20 September 2018
Smoke rises from a government-held area of Aleppo, Syria, after an explosion in December 2016. (photo: CNS/Omar Sanadiki, Reuters)
Every year on 21 September the United Nations observes International Peace Day. In 2001 the UN General Assembly called on the member states to observe the day through non-violence and ceasefires.
How well that has been observed is tragically clear for all to see.
There are many ways to calculate “armed conflict,” which can cover everything from a full-blown war to local terrorist attacks. Generally speaking, armed conflicts are registered in terms of casualties per year: over 10,000, 1,000-9,999, and 100-999 deaths. Using this metric, it is estimated that there are 38 armed conflicts raging in the world during 2018. These range from smaller local conflicts to larger ones involving massive loss of life in places like Syria, Yemen and Burma.
Almost every religious tradition speaks of peace, although some would limit that peace to fellow believers. Christians speak of pax and eirene, Jews speak of shalom and Muslims of salaam. The religions of the Indian subcontinent speak of shanti and ahimsa (non-violence). Leaders from every world religion speak with some frequency about the importance of peace. International groups and movements such as Religions for Peace and the Parliament of the World’s Religions work tirelessly to promote peace and understanding.
Yet for all this talk and all these efforts, there is still tremendous violence in the world. If we are honest, all too often the conflicts have religious components. It is common for religious people to claim that this or that conflict is political and not religious. In some cases that might be true. However, denying religious components to many conflicts is built on the naïve and faulty assumption that religion cannot be politicized. It can and it is. While religion may not be the only factor in some major conflicts, it definitely plays a role: Buddhists vs. Rohingya Muslims in Burma; Sunni vs. Shi’ite Muslims in Yemen and, to some extent in Syria; Muslims against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq; Hindus against Christians in part of India; and majority Christians against minority Christian groups in places like Russia. One is reminded of the verse in the book of the prophet Jeremiah: “Peace, peace, they say, but there is no peace” (Jer 6:14; 8:10).
If almost all religions speak of peace, if so many religious leaders around the world speak of the importance of peace, why is there so much conflict and not just conflict but conflict involving religion? Perhaps a partial answer can be found in the UN International Peace Day. It is a day not when governments and religious leaders speak of global peace and peace on the much touted macro-scale; it is, rather, a call for not just religions but individual believers to practice peace and non-violence. As long as religious people do not see themselves obliged by their faith to be active agents of peace and reconciliation — but rather allow and even promote conflict in their families, workplace and neighborhoods — conflicts will continue to rage in our world.
CNEWA, of course, is no stranger to conflict. We work in war-torn areas such as the Middle East and the Horn of Africa; we also work with refugees, those quintessential victims of violence, in refugee camps and displacement centers throughout the world. We serve in areas where there are intra-religious conflicts like Ukraine. The words of Jeremiah ring often in our ears.
International Peace Day provides us with an opportunity and a challenge: an opportunity to evaluate our role as believers who work actively to promote peace and reconciliation, and a challenge to bring that peace and reconciliation into our daily lives and local communities.
13 September 2018
Tags: Middle East United Nations
In this image from August, Muslim pilgrims touch Kaaba's wall and pray at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (photo: CNS/Sedat Suna, EPA)
In countries where CNEWA serves, there are sizable—often majority—Muslim communities. And, of course, in the Holy Land, there is a majority Jewish community.
But in a rare coincidence, both Islam and Judaism are observing their respective New Years this week.
On 10 September, Jews around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head of the year,” and the following day Muslims observed the first of Muharram, the New Year in the Muslim calendar. Although Muslims and Jews (to some extent also Christians) follow a lunar calendar of twenty-nine days, Jews and Christians in different ways “correct” the lunar calendar to keep it in line with the 365-day solar calendar. Muslims, however, do not and the Muslim calendar year is 10-11 days shorter than the “corrected” calendar used by Jews and Christians. As a result, festivals like Ramadan, the Breaking of the Fast and New Year move “backwards” through the calendar commonly used. Thus 1 Muharram fell on 14 October in 2015 and will fall on 10 August in 2021. It is unusual, therefore, that 1 Muharram and Rosh Hashanah occur so close to each other.
There is some interesting history behind all this. The Islamic calendar — and hence, New Year — is calculated from the Hijra or emigration/flight of Muhammad and the Muslim community in 622 from a hostile Mecca to Medina where the community would thrive. After enduring more than a decade of often violent persecution in Mecca, Muhammad and his community were invited by the people of Medina, an oasis city over 200 miles north of Mecca, to move there and for Muhammad to govern the city. The story of the Hijra is tense and thrilling. As the Muslims were leaving the city, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s son-in-law, disguised himself as Muhammad in the Prophet’s bed to throw off those who were trying to kill him. Muhammad and his faithful companion Abu Bakr hid from the pursuers in a cave for three days before finally beginning the trip and arriving safely in Medina.
It is important to understand the relationship between the Hijra and the Muslim New Year. It is estimated that the Hijra took place in June of 622. The 1 Muharram after the Hijra is the beginning of the Muslim calendar, which is abbreviated AH (anno hegira). One of the four “sacred months” in the Muslim calendar, Muharram is second in holiness only to the month of Ramadan. Muharram is traditionally a time of non-violence. War, fighting and even hunting is forbidden during the sacred month.
The 10th day of Muharram is Ashura, which for Shi’ite Muslims is a day of great mourning, recalling the murder of Hussein ibn Ali, the Prophet’s grandson, in 680. Ashura is extremely important for Shi’ites who observe the martyrdom of Hussein with re-enactments of his death and mourning rituals. Sunnis do not observe Ashura in this way and in some parts of the world this leads to conflict between the Shi’ite and Sunni communities.
Both Judaism and Islam observe their particular New Years in different ways, with different ceremonies, with rich and varied meanings for those communities. However, the New Year is always a time for looking back and looking forwards — the Roman god Janus, for whom January is named, is portrayed with two faces, one looking forward, the other backwards.
It is a time for remembering the past and correcting what needs to be corrected and a time for looking forward in faith and hope for the year to come.
6 September 2018
Tags: Muslim Islam Jews
A sister greets a young friend at the St. Rachel Center in Jerusalem, which primarily serves those in the migrant population. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Last week, we looked at “charity” as it is understood and practiced in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We saw that care for the weak, the poor and the suffering was central to each of these faiths, although each approached it in a slightly different way. This week, we are looking at how CNEWA embodies Christian charity as it responds to the command of Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
The command to love one another is not an abstract one for Christians. Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus manifests love by showing compassion to those around him. When in Matthew’s Gospel John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to ask if he is the “one to come,” Jesus responds by saying “the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are healed and the poor hear the good news of the Gospel” (Matthew 11:4ff.). Jesus sees his identity and mission as coming to those who are burdened under sickness, poverty, oppression and sin. Caring for the poor and the outcast is not, therefore, merely a side event to being a follower of Jesus, nor is it a theoretical obligation. It is central to salvation.
In Matthew’s Gospel, salvation or damnation are presented as dependent not on orthodoxy, not on liturgical practice, but on how one treated the poor. In this Gospel narrative, whether one enters eternal life or punishment depends entirely on whether or not one fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, took in the stranger and visited the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-36).
For over 90 years, CNEWA has taken that teaching to heart, making Christian love visible by caring for the poor. It is a love that extends far and wide. Recognizing the challenge of Jesus, “if you love only those who love you, what thanks can you expect” (Luke 6:31), the cover of CNEWA’s publication ONE even proclaims that we serve the one “God, one world, one human family and one church.” Originally working in the Middle East, CNEWA’s mission has expanded to also serve those in need in northeast Africa, Central Europe, the Caucuses and India.
The reach is extensive. CNEWA partners with the Eastern Catholic Churches to support hospitals and clinics, to educate children as well as church and community leaders, to care for the handicapped and the outcast. For the past several years, CNEWA has been intensely involved with the plight of refugees in the Middle East—a situation that has been described as the largest humanitarian crisis since World War I.
Although it partners with the Eastern Catholic Churches, CNEWA serves all in need. Serving “the one human family,” CNEWA tries to embody the love of Christ, love which is for all and not just a few. When one of the sisters working in one of CNEWA’s programs was asked if she was caring for Christians, she responded, “I do not help them because they are Christian, but because I am.”
This is the all-embracing love of Christ in action.
Philanthropy is part of all the great religious traditions of the world, and each carries it out differently. The “Golden Rule” of “do to the other as you would have others do to you” exists in every religion. As we have tried to show, love—unconditional and universal love, even of enemies—is a central and unique characteristic of Christianity.
CNEWA tries to make that love visible and effective in the world in which we work.
30 August 2018
In one example of lived charity, Sister Simon Abd Elmalek, the head of Daughters of Charity in Alexandria, Egypt, visits with patients while visiting the dispensary the sisters run. (photo: Roger Anis)
CNEWA is known for its charitable activities around the world — but what, exactly, does that mean? What does the idea of “charity” convey?
In dealing with “charity” in the three great monotheistic religions of the world, it is interesting to note that each faith approaches it in a different way and uses different concepts to describe it.
In Christianity, for example, English-speaking Christians use the word ”charity,” often in relation to the the three “theological virtues” of faith, hope and charity. “Charity” can also be an attitude of kindness and compassion—someone is “charitable,” for example— or it can refer to separate acts of philanthropy, i.e. one gives to charity. This differentiation, however, is actually foreign to the New Testament. Individual acts of philanthropy—as Jesus mentions in Matthew 6—are referred to as “doing eleemosyne,” which comes from the Greek verb eleeo, ”to have pity, mercy.” When we find caritas in Latin translations of the Greek New Testament, it translates the Greek word agape, which is “love.” In Paul’s great treatise on love in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul uses the word nine times. Although the Latin translates these as caritas, modern English translations do not read “charity is patient and kind; charity is not jealous or boastful.” The word used is ”love,” and that is the correct word. Likewise, at the end of the chapter, Paul uses the same word, when he writes: “So faith, hope and love abide…but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13:13).
Therefore, in modern English, “charity” does not always clearly convey the Gospel call — which is, simply, to love. Again and again, Jesus does not call his followers merely to give alms but to love— to love the least among them, to love their enemies, to love as he loves. Love is key—a fundamental message of the Gospels. Thus, even when Christians engage in acts of philanthropy, it is done not so much “out of charity” in the common sense, as it is from the command of Jesus that his followers love.
The approach in Judaism is slightly different. The whole notion of social justice— of care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and stranger—is a resounding message of the Hebrew prophets. Amos, the first of the prophets, preaches against “the crimes of Israel.” He writes: “They have sold the poor person for a pair of sandals; they trample on the head of the poor and push them out of their way.”
In the Hebrew Bible, acts of philanthropy are referred to as tsdaqah and mitzvah — the former with the connotation of that which is right, the latter with that which is commanded. Philanthropy is not an optional or occasional act of kindness. “Charity” in the Hebrew Bible is intimately connected to justice. For the prophets, to ignore the poor and needy is not merely an act of ungraciousness; it is disobedience to God. It is a punishable crime. Even today, a pious Jew will refer to a gratuitous act of kindness as a mitzvah something he or she feels obliged to do because of their faith.
Finally, in Islam, one of the Five Pillars is zakah. It is the donation of 2.5 percent of their holdings (differently calculated in different Muslim schools of theology), which Muslims are obliged to give annually for the support and help of the poor. Most Muslims would look upon that as the absolute minimum for them to do. The Arabic root zkh indicates purity, righteousness and goodness. Muslims also use the word sadaqa to refer to acts of kindness and compassion. It is basically the same word used by the Jews, although the root sdq in Arabic has an additional connotation of truth, authenticity and friendship.
I have looked at “charity” in Christianity, Judaism and Islam not because they have a monopoly on it. In fact, all religions require their adherents to be compassionate towards the weak and the poor. I looked at these three faiths because CNEWA’s work embraces all three; it is a Christian association working with Christians but not only Christians. Paradoxically Christian “charity” just for Christians would not be Christian at all.
In the world of the Middle East, where CNEWA does so much, the three religious traditions offer their adherents a call, a challenge and, indeed, a command: to take responsibility for the weak, the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
This is the very essence of charity.
And we are called to do all this not merely because it is a nice thing to do — but because the one God we worship demands it of us.
23 August 2018
Tags: Christianity Islam Judaism
Pilgrims pray at the Stone of the Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Christians believe this is the stone on which the body of Jesus rested as it was prepared for burial. (photo: Don Duncan)
This week, on 21 August, Muslims all over the world celebrated the eid al adha, the Feast of Sacrifice which occurs every year at the end of the Hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Every Muslim who is physically, financially and otherwise able is obliged once in a lifetime to perform the Hajj with its special rituals.
During this time of year, when so many people are often traveling on vacation, this singular event reminds us of the importance of a specific kind of travel, pilgrimage, in the religions of the Middle East— Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In fact, pilgrimage to a sacred place is something deeply rooted in so many of the people and places CNEWA serves. It’s a tradition stretching back many centuries.
Long before Islam, for example —even before the arrival of Muhammad and the monotheistic faith he preached —pilgrims went to Mecca to worship the over 300 gods revered there.
In fact, the Arabic word hajj is related to the Hebrew word hag, which appears many times in the Hebrew Scriptures to men “festival” in general; specifically, it refers to a festival which involves a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Even in modern Israeli Hebrew, hag sameah means “happy holiday.”
It is interesting to note that although the three great Hebrew feasts of Passover, Shevuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (“booths”) antedated the Temple in Jerusalem—in some instances by centuries—and were originally home or agricultural feasts, the three eventually evolved into pilgrim festivals. Israelites ideally observed them with a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Again and again in the Pentateuch and historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, there are accounts of Jews—including Jesus—making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Christianity, for a number of reasons, did not originally place an emphasis on pilgrimage. The deep-seated belief that the Risen Christ was alive and present in the community rendered pilgrimages to encounter the Lord unnecessary. In addition, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD removed the goal for pilgrimage. Three centuries of intermittent persecution and the struggle to assert a Christian identity that was rooted in Judaism— yet different from it— also reduced the importance of Jerusalem and pilgrimage there in the life of most Christians.
However, when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, emperors and wealthy people began to show their piety by building churches and shrines at places connected with events in the life of Christ.
The Emperor Constantine and his mother Helen were the first in the line of many emperors who restored and built new holy places in the Holy Land. In the first four centuries of Christianity, Jerusalem went from being a Jewish city under Roman control to a Roman city where Jews were forbidden to enter to a Roman (Byzantine) Christian city. Once under Christian control, Jerusalem and the Holy Land gradually became a place for Christian pilgrims. However, it was never the only pilgrim destination or even the most important goal for Christian pilgrims. Christians made pilgrimages to the tombs of Peter and Paul in Rome, the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England, and to the tomb of James the Apostle in Compostela, Spain. In modern times the convenience of air travel has made Jerusalem and “the Holy Land” increasing popular with Christian pilgrims.
While the purposes and goals of pilgrimage vary among the three faith traditions, all three see the period of pilgrimage as a special time, an occasion for the pilgrim to be dedicated totally to God. In all three religions, it is a time of strict non-violence and spiritual reflection.
More pious than a vacation, and more physically involving than a retreat, it is a time when the believers renew themselves and rededicate their lives to following the faith and worshipping the one God.
Pilgrimage is a practice that binds all three religious traditions together — and as such, it is one we should all respect, cherish and appreciate throughout the world CNEWA serves.
14 August 2018
Tags: Middle East Christianity Islam Judaism
The Temple of Bel in Palmyra in Syria is a World Heritage Site that was destroyed by ISIS. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Many of the people and places CNEWA serves are somehow imperiled—whether by war, persecution, economic hardship or drought. Often, the stories we tell in our magazine, ONE, revolve around ways of life that are rapidly disappearing.
We aren’t the only ones chronicling this phenomenon. The United Nations has been involved in this, as well, and has actively taken steps to try and save what otherwise might be lost.
In 1965 the United States, under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, hosted a conference entitled “World Heritage Trust.” The conference recognized the universal human significance of some sites in the world. These sites—both natural and cultural—touch the deepest part of what it means to be human in the best sense of the term. The conference recognized that natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon invoke a sense of wonder and awe that transcends language, culture and religious affiliation. Likewise some sites—buildings, cities, places of worship—also signify the heights human achievement can attain. It was recognized that these sites, while remaining under local state sovereignty, are nonetheless part of the patrimony of the entire human family.
In 1972 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Four years later, the World Heritages Committee was formed, with the express intent of creating the World Heritage List — places and landmarks to be treasured by all. As of 2017, there are 1,052 World Heritages Sites around the world. Of these, 814 are cultural, 203 are natural and 35 are “mixed.” (For a complete list of these sites, visit this link.)
While the World Heritage List revolves around those things both natural and created that bring out and reflect the best in humanity, it cannot be overlooked that in the list of the sites — in addition to noting whether the site is cultural, natural or mixed — there is a note as to whether is it threatened. Many are threatened — and some are threatened by deliberate human activity.
The Middle East, the world of CNEWA’s original mission, is one of the so-called cradles of civilization. Sixteen World Heritages Sites can be found in Jordan, Syria and Iraq alone. These countries have been involved in war for almost a decade. Hence, many of these sites are also the victims of war. Caught between fighting factions, places such as the citadel in Aleppo, the Nebi Yunus Mosque in Mosul and many others have been reduced to rubble. The Islamic State (ISIS), with its nihilist theology, deliberately destroyed many ancient sites because they were considered “infidel.” Ancient statues and artifacts and priceless, irreplaceable manuscripts have been wantonly destroyed.
On 18 August 2015, the 82-year-old Syrian scholar Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by ISIS and his dead body was then publicly crucified. His crime? He refused to reveal to ISIS where the archaeological treasures of the World Heritage Site of Palmyra were hidden. Al-Asaad dedicated his life to studying and preserving the ancient heritage of his country and, indeed, the whole world.
He gave his life to save that heritage.
If the UNESCO World Heritage Sites were created to reflect and bring out the best of humanity, they have also been the victims of the worst of humanity.
While CNEWA does not work directly with UNESCO or the World Heritage Sites, we do strive to reduce the violence and inhumanity in all places where we work. By helping to meet the basic needs of people often left homeless, scarred by violence and war, we hope ultimately to meet their spiritual needs as human beings — beings who are compassionate, just, secure and open to things of beauty like the UNESCO World Heritages Sites, often in their own lands.
2 August 2018
Tags: Syria Iraq United Nations
In 1983, Pope John Paul II met in prison with Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot and wounded the pontiff in St. Peter's Square two years earlier. The pope publicly forgave him. (photo: CNS)
This year on Sunday 5 August—and on the first Sunday of August every year—many people around the world observe International Forgiveness Day. Although the observance is not connected with any specific religion, organizers note:
”Most world religions include teachings on the nature of forgiveness, and many of these teachings provide an underlying basis for many varying modern day traditions and practices of forgiveness. Some religious doctrines or philosophies place greater emphasis on the need for humans to find some sort of divine forgiveness for their own shortcomings, others place greater emphasis on the need for humans to practice forgiveness of one another, yet others make little or no distinction between human and divine forgiveness.”
Since much of CNEWA’s world is home to the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—it’s worth considering how each of these faiths treats the notion of forgiveness.
The three religions all differentiate between God’s forgiveness of humans and human beings forgiving each other. Each of the three monotheistic faiths strongly emphasizes that God is merciful and ready to forgive.
In Judaism, this idea recurs repeatedly. Almost like an antiphon, the phrase “tender and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in graciousness and ready to relent” (Joel 2:13) is applied again and again to God in the Hebrew Bible. The entire book of the Prophet Jonah is dedicated to God’s mercy.
In Christianity, God’s mercy and forgiveness are a constant theme of the preaching of Jesus. In the New Testament, God is presented as a loving Father who is always ready to forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ connects the forgiveness of God with our own readiness to forgive: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
In Islam one finds the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God. They are God’s titles and characteristics. The first two names of God for Muslims are: rahmani and rahim, “the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.” For Muslims these are the two primary and most important characteristics of God. Of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an, all of them except one (Chapter 9, al-Tawba) begins “In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.”
Of course, almost all religions have a form of the “Golden Rule:” do unto others as you would have them to unto you. Nevertheless, forgiveness of those who harm and offend us is treated slightly differently in the three monotheistic traditions. Part of this may be due to the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Qur’an contain legal material and are concerned in some cases with retributive justice. In these scriptures, the action of the offender is important: the offender must repent and ask for forgiveness. The Qur’an 42:41 is, however, instructive here. After reiterating the Law of Talion (an eye for an eye, etc.), it adds “but whoever forgives and brings about reconciliation, his reward is with God.”
But in Christian teaching, the New Testament is unique in its call for “gratuitous forgiveness.” In Matthew’s Gospel (6:14-15) Jesus connects his followers’ willingness to forgive with God’s willingness. When in Matthew 18 Peter askes Jesus how often he must forgive, Jesus responds “seventy times seven” or indefinitely. .” In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus demands something unique in the monotheist faiths: love of one’s enemy. Jesus challenges his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In Luke 6:27-35 he expands the challenge and says “love your enemies and do good, lend without hope of return.” While dying on the cross Jesus asks God to forgive his executioners, although they clearly have not repented of what they are doing.
In our world today, mercy and forgiveness are needed perhaps now more than ever. There is a saying which is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian pacifist: if it is an eye for an eye, it won’t be long before the whole world is blind. Gandhi recognized that while forgiveness is very difficult and at times seemingly impossible, it is ultimately in our own self-interest too.
The world in which CNEWA works has seen more than its share of evil and violence. Genocidal attacks against Yazidis in northwestern Iraq, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, destruction of churches, monasteries and sacred places, rape and slavery as tools of war and other atrocities are all crimes which cry to heaven. The drive towards vengeance can be very strong and very understandable.
But regardless of how strong or how understandable, vengeance must be resisted and must give way to mercy.
Wherever we work, CNEWA tries to be promote understanding, rebuilding of relationships, reconciliation and forgiveness — not only on International Forgiveness Day but every day.
In the words of a well-known commercial: it’s what we do.
19 July 2018
Tags: Christianity Islam Judaism
In this 2014 file photo, a man prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
On Sunday 22 July, Jews around the world quietly observe Tish’ah B’Av (“the ninth of Av”), Av being the fifth month of the Hebrew Calendar, corresponding to July/August. Tish'ah B’Av is a day of fasting and mourning for Jews. It commemorates primarily the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. But, as we’ll see, the events being remembered can have meaning and significance to the wider world, as well— particularly in places CNEWA serves.
According to the biblical text (2 Kings 25:8 ff.), “in the fifth month on the seventh day of the month (587 BC)…Nebuzaradan, commander of the guard, an officer of the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned down the Temple of Yahweh, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem.” It was an unparalleled disaster for the Israelites, bringing the end of the almost 500-year dynasty of David, the end of his city Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple which Solomon built.
In Numbers 13:25-14:38 we find the story of the spies sent to reconnoiter Canaan by Moses. Upon their return, all but two spies give a very negative—and false—report on the possibilities of entering the Promised Land. On hearing the negative report, the people revolted against Moses and God and were punished. According to an ancient Jewish commentary on the biblical text, the Israelites wailed and complained against God for no reason. It was—according to the tradition—on the 9th of Av. God the punished them by making that a day on which they would really have something to mourn.
For Jews, the 9th of Av has become a day which commemorates all the tragedies which have come upon them. Although few of these events actually occurred on the 9th of Av, many have occurred during the months of July/August in the calendar. To name just a few:
· July 70 AD: the Romans entered and destroyed Jerusalem and, with it, the Second Temple, built in the time of Ezra and greatly expanded by Herod the Great (d. 4 BC).
· 4 August 135 AD: the Romans at Betar killed almost half a million people who had been part of the rebellion of Bar Kochba.
· 2 August 1941: the Nazi party approved “The Final Solution,” which brought about the extermination of six million Jews in Europe.
On the 9th of Av the biblical book of Lamentations is read in the synagogue. Jews fast for 25 hours, sit on the ground or low stools and avoid any type of entertainment. Although many non-Jews might not be as aware of the observance of Tish?ah B’Av as they are of Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, it is nonetheless an observance with profound meaning for the Jewish people.
But perhaps the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 587 BC and the Second Temple in 70 AD can have meaning for all people of faiths.
Without taking away from the poignancy of the Jewish tragedies observed on Tish?ah B’Av, we are reminded of the violence against sacred places around the world—and more importantly the persons who hold them sacred: the Buddhist statues in Bamyan, in Afghanistan; the bombing of churches in the Middle East; the destruction of Yazidi sacred sites and on and on.
The lands in which CNEWA works are no strangers to violence against places of worship and the worshippers who hold them sacred. Tish?ah B’Av, a sacred and solemn day to Jews, can serve as a reminder to all people of faiths. As long as one group of believers is the object of oppression and violence, no believer can be secure—and none can afford to be indifferent.
5 July 2018
Tags: Israel Jerusalem
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines (center), speaks during an interfaith conference on migrants and refugees at the U.N. headquarters in New York on 3 May (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In last week’s post on the movement of peoples—mass migrations—taking place in the contemporary world, we looked at the terms which are used to refer to these people and to indicate wherever possible the legal implications these terms might have.
Today, I’ll look at some of the international efforts to deal with the problem of a mass movement of peoples — efforts CNEWA and the Holy See have been involved with in many ways, for many years. It has been clear that since the problem is international in scope, the solutions must also be international. When individual nations attempt to solve the problem in isolation, the result is often merely to intensify the problem in other, surrounding countries.
Despite all the rhetoric and fear-mongering in some quarters, the problem of the mass movements of peoples is really one of a clash of rights.
First, there is the concern over the rights of the refugee (using that term in its broadest sense.). The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) holds that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” It also holds that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution;”
But secondly, there is the sovereign right of states to safeguard their borders, although that right is not absolute; a state, for example, cannot use racism and xenophobia (fear/loathing of foreigners) as reasons to “defend its borders.”
Excluding racism and xenophobia, there is, nonetheless, a true conflict of rights involved. The international community understands this — and understands, as well, that the uncontrolled movements of people can cause chaos and violent conflict. The United Nations, aware of conflict between these rights, speaks of the necessity of a safe, orderly and regular migration.
The UN General Assembly on 19 September 2016 passed the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The lengthy resolution outlines the rights and obligations of both migrants and states. The declaration recognizes the magnitude and complexity of the problem as well as the necessity of a comprehensive, international solution. In the second Annex to the Resolution, the UN announced the launch of a “global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration.” The purpose of the global compact is to “set out a range of principles, commitments and understandings among Member States regarding international migration in all its dimensions” (Annex II, I, 2).
In fact, two global contracts have arisen: the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Contract on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). As would be expected, these compacts have been the subject of intense and ongoing negotiations. Several drafts of both compacts have been published for further discussion and negotiations. It is hoped that “final” texts will be ready to submit to the UN General Assembly Session which convenes in September 2018.
In all this, Pope Francis has been very vocal on the need for a just and comprehensive solution to the problem of the mass movement of peoples. He spoke about this just last March, at the Plenary Council of the International Catholic Migration Commission. Recognizing the work of the UN, Pope Francis stated that the church “must encourage countries to coordinate more suitable and effective responses to the challenges posed by issues of migration.”
The Holy See has also engaged in practical efforts to deal with the crisis. Charitable organizations such as CNEWA, CRS, and Caritas Internationalis—to name just a few—are actively working on the ground to alleviate the sufferings of refugees in the Middle East, Africa and around the world. Likewise, the Permanent Observer Mission (Embassy) of the Holy See to the United Nations, under the leadership of Archbishop Bernadito Auza, has been very active in promoting the emerging Global Contracts through significant interventions in the General Assembly and symposia held at UN side events, co-sponsored by the Holy See.
A major side event, sponsored by the Holy See, was Sharing the Journey of Migrants and Refugees: An Interfaith Perspective on the Global Compacts on 3 May 2018. The website of the Mission of the Holy See to the UNmakes available all the statements and side events which the Holy See has sponsored on the problem of the movements of peoples.
The role which the Holy See and its charitable organizations, such as CNEWA, play is crucial. It is not unrealistically idealistic. It fully recognizes the competition, if not conflict, of rights and the incredible international legal and moral complexities involved here — and it attempts to achieve a just solution favorable to both sides. However, it is not merely engaged in abstract negotiations—as important as these are—but is actively engaged on the ground to help those millions of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes.
28 June 2018
Tags: Refugees United Nations
In this image from 2014, displaced Iraqis gather for Evening Prayer outside a church in Erbil, Iraq. (photo: Don Duncan)
The planet is experiencing a “movement of peoples” unseen in decades, if not centuries.
The UN recently (20 June) observed World Refugee Day in recognition of this problem. People are fleeing oppressive regimes, climate change induced droughts, floods and loss of land, wars and other forms of what the United Nations calls “drivers of emigration.” Although Europe and North America receive the greatest amount of media attention regarding the problems they face as new people try to enter, their migration problems are dwarfed by countries such as Jordan and Lebanon where refugees form up to 20 percent of the overall population. For comparison, 20 percent of the population of the U.S. would be 66 million people!
CNEWA has been in the middle of this movement of peoples — helping refugees, internally displaced people and those suffering from war and persecution in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and India. We have helped people in refugee camps obtain what they needed to get through winters, in addition to providing health, social and educational services.
It is important to note that this movement of peoples involves many types of people, leaving their homes for many different reasons and under a variety of circumstances.
There is often confusion in terms when speaking of refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, etc. Terms often have a specific, legal meaning. Putting all groupings together, the UN speaks of “populations of concern” and “forcibly displaced people.” The terminology and legal structure is, however, evolving. And the distinctions are important.
The UN estimates there are 68.6 million people in the world who have been forcibly displaced. Of these, 40 million are internally displaced people, who have been driven out of their homes and forced to live in other places in their home country. For example, many Christians in Iraq were forced to leave Baghdad for the Nineveh Plain and then driven from there to Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria large numbers of people—Christian and Muslim—have been driven from their homes to live in other parts of the country.
The internally displaced are, however, only part of the present crisis. Millions of people are leaving their native countries entirely. And the numbers are overwhelming.
It is estimated that, legally speaking in terms of international law, there are 25.4 million refugees, 3.1million asylum seekers and 10 million stateless people in the world. The problem is unprecedented and is putting tremendous economic, cultural and political pressure on target countries throughout the world. Although countries in Europe and North America are often loudest in bemoaning the crisis, the top refugee hosting countries in the world according to the UN are Turkey (3.5 million), Lebanon (1 million), Pakistan and Uganda (with 1.4 million each) and Iran (979,000). In countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, the refugee population is so large — up to one fifth of the people— it can cause incredible— indeed existential—economic, social and political problems.
But it’s important to note that the UN differentiates between refugees, migrants, stateless persons and asylum seekers. Let’s look how the United Nations defines these terms.
According to the UN: “Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection. The refugee definition can be found in the 1951 Convention and regional refugee instruments, as well as UNHCR’s Statute.”
The UN says of migrants: “An international migrant is someone who changes his or her country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status. Generally, a distinction is made between short-term or temporary migration, covering movements with a duration between three and 12 months, and long-term or permanent migration, referring to a change of country of residence for a duration of one year or more.”
Likewise the international legal definition of a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” In simple terms, this means that a stateless person does not have a nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, but others become stateless. Statelessness can occur for several reasons, including discrimination against particular ethnic or religious groups, or on the basis of gender; the emergence of new States and transfers of territory between existing States; and gaps in nationality laws. Whatever the cause, statelessness has serious consequences for people in almost every country and in all regions of the world.”
Finally, while asylum seekers form a distinct category, their legal rights are not clearly delineated. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) holds that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” And “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, it is not worked out what limitations sovereign states may impose on these rights, since the UN clearly recognizes that sovereign states have control of their borders. An initial attempt at dealing with migration is the UN Global Compact on Migration (2017), which attempts to deal with the complexity of the problem. Archbishop Bernadito Auza, the Permanent Observer (Ambassador) of the Holy See to the UN, has been very active in developing and promoting the Global Compact on Migration.
Pope Francis and his representative at the UN have been advocates and voices of justice and compassion for the millions of people displaced by violence all over the world. Recent discussions at the UN recognize that these people are forcibly displaced, i.e. the do not want to leave their homes. There is an emerging notion of “the right to remain,” that recognizes that the “drivers of emigration”—war/violence, poverty, persecution of minorities, climate induced changes such as droughts, disappearing island nations, etc., need to be addressed in a just and equitable way, if the problems of the contemporary movement of peoples is to be alleviated. Moreover, there is a growing recognition that people have a basic right to demand that governments do everything possible to remove the drivers of emigration which are causing the global problem.
And the Church, in part through the work of CNEWA, is seeking to bring compassion and hope to many of these people on the move.
As Pope Francis said, marking the World Day for Migrants and Refugees this year:
“Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age (Matthew 25:35-43). The Lord entrusts to the Church’s motherly love every person forced to leave their homeland in search of a better future. This solidarity must be concretely expressed at every stage of the migratory experience — from departure through journey to arrival and return. This is a great responsibility, which the Church intends to share with all believers and men and women of good will, who are called to respond to the many challenges of contemporary migration with generosity, promptness, wisdom and foresight, each according to their own abilities.”
Tags: Refugees Iraqi Refugees Migrants