10 March 2014
A boy cries as he stands amid rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Aleppo on 6 March.
(photo: CNS/Hosam Katan, Reuters)
Kidnapped Syrian nuns freed (The New York Times) Syrian insurgents released 13 nuns and three attendants who disappeared three months ago from their monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, Lebanese and Syrian officials said early Monday, ending a drama in which rebels said they were protecting the women from government shelling and Syrian officials said they were abducted in an act of intimidation against Christians. The handoff was infused with suspense until the last moment. Officials said Sunday afternoon that the nuns had crossed the mountainous border to Arsal, a pro-rebel town in Lebanon, to be handed off to Lebanese officials and driven to Syria...
Russia condemns “lawlessness” in Ukraine (CNN) Russia accused far-right groups Monday of “conniving” with the new authorities in Ukraine, as pro-Moscow forces consolidated their hold on their neighbor’s Black Sea peninsula. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned “lawlessness” in eastern Ukraine and accused the West of being silent over violence and detentions taking place against Russian citizens, such as one incident last week when it said masked gunmen fired on and injured peaceful protesters...
Bishop of Aleppo writes: “We Christians live in fear” (The Telegraph) Today, the first Sunday of Lent, will see churches crowded across the globe. But here in Syria, where St Paul found his faith, many churches stand empty, targets for bombardment and desecration. Aleppo, where I have been bishop for 25 years, is devastated. We have become accustomed to the daily dose of death and destruction, but living in such uncertainty and fear exhausts the body and the mind...
Catholicism growing in heart of Muslim world (The Boston Globe) Many Americans have heard or read reports about an exodus of Christians out of the Middle East, and in terms of the indigenous Arab Christian population that’s all too real. Christians now make up only 5 percent of the region’s population, down from 20 percent a century ago. In places like Iraq, whole Christian communities are on the brink of extinction. Yet the Arabian Peninsula today is also, improbably, seeing one of the most dramatic Catholic growth rates anywhere in the world. The expansion is being driven not by Arab converts, but by foreign ex-pats whom the region increasingly relies on for manual labor and domestic service...
Pope and World Council of Churches discuss opportunities for Christian Unity (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis and the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev Olav Fykse Tveit, have discussed “new opportunities for Christian unity today”, focused on working together for peace, justice and environmental protection. At a meeting in the Vatican on Friday, the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the path of “full and visible communion” among Christians of different denominations. They also talked about peace in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula, about economic justice and about an upcoming summit of religious leaders to press for urgent action on climate change...
A visit to Kerala: they don’t call it “God’s own country” for nothing (The Washington Post) As grandiose slogans go, Kerala has one of the best: “God’s Own Country,” they call it, an assertion of divine provenance that’s loudly proclaimed on countless signposts and bumper stickers across the state. In most corners of the planet, such a boast would sound unbearably self-satisfied, tourist-oriented branding at its tritest. But here in this prosperous state on the southwest coast of India, it doesn’t sound smug so much as sincere, precise even. “Rest your eyes on our natural splendor,” it seems to say, “and believe...”
7 March 2014
In this 2011 photo, a girl prays in Santa Maria Church in the Christian village of Deir Azra in the Minya region of Egypt. Coptic women in Egypt are subject to discrimination and legal restrictions on personal and religious freedom. To learn more, read Spotlight: Coptic Women, from the September 2011 issue of ONE. (photo: Holly Pickett)
7 March 2014
Tags: Egypt Copts Women (rights/issues) Egypt's Christians Coptic
In this October photograph, stuffed animals sit atop the coffins of children, lined up alongside coffins of other African migrants who drowned trying to reach Italian shores in Lampedusa, Italy. (photo: CNS/Antonio Parrinello, Reuters)
Eritrea: A humanitarian emergency (Vatican Radio) Vatican Radio held a conference on Thursday, sponsored by the International Organization for Migration, on the plight of Eritreans forced to flee their country. Since 2004 over 200,000 Eritreans — more than 3 percent of the 5.6 million people in the nation — have fled to border camps in Eastern Sudan and also Israel. Thousands have also tried to escape to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean on low-quality or improvised boats, many dying on the journey…
Georgian Orthodox Church committed to securing Georgian E.U. membership (Eurasia Review) Patriarch Ilia II, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, said during a meeting with visiting European Union official that the church “will do everything” to help Georgia become a member state. The patriarch remarked that “incorrect information is disseminated in some countries,” suggesting the church seeks to hinder this process, but dismissed such claims as perhaps being financially motivated…
Iraqi atheists demand recognition, guarantee of their rights (Al Monitor) Atheism might seem a surprising phenomenon in a country such as Iraq, where the degree of interest in religion is very high. Yet there are many in the nation who identify themselves as atheists and who demand that their rights be safeguarded in accordance with U.N. resolutions that guarantee freedom of belief. Surveys have indicated the existence of a growing agnostic movement in the country, which continues to expand at a remarkable pace. Atheism has deep historical roots in Iraq, typically as an elitist phenomenon restricted to intellectuals and scholars, but has in recent times expanded in scope to cross many social boundaries…
The role of the churches in the Ukrainian revolution (ABC News) The churches are playing a decisive role in the Ukrainian revolution. This is apparent from the prominence in Maidan Square of dozens of priests and pastors from different religious confessions who have been there every day for three months, offering to gather ecumenically with the faithful in prayer…
6 March 2014
Tags: Iraq Ukraine Eastern Churches Eritrea Georgian Orthodox Church
A Gaza City woman works a sewing machine in a dressmaking class hosted by the the Near East Council of Churches with support from CNEWA. To learn more about the kinds of vocational training the N.E.C.C. promotes and conducts in Gaza, read Behind the Blockade, from the March 2012 issue of ONE. (photo: Eman Mohammed)
6 March 2014
Tags: CNEWA Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine Education Church
In this photo from 2009, two years before Syria’s civil war, youth in Aleppo participate in a basketball competition hosted by an organization that uses sports to bridge sectarian lines. (photo: Spencer Osberg)
Syrian army to impose blockade in Aleppo (Al Monitor) The Syrian army is launching attacks on Aleppo and its surroundings to try to isolate armed militants, in light of a visit by a Baath delegation to the city. The army has recently intensified its raids on the city’s eastern neighborhoods that are under the grip of the militants, thus leading to the displacement of most citizens to the northern suburbs…
Ukraine: Crimean parliament moves to secede (Al Jazeera) The parliament of Crimea, a, majority-Russian peninsula in Ukraine currently under Russian occupation, has unanimously voted in favor of joining the Russia federation and moved a public referendum on the matter up to 16 March, decisions which the new government in Kiev called illegitimate and illegal…
Ukrainian Orthodox bishop urges Putin to withdraw from Ukraine (RISU) The head of the Lviv Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, Bishop Filaret, sent Vladimir Putin a request to withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine. “My message may seem rude, but today we can no longer speak streamlined phrases, it’s time to act in accordance with the Gospel: ‘But let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no” be “no.” Anything more than this is from the evil one.’ … There are no grounds for Russian soldiers to control the socio-political or any other situations in our country. Peace and a sustainable solution to Ukraine’s crisis are most important for us today,” he said…
One goal in hand, Kiev’s demonstrators vow to stay ‘until the end’ (New York Times) Those who stood up to Ukraine’s ousted authorities trust neither their interim government nor Russia, and many intend to remain in place at least through elections in late spring. Only then will they decide if they are satisfied enough to leave their fighting positions in the capital’s central square…
U.N. envoy cuts short visit to Crimea under threat of armed men (Christian Science Monitor) A special U.N. envoy cut short his mission in Crimea on Wednesday after being threatened by 10-15 armed men and ordered to leave the region, where Ukraine and Russia are locked in a tense standoff, U.N. officials said…
Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kievan Patriarchate creates commission for dialogue (RISU) The Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kievan Patriarchate welcomed the decision of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to enter into dialogue. In this regard, the former expressed its readiness, “on a canonical basis,” to “restore the unity and establish a national status for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine…”
Trial of Al Jazeera reporters resumes in Egypt (BBC) The trial of Al Jazeera journalists accused of joining or aiding a terrorist group has resumed in Egypt. One asked the judge to free him on bail so he could receive medical treatment. In all, 20 people — including former BBC correspondent Peter Greste — are on trial, 12 of them in absentia. Al Jazeera says only nine of the defendants are among its employees…
5 March 2014
Tags: Egypt Ukraine Syrian Civil War Russia Crimea
After fleeing the war in Syria, the Azar family now lives in the village of Al Qaa in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, sharing a one-bedroom home with two other families. To learn more about Syrian refugees in Lebanon, read Crossing the Border, from the Spring 2013 issue of ONE. To view the article with full magazine graphics, click the image. (photo: Tamara Hadi)
5 March 2014
Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees Syrian Civil War War
People attend a prayer service at a church in Kiev, Ukraine, on 23 February. (photo: CNS/David Mdzinarishvili, Reuters)
Hoping to shore up Ukraine government, European Union offers billions in aid (New York Times) The European Union added a significant financial underpinning to the struggling Ukraine government on Wednesday in the midst of the East-West crisis with Russia over Ukraine’s future, offering aid worth as much as $15 billion over the next two years. The offer comes on top of the $1 billion in American loan guarantees to ease Ukraine’s economic transition, announced here on Tuesday by Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit aimed at reassuring the interim Ukraine authorities and challenging Russia, which escalated the crisis last weekend by seizing control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula…
Pro-Russian crowd recaptures Donetsk building (Daily Star Lebanon) A crowd of pro-Russian activists recaptured the regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Wednesday, hours after they were ejected by police. Donetsk has seen the most persistent of a wave of pro-Russian demonstrations that broke out in southern and eastern cities on Saturday as President Vladimir Putin was declaring Russia’s right to invade…
With Ukraine under siege, Georgia and Moldova double down on Europe (Al Jazeera) On 22 February, as Ukraine politicians voted to remove their Kremlin-friendly president, a roaring crowd in another nation took on their Russian foe. The Georgian rugby team defeated the Russian Bears, 36-10, before a near sold-out crowd in their home stadium. During the lap of honor, the Georgian players held up a banner: “Sokhumi and Tskhinvali = Georgia.” It referred to the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which like Transnistria in Moldova and potentially Crimea in Ukraine, are breakaway regions now under de facto Russian control. Russia has long tried to intimidate Georgia and Moldova out of their westward shift; Moldova is currently bleeding from a Kremlin boycott of its wine, and Georgia is still nursing the wounds of its 2008 war. But watching Russian troops move into Ukraine has only steeled the resolve of these two small nations to join Europe as quickly as possible. It has also made Western leaders more committed to making that happen…
Patriarch Twal says pope’s visit will boost the peace process (Fides) The visit Pope Francis will carry out in the Holy Land at the end of May will give a new impetus to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, wrote Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem in a pastoral letter for Lent. “[The pope] will come to confirm our faith, to intensify ecumenical relations and interreligious dialogue and give a new impetus to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, strengthening relations between the Vatican and each of the Countries that he will visit: Jordan, Palestine and Israel…”
Creative Gazans develop new crafts to cope with siege (Al Monitor) In times of crises and hopelessness, people search for the smallest things to make life livable. The intensification of the siege has spawned creativity in the most unlikely of places, as citizens seek outlets in an attempt to adapt to the crisis. Mohammed al Zomar, Hassan Saad and Ahmed al Arouqi each took an idea and defeated despair using light, water and colors…
Christians under threat in Syria (U.S. Department of State) Last week in Raqqa, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant announced it will force Syrian Christians to either convert to Islam, remain Christian and pay a tax, or face death. These outrageous conditions violate universal human rights. The Syrian people have a long history of tolerance and coexistence, but both the regime and ISIL are fueling sectarian strife to justify their brutality. We strongly condemn these abuses and urge all parties to protect and respect the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity, gender or religion…
4 March 2014
Tags: Ukraine Middle East Christians Gaza Strip/West Bank Russia Georgia
Marta Borodayko lights a candle following a prayer service to pray for people in Ukraine on
25 February at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Chicago.
(photo: CNS/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
4 March 2014
Military personnel, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk in formation outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, Ukraine, on 3 March. (photo: CNS/David Mdzinarishvili, Reuters)
Putin calls Ukraine revolt unconstitutional (Associated Press) Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled his forces back from the Ukrainian border on Tuesday yet said Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians there. He accused the West of encouraging an unconstitutional coup in Ukraine and driving it into anarchy. He also declared that any sanctions the West places on Russia will backfire...
Syria has removed a third of its chemical weapons (Reuters) Syria has shipped out about a third of its chemical weapons stockpile, including mustard gas, for destruction abroad, the global chemical arms watchdog said on Tuesday. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague said Damascus had now handed over six consignments of the toxic agents it declared to the OPCW as part of a Russian-U.S. deal struck last year...
Syria begins season of Lent (Fides) In Syria, the Eastern Rite Churches have already begun Lent, the liturgical season during which the Christian, with a journey of conversion, fully lives the mystery of the resurrection of Christ in his annual memory. For the third consecutive year, the beginning of Lent is lived by Syrian Christians in a country torn apart by civil war. “In our parishes” the Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo Boutros Marayati said “we celebrated the beginning of Lent already on Sunday afternoon. There were many faithful and the participation was intense...”
Cardinal defends religious liberty (Vatican Radio) Cardinal Peter Turkson on Tuesday highlighted the importance of religious freedom saying “It is important to preserve and defend religious freedom because it concerns “each person’s freedom to live according to their own deeper understanding of the truth.” Cardinal Turkson, Pesident of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was speaking at a conference entitled “The Church and Human Rights,” taking place in Bratislava, on the initiative of the Slovakian Bishops’ Conference. In his address, Cardinal Turkson said, “freedom of religion is inseparable from freedom of thought and conscience” and includes “the freedom to change one’s religion or belief” and “the freedom to manifest that religion or belief both in private and communally...”
Spanish missionary priest is the only Catholic presence in one region of Ethiopia (Fides) Father Christopher Hartley Sartorios, a 55-year-old Spanish diocesan missionary from Toledo, is the only Catholic priest who has ever reached the Somali region of Ethiopia called Ogaden, where he has been living alone for 7 years in Gode, a territory which is 100% Muslim...
3 March 2014
Msgr. John E. Kozar visits with a patient at the hospital run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal el Dib, Lebanon. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)
During this pastoral visit to Lebanon, Msgr. John Kozar and I have met many graceful people — graceful in the truest sense of the word.
On Friday, we traveled to the Armenian village of Anjar, which lies in the Bekaa Valley some 34 miles from the walls of the Syrian capital of Damascus and just miles to the Syrian frontier. The visit to Anjar entailed a drive along the international highway connecting Beirut to Damascus. Stunning scenery competed with smog and car exhaust. Climbing, twisting and turning gave way to a descent into the Bekaa and a mass of humanity shopping, planting, driving, walking.
Anjar was a welcome relief. A drive lined with palms and young geraniums revealed a well-planned town designed by the French military for Armenian refugees in 1939.
“It feels like Palm Springs!” I told the laughing mayor. But Palm Springs it is not.
Anjar is overwhelmed with Syrian refugees — Armenian Syrians and non-Armenians alike.
Evidently, the neighboring village of Majdel Anjar is a hotbed of Sunni extremists. Reportedly including immediate family members of one participant in the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
CNEWA, through its Beirut office of the Pontifical Mission, has deep roots in Anjar, having provided support to its Catholic school and boarding house for orphaned boys founded by Cardinal Gregory Peter Agagianian (1895-1971), former Armenian Catholic patriarch and prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Today, CNEWA partners with the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Cooperation, a lay group that provides a host of services — especially health care — to the Armenian Community throughout Lebanon, Syria and Armenia.
I felt as if the little oasis, with its clinics, its schools, its churches, its restaurants and its palm trees, was as fragile as the tender leaves sprouting from the fruit trees in its fields.
Just as we were leaving, the pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Armenian Catholic parish, Mekhitarist Father Mesrob Topalian, grabbed my arm and said: “Don’t forget us, Michael, and pray for us — especially for the children.”
As I left, another visitor took my place: the 75-year-old sister who runs the parish school, a resident of Anjar who arrived as a penniless refugee from Turkey at 4 years of age.
I looked back as they waved and offered blessings in French as the bells of the newly dedicated church tolled.
“Life goes on,” I thought, “until passion and ideology and fear and hate appear on the doorstep.”
Our drive back to Beirut was rather quiet.
On Saturday, our team, led by Msgr. Kozar, visited the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross at their hospital in Jal el Dib. Led by Mother Marie Makhlouf, these are tough women doing some of the most thankless work throughout the Middle East.
In this image from 2010, Mother Marie Makhlouf greets a young man in one of centers operated by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal El Dib, Lebanon. (photo: CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
They care for the poorest of the poor: children and adults who are profoundly physically and mentally handicapped, those with mental illnesses, substance abusers and the abandoned.
And they do it with tenderness and compassion. You know it when you see it and when you hear it.
As the sisters took us through their facility that clings to a cliff high above Beirut, beds shook loudly, voices screeched, patients applauded raucously and scores sought their attention.
Things quieted down only when one sister pulled out her rosary, and the elderly and broken men struggling to cope with life and its troubles joined her in praying this familiar Catholic devotion — in Arabic.
Having visited the sisters before, I knew that they have a hard time finding the resources to feed and clothe the 1,000 or so forgotten souls entrusted to them.
But as I pondered this, half listening to the hospital’s rehabilitation therapist, Msgr. Kozar was busy creating commotion from one room to the next. Hugging, laughing, blessing and taking portraits of the patients, he connected with almost every one we visited, focusing on the individuals entrusted to these good sisters and their staff, and the desire of each patient to communicate. The joyful atmosphere roused me from my thoughts.
“Somehow they do it,” I said to myself, and then I thought about Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, especially its final and bloodiest stage in spring 1990, when Christian militia shelled Christian militia and an embargo prevented even bread from getting into the enclave. I asked one sister, “how did you do feed your patients in 1990, when bread did not exist?”
She looked at me over her glasses, and said, “I don’t know how we did it, and I pray we never come to that again.”
And with that she lovingly patted the head of an abandoned boy with autism and cradled him to her side.
Ah, to be this graceful and loving in the face of real adversity and real enemies.
Finally, on Sunday, before spending a lovely afternoon at the home of our regional director, Michel Constantin, his wife Lynn and three children, Peter, Sasha and Mark, we joined Msgr. Kozar in celebrating the Eucharist with the Filipino migrant community in the old church of the Maronite parish of Mar Elias, the largest Catholic parish in the Middle East.
No one knows the true number of Filipinos — almost all of whom are women — living and working throughout the Middle East. “With few job opportunities in the Philippines and families to support, these women come to the Middle East,” we reported in ONE magazine in 2011, “where jobs in the ‘care-giving industry’ are plentiful. Motivated by the promise of comparatively high earnings, most of which they intend on sending home to their families, they often accept without complaint long hours, little personal time or freedom and substandard living accommodations.”
Reporter Nicholas Seeley had also spoken with a local pastor:
“I understood that the first task was to give people a place where they could be at home,” said Jesuit Father Kevin O’Connell, who pastors the large Filipino community in Amman, Jordan. “For these people, just the ongoing, regular liturgy — with Filipino music, with people reading, with them being able to participate in whatever way they want — gives a strand of consistency and continuity. It’s their home. It’s their place. In most cases, there’s no place else they can gather.”
Very much at ease with the Filipino congregation, who spilled outside the doors of the lovely stone church, Msgr. Kozar addressed them directly throughout the liturgy, reminding the women that God hears the prayers of the poor and that “we who are poor always have our God-given dignity.” And he praised them for being a model to the rest of the world in their compassionate response in caring for one another after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the islands last November and killed more than 6,200 people.
Michel and I heard many a sniffle. The Filipinos, as they left Mass, asked Msgr. Kozar to come back next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that!
After the final blessing, as Msgr. Kozar greeted each and every worshiper personally, Michel and I chatted with a young German man, who, with a number of his friends, has committed ten months between high school and college to volunteer with the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross and their hospital in Jal el Dib. Clearly moved by the singing and participation in the liturgy, and the homily directed to the migrant workers, he said that when he returns to Bonn, he will look back on “all of this as if it were a dream.”
I asked him if he was worried that the dream would vanish. He looked at me, showed me the chaplet of St. Charbel he now wears on his right wrist, and said, “I’m now half Lebanese … anything could happen.”
Tags: Lebanon Refugees Syrian Civil War Beirut Maronite