28 January 2016
Muslim leaders gather in Marrakesh, Morocco to discuss the rights of religious minorities
in Muslim countries. (photo: Twitter)
Some three hundred Muslim scholars met this past week in Marrakesh, Morocco, at the invitation of King Mohammed VI to discuss the situation of (religious) minorities in “Muslim Majority Communities.” The kings of Morocco and Jordan are well known for their efforts to promote respect for human right in Muslim countries.
The religious leaders and scholars gathered in Marrakesh issued a “Declaration on the Rights of Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities.” The English form of the Declaration is an “Executive Summary” and is shorter than the Arabic text. (You can read it here.)
The Executive Summary — claiming its theoretical and theological base on the “Constitution/Charter of Medina” (622) in which the Prophet Muhammad guaranteed the rights of non-Muslims in Medina — speaks of “principles of constitutional contractual citizenship.” The group calls for cooperation built on “A Common Word between Us and You,” an extremely important “letter” of a wide variety of Muslims to Christians around the world which was published 13 October 2007. Signed by over 120 Muslim leaders, that letter called for overcoming conflicts and promoting better cooperation between Muslims and Christians. The Marrakesh Declaration concretely calls for Muslim countries to “go beyond mutual tolerance and respect, to providing full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups...”
Perhaps more importantly — and providing the real challenge — the Declaration calls for Muslim scholars the world over to “develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups.” This is significant because Christian leaders in the Middle East since the so-called Arab Spring have been stressing the importance of citizenship, which is a relatively new concept in Islamic Law.
The Declaration merits closer study of the original Arabic text. It would also be important to see the list of signers, if such exists.
Nevertheless, especially in the context of “A Common Word between Us and You,” even the Executive Summary of Marrakesh Decaration is an important development in the attempts of Muslims to respond to the crisis of extremism in Islam. One can only hope that those who ask “Why aren’t they speaking out again terrorism?” will have the opportunity to read this text.
28 January 2016
The New York Times this week posted this brief documentary, created by a 17-year-old Syrian girl named Khaldiya, who lives with her family in a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. It’s part of an ongoing series in the Times (called “Op-Docs”) produced by independent filmmakers who have received support from the nonprofit Sundance Institute.
In the Times, Khaldiya writes:
When I arrived at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan three years ago, I was overwhelmed. My family left our village in the region of Syria where the revolution began, after the area was bombed. My mother and six younger siblings and I suddenly became eight of the world’s 4.5 million Syrian refugees, and we have been living with 80,000 of them in our camp ever since.
Life in a refugee camp was different from what I’d expected. While it is hard in many ways, it has challenged me to be stronger and more independent. Now I am sharing my experiences in this Op-Doc video, which I made through a media workshop at an activity center in the camp in 2014, working with a visiting filmmaker to film as much of my life as I could.
Watch her video, which is called “Another Kind of Girl,” below.
28 January 2016
A seminarian reads the Bible with a young scholar visiting the Uzhorod Greek Catholic Theological Academy of the Blessed Theodore Romzha in Ukraine. To learn more about how seminarians are helping revive the faith in Ukraine, read Out From Underground in the Autumn 2015
edition of ONE. (photo: Oleg Grigoryev)
28 January 2016
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, speaks alongside Sheik Abdallah Bin Bayyah during the Marrakesh conference on the rights of religious minorities in the Muslim world, in Morocco, on 27 January. (photo: CNS/Azure Agency)
Muslim leaders reiterate support for minority rights (CNS) Muslim leaders from around the world adopted a declaration defending the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries. Participants said the Marrakesh Declaration, developed during a 25-27 January conference, was based on the Medina Charter, a constitutional contract between the Prophet Muhammad and the people of Medina. The declaration said the charter, instituted 1,400 years ago, guaranteed the religious liberty of all, regardless of faith...
General warns Mosul dam could collapse (The New York Times) The top U.S. general in Iraq warned Thursday of the potential collapse of Mosul Dam in the country’s north, saying that such an event could prove “catastrophic.” The U.S.-led coalition is still determining the likelihood the hydroelectric dam could collapse but has developed a contingency plan alongside the Iraqi government, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland said Thursday...
Russian Orthodox Church denies rumors of planned meeting between pope and patriarch (Interfax) The assumptions about a possible meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in a Latin American country this February are baseless, the Synodal Department for External Church Relations told Interfax-Religion...
Kerala bishops to meet political and social leaders (Fides) To understand the perspectives and ideas of the various political parties and civil society organizations, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council will hold a series of meetings with various stakeholders in the political and social life of Kerala, ahead of the Assembly elections likely to be held in April...
Excavations uncover fifth century church (Fides) Archaeological excavations in the underground city discovered in 2012 in the city of Nevsehir, in the historical region of Cappadocia, have brought to light an underground church carved into the rock that could date back to the fifth century AD, with frescoes in good condition that are generating excitement among experts and historians...
27 January 2016
Mardin’s co-mayor, Februniye Akyol, represents the new face of Christian political representation in southeast Turkey. (photo: Don Duncan)
In the Winter edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan profiles Syriac Christians “Coming Home” to Turkey. Below, he offers some additional reflections on the political situation in the region.
Thoughts of politics kept coming to my mind when I was reporting this story about the current state of Christian life in the Tur Abdin region of southeast Turkey.
Through the numerous interviews I conducted with members of the community for the article, I realized that, although the community in Tur Abdin today is small, at just 3,500, it nonetheless represents a variety of stances with regards to political participation and its uses.
By and large, there seems to be two main schools of thought in the community.
The first school seeks to keep a low profile, attempting to gain more freedoms without much political agitation. These people, an old guard of sorts, tend to look back, recall past atrocities, and reminisce about the time when Christians ruled Tur Abdin.
The second school, which is a kind of new guard in the community, is one that is a little bolder. It believes that that rights are not granted but rather taken, through overt political engagement with the system and through political agitation.
It is in this second school of political thought where one finds the new faces of Christian political representation, like Mardin’s co-mayor Februniye Akyol. These new faces are attaining representation under the broader political current of the Kurdish movement for democratic change, itself a product of the 1999 ceasefire between the illegal militant Kurdish group, the PKK, and the Turkish state.
Regardless of their different approaches to progress, the reality is that both political schools in Tur Abdin’s Christian community currently face the fact that they are numerically insignificant — both in southeast Turkey and in the country as a whole.
Unlike the days prior to the 1915 genocide, when Christians’ numbers meant they could formulate and apply political will directly within the regional and national context, today their small number means they must always work via a more powerful proxy.
The evolution of Kurdish politics (from armed insurrection to pro-minority political engagement) over recent years has produced a window of opportunity through which Christians can push for and attain more rights as a minority.
However, the Christians and their hope lie on unstable ground and they have no control over factors that can change the playing field.
That ground is being shaken even now. The ceasefire between the Turkish state and the PKK crumbled last July and hostilities between the two players have flared. This may well cause the Kurdish political ethos to swing back from democratic participation to the stance of armed conflict it had prior to the 1999 ceasefire.
If this happens, the political window of opportunity that the Tur Abdin Christians have recently found and exploited will snap shut and they will find themselves in political obscurity once again.
But for now, the low-key, pacifist and non-confrontational approach of the old guard in the Tur Abdin Christian community will not be without worth — making slow and silent progress in attaining new rights and privileges for its community.
Read more about Christians returning to Turkey in “Coming Home” in the Winter 2015 edition of ONE. And to get a sense of life in their homeland, and how they are adapting, check out the video below.
27 January 2016
Sister Jincy Paul helps students during an art class at Ashabhavan, the “House of Hope” in Kerala. To learn just how this house is bringing hope to children with developmental disabilities, read this inspiring account in the Winter 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: Jose Jacob)
27 January 2016
Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican
on 27 January. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope issues appeal for Middle East Christians (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis made a special appeal for suffering Christians in the Middle East on Wednesday, during the course of his weekly General Audience in St. Peter’s Square. “God does not remain silent before the suffering and cries of His children,” he said, “nor does He remain silent before injustice and persecution: He rather intervenes and gives, by His mercy, rescue and salvation...”
Vatican expresses hope for peace talks (Vatican Radio) The need for “substantive” and “sustained” peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians and the conviction that this week’s peace negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland are the “best chance the International Community has to bring a stable and lasting peace to Syria and to the region:” those are the key points made by a top Vatican diplomat in an address Tuesday at the United Nations Security Council Open Debate on the situation in the Middle East...
Russian pressure forces historic meeting to move to Crete (RNS) The first major council of the world’s Eastern Orthodox churches in over 1,200 years will take place in Crete after the influential Russian Orthodox Church said political tensions between Moscow and Ankara ruled out holding it in Turkey. The compromise, reached at a preparatory meeting held outside Geneva, means the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church will not take place as planned in Hagia Irene, a church-turned-museum in Istanbul where the Council of Constantinople confirmed the Nicene Creed in 381...
Activists: Hundreds vanishing in Egypt (The New York Times) After the security forces raided the home of Islam Khalil, a 26-year-old salesman, last summer, he seemed to vanish without a trace. Mr. Khalil, who lives about 50 miles north of Cairo in El Santa, Egypt, had not been formally arrested, so his family could not determine where he was being held, or by whom. His relatives, who said he did not have access to a lawyer, worried that he was dead. When Mr. Khalil finally emerged, four months later, at a police station in the port city of Alexandria, Egypt, he looked dirty and emaciated, according to his brother Nour...
Gaza residents complain of underground digging (Jerusalem Post) Residents of various Israeli communities along the southern border of the Gaza Strip have renewed complaints of reverberating, underground drilling sounds possibly linked to the construction of infiltration tunnels by Palestinian terrorists, Channel 10 reported Tuesday night. The residents told the Israeli news channel that at first they believed the middle of the night excavation sounds were caused by rain storms that hit the country earlier this week, however when the sounds desisted at 4 a.m. they realized their source was not the precipitation...
First “Atlas of America’s Orthodox Christian Monastaries” to be published next month (OCA.org) The first-ever Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Monasteries will make its debut in February 2016. Edited by Alexei Krindatch, Research Coordinator for the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA, the 150-page volume is available on-line for $19.95 from Greek Archdiocese Holy Cross Bookstore. Drawing on his extensive research, as well as fascinating stories and “insider” anecdotes, Mr. Krindatch offers readers a scholarly introduction into traditions of Eastern Christian monasticism and a history of Orthodox monasteries in America...
26 January 2016
Tags: Egypt Pope Francis Gaza Strip/West Bank Russian Orthodox
Orthodox Metropolitan Gennadios of Italy, Pope Francis and Anglican Archbishop David Moxon, the archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Vatican, give a blessing at the end of a prayer service at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on 25 January. The service concluded the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Read more about the service here.
(photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring)
26 January 2016
Pope Francis shakes hands with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran at the start of their private audience in the Vatican on 26 January. (photo: Vatican Radio/ANSA)
Pope meets Iranian President Rouhani (Vatican Radio) Today, in the Vatican Apostolic Palace, the Holy Father Francis received in audience His Excellency Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who subsequently met with His Eminence Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, accompanied by His Excellency Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary for Relations with States. During the cordial discussions, common spiritual values emerged and reference was made to the good state of relations between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the life of the Church in the country and the action of the Holy See to favour the promotion of the dignity of the human person and religious freedom...
Pope asks mercy, pardon for ways Christians have harmed one another (CNS) After walking across the threshold of the Holy Door with an Orthodox metropolitan and an Anglican archbishop, Pope Francis invoked God’s mercy upon divided Christians and apologized for times that Catholics may have hurt members of other denominations. “As bishop of Rome and pastor of the Catholic Church, I want to beg for mercy and forgiveness for un-Gospel-like behavior on the part of Catholics against Christians of other churches,” the pope said 25 January at a prayer service concluding the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity...
Archbishop: Syria peace talks must remember Christians (Vatican Radio) The Vatican representative to the United Nations agencies in Geneva said on Tuesday the “needs of Christians” and other religious minorities must be “taken into serious consideration” at UN-sponsored talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war...
Chaldean patriarch: “evil hand” has brought chaos in the Middle East (Fides) In a speech prepared for the conference on the rights of religious minorities in the Muslim world, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, Louis Raphael I, outlined the underlying causes of the conflicts that are tearing apart his country and the entire region. “It seems that the evil hand has put in place all that was planned to change the situation,” he said, causing untold suffering to the peoples of the Middle East. And “it is no secret” that “the intervention of external ‘players’ who acted according to their own ambitions in the region was crucial.” They are the ones who “have used democracy and freedom as a cover to rob our natural resources, peace and freedom, and they have created chaos and terrorism in Iraq and the Middle East”...
“Ecumenism of blood” for persecuted Christians (Catholic Register) We live in a time when ecumenism is driven by martyrdom, preached Cardinal Thomas Collins to a mostly Chaldean gathering at the Chaldean Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in northwest Toronto. “Ecumenism of blood — that is what we are experiencing now in these days of persecution,” said Collins. Though persecution of Christians is most visibly associated with the Middle East, Christians in Africa, India and many other places have been targeted and killed, said Collins. The cardinal singled out the 21 Egyptian Coptic migrants who were beheaded by Islamic State terrorists in Libya last February...
Dialogue between the Church and Hindu fanatics? (Fides) The news relaunched by some newspapers that the Hindu nationalist group “Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh” intends to initiate dialogue with the Catholic Church and Christian groups has created an intense debate in India. According to information circulating, Indresh Kumar, member of the National Council of the RSS, said he wanted to “build bridges of good will with minority communities,” such as Christians and Muslims in India...
25 January 2016
Tags: Syria India Pope Francis Chaldeans Iran
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.