31 August 2017
The Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, celebrated this year on 1 September, comes at the end of the Hajj and commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. (photo: Abraham’s sacrifice, from a fresco in Bulgaria/Wikimedia Commons)
This year, Friday 1 September marks the Muslim feast of Eid ul-Aḍḥā, the Feast of Sacrifice, one of the most significant feasts in the Muslim calendar. It comes at the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which Muslims are obliged to make at least once in their lives during the Month of the Hajj.
To understand its significance, it helps to understand the story of Abraham and his two sons.
Muslims trace their religious lineage back to the patriarch Abraham, as do Jews and Christians, though in different ways. For Jews, Muslims and Christians, Abraham had two sons. Ishmael, Abraham’s first born, was the son of Hagar, Sarah’s servant. Sarah was childless, so Abraham, following the customs of the time, had a son through Hagar to carry on the line. Later, when Sarah miraculously conceived and gave birth to Isaac, the Bible sees Isaac as the main heir of Abraham and, therefore, of God’s promise (Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-21). After the birth of her own son, Sarah convinced Abraham to send away Hagar and their son Ishmael. In Genesis 22 there is the familiar story of Abraham expressing willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son Isaac; the Lord intervenes and provides, instead, a ram (Genesis 22:13).
For Muslims, Ishmael — not Isaac — is the child of the promise. The Bible and the Quran differ on the story. If in the Bible Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, the account in the Quran 37:103 ff. presents Ishmael as the intended sacrifice. Both the Bible and the Qur’an agree that Ishmael was sent away, but they differ greatly in the details. In the Muslim telling, Abraham and Ishmael traveled to Mecca and set up the House of God there.
Much of the ritual of the Hajj revolves around Abraham and Ishmael’s time in Mecca. At the end of the Hajj, commemorating the “sacrifice” of Ishmael, Muslims recall that sacrifice by slaughtering (or having someone slaughter) a sheep or some other acceptable animal and giving the meat to the poor.
Interestingly, there are similarities between the two major Muslim holy days, the Feast of Sacrifice and the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast (of Ramadan), and two major Christian holy days, Christmas and Easter.
For Muslims, the Feast of Sacrifice is more important theologically — as Easter is theologically more important for Christians. However, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast for Muslims and Christmas for Christians have somehow captured the hearts and imaginations of believers. There are many more popular traditions around the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast than of the Feast of Sacrifice. Greetings, visits and family events are often closely related to the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast. Nevertheless, theologically, if not emotionally, the Feast of Sacrifice remains, al-‘eid al-akbar, “the greater feast.”
24 August 2017
This painting depicts the Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V, being arrested by the Ottomans on Easter Sunday in 1821. He was later hanged.
(photo: Nikiforos Lytras [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
As I noted in an earlier post, Christian decline in the Middle East covered a period of many centuries. As early as the 9th century, we find Christians converting to Islam for any number of reasons. The almost total destruction of the Christian infrastructure during the Mongol invasions (13th century) further weakened the Christian position.
Under the Ottoman Empire (from the end of 13th century until 1923) the status of Christians further deteriorated. The Ottoman Empire did everything possible to expand its borders. For several centuries, it enjoyed considerable success. Most of the Balkan countries, parts of Hungary and Poland and all of Greece came under Ottoman rule. All of these countries were Christian — Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant.
The Ottomans employed the millet (originally Arabic for: religion, religious community, nation) system in which each religious group enjoyed a certain autonomy and lived under its own denominational leadership and laws. But each remained under the strict control of the Ottoman overlords. While this provided a certain autonomy, it also ran the risk of “ghettoizing” and, hence, isolating the communities. At the same time the same social, cultural and financial incentives continued which would entice Christians to convert to Islam.
In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire entered a period of decline. There were large groups like Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and others who became restive. Nationalist movements began to emerge and many of these groups sought independence. In 1821 Greek nationalists revolted against the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II. The patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V, who was also the leader of the Greek millet, opposed the revolt. Nevertheless, the Sultan held him responsible. On 22 April 1821, Easter Sunday, the Ottomans arrested Gregory after the liturgy and hanged him in full vestments on the gate of the patriarchate, where his body remained for two days. This not only enflamed the Greeks but also encouraged Russian, French and British intervention on the side of the Greek rebels. Ultimately the rebels were victorious and Greece achieved independence in the Treaty of Constantinople in May 1832.
The success of the Greeks was a shock to the Ottomans. They had been invincible for centuries. Soon other Christian millets became possible hotbeds for revolutionaries. The intervention of Russia, France and Britain on the side of the Christian Greeks was a warning to the Ottomans.
At the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918), the Ottomans joined on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary against the British, French and Russians, who not coincidentally had supported the Greek war for independence. After some initial successes, it became clear that the Ottomans were on the losing side. Christian millets were looked upon as possible areas for revolt and for support of the Allied Powers. In fact, some of the millets, like the Armenians, did see an opportunity for independence.
In 1915 the Ottomans began a systematic extermination of Armenians, the vast majority of whom were Christians. It should also be noted that Armenians were widespread in the Ottoman Empire. In what the United Nations and others, including Pope Francis, refer to as the Armenian Genocide, over 1.5 million Armenians were either executed or died from starvation and forced migration. While the Armenians have received the attention of Western historians, they weren’t the only ones who faced persecution and death. Other groups, including the Assyrians and Chaldeans, were also massacred.
The end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire allowed the French and British to divide up the Ottoman remains along lines of their own national interests. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) created artificial countries in the area of Syria Mesopotamia. Created according to British and French national interests — and not linguistic, ethnic, religious or political considerations — these countries were and are inherently unstable. As British and French control in the region began to wane, many of these countries experienced anti-colonialist revolutions and sought their identities in a non-European, non-Christian (which to many in the region was the same) Islam. Once again, especially in Iraq, Christians became the target for massacres. Beginning in 1933 there were several massacres of Assyrian Christians, the worst event being at the town of Simele on 10-11 August of 1933.
By this time Christianity in the region was in sharp decline. The Christian population of Turkey in 1914 was estimated at 14 percent. By 2017 it had sunk to 0.2 percent. Genocide, emigration and expulsion reduced the Christian population, which had been the majority in the 6th century, to an insignificant minority in the 21st.
The wars the United States waged against Iraq (2003 to the present) further worsened the situation of Christians, who were often caught in the crossfire of competing forces or targeted as traitors, sympathetic to the (Christian) invaders. Having once numbered more than 1.5 million, Christians now number 150,000 or less in Iraq. The Syrian Civil War (2011-present) and the rise of the Islamic State have made the situation of Christians in Syria and Mesopotamia almost intolerable.
Whether Christianity will or even can survive in the region is today a very open question.
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia: Introduction
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 1: In the Beginning
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 2: Christians and Muslims Co-exist
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia —Part 3: Christianity Begins to Decline
17 August 2017
This image from the Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East in the 13th century,
when Mongols conquered much of Asia.
(photo: by Abraham Cresques, Atlas catalan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
The decline of Christianity in the Middle East did not occur over night. It took over a millennium for Christians to go from being a slight majority of the population of the Middle East to being 5 percent at present.
When did it start? We see the beginnings of decline by the 9th century. Initially, the Muslim conquerors discouraged the People of the Book, Christians, from converting to Islam. The benefits which the conquerors enjoyed were initially not given to non-Arab converts to Islam. But as the caliphate developed into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state, those privileges were granted to all converts, providing incentives for Christians to convert to Islam.
Under the Abbasid Caliphs (750-1258) there were often dialogues/debates in which Christian and Muslim theologians debated the superiority of their own faiths. By the 9th century, though, we notice subtle and not so subtle changes taking place. Since many of these debates have survived in written form, we can follow their development. (You can read more about that here.) Although for the most part, there was no violence exerted on Christians to convert to Islam, subtler and perhaps more powerful incentives were at work: social status, political status and financial advantage. While there does not seem to have been any mass conversion to Islam, the decline had begun.
At the beginning of the 13th century, nomadic groups in north central Asia began a migration and conquest. In 1258, Mongols conquered Baghdad and brought the Abbasid Caliphate to an end. By 1300, they had conquered China, all of Central and Western Asia and parts of Eastern Europe. Until the advent of ISIS, the Middle East had not experienced wanton destruction such a scale since the Mongol invasions. The infrastructure of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious caliphate was destroyed — and with it, most of the Christian infrastructure in the region.
To be sure, there would not be a permanent vacuum in the Middle East. Smaller groups of Muslims formed Khanates and Sultanates which often competed with each other for the position which the Abbasid Caliphate had possessed and which was now gone forever.
Even towards the end of the caliphate, one notices the presence of Turkic people in positions of power. After the demise of the caliphate, more and more of these groups move into the Middle East and begin to establish governments.
One of these groups, the Oghuz Turks, was to begin the most important empire in Europe and Asia for almost 600 years. The Osmanli family formed a dynasty, the Ottomans, which would conquer the entire Middle East and much of Central Europe until its dissolution in 1923. The Ottoman Empire was inspired by the ghazi or raiding tradition and engaged in almost constant raids against their non-Muslim and Muslim neighbors.
In many ways, the situation of Christians and non-Ottoman Muslims under the Ottomans was similar. Both were subjects. However, there were several factors which made the situation of Christians worse. Christians were becoming a minority lacking the “demographic depth” of the Arab Muslims, making any recovery very difficult. The Crusades (roughly 11th to 13th centuries) and the later constant Ottoman attacks in Christian central Europe gave Christians in the Ottoman Empire the air of being “the foreign enemy” or, worse, a “fifth column.” Forced conversions of Christians to Islam had been rare. However, the Janissaries, the Ottoman shock troops, were originally manned by young Christian boys kidnapped from (mostly) Balkan countries, forced to convert to Islam and then trained as the personal troops of the Sultan.
Relations between Christians and Ottoman Turks are memorialized in several Catholic holy days. The Feast of the Name of Mary (12 September) commemorates the defeat of the Ottoman armies at Vienna in 1683 and the Feast of the Holy Rosary (7 October) commemorates the Christian victory at the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571. It’s no accident that these holy days are linked to battles; the Ottoman Empire was in an almost constant state of war with Eastern Europe until the end of the 17th century.
The time of the Umayyad and Abbasid Christian-Muslim dialogues was over. For the Christians in the West, Islam — in the form of the Ottoman Empire — was not an opportunity for dialogue, but a threat. Christians in the East were considered objects of suspicion — sympathizers of the Christian powers in Europe — and not people for dialogue.
Christians in Syria and Mesopotamia never really recovered from the Mongol invasions and destruction. Any opportunity to recover was greatly diminished under the Ottomans. Christians went from being high officials and respected scholars under the caliphates to being a poor, shrinking and suspect minority under the Ottomans.
As we will see, the events of the 20th and 21st centuries would make the situation of Christians in the Middle East even worse.
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia: Introduction
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 1: In the Beginning
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 2: Christians and Muslims Co-exist
10 August 2017
St. John of Damascus, (John Damascene) is shown in this Arabic icon. The words on the scroll read, in part: “Blessed is the way of life of the people of piety, for they will arise forever in love.”
(photo: Wikipedia Commons)
This was a period of tremendous change in the region.
Within a hundred years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death (June 632), Muslim armies had driven the Christian Byzantine rulers out of the eastern Mediterranean, destroyed the Persian Sassanid Empire (651), conquered North Africa and were poised to attack Spain. The Christian Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria in Egypt were under Muslim control, as were about half of the world’s Christians.
We are dealing here with a period of five centuries corresponding to: the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) and the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1158).
So, what happened?
After disagreement and bloodshed among Muslims over who was to succeed the Prophet Muhammad, the Umayya family of Mecca was victorious. This began the Umayyad Caliphate, centered in Damascus. The Umayyads found themselves the unprepared rulers over a large, very developed and sophisticated part of the Middle East — and the overwhelming majority of their subjects were Christians. However, these Christians were often bitterly divided among themselves between those who followed the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and who formed the Church of the Byzantine Empire, and those who did not — primarily the Church of the East and the Monophysites Churches. Often this latter group found its situation better under Muslim overlords than under Byzantine Christians who considered them schismatic at best. In addition, Muslims at times actively discouraged Christians from converting to Islam.
The Umayyad Caliphate needed administrators and trained bureaucrats — and Christians fit the bill. Thus we find the grandfather and father of St. John Damascene (676-749) working at the Umayyad Court. Although they were dhimmy — i.e. protected but second class citizens — Christians played an important role in the caliphate as administrators and scholars. Christians, like John Damascene, were not sure what to make of Islam. John, for example, thought that it was a Christian heresy, having as it does so much in common with Christianity. As time went on, Christians realized that Islam was, in fact, another religion rooted in the Quran; Christians began to respond accordingly. Nonetheless, relations between the Christians and Muslims in the Umayyad Caliphate were generally not hostile.
The Umayyad Caliphate came to a violent end with the Abbasid revolt of 750. Many in the ruling Umayyad family were killed and a new caliphate set up in the new city of Baghdad.
Although Christians often rose to high positions in the government, and made up a majority, the Abbasids were not nearly as dependent on them for the administration of the caliphate. The Church of the East moved its Patriarchal See from Ctesiphon, the former Persian capital, to Baghdad, the new Abbasid capital.
This was a time of great intellectual activity and Christians played a major role. Syriac-speaking monks of the Church of the East had kept alive the traditions of the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle. The emerging Muslim intellectual class with its philosophers and theologians interacted with Christian scholars. Timothy I, Patriarch-Catholicos of the Church of the East, was a prominent scholar of Aristotle. (Caliph al-Mahdi even hired Timothy to translate Aristotle’s work The Topics for the caliph’s library.)
During this time, Muslims and Christians engaged in dialogues/debates on the respective strengths of their religions — and often these encounters were sponsored by the caliphs themselves. Texts of many of these debates still exist today — and you can see some important developments.
With time, the Christian critiques of Islam began to get harsher. One also gets the distinct feeling that these texts were directed more to Christians than Muslims. This indicates that by the end of the 8th century, Christians —for any number of reasons, force not being among them — were beginning to convert to Islam.
As the Abbasid Caliphate went into a long, slow decline, missionaries of the Church of the East remained active throughout Asia. Christianity was learning to express its faith using Arabic, the language of the Quran. It was a time of Christian-Muslim interaction, if not dialogue. Although Christians were not persecuted, one begins to note increasing social, cultural and financial motivations for Christians to convert to Islam.
But other forces were at work.After the Abbasids, Mongol invaders launched more than a century of widespread destruction that overwhelmed the Middle East, indirectly contributing to what became a centuries-long decline of Christianity in the region.
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 1: In the Beginning
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia: Introduction
3 August 2017
This pagoda in Shaanxi, China, dates to the seventh century. Scholars believe it was originally part of a monastery for the Church of the East — offering evidence of Christianity's deep roots in Asia. (photo: J. Coster/Wikipedia)
While all the ancient churches traditionally trace their roots back to one of the Apostles — or one of the 72 disciples who are mentioned without names in Luke’s Gospel — it is often difficult to verify these traditions in way which would be acceptable to modern historians.
The New Testament offers little help. It has Peter traveling to Antioch, although there is no mention in the Bible that Peter went to Rome. We also know from Acts 8:4-8 that Philip, one of the Twelve Apostles, travelled and preached in Samaria, which was not far from Jerusalem. There is more evidence in the Bible about Paul desiring to go to Rome and ultimately going there as a prisoner. Paul is also known to have founded several churches. However, although he insists that he is an “apostle” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:9 and elsewhere), Paul was not a member of the original Twelve Apostles.
While traditions about the apostolic origins of some churches may be hard to verify, they do have deep roots. Early on, traditions arose according to which of the Twelve evangelized a particular area — Thomas in India, Andrew in Byzantium, and so on.
Nearly 200 years later, we find — as in India and parts of Armenia — that church institutions developed. The traditions were beginning to flourish. Shrines and memorials recording the presence of one of the Twelve, even many decades later, also indicate a longer tradition. So, when churches trace their roots back to apostolic times, there is very often an historical core to those traditions.
But before long, several forces — mostly political, theological, linguistic and cultural — led to isolation between the churches of the East and those of the Latin and Greek-speaking West.
The Church of the East, sometimes inaccurately called the Nestorian Church, was a church separated from the Western churches in many ways. First, it existed politically in the Persian Empire, which was almost in a constant state of war with Byzantium, the political center of Western Christianity. Secondly, its theology found the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon unacceptable. This actually was to its advantage because “orthodox” Christianity was — sometimes correctly — seen by the Persians as the faith of the Byzantine enemies. Lastly, members of the Church of the East spoke Syriac and different dialects of Aramaic, in contrast to the Greek and Latin of the churches in the West.
But it was, in many ways, ahead of its time. It might surprise people to learn that the Church of the East developed schools of theology in Edessa and Nisibis (both in modern Turkey) some 500 years before the opening of the first great European universities. Also, for the first five centuries of the church, most Christians lived east of the Mediterranean; by the time of the Muslim conquests in the mid-seventh century, Christians formed a slight majority of the population of the Persian Empire.
One reason for its growth is that the Church of the East was renowned for its missionary activities. By the eighth century it had metropolitan sees (archdioceses) in several places in China and across Central Asia. The Church of the East brought Christianity to China before it arrived in Denmark and the Slavic countries of Europe and almost 1,000 years before St. Francis Xavier arrived in the region.
Although the Church of the East remains widely unknown in the West, for centuries it was one of the most vital forces for theology and missionary activity in the Christian world.
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Introduction
27 July 2017
Tags: Christianity Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Church of the East
In this image from last year, Christian worshippers pray at Sayydet al-Niyah Church in Damascus, Syria. Centuries before Christianity took root in Europe, it was flourishing in Syria and other countries to the East. (photo: CNS/Youssef Badawi, EPA)
Recently we have been hearing that Christianity risks extinction in the Middle East, the region often described as the “cradle of Christianity.” While Christians in the West lament the possible extinction of Christians in the East, the attitude is often “well, there never were a lot of Christians there any way.”
Each of us sees reality through a very local lens. It often seems as if the unspoken attitude among Western Christians is that, after the Ascension of Jesus, the Apostles got together, Peter decided to go to Rome and the other 11 went into assisted living. The conclusion: from the very beginning Christianity was a European phenomenon.
In fact, nothing could be further than the truth.
For at least the first 500 years of Christianity, most Christians lived east of the Mediterranean in what was then known as Syria and Mesopotamia. Many might be surprised to learn that the Church of the East, often referred to as “Nestorian,” was in China before Christianity reached Denmark and the Slavic countries. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day in the year 800, Timothy of the Church of the East was a metropolitan archbishop in Tibet. Middle Eastern Christians were in India and China 1,000 years before the arrival of St. Francis Xavier (who died in 1552).
The region known as Mesopotamia stretched from the Mediterranean east, all the way to the
Persian Gulf. (photo: Wikipedia)
The Christian presence in the East, from the early days, was fairly extensive. For several centuries after the Muslim conquest of the Middle East (in the seventh century), Christians formed a majority of the population in the two Islamic caliphates. In the first caliphate, the Umayyad (661-750), Christians played a major role in the government. St. John Damascene (ca. 675-749) came from a family of Christian civil servants in the caliphate at Damascus.
There were and remain several different Christian churches in the Middle East, both Orthodox and Catholic, tracing their roots back to the time of the Apostles. Some of the ancient churches of the Middle East had great centers of theological learning like Edessa and Nisibis (respectively Sanliurfa and Nusaybin in modern Turkey). The university in Nisibis antedated the earliest universities in Europe by over 500 years.
One of the interesting characteristics of Middle Eastern theology is that, while Western Christians often used creeds to express their faith, the preferred medium for expressing faith in Middle Eastern Christianity was hymns and poetry. Thus, St. Ephrem the Syrian, one of the great biblical scholars and theologians of both the Western and Eastern churches, left behind not summas, like Aquinas and others, but rather huge volumes of hymns and poetry.
Over the next three weeks, we will look at 2,000 years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia and how these ancient and most interesting churches were founded, flourished and ultimately began to decline; in places where they were once the majority, they are now small minorities, often well under 10 percent.
We hope to help readers not only understand just who these Christians are, but also why their survival is critical to Christians everywhere.
20 July 2017
The video above, from 11 July, shows the extent of the destruction of Mosul, the largest city in Iraq that ISIS tried to conquer. (video: Radio Free Europe/YouTube)
Editor’s note: this week, we launch a new feature on our blog, “CNEWA Connections” — weekly posts that we hope will provide background and context to some of the stories unfolding in CNEWA’s world.
The Iraq city of Mosul has been in the news quite a bit lately and has been freed from the control of ISIS. It may, however, prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, since much of the city now lays in ruins.
While the world watches in sorrow the stories and images coming out of Mosul, and witnesses the humanitarian nightmare its destruction has created, it’s worth taking a moment to put the place in context. This city, the largest that ISIS tried to conquer, has a long history.
Mosul (Arabic al-Maw?il, “the connection, confluence, depot”) originally on the west bank now lies on both sides of the Tigris River. It is not a very ancient city, although it is close to the ruins of Niniveh, the capital of the very powerful Assyrian Empire which was destroyed by the Chaldeans of Babylon at the close of the 7th century BC. The position of Mosul made it an ideal center for trade between China and India via the Silk Roads to the east, to the Greek and Roman Empires to the west and Arabia and Africa to the south.
In pre-Muslims times, Mosul was a metropolitan see (archdiocese) of the Church of the East and was second to Ctesiphon — and later Baghdad — where the Catholicos/Patriarch resided. It was conquered by Muslim armies in the 7th century AD and later became part of the Abbasid Caliphate. As would be expected for a city on the juncture of several trade routes, Mosul was very cosmopolitan. Originally a Christian city, over the centuries it became increasingly Sunni Muslim. Nevertheless, there was a considerable Christian minority consisting of Christians of the Assyrian tradition (Church of the East and later also Chaldeans) and other Christian churches, Jews, Shi’ites and others. Ethnically, the majority of the population of Mosul was and remains Arab, although there were a good number of Kurds in the city. Many Christians in the region consider themselves Assyrian and not Arab. As might be expected, instances of sectarian conflict in Mosul were recorded over the centuries.
Mosul is the main city of the Nineveh Plain which has been home to a large Christian population spread over several small cities and villages. The Christian population of the Nineveh Plain is an ancient one, tracing its roots back in some instances to the 4th century AD.
Historians recount that Mosul was famous for its textiles and the English word, muslin, a type of fabric, is derived from the name Mosul.
Mosul and its environs were home to several pilgrim sites. Perhaps the most famous of these was the shrine of Nabi Yunas, the prophet Jonah — who, according to the Old Testament, had preached repentance to the Assyrians in nearby Nineveh and was buried at the site.
In this image from 1999, Iraqis visit the shrine of Nabi Yunas, the prophet Jonah.
(photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Originally a Christian shrine, it became a mosque as the Christian population diminished over the centuries.
Iraqis inspect the shrine of Nabi Yunas after ISIS destroyed it in 2014. (photo: CNS/EPA)
The al-Nuri Grand Mosque was built in the 12th century and underwent several renovations over the years. A huge structure, it was famous for its minaret, from which the Muslim call to prayer is broadcast. The minaret leaned at an angle similar to Italy’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Under the Ottoman Empire, modern day Iraq, was (wisely) divided into three vilayets or provinces: Bosra for the Arab Shi’ites in the southern third of the country; Baghdad for the Arab Sunnis in the center of the country; and Mosul for the Kurdish Muslims in the northern third of the country. After the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917, the French and British united all three vilayets to form the new country of Iraq.
After several revolutions, Iraq evolved into one very diverse country held together by a strong man, Saddam Hussein. Kurdish revolts in the north and Shi’ite revolts in the south were common and were met with incredible brutality by the Hussein government.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq began to become unglued. Centrifugal forces surfaced and the old Ottoman vilayets provided the fault lines which continue to divide the country. In that vacuum arose first al-Qaida in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a brutal terrorist. After Zarqawi’s death al-Qaida in Iraq went underground and metastasized to what would become known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and by its Arabic acronym da’ish.
With incredible speed in 2014, ISIS attacked Mosul. The large Iraqi army fled when faced with an almost minuscule ISIS force and Mosul became part of ISIS. In June 2014 in the al-Nuri Grand Mosque in Mosul Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (whose name has changed several times, each time giving him a more noble pedigree) declared himself Caliph. ISIS was now on the world stage with a vengeance. Although Raqqa in Syria was the purported capital of the caliphate, Mosul was in some ways more important. ISIS plundered the many resources which Mosul had to offer — military equipment left behind by the fleeing Iraqi army, many banks whose funds were stolen, and a population estimated at 1.8 million, half of which fled, leaving behind properties, money, etc., which was confiscated by ISIS.
ISIS was driven from Mosul in the spring and summer of 2017 by a coalition of Iraqi troops, Kurdish militias and American advisors. The loss of Mosul was a serious loss for ISIS but perhaps a greater loss for the people of Mosul and the Christians who had fled from the Plain of Nineveh. Arial photographs show the city to be leveled. The retreating ISIS forces used explosives to destroy the Shrine of Jonah and the al-Nuri mosque. Christians who fled to Irbil in Kurdish Iraq wait and wonder if the Niniveh Plain will ever again be safe enough for them to return.
It is a sad irony that for centuries Mosul lay just across the Tigris River from the ruins of ancient Niniveh — ruins which Mosul itself now resembles.
16 June 2017
The newly renamed Mosque of Maryam, the Mother of Jesus, stands in Abu Dhabi.
The Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi has a new name. It is now the Mosque of Maryam (Mary), Mother of Jesus. This gesture of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zayed al-Nahyan, is intended to promote greater understanding and harmony between Christians and Muslims.
In fact, Our Lady plays an important role in Islam. She is the virgin mother of Jesus, although with no connotation of the Incarnation as understood by Christians. She is the one who hears God’s word and believes it. And in the Qur’an, she is the focus of Chapter 19.
When members of the early Muslim community fled to Abyssinia (ancient Ethiopia) to escape persecution, they were required by the king to explain their new faith. When he heard of the devotion they had to Mary, he immediately accepted them as protected refugees.
Two women play a major role in Islam. The first is Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali bin Abi Talib. The second is Mary, Mother of Jesus. Known among Muslims as Fatimah al-Zahra, “the Illustrious,” the daughter of the Prophet is widely revered in Sunni and especially Shi’ite Islam. While it is common among Shi’ites to have mosques bearing the name of Fatimah, to my knowledge this mosque is Abu Dhabi is the first to be named after the Virgin Mary.
This is not by any means to say that Mary plays no role in the popular piety of Muslims. Although it is seriously frowned upon by the Wahhabi/Salafi theological strain in Sunni Islam, many Muslims visit Marian shrines in Ephesus, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere.
The graciousness and breadth of spirit of Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan is to be applauded. One can only hope that it is the first of many gestures that Muslims and Christians can make to increase peace and understanding between our communities.
7 June 2017
Palestinian girls stand in front the Dome of the Rock as they attend the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound on 2 June 2017. (photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
As Muslims around the world observe Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, the Pew Research Center has released its report “Muslims and Islam: Key Findings in the U.N. and around the world.” Originally published on 7 December 2016, the report has been updated and released again on 26 May 2017.
As is the case with most Pew Reports, it is detailed yet easy to read and understand. It provides a great deal of information about the number of Muslims in the world as well as in Europe and North America. Not surprisingly, Islam is the fastest growing religion on the planet.
The report also investigates how Muslims feel about certain issues and how different non-Muslim groups feel about Muslims. It is noted that attitudes toward Muslims in the United States, for example, differ according to one’s party affiliation and that southern Europeans generally have a more negative attitude toward Muslims than do northern Europeans. An interesting study contrasts how Muslims in Islamic-dominated countries characterize the West and how non-Muslims in the West characterize Muslims. These provide important areas for dialogue and growth in mutual understanding.
Two other important issues are treated, though not equally well, in the report. The first issue is how Muslims feel about “groups like ISIS.” The overwhelming majority of Muslims both in and outside Muslim majority countries do not approve of violent extremism. This is extremely important to note.
Less satisfactory, however, is the section on “Support for Sharia.” Questions about sharia are often used by people who fear it becoming the law in more secular countries. In an unintended way, the section on “Support for Sharia” might seem to verify these fears as large majorities in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa “favor making sharia the official law in their country.”
There are many problems with this. The report describes sharia as “a legal code based on the Quran and other Islamic scripture.” The first thing to note is that there is no “other Islamic scripture” other than the Quran; and secondly in no sense of the word is sharia a “legal code.”
“Sharia” is not a univocal term and Muslims — even those who favor making it the law of their land — have very different understandings of what that might mean. In addition, “sharia” is a religiously charged term. Few Muslims, if any, would spontaneously be against sharia even if they had little or no understanding of what it might actually mean historically and practically. As a result “sharia” with no qualifications is generally speaking not a helpful category when researching Muslim opinions.
Nevertheless, the Pew Foundation has once again provided valuable and much needed information about Islam, a religion that is misunderstood.
23 May 2017
Tags: Muslim Islam Ramadan Religious Differences
In this image from 2016, a migrant tries to open a border fence at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece.
(photo: CNS/Marko Djurica, Reuters)
The United Nations is not the fastest moving body in the world. It often takes decades for new ideas to become part and parcel of the UN agenda and worldview.
But yesterday, it appears that something new is happening — and it could have significance for millions, particularly in the parts of the world CNEWA serves.
It happened at a side event hosted by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See, the International Catholic Migration Commission, Caritas Internationalis and the Center for Migration Studies. The event was for “ensuring the right of all to remain in dignity, peace and security in their countries of origin.” The concept emerging that is new and which kept surfacing at the event was the Right to Remain.
In sum: the event participants recognized that most refugees and migrants do not want to leave their homes and, when forced to, want to return as soon as possible. What results is the Right to Remain — which, the event stated, precedes the Right to Migrate. While migration is and remains a right, migration is often the less desirable solution. Thus it is recognized that for most migrants migration is not a free choice but is forced upon them by what the event called “Drivers of Forced Migration.” The major “drivers of forced migration” are: climate change, economic underdevelopment and internal conflicts.The Right to Remain stresses that people have the right to have these drivers removed, so they can remain in the native countries.
Clearly the issue of refugees and migrants has been a major concern at the UN. It is estimated that over 65 million people on the planet are in one way or another refugees or migrants (in what follows, the words migrant and migration will include refugees). The flow of these people from Africa and the Middle East has put European and other countries under tremendous economic, political and social pressures. In some areas the migration problem has bred nativist, xenophobic and often racist reactions which manifest themselves in different ways in different countries. For example, the rise of ethno-nationalist and rightist populist groups — political and otherwise — has been a concern for many.
The UN and Pope Francis have been consistent in calling for programs to help and accept people who are fleeing from their homes. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is responding to a situation of mass migration that has not been seen for at least a hundred years. While continuing to defend the right of people to migrate, however, the event recognized that migration must be: 1) sustainable, 2) manageable and 3) a choice, indicating that at present it is too often none of these. This recognizes not only the legitimate issues of the migrants but also of the receiving countries.
Recognizing the priority of the Right to Remain, the Holy See and its colleagues did not in any way question the right to migrate. However, it laid great emphasis on the fact that migration must be a free choice and that people have the right to have problems solved which are drivers of forced migration in their own countries.
Clearly at this point the Right to Remain does not enjoy the same legal standing in international humanitarian law as does the Right to Migrate. However, there is the recognition that migration must be sustainable, manageable and a free choice together with the indication and that such is not the case at present. This is leading to the the gradual emergence of a Right to Remain.
And, as I noted: this is something new and significant. It recognizes the rights of both migrants and receiving countries. And it provides a significant impulse towards making a Right to Remain one of the basic human rights.
Helping people to achieve a standard of living that is sustainable and human has been one of the major efforts of CNEWA. While CNEWA has not spoken of the Right to Remain or the Drivers of Forced Migration, in fact, almost all of our programs are geared to make it possible for people to remain in their homes in dignity, peace and security.