25 April 2016
CNEWA’s President Msgr. John Kozar visits with two Iraqis during his trip to Kurdistan earlier this month. Last weekend, he shared some of his experiences from that trip with clergy in the
Diocese of Providence. (photo: CNEWA)
Msgr. John E. Kozar, President of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) was invited to be the keynote speaker at a Convocation and Priests’ Study Day for the priests of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, on 18 April 2016. I was fortunate to accompany him on this short trip.
The topic of the Study Day was the current situation of Christians in the Middle East. With over 150 priests, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and two other bishops in attendance, Msgr. Kozar spoke about his recent trip to Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan. Accompanied by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, monsignor led a pastoral visit to the many different projects that CNEWA supports for the over 120,000 Christians who fled the onslaught of ISIS in August 2104.
It was Msgr. Kozar’s second trip to Erbil. He spoke of the tremendous needs of the displaced people in the region. He told the assembled priests of how CNEWA works with the local church to build up the societal and human infrastructure of the camps where the displaced Iraqis are housed. Although there have been noticeable improvements in their lives — many no longer live in tents and have educational and health care opportunities available — the longer they are away from the homes, the greater is their despair.
Monsignor reported on one the more creative projects which CNEWA supports: namely, two mobile clinics which can bring medical care to those who are at a distance from Erbil and unable to access the more permanent clinics which have been set up. He also spoke warmly of a visit to a village where he was welcomed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well as Yazidis.
The presentation was followed by a lively exchange of questions and comments. Many of the participants said that they found the Study Day very helpful in informing them about a critical topic that is important to their ministries.
28 January 2016
Muslim leaders gather in Marrakesh, Morocco to discuss the rights of religious minorities
in Muslim countries. (photo: Twitter)
Some three hundred Muslim scholars met this past week in Marrakesh, Morocco, at the invitation of King Mohammed VI to discuss the situation of (religious) minorities in “Muslim Majority Communities.” The kings of Morocco and Jordan are well known for their efforts to promote respect for human right in Muslim countries.
The religious leaders and scholars gathered in Marrakesh issued a “Declaration on the Rights of Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities.” The English form of the Declaration is an “Executive Summary” and is shorter than the Arabic text. (You can read it here.)
The Executive Summary — claiming its theoretical and theological base on the “Constitution/Charter of Medina” (622) in which the Prophet Muhammad guaranteed the rights of non-Muslims in Medina — speaks of “principles of constitutional contractual citizenship.” The group calls for cooperation built on “A Common Word between Us and You,” an extremely important “letter” of a wide variety of Muslims to Christians around the world which was published 13 October 2007. Signed by over 120 Muslim leaders, that letter called for overcoming conflicts and promoting better cooperation between Muslims and Christians. The Marrakesh Declaration concretely calls for Muslim countries to “go beyond mutual tolerance and respect, to providing full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups...”
Perhaps more importantly — and providing the real challenge — the Declaration calls for Muslim scholars the world over to “develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups.” This is significant because Christian leaders in the Middle East since the so-called Arab Spring have been stressing the importance of citizenship, which is a relatively new concept in Islamic Law.
The Declaration merits closer study of the original Arabic text. It would also be important to see the list of signers, if such exists.
Nevertheless, especially in the context of “A Common Word between Us and You,” even the Executive Summary of Marrakesh Decaration is an important development in the attempts of Muslims to respond to the crisis of extremism in Islam. One can only hope that those who ask “Why aren’t they speaking out again terrorism?” will have the opportunity to read this text.
25 January 2016
Deir Mar Elias, shown here in an image from 2005, was destroyed last week by ISIS. It was the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq. (photo: Wikipedia)
Reports of the destruction of Deir Mar Elia, a sixth century monastery in Iraq, surfaced around the world this past week. The responses ranged from outrage and shock to the numbing realization that ISIS destroyed a piece of history again.
One of the marks of genius of the Islamic culture has been its ability to appropriate what was good, useful and beautiful from cultures that it had conquered.
The entire Middle East has developed one civilization on top of another for more than 5,000 years. The two most recent and familiar are Christianity and Islam, which are the major elements in a centuries-old synthesis that ISIS is now threatening with extinction in the Middle East in a way that can only be described as nihilistic.
While geography may not be very interesting for many, it is fascinating. Maps can be like an archaeological excavation with layer upon layer of history waiting to be revealed. Maps of the Middle East are particularly interesting as human civilizations have such a deep footprint. Place names often indicate things that have been long forgotten. The Arabic word qal‘at, for example, appears in many place names. It means “fortress” and the name can remain long after every trace of a fortress has disappeared.
Another place name often found is the Arabic word dayr. In English this may appear as dayr or deir. Thus, we find Al Dayr in Iraq and Deir Ezzor in Syria, and there are many others. The word is important because it means “monastery.”
Before the arrival of Islam, and for some time afterward, Christianity was the major religious and cultural force in Mesopotamia. Different forms of the Syriac tongue formed the language of worship, literature — especially poems and hymns — theology and philosophy of the Mesopotamian church.
Removed but not necessarily isolated from the theological controversies that plagued Christianity in the Greek and Latin speaking worlds, Syriac-speaking Christian monks created a huge body of literature. Their monasteries were great centers of learning where many Greek philosophical texts were translated and preserved.
The Muslim conquerors in Mesopotamia and Syria in the seventh century took over a highly developed civilization that had deep roots in Christianity. Over the centuries, and for a variety of reasons, the Christian population diminished and the Muslim population grew. Significant and at times influential Christian minorities existed in Mesopotamia until the second half of the nineteenth century when the Christian population began to plummet.
With the exception of Lebanon, the contemporary Middle East is overwhelmingly Islamic. Here Islamic means more than “Muslim.” While it is true that the vast majority of Middle Easterners follow the religion of Islam and are Muslims, their literature, art, architecture, music — although often different from one Muslim country to another — are profoundly influenced by Islam. In fact the “dominant culture” in the Middle East has been so influenced and transformed by Islam over the centuries that it is very easy to overlook the deep Christian roots in the region.
There is something nihilistic in almost every totalitarian movement, be it secular or religious. It may be because totalitarianism, regardless how overwhelming and violent, is basically brittle and fragile. Totalitarianism has an almost universal fear of history and art, both of which show that things can be and have been different.
Nazism’s attempt to recreate the history of the “German Nation” as the Third Reich, Stalin’s purges of artists, the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, the killing fields of Pot Pol in Cambodia, the personality cult of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and the wanton destruction wreaked by ISIS in the Middle East are all attempts to erase the past.
While ISIS is more complicated than many analysts believe, it is clearly nihilist in its methods and ideology, which is unusual in Islamic history. ISIS is driven to destroy all vestiges of the past, such as the destruction of Assyrian statues in the Mosul Museum and the Hellenistic remains of Palmyra. While there are some reports of ancient artifacts being sold rather than destroyed, the end result is the same — the elimination of history. In the case of ancient Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman art, “theological” reasons can be manufactured; ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a long history of “smashing idols.”
But any “theological justification” just does not ring true. The same attack on the past that is carried on by ISIS against the ancient worlds is also being made against Christianity and even other Muslims who, by the standards of the Qur‘an (ostensibly the sacred text of ISIS) are not idolaters. Churches and monasteries, even ancient Islamic shrines such as the Tomb of Jonas in Mosul, are being destroyed.
In the past, one religion often took over an important monument of another. The Umayyads took over the Church of John the Baptist in Damascus (seventh century), the Ottoman Turks took over Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Christian
Reconquistadores in Spain took over the great mosque in Cordoba (both 15th century). In each case, the conquering religion changed and adapted the structure to its own faith’s theology and practice. However, none of the monuments were destroyed. There is a difference between religious imperialism and nihilism.
The recent discovery of the destruction of the Monastery of Mar Elia in Iraq is one of many instances of churches and Christian institutions being destroyed by ISIS. Coupled with the brutal killings of Muslim dissidents, Christians and other religious minorities, the international community is faced here with both cultural and ethnic-religious genocide. While nihilistic regimes have a history of ultimate self-destruction, the evil that can be accomplished by them is beyond belief. In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the destruction of a sixth century monastery, which was basically a ruin, may not seem important in the “grand scheme” of things. It is however, something that cannot be overlooked when mass destruction — the ultimate nihilistic goal — is increasingly easy to accomplish.
4 January 2016
Iranian and Turkish demonstrators hold pictures of executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr as they protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, on 3 January 2016.
(photo: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)
The year 2015 was filled with violence and bloodshed in the Middle East. The New Year does not promise much better. On 2 January, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia executed at least 47 people in a single day. Even for a place like Saudi Arabia — where, unlike most other places in the world, executions have been increasing — 47 executions in one day is extraordinary.
Mass executions are always signs of danger ahead, but the fact that Sheikh Nimr Baqir al Nimr was one of those killed is particularly ominous. Sheikh al Nimr was a Shiite religious leader who lived in Al Awamiyyah in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. Al Awamiyyah is home to a significant Shiite minority and it is near Bahrain, where Saudi troops have successfully helped the Sunni regime put down demonstrations of its majority, though disenfranchised, Shiite population.
Sheikh al Nimr was a leader of Shiite protest movements in the area that called for equal rights for Shiites in a Saudi Arabia ruled by Sunnis of the Wahhabi movement. While harsh in his critique of both Sunni and Shiite rulers, and while indicating that Shiites might secede from Saudi Arabia, Sheikh al Nimr during protests in 2011-2012 called for “the roar of the word” and not violence.
His death, therefore, has caused outrage in the Shiite world and has resulted in Saudi Arabia breaking diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, predicted divine retribution for the execution.
Once again people are asking about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The divide began with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. From the outset Muslims disagreed — often violently — as to who should succeed him. Those who believed the successor (Arabic khalifa, Caliph) should be chosen by an election are Sunnis; those who believed it should be one of the direct descendants of the prophet are Shiites.
While the two groups hold a great deal in common — e.g. the creed, daily prayers, alms giving, fasting and Ramadan and the Hajj to Mecca — the outlook of each has increasingly diverged.
Shiite Muslims revere the imams, the descendants of the prophet. Different groups of Shiites revere different numbers of imams — mostly seven or twelve — but the largest group by far forms “Twelver Islam,” the official religion of Iran. Centuries of persecution have promoted a deep sense of martyrdom in Shiite Islam. Most Shiites believe that all of the imams were somehow murdered by their enemies and revere their burial places along with those of other holy people. This is tantamount to apostasy for Sunni Muslims, especially the Wahhabi. Shiite Islam has developed deep mystical and philosophical roots. The religious structure of Shiite Islam with people holding titles such as Grand Ayatollah, Ayatollah, Hujjatulislam, etc., reflects a long tradition of theological and philosophical learning.
Sunnis, on the other hand, tend to be more austere in their approach to Islam. While there are four schools of jurisprudence and centers of learning such as Al Azhar in Egypt, the structure is much looser and there is really little or no hierarchy. Thinkers such as Al Ghazali (1058-1111) and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) still exert a powerful influence over many Sunnis. While these thinkers could in no way be considered anti-intellectual, they were very much against speculative religious thought. In the 20th century, the thought of Ibn Taymiyya has enjoyed a revival on several different but related fronts. The official form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, called Wahhabi by many and Salafi by most Saudis, relies heavily on Ibn Taymiyya and the Hanbali School of Islam.
Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian member of the Islamic Brotherhood, further developed — some would say deformed — and radicalized some of the Salafi and neo-Hanbali strains that had been developing in Saudi Arabia, which was nevertheless often strongly opposed to Qutb. ISIS carries the trajectory of these developments even further — some would say, to their logical conclusions.
Competition between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has been continuous throughout history, with Sunni Muslims usually having the upper hand. Sunni empires have struggled with Shiite empires over the centuries, without significantly changing the ratio of approximately 85 percent Sunnis to 15 percent Shiites in the world.
As Sunnis and Shiites developed in different directions, the 20th century witnessed several important events. Ibn Saud (1875-1953), a fervent Wahhabi Sunni, took over Arabia after World War I and renamed it Saudi Arabia — the only country in the world named after a family. With the discovery of huge oil reserves, Saudi Arabia became incredibly wealthy and influential. Saudi Arabia used its resources to propagate its particular brand of Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim world.
Iran, on the other hand, was a powerful center of Shiite Islam. Under the shah and his government’s close ties to the British and the United States, Iran seemed to be moving toward a Western-oriented modernization. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, however, set Iran on a radically different course. The now Islamic Republic of Iran also sought to spread its self-described revolutionary form of Islam to other parts of the Islamic world. Conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia moved beyond the theological to include the geo-political.
As in most religious conflicts, outsiders can rarely grasp the issues involved or even see the differences between the two groups. Thus for the non-Muslim the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are difficult to see (Muslims have similar problems with Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans). However, for Muslims those differences are deep, very real and also connected with differing political agenda.
Recently there has been some hope that all the parties in the Middle East might work together, at least temporarily, to end the unprecedented chaos and destruction. Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved in discussions with other world powers about possible solutions in the region. Whether the execution of Sheik al Nimr will bring that incipient détente to an end is not yet clear.
One thing, however, is for certain: the death of Sheikh al Nimr will not help the progress towards peace and stability in the Middle East.
11 December 2015
Tags: Middle East Muslim Islam Sunni Shiite
Pope Francis is embraced by Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka after praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on 26 May 2014. On the right is Omar Abboud, Muslim leader from Argentina.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Fifty years ago, in October 1965, the Catholic Church published “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions.” This document, prepared by the Second Vatican Council, is also known by its Latin name Nostra Ætate, which translates as “in our times.” Two recent documents, one Catholic and the other Jewish, were just published that make us think that the document of the Second Vatican Council should be, in fact, “In Our Extraordinary Times.”
On 10 December 2015 the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity published “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable.” Continuing a trajectory that began with Nostra Ætate, the document is a “reflection...on current theological questions that have developed since the Second Vatican Council.” While the document does not break radically new ground, it makes important clarifications concerning Catholic relations with Jews.
Historically, the document clarifies, for example, that Nostra Ætate did not explicitly state that God’s covenant with the Jews was never invalidated. That position was stated by Pope John Paul II in his meeting with members of the Jewish community in Mainz, Germany, on 18 November 1980. The document also states with great clarity that the Letter to the Hebrews, often used to indicate that Judaism was “superseded” by Christianity, “has no intention of proving the promises of the Old Covenant to be false, but on the contrary treats them as valid.” Continuing this theme, the commission states that “the church does not replace the people of God of Israel,” rejects the notion that Jews “can no longer be considered the people of God” and adds “...it does not in any way follow that Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.”
This theological position has clear practical implications that the Catholic Church recognizes and accepts: “The church is therefore obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”
“The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable” is indeed itself a gift to the ongoing relationship between Catholics and Jews. It moves the relationship to a deeper level, clarifies many important theological points and courageously draws practical conclusions. However, as important as the document is, it is the continuation of a trajectory that is 50 years old. As such it is not radically new and it certainly does not indicate any change of direction.
Coincidentally — or perhaps not so coincidentally — on 3 December 2015 the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) published an “Orthodox Rabbinic Statement of Christianity.” This document is by any measure extraordinary. It states, “As did Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi [great Jewish thinkers of the 12th and 11th centuries respectively] we acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations” (Par. 3).
This statement is not merely generous and broad spirited, but also most remarkable given the history of Catholic-Orthodox Jewish relations. While “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable” mentions that “dialogue with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has to that extent enabled more open relations between Orthodox Judaism and the Catholic Church,” the recent statement of the Orthodox rabbis goes even further.
Although painful, it is not difficult for Christians to see the distrust that many Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, might feel toward Christianity. Centuries of discrimination, persecution and theological disdain (often referred to as supercessionism) had given Orthodox Jews, whose memory is equally as long as that of the Catholic Church, little reason to trust that Christians would ever see them other than “objects” of conversion.
However, there was a far more formidable obstacle of which most Catholics and Christians were and remain unaware. One of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century was Rabbi Joseph B. Solevetchik (1903-1993). A member of what has been referred to as the “Solevetchik rabbinical dynasty,” Rabbi Solevetchik belonged to a long family of Eastern European orthodox rabbis. He worked in the United States for most of his adult life and was renowned for his intelligence and knowledge. His writings were and continue to be very influential in the Orthodox Jewish community.
In 1964, the year before Nostra Ætate, Rabbi Solevetchik published “Confrontation” in the Spring-Summer edition of the Jewish journal, Tradition. This article has to a great extent determined the nature and parameter of Orthodox Jewish-Catholic relations for the past 50 years.
While Rabbi Solevetchik considered it essential for Orthodox Jews to work with Christians and others in the overall society, his attitude toward any type of religious or theological dialogue was at best pessimistic. In his article he refers often to Christianity as “the religion of the many.” Understandably, he is concerned about the uniqueness of Judaism. He states “...the divine imperatives and commandments to which a faith community is unreservedly committed must not be equated with the ritual and ethos of another community” (p. 18), noting that it “is futile to find common denominators” (p. 1).
His fears are rooted in a long, painful history. “We are not ready for a meeting with another faith community in which we shall become the object of observation...” (p.21). “Nor are we related to any other faith community as “brethren” even though “separated.” (ibid). For Rabbi Solevetchik, when speaking of faith, “the whole idea of a tradition of faiths and the continuum of revealed doctrines...is utterly absurd” (p.22).
Again and again he expresses his fear that Judaism will lose its uniqueness and identity. Although he never uses the term, Solevetchik dreads Judaism being reduced to a type of “Proto-Christianity,” lacking its own uniqueness and value. Fifty years after Nostra Ætate it is easy to forget that the rabbi’s fears were not groundless for almost all of our 2000-year common history.
Thus it is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of this recent “Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity.” Arriving at the present level of trust and understanding — while recognizing there are still many areas which need further reflection — is a monument to the vitality and faithfulness of both Judaism and Christianity. The Orthodox rabbis were able to overcome incredible historical, intellectual and theological obstacles to arrive at this point and at the same time to be faithful to their history and tradition.
Their statement is one of great courage and hope for the future. The Catholic Church for its part continues to refine, purify and, where necessary, correct
attitudes that were theologically deficient and all too often destructive.
In a world racked by religiously inspired violence, the example of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue provides hope and perhaps even a paradigm for the overcoming of deep differences and painful histories even after 2000 years.
9 November 2015
Rev. Paul Watson, S.A. (1863-1940). (photo: Graymoor Archives)
On 22 September 2015, in a moment rich with significance for CNEWA and for Christian unity, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York — and CNEWA’s chair — formally opened the cause for canonization of the Rev. Paul Wattson, S.A., (1863-1940), CNEWA’s co-founder. Father Paul will now be formally known as “Servant of God,” and further investigation can begin into his life and work. Once his heroic virtues are established, he may be declared “Venerable”; evidence of one miracle attributed to him can result in beatification; a second miracle may lead eventually to the pope declaring him, formally, a saint.
For Father Paul, this is the latest milestone in a long journey of faith that has left an enduring imprint on Christianity around the world. It’s a journey that began, in fact, in the Episcopal Church. Long before he helped launch CNEWA, Father Paul was an Episcopal priest, a co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement and a champion of Christian unity and helping the poor.
The Society of the Atonement, consisting of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, was founded in the Episcopal Church in 1898. In 1909 the entire community sought and received communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Significantly, Father Paul and his community did not leave the Episcopal Church motivated by anger or rejection; rather he saw his “journey to Rome” as the logical continuation of his commitment to the unity of all Christians. This passion for unity manifested itself his preaching and writings. But even more importantly, this commitment led him to found the annual Chair of Unity Octave, eight days of prayer for Christian Unity from 18-25 January. This observance, which started at Graymoor, Garrison, New York, was recommended to the universal Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XV. The Church Unity Octave over the decades evolved into the Week of Prayer of Christian Unity, which is now observed by Christians throughout the world.
In a world in which the ecumenical movement was just beginning and did not enjoy wide acceptance, the attitude of Father Paul toward non-Latin rite and non-Catholic churches was unique. In the early 20th century, the Catholic Church in the United States had recently experienced the loss of a quarter million Eastern Catholics because of the insensitivity of Latin Catholics to the legitimate practices of the Eastern Catholic churches. The attitude towards those Eastern Catholics who remained was often one of ignorance and distrust. Relations between Catholics and Protestants were hardly better.
Father Paul regarded other churches not as heretics and enemies, competitors or targets for proselytization, but as friends and fellow travelers on the road to the unity Christ wished for his church. He saw it as his task to be the Lamp that helped them on this journey.
His attitude toward other churches and his concern for the poor brought Father Paul in increasing contact with the Christians of the Middle East and India. After World War I, the situation of Christians in the Middle East was dire. Genocide was the order of the day for Christians in the lands of the Middle East. Millions of Armenians and hundreds of thousands of Christians from other Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches were either slaughtered or driven out of their homes as refugees.
Father Paul and the Rev. George Calvassy (later a bishop) of the Greek Byzantine Catholic Church sought a way to alleviate the sufferings of all Christians in the Middle East. Their attempts took many different routes, some of them dead ends, but their efforts along with others resulted ultimately in the founding of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in 1926. Pope Pius XI formally recognized CNEWA as a pontifical organization and placed it under the direction of the archbishop of New York.
The Eastern Churches — Catholic and Orthodox — were dear to the heart of Father Paul. Many bishops from these churches visited Father Paul at Graymoor to ask his help and express their gratitude for any assistance they received.
Father Paul died on 8 February 1940. His pioneering work for Christian unity today might be considered ahead of its time, and even prophetic. He did not live to see the Second Vatican Council and its decree on Christian Unity; he did not see the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity become a world-wide event promulgated by both the Vatican and the World Council of Churches. But his prayers, vision and passion laid the groundwork for vastly improved relations between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and helped CNEWA become a significant force for humanitarian and pastoral aid in a Middle East — a troubled land that is once again in our own day a place of genocide and exile.
CNEWA is proud that one of its founders is now continuing his journey — this time on the road to sainthood.
You can read more about Father Paul in the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE.
2 November 2015
In this image from 1986, Pope John Paul II greets Rabbi Elio Toaff at Rome’s main synagogue.
(photo: CNS/Arturo Mari, L'Osservatore Romano)
Fifty years ago, on 28 October 1965, Vatican II promulgated “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” It is also known by the Latin title Nostra Ætate from the opening lines of the declaration: “In our time...” From the very outset, it was clear this was no ordinary declaration. It begins by recognizing that religions ponder the deepest questions about human existence and their meaning. Using Hinduism and Buddhism as examples of how these questions are treated differently by different religions, the declaration makes a statement that for the time was astounding:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men (Par. 2).
For centuries, the church regarded other religions of the world as, at best, competitors and, at worst, repositories of error and even evil. When attempts were made to understand other religions, it was to refute them. While there were a few open spirits, such as the Rev. Matteo Ricci, S.J., the Rev. Louis Massignon and others, who tried to understand other religions as they were experienced by the believers of those religions, this was the exception and not the rule. The declaration, Nostra Ætate, however, completely transformed the atmosphere between the Catholic Church and other world religions from one of distrust and even disdain to one of respect and dialogue. The declaration makes the challenge: “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”
Although often mistakenly referred to as the “Church’s Decree on Jews,” the changes that the declaration brought about between Christians and Jews were probably the most visible ones for people in the Western world. For centuries, Christians had looked down on Judaism as a religion that had become overcome. Supercessionism, as it is called, saw the advent of Christianity as rendering Judaism empty and without value. Throughout more than a thousand years Jews suffered — often with violent consequences — under the accusation of deicide. That is to say, Jews were held to be responsible for having killed God in Jesus. The Catholic Church repudiated this forever in Nostra Ætate: “... what happened in His [i.e., Christ’s] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures” (Par. 4).
The declaration also spoke at length about Muslims and the importance of dialogue with this, the second largest religion in the world, a religion whose members were often in bloody conflict with Christians over the centuries.
Fifty years after Nostra Ætate, there remains a great deal to be done. Catholic Near East Welfare Association knows all too well that conflicts with elements of religious motivation still rage throughout our world. And, in places like the Middle East, it seems to have worsened. Much of CNEWA’s work is geared to relieving the suffering of people who are victims of these conflicts. There are also still far too many places in the world where Christians and other peoples of faith suffer for what they believe, often at the hands of other believers. Nonetheless, the trajectory set by the declaration has been nothing short of incredible. The Catholic Church — as well as other Christian communities around the world — has set up dialogues with the major religions of the world. Programs of education have made what was once strange and exotic better understood and familiar. In an almost prophetic way, Nostra Ætate prepared the way spiritually for the huge movement and displacement of peoples that would take place in the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries.
In the next year, there will be many events commemorating and celebrating the promulgation of Nostra Ætate. It is indeed something very worthy of commemorating, celebrating, studying anew and handing on to generations to come. As people from the different world religions increasingly come together in our world as immigrants and refugees, Nostra Ætate can provide a type of manual as to how Christians can accept these people with at one and the same time love, respect and faithfulness.
21 September 2015
Arab-Israeli fourth graders pray in Aramaic in 2012 at a Catholic elementary school in Jish. Israel’s Christian schools have been on strike since 1 September. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
On 1 September 2015, 45 Christian schools in Israel went on strike. Consisting of 3,000 teachers and 33,000 students, the schools are considered “unofficial but recognized” by the Israeli government. Many of the schools date to the time of the Ottoman Empire and so are considerably older than the State of Israel.
The crisis and strike have been precipitated by two decisions of the Israeli government. The first decision was to cut the government funding that the Christian schools receive. Originally the state paid 70 percent of these schools’ budgets. This has now been progressively reduced — recently to 45 percent, and now to 29 percent. (The Israeli newspaper Haaretz also notes that the similarly semi-public ultra-Orthodox schools with 220,000 students are almost totally funded by the government.)
Full funding for the schools has been estimated at $52 million a year. These schools, which accept also Muslim and Druze students, are among the most effective in Israel and it is estimated that “Christian Arabs have the highest rate of success in Israel’s Bagrut (matriculation) exams, which largely determine who is admitted to a state university.” This, despite the fact that the Israeli government spends an average of 24 percent less on each high school student who is an Israeli citizen of Palestinian descent.
The second government decision was to limit the percentage of the operating costs that the schools could charge parents as tuition. Tuition was the means by which the schools attempted to fill the gaps caused by the progressive reduction of state support. Nevertheless, the Israeli government has now limited the amount parents can pay. One Christian school administrator states that the tuition cap set by the Israeli government is 2,500 Shekels ($645) per year, half of what would be needed to make up for government cuts. Thus, the Israeli government is seen as putting a double squeeze on the Christian schools by reducing their subsidies and their abilities to cover the deficits.
Negotiations have been going on between the Office of Christian Schools and the Israeli Government since May. The government has offered full funding if the schools agree to become “official and recognized.” However, this is perceived by Christian educators as an attack on their independence and a requirement not demanded of other private schools in Israel. Msgr. Giacinto-Boulos Marcusso, the patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, sees these actions as attempts to progressively deprive young people of their identity through “ignorance, emigration or integration into national structures, the first of which is the army.”
During the third week of September the Israeli government offered the schools a subsidy of 67 million shekels (about $17.3 million). Since the costs that need to be covered amount to about to about $52 million dollars, the Board of Christian Schools refused the offer and the strike continues.
19 August 2015
Tags: Children Israel Education Catholic education Youth
Palestinian Christian worshipers and priests take part in an open-air liturgy to protest the building of Israel’s controversial barrier in the Cremisan Valley.
(photo: Musa Al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)
“When you are besieging a city for a long time to capture it, you shall not destroy the trees by wielding the axe against them...” — Deuteronomy 20:19
The Cremisan Valley could be called the Valley of Broken Hopes. It lies between the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and the illegal settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. It has been the center of controversy around Israeli plans to extend the “security barrier” through the valley. The barrier which has been planned for many years, would run down the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem, severing some 50 Palestinian farming families from their farms, and separating the community of Salesian priests and brothers from that of the Salesian sisters. In addition, the 30-foot-high wall would surround on three sides the school run by the sisters.
For a time, it seemed the barrier would not be built. In an apparent victory for the Christian community in the Palestinian West Bank, the Society of St. Yves, a legal aid group of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, announced on 2 April that the Israeli Supreme Court had accepted the many petitions of Christian groups and rejected the plans to build an extension of the Israeli separation wall in the Cremisan Valley.
Those hopes for justice were dashed earlier this month. On 5 August 2015, the Israeli Supreme Court dismissed the petitions to have the wall moved to another place in the valley. Construction of the wall was begun almost immediately. Protests from the largely Christian population in the Valley quickly followed.
Some were prayerful and peaceful (such as the one shown above). But others led to violent confrontations with Israeli soldiers.
According to Vatican Radio, while “Israel claims the construction of the barrier is necessary for security reasons, Palestinians say the move is aimed at confiscating fertile land for the expansion of two Israeli settlements.”
Israeli border guards arrest a Palestinian protestor who was trying to reach tractors working on the construction of Israel’s controversial barrier in the Cremisan Valley.
(photo: Musa Al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)
27 May 2015
In this image from 2012, Israeli-Arab fourth-grade students attend the Aramaic language class at Jish Elementary School in Jish, Israel. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
For centuries Christians in the Middle East have been in the forefront of education and health care. They have made important contributions to Muslims societies throughout the Arab world. One need only think of places like the Universities of Beirut and Cairo, the Jesuit al-Hikmah University in Baghdad, closed by Saddam Hussein, Bethlehem University and many primary and secondary schools, to say nothing of the countless Christian sponsored and run hospitals to see the major benefits the societies in the Middle East have from Christian institutions.
Christian educational institutions in the State of Israel are now facing new challenges, including cuts in funding that threaten their mission and could impact tens of thousands of students. On 27 May 2015 Christian educators held an unprecedented demonstration in the front of the headquarters of the Israeli Ministry of Education.
According to the press release of the Office of Christian Schools in Israel, the schools serve more than 30,000 students both Christian and Muslim. The press release states “These schools belong to the ‘recognized but not public’ classification of schools...and receive partial funding from the Ministry (of Education). The rest of their funding comes from fees that are collected from the parents.”
The Ministry of Education has reduced the funds going to Christian schools by 45 percent over the last ten years, making the schools’ survival increasingly dependent on tuition paid by parents. Now, according to the news release, the Ministry has “issued new regulations that even limited the ability of Christian schools to collect feels from parents.”
As a minority in Israel, Christians see the latest moves as threats to the ongoing sustainability of Christian education in the Holy Land — a service Christians have been rendering for centuries.
To learn more about the challenges facing the Christian minority in Israel, check out “Caught in the Middle” in the March 2010 edition of ONE.