30 November 2012
With Gaza very much in the news this week, we thought it would be helpful to look at some of the region’s remarkable history — and share a few little-known facts. So here are five things to know:
The area now known as the Gaza Strip got its name from the ancient city of Gaza. Gaza has been on the stage of world history for almost 4,000 years. The area of what is now the Gaza Strip was the site of several Egyptian fortresses from the end of the Early Bronze Age (3000-2100 B.C.) through the Middle Bronze Age (2100-1550 B.C.).
The city of Gaza is mentioned several times in the Old Testament and once in the New. Gaza was one of the five Philistine cities that Judah was unable to conquer (Judges 1:18). It was the city where Samson was held captive after having been betrayed by Delilah. It was in Gaza that Samson caused a temple to collapse, killing himself and his Philistine captors (Judges 16:21-51).
The present Gaza Strip consists of 139 square miles (360 square kilometers) and is slightly more than twice the size of Washington, D.C.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world with 1,710,257 people as of July 2012. According to UN statistics, 43.8 percent of the population is under 14 years of age; half of the population is under 18 years old and unemployment is above 40 percent. The vast majority of the population is Muslim; only about 3,000 Christians live there today.
The Pontifical Mission for Palestine, CNEWA’s operating agency in the region, is working with the local church in Gaza to provide on-the-job-training to young people and jobs for women who have graduated from school. Our Jerusalem-based staff are also working to help educate handicapped children in Gaza. Last summer, we shared here some of the work being done by CNEWA to help meet the health needs of the people. You can help the families of Gaza now. Click here to learn more.
31 August 2012
Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine Israel Holy Land
Religious leaders hold oil lamps during the gathering for peace outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi last October. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Not long ago, we received a letter from a reader who was concerned about all the attention CNEWA gives to ecumenism — that is, the efforts to increase understanding and promote unity with other churches and communities. Aside from being a part of CNEWA’s original mandate from the Holy Father, working toward the unity of Christians is woven intricately into the fabric of Catholic teaching. We asked Father Elias D. Mallon, CNEWA’s external affairs officer, to address that in this week’s “Take Five.”
- Vatican II (11 October 1962 — 8 December 1965) issued the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) on 21 November 1965. In the decree the council stated: “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principle concerns of the Second Vatican Council” (par. 1). This decree made ecumenism an integral part of the work of the Catholic Church.
- Regarding other churches, the council stated: “Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church...” and “the separated churches and communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the church” (par. 3)
- Thirty years later, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) of 25 May 1995, Blessed John Paul II declared: “Thus it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian Unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ [the Holy Father’s emphasis] which is added to the church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all she is and does...” (par. 20)
- The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is part of the Roman Curia and is responsible for maintaining relations with non-Catholic churches and communities and for sponsoring dialogues with them. Its current president is Cardinal Kurt Koch, former bishop of Basel, Switzerland.
- The Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (Geneva, Switzerland) engages in discussions with Orthodox and Protestant Christians who are members of the World Council of Churches. Among other things, the Joint Working Group helps prepare the theme and text for the annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January). The Week of Prayer is observed by Christians all over the world. The observance of this week was started in 1908 by the Rev. Paul Wattson (d. 1940), founder of the Friars of the Atonement and influential in the founding of The Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Many dioceses throughout the world have an ecumenical officer who is responsible for local relations with other Christians. This includes local dialogues, prayer services and common community activities. In recent years, the ecumenical officer is also responsible for relations with non-Christians.
17 August 2012
Tags: Vatican Ecumenism Christian Unity Pope John Paul II
In this image from last month, Palestinian girls in Jerusalem hold torches during a celebration to mark the breaking of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
(photo: CNS/Ammar Awad, Reuters)
Last month, as Muslims began to mark Ramadan, we posted some interesting facts on the season from Fr. Mallon, our education and interreligious affairs officer. This weekend, as the season draws to a close, he shares some further thoughts.
Every year Muslims observe the holy month of Ramadan. During this month Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, engage in works of charity and attempt to spend more time in prayer and in reading the Qur’an. At the end of each day, Muslims observe what is called the iftar or breaking of the fast for that day. The daily iftar is generally a joyful event. At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate ‘eid ul-fitr (Eidul [or sometimes Id] Fitr), the joyful time of the close of the month of fasting.
There are only two major holy days in Islam. The most important is ‘eid ul-’adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, at the closing of the annual pilgrimage and ‘eid ul-fitr, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast at the end of Ramadan.
Of the two feasts, ‘eid ul-’adha is theologically the more important and is referred to sometimes as the “greater feast” and ‘eid ul-fitr is referred to as the “lesser feast.” However, the situation is much like that of Christians with Easter and Christmas. Easter is the primary feast of the Christian faith. Nonetheless, for the vast majority of Christians it is Christmas that bears most of the traditions and which has an emotional hold on their religious imagination. So too with Muslims: this feast marking Ramadan’s end creates a bigger stir. For Muslims ‘eid ul-fitr is a time for new clothes, family gatherings, exchange of gifts, decorating with lights, etc. While ‘eid ul-fitr may be the “lesser feast,” it is the one which Muslims celebrate with the greatest amount of joy. In many places, the opening of ‘eid ul-fitr is announced with the firing of a canon. Muslims go to the mosque to greet the beginning of the feast with special prayers and then return home to feasting and celebrating which can last for up to three days.
27 July 2012
Tags: Jerusalem Interreligious Islam Palestinians Ramadan
Satellite dishes cover the rooftops of homes in Aleppo, Syria. (photo: Spencer Osberg)
Syria has been in the news for almost a year now and the news has not been good. The Red Cross has declared that the conflict between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition now amounts to a civil war. Although caught up in a violent struggle for its future, Syria is nonetheless one of the oldest and most interesting cultures in the Middle East, if not the world.
Here are five interesting facts about this country that has very deep religious roots:
Aleppo, Arabic Halab, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and the largest city in Syria. Excavations show that there was a village on the site already 6,000 years before Christ. For over 5,000 years, the city has been at the crossroads for trade between Europe, the Middle East and Asia. For many centuries it was the beginning of the Silk Road to China.
The Hebrew Bible never mentions the word Syria, which is a Greek word, but always refers to the area as Aram. Aramaic, which is perhaps the language spoken by Jesus and which has developed into several dialects, received its name from this part of the world. There are Christian villages in Syria where the people still speak a modern form of Aramaic.
In the Acts of the Apostles 9:10-11 Ananias is instructed in a vision to go to meet Paul at the house of a disciple named Judas who lived on Straight Street. Although most of the streets in the old city of Damascus are not marked, the author was able to find Straight Street, which is a rather long and, yes, unusually straight street that still exists in the old city of Damascus.
The Umayyad Mosque. The Romans constructed a huge temple to Jupiter over a much older Semitic temple. In 391, the Roman Temple of Jupiter was converted into a Christian cathedral, which was ultimately dedicated to St. John the Baptist. According to pious legend, which is continued by Muslims, the head of John was preserved in the cathedral and is still in the present mosque. In 635, the Muslim armies conquered Damascus and from 635 until 706 both Christians and Muslims shared the building for worship. Beginning in 706 the cathedral was demolished and the present mosque was built. One of the minarets is called sayyiduna ‘isa, Our Lord Jesus. Some Muslims believe that at the end of the world Jesus will return to the mosque in Damascus.
Christians comprise about 10 percent of the population of Syria. Some of the oldest Christian communities in the world—some dating back to the time of the Apostles—can be found in Syria. The city of Damascus is the home to three Christian Patriarchs! The Patriarch of the Syriac (before 2000: Syrian) Orthodox Church, the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Patriarch of the Melkite Catholic Church all live in Damascus.
6 July 2012
Tags: Syria Middle East
Mosques and churches dot the Soulimanya neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria.
(photo: Spencer Osberg)
At CNEWA, we throw around a lot of exotic words. Most can be looked up in a dictionary or style book. But a few require a little more digging. Here are five from the Middle East that required CNEWA’s resident biblical languages scholar, Atonement Friar Elias Mallon, to decipher.
al-quds — This word means, “The Holy,” in Arabic and is the Muslim name for Jerusalem, the city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Jews and Christians refer to the city by its (very) ancient name, yɘrušalayim, from which the English word, Jerusalem, derives. Muslims give Jerusalem an honorific title, “the Holy,” much like Christians refer to Rome as “the eternal city.”
qurbana — This is the Syriac and Aramaic word for the Eucharist. The root meaning of the word is “to bring near (God); to offer.” Interestingly, the Aramaic word appears in Mark 7:11, where Jesus condemns it when an adult child does not support his parents because he declares his wealth as Corban, i.e. “offered to God.” In Matthew 15:6, in the same context, the evangelist uses “offered to God” in Greek rather than the Aramaic word.
‘īsā — The name of Jesus in the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, and the name used by Muslims, who revere Jesus as a great prophet and Mary as his virgin mother. Muslims do not believe Jesus is divine nor do they believe that Jesus was crucified (Qur’an 4:158); rather, they believe Jesus is in heaven waiting to return at the end of time.
yasu‘ — The name for Jesus used by Arabic-speaking Christians; the different names of Jesus used by Muslims and Christians are reminders that the two communities understand the person and role of Jesus very differently.
allah — The word used for God by Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews. The Syriac and Aramaic word for God is alah. Although Arabic-speaking Jews, Christians and Muslims use the same Arabic word for God, they use slightly different words in Syriac and Hebrew. Nevertheless, all three words come from the same root and are closely related.
16 May 2012
Tags: Middle East Muslim Islam Christian
“Why don’t Muslims speak out against violence and intolerance and for pluralism and democracy?” This a question one often hears from non-Muslims. Less frequently, one hears Muslims reply: “We have and we do; why aren’t non-Muslims listening?”
Rarely in the media does one read of Muslim scholars and leaders condemning violence. So the question of the non-Muslims is understandable. When Muslims do take stands for tolerance and pluralism, media coverage is minimal or non-existent. In fact, Muslims are justified in their response.
This was the problem the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and the Islamic Society of North America sought to address on Monday 14 May at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. It was entitled “Symposium on Religious Freedom and the Rights of Minorities in Islam” and it consisted of two panels. The first panel featured three scholars who spoke on the concept and history of Shari’a (Muslim law) and how minorities had variously fared in Muslim societies over the centuries. The second panel addressed the topic of “Contemporary Islamic Perspectives on the Status of Religious Minorities, Particularly Post-Arab Spring.” While the first part of the program was well done and interesting to the specialist, it was the second part that merits wider attention by the general public.
Professor Tamara Sonn of the College of William and Mary spoke of contemporary Arab Muslim thinkers who reflect on the nature of government and the status of citizens in a modern democracy where the majority of citizens are Muslim. Many, if not most, hold the equality of all citizens to be of the utmost importance. Differentiating between the executive and legislative functions of government, these scholars provide an intellectual framework for the full integration of the non-Muslim into the political life of a democracy where the majority of citizens are Muslims.
Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool of South Africa to the United States reflected on the struggle of South African Muslims against apartheid. Less than three percent of the population, Muslims in South Africa learned firsthand what it means to be a minority living with discrimination. Ambassador Rasool said that his experience as a member of a minority brought him to the conviction that, “what you demand as a minority you must give when you are a majority.” Thus, for Muslims to demand freedom of speech, religion, etc., when they are a minority is thoroughly justified. However, that brings with it the obligation to grant and protect those same rights for other minorities in situations where Muslims hold the majority. In a sense, Ambassador Rasool was calling for a human rights-focused, political version of the Golden Rule.
Qamar-ul Huda of the U.S. Institute of Peace recounted the discussions about the benefits and limits of assimilation for Muslims in non-Muslim societies. He noted that in the West, many Muslims have resisted calls to remain isolated and have become active politically in working for the public good. The rights of all citizens are central and crucial to the health of a society. Mr. Huda felt the self-isolation of minority communities was ultimately self-defeating. The dichotomies of "us and them" and of secular and religious are not helpful, he commented. It is important for Muslims in non-Muslim countries to realize the term “secular” is not opposed to “religious.” Indeed, religions often prosper better in societies that are “secular,” although some secular societies admittedly can be aggressively so and hostile to religion.
The symposium clearly showed that Muslims are struggling with how to live in new situations in an increasingly pluralistic world. In a sense, it is similar to the struggles that Catholics experienced in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the experiences of these Catholics that helped bring about Dignitatis Humanae, the declaration on religious freedom promulgated at Vatican II.
Muslim scholars and the average Muslim living in non-Muslim societies are developing new ways of looking at pluralism, democracy and the equality of all citizens in a society. The symposium at Georgetown provided a privileged opportunity to see this process at work.
3 February 2012
Tags: Unity Muslim Christian-Muslim relations Multiculturalism
People cheer as a Christian Egyptian raises a cross and declares solidarity with the anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo 9 Feb 2011.
(photo: CNS/Yannis Behrakis, Reuters)
An observant colleague mentioned to me the other day that al-Jazeera, the widely popular Arab news service, was using the expression “Arab Awakening” instead of “Arab Spring.” He wondered if there might be some significance to the difference. It is not easy finding out what the Arabic expression was that al-Jazeera is using and if it represents a conscious change. It does seem, however, that there is an increasing preference for “Arab Awakening” in the media of the Middle East. There are several reasons for this.
“Arab Spring” is an expression that was coined in the West and echoes movements like the “Prague Spring” (1968). For one thing, I am not sure spring holds the same connotation in Arabic as it does in European languages, especially those with traditions of Romantic poetry. In addition, the upheavals in Arab countries havecarried on for a year now and there was even some talk of an “Arab Winter.”
If the word that is being used in the Arabic media for “awakening,” is nahḍa, however, it is extremely interesting. By using the word nahḍa, several things would be accomplished. First, it would represent an attempt by the Arabic-speaking world to give its own name to the phenomenon. Second, and much more importantly, it would represent an attempt to link the events of the past year with an early modernist movement in the Middle East.
The nahḍa, or Awakening, was a political, cultural, linguistic and literary movement that began in Egypt at the end of the 19th century and spread to most of the Arabic-speaking world. Arab intellectuals — Muslim and Christian — began to look at their own societies. By studying — and criticizing — contemporary European achievements, Arabs were able to adapt them to a new situation. The 19th century was a time of change in the Arab world. The Ottoman Empire that had dominated the Arabic-speaking world for centuries was beginning to show serious signs of decay. After World War I, colonialism would also begin to lose its grip on the region. The nahḍa recovered the Arab past and attempted to bring it into the present. New literary forms were developed. The first novel in modern Arabic was published in Syria in 1865. Writers and poets known in the West such as Khalil Gibran and the Nobel Laureate Taha Hussein were products of the Awakening. Politically, the nahḍa engendered a great interest in constitutionalism, democracy, human rights, etc. among intellectuals.
There were several forces that brought the nahḍa to an end. With typical Arabic love for word play, some Arabs see the nakba, or “the Disaster,” which refers specifically to the founding of the State of Israel, as the end of the nahḍa. The reality is probably much more complex. Certainly, the rise of authoritarian governments and dictators in the Arab world with their censorship, secret police and attacks on freedom did equally as much to bring the nahḍa to a close. If the use of the expression “Arab Awakening” is an attempt to see contemporary events in the Middle East as a continuation or revival of the nahḍa — which is still is not clear to me — it would not only be very significant, it would be something that should be welcomed.
2 February 2012
Men pray during an open house at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, N.Y., in 2010. A decade after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 Sept 2001 led to a backlash against Muslims, many Americans are still uncomfortable with followers of Islam and think its teachings are at odds with American values. (photo: CNS / Gregory A. Shemitz)
I was fascinated to see a new study published within the last week: “Shari’a Law: Coming to a Courthouse Near You?” Written by Dr. Julie Macfarlane for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, the study addresses a fear that seems to be rising in some quarters. Recently there have been proposals on ballots to ban Shari’a from the American legal system, treating Shari’a as a threat. Dr. Macfarlane deals with the question of what the Shari’a means for North American Muslims.
Shari’a is often used as a slogan in politics in the Muslim world. Calls to “re-instate the Shari’a” echo back and forth on the news. Often it is the most reactionary Muslims, such as the Taliban, who call for the restoration of the Shari’a, filling the media with images of beheadings, stonings and incredible intolerance. Given that image, the fear of some people is understandable, though not justified.
Even the expression “the Shari’a” is misleading. It is easy to get the impression that “the Shari’a” is a thing like the Declaration of Independence, the UN Charter or any given piece of legislation. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is not a body of laws. There are many different ways that Shari’a is applied and interpreted in different countries and even within countries. The expression “the Shari’a” is often used a slogan for a very particular type of agenda, which most Muslims would reject.
Still the question remains: what do Muslims understand by the Shari’a? Since Islam is a worldwide religion, Muslims in different countries, cultures and circumstances have different understandings of it.
Dr. Macfarlane’s study shows that Shari’a does play an important role in the cultural and religious identity of the vast majority of American and Canadian Muslims. Most interestingly, the study shows that “the practice of shari’a [sic] for the vast majority of American Muslims is focused almost exclusively on private, family matters, primarily marriage and divorce.” However, even in this fairly limited area, 95 percent of the (Muslim) respondents said that it was important to have an Islamic marriage contract and a civil marriage license. In divorce cases Muslims frequently have recourse to U.S. courts to settle disputes such a custody.
To read the full study, visit this link.
25 January 2012
Tags: Muslim Interreligious Islam
Pope Benedict XVI, seated next to Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, applauds during a concert at the Vatican 20 May 2010. The concert was a gift from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Also pictured is Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, at right. (photo: CNS /Paul Haring)
Today ends the 104th observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a week that has a rich history and a special connection to my own life.
It was begun in 1908 as the Chair of Unity Octave by Rev. Paul Wattson, an Anglican priest who would later become a Roman Catholic. Paul Wattson and Sister Laurana White — founders of my religious order, the Society of the Atonement — were disturbed by the divisions among Christians and were inspired by a vision of Christian unity. So they launched this eight-day period of prayer from 18-25 January, and it’s now grown into a worldwide observance. Pope Benedict XV in 1917 extended the observance to the entire Roman Catholic Church.
A sense of the importance of Christian unity grew among Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox during the first half of the 20th century. For the average Roman Catholic, the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) committed Catholics to work and pray for the unity of Christ’s followers.
What began as a small observance among Roman Catholics has been transformed into a truly ecumenical undertaking. Every year, a commission comprised of members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (Geneva) meets to set the theme for the next year’s observance. The theme for this year has been We Will All Be Changed by the Victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:51-58).
Pope Benedict XVI referred to this special week during his General Audience at the Vatican on Wednesday. Describing Jesus’s priestly prayer at the Last Supper, the pope said, “He asks the Father to consecrate his disciples, setting them apart and sending them forth to continue his mission in the world. Christ also implores the gift of unity for all those who will believe in him through the preaching of the Apostles. His priestly prayer can thus be seen as instituting the Church, the community of the disciples who, through faith in him, are made one and share in his saving mission.”
For the past eight days, Christians have been praying for unity and working together to overcome centuries of mistrust. In a world of increasing division, xenophobia and tribalism, the observance of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity gives witness to the prayer of Christ “that all may be one” (John 17:21).
20 January 2012
Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New York, addresses the conference, accompanied by Catholics and Muslims who work together in social service projects in the archdiocese. (photo: Bob Gore)
In a time when great media attention is given to conflicts between Muslims and others, I attended a conference yesterday that was a real eye opener.
The conference was entitled “Catholic-Muslim Social Service Partnerships: Lessons from Manhattan, Bronx and Staten Island” and was sponsored by the Interfaith Center of New York. I represented CNEWA and gave a presentation of the history of Catholic-Muslim dialogue in the Archdiocese of New York. Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, the executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New York was there, along with several of his colleagues. The Muslim community was represented by Ms. Sarah Sayeed and her colleagues from the Interfaith Center and staff from several other groups, including the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in New York and the Islamic Society of North America.
It was amazing to see how many joint projects there are in New York City in which Catholics and Muslims work hand-in-hand. Catholics and Muslims attending the conference spoke of a wide variety of programs on interfaith dialogue, hunger relief, and youth development that they have successfully maintained for several years.
Personally, I found the conference to be immensely encouraging. After all the media coverage last year about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” and the demonstrations against it, one could easily believe that Muslims and Catholics in New York City have little or nothing positive to do with one another. Such a belief was conclusively proven wrong yesterday. While there are still problems, of course, and areas of misunderstanding that need to be discussed — and, hopefully, solved — Catholics and Muslims in New York City have a vibrant, deep and successful history of working together to address the needs and problems of the poorest people in our society.
Tags: CNEWA Muslim Interreligious Catholic