15 November 2018
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Catholicos Gewargis III, patriarch of the Church of the East, left, during a private audience on 9 November at the Vatican.
(photo: CNS/Gregorio Borgia, pool via Reuters)
Shortly after the Ascension of Jesus, his followers moved out into the world beyond Jerusalem. Jerusalem was, in a sense, at the center of the known world. Situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, Jerusalem could look to the west and see the Roman Empire and its deeply rooted Greek culture; looking to the east, it would see the whole Asian continent. With Peter and Paul, Christianity moved westward, took root and grew. That is one reason why, when most modern Christians think of Christianity, they think specifically of Western Christianity. The truth, however, is that Christianity also moved eastward and entered a world very different from that of Europe and the Mediterranean.
From that, a different type of Christianity evolved, separated from and often unknown to Christians of the West.
One of the places CNEWA works, of course, is the Middle East; there, one can find some of the most ancient Eastern churches, which date back to the times of the apostles. CNEWA works with all of them. One of these churches is the Church of the East. It is sometimes known as the Assyrian Church of the East and, less accurately, the Nestorian Church.
The Church in the East flourished in the Persian Empire. Since the Persian and Roman Empires were almost constantly at war, Eastern Christians had little contact with their co-religionists in the West. But the achievements of these Eastern Churches were remarkable — and to many Christians in the West, perhaps, largely unknown. There were Assyrian Christian churches in China 1,000 years before the arrival of Francis Xavier. When Charlemagne was crowned by the pope on Christmas Day 800, there was already an Assyrian metropolitan (archbishop) in Tibet!
The first five centuries of Christianity saw a great deal of conflict between Christians over the nature of Christ and salvation. This led to bitter and, at times, violent conflicts between Christians. The Emperor in Byzantium enforced — often violently — the “orthodox” position throughout the empire, although many Christians resisted it.
To some extent, the Church of the East was involved in these controversies. The high (or low) point of the conflict was in the bitter exchanges between Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople and Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt. However, politics and geography ended up being more important than theology; and the Church of the East went its own way.
It has a famous school of theology in Nisibis in modern day Turkey, which produced many theologians. These scholars, working in Syriac, a Semitic language, developed their own theology simply outside the context and controversies of Western Christianity.
As a result, the Church of the East has an ancient theology about the nature of Christ that was developed in a Syriac — and not Greek-speaking — world. Although Assyrian Christians were uncomfortable with some of the theological expressions of Western Christianity — such as the title theotokos, “God-bearer,” for Mary — for the most part, their Christology developed independently and without much interaction with the West.
With the advent of the ecumenical movement and with increasing familiarity with the Eastern churches, the Catholic Church began a dialogue with the Church of the East. Accustomed to Byzantine, Protestant and other western theologies, the Catholic Church encountered a very different theological framework in the Church of the East. With great courage and openness, the two churches dealt with their very different attempts to articulate the nature of Christ.
After long and deep dialogue, the Catholic Church and the Church of the East produced a “Common Christological Declaration” on 11 November 1994. The statement declared: “Whatever our Christological divergences have been, we experience ourselves united today in the confession of the same faith n the Son of God who became man so that we might become children of God by his grace.”
While the agreement may not have caused great excitement in the ecumenical world, it was and remains a profound moment in the history of the ecumenical movement and the history of Christian theology. It was, however, an important sign that catholicity is not the same as uniformity. The agreement recognized that there can be different ways of looking at and expressing some very important things — such as the nature of the Incarnation.
It also made clear that those differences need not be a cause for division — to say nothing of hatred and violence.
Nearly 25 years later, it stands as a sign of hope.
Related: Profile of The Church of the East
8 November 2018
Tags: Syria Church of the East
Germans pass by the broken shop window of a Jewish-owned business in Berlin that was destroyed in 1938 during Kristallnacht. That year, from 9 to 10 November, Nazis in Germany torched synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes and schools. (photo: CNS photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.)
It has been said that, though history does not repeat itself, it certainly does rhyme. More academically and more ominously, the philosopher George Santayana is reputed to have said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Eighty years ago on the night of 9 November, there were riots in Germany. Because of the amount of broken glass on the street, the night is remembered in history as Kristallnacht, literally “the night of crystal,” or the Night of Broken Glass. Synagogues were torched and Jewish business destroyed. The Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin was burned and photos of the ruins have become icons of the horrors to follow. On that night 100 Jews were killed. In the days that followed, more than 30,000 Jews were arrested and government restrictions on Jews became increasingly harsher. The supposed cause for the riots was “patriots” responding to the assassination of the Nazi diplomat Ernst van Rath by a 17-year-old Polish-German Jew in Paris.
Almost exactly 80 years after Kristallnacht, an American hater of Jews in Pittsburgh brought an assault weapon and hand guns to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shouting “death to Jews,” he killed 11 worshippers, among whom were three octogenarians and one 97-year-old. This occurred at the end of a week in which bombs were mailed to prominent political figures in the United States.
In a country where mass shootings are quite literally a weekly occurrence — we are seeing it again this very day, in Thousand Oaks, California — it is easy to become numb to the violence and write it off as the work of another crazy person. That would be a big mistake. Words and actions have effects. Those familiar with Nazi Germany found the torch-carrying, anti-Jew-shouting neo Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, eerily similar to the Party Rallies held in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1927-1939 — torch processions and all. While one may not be able to draw a direct and causal connection between Charlottesville and Squirrel Hill, it is naïve in the extreme to consider the two events merely coincidences.
Anti-Semitism is a recurring cancer in Western society and culture. Recognizing the role it played in the anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish rhetoric of the past, the Catholic Church in Vatican II rejected all forms of anti-Semitism and even declared it a sin. Every pope since John XXIII (d. 1963) has condemned anti-Semitism.
Like any cancer, when it comes to anti-Semitism it is important to remain vigilant. We can never assume that the hateful fires of Kristallnacht are out forever. They can tragically flare up at any time. Vigilance requires awareness. We must be aware both individually and communally that anti-Semitism is a sin and that it persists. One cannot hate Jews and be a good Catholic or Christian at the same time. Pope Francis himself told a group of rabbis just days ago, ”A Christian cannot be an anti-Semite; we share the same roots. It would be a contradiction of faith and life. Rather, we are called to commit ourselves to ensure anti-Semitism is banned from the human community.”
As an agency of the Holy See committed to interreligious dialogue and understanding, we at CNEWA can only echo that sentiment with a heartfelt “Amen.”
Times of great division, times of racial hatred and times of authoritarian governments throughout the world are times which have historically been fertile grounds for anti-Semitism. With Pope Francis and his predecessors, all Catholics need to stand against anti-Semitism and anything that nurtures it in our communities and our world.
25 October 2018
Archbishop Bernadito Auza serves as the Holy See's Permanent Observer at the United Nations. (photo: Vatican Media)
On 24 October every year the world observes United Nations Day. This week, then, offers us an opportunity reflect on the important work of this body—and the Holy See’s involvement in it. CNEWA, as an agency of the Holy See, has significant interest in what the United Nations does — and it often impacts our work.
The United Nations or the UN was formed in 1945 immediately after World War II. The planet had experienced two major wars within a 30-year period. It has been estimated that up to 80 million people died in both wars; cities were leveled, populations were displaced and there was unimaginable suffering. Although the horror of those wars ominously seems to have faded for many people, the UN was founded precisely to prevent war, which was then rightly seen as the worst of all possibilities for humanity.
The UN consists of three different groupings: the Member States, which includes the General Assembly and the Security Council; UN Agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF, etc.; and civil societies which consists of Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who engage in advocacy for causes such as peace, disarmament, human rights, etc.
There are 193 sovereign member states at the UN. Each of these countries maintains a Permanent Mission to the UN in New York and often in Geneva. The head of the mission is the Permanent Representative, who holds the rank of ambassador and is often referred as such and such a country’s “ambassador to the UN.” All of these countries form the UN General Assembly (GA), which meets in plenary session every year in September but can meet at any other time. The GA works on issues that are before it on any number of issues, many of which result in conventions by which member states bind themselves by treaty to follow, maintain and enforce certain issues.
The UN Security Council (SC) consists of five permanent members (the P5): China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, each of whom enjoys absolute veto power over measures brought to the Council. Ten member states are elected by the General Assembly to serve on the Council for two-year terms.
In addition to the 193 sovereign member states, the UN recognizes two Permanent Observer Missions: the Holy See and Palestine. The Holy See, which has diplomatic relations with 180 states, was admitted to Permanent Observer status in 1964 and to full Observer Status in 2004. With full Observer Status, the Holy See has all the rights of a member state in the General Assembly except the right to vote.
The Holy See has a Permanent Observer Mission and a Permanent Observer Representative at the UN. The Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the UN is an archbishop with the rank of Nuncio. The Holy See is an active and effective member of the UN community as it advocates for, among other things, peace, disarmament, ecological responsibility, quality of life issues and very many others. One recent example: just last month, on 25 September 2018 Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, addressed the UN General Assembly advocating for the abolition of the death penalty. Although the Holy See is not a full member of the General Assembly, it plays a visible and important role in promoting peace and justice issues, serving in some ways as the conscience of the body.
The present and sixth Permanent Observer Representative is Archbishop Bernadito Auza, who was appointed on 1 July 2014. Archbishop Auza has shown himself to be an expert in increasing the visibility and, hence, effectiveness of the Holy See at the UN, especially through timely, strategic and informative conferences and side events. Through his work, the Holy See is an active participant in the issues affecting the contemporary world.
CNEWA has been accredited as an NGO at the UN for three decades, and I have been working at the UN for over 12 years, seven of which have been for CNEWA. It has been a fruitful and fascinating partnership, as CNEWA works with other NGOs to promote peace and justice in the Middle East — working with topics such as children’s rights, refugees and freedom of religion.
As we mark United Nations Day this week, it is good to recall the vital work the UN undertakes on behalf of the global community — and remember, as well, how all of us in the Christian community are called to work for unity and peace.
18 October 2018
Tags: United Nations
Russian Orthodox worshippers pray during a liturgy in 2017 at St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg. (photo: CNS/Anatoly Maltsev, EPA)
Editor’s note: Monday, the Christian world was rocked by the news that the Patriarchate of Moscow, which governs the Orthodox Church of Russia, was breaking its ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
While the history behind this is long and complex, its effects today cannot be ignored or easily dismissed. Millions of Christians around the world could ultimately be affected — especially those in the world of CNEWA.
Here’s a brief Q &A with Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D. , in which he addresses some of the questions we had about this break and its significance.
Okay. So the patriarchate in Moscow has announced it is breaking relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. What does that mean?
Initially it means that the Orthodox Church of Russia will no longer pray for the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. It can develop to the point where Russian Orthodox Christians will no longer be able to attend the liturgies of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and that Russian Orthodox bishops and priests will not be able to concelebrate liturgies with those Orthodox churches in full communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In other words, they are no longer in full communion. It is technically an excommunication.
Why are they doing this?
Because the Ecumenical Patriarch has begun the process which leaves room for a fully autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The Patriarch of Constantinople, who is considered the “first among equals” in the Orthodox communion of churches, traditionally has the right to do this. The Moscow Patriarchate, however, believes that Ukraine is part of its ecclesiastical territory.
What are the immediate effects of this?
Probably cessation of talks and relations between Moscow and Constantinople.
How does this impact those we serve?
CNEWA works in Ukraine where there are four Christian — three Orthodox and one Catholic — churches. While working primarily with the Catholic Church, CNEWA maintains good relations with the other churches. This will be greatly complicated and hostilities both old and new might surface.
Has this happened before?
Yes, this has happened before. Tragically, schisms remain a seemingly unavoidable part of Christian history. There were schisms after most of the Ecumenical Councils of the first five centuries; there was the schism between the East and West in 1054 and the great schism in the west brought on by the Reformation. Also, there have been schisms in the last two centuries involving other patriarchates, but these were healed eventually.
Why should we care?
A divided and mutually hostile Christianity is contrary to the will of Christ and undermines the ability of the church in preaching the Gospel. It took almost 1500 years to begin to heal the schisms of the first five centuries; discussions to heal the schism of 1054 are sporadic and of very varying success; the divisions of the Reformation, while showing some tractability, are still strong. This could have a lasting impact on any efforts to advance Christian Unity. With this in mind, we should fervently pray — as Jesus did in John’s Gospel — ”that all may be one.”
11 October 2018
Tags: Ecumenism Russian Orthodox Church
In this image from 1968, Pope Paul VI greets children as he visits the Church of St. Leo the Great in Rome. (photo: CNS/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)
As the world prepares to mark the canonization of Pope Paul VI this weekend, we are reminded of his remarkable legacy — and how a significant part of that touches the people and places we serve, most notably in the Holy Land.
There, an extraordinary event occurred in January of 1964. Pope Paul VI became the first Bishop of Rome, the pope, to visit the Holy Land since St. Peter left it almost 2,000 earlier. That alone would have been enough to make history. However, Paul VI was committed to the spirit of Vatican II, which included a call for the Catholic Church to be ecumenical. So, while in the Holy Land, the pope met with Athenagoras, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. The significance of this cannot be overstated: this marked the first time a pope had met with the patriarch since the Great Schism of 16 July 1054, when the legate of Pope Leo IX announced the excommunication of Patriarch Michael I Cerularius — who, in turn, then excommunicated the pope. Despite efforts over the centuries, the break between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches showed few signs of healing. Thus the meeting of the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople was by any and every measure historic.
However, the Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land was not merely an opportunity to meet with the patriarch. It was also an opportunity for him to meet the people of the land—Israelis and Palestinians. Popes had historically shown concern for the Palestinian people through the establishment of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine by Pope Pius XII in 1949, which is presently the operating agency for CNEWA in the Middle East. Paul VI was no exception.
Even before the 1967 War and the occupation of the West Bank by the Israelis Pope Paul VI saw that the situation of Palestinians was dire. Palestinians were leaving the Holy Land — and Christian Palestinians, often more educated than the general population, were emigrating in alarming numbers. After 1967, the situation became and has remained worse.
In an effort to improve the situation of Palestinians, Pope Paul VI suggested opening some kind of educational facility. The schools of the Latin Patriarchate were always in need of teachers and so originally the idea was for an institute to train teachers. However, in 1973 Brother John Manual, FSC, suggested a university—the first of its kind on the West Bank. Brother Manual’s community, the Christian Brothers of De La Salle, had been active in education in the Holy Land for decades. The community offered property which they owned in Bethlehem for the new project.
Bethlehem University was opened at the suggestion of Pope Paul VI and today continues to serve students of all faiths in Palestine. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Like the other schools the brothers ran in the Middle East, the new university would be built on “La Sallian” principles of education and ethics, providing higher education opportunities for Palestinians. The university opened in 1973 with three religious brothers, some Palestinian faculty members and 112 students. Over the decades, Bethlehem University has become one of the premier universities in the region. With the goal of providing not only education but also employment opportunities to its students, the university over the years has added schools of nursing, business, education and an Institute for Hotel Management and Tourism — critical for handling the vast numbers of pilgrims who visit the region from around the world.
The university now has more than 15,000 alumni and an enrollment of over 3,200 students. As the Christian population continues to diminish, Bethlehem University continues to serve all Palestinians—Christian and Muslim. By having Christian and Muslim students study together and get to know each other, the university is promoting a pluralistic culture of friendship and cooperation between Christians and Muslims in Palestine.
CNEWA has been intimately connected with Bethlehem University over the decades. The Pontifical Mission for Palestine is engaged with the university and the president of CNEWA sits on the university’s board of directors. Bethlehem University refers to its students and alumni as “the bright stars of Bethlehem.” One can hope that those “stars of Bethlehem” can lead the Palestinian people to a new and brighter future.
That is certainly what Pope Paul VI — soon to be St. Pope Paul VI — would have wished.
Read more about The Perseverance of Bethlehem University in the November 2004 edition of ONE magazine.
27 September 2018
Tags: Bethlehem Pope Bethlehem University
The lulav (palm fronds), a silver etrog box and the etrog (large lemon) are displayed during Sukkot, the last of the Jewish high holy days. (photo: Wikipedia)
CNEWA works in places with many different cultures, faiths and traditions — and during this time of year, we are reminded in a particular way of the rich religious and cultural traditions of the Jewish people.
In the fall — starting with Rosh Hashanah, moving through Yom Kippur and ending with Sukkot — Jews mark the ”high holidays” and issue in the New Year of their calendar with prayers and celebrations. This week, Jews throughout the world celebrate the feast of Sukkot, sometimes referred to in English as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, the latter from the Latin tabernaculum, “tent.”
Sukkot is one of the three great pilgrim festivals in the Old Testament: Passover, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost and Sukkot. Long before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Sukkot was an agricultural festival celebrating the end of the harvest. This is clear in Exodus 34:22 where it is called the Feast of the Ingathering (ha’asîf) at the end of the year and is paired with the Feast of Weeks, which is earlier in the year at the wheat harvest.
Sukkot runs for seven or eight days depending on whether one is in Israel or in the diaspora. The festival is outlined in detail in Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-43. It is to last seven days and the first and eighth (!) days are to be a “sacred assembly” on which no work is to be performed. It is a feast of celebration: “On the first day you shall take choice fruits, palm branches, boughs of leafy trees…and you shall rejoice in the presence of the Lord.” It is required that the people live in sukkot, “huts, shelters, booths,” made from branches of palm trees and other leafy trees. This is perhaps the most obvious practice that a non-Jew would notice. Jews throughout the world will build sukkot for the week. In major cities such as New York, it is not uncommon to see sukkot popping up on balconies of high rise apartments. For seven days, Jews will take their meals in the booths and some will even sleep in them. According to Leviticus, the booths are to remind the Israelites that their ancestors lived in shelters such as these during the Exodus.
During one of the central days of Sukkot, there is the ceremony of drawing water, reminiscent of the purification ceremonies at the Temple. This ceremony is specifically mentioned in the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel and may have provided the occasion for Jesus’ exclamation: “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me! Let the one come and drink, who believes in me” because he is “living water” (John 7:37-38).
Also during Sukkot, Jews will display the etrog and the lulav. The etrog is a large citrus like a lemon but considerably larger, while the lulav is palm fronds which are often artfully woven in ways familiar to what some Christian cultures do with palms on Palm Sunday.
Depending upon where one lives—in Israel or the diaspora—there are two different endings to the week of Sukkot. The first is Shmini Atzeret, the “eighth assembly/congregation” which closes the festival. The second, for those in the diaspora, is the festival Simhat Torah, “the joy of the Torah.”
Perhaps most significantly, though, the ending of Sukkot signals, in fact, a beginning — the start for Jews of a new year, full of promise and possibility.
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.
Tags: Christianity Islam Judaism