoped that Muslims were not responsible for this terrible act. But if Islamic terrorists were responsible, I prayed that she and other innocent Muslims would not end up “collateral damage” to what was going on before my eyes. Would the hatred that brought the World Trade Center down be directed at this young woman and my other Muslim friends and colleagues?

In the ten years since September 11, 2001, I have been to “Ground Zero” only once. I was part of a team that put together an interfaith service on a bitterly cold January night in 2002. Surrounded by Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim friends and colleagues, we prayed in remembrance, we prayed for healing. The prayer service ended on a platform overlooking the gaping hole where recovery operations were still going on. The night was cold, moonless and dark; the hole was unnaturally bright, illuminated by countless work lights around the site.

We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the attack. I do not plan to visit Ground Zero. I am not ready to do that. I do not personally know anyone who died on September 11, 2001, although most of the men in the firehouse around the corner from where I live lost their lives. If I cannot bring myself to go to Ground Zero, I can barely comprehend the anguish, pain and, yes, anger of those who lost relatives and loved ones. That loss can never be undone, never be made right.

One of the most difficult aspects in Christianity — and also one its foremost characteristics — is the challenge of Jesus to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly” (Luke 6:28 and elsewhere). Paul repeats the command “bless those who persecute you; never curse them, bless them. … Never repay evil with evil. …” (Romans 12:14, 17).

Looking ahead to the liturgical readings for the upcoming month, I was struck by the first reading for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which falls on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:

The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance,
For he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
Then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
And expect healing from the Lord? ...
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
Who will forgive his sins? (Sirach 27:1-9 passim)

The reading for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Latin Rite was not chosen because of 9/11. It just happens this year to coincide with the tenth anniversary. After the reading is proclaimed, the lector will say “The Word of the Lord” and the congregation will respond “Thanks be to God.” The Word of the Lord? What does that mean to me? And what does this particular word mean to me on this particular and painful occasion? Will I choose to ignore what I have just acknowledged as God’s Word? Or will I reject it outright?

In a way that is almost eerily prophetic, this reading is challenging us Christians to give witness in a way we rarely have the opportunity to do. The Word is not calling us to minimize or forget our pain and loss, much less the pain and loss of others. Nor is it calling us to call evil “good.” It is, however, challenging us in a most disturbing way to give witness to our conviction that love is more powerful than hate, forgiveness more God-like than vengeance and healing more powerful than death.

Rev. Elias Mallon is CNEWA's Education & Interreligious Affairs Officer.

Tags: Christianity Unity Christian-Muslim relations Multiculturalism

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