5 June 2012
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.
29 May 2012
Tags: Children Jordan ONE magazine Bedouin
Mar Dinkha IV, patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, meets Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on 21 June 2007. (photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
The pope sent a message today to a leading religious figure in the Middle East, and made special note of the struggles still unfolding in the region:
Pope Benedict XVI has sent a message celebrating the Golden Jubilee of Mar Dinkha IV, catholicos patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East.
The Assyrian Church’s historical homeland is in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East, but in recent years has spread across the world due to emigration. In his message, Pope Benedict recalled several ecumenical highlights between the two Churches, including the 1994 Common Declaration on Christology and the establishment of a Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.
Pope Benedict took the occasion to also express his “solidarity with the Christian communities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, praying that effective forms of common witness to the Gospel and pastoral collaboration in the service of peace, reconciliation and unity may be deepened between the Catholic and Assyrian faithful.”
You can read the pope’s complete message here.
And for more on the Assyrian Church of the East, check out Against All Odds: the Assyrian Church.
25 May 2012
Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians Ecumenism Patriarchs Assyrian Church
In this photo taken in 2003, a woman eats at a soup kitchen run by Caritas Georgia, a social service agency of the Catholic Church in Tbilisi, Georgia. (photo: Dima Chikvaidze)
CNEWA serves the elderly in all of its regions, including Georgia:
“About a year ago, a young man came up to me,” Ms. Rodnova explained.
“He asked me if I lived alone or had any family.” As a lone pensioner, he told her, she was eligible for membership in a soup kitchen run by Caritas Georgia, a social service agency of the Catholic Church receiving support from CNEWA.
Since then, Ms. Rodnova’s entire pension has been spent on a daily subway ride that takes her across town to the large building that houses one of Caritas Georgia’s soup kitchens. The ride is worth it, she said.
“I am not hungry anymore. It’s a long ride across town, but without it I don’t know how I would survive,” she added.
To learn more about our efforts in conjunction with Caritas Georgia, read Human Touch Offers Pensioners Respite from the July 2003 issue of ONE.
24 May 2012
Tags: CNEWA Georgia Caring for the Elderly Caritas
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Cairo on 23 May.
(photo: CNS/Ammar Awad, Reuters)
Today, Egyptians went to the polls for the second day in a row to vote for their first-ever, freely elected president. This comes on the heels of the extreme turmoil of the ‘Arab Spring,’ which has reverberated throughout the Middle East.
Today, The New York Times spoke with voters on this second day of historic elections:
Among the many aspects of the race still shrouded in suspense are the future powers and responsibilities of the next president. A political deadlock prevented the drafting of a new constitution, paving the way for a power struggle between the new president, the elected Parliament and the self-appointed military council. The military council has said it will unilaterally issue an interim constitution before leaving power, but it has not yet done so. It was unclear how elected leaders might respond.
For now, most Egyptians were thinking of simple hopes. “I just want a president,” said Ines Mohamed, 40, a housewife waiting to vote. “I want this to end well, to stop all the chaos, to end the bleeding of corruption.”
For some perspective on the situation in Egypt, read “Arab Spring or Arab Awakening?,” a blog post written by our Education and Interreligious Affairs Officer, Rev. Elias Mallon, back in February. Last month, our office in Canada launched a campaign to help support Egypt’s Christians during this rocky time. To learn more, visit our website.
22 May 2012
Tags: Egypt Africa Arab Spring/Awakening
In this photo taken in 2008, students attend class at the school of St. Charles Orphanage in Beirut, Lebanon. (photo: Sarah Hunter )
In this month’s CNEWA Connections, Gabriel Delmonaco writes about an event he attended in Maryland that helped raise funds for Education and Opportunities for Lebanon (EOL). Through a partnership with CNEWA, EOL — “an all-volunteer board of dedicated individuals... with an interest in helping the children of Lebanon” — has been a lifeline of support for youngsters in that country. Below is some information about St. Charles Orphanage, which EOL has supported in the past:
The St. Charles Orphanage has been caring for neglected and needy children in Lebanon for over 125 years. Currently home to 75 orphaned children, the St. Charles Orphanage also has 500 primary students, 250 technical students, and 100 kindergarten children from very poor families. The small staff, run by Sister Josephine Haddad, cares for the areas neediest children, regardless of religious background, providing hot meals, education, shelter, healthcare and other community services.
Visit our website for more from this month’s CNEWA Connections.
18 May 2012
Tags: Lebanon Children Middle East Catholic education Catholic Schools
Miriam Ishak, a 25-year-old Coptic woman, says she experiences harassment and discrimination in her hometown of Samalut, Egypt, because she is Christian. (photo: Holly Pickett)
Independent Catholic News recently reported about a Parliament meeting that focused on the plight of Christian women in Pakistan and Egypt:
At a well-attended meeting in Parliament on Tuesday evening, chaired by Lord Alton of Liverpool, Peers and MPs heard first-hand accounts about the plight of the persecuted church in Pakistan and Egypt — and in particular about the plight of Christian women, whom Lord Alton said faced “double persecution — both on account of their beliefs and their gender.”
The charity Aid To The Church In Need presented parliamentarians with copies of their new report: Christians and the Struggle for Religious Freedom, looking at persecution of Christians in 13 countries, with an introduction asserting the importance of religious freedom; and with copies of Christian Women in Pakistan and Egypt: A Briefing. The speakers included Mrs Asiya Nasir, a Christian woman who is a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. The meeting also heard from a Pakistani Catholic woman and two Archbishops.
To learn more about the plight of Coptic women in Egypt, read Spotlight: Coptic Women from the September 2011 issue of ONE. Photographer Holly Pickett shared with us some of the difficulties faced by these women, such as Miriam Ishak (pictured above):
Miriam Ishak, a 25-year-old Coptic woman, says she experiences harassment and discrimination in her hometown of Samalut, Egypt, because she is Christian. She says she and her fiance will move to Kuwait after they get married. As members of a religious minority, Coptic women in Egypt often face discrimination. Because of the Coptic Church’s strict divorce laws, some Coptic men and women convert to Islam in order to divorce their spouses, a decision that has far-reaching social and legal consequences on the family and sometimes the entire community. In numerous instances, a Coptic woman’s conversion to Islam has sparked sectarian violence.
Tags: Egypt Africa Coptic Orthodox Church Women (rights/issues) Discrimination