11 October 2017
A young woman at the Father Roberts Institute greets a visitor. (photo: Don Duncan)
During my recent reporting in Lebanon, where I looked at Catholic institutions caring for people with specific challenges in their lives — from deaf children to the mentally ill, to those struggling to end addiction, to those confined to geriatric wards — the question of the role of faith kept coming up.
What became clear very soon to me as I undertook my interviews was that not only is faith a very strong part of many of these people’s lives but, in many cases, the specific challenges they faces has led to a deepening of their faith.
It led me to reflect on the role God plays in everyone’s life, especially during moments of trial. As a child, I learned from the Bible that God never forgets us and that he is with us, by our side, even when we have forgotten him. As I have grown older and my faith has evolved, this notion has been of much comfort to me in my more difficult moments.
However, many of the people I interviewed for this article, face daily hardships to a degree I cannot probably even conceive of.
Some of the adults whom I met at the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross, in the Beirut suburb of Jal al Dib, suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bi-polarity that have caused them to be removed from their families and communities.
Many of the deaf children I met at the Father Roberts Institute for the Deaf (some 40 minutes up the mountains from Beirut) face social stigma surrounding the hard-of-hearing. What’s more, many of these children are now on the cusp of puberty and they will soon have to grapple not only with the huge identity turmoil that is involved in becoming an adult, they will also have to grasp — and eventually accept — that they will become deaf adults.
At Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Antelias (near Beirut), which caters mostly to geriatric patients, many of them face death with few or no family by their side; a good number of them struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or indeed with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
And yet, they told me with a conviction that seemed unflagging, that God is with them every day, that indeed their hardship makes their faith stronger. Alice Khoury, an aging schizophrenic patient in Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill told me: “I love my God. Without my faith I would no longer be here.” God has helped her survive and overcome the challenges of her life.
In an art workshop at the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross, art therapist Mona Esta explained how various patients perceive reality and how they replicate that reality on the canvas, based on their specific psychiatric condition. Schizophrenic patients are unable to reproduce depth and perspective, she tells me. Excessive focus on painting a point or dot within a canvas is a classic artistic trait of a patient with psychosis.
It made me think how these patients — who live with such challenging disabilities yet who have such a deep faith — visualize or imagine God, or the Baby Jesus or even various biblical tableaux such as the pregnant Mary being led to Bethlehem on a donkey by Joseph, the walking of Christ on water, or even the Crucifixion. How might these believers see these biblical figures and events? How does God manifest himself in their imaginations and thus in their lives?
I looked about me at the various finished paintings on the workshop wall. Some were recognizable depictions of objects, people, and landscapes. Others slipped more into abstraction, even cubist renditions of physical reality.
And yet there was a beauty in all of them, and a truth. As I looked around, I could see traces of God and his love, in myriad forms and abstractions, all around the room.
Read more about Reaching the Margins in the September 2017 edition of ONE.
11 October 2017
A priest presides at the liturgy at the Church of the Blessed Nicholas Charnetskoho in Liviv, Ukraine. To learn about some of the millions of Ukrainians who are working to rebuild their lives after a three-year war, read The Displaced in the March 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Ivan Chernichkin)
11 October 2017
In this file photograph, novices of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, part of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India, gather for morning prayer. In a letter, Pope Francis has urged unity among Catholics of different rites in India and authorized creating two new parishes.
(photo: Sean Sprague)
Pope urges unity among rites in India, authorizes creation of two new eparchies (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Tuesday urged for a “fruitful and harmonious cooperation” among the bishops of the three ritual Churches of India, as they reach out to provide pastoral care to their respective faithful, spread out in various parts of the country. “In India itself, overlapping jurisdictions should no longer be problematic, for the Church has experienced them for some time, such as in Kerala,” the Pope wrote in a letter the Indian bishops...
Iraqi women visit monastery after its recapture from ISIS (CNA) Last week 300 women visited a historic monastery near Mosul after its liberation from the Islamic State — a decision their priest said was made in order to show they aren’t afraid, and that Christians in Iraq are there to stay. “We decided to go to San Behnam and Sara monastery because a lot of Christian people are afraid to go to this place, because it is sometimes dangerous,” The Rev. Roni Momika said on 6 October, after returning from the visit. He said the group wanted to go to the monastery “to pray and to tell the world that we are here and we will pray for peace, and we will pray for the soldiers, and we will pray for Christians in all the world...”
Jordan says hosting refugees has cost $10 billion (Arab News) Authorities in Jordan on Tuesday estimated at more than $10 billion the cost of hosting thousands of refugees displaced from Syria since the civil war broke out there in 2011. The UN says that some 650,000 Syrian refugees are currently being housed in Jordan, but the government puts the figure far higher at around 1.3 million people...
Pope Francis reaches a milestone: 40 million Twitter followers (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis’ Twitter account — @pontifex — has reached a milestone: 40 million followers in 9 languages. The figure is significant not only in itself, but in what it represents for the Holy Father, himself, who, like his predecessor, desires to be a Christian witness among many on the “Digital Continent,” especially through social media...
10 October 2017
Churches work to meet the needs of displaced families in Ain Kawa, near Erbil.
(photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
In the current edition of ONE, CNEWA’s president Msgr. John E. Kozar reflects on the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East right now, and the extraordinary work CNEWA is able to do, thanks to the generosity of our donors. He writes:
What a humbling experience for me during my many pastoral visits in the Middle East, when I see firsthand the courageous acts of love and mercy carried out by a dwindling family of Christians — those who are victimized, those who are hungry, those who suffer — for all, Christian or not. Their faith in our Lord is overpowering. Whatever we can do to assist them pales in comparison to their sacrifices. We are honored to accompany them.
Do the good works of the church make a difference and bring us closer to peace in the Middle East? Absolutely and positively. It does not matter how many Christians remain, because Christ is present in each one of them. They share Christ with all, including those of different faith traditions and even with the oppressor and the persecutor.
Read more and see more of his images here. And watch the video below, where he talks at length about the faith and fervor of the people we are privileged to serve.
10 October 2017
Chaldean bishops met with Pope Francis at the Vatican last week. (photo: Asia News)
Chaldean bishops express ‘solidarity and pride’ (AsiaNews) In a “critical and difficult” time for Iraq, the Chaldean Church expresses “appreciation” for the role played by the armed forces in the fight against the “terrorists” of the Islamic State (ISIS) and renews its call to “dialogue” to overcome the “crisis” between Erbil and Baghdad following the referendum on independence. This is what the Chaldean patriarchate underlines in a statement published at the end of the Synod, which was held in Rome from October 4 to 8. In the text, the leaders of the Iraqi Church also expressed the “solidarity and pride” of the Christian community, which has been able to keep the “faith” alive...
A journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital, Raqqa (The Guardian) After months of brutal fighting, the battle to retake Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State caliphate, is almost over. Scroll down to follow photographer Achilleas Zavallis and reporter Martin Chulov as they journey from the Iraqi border to the wasteland of the frontline of the ancient Syrian city where the few remaining Isis fighters are making their last stand...
Libyan authorities recover bodies of Copts beheaded in 2015 (AP) Libyan authorities have recovered the bodies of 21 Coptic Christian workers, mostly Egyptians, who in 2015 were beheaded on a beach in the coastal city of Sirte by Islamic State militants, according to a statement issued Saturday by a government-linked anti-ISIS group...
ISIS fighters surrender en masse (The New York Times) The prisoners were taken to a waiting room in groups of four, and were told to stand facing the concrete wall, their noses almost touching it, their hands bound behind their backs. More than a thousand prisoners determined to be Islamic State fighters passed through that room last week after they fled their crumbling Iraqi stronghold of Hawija. Instead of the martyrdom they had boasted was their only acceptable fate, they had voluntarily ended up here in the interrogation center of the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq...
Indian bishops denounce burning of flag, Hindu deity (UCANews.com) Indian Catholic bishops have denounced youths who burned the national flag and an image of a Hindu deity in Mizoram state, northeast India. “Those who have committed these acts cannot and should not profess to be Christians,” the Indian bishops’ conference said in a 6 October media release signed by secretary general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas...
6 October 2017
Tags: India Iraq ISIS Copts Chaldeans
Bahnam Matti removes rubble from a former clothing store in Qaraqosh. While some displaced Christians are returning to their homes, the recent referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan could have a significant impact. (photo: Raed Rafei)
As Iraq and the world cope with the results of last week’s referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan — in which an overwhelming 92 percent of ballots cast in the semiautonomous province of Iraq voted for secession — we are seeing firsthand how those results could impact Iraq’s Christians, many of whom hailed from the nation’s Nineveh Plain. When ISIS invaded northern Iraq in July 2014, tens of thousands fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Many hoped they would eventually return to their homes.
But now that is increasingly in doubt.
Michel Constantin and Ra’ed Bahou — who direct CNEWA’s offices in Beirut and Amman, respectively — spoke of the challenges Iraqi Christians face in this suddenly changed political environment. Both are visiting New York for an annual planning meeting of CNEWA’s directors.
“I would say the real problem now is the Christians have very few choices,” said Mr. Constantin, “and all the choices are bad.”
Mr. Constantin explained that since the election, roads have been severed between Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Qaraqosh, the main Christian enclave in northern Iraq. Airports in both areas have been closed. All neighboring countries, with the exception of Syria, are working to isolate Iraqi Kurdistan, he said.
“What will happen?” he asked. “Nobody knows.”
He visited Erbil just a few weeks ago and says about 2,000 Iraqi Christians there were preparing to return to Qaraqosh. But the election has upended everything. Husbands and fathers who had returned to the Christian villages to begin rebuilding their homes in anticipation of a restored life now find themselves separated from their families left behind in Iraqi Kurdistan because of the closed roads.
Adding to the problems are serious economic pressures.
“People want to go back to Qaraqosh for one reason,” Mr. Constantin said: “work.” Most breadwinners, he added, are public workers employed by the Iraqi government in Baghdad, which has stated that if they don’t leave Erbil and go back to their regular jobs, they will lose their salaries.
The situation for organizations such as CNEWA has become more challenging as well, said Mr. Bahou.
“It will be much more difficult to send money to Erbil,” he said. “Organizations just can’t work as before.”
And Christians face uncertainty of what life will be like if and when they return to their homes. Some who return find themselves surrounded by non-Christians who were hostile toward them three years ago; Iraqi Christians now have to depend on them for labor to help rebuild their homes, and many of these neighbors are charging exorbitant prices. These circumstances contribute to widespread mistrust and even fear.
“I’m afraid Christians will just go back to their villages, sell the properties, and emigrate for good,” said Mr. Constantin. “Their neighbors will take advantage of them and make them sell their homes for peanuts. They are helpless. The government is pressuring them — their livelihood, their salaries. They are endangering their lives. They have no security. There is nothing to do.”
However, he said the local church can help by working to support the community at the individual level and to encourage the government to pledge funds for reconstruction. “The church must be united,” Mr. Constantin said, and should urge the patriarchs to work together on behalf of the people.
Otherwise, “many will leave the country, permanently,” said Mr. Bahou. “And the only place they can really go now is Jordan.”
This is a theme Pope Francis himself echoed yesterday when he met with Chaldean bishops from Iraq.
“This is an occasion for me,” the pope said, “to send my greetings to the sorely tested faithful of the beloved Iraqi nation ... in regions and cities that were subjected to painful and violent oppression.” While a tragic page of history has been concluded, he said, there remains much to do.
“I exhort you to work tirelessly as builders of unity,” he said.
Hard Choices for Iraqi Christians
‘God Is With Us and Will Not Leave Us’
6 October 2017
A Franciscan sister of the Cross guides a patient through Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Lebanon. Read more about how the church is Reaching the Margins in the September 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Don Duncan)
6 October 2017
Iraqi civilians make their way through endangered areas filled with mines and bombs on 4 October, as the Iraqi army presses into the northern town of Hawija. On Thursday, Iraq’s prime minister announced the forces had driven ISIS out of the town. (photo: Andalou Agency/Getty Images)
Fighters linked to Al Quaida launch new attack in Syria (AP) Al-Qaida-linked fighters on Friday attacked a key central Syrian village at the crossroads between areas under government control and those controlled by insurgent groups, opposition activists said. In eastern Syria, meanwhile, 15 civilians, including children, were killed when a missile slammed into a government-held neighborhood in the city of Deir el-Zour on Thursday evening...
Iraq says it has taken one of the last ISIS strongholds (AP) Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Thursday that Iraqi forces have driven the Islamic State group from one of the extremists’ last strongholds in the country, the northern town of Hawija...
World Council of Churches plans to work for peace in Ethiopia border dispute (AfricanNews.com) The World Council of Churches (WCC) has said it will pray and work for peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia in an attempt to partake in the resolution of a longstanding border dispute. This was disclosed by a WCC delegation that visited the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church last month in what was labeled a historic visit by the body. It was the first time in over a decade that such a visit had been executed...
Indian president challenged on religious persecution (Premier.org) As the 14th EU-India summit starts, the religious freedom group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have asked EU leaders not to “turn a blind eye” to the oppression and torture in India of religious people. The situation for religious citizens has worsened under the current government. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has been accused of inciting hatred and riots against Christians and other faith groups and are the political arm of the nationalistic Hindutva (“Hinduness”) movement...
Putin takes aim at Russia’s abortion culture (Foreign Policy) Russia’s anti-abortion movement has gathered momentum in recent months, as activists — usually devout members of the influential Russian Orthodox Church — have started seizing on the country’s demographic crisis as an urgent reason for banning the practice...
In Gaza, Hamas levels an ancient treasure (AP) Palestinian and French archaeologists began excavating Gaza’s earliest archaeological site nearly 20 years ago, unearthing what they believe is a rare 4,500-year-old Bronze Age settlement. But over protests that grew recently, Gaza’s Hamas rulers have systematically destroyed the work since seizing power a decade ago, allowing the flattening of this hill on the southern tip of Gaza City to make way for construction projects, and later military bases. In its newest project, Hamas-supported bulldozers are flattening the last remnants of excavation...
5 October 2017
This statue of St. Francis of Assisi stands outside Assisi’s basilica and shows Francis returning from the battlefield — obedient to God but a disgrace to his fellow citizens. It is emblematic of the saint’s profound commitment to non-violence in imitation of Christ. (photo: Elias D. Mallon)
On 4 October Christians around the world remember Giovanni di Bernadone — the earliest saint I know of with a last name.
But countless people know him better by his nickname, Francesco, and his home town, Assisi.
Francis of Assisi was born in 1182 and died on 3 October 1226. He is arguably the best known, most beloved and most frequently portrayed of any saint in the Catholic Church.
Francis is known and admired for many things, his love for nature being high on the list. But he also merits attention for a quality many easily overlook: he was profoundly committed to non-violence in imitation of Christ. This is more radical than it may sound. Francis lived in violent times and for a while was a knight — a warrior for his home town in the never-ending battles with the Umbrian villages surrounding Assisi. God revealed to him in a dream that he was to leave the battlefield — a disgrace for a knight — and follow a path of non-violence. A marvelous statue in front the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi portrays that pivotal event: Francis returning from the battlefield, obedient to God but in disgrace to his fellow citizens.
The world in which Francis lived was the world of the Crusades. Pope Urban II had called for the First Crusade on 17 November 1095, slightly less than ninety years before Francis was born. There were several different crusader expeditions until they came to an end in 1291. The Crusaders were a mixed lot, composed of high-minded idealists and low-minded soldiers of fortune. When Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders in 1099, there was a horrible massacre of Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians.
The time of Francis was not a time of dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Nonetheless, some extraordinary people did some extraordinary things. Pope Gregory VII (1020-1085), for example, wrote a letter to al-Nasir, a Muslim governor in North Africa. The tone of the letter is remarkable and ends with Pope Gregory saying he “prays from (his) heart that God may receive you, after a long stay here below, into the bosom of ... Abraham.”
Another extraordinary gesture was one by Francis of Assisi himself He accompanied the soldiers of the Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) and went to Damietta in Egypt in 1219. While living in the Crusader battle camp, Francis was shocked by the un-Christian life of the Crusaders. He took it upon himself to visit Sultan Malik al-Kamil, the local governor and leader of the Muslim troops. The sultan was an open man and in times of peace had encouraged encounters between Christians and Muslims. This, however, was no time of peace. His meeting with Francis, then, was truly out of the ordinary.
Though little is known in detail about the encounter between Francis and Malik al-Kamil — and there is no first-hand report — a Google search will show that it has generated a cottage industry of books and stories. However, even stripping it down to its barest essentials, the meeting remains a high point in Catholic history. We know that Francis chose dialogue over violence and respect over hatred.
It was an act of tremendous faith and courage for Francis, the poor man of Assisi, to visit the sophisticated and cultured sultan. At least initially the sultan must have found him very odd and perhaps even a bit insane. Despite the legends, we have no idea what they talked about. However, we do know that Francis returned alive — no small accomplishment — and with gifts from the sultan.
In all its bare-boned simplicity, this act of respect and non-violence — exemplifying beautifully the Gospel teaching of loving one’s enemy — would not be repeated to Muslims or vice versa for centuries.
It was an event that clearly had a profound impact on the future saint. After meeting the sultan, Francis showed little enthusiasm for the Crusades; in fact, he spoke to the brothers of his admiration for the Muslim’s dedication to prayer. The encounter, it seems, made a lasting and positive impression on him.
Perhaps that is part of the uniqueness of Francis — a medieval man who speaks to us today in a way that is compelling and surprisingly contemporary.
5 October 2017
For residents of Smakieh, Jordan — both young and old — their parish lies at the center of social life. Read how CNEWA is trying to preserve an ancient way of life among Jordan’s Christian Shepherds in the September 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Nader Daoud)