21 December 2016
A life-size manger scene decorates a busy intersection on 12 December in Beirut. Amid the turmoil in the Middle East and persecution of Christians in surrounding countries, the Christmas spirit is evident in Lebanon. (photo: CNS/Johnny Antoun)
Amid the turmoil in the Middle East and persecution of Christians in surrounding countries, the Christmas spirit is evident in Lebanon: sparkling lights, decorated trees and even mangers in public places.
“Wherever you go you can find Christmas decorations,” even in the cities and the places where the residents are Muslim, the Rev. Joseph Soueid told Catholic News Service.
“I feel that here in Lebanon, we have this grace, that really, Jesus is the reason for the season,” said the priest, pastor of St. Takla Parish, which serves 6,850 Maronite Catholic families. With seating for just 280 people, the church overflows with the faithful for each of its eight Masses on Sundays and has generated 24 vocations in the past eight years. Its outdoor manger near the entrance to the church is just a few steps away from a busy street intersection.
Father Soueid noted that because most of the municipalities in Lebanon are a mix of Christian and Muslim, the influence of Christianity gives the Lebanese an opportunity to “make this season a season of joy.”
Muslims also have attended and continue to attend Christian schools in Lebanon. So it follows that “when they grew up, they found themselves familiar with our traditions and with the way we celebrate our great celebrations, like Christmas, like Easter,” Father Soueid said.
The splendor of Christmas is not only a feast for the senses in Lebanon, but also a witness of Christianity, he said.
“Sometimes you can feel the spirit of Christmas by the choirs that come out of the churches during this season to public places to sing the glory of Jesus,” Father Soueid added.
“That’s why I consider that in Lebanon, we do not have a big problem when we spread the good news” through the media, on TV, magazines, “everywhere,” he said. “We can share the way we think openly without having any fear of the others. Because they accept us.”
At City Mall, huge cutout stars, glistening Christmas trees and garlands adorn the tri-level shopping concourse. There is also a sprawling, rustic, miniature crafted scene reminiscent of a Lebanese red-roofed village from centuries ago: women at the well with jugs of water, shepherds with their sheep, people gathering in the center square.
The Nativity is prominently featured in the display. Nestled in a cave, Mary and Joseph lovingly gaze upon the newborn King, his arms outstretched, lying in a simple manger illuminated with a soft light. Livestock surround the Holy Family. Outside the cave, the Wise Men have already arrived to pay homage to the savior; a shepherd tends to his sheep, with his head cocked toward baby Jesus.
Shoppers stroll by — Christians and Muslims — many stopping to get a close look at the magical scene and to snap pictures. Young children typically rush ahead of their parents to step up and lean against the translucent railing to get the closest view possible.
That’s just what 5-year-old Angelina Youssef did, arriving ahead of her mother, Samar, who pushed 1-year-old Roy in a stroller.
“It’s amazing,” the mother said of the mall’s manger display. “Kids like it. We come every year to see it. It gives us the Christmas spirit.”
Gazing at the manger, Samar Youssef, a Maronite Catholic from Beirut, said: “Everything sparkles. Christmas is when Jesus was born, so we must always remember this before we think about trees and gifts. Jesus is the joy of Christmas.”
Grace Abou Tayeh smiled as her 1-year-old son, Joe, looked with wonder at the creche.
“I like when my son sees Jesus inside so he won’t forget what’s the meaning of this holiday,” she told CNS.
Her husband, Charbel Abou Tayeh, also Catholic, pointed to the appeal of Christmas within other faiths.
“The birth of Jesus is for all mankind, so no matter what the religion is — Christian, Muslim — it’s for everyone, so we all share the happiness of Christmas here in Lebanon,” said Charbel Abou Tayeh.
“And I’m seeing it, even all my Muslim friends have (Christmas) trees, and some even have the baby Jesus in their houses,” he said, calling it an example of “the unique culture of our country.” With 18 religious sects represented in Lebanon, he added, “we’re still hanging on here,” referring to the Christian presence.
In Beirut’s Sassine Square, a life-size manger scene is featured next to a towering cone-shaped Christmas tree. Mary and Joseph — an angel between them — look upon the empty crib, filled with straw.
Admiring the site as he passed, George Abdul Malak, a Greek Orthodox from Beirut, told CNS, “It’s a part of our culture that even in homes in Lebanon, we find this accompanying the tree all the time, the creche.” He added that many people wait until Christmas Eve to put baby Jesus in the crib.
“Maybe globally we don’t find the custom of creches, we find (Christmas) trees more,” Abdul Malak said. But in Lebanon, the presence of a creche in a public place “means that we have some kind of freedom of expression.”
Karim Al Younis, a Shiite Muslim visiting Lebanon from Basra, Iraq, stopped to gaze at the manger scene. Asked how he feels about the display, he told CNS, “What can you see here, except peace, love and family?”
21 December 2016
Sister Guadalupe Rodrigo, who has lived in the Middle East for nearly 20 years and is one of the last Christians left in Aleppo, says Muslims in Syria fear for their country without Christians.
(video: Rome Reports)
Russia, Iran, Turkey meet for Syria talks (The New York Times) Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Moscow on Tuesday to work toward a political accord to end Syria’s nearly six-year war, leaving the United States on the sidelines as the countries sought to drive the conflict in ways that serve their interests. Secretary of State John Kerry was not invited. Nor was the United Nations consulted...
ISIS in Mosul reportedly targeting civilians as it retreats (AP) Islamic State militants in Mosul are deliberately targeting civilians who refuse to join them as they retreat ahead of advancing Iraqi forces involved in a large-scale government operation to retake the militant-held city, an international watchdog said on Wednesday...
Catholic Church in Ethiopia promoting peace and tolerance (Vatican Radio) he Catholic Church in Ethiopia has joined other religious leaders and the government to promote peaceful coexistence in communities in conflict. The head of the Justice and Peace Department of the bishops’ conference says in the past year the Church managed to bring together disputing ethnic groups in different parts of the country. Conflicts have arisen in some parts of the vast nation due disputes over grazing land and the stealing of herds...
Pope prays for Russia after attack (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has expressed his condolences to the family of the Russian ambassador to Turkey who was shot dead by a police officer at an art exhibition. In a message sent by the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Pope said he was “saddened to learn of the violent attack in Ankara, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Andrei Karlov.” He assured the people of the Russian Federation of his prayers and “spiritual solidarity” at this time...
Catholic University receives donation of Ethiopian manuscripts (CUA.edu) The Catholic University of America is now home to one of North America’s most important collections of Ethiopian religious manuscripts, thanks to a generous donation from Chicago collectors Gerald and Barbara Weiner. The handmade manuscripts, which originate from Ethiopia and which date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, include more than 125 Christian manuscripts, 215 Islamic manuscripts, and 350 “magic” scrolls. With this donation, which is valued at over $1 million, Catholic University is now the holder of the fifth largest collection of Ethiopian Christian manuscripts in the United States and the largest collection of Ethiopian Islamic manuscripts outside of Ethiopia...
Salt + Light moves to new headquarters (Catholic Register) It has been 14 years since the tiny digital television service launched on a shoestring in the afterglow of Toronto’s 2002 World Youth Day. For 2017, the TV station which strives “to give the flavor of the Gospel and the light of Christ to a world that is steeped in darkness and tastelessness at times” has acquired the tools and the space to do the job. On 9 December, Salt + Light moved from its century-old building at the corner of Richmond and Jarvis in Toronto into new space at Davisville and Mt. Pleasant in mid-town. The broadcaster has added a real studio — a broadcast theatre big enough to stage event broadcasts — and nearly tripled its floor space from 8,500 square feet (790 square meters) to 22,000 (2,044 square meters)...
20 December 2016
Ani Kaloust helps families in need through a CNEWA partner, Caritas Lebanon.
(photo: Dalia Khamissy)
In 2015, we introduced readers to a powerhouse: Ani Kaloust, a 65-year-old Lebanese Armenian Catholic who lives in Beirut and works for Caritas, a CNEWA partner and charity of the Lebanese Catholic churches.
She described some of her work to journalist Don Duncan:
I have been with Caritas for more than 25 years, working in Geitawi, receiving and helping families in need. We give them money and food aid. Besides that, we have families struggling with illness — even cancer. We help them however we can.
My other job is with the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, as a member of their charity arm. I’ve been with them for 40 years. In order to help the people of the area, you need to have someone who knows the families, right? Well, I know all the families in this community: rich, middle class and the poor. In the patriarchate, when people come knocking on the door asking for help, they say: “Go see Madam Ani.” I do a little interview to see what they need, and the patriarchate helps them if able.
ONE: How did you become so deeply involved in charity work? Isn’t it all overwhelming?
AK: Since my childhood, I liked to help people. I was small and I worked in a dispensary beside our house. I liked that. I was in my 20’s during the civil war here in Lebanon and I helped everyone. I spent the whole war in this neighborhood. I didn’t leave it even for one day.
I am no longer a young girl, but I work more than a young girl does! And people say: “Oh, I’m tired.” Me, I can’t say that; I don’t get tired!
One story of hers left an indelible impression:
In 1978, when the Syrians attacked us with the bombs, I was pregnant. I was taking shelter in the basement under our building and I could feel that I was going to give birth. I couldn’t breathe. I said I must go to the hospital, or will I have to give birth before 400 people! My brother came to take me there, and I was sure either I’d die or my baby would. I went to the hospital in a car of a Christian militiaman. I arrived with the baby’s head already coming out and I gave birth on the bathroom floor in about five minutes. Then a sister said: “You must leave. The hospital is burning.” I took my baby and she was black from the dirt. There was no water. About 10 or 15 minutes after having given birth, I was running through the streets with the baby to get back to the shelter. I arrived and could see my husband and kids across the street, but couldn’t cross because the bombs were falling so heavily. Finally, I got back to safety. Two hours later, there was a cease-fire.
ONE: Did such experiences — or indeed, does your charitable work — change you spiritually?
AK: No. I was a student of the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and I have had my faith since I was a child. Every day, when I wake up, before leaving the house, I have a picture of Jesus and I say to him: “I am leaving the house and I leave it to you. It’s up to you to decide if I make mistakes or not and you’ll always be with me.”
But prayers help me when life is tough. Without prayers, how do you live? Prayers are our protection. God stays with us when we pray and he doesn’t let us go astray.
For her tireless work on behalf of the poor — and her fearlessness in the face of hardship and war — we consider Ani Kaloust a true CNEWA hero, one who embodies so much of our own mission and vision.
20 December 2016
Tourists walk past a large Santa Claus on 17 December near the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
20 December 2016
A Syrian child, who was among the people evacuated, flashes the victory sign upon arriving 19 December at a temporary housing center in the countryside outside Aleppo. (photo: CNS/EPA)
Pope Francis pleads for end to “homicidal madness” of terrorism (CNA) What are being called two major acts of terrorism in just the past 24 hours have prompted Pope Francis to again beg for an even stronger commitment to putting such bloody attacks, which have marred many parts of the world over the past 18 months, to an end. “Pope Francis unites to all men and women of good will who commit so that the homicidal madness of terrorism no longer finds space in our world,” a 20 December telegram from the Vatican read...
Aid agencies race against time in Aleppo (Vatican Radio) Tens of thousands of people have fled eastern Aleppo city in the past weeks, seeking safety and protection. However, their new reality could be bleak if they aren’t properly equipped for winter, as temperatures are low and will dip to –5 degrees Celsius at night in the coming days...
Father Murad: reconciliation in Syria will take a long time (Fides) While the evacuation of the population from the east districts of Aleppo controlled for years by rebel militias continue with great difficulty, the Rev. Jacques Murad, Syrian monk of the Deir Mar Musa Community, in a statement issued to Agenzia Fides said that a possible authentic reconciliation will take a long time. “The victims of violence in Syria are all Syrians, Muslims and Christians. And the poor are those who suffer most, those who have not had a chance to escape...”
Iraq unable to treat huge numbers of wounded (The Washington Post) Doctors in an array of medical facilities around Mosul — including military-run field clinics and mobile treatment centers — are struggling to keep up with demand as the offensive against the Islamic State grinds on. As Iraqi forces have pressed deeper into crowded neighborhoods, more than a third of the civilians fleeing require trauma care, a significantly higher proportion than international health experts have seen in other conflicts...
Nuncio to Ukraine brings greetings from the pope (Vatican Radio) The Apostolic Nuncio in Ukraine, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, visited the Catholic communities of both the Greek and the Latin rites in Donetsk and Luhansk from 16 to 18 December 2016. It is customary for the Nuncio to visit different communities on the eve of major religious holidays to convey the greetings and blessing of Pope Francis...
CRS board chair wants to share agency’s work more widely (CNS) The humanitarian work of Catholic Relief Services and its partner agencies directed toward refugees in the Middle East deserves far more attention than it has received and Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour says it’s time Catholics in the pew know about it. The work of feeding, sheltering and providing health care for hundreds of thousands of people who have trekked to safety in Jordan and Lebanon from Iraq and Syria is a story that the mainstream media largely has ignored, much to the chagrin of Bishop Mansour, the incoming chairman of the board at CRS...
India’s ancient Christmas tradition (News India Times) Christmas is celebrated by Indians the world over not just as the more visible manifestation of the Hollywood, mass-produced version, but also as an ancient festival with indigenous Indian traditions...
19 December 2016
Syrians try to get warm as they wait to be evacuated from the east part of Aleppo on 19 December 2016. Temperatures have dropped below freezing in the region.
(photo: Aref Watad/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Editor’s note: we received the following email this morning from Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director in Beirut, who has been in touch with our partners on the ground in Syria. He offers the latest information we have on what is happening in Aleppo.
The humanitarian situation is catastrophic; the weather is extremely cold. Over 15,000 people had gathered in a square in east Aleppo on Sunday for buses to take them to rebel-held areas outside the city. Many had spent the night sleeping in the streets in freezing temperatures. In the evenings, it can go to –5C [23 Fahrenheit]. They have access to very little food, fuel, water and medical supplies. The situation on the ground remains grim as people wait.
As for the Christian communities (which are in west Aleppo, in the areas primarily controlled by the Syrian army): they find themselves in a better security situation because combat and military activities have been reduced.
During the last few weeks, the situation of the Christians in Aleppo has been extremely difficult. Some convents were directly hit with shelling. At present the families are in great need for heating fuel and food.
With our partners on the ground, CNEWA is trying hard to support the neediest fragile families with emergency supplies, especially providing 2,000 children with milk components every month through the Marist brothers. We are also providing medical support through the Maronite Archdiocese of Aleppo and the Saint Vincent de Paul association.
At present, we are expecting some direct funds to help the neediest families before Christmas; we are working with the Besançon Sisters to try and keep some 750 families warm.
Of course, all of what we do is not enough. Any emergency donation should be directed to accompany the poor families through the harsh winter with winterization items.
To support the suffering people of Syria during this difficult time, please visit this link.
19 December 2016
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, gestures during a news conference in September. Appointed in June, he spoke with journalists on Monday 19 December after releasing his first Christmas message.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Except for specific incidents in Egypt and one in Libya, Christians in the Middle East are suffering the same fate as their fellow citizens, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told media in response to a journalist’s question at his first Christmas news conference.
Because of the political chaos and the destruction of parish records, there are no statistics of how many Christians have been killed in the conflicts, he said, but the numbers of Christians who have been killed because they are Christian is low.
Thousands of Christians have been killed as victims of war just like others in the region, he said.
Nevertheless, Christians have remained strong in their witness to their faith, Archbishop Pizzaballa added.
The archbishop, appointed in June, released his first Christmas message, followed by the news conference, on 19 December. In his message, he said Advent and Christmas are times to “prepare for God’s surprises” and to remember the “incredible gift” with which God surprised humanity.
“We need God’s surprises. With these surprises God opens up the horizon and brings the novelty that can change our world and our lives,” Archbishop Pizzaballa said.
He also blamed the Mideast violence on the arms trade, power interests and “relentless fundamentalism.”
“The situation of Christians in Syria, Iraq and Egypt is a complete tragedy. In these countries, (the) cradle of our civilization, the vicious cycle of violence which is at work seems hopeless and endless,” he said in the message. “Wars and the way of force have not been able to bring peace and justice; it only brought more violence, death and destruction.”
He told journalists at the news conference: “The images of Aleppo we see in front of our eyes are shocking. ...Those who are suffering the price of this abnormal tragedy are the people.”
While the Holy Land is not facing such an extreme situation as in the rest of the region, Christians have still had to confront several cases of vandalism of church property, the construction of the Israeli separation barrier in the Cremisan Valley on property belonging to dozens of Christian families and unresolved budgetary issues regarding Christian schools, said Archbishop Pizzaballa.
In response to a journalist’s question, Archbishop Pizzaballa noted that the tiny Christian community in Gaza, numbering 1,000 people, is also facing the same difficulties all Gazans face living inside the enclave as “one big prison.” In addition to the political and military role they play in Gaza, Hamas is also an Islamic religious movement, and its fundamentalist religious pressure is felt strongly by the Christian community, he said.
He also noted that, in Jordan, the patriarchate has welcomed thousands of refugees: With a population of 7 million, the country has taken in 3 million refugees, he said.
In addition, in Israel the patriarchate has also taken on the responsibility of administering to some of the needs of a smaller refugee community.
Commenting on an 18 December terrorist attack in the Jordanian city of Karak, where a police standoff with gunmen at a Crusader castle left 10 people dead, including a Canadian tourist, Archbishop Pizzaballa said he hopes this was an isolated incident and that he is “confident authorities in Jordan are doing their best to isolate all ideological movements.”
Throughout the region, the church and Christian charities have a presence, and one concrete way Christians can help is to financially support these groups in their work, Archbishop Pizzaballa said, adding that there do not seem to be any serious political attempts to resolve the conflicts.
“The circumstances are not always easy, and we know ... we have to talk of justice and mercy, but sometimes in front of these tragedies it seems like slogans, and people are tired of slogans with no change,” he added.
The archbishop also said education is essential to combating all cases of extremism.
“We have our part of responsibility in those devastating tragedies: We cannot continue to only speak about dialogue, justice and peace. Words are not enough. We must combat poverty and injustice, and give a continual testimony of mercy to reveal to the world the love and tenderness of our God,” he said in his message.
Despite all of the tragedies, Christians must have hope, he said in the message.
“This hope is the light that is continually guiding us among the darkness and confusion of this region and of the whole world. Our broken hearts should be ready for surprises. And Christmas is actually the time to renew our faith in the God of surprises as we go to Bethlehem to venerate an apparently powerless God: The child Jesus,” Archbishop Pizzaballa said. “In our prayers, we are and we will continually carry this wounded world.”
19 December 2016
In this image from December 2011, CNEWA’s president Msgr. John E. Kozar meets with children of Blessed Sacrament Orphanage in Ain Warka, Lebanon. You can read more about that memorable visit here. (photo: CNEWA)
19 December 2016
Civilians from the remaining rebel-held pockets of eastern Aleppo are evacuated from the embattled city by bus on 19 December 2016. (photo: George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)
Evacuations from Aleppo resume (BBC) Thousands of people, including dozens of orphans, have left Aleppo in one of the besieged Syrian city’s biggest evacuations yet. More than 4,500 civilians have left rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo so far on Monday...
Jordan attackers planned further assaults (Al Jazeera) Assailants who staged attacks in Jordan’s southern city of Karak on Sunday had suicide vests and other weapons, and were planning further attacks, Interior Minister Salamah Hamad has said. Hamad on Monday did not give details on the identity or nationality of the attackers, saying an investigation was still ongoing...
Church, state seeing eye to eye in Putin’s Russia (AP) The Russian Orthodox Church is expanding its influence in what was once an officially godless state — and President Vladimir Putin appears eager to harness that resurgent power of faith to promote his own agenda. Long consigned to society’s margins in the Soviet era of “scientific atheism,” religious activists in today’s Russia can get theater performances banned and exhibitions closed. Their next target is to end state funding for abortion in a land where nearly half of all pregnancies end in termination...
U.S. House passes religious freedom bill (CNS) The U.S. House 13 December passed the bipartisan Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act and sent it to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature. The measure gives the Obama administration and the U.S. State Department new tools, resources and training to counter extremism and combat a worldwide escalation of persecution of religious minorities...
U.S. bishops form working group to monitor needs of migrants, refugees (CNS) The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is establishing a working group charged with developing spiritual, pastoral and policy advocacy support for immigrants and refugees...
Byzantine art on a grand scale in Winnipeg Ukrainian Catholic Church (Catholic Register) Nativity scenes are common during the Christmas season but few in Canada can match a stained glass window in a Winnipeg church for size and splendor. Created by prominent iconographer Sviatoslav Makarenko of Yonkers, N.Y., the window is a rare example of Byzantine iconography in the leaded stained-glass medium. It dazzles above the main entrance of St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church...
16 December 2016
A creche titled “Jesus the Global Refugee” is seen outside Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch, New York. The structure, designed as a refugee’s lean-to, was created to call public attention to the biblical mandate to welcome immigrants and give shelter to refugees.
(photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
This Sunday is International Migrants Day. Every year on 18 December, the United Nations honors the contributions and struggles of immigrants and refugees.
International Migrants Day is a call to action to for us to welcome the migrants who live in our communities, and to work together as a global community to protect all migrants’ human rights.
There are 244 million migrants in the world today. This includes 20 million refugees who have fled their homelands in order to escape persecution, armed conflicts and natural disasters. Every day the news seems filled with heartbreaking stories of their plight. As Pope Francis has made vividly, unforgettably clear, at a moment when the broken bodies of drowned migrants are washing up on Italy’s shores, addressing their needs with mercy and compassion is one of the deepest moral challenges of our time.
But on this International Migrants Day it would be a mistake — a very regrettable mistake — to think of migration as something negative. Yes, sometimes the migrant’s story is a tragic one. Sometimes it can be difficult to welcome the stranger. Yet we must never forget the many wonderful gifts that generations of migrants have contributed to our society and to the Catholic Church. And migrants continue to make positive contributions today, as we explored in a Winter 2015 feature in ONE about refugees from war-torn Iraq who have found a new home in the United States:
Over the years, El Cajon, which lies east of San Diego, has taken on the shape of its growing community of Iraqi Christians. Signs in many of the city’s shops and restaurants are in Chaldean or Arabic, leading some to dub East Main Street, “Little Baghdad.” A stroll through the grounds of St. Peter Chaldean Cathedral is more reminiscent of the ancient city of Babylon, with sculptured lions of Ishtar guarding the entrance to the hall.
From this city, Bishop Sarhad Jammo, a native of Baghdad, leads the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle, a jurisdiction spanning 19 states in the west of the country. Second only to Michigan — the cradle of the nation’s other Chaldean eparchy — California has grown into a major Chaldean hub, with ten parishes and two missions. El Cajon alone also boasts two convents, a monastery and a seminary alongside a catechetical program serving 1,000 children, who learn to pray and celebrate the Qurbana, the eucharistic liturgy of the Chaldean Church, in a modern form of the Aramaic language.
On a warm Friday morning in mid-August, a red-haired altar server sweeps the floor in the hall at St. Michael Chaldean Church, where some 70 or so parishioners had just finished a morning game of bingo. Born in Baghdad, Domunik Shamoun, 11, came to the United States in 2008 with his two older brothers and parents. He expresses pride in his heritage.
“I think it’s cool that Jesus spoke Chaldean when he was alive. I speak the same language,” he says during a pause from his work. At home he speaks Chaldean to his parents and English to his brothers.
You can read the rest here.