25 January 2016
Deir Mar Elias, shown here in an image from 2005, was destroyed last week by ISIS. It was the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq. (photo: Wikipedia)
Reports of the destruction of Deir Mar Elia, a sixth century monastery in Iraq, surfaced around the world this past week. The responses ranged from outrage and shock to the numbing realization that ISIS destroyed a piece of history again.
One of the marks of genius of the Islamic culture has been its ability to appropriate what was good, useful and beautiful from cultures that it had conquered.
The entire Middle East has developed one civilization on top of another for more than 5,000 years. The two most recent and familiar are Christianity and Islam, which are the major elements in a centuries-old synthesis that ISIS is now threatening with extinction in the Middle East in a way that can only be described as nihilistic.
While geography may not be very interesting for many, it is fascinating. Maps can be like an archaeological excavation with layer upon layer of history waiting to be revealed. Maps of the Middle East are particularly interesting as human civilizations have such a deep footprint. Place names often indicate things that have been long forgotten. The Arabic word qal‘at, for example, appears in many place names. It means “fortress” and the name can remain long after every trace of a fortress has disappeared.
Another place name often found is the Arabic word dayr. In English this may appear as dayr or deir. Thus, we find Al Dayr in Iraq and Deir Ezzor in Syria, and there are many others. The word is important because it means “monastery.”
Before the arrival of Islam, and for some time afterward, Christianity was the major religious and cultural force in Mesopotamia. Different forms of the Syriac tongue formed the language of worship, literature — especially poems and hymns — theology and philosophy of the Mesopotamian church.
Removed but not necessarily isolated from the theological controversies that plagued Christianity in the Greek and Latin speaking worlds, Syriac-speaking Christian monks created a huge body of literature. Their monasteries were great centers of learning where many Greek philosophical texts were translated and preserved.
The Muslim conquerors in Mesopotamia and Syria in the seventh century took over a highly developed civilization that had deep roots in Christianity. Over the centuries, and for a variety of reasons, the Christian population diminished and the Muslim population grew. Significant and at times influential Christian minorities existed in Mesopotamia until the second half of the nineteenth century when the Christian population began to plummet.
With the exception of Lebanon, the contemporary Middle East is overwhelmingly Islamic. Here Islamic means more than “Muslim.” While it is true that the vast majority of Middle Easterners follow the religion of Islam and are Muslims, their literature, art, architecture, music — although often different from one Muslim country to another — are profoundly influenced by Islam. In fact the “dominant culture” in the Middle East has been so influenced and transformed by Islam over the centuries that it is very easy to overlook the deep Christian roots in the region.
There is something nihilistic in almost every totalitarian movement, be it secular or religious. It may be because totalitarianism, regardless how overwhelming and violent, is basically brittle and fragile. Totalitarianism has an almost universal fear of history and art, both of which show that things can be and have been different.
Nazism’s attempt to recreate the history of the “German Nation” as the Third Reich, Stalin’s purges of artists, the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, the killing fields of Pot Pol in Cambodia, the personality cult of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and the wanton destruction wreaked by ISIS in the Middle East are all attempts to erase the past.
While ISIS is more complicated than many analysts believe, it is clearly nihilist in its methods and ideology, which is unusual in Islamic history. ISIS is driven to destroy all vestiges of the past, such as the destruction of Assyrian statues in the Mosul Museum and the Hellenistic remains of Palmyra. While there are some reports of ancient artifacts being sold rather than destroyed, the end result is the same — the elimination of history. In the case of ancient Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman art, “theological” reasons can be manufactured; ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a long history of “smashing idols.”
But any “theological justification” just does not ring true. The same attack on the past that is carried on by ISIS against the ancient worlds is also being made against Christianity and even other Muslims who, by the standards of the Qur‘an (ostensibly the sacred text of ISIS) are not idolaters. Churches and monasteries, even ancient Islamic shrines such as the Tomb of Jonas in Mosul, are being destroyed.
In the past, one religion often took over an important monument of another. The Umayyads took over the Church of John the Baptist in Damascus (seventh century), the Ottoman Turks took over Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Christian
Reconquistadores in Spain took over the great mosque in Cordoba (both 15th century). In each case, the conquering religion changed and adapted the structure to its own faith’s theology and practice. However, none of the monuments were destroyed. There is a difference between religious imperialism and nihilism.
The recent discovery of the destruction of the Monastery of Mar Elia in Iraq is one of many instances of churches and Christian institutions being destroyed by ISIS. Coupled with the brutal killings of Muslim dissidents, Christians and other religious minorities, the international community is faced here with both cultural and ethnic-religious genocide. While nihilistic regimes have a history of ultimate self-destruction, the evil that can be accomplished by them is beyond belief. In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the destruction of a sixth century monastery, which was basically a ruin, may not seem important in the “grand scheme” of things. It is however, something that cannot be overlooked when mass destruction — the ultimate nihilistic goal — is increasingly easy to accomplish.
25 January 2016
Syrian refugees wait at the border near Royashed, Jordan on 14 January. Bishop Antoine Nassif, Canada’s first bishop for Syriac Catholics, says he’ll make refugees a priority.
(photo: CNS/Stringer, EPA)
The newly ordained bishop for the Syriac Catholic Church in Canada has pledged to make his first priority the suffering of refugees. The story, from CNS:
Bishop Antoine Nassif was ordained on 23 January by Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan at Our Lady of Deliverance Cathedral in Beirut. He will lead the first apostolic exarchate for Syriac Catholics living in Canada, with the jurisdiction based in Montreal and Laval, Quebec.
The Canadian exarchate, similar to a diocese, covers territory there that was once part of the Newark, New Jersey-based Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance, established in 1995.
After his ordination, Bishop Nassif noted the new exarchate was erected in the Year of Mercy and at a time when God “is offering so much" to the Syriac church, most notably the beatification in August of Syriac Catholic Bishop Flavien Michel Melki, a century after he was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam.
The new bishop added that the blood of the martyrs “didn’t quench the thirst of their persecutors,” alluding to the persecution facing Christians in Syria and Iraq as a result of Syria’s civil war and the uprooting of Christians by the Islamic State group.
Days before his ordination, Bishop Nassif, who was born in Biakout, Lebanon, told Catholic News Service that he never imagined becoming bishop or going to Canada as shepherd to Syriac Catholics there.
“But I’m obeying. I’m ready to be where God sends me. This is the real call, to understand and to feel that in every step I can see God's hand guiding me,” he said.
“With what is happening in our Middle East, and most importantly with the refugees — Syrian, Iraqi and others — I will put their suffering on the top of my priorities, especially their spiritual needs,” he pledged.
Read the full story.
25 January 2016
In this image from November 2015, Pope Francis receives a gift from children during during a visit to Christuskirche, a parish of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Rome. The Vatican announced on 25 January that the pope will visit Sweden in October to participate in an ecumenical event marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
(photo: CNS/Massimiliano Migliorato, Catholic Press Photo)
Pope will travel to Sweden to commemorate Reformation (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis will travel to Sweden in October for a joint ecumenical commemoration of the start of the Reformation, together with leaders of the Lutheran World Federation and representatives of other Christian Churches...
Christian area in Syria attacked (Fides) At least three people were killed and 10 others wounded in a bomb attack in Syria’s northeastern Kurdish city of Qamishli, on on the evening of Sunday 24 January. The attack took place in the mostly Christian neighborhood and was carried out with a motorcycle bomb. The blast hit the restaurant in “Miami Street”...
The life of Syrian refugees who escape civil war for a refugee camp (Huffington Post) Why would anyone want to stay in a refugee camp? Last year I visited Zaatari Refugee Camp, located just a few miles from the Syrian border in Jordan. I was traveling with International Orthodox Christian Charities, which carries out an expansive ministry addressing the many needs of Syrians inside and outside of their country...
Russian Orthodox TV reporters expelled from Moldova (TASS) Reporters of the Russian Orthodox television broadcaster Tsargrad have been deported from Moldova in the wake of an information blockade in that country. Tsargrad Editor-in-Chief Aleksey Kravchenko told TASS that on Saturday morning Moldova’s special services forced a TV team — the correspondent Ivan Kolesnikov and the cameraman Sergey Krasnov — to leave their hotel and then drove them to the airport where the reporters were made to board an Aeroflot airliner bound for Moscow...
Muslim leaders plan summit on protecting non-Muslims (RNS) Hundreds of Muslim scholars will meet in Morocco next week to reassert the rights of non-Muslims living among them as Christians and other religious minorities flee extremism across the Middle East for safety and freedom elsewhere. In these times, Muslims must affirm their tradition’s true teachings on tolerance, said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the United States. The summit meeting, expected to attract more than 300 Muslim religious leaders, will hark back to the Charter of Medina, in which the Prophet Muhammad enumerated the rights of non-Muslims 1,400 years ago...
Indian Jesuit now serving refugees in Beirut (Vatican Radio) An Indian Jesuit priest and fearless human rights activist has moved to Beirut, Lebanon, to render his services to refugees. The Rev. Cedric Prakash — a well-known human rights and peace activist, who headed the human rights centre in Ahmedabad, Gujarat state, called “Prashant” — is working among the thousands of internally displaced people...
Celebrating centenary of cathedral in India (The Hindu) The valedictory of the centenary year celebrations of the St. Thomas Orthodox Cathedral on Stringer Street, Broadway, was marked by a special service at the cathedral led by the head of the Orthodox Church, Baselios Marthoma Paulose II and later, a public meeting held at the Ewart School auditorium on Sunday...
22 January 2016
Tags: India Pope Francis Ecumenism Muslim Islam
Christians gather for Evening Prayer outside St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil, Iraq, just one area where CNEWA has worked with local churches and institutions to “bring light into their darkness.”
(photo: Don Duncan)
Five days after Christmas, a man sat down and wrote the following letter to CNEWA, in simple block letters on plain lined paper. We were surprised at the return address: a prison in Florida. But as we read these words, we found the message profoundly moving and humbling — a quiet reminder to us all of how God works in the world, and of the grace that can be found in unexpected ways, in unexpected places.
Dear CNEWA missionaries —
I found a copy of your magazine, “One,” at our chapel last weekend. I had never heard of CNEWA before, but I am very thankful that I now have! I found it to be more edifying than I know how to say, but I will try, anyway.
I am in prison for life for robbery, a result of drug addiction, which in its turn was a result of trying to run from God’s will and his claim on my life. I did not understand that when I was out there; but once I got some separation from that life, I could see it clearly. Since I was a cradle Catholic, who was educated by Dominicans through the eighth grade, I knew exactly what I needed to do to get right with the Lord. So I did those things, and I have been walking in his glorious light these last 25 years. I would not trade all of the “freedom” in the world for the relationship that prison compelled me to develop with the savior.
While that is true, it is also true that it is a struggle to keep my spiritual head above water. I have known for years how blessed I am to live in a country that allows me to have freedom of religion. In prison, no less! I thank God for that every day. Because of that, I have a Mass to attend and a Eucharist to receive every Sunday; I have access to a chapel library that is replete with Christian publications, books, Bible studies, study helps. It even has a section devoted to Christian literature. I can get Christian publications in the mail without fear of persecution. I understand how very fortunate I am to have it like this!
But after reading that one copy of your magazine, I understand much more thoroughly how blessed I am! None of the publications I see address foreign missions and needs, and I had no idea how bad things were for so many. It was greatly edifying to learn of your great efforts to bring light into their darkness and to relieve suffering wherever you can. I had no idea. I thank God for you and your ministry.
Because I have been here for most of the last three decades, I have extremely limited contact with the outside, and it has been many years since I was in a position to aid your efforts. I wish very much that I could. You can be certain that you will now have a staunch prayer partner every day from now on. It broke my heard to learn of the terrible abominations committed against God’s children and others, and I can certainly do that much to help you. It lifts me up to know that you faithfully continue the work.
I wonder if CNEWA has...a ministry to enable an indigent and out-of-touch prisoner to get your great publication? I wish that I could pay for a subscription, but I can’t. I would love to continue to be bolstered by stories of your ministry and our Lord’s worldwide work, if it is possible. There only a handful of Catholic Christians here, or any type of Christians, for that matter. Every one of us will read cover-to-cover any issue of your magazine that you send to me, you can be certain of that.
Please know that whatever you decide, you are now in my prayers, and you will remain so. May our Lord bless you all and prosper in your ministry.
Your brother in Christ,
We are sending a complimentary subscription to “our brother in Christ,” along with our gratitude and our prayers.
We are reminded of Pope Francis’s words to prisoners in Philadelphia last September: “I am here above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own. I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of the resurrection.”
22 January 2016
These two watercolor paintings are by Egyptian artist Gamal Lamie. His paintings at a Cairo art gallery depict calm mothers with serene children, shining stars, doves, flowers, trees, fish and blue waters, the many attributes of an Egypt that once existed, and, he believes, can again be achieved. (photo: CNS/courtesy Gamal Lamie)
Egypt has suffered terribly over the last few years, but one artist is trying to paint a different vision of what Egypt could be:
Gamal Lamie’s paintings at a Cairo art gallery depict calm mothers with serene children, shining stars, doves, flowers, trees, fish and blue waters — the many attributes of an Egypt that once existed, and, he believes, can again be achieved.
All it takes is hope, said the Egyptian artist, a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority that traces its roots back to St. Mark the Apostle.
“I think during the last five years, you can see what happened in Egypt and the Middle East area. So ... as an artist, I send a message to the whole world that we need hope," Lamie told Catholic News Service almost exactly five years after a January 2011 revolution shook the predominantly Muslim North African nation and toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Waves of civil and political unrest across Egypt have killed and wounded thousands of people since then.
“Hope means peace, it means stability. It’s not weapons, it’s not fighting. We need to live in peace, that is why I call it ‘Hope,’” Lamie said of the title he’d chosen for his exhibit of watercolors in a small ground-floor apartment-turned-art gallery in an upscale district of Cairo.
Read the full story. Meantime, to support Egypt’s struggling Christians, visit this page to learn how you can make a difference in so many lives.
22 January 2016
In the video above, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia describes his recent visit to Syria. The U.N. is warning that hundreds of thousands of people across Syria are facing starvation and malnutrition.
(video: Rome Reports)
Pope to World Economic Forum: “Do not forget the poor!” (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has appealed to the economic leaders of the world not to forget the poor. The Pope’s cry for justice and integral development came in a message to the participants of the annual World Economic Forum taking place in Davos, Switzerland...
U.N.: Hundreds of thousands in Syria at risk of starvation (The Washington Post) Hundreds of thousands of people across Syria in areas besieged by government forces and opposition fighters are at risk of starvation and worsening malnutrition, U.N. officials, aid workers and activists warn. The warring parties are cutting off food and medicine to more than a dozen areas, causing civilians to die and complicating renewed peace efforts to end the country’s civil war...
Jihadist leaders fleeing Nineveh (Fides) While US-led air strikes against the positions of the Islamic State intensify in the area of Mosul and Nineveh Plain, a growing number of military jihadist leaders leave the region, aimed at joining the militia linked to Daesh operating in Libya and Yemen...
Pope issues message of mercy for World Communications Day (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis’ message for the 50th World Day of Social Communications was released on Friday, entitled ‘Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter’. Quoting from Shakespeare, the Gospels and the Old Testament, the Pope reminds each one of us that our “every word and gesture, ought to express God’s compassion, tenderness and forgiveness for all”...
In India, keeping the lamp of Margamkali burning (The Hindu) Margamkali is one of those traditional art forms that manage to stay afloat owing to arts festivals conducted in the State. The folk art of Syrian Christians involves a group of dancers performing around a traditional lamp in a symbolic representation of the Christ standing among the disciples...
21 January 2016
Tags: Syria Iraq India Pope Francis
Vocations to religious life in Eritrea’s new Catholic Church enable it to educate, heal and care for its people. (photo: CNEWA)
Eritrea’s cultural roots run deep: Some 3,000 years ago, Semitic peoples from the Arabian Peninsula crossed the Red Sea and settled in the Horn of Africa. The successive cultures and empires they created — such as the Aksumite and the Abyssinian — are an inheritance Eritreans share with their symbiotic neighbors to the south, Ethiopians.
Eritreans and Ethiopians share many elements of a common history and culture, including the Christian faith and how it is expressed culturally. The vast majority of Christians in both countries share in the ancient traditions of the church as first developed in Alexandria, Egypt, and nurtured over the centuries in Abyssinia by monks and scribes and emperors. Employing the Ge’ez language, steeped in the traditions of the early church, and faithful to indigenous narratives as bulwarks against the influence of European Christianity, Eritrean and Ethiopian Christians are, for the most part, members of the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, which also includes the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic and Syriac Orthodox churches.
Catholics are few, but they make up a disproportionately influential community in both countries. Until a year ago, they formed one church, centered in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa with jurisdictions in Eritrea and Ethiopia celebrating the sacraments in both the Ge’ez and Latin rites. However, last January, the bishop of Rome, Francis, erected a new Catholic Eastern church centered in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.
The Eritrean Catholic Church is now a sui iuris (meaning “of its own right”) metropolitan church and is subject directly to the Holy See. The seat of the metropolitan archbishop is Asmara and includes the eparchies of Barentu, Keren and Seghenity, all of which utilize the ancient Ge’ez rites and traditions, although a few communities continue to use the Latin rite.
Metropolitan Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam, M.C.C.J., leads an estimated 160,000 Eritrean Catholics, and includes a large number of men and women religious who administrate schools, child care facilities and other social service initiatives.
This concludes CNEWA’s series of summaries of the Eastern churches — which may be accessed always from the icon on the blog homepage titled, “Spotlight on the Eastern Churches.” We hope you found this series, which includes links to the more detailed series written for ONE magazine, useful and enlightening.
21 January 2016
Tags: Eastern Churches Eritrea Eastern Catholic Churches Eritrean Catholic Church
Parishioners of Holy Family Chaldean Mission in Phoenix, Arizona, pray during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. (photo: Nancy Wiechec)
Read more about the settling of Iraqi Christians in the American Southwest in ONE magazine’s winter edition.
21 January 2016
Girls rest after drawing water from a pump built by the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat of the Eparchy of Adigrat near the village of Mawo. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Caritas warns about threat of famine in Ethiopia (Vatican Radio) The Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, Michel Roy, says the drought in Ethiopia and resulting food shortages means that the nation could slide into a famine situation later this year unless prompt action is taken to tackle this shortfall...
No one is excluded from the mercy of God, pope says at audience (CNS) The pope said that although divisions are often caused by selfishness, the common baptism shared by Christians is an experience of being “called from the merciless and alienating darkness” to an encounter with God who is “full of mercy...”
Lebanon’s Christian foes become friends (Al-Monitor) The meeting 18 January between the leaders of the two largest Christian parties and parliamentary blocs in Lebanon — Gen. Michel Aoun, former leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and the Change and Reform bloc, and Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces — can be described as a miracle...
Vocations bloom in the desert: two priests are ordained in United Arab Emirates (CNA) Last week Catholics in Southern Arabia gathered in Abu Dhabi to celebrate the ordination of two Capuchin Franciscan priests by Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia...
Armine Sahakyan: The double-edged sword of Russia’s build-up in Armenia (KyivPost) The Russians are rapidly building up their two military bases in Armenia — and cranking up their PR machine to make sure everyone in the region knows take notice...
20 January 2016
Before the advent of ISIS, northern Iraq’s minorities were reasonably secure in celebrating their heritage. Here, circa 2010, Christian faithful gather around a fire during a Christmas celebration in Qaraqosh. In the 1970’s, Iraq’s Baathist government had renamed the Assyro-Chaldean city Hamdaniya. Check out an account of the Nineveh Plain’s Christians from the November 2011 edition of ONE. (photo: STRINGER/IRAQ/Reuters/Corbis)
Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians ISIS