24 August 2017
This painting depicts the Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V, being arrested by the Ottomans on Easter Sunday in 1821. He was later hanged.
(photo: Nikiforos Lytras [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
As I noted in an earlier post, Christian decline in the Middle East covered a period of many centuries. As early as the 9th century, we find Christians converting to Islam for any number of reasons. The almost total destruction of the Christian infrastructure during the Mongol invasions (13th century) further weakened the Christian position.
Under the Ottoman Empire (from the end of 13th century until 1923) the status of Christians further deteriorated. The Ottoman Empire did everything possible to expand its borders. For several centuries, it enjoyed considerable success. Most of the Balkan countries, parts of Hungary and Poland and all of Greece came under Ottoman rule. All of these countries were Christian — Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant.
The Ottomans employed the millet (originally Arabic for: religion, religious community, nation) system in which each religious group enjoyed a certain autonomy and lived under its own denominational leadership and laws. But each remained under the strict control of the Ottoman overlords. While this provided a certain autonomy, it also ran the risk of “ghettoizing” and, hence, isolating the communities. At the same time the same social, cultural and financial incentives continued which would entice Christians to convert to Islam.
In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire entered a period of decline. There were large groups like Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and others who became restive. Nationalist movements began to emerge and many of these groups sought independence. In 1821 Greek nationalists revolted against the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II. The patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V, who was also the leader of the Greek millet, opposed the revolt. Nevertheless, the Sultan held him responsible. On 22 April 1821, Easter Sunday, the Ottomans arrested Gregory after the liturgy and hanged him in full vestments on the gate of the patriarchate, where his body remained for two days. This not only enflamed the Greeks but also encouraged Russian, French and British intervention on the side of the Greek rebels. Ultimately the rebels were victorious and Greece achieved independence in the Treaty of Constantinople in May 1832.
The success of the Greeks was a shock to the Ottomans. They had been invincible for centuries. Soon other Christian millets became possible hotbeds for revolutionaries. The intervention of Russia, France and Britain on the side of the Christian Greeks was a warning to the Ottomans.
At the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918), the Ottomans joined on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary against the British, French and Russians, who not coincidentally had supported the Greek war for independence. After some initial successes, it became clear that the Ottomans were on the losing side. Christian millets were looked upon as possible areas for revolt and for support of the Allied Powers. In fact, some of the millets, like the Armenians, did see an opportunity for independence.
In 1915 the Ottomans began a systematic extermination of Armenians, the vast majority of whom were Christians. It should also be noted that Armenians were widespread in the Ottoman Empire. In what the United Nations and others, including Pope Francis, refer to as the Armenian Genocide, over 1.5 million Armenians were either executed or died from starvation and forced migration. While the Armenians have received the attention of Western historians, they weren’t the only ones who faced persecution and death. Other groups, including the Assyrians and Chaldeans, were also massacred.
The end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire allowed the French and British to divide up the Ottoman remains along lines of their own national interests. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) created artificial countries in the area of Syria Mesopotamia. Created according to British and French national interests — and not linguistic, ethnic, religious or political considerations — these countries were and are inherently unstable. As British and French control in the region began to wane, many of these countries experienced anti-colonialist revolutions and sought their identities in a non-European, non-Christian (which to many in the region was the same) Islam. Once again, especially in Iraq, Christians became the target for massacres. Beginning in 1933 there were several massacres of Assyrian Christians, the worst event being at the town of Simele on 10-11 August of 1933.
By this time Christianity in the region was in sharp decline. The Christian population of Turkey in 1914 was estimated at 14 percent. By 2017 it had sunk to 0.2 percent. Genocide, emigration and expulsion reduced the Christian population, which had been the majority in the 6th century, to an insignificant minority in the 21st.
The wars the United States waged against Iraq (2003 to the present) further worsened the situation of Christians, who were often caught in the crossfire of competing forces or targeted as traitors, sympathetic to the (Christian) invaders. Having once numbered more than 1.5 million, Christians now number 150,000 or less in Iraq. The Syrian Civil War (2011-present) and the rise of the Islamic State have made the situation of Christians in Syria and Mesopotamia almost intolerable.
Whether Christianity will or even can survive in the region is today a very open question.
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia: Introduction
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 1: In the Beginning
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 2: Christians and Muslims Co-exist
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia —Part 3: Christianity Begins to Decline
24 August 2017
In this image from 2007, a young couple is married in Tbilisi, Georgia. To read more about the flourishing faith of the people there, read A Georgian Revival in the March 2007 edition of ONE.
(photo: Molly Corso)
24 August 2017
Sushma Swaraj, India’s Minister for External Affairs, met with a group of Salesians recently and assured them that a kidnapped priest, the Rev. Tom Uzhunnalil, was alive and could be freed soon.
(photo: Vatican Radio)
Cardinal Parolin meets with Putin (Vatican Radio) Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin yesterday met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the presidential residence in Sochi. According to a statement from the Holy See Press Office the meeting lasted for about an hour and was held in a positive, friendly, and respectful atmosphere with an open exchange of views on various themes including international and bilateral relations...
Indian official: ‘Father Tom could be released soon’ (Vatican Radio) Sushma Swaraj assured a delegation of Indian Salesains who met her in New Delhi on 17 August that the Rev. Tom Uzhunnalil, who was kidnapped in Yemen a year ago, is alive and could be released soon. Speaking to the delegation the Minister for External Affairs said that securing his freedom was among the highest priorities of the government. She added that she felt for the “unimaginable trauma and suffering” Father Uzhunnalil has endured...
Electricity crisis threatens clean water services in Gaza (Middle East Monitor) In light of the severe electricity crisis clean water and sewage services in the Gaza Strip are suffering, which is ultimately affecting residents of the besieged enclave, Quds Press reported yesterday. Gaza residents only have four hours of electricity every day, sometimes every two days...
Forces agree to truce in Ukraine for start of new school year (BBC) Forces fighting in eastern Ukraine have committed to a ceasefire before the start of the new school year, say international monitors. The truce will take hold at midnight on Friday, OSCE representative Ambassador Martin Sajdik said. Shelling has previously marred the 1 September return to school for children — an occasion that is widely celebrated in Ukraine...
Russian culture alive in rural Alaska (Voice of America) Alaska is the largest state in the United States. It is also one of the least populated. The state is home to 741,000 people. Among them are Native Alaskans, immigrants, adventure-seekers and oil industry workers from other parts of the country. The state is also home to a community known as the Russian Old Believers. They came to Alaska from Russia nearly 50 years ago. They built a village on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. The village is called Nikolaevsk...
23 August 2017
Volunteers prepare some 5,000 sandwiches for the Lebanese army, which is waging an offensive against an Islamic State enclave near Ras Baalbek, Lebanon. Hundreds of volunteers, Christian and Muslim, are involved in the project, spearheaded by Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a Lebanese Carmelite nun. (photo: CNS/Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross)
As the Lebanese army wages an offensive against an Islamic State enclave near the border of Syria, Lebanese civilians — Christian and Muslim — are working side by side, not far from the frontlines, to feed some 5,000 soldiers.
The project was spearheaded by Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a Lebanese Carmelite nun who is superior of the Melkite Catholic monastery of St. James the Mutilated in Qara, Syria. The monastery is about 2.5 miles from the battle.
“Soldiers are involved in a very dangerous operation to defend and liberate the Lebanese territory from Daesh, so it’s very natural to offer help to the army,” Mother Agnes told Catholic News Service, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “Now with the international war on terror, the army has a special importance, and these Lebanese soldiers are offering their lives to save our lives.”
When Mother Agnes visited the army compound, she saw that the kitchen was essentially an empty shell.
The nun talked to local priests, local Christian associations, Scout groups and organizations such as Caritas and “everybody was very thrilled to help.” They mobilized to equip the space — located about six miles from the frontlines of the battle — with “elementary things” such as refrigerators, stoves, pots, utensils and tables for working.
The Lebanese army began its operation in the outskirts of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa in Lebanon on 19 August. By 22 August, the army said it had recaptured two-thirds of the territory in the area.
At first people from mostly the villages of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa came to volunteer, but as word spread of the effort to help feed the Lebanese army, the project mushroomed, and now there are nearly 300 volunteers involved.
Businesses are chipping in. Mother Agnes likened the response of solidarity to a “rolling ball,” with new offers of assistance each day from bakeries and supermarkets.
“Since the very beginning Muslims asked to participate. And they were very much welcome.” People are coming to volunteer from Shiite villages and Sunni villages, she said.
“Everyone works together knowing that the military are also from all the denominations,” she said.
Organized in assembly lines, the volunteers — covered in hairnets, aprons and gloves — prepare 5,000 pita bread sandwiches daily, using chicken and beef cooked at the facility, topped with hummus and pickles. The menu also includes fruit and something sweet, like a piece of cake. Just for the chicken sandwiches, the effort requires 1,763 pounds of chicken each day. Battalion trucks load up the meals for delivery to the soldiers.
“To see all these people giving their time, sharing their skills, to cook, to organize with very limited means, it is a beautiful expression of solidarity with the army. All religions are unified with the purest love for our country, our wounded country,” said Mother Agnes.
Prayers are also being said for the safety of the soldiers and the success of the military mission.
“We have been living this battle moment by moment in prayer, in supplication, in hope and in solidarity,” Mother Agnes said. She added that while working, the volunteers pray the rosary, sing Marian hymns as well as the national anthem and patriotic songs.
Mother Agnes noted that, as is customary in Lebanon, many Muslims attended Christian schools.
“We are praying to holy Mother Mary and they (Muslims) also venerate her, so they don’t mind if we pray our Christian prayers, and they even join in, because, all together, we work and we pray,” she said.
Mothers whose sons were killed in previous battles are coming to help “with a lot of joy and hope,” Mother Agnes said. “They give us a very good example,” she said.
The project will continue “until the end, when victory is achieved,” she stressed. “We hope that this battle will finish very soon, that it's a matter of a few weeks, if not a few days.”
23 August 2017
Patriarch Kirill and the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, center, met for talks yesterday in Moscow. (photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images)
Parolin, Kirill discuss Middle East and Ukraine (Crux) Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin met Tuesday with the Russian Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, where, among other things, they discussed the difficult situations in the Middle East and Ukraine. Referring to the struggle in Ukraine, which pits Ukrainian forces against Russian-based separatists, Patriarch Kirill stated that the “Church cannot play any other role if not one of peacemaking when people are in conflict among each other...
‘ISIS’s last stand’: U.S. official says militants caught between converging forces (The Independent) Expelled from their main stronghold in northern Iraq, Isis militants are now trapped in a military vice that will squeeze them on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, the U.S. Defense Secretary has said. General James Mattis arrived in the Iraqi capital on an unannounced visit today...
Jordan opens first job center in Syrian refugee camp (Voice of America) Jordan has opened its first job center inside a refugee camp, unlocking work opportunities across the country for thousands living in the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, the U.N. labor agency said Tuesday...
Children from Gaza make first visit to Jerusalem (CNN) The selfie stick looked a bit out of place in front of the Dome of the Rock, but no one seemed to care. The group of about 100 children were too busy snapping their own pictures around the holy site, scarcely able to believe they were really in Jerusalem...
Copts celebrate Marian feast across Egypt (Daily News Egypt) The Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated Tuesday the Feast of the Assumption of Mary across all Egyptian governorates. Processions through the street around The Holy Virgin Mary Monastery in Assiut took place on Tuesday eve, as well as prayers and celebrations across other churches and monasteries such as the Virgin Mary and Mar Youhanna Church in Sharqeya among others. Meanwhile, The Copts-United website reported on Tuesday that prayers in a village in Abu Qirqas city in the governorate of Minya took place in the street after security forces closed the space for prayers, which is affiliated to the Minya Archbishopric on Sunday...
Plans for Malta’s first Russian Orthodox church (Times of Malta) The Russian Orthodox community in Malta has applied to build a church, the first of its kind on the island, in Kappara, but will be facing opposition from local residents. The St Paul the Apostle Parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, a community of around 200 people, does not currently have its own church in Malta and has so far held its services in Catholic churches around the island...
22 August 2017
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia meets with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the Patriarch’s residence. (photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images)
Although he said planning a papal trip to Russia was not on the agenda, the Vatican secretary of state said his visit to Moscow was designed to build on the meeting Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill had in Cuba in 2016.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, was visiting Moscow 21-24 August and was scheduled to meet with the patriarch and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as with leaders of Russia’s Catholic community.
The list of topics for the meetings ranged from ecumenical dialogue and interreligious cooperation to current world affairs and climate change, he said in a series of interviews before leaving Rome.
After a long morning meeting on 22 August, the cardinal and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a brief news conference, telling reporters they had discussed ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, the Holy Land and Venezuela.
Cardinal Parolin said his meetings with government officials were designed to share “Pope Francis’ interest in bilateral relations between the Holy See and the Russian Federation as well as his concerns in the sphere of international affairs.”
“Obviously,” the cardinal said, “the meeting offered an occasion to discuss some concrete questions regarding the life of the Catholic Church in the Russian Federation, including the difficulties that remain in obtaining work permits for non-Russian religious personnel and the restitution of some churches, which are needed for the pastoral care of Catholics in the country.” Many church buildings were confiscated by the former Soviet government and never returned.
Regarding international affairs, Cardinal Parolin said he and Lavrov discussed several ongoing conflicts, including the war in Eastern Ukraine and the war in Syria.
In situations of war, he said, the Catholic Church often is directly involved in promoting humanitarian aid for the victims, but it also works on a diplomatic level to promote a negotiated peace with guarantees of “justice, legality, truth” and the safety of civilians.
The Russian foreign ministry posted online the first minutes of the working meeting between Cardinal Parolin and Lavrov.
The foreign minister told the cardinal, “We see that our positions are close on a number of current issues, including the peaceful settlement of crises, fighting terrorism and extremism, promoting the dialogue among religions and civilizations and strengthening social justice and the role of the family.”
And, he said, it is important that the strengthening of Vatican-Russian relations is “complemented by the dialogue between religions, which was launched during the historical meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in Cuba.”
Cardinal Parolin began his visit to Russia with a meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church.
After the meeting, he told reporters their time together was very constructive, and that even though there are “thorny issues,” there also is a great desire to overcome them. As an example of an ongoing difficulty, Cardinal Parolin said the existence of the Ukrainian Catholic Church “remains for the Russian Orthodox Church an obstacle.”
In the evening on 21 August, Cardinal Parolin presided over a Mass for Moscow’s Catholics in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Before Mass, he had met with the country’s Catholic bishops.
22 August 2017
In the video above, a leader of the Greek Catholic Church expresses his confidence that Christians will return to Iraq, saying “These are our homes, our lands.” (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)
Iraq: Up to 15,000 more Christians returning this month (Independent Catholic News) Within just one month, up to 15,000 displaced Iraqi Christians are expected to return to the town in the ancient Nineveh Plains which suffered the worst violence carried out by ISIS. The return of an expected 3,000 families to Qaraqosh comes amid growing concern among parents to secure places for their children at local schools — quickly being repaired in time for the new academic year next month...
Vatican, Russia agree on visa-free diplomatic travel (Vatican Radio) During the press conference following their talks, the Holy See and the Russian Federation signed an Agreement waiving visa requirements for holders of diplomatic passports. Cardinal Parolin and Foreign Minister Lavrov called this a sign of the two countries’ desire to continue to work together on bilateral relations and issues of international concern...
Cardinal Parolin describes meeting with Hilarion as ‘very constructive’ (Vatican Radio) The Vatican Secretary of State on Monday described the tone of his two-hour meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, as “very constructive.” Cardinal Pietro Parolin is on afour-day visit to Russia during which he is scheduled to meet the Russian Patriarch Kirill and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday before holding talks with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Wednesday...
Caritas India helps flood victims (Vatican Radio) Caritas India, the Catholic Church’s main charity organization is reaching out to the unreached areas of Bihar and Assam states affected by the recent floods. The Rev. Frederick D’Souza, executive director of Caritas India said that the organization has allocated 50 million rupees (US$ 780,000) and is now handing out food, medicine an tents. Volunteers are also setting up medical camps...
World Humanitarian Day marked with call to support Jordan (The Jordan Times) On the occasion of the World Humanitarian Day (WHD), the UN reiterates that civilians, including humanitarian workers, must not be targets in regions of conflict. The occasion is also an opportunity to shed light on what Jordan has provided to those in need, particularly refugees, and to call on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities...
Ethiopia’s miraculous underground churches (BBC) Officially Christian since 330 AD, Ethiopia claims to be the oldest Christian country in the world. And despite being ravaged by poverty, faith has remained strong over the centuries; Lalibela’s medieval rock-hewn churches are clear proof of that...
21 August 2017
The altar, or Holy of Holies, is seldom revealed during the liturgy at Debra Zion in Ethiopia.
(photo: Sean Sprague)
Several years ago, we took readers to Ethiopia’s Lake Ziway, a place celebrated for its rich and exotic history:
Its largest island, Tullu Gudo, shelters the oldest active religious community south of Ethiopia’s Christian heartland, Debra Zion. Tradition holds that Tullu Gudo once housed the Ark of the Covenant, said to contain the Ten Commandments.
Around the ninth century A.D., when reportedly the Ark was sheltered there, the island was home to more than 500 monks. Today, there are three. Numerous factors have contributed to this decline, including the return of the Ark to Aksum, immigration over hundreds of years to the less impoverished mainland and the anti-church policies of Ethiopia’s Marxist dictator (1974-1991), Mengistu Haile Mariam.
According to legend, the Ark had been kept in Aksum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia, ever since it was taken from Jerusalem sometime after 587 B.C. But during the ninth century A.D., the Ark’s Ethiopian protectors fled Aksum with the Ark, to escape Queen Judith, whose forces threatened to steal it. Journeying south, the Ark and its guardians eventually settled on the uninhabited island of Tullu Gudo. They built a church, Debra Zion, to hold the Ark and other treasures. About half of the monks returned with the Ark to Aksum some 40 years later, when the city was deemed again safe.
Though it was no longer necessary to guard Tullu Gudo, the monks maintained a significant presence there for more than a thousand years. During the reign of Haile Selassie (1930-1974), Ethiopia’s last emperor, about 100 monks lived on the island. That changed after Mengistu, then a colonel in the army, seized power. Along with the murder and forced relocation of hundreds of thousands, the Marxist dictator also nationalized all land and discouraged religious practice.
Now, religious life is flourishing again in Ethiopia. And the monks of Tullu Gudo, who live amid an Orthodox lay community of several hundred, are trying to recapture some of the island’s celebrated past.
Read more about Ethiopia’s Island Sanctuary in the January 2005 edition of ONE.
21 August 2017
In this image from February, women hold placards as they take part in a protest demanding better living conditions at the refugee camp of the former international Helliniko airport in Athens, Greece. Pope Francis has released a message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, underscoring the Church’s responsibility to extend aid. (photo: CNS/Yannis Kolesidis, EPA)
Pope releases message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees — 14 January 2018 — was released by the Vatican on Monday. In the message the Holy Father says that providing aid to migrants and refugees 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...”
Cardinal Parolin discusses goals of upcoming Russia visit (Vatican Radio) Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who is on a 4-day visit to Russia, gave a wide-ranging interview with the Russian state news agency TASS, ahead of his arrival on Monday...
Jets destroy ISIS convoy in Syria (BBC) Dozens of so-called Islamic State (IS) militants are reported to have been killed in a Russian air strike near the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour. Russia’s defense ministry said at least 200 jihadists had died after its air force targeted a convoy of about 20 4x4’s, armored vehicles and tanks. It did not say when the strike took place, but a monitoring group reported that a convoy had been hit last Friday...
Peace returns to Minya village after skirmishes between Muslims, Copts (The Egypt Independent) Calm returned to Ezbat al-Forn, of Abyouha village in Abu Qurqas city of Minya governorate on Monday, following skirmishes Sunday between Christians and Muslims. According to head of Abu Qurqas city council, Brigadier Mohamed Salah, fights broke out on Sunday after some Coptic citizens in the village of Ezbat al-Forn tried to pray at the house of a citizen under the guidance of a priest, prompting some Muslims to intercept for not possessing a license...
Indian prime minister’s Independence Day address leaves Christians ‘disappointed’ (The Tablet) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence day address has done little to reassure the country’s Catholic population, as numbers of targeted attacks against Christians continues to rise. Addressing the nation from the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on 15 August, Modi declared that India is “the land of Gandhi and Buddha, we have to move forward taking everyone along...We have to successfully carry it forward and that is why in the name of faith, violence cannot be allowed.” Yet Christians have said the Prime Minister failed to denounce the targeted sectarian violence that minority Christians and Muslims have been subjected to under under Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, known for espousing a Hindu nationalist agenda...
Pope encourages Methodists and Waldensians to walk path to full Christian unity (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has urged Methodist and Waldensian Churches to continue to walk together with the Catholic Church on the path towards full Christian unity, pointing out that in a world lacerated by violence and fear it is all the more important to live and to convey the Christian message of welcome and fraternity...
18 August 2017
The Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office is marking the 100th anniversary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches with a stamp featuring details from the chapel in the congregation’s office. The stamp will be released 7 September. Read more about the congregation’s anniversary here.
(photo: CNS/courtesy Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office)