13 June 2012
An Iraqi woman prays at a Chaldean Catholic church in Amman, Jordan, on 15 April. Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to neighboring Jordan following a spate of bombings that targeted churches in Iraqi cities in the past few years. (photo: CNS/Ali Jarekji, Reuters)
With the situation in Syria deteriorating and anxiety growing over the plight of Christians in the Middle East, the National Catholic Register’s Tim Drake spoke recently with someone intimately connected to the region and its people: Bashar Matti Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, in northern Iraq:
Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, there has been a significant reduction in the number of Christians in Iraq. Why is that?
Yes, there’s been a reduction. Christian churches were targeted, Christians were threatened and killed, and many were forced to move elsewhere. There are so many reasons that many felt there was no future for them amidst an immature political process. The political process is based on family and tribal connections. Those in the U.S. look at the situation and wonder what’s going wrong. They say, “They have a constitution; there was an election. Things should be going okay.” What those on the outside don’t realize is that tribal connections are working on the inside. The tribes and parties look out for their own interests. Iraq is a very wealthy country, with a $100-billion budget, and many resources, such as oil. There’s much greed. So, for Christians, there are many reasons for them to leave — and maybe one or two reasons for them to stay.
Where are Christians going? Are there any safe enclaves for Christians in the Mideast?
They have gone to Syria, to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, but all of these are “waiting countries.” People tend not to stay there. Forty-four percent of Iraqi asylum seekers are Christian. They are going to any place that will speed the process of immigration. Other families seek final settlement in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Those who are not able, who are too poor or do not have the means to travel, often move inside the country to places such as Erbil and northern Iraq.
How might the instability in Syria affect Christians there?
It’s precarious. Syria is sensitive because Lebanon would be affected by Syria. It would cause chaos there as well as to the Christian presence in Iraq. When there’s chaos, it is not a good time for minorities.
Do you see post-communist Russia as a possible defender of Christians in the Mideast?
No, primarily because of communism. The Orthodox are very strong in Russia, but, politically speaking, we cannot view them as our defenders.
What are three things you would like American Catholics to know about Catholics in Iraq?
First, that Christianity has had a presence in Iraq for 2,000 years. It’s a very old community. It has not been converted from Islam. We were there before Islam. Our schools were always the best, even from the sixth and seventh centuries. Second, we’ve been through a very difficult time. We are grateful to the many people who have held out a hand of charity and solidarity with us, the various Catholic charities. However, we would like to leave this path of charity for the path of opportunity. Yes, we are a minority, but we have the capability to stay and build a good future for Iraq. Third, I would like to see more of a commitment by the media to raise the awareness of the issues in Iraq to build schools and hospitals. We are not benefitting from the wealth that Iraq has. We need to find ways to stay and build the community. When we leave Iraq, it’s a big loss. When I visited our communities in Detroit, the second and third generations are no longer speaking the language. Our whole culture is gone.
Do you see a peaceful generation coming?
Yes, that’s what we have to work for. The next generation is not following in the footsteps of their parents because they are tired of the mess. So many voices are asking when, for what and why? These courageous questions are helpful.
There’s much more at the Register.
We also spotlighted Christians in Iraq recently in A New Genesis in Nineveh, the cover story of ONE's November 2011 issue.
12 June 2012
Tags: Syria Iraq Iraqi Christians War Emigration
Lettegebriel Hailu and her niece discuss migrating to Israel. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Award–winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE. To read his full report on Ethiopian migrants, see The High Stakes of Leaving in our May 2012 issue.
I witnessed one of the most striking scenes from my reporting on the migration of young Ethiopian women to the Middle East when I interviewed Lettegebriel Hailu and her 16-year-old niece Mebrhit. The teenager was poised, against her family’s wishes, to set off for Israel to work as a domestic servant.
We sat on plush couches and neatly upholstered chairs in the foyer of the domestic abuse shelter that Lettegebriel runs in Addis Ababa. The smoky scent of freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee filled the air. The scene was comfortable, if not the conversation, as Lette translated her young niece’s answers to my questions.
The first part of the interview offered few insights into Mebrhit’s thinking. Like a teenager steeled to get her way, her replies were hushed and to the point. She seemed disinterested in the discussion at hand.
But when I asked Mebrhit about the logistics of traveling to Israel, for the first time she started to open up. And what she had to say must have sent shivers up and down her aunt’s spine.
There are two ways for migrants to leave Ethiopia for the Middle East. They can fly out of Bole International Airport with a legitimate travel visa — for tourism or work abroad — or they can go overland on the “desert route” and cross the border into a neighboring country, usually with the assistance of illegal traffickers. Some head to Djibouti then take a boat to Yemen and eventually make their way to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Others go through Sudan and continue by bus or by foot to their destination country.
If all goes according to plan, they arrive no worse for the adventure. But for even the most discerning and well-traveled migrants, let alone a 16-year-old girl from rural Ethiopia, that is one very big “if.”
According to Mebrhit and her friends who have already braved the passage from Ethiopia to Israel, she will follow her brokers’ instructions — from what to wear and how to behave, to where to go and what to do. She will travel from the Merkato in Addis Ababa to Sudan by bus. She will dress in Muslim attire, covering her face and traveling in slippers. From there, she will cross into Egypt on foot, claim Eritrean nationality and, says Mebrhit, “there’s an obvious place where you go to prison.” In jail, she will make a short telephone call.
Lette interrupts her translation: “She’ll be saying, ‘Send me this amount of money, otherwise I’ll spend the rest of my life in prison.’ Then by hook or crook, we’ll have to get her that money. Once she receives the money, she’ll be let go.”
By that point in the journey, Mebrhit will have memorized her new identity, that of a persecuted Eritrean. Her traffickers will have given her fake Eritrean documents — with a few years added to her age. She will have studied the details of her Eritrean village, the high school she supposedly attended, the names of fictitious family members and concocted stories that demonstrate a youth going nowhere. And on the buses and in jail, she will do deeper background research about life in Eritrea. After her release from prison, she will look to connect with another broker to get her to Israel.
As Lette knows well, the dangers of these overland journeys — not to mention what Mebrhit faces once in the destination country — lurk at every turn. In the desert, migrants are sometimes left miles from the border and told to walk the rest of the way with no food or water. Boats that traverse the Gulf of Aden can be overcrowded, shoddy and at risk of capsizing. Along the way, migrants may be passed from one broker to the next, each ready to exploit and extort the vulnerable migrant in his possession.
Mebrhit is too young to grasp the gravity of these life-altering risks. And Lette is essentially powerless to prevent Mebrhit from taking them. She and her family can only advise Mebrhit and support her in Ethiopia, if not her decision to make this journey.
“She doesn’t know more than we know,” says Lette. “And this is all the information we have. But her mind’s made up. So we’re really stuck.”
Lette and I squirmed in our cushioned chairs, hunting for a more comfortable position. But there was none.
11 June 2012
Tags: Ethiopia Middle East Migrants Women
This October 2009 photograph depicts rain clouds over the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem's Old City that also has significance to Jews and Christians.
(Photo: CNS photo/Darren Whiteside, Reuters)
The exodus of Christians from the Middle East has been garnering a great deal of attention — so we asked sociologist Dr. Bernard Sabella to take a closer look at some of the causes, in a web-exclusive essay for ONE magazine:
The percentage of Christians living in the Holy Land has decreased from 10.7 percent in 1890 to 1.4 percent in 2010. There are three principal explanations for this: First, the local Christian community has a relatively lower population growth compared to the rest of the population; second, the ongoing political conflict and instability; and third, the dire economic and social consequences of a prolonged political stalemate.
Christian families in the Holy Land are relatively small, with an average size of four to five members, compared to Muslim and religious Jewish families, which average one and a half to two times as many children as Christian families. During the decade 2000 to 2010, Christian numbers remained the same because of lower birth rates and the emigration of Christian youth.
The 1948 Arab-Israeli war left its impact on the Holy Land’s indigenous Christian population — 60,000 of its members became refugees (among the total 726,000 refugees) and 30,000 were displaced within the boundaries of the new state of Israel. Thanks to the assistance of the various churches and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, many of the refugees, irrespective of religious background, were able to recover and resume their lives.
If 1947 is taken as the base year, when the Christian population was at 143,000, population experts would expect the figure to have doubled naturally by 1980 and to have reached the mark of 400,000 or more by 2010, assuming a growth rate of 2 percent per year. To the contrary, the present figures indicate the disappearance of six out of every ten Christians since 1948. Some would argue this is strictly due to trends of demographic nature. But in reality, these matters alone do not explain the steadily declining numbers, particularly in the occupied Palestinian Territories.
For more answers, read the rest on our magazine’s website.
11 June 2012
Tags: Palestine Israel Holy Land Christian
Three students pose for a portrait at a Latin Catholic school in Ader, Jordan.
(photo: Tanya Habjouqa)
In the May edition of ONE, journalist Nicholas Seeley visited some of Jordan’s remaining Christian villages and reported on efforts to uphold the faith and adjust to a changing world:
“I have five engineers — boys and girls — out of nine.” He grins proudly as he lists their accomplishments: one works as an agricultural engineer for the army, another teaches in Amman, a third is an engineer in Abu Dhabi. The other children are in high school and college. His wife teaches in Smakieh’s public schools.
“All scientific knowledge has come to us through the church,” says Mr. Hijazine. “We, as Christians, want to be the best in the area.”
For years, he says, people from Smakieh have left to pursue higher education, a choice the local church has always encouraged. “They came back bringing new ideas and information with them,” continues the educator. “They tried to make us understand or to explain to us how the rest of the world was working and changing. So everything came to us either through the church or through the people who came back.”
For more, read A Bridge to Modern Life.
7 June 2012
Tags: Jordan ONE magazine Catholic Schools Bedouin
A sister speaks with a resident of the Maison du Sacre Coeur, a Catholic institution run by the Daughters of Charity that serves the needs of disabled children. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Here at CNEWA, we value the work of religious sisters throughout the regions we serve. Congregations such as the Daughters of Charity in Israel remind us, through their dedication, that the love is in the details. Msgr. John Kozar, CNEWA president, was able to witness their remarkable work firsthand when he visited Israel last December:
From his office we drove to the Maison du Sacre Coeur. This is a cherished Catholic institution that serves the needs of specially challenged children of all ages — even up to their early 20’s. Sister Katherina Fuchs, the Austrian-born Daughter of Charity who directs the facility, welcomed us and introduced us to three other sisters, who came from Lebanon and Spain. This dedicated group of sisters, followers of St. Vincent de Paul, offer tender, loving care to these very special children. I was particularly moved while watching the level of care with which some physical therapists worked, massaging the muscles of these special needs kids. Through a delicate series of respiratory heaves and hos, they were able to extract from them the desired cough that would help to clear their lungs.
Do you want to support the work of sisters like the Daughters of Charity? For the next 60 days, your gift to sisters — for their formation and good works — will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to $50,000 by a generous benefactor of CNEWA.
5 June 2012
Tags: Children Israel Sisters Disabilities Daughters of Charity
In this 1998 photo, a Bedouin shepherd leads his flock out of Smakieh to graze.
(photo: George Martin)
Contributor Nicholas Seeley covers events in the Middle East. To read more about Jordan's Christian villages, see his latest article, A Bridge to Modern Life, appearing in the May 2012 issue of ONE.
The Christian village of Hmoud seems deserted. My translator and I have been told not to expect much; residents of Smakieh, the next village over, have warned us that only a handful of people still live here, many of them elderly. Still, the emptiness of the streets is surprising. It is not abandonment; the tiny cinderblock houses are well kept and the roads are clean, but there is no one in sight.
This is particularly odd because the day is beautiful — it is surprisingly warm for early March, but not baking, and the sky is still scattered with a few puffy clouds, a last hint of the rainy season before the long, dry Jordanian summer begins.
Some villagers may still be in church — Friday morning Divine Liturgies in Jordan are often well attended, since it is the Muslim holiday, and most people have the day off from work — but there are only two cars in the street outside the Orthodox church, and almost none visible in town. Finally, we pass one yard where a family sits on plastic chairs, chatting and soaking in the sun. Finding no one else about, we stop and say hello. We explain that we’re reporters, doing a story about the area’s Christians, and soon we are sitting with them, enjoying the morning sun and learning about the lives of our hosts.
As it happens, this is the family of the local Orthodox priest, Father Sami Halasa: his wife Alice, his son Sameer and his daughter-in-law Fidaa, as well as his adult grandchildren, Lydia and Amer, who have driven in from Amman for this weekend lunch. Right now they’re all waiting for Father Sami to return from the church. As they do, they talk about the history of their family — from the arrival of the Halasa tribe from Egypt centuries before to their success today as doctors and lawyers, government ministers in Jordan and successful professionals who have spread to dozens of countries around the world.
In many ways, this is the story of Jordan’s Christians. We came to Smakieh and Hmoud, the last fully Christian villages in Jordan, expecting to find Bedouin Christians clinging desperately to the remnants of their old traditions and way of life. Instead, we found people whose outlook is particularly cosmopolitan, people who for generations have very explicitly embraced education, travel and commerce as the way to a better life. They hold fast to their Christian identity — not by clinging to the past, but by trying to improve themselves and the world.
At least, most of them do. After perhaps 20 minutes, the Divine Liturgy ends and Father Sami emerges — a solitary, black-clad figure walking slowly down the street from the church. He greets us briefly and steps inside to change. The family, we discern, is about to have lunch. As we begin to excuse ourselves, Father Sami suddenly re-emerges. Now in casual pants and a priest’s collared shirt, he settles into a deck chair and insists on being interviewed.
Advanced in years, Father Sami holds a distinctly traditional point of view. Life in the village was much better in the past, he announces — before all these machines and cars and tractors. The modern world is a corrupting influence, and people are moving away from the faith. Everyone now is obsessed with money and possessions, gradually losing respect for religion; even today, he says, gesturing toward the church, there were only three people at the Divine Liturgy. His family smiles, but there is some tension in the air; they do not all, perhaps, see eye-to-eye on this. Nor would we expect it; here, in this village, in this family, is a microcosm of one of the great struggles consuming faith communities today. Is the modernity of a globalized consumer society a blessing or a curse? How much of it should one embrace, and how far?
Father Sami’s speech ends abruptly. “I’m hungry,” he says. “You must come for lunch.” We try once more to excuse ourselves, but the Halasas won’t have it; we are guests and therefore must be fed — preferably until we cannot stand up.
As a very strict vegetarian, I have difficulties with Arab hospitality; there is little on offer that I can eat and people are often unfamiliar with vegetarian cooking. My visits usually end up being so difficult for everyone that I avoid them. But as we try to explain this problem, Fidaa Halasa smiles at me. It’s Lent, she reminds me, and in Lent, they cook without meat or cheese or eggs. There are no animal products in their Friday lunch. With pleasure, we accept and spend the next hour in their small, homey living room, being stuffed with delicious maqloobeh — a traditional Palestinian dish of rice, cauliflower and eggplant — plus salad, bread and softball-sized fresh oranges. After lunch, Father Sami produces a battered 1980’s vintage radio and sits hunched over it, listening to the news at immense volume while Lydia and Amer talk about their school and Fidaa talks about her family.
For a moment, all questions of modernity and the state of the faith are shelved. This is Arab hospitality, and it is one tradition of the desert and the nomadic life that has never been put aside. Guests must be welcomed, must be given food and water, and it is by this welcome that one is judged.
Some things never change.
4 June 2012
Tags: Middle East Christians Jordan Village life Christian
In this unpublished photo from 2004, a Palestinian mother and child await passage through the Israeli security barrier near the Arab village of Bethany. (photo: Kevin Unger)
In the July 2004 issue of ONE, Marilyn Raschka reported on the then-new wall or security barrier separating Israel and the West Bank erected by the Israeli government:
Making life easy or difficult for the Palestinians trying to cross the wall falls to the discretion of the guards.
A French friend in Bethany called with the warning: “If you come to visit today, you will have to dirty your clothes.”
At the crossing point it was clear what she meant. The guards had obstructed the crossing with huge cement blocks.
No one could say why.
The guards stood on top of the blocks and watched as young males scampered their way up. The women struggled, hoisting themselves and their children, waving their identification cards in their hands, then swinging their legs over and descending to the other side. Everyone got their clothes dirty.
The next day the blocks were gone, as were the guards. People moved freely back and forth as if there were no wall at all.
For more from this story, check out Writing on the Wall. For a more recent look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its impact on the people, check out Living in Limbo from the November 2010 issue of ONE.
In March, Catholic News Service interviewed Joseph Hazboun from our Jerusalem office, who described his family’s life in a divided city.
4 June 2012
Tags: Middle East Palestine Israel West Bank
Archbishop Antonio Franco (center) stands in front of the Jerusalem office of the Pontifical Mission. (photo: CNEWA)
Laura Tarazi works in the Jerusalem office of the Pontifical Mission, CNEWA's operating agency in the Middle East.
On 30 May 2012, the Jerusalem staff of the Pontifical Mission invited Archbishop Antonio Franco, apostolic nuncio in Israel and apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine, to an informal gathering at the Mission’s Jerusalem office. Bidding farewell to his excellency as he prepares for retirement, Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, thanked him for years of cooperation and support for the Pontifical Mission and its work in the Holy Land.
The regional director highlighted several of the projects currently underway, including youth programs, job training initiatives and support for church institutions throughout Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. He also thanked the archbishop for his continuous support for the work of the Pontifical Mission Library and the Ephpheta Institute in Bethlehem, as well as the Near East Council of Churches’ (N.E.C.C.) Mother and Child clinics in the Gaza Strip.
Archbishop Franco, in turn, expressed his sincere gratitude for the the Pontifical Mission’s institutional solidarity with the apostolic delegate and for its historical presence and dedication to the church and its communities of the Holy Land.
The Pontifical Mission staff presented the archbishop with a hand-painted Armenian ceramic piece by a professional artisan from Sandrouni Armenian Art Center, beautifully illustrating Christian holy sites and scenes of Jerusalem.
Sami El-Yousef presents Archbishop Franco with a piece of Armenian ceramic artwork.
30 May 2012
Tags: Palestine Israel Jerusalem Holy Land Pontifical Mission for Palestine
Msgr. John E. Kozar, CNEWA president, Archbishop George Bakhouny and Father Guido Gockel, vice president for the Middle East and Europe, visit with CNEWA staff in New York.
(photo: Erin Edwards)
With the crisis in Syria escalating by the day, a leading religious figure from the region paid us a visit today at our New York office.
He’s Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop George Bakhouny of Tyre, Lebanon, who is making his first visit to the United States. Msgr. John Kozar, CNEWA’s president,met the archbishop during his visit to the Holy Land last year.
The archbishop described the situation in his homeland as “stressful” — the stream of refugees arriving from Syria is becoming a flood—but he repeatedly expressed the hope that a peaceful end to the crisis in Syria can be found. “We don’t want a military solution,” he said. “We want reconciliation.”
He said he sees the church’s role as being a “mediator,” to help facilitate “conversations” between factions.
Before departing, he wanted in a special way to express his gratitude, especially to the benefactors of CNEWA, for their prayers and generous support.
29 May 2012
Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees Melkite Greek Catholic Church
A Rosary sister greets a Bedouin child in the abandoned ruins of old Smakieh.
(photo: Tanya Habjouqa)
In the current edition of ONE, journalist Nicholas Seeley reports on life for Bedouins in Jordan’s last Christian villages:
The local church has played a central role in transforming life on the Kerak plateau and ensuring its residents had the education and values to thrive in the modern world. Since the early 20th century, residents have enrolled their children in local Latin Catholic schools, where they received a well-rounded education. The schools have always included the study of foreign language as an integral component of the curriculum, which has helped younger generations succeed in the global job market.
In the early days, priests helped the tribes establish permanent settlements. And nuns taught women to read and write and encouraged them to pursue education.
Father Tarek Abu Hanna, Smakieh’s Latin parish priest, points out that the church not only ran the school, but helped families in other material ways. For example, the school provided meals to the children during the day. Indeed, Teresa Ghasan says that as a child, the only time she ate well was at school.
For more, check out A Bridge to Modern Life in the May edition of ONE.
Tags: Children Jordan ONE magazine Bedouin