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July, 2019
Volume 45, Number 2
25 January 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Francis visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem in this 26 May 2014 file photo. The United Nations observes Holocaust Memorial Day this Saturday 27 January.
(photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via EPA)

On 27 January every year, the UN observes Holocaust Memorial Day in memory of the millions of Jews who lost their lives in the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe. That singular event cast a long shadow over the 20th century and helped shape the very world that CNEWA serves. Significantly, it reminds us of our association’s work to uplift human dignity and aid those suffering from persecution of all kinds — part of our mission that continues in so many places today. Attention must be paid.

There are some things which non-Jews need to know about the UN observance. First, it is not the same as the Jewish , Yom Hashoah, “Day of the Holocaust,” which is observed every year on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nisan (April/May), 13 days after the beginning of Passover. Because the Jewish calendar follows the moon, Yom Hashoah falls on a different day every year in the calendar used in the secular world. In 2018 Yom Hashoah falls on 12 April. The UN observance of Holocaust Memorial Day falls on the same day every year.

There needs to be another clarification for non-Jews. The Hebrew word , shô’ah, is commonly translated holocaust, which is derived from the Greek ὁλὁκαυστοç, holokaustos, which referred to a sacrifice which was completely burnt. The term appears in many translations of the Bible; see, for example Leviticus 17:9 “any man... among you who offers a holocaust or sacrifice....” The Hebrew word which “holocaust” is translating is , ‘olah — a sacrifice totally consumed by fire. Although the Hebrew words shô’ah and ‘olah are both translated into English as “holocaust,” the two should never be confused. ‘olah refers to a religious act; shô’ah means total, devastating destruction that has nothing to do with worshiping God.

The Shoah was a defining moment in the history of the West and, indeed, of the entire world. In Nazi Germany, the ideology of anti-Semitism was able to use modern technology in a demonically thorough way. Over six million Jews, an estimated two-thirds of the European Jewish community, were slaughtered in a Europe that considered itself “enlightened.” While many of the elements of the Shoah were and remain unique, the 20th century witnessed the invention of the word megadeath. In the 20th century millions of people were slaughtered because of who they were — Jews in Nazi Europe, Armenian and Assyrian Christians in the Ottoman Empire, opponents of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and others.

As it unfolded, the 20th century came to be seen by many as a time of great progress. The Shoah and other genocidal actions shocked the world out of its often self-righteous complacency. It was learned to our horror that progress is a two-edged sword. It can be used to improve peoples’ lives — or used to kill with an efficiency only the modern world could muster.

Pope Francis kisses the hand of a Holocaust survivor during a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Abir Sultan, EPA)

The Shoah forced Europe and European Christians to face centuries of anti-Semitism in culture, politics and even religion. Major figures such as Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom, Elie Wiesel, Jules Isaac and others aroused the world’s conscience. Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, helped Jews escape the Nazi’s while he was stationed in Istanbul. Later as pope, he had a crucial encounter with the Jewish philosopher Jules Isaac, who wrote about the “teaching of contempt,” which Christians had used to dehumanize Jews for centuries. The experience of the horror of the Shoah was certainly in the background when Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It was this council which produced the document Nostra Ætate (28 October 1965) which made it the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that “neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time {i.e. the death of Jesus}, nor Jews today can be charged with the crimes committed during his {i.e. Jesus’} passion” (par. 4). The age-old accusation that Jews were deicides, or “God killers,” was rejected by the Catholic Church. Other churches soon followed suit.

We humans have short memories, however, and ancient pathologies, prejudices and hatreds have a tendency to resurface as if we had learned nothing. Both the Jewish observance of Yom Hashoah and the UN observance of Holocaust Memorial Day are not merely observances of past history. They are potent reminders of the depths to which we humans can sink at any time, and powerful calls to vigilance against that murderous hatred and bigotry which can erupt when we become indifferent and forgetful of the past.

18 January 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Francis walks with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre on 25 May 2014, the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. (photo: CNS/Abir Sultan, EPA)

One hundred ten years ago today (18 January 1908) the first Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was observed. Founded as the Church Unity Octave by the Rev. Paul Wattson, and initially observed only by the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, the week was dedicated to prayer for the unity of a divided Christianity.

But just eight years later, in 1916, Pope Benedict XV extended the observance of the Week of Prayer to the entire Catholic Church.

Half a century later, with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed itself fully to the ecumenical movement, the work of restoring unity between Christians.

In writing about this year’s observance of the Week of Prayer, I would like to reflect on some of results it has accomplished. Happily, these correspond to the work and mission of CNEWA, of which Father Paul was a co-founder.

Father Paul was always fascinated by the Churches of the East — both Catholic and Orthodox. After World War I Christians in the Middle East suffered greatly. In addition to the expected results of war — such as loss of life, destruction of property, famine and being driven from one’s home — something new was happening. In the lands which had been part of the defeated Ottoman Empire, Christians — Armenians, Assyrians and others — were targeted for extermination.

In a perverse way, the persecution of Christians was “ecumenical.” It made no difference if one were Orthodox or Catholic, all Christians were slated for extermination. The persecutors ironically grasped the unity between Christians better than did the Christians themselves.

In this situation, Father Paul saw CNEWA as a way to help Christians in the Middle East survive. It came at a moment of great division. In the early 20th century, relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were far from good. At the time of the first observance of the Week of Prayer, Orthodox and Catholic Churches in the Middle East — separated since 1054 by mutual excommunications — barely communicated and deeply distrusted each other.

But from that period of hostility and division, what has been achieved in the last 110 years through prayer and dialogue is truly remarkable — and, even, inspiring.

One of the most amazing changes since 1908 has been in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. On an institutional level, Vatican II set the Catholic Church on a path of dialogue with the Orthodox churches. The encounter between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in the Holy Land on 6 January 1964 began a tradition of genuine friendship between the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople. A year after the encounter in the Holy Land, on 7 December 1965, Pope Paul VI in Rome and Patriarch Athenagoras in Constantinople solemnly proclaimed that the mutual excommunications of 1054 were rescinded.

This work has born abundant good fruit. The Holy See and the Phanar (the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople) exchange high level visits twice a year. Catholic and Orthodox theologians work together and meet regularly, attempting to overcome theological differences between the two churches.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, who can be described as friends, have worked together on issues such as Christian responsibility for the planet. The pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’ on the environment was written with input from Orthodox theologians and both the pope and patriarch have spoken in unison about the importance of the issue.

In the Middle East, where CNEWA works, the situation for Christians has become dire. Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians face the real possibility of extinction in the lands where Christianity was born. Pope Francis speaks of “the ecumenism of blood” in which Christians find themselves thrown together, persecuted not because they are Orthodox or Catholic, but because they are all Christians. The experience in the Middle East has led the churches to a deep realization that what they have in common is far deeper than that which divides them.

As we begin the 110th observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the challenges facing us are admittedly daunting. However, by reflecting on how things have changed since 1908 between Catholics and Orthodox (as well as Catholics and Protestants), we are filled with encouragement and hope.

There are signs that this annual Week of Prayer really has made a difference among those who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.

11 January 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

This version of a 19th engraving by an unknown artist shows a traveler putting his head under the edge of the firmament, depicting the gap between the earth and the heavens. The movement of the earth through the heavens continues to guide the Church’s seasons. (photo: Wikipedia Commons)

At the start of the new year, we all start following a new calendar, as Earth charts another course around the sun. It’s a good opportunity to look at how the Church marks the year — and that can get complicated.

For the Catholic Church and many other churches in the West, the liturgical year is divided into several sections or “seasons.” Two great seasons dominate the year. In order of chronological appearance, the first great season is the just-concluded Advent-Christmas Season, which runs from the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Epiphany. The second — but more important — season is the Lenten-Easter Season, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the day after Pentecost Sunday. Although Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and from the day after Pentecost until the First Sunday of Advent, once had different names, those Sundays are all now referred to as “Ordinary Time.”

As is the case with so many things we humans consider “ordinary” or “normal,” a closer look at world-wide Christianity reveals that “ordinary” and “normal” really mean “how we do it” and not “how everyone does it.” This is certainly the case with the Christian calendar. The difference in observances and traditions begins in the Christmas season. For example, while most Christians in the West celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December, Armenian Orthodox celebrate it on 6 January and many Orthodox Churches celebrate it on 7 January.

But the differences become more noticeable and important when it comes to the celebration of Easter.

After centuries of discussions and arguments on when to calculate the date for Easter, the Western Church opted to celebrate it on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the beginning of spring). The problem arose from the fact that the existing Julian calendar estimated the year to be 365 days and 6 hours long. The calculations, while good for the time, were off; the year is really 10 minutes and 48 seconds shorter than the Julian calendar reckoned.

Of course, that did not make a great difference at first. But over centuries it made a big difference. By the time of Pope Gregory XIII (1582), the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, was falling on 11 March and not 21 March. Pope Gregory moved to reform the way we calculate our days, and instituted what we now call the Gregorian calendar. On 24 February 1582, the new calendar was inaugurated and 10 days were just dropped.

Even though it was far more accurate than the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar was not immediately accepted around the world. That fact that it came from Christians made is suspect to some non-Christians; the fact that it came from the pope, made it suspect to non-Catholics, both Protestant and Orthodox who were not about to let the pope of Rome tell them what to do.

What this means is that in many, if not most, of the countries where CNEWA serves, Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter (and to some extent Christmas) on different days.

Eventually the entire world took over the Gregorian calendar. Other cultural and religious calendars like the Muslim, Jewish, Iranian, Chinese, etc. remained. The Gregorian calendar. however, became standard for all “secular” transactions.

But then there’s Easter. The calculation of Easter is, however, most definitely not a secular transaction. As a result, the Orthodox churches, existing in countries which accept the Gregorian calendar, nevertheless continue to use the Julian calendar to calculate Easter. Since the vernal equinox is central to the calculation, the problem is that the two calendars have different times for it. The Gregorian calendar, as we noted, has the first day of spring on 20 or 21 of March. The Julian calendar has it 13 days earlier and it gets earlier ever year. By 2100 the Julian first day of spring will be 14 days earlier than the Gregorian.

So once again, what is “normal” is normal for us and not normal for others.

The problem of Christians celebrating Easter at different times — sometimes almost a month apart — is seen by some as a sign of disunity among Christians (it is) and a weakening of Christian witness to the Resurrection (it might be) to the non-Christian world. As a result, there have been several recent attempts to “normalize” Easter Sunday so that Christians all over the world might celebrate it on the same day. Still, despite support from popes and patriarchs, the attempt has met with mixed success at best. Consensus has been impossible to achieve. Easter still awaits a unified date.

For Catholics, “Ordinary Time” in 2018 began on 7 January. Recognizing that what is ordinary for us is not ordinary for all Christians provides us with an ecumenical challenge. Instead of “ordinary” here being ho-hum, run of the mill, it can provide us with a challenge — a challenge all the more important since the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18-25 January. Ordinary time — by the very fact that it is not “ordinary” — thus challenges us to work together so that once again Christians all over the world can celebrate the Resurrection of the one Lord on the same day.

4 January 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

A mosaic depicting the adoration of the Magi in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo dates to the sixth century. (photo: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The feast of the Epiphany, also known at the feast of the Three Kings and Twelfth Night, officially brings the Christmas season to a close this weekend — but in many of the places CNEWA serves, particularly those with deep Orthodox and Byzantine roots, it is just as grand a feast as Christmas, with distinct traditions and celebrations.

The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek ἐπιφαίνω (epi-phaino), which means “to shine forth, manifest, reveal.” The feast celebrates the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, which is recounted only in the Gospel of Matthew — and even there, with very little detail. Despite the traditions that have grown up around the feast, Matthew does not tell us who these visitors are, where they came from other than “from the East,” or even how many there were. Christian tradition has “filled in the blanks” for 2,000 years and has had as many as 14 visitors, coming from all over Asia and Africa (which is not “from the East”) and even given them different names. Ultimately in the West, Christians settled on the number three because of the number of gifts. San Apolinare Nuovo, a sixth-century church in Ravenna, Italy, has a magnificent mosaic of three Magi, named Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, indicating that the tradition was beginning to solidify at least in the West just a few hundred years after the time of Christ.

For Matthew, who is writing primarily for Jewish converts to Christianity, it is important to stress the universal mission of the Messiah born in Bethlehem. Regardless of how many there were or where they came from, it is absolutely clear that the Magi are Gentiles. In Matthew’s Gospel the Gentiles are among the first to recognize Jesus. For Matthew the visit of the exotic strangers is truly an epiphany in that the true person and mission of Jesus “shines forth” and reveals itself. Jesus is not merely the hoped for Messiah who has come to save the Jews, but he is also the “shining forth,” the revelation of God’s Son to the entire world, Jew and Gentile alike.

Many local traditions have grown up around the feast of the Epiphany. In many Latin countries, the visit of the Three Kings is celebrated with parades and gift giving. In German villages, there is often a procession through the town. The pastor, accompanied by three children dressed as “Magi,” goes through the town blessing the homes. As each home is blessed, the letters C M B and the year are written in chalk over the main door of the house. The letters C M B stand not only for Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar but also for Christus Mansionen Benedicat — “may Christ bless the house.”

Liturgically since very ancient times, the Epiphany and the end of the Advent-Christmas season was seen as part of a series of epiphanies. The Gospel readings at the eucharistic celebration immediately following the feast of the Epiphany have traditionally dealt with the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and the Marriage Feast at Cana.

The Gospel accounts of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan are found in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and each recounts a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the “Beloved Son.” In all the Gospel accounts, including John, a voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove form an epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus is and what his mission is.

The Wedding at Cana appears only in the Gospel of John (2:1-12) and is also an epiphany. At the end of the account of Jesus turning the water into wine, the evangelist comments: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee and manifested (ἐφανέρωσεν from φαίνω, “to shine forth, manifest”) his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

In sum, this period after Christmas is a time of light and revelation — and, really, three epiphanies.

The first epiphany is what we traditionally refer to as “the Epiphany” and is the shining forth of Jesus as a “light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). The second epiphany at the Jordan reveals Jesus as the Beloved Son of the Father and the third and last epiphany of the season is the revelation of Jesus as the worker of might deeds and miracles at Cana.

Thus by the end of the Christmas season the Church through the liturgy not only proclaims that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but also teaches who he is and what his mission is.

Tags: Christianity Christian

21 December 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The adoration of the Magi is depicted in this icon by artist Ayman Fayez. The observance and celebration of Christmas vary around the world, with some places putting greater emphasis on Epiphany, and the visit of the Three Kings. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Christmas is the most beloved feast in the Christian calendar. We see this again and again throughout the world CNEWA serves, with varying traditions and customs in different regions. This is true even if it is not the most important feast — which is, of course, Easter.

It’s interesting to compare and contrast these two feasts and how they are observed.

Christmas and Easter differ in many interesting ways, beginning with the date.The entire church year revolves around Easter, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Although it is always a Sunday, it can occur on any date between the first and second full moon of spring. The reason for this is that it is known that Jesus died on Friday the 13 or 14 of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. Christmas, on the other hand, is always on the 25th of December. The date for Christmas, on the other hand, is arbitrary, since nowhere in the Bible is it mentioned on which day or even month Jesus was born. The December date for Christmas was probably chosen to replace the Roman Saturnalia and other pagan celebrations which greeted the “return” of the invincible sun (sol invictus) after the winter solstice.

The feasts also differ in their liturgical observance. The liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are unique and occur only once a year, but the liturgy at Christmas is really no different from that of any major feast with its own readings and prayers.

Then there are scriptural differences. The events of Holy Week and Easter are recounted in each of the four Gospels and echo throughout the entire New Testament. The conception and birth of Jesus, however, appear only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and are quite different from each other.

Matthew, for example, has the story about the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the innocent children and the flight into Egypt. This Gospel also mentions that the Magi visited the Holy Family in a house (ὀικία Matthew 2:11).

Luke, on the other hand, makes no mention of the Magi, the massacre or the flight into Egypt. For Luke, the fact that Jesus is lying in a manger (φάτνη Luke 2:7, 12) is a “sign” to the shepherds in the field at the time of the birth.

Perhaps because of the varying accounts in the Gospels, Christmas is much more open to creative expression and observance. That is perhaps one reason why it is celebrated so differently around the world. In some parts of the Western Church the emphasis is strongly on 25 December; in other parts of the West, the focus is placed on the Epiphany, the feast of “Three Kings.” But were there really just three? Matthew does not say how many Magi visited the Holy Family — over the centuries, the tradition has been as high as fourteen! — but, the number three has become standard for the simple reason that there were three gifts. No one came empty-handed.

The very “openness” of Christmas to attract to itself new and different traditions is sometimes lamented and even condemned. While things certainly can get out of hand, for the most part, the “adaptability” of Christmas is, I believe, very much in line with what this great feast is about.

Christmas is the celebration of our belief that the Eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became human, i.e. “one (tested) like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Over the centuries some Christians have attempted to deny the full humanity of Jesus and hold that he only “appeared to be human.” The Church has always rejected that but has not always appreciated its full meaning. As the feast celebrating the humanity of the Word of God, Christmas shares in all those things which are human — diversity, adaptation, change, a certain unpredictability, even messiness. If Christmas is, in a sense, the most physical and bodily feast of the Christian calendar, that is because it is supposed to be precisely that — the celebration that God has taken on our nature, our physicality in all things but sin.

The Eternal Word was made flesh — and that is what Christmas is about.

14 December 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Embed from Getty Images
French President Vincent Auriol speaks during the opening ceremony of the third United Nations Assembly at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris on 10 December 1948, the day when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. (photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Sixty-nine years ago this week — on 10 December 1948 — the newly formed General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR; res. GA217A). It could not have been more timely or urgent. Not half way through the 20th century, the world had experienced two world wars in which tens of millions of people — mostly civilians — were killed; it had experienced the Armenian genocide in the Middle East; it had witnessed the Holocaust of Jews in Europe and the dropping of two atomic bombs. CNEWA, in many ways, is a product of this century, one that has been called the century of “megadeath,” and our work is inextricably bound to those still suffering the aftershocks of so much war and slaughter.

The United Nations itself was the result of nations recognizing that wars and killings on this scale must not be allowed to continue. Something new needed to be created which could promote peace and restrain killing, especially of civilians.

In 1946, at the first session of the General Assembly, a draft document was prepared to complement the UN Charter and to guarantee the lives of rights of the peoples of the world. A preliminary draft was send to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for refinement. ECOSOC set up a Committee on Human Rights consisting of 18 people from around the world. The driving spirit behind the Committee was its only woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The draft was accepted by the General Assembly two years later (1948).

The UDHR attempted to “set a common standard of achievements for all people and all nations (setting out) for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected...” As such, the UDHR became the basis on which international law was built in the 20th century.

The Preamble recognizes “...the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all the human family” as “the foundation of justice and peace in the world.”

There were far fewer founding members of the UN in 1946 — only 51 — than the present 193 member states of the General Assembly. However, the UDHR, though often attacked and often ignored, remains the basis for the role of the UN in the world.

The UDHR is celebrated every year on 10 December. In a real sense it is a living document and continually evolving, as the nations of the world recognize new rights — such as the right to protection. The original UDHR contained 30 Articles delineating what the particular human rights are. As the notion of Human Rights has grown, members states agree to uphold different conventions (like treaties) protecting the expanding rights of their citizens.

It would be naïve in the extreme to think that each and every member state of the UN recognizes, much less protects, all the rights in the UDHR, even though the nations have signed protocols to protect those rights. Although the coercive power of the UN is extremely limited, it has considerable moral power. One of the ways it holds member states accountable is the Universal Periodic Revue (UPR) presented the UN Human Rights Committee. This, according to the UN, is:

“ ...a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. As one of the main features of the Council, the UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed.”

Every five years member states report to the Committee on how they have fulfilled their obligations to the conventions they have signed and on the state of human rights in their countries.

This is also a time when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often present reports critical of the country under periodic review. In very many instances, the NGOs are the (unwanted) conscience of the country being reviewed — keeping it honest and pointing out failures the country may not want to admit.

The UN is often — and often enough, justifiably — criticized for many things. It is not a strong organization in the sense that it has little or no authority to force a nation to do something or to refrain from something. However, for all its weaknesses and failures, the UN stands as a monument of — and perhaps the only present instrument for attaining — the highest and noblest possibilities open to the planet: a place of peace, justice and responsibility; a place where the common good is promoted and the rights of all protected.

7 December 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Embed from Getty Images
In this image from 2015, Mandaeans take part in a religious ritual on the bank the Shat al-Arab river in the southern city of Basra, south of Baghdad.
(photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

The Middle East has always been a crossroad to soldiers of fortune, traders and missionaries. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find some of the most exotic religions in the world there. One of these would be the Mandaeans, whose name comes from the Aramaic (manda ‘ḥay, “teaching/knowledge of life.”)

Almost at the same time as Christianity appeared in the Middle East, gnostic (from Greek γνῶσις, gnosis, “knowledge”) religions began to appear. The gnostic religions are very different each other, yet show a remarkable ability to take over beliefs from Indian religions, Greco-Roman religions, Judaism and Christianity itself. For over 300 years, Christianity resisted incursions of gnostic religion into its faith. One of these, Manichaeism — a dualist, anti-body form of Gnosticism — provided a major threat to orthodox Christianity. In fact, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the great theologian and saint, was a follower of Manichaeism before his conversion to Christianity.

The Mandaeans are within this large tradition of gnostic religions — one of many that interacted with Christianity in the region for centuries. It is estimated that Mandaeism took form in the 1st through 3rd centuries AD in Iraq, at the same time and place where Eastern Christianity was beginning to grow.

Traditionally, they were found in southern Iraq along the great rivers, which isn’t surprising. Water is very important for Mandaeans, since baptism is one of their major and frequently performed rituals. In fact, they are sometimes referred to as “baptizers.” Many years ago, I had an Arabic teacher from southern Iraq who told me she was a “Baptist.” I thought it strange because Baptists Christians are extremely rare in the Middle East, but one day I asked her if she was manda ‘ḥay. She lit up and said, “You know of us?” She was, of course, a Mandaean. While fascinated, I could not say I knew a lot about her faith.

As “baptizers,” Mandaeans hold John the Baptist in extremely high regard, though they do not consider him divine. They look upon Jesus as a false Messiah who corrupted the message of John the Baptist.

Mandaeans believe in a supreme deity from whom there are emanations into the created world. In their teaching, human beings were originally astral beings (stars) that have fallen to their present state. Such emanations from an original divine being are common in gnostic religions.Through observing the “Mysteries” — secret rituals — the believer is able to move through higher states of being until ultimate returning to his astral identity.

As is often the case in gnostic religions, there is a strict “caste” system. The “enlightened” are those who have achieved the teaching of life. Among the enlightened are the priests who hold the highest in rank. The majority of believers form the laity, whose task it is to purify themselves through repeated baptisms and to seek ever deeper awareness of the manda ‘ḥay until ultimately reaching enlightenment.

Most of the religious minorities we have dealt with in the past several weeks are secretive. For many of them, however, secrecy is a survival strategy, a way to protect themselves from the dominant religion in the region. Secrecy for gnostic religions, however, is an essential part of a faith which places great stress on the esoteric, i.e. secret, saving knowledge.

Time and history may have finally caught up with this religion, though. The Gulf War which began in 2003 forced many Mandaeans to flee. Living between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf along the two rivers, they found themselves in a battle zone. Already a tiny, minority faith, many Mandaeans fled to different places around the world — including the United States, where a small Mandean community of about 2,000 people resides in Worcester, Massachusetts.

At present it is estimated that they are between 60-70,000 Mandaeans in the entire world. Whether they will survive the 21st century is an open question.

Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction

Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis

Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 2: The Shabak

Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 3: The ‘Alawi

30 November 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

An icon of apostles and brothers Sts. Peter and Andrew is pictured on a wall at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican The icon was given by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to Pope Paul VI in 1964. Sts. Peter and Andrew are considered patrons of the Roman and Orthodox churches. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

When I worked for what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, I often had to travel from Geneva, Switzerland, to Rome for meetings at the main office of the Secretariat. In the main meeting room, I could not help but notice the icon above, which hung on the wall. It always fascinated me. It shows the brothers, Sts. Peter and Andrew, embracing. There is a Greek inscription which reads: “The Holy Apostle Brothers.” Next to Peter are the words: Peter, the koryphaios (“leader, head”) and next to Andrew are the words: Andrew, the prtokltos (“first called”). Andrew is the “first called” because he was the first of the Apostles called by Jesus (John 1:40).

I later learned that the icon was a gift of Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to Pope Paul VI as a remembrance of their meeting in the Holy Land in January 1964 — the first between a pope and a patriarch of Constantinople in well over a thousand years.

But the icon is more than merely a remembrance of the meeting. It has powerful symbolic importance — and it is especially significant today, the Feast of St. Andrew.

Peter is, of course, the patron saint of Rome. He and Paul were martyred in Rome and the bishop of Rome is the successor of St. Peter.

Andrew, however, is revered as the patron saint of Byzantium — and the patriarch of Constantinople is his successor. In a real sense, the icon represents not only Peter and Andrew embracing, nor even just Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras; it represents the hoped-for unity between the Eastern and Western Churches.

Although in the icon the apostles are embracing, the relationship between their successors has not always been so warm. In 1054 the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other and began the Great Schism which has divided the Eastern and Western churches for almost a thousand years.

The meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoros began a change in the relations between the churches. In 1965 each of the leaders revoked the anathemas (excommunications) of 1054. Peter and Andrew were beginning the road to reconciliation. Since that time there have been great advances toward unity between the two churches, although admittedly there are still problems to be solved.

One of the most beautiful outcomes of the initial encounter of pope and patriarch was an annual exchange of visits. On 29 June, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, patrons of Rome, the Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, sends a high level delegation to celebrate the feast with the Pope in Rome. I was privileged to be at the celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1995 when the patriarch himself attended. Likewise, on 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew, patron of Byzantium, the Holy See sends a high-level delegation to the Phanar to join in the celebration. Thus, twice a year, on 29 June and 30 November, two churches — represented by the brothers Peter and Andrew — work together to restore the bonds of love and communion between them after over a thousand years of estrangement.

The Patriarchs of Constantinople have personally taken part in the celebrations in Rome at least three times (1995, 2004, 2008) while Pope John Paul II took part in the celebrations at the Phanar (1979), as did Pope Benedict XVI (2006) and Pope Francis (2014). When the pope or patriarch is unable to attend, a high-level delegation is sent.

Since the Feast of St. Andrew comes during a busy time in the West — during the season of Advent, when Catholic parishes and homes throughout the world have begun preparing for Christmas — it can be easy to overlook this day. But we shouldn’t. It speaks to a deep and prayerful yearning that goes back to the very words of Christ, “that all may be one.”

We at CNEWA collaborate closely with our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Churches — supporting and celebrating any actions which can bring our two Churches closer together — and we join our prayers this day with all work diligently for Christian unity.

Pope Francis’s 2017 Message to Patriarch Bartholomew

16 November 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Alawites celebrate a festival in Banyas, Syria during World War II. (photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain)

Of all the religious minorities in the Middle East, perhaps the ‘Alawi or Alawites are the most familiar to people outside the Middle East. In the world CNEWA serves, one of the most prominent political rulers in the region is an ‘Alawi: Bashar al-Assad, the strongman ruler of Syria. His father, Hafiz al-Assad, was also a member of the faith.

The ‘Alawi are also known in history as the Nuṣayri; that is now considered pejorative and was replaced by ‘Alawi. There are significant ‘Alawi minorities in Lebanon (180-200,000), Turkey (500,000-1 million) and Syria (1.5-3 million). The ‘Alawi faith is — like many of the minority religions of the Middle East — highly syncretistic, i.e. comprised in part of beliefs and practices taken from other religions — often with changes that make them unrecognizable. It is generally agreed that the religion has its origins in Shi’ite Islam, but its adherents are considered to be a in ġulāt, “extreme” and heretical, although Muslim opinions about the ‘Alawi religion have vacillated over the centuries.

If syncretism is common among minority religions in the Middle East, so is secrecy, and the ‘Alawi are no exception — though some studies about the faith have been undertaken over the last century. The ‘Alawi belief revolves around a trinity or, perhaps better, a triad. They believe in one god, who is referred to as the “Essence” or “Meaning” (Arabic: ma‘nā) from which emanate two further manifestations: the “Name” or “Veil” and the “Gate.” These can take different manifestations in history, the most common being ‘Ali b. Abi Talib as the “Essence,” Muhammad as the “Name” and Salman al Farisi as the “Gate.” Other figures from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament appear in differing roles.

The ‘Alawi believe that they were originally astral lights who fell from grace and descended to earth. Salvation is achieved through a series of rebirths (metempsychosis). Those who are judged to have been evil are reborn as women — considered to be demonic and excluded from rituals — along with members of other religions, such as Christianity, etc. Salvation consists of achieving contemplation of the “Essence” after having journeyed through the seven heavens. The exclusion of women from rituals has brought about a type of female piety that differs from that of male adherents and tends to be quite syncretistic.

One of the more unusual practices of the ‘Alawi is the quddas, a highly secret and important ritual, open only to males; during this ritual, wine is consecrated and consumed. At times ‘Alawi have been particularly concerned to keep this ritual secret from Christians. ‘Alawi also have holidays. They celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian (Zoroastrian) New Year, as well as Christmas, the Epiphany and the feasts of Mary Magdalene.

The fate of the ‘Alawi over the centuries has been varied. Generally regarded as heretics, they were spared by the Crusaders because the Crusaders thought they were not Muslims. During the time of the Ottoman Empire there were attempts made to convert the ‘Alawi to Sunni Islam, the dominant religion of the empire. After World War I and the Sykes-Picot Treaty, France took control of northern Syria and southern Turkey, where a large number of the ‘Alawi lived. Perhaps as part of a divide-and-conquer tactic, the French were favorable towards the ‘Alawi. For a while there was an ‘Alawi province. It later became the Government of Latakia and was finally subsumed into the modern Syrian state.

There is an unusual variety of opinions among Muslims as to the nature of the ‘Alawi faith. Some, like the medieval Muslim theologian ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), believe that the ‘Alawi are infidels and subject to jihad. Generally Shi’ite Muslims consider them “extremists” and heterodox. On the other hand, Haj Amin al-Husseini (d. 1974), the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, for political reasons recognized the ‘Alawi as Muslims. Some scholars and observers think that, since taking control of Syria in 1971, the al-Assad family has worked to “sunnify” the ‘Alawi to make them more acceptable to the Sunni majority in Syria. Whether this is true and, if true, effective, remains to be seen. However, it needs also to be noted that historically the strongest allies of the al-Assad family have been the Iranian Shi’ites.

Unlike other religious minorities in the Middle East, the ‘Alawi do not live under the threat of extinction.


Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction

Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis

Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 2: The Shabak

9 November 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Embed from Getty Images
In this image from 2015, a displaced Iraqi child from the Shabak community, who fled fighting between ISIS and Peshmerga fighters around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, stands at the Baharka camp, a few miles west of Erbil. (photo: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

There are several minority religions in Mesopotamia which are distantly related to each other and to Islam. For the most part, these religions are considered heterodox by the dominant Sunni Muslim population. In addition, some contain elements taken from Shi’ite Islam that go beyond what its adherents would find acceptable. In parts of the region, these religions are persecuted for being heterodox or considered as simply Shi’ite — a “proof” to some that Shi’ite Islam is also heterodox.

Included in this group would be the Shabak.

The Shabak people are concentrated in northern Iraq to the east and north of Mosul. CNEWA encounters them in the clinics we support in the Iraqi province of Dohuk. It is estimated that the Shabak presently number between 500,000 and 550,000.

The Shabak faith is remotely related to the Alawi sect which is in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. The al-Asad family, the strong man rulers of Syria, belongs to the Alawi sect in western Syria. However, the relation between the two faiths is remote.

The Shabak take the basic Muslim creed that there is no God but God (Allah), Muslim reverence for the Prophet Muhammad and the Shi’ite reverence for Aly, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and combine them in an unusual way. For Shabak Allah, Muhammad and Aly form a type of trinity in which Aly is the primary manifestation of the divinity. While all Muslims have a deep, emotional reverence for the Prophet and while Shi’ite Muslims add to that a deep, emotional reverence for Aly (and his second son, Hussein), it is totally unacceptable for Sunni and Shi’ite alike to consider Muhammad and Aly as divine in any sense of the word. This Shabak belief alone is enough to bring on them the opprobrium of the dominant Muslim population.

The faith of the Shabak is hierarchically ordered. Each person and family comes under a pir, which is a type of priest/spiritual director. This pir is to be differentiated from the pir which is a spiritual authority/teacher in the Sufi traditions of Islam, although the two may be related. The pir is responsible for carrying out all the worship services in which he is assisted by a functionary called a rehber.

For the three great festivals of the year, 12 functionaries must take part in the ceremonies. The first festival is New Year, which is in December; the second is Ashurah, a Shi’ite memorial of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and the Night of Pardon. During the Night of Pardon, the Shabak confess their sins — a practice common in Christianity, but unknown in Islam. In fact, public confession of sins, consumption of alcohol and pilgrimages to shrines of saints are practices (above and beyond their belief in a trinity) which sharply differentiate the Shabak from Islam.

The Shabak suffered greatly under ISIS. They are not considered a People of the Book and were hence faced with the stark choice of conversion to Islam or death. Since it is not clear to which ethnic group the Shabak belong — Turkic, Arab, Kurdish, Iranian — they are inevitably caught up on the ethnic conflicts of the region.

As a result, as is the case with many of the religious minorities of the Middle East, the survival of the Shabak is very precarious.


Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction

Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis

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