12 October 2017
Sheikh Ahmen al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the oldest Muslim university in the world, greets Pope Francis during the pontiff’s visit to Egypt in May 2017. A decade after the landmark document, “A Common Word,” efforts at improving relations between Muslims and Christians continue.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Ten years ago, on 13 October 2007 a document entitled “A Common Word” was signed and published by a group of 138 Muslim scholars. Its name was taken from the Quran 3:65 and it appeared three years before the so-called “Arab Spring,” four years before the beginning of the civil war in Syria and seven years before ISIS declared the restoration of the caliphate. Since its publication, governments have fallen in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, a war has started in Yemen and almost a half million Syrians have been killed in internal violence in the country and millions of people — Christian and Muslim — driven from their homes.
From the outset, “A Common Word” was unique. It is a letter addressed to Christians. It manifests a surprising grasp of the complexity of Christianity and its inner divisions. Using the appropriate ecclesiastical titles, the letter is addressed to the Pope and the Patriarchs of the other four ancient churches — Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. In addition, thirteen other patriarchs, seven major archbishops, including Canterbury, and the leaders of the Lutheran World Federation, World Methodist Council, Baptist World Alliance, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches and “Leaders of Christian Churches everywhere...” are addressed.
Using monotheism as a starting point, the document carefully examines the sacred writings of the Jews, Christians and Muslims to see points of convergence. The methodology used is familiar to theologians in all three traditions.
While the entire document is important, its conclusions were extraordinary — and I might say underestimated — ten years ago and are perhaps more important now than ever. Moving from the level of exegesis to application, the scholars declare:
Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.
Lest anyone think that this is merely a recognition of self-interest and survival, the document stresses the religious component of its argument in a striking way: “...we say that our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.”
What is happening here is that a large and diverse body of Islamic scholars (ulamā) are basically re-evaluating the notion of jihād. In both Muslim and non-Muslim literature jihād is seen as the constant state between the Dar ul-Salām, “the realm of peace,” where Islam and Muslims are in charge, and the Dar ul-Ḥarb, “the realm of war” where they are not.
In Islam, the only legally permitted war is jihād, i.e. extending the realm of peace, i.e. submission (islām) to the one God, to the entire world. Muslim scholars placed numerous conditions and restrictions on conducting jihād, many of which seem enlightened even in the 21st century. However, the very concept of jihād as a permanent state of at very least possible aggression seems foreign — and is understandably disturbing to many, if not all, non-Muslims.
The Muslim scholars in “A Common Word” clearly state that “no side can unilaterally win” this conflict. This is a major new direction in Muslim thinking. No longer is détente between the two “realms” an unfortunate and temporary necessity while waiting for the winds of fortune to change. It is now a required goal to be achieved. The document recognizes that not everyone agrees with this and speaks of “those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them....” The rise of jihadi groups in the last decades, especially but not exclusively ISIS, underlines the importance of this document. The letter offers the beginning of a religious solution to the problem of religious extremism which can be definitively eradicated only by religious means Using the strongest religious language possible, “A Common Word” recognizes that “our very eternal souls are also at stake” in finding a solution to violent, religious extremism.
If the document is extraordinary in its addressees, it is no less extraordinary in its signatories. Originally it was signed by 138 scholars. What might understandably be overlooked by non-Muslims is the amazing variety of the signatories. Islam is divided — sometimes bitterly — between different groups. It is extraordinary that so diverse a group of Muslims could come together at least temporarily to sign this document.
In a world where Christianity in the Middle East is struggling for its very existence, where xenophobia, racism and “Islamophobia” are raising their ugly heads, perhaps the 10th anniversary of “A Common Word” might provide an opportunity to re-envision a new type of dār ul-salām — a “realm of peace” — in which Christians, Muslims and others work together for a world of peace, justice and security.
12 October 2017
Ethiopian young people celebrate the conclusion of a summer religious festival in Adigrat, supported in part by CNEWA. (photo: CNEWA)
Several days ago, we received an inspiring report from our regional office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, describing the success of a summer feeding project, which included a large festival bringing together hundreds of young people.
Tarekegn Umoro, the programs officer in Addis Ababa, writes:
Pointing his finger towards all the youth, who were singing outside the hall in the evening, holding lit candles and waving their hands on the air, [youth minister] Eyob Hailesilassie said, “Look how they are praising the Lord! Do you think that they forget this moments in their lives? They never forget! We are very much satisfied, thanks to CNEWA and to all who supported this summer program.”
You can read the full account here.
12 October 2017
Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Major to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Pontifical Oriental Institute. (photo: Vatican Radio/AFP)
Pope urges Oriental Churches to continue courageous witness (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Thursday celebrated Mass in the Basilica of St Mary Major to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the Congregation for Eastern Churches. In his homily the pope encouraged all Christians of the Oriental Churches to continue with their courageous witness, despite the dramatic persecutions that they suffer...
Syro-Malabar Catholics rejoice in Pope Francis’ recent moves (UCANews.com) In a historic move, Pope Francis has extended the administrative powers of the Syro-Malabar Church across India, removing restrictions imposed since the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century. Announcing the establishment of two new dioceses for the Eastern-rite church in letter to all India bishops, Pope Francis also authorized it to have pastoral powers across India, a move resisted by the majority Latin-rite bishops in the past...
The Christians fighting for freedom in Syria (National Review) The soldiers of the Syriac Military Council sit on a rug in an abandoned home in the urban wreckage of the caliphate’s capital, perhaps 200 yards from ISIS, drinking tea and chain-smoking. The predominantly Christian unit is a small but symbolically important part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have encircled ISIS and are slowly closing in...
Half of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon out of school (Middle East Monitor) Six years after the start of the Syrian crisis half of all Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are still out of school despite efforts by the UN and other parties, All4syria.info reported yesterday. Lebanese sources said that the ministry of education carried out several positive measures to bring Syrian refugee children into schools yet only 52 per cent joined in the 2017-2018 school year. Lebanon’s education ministry could only provide schooling for 250,000 children...
Prayers of the persecuted around the world (The New York Times) Though Monika Bulaj grew up in Communist Poland, she was nonetheless a devoutly Catholic child who studied mystics and dreamed of a life as a cloistered nun. But her teenage discovery that her grandmother’s town was once home to thousands of Jews who perished in the Holocaust set her on a different path: a 30-year journey documenting persecuted religious minorities around the world...
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)