7 March 2012
Syrian refugees receive humanitarian aid from an Islamic organization in Tripoli, Lebanon, 6 March. (photo: CNS/Omar Ibrahim, Reuters)
As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, a new humanitarian crisis is unfolding. Issam Bishara, our regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, puts it in context:
In February 2012, Syrian government forces carried out a major attack on Homs. This resulted in the deaths of over 700 inhabitants, including women and children, and led to the widespread condemnation by world governments and various non-governmental organizations. On 29 February, the Free Syrian Army withdrew in a strategic retreat from Homs, in order to save the civilians still in the Baba Amr district.
During the past few days, some 2,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon, many of them from Homs, and particularly its opposition stronghold of Baba Amr. The majority of them, being Sunni, found refuge in border villages where they have relatives and mainly in the cluster of Wadi Khaled in Akkar-North Lebanon and in the East Bekaa border, in a no man’s land area called “Al Masharih.”
As for the Christian population: according to both Sister Marie Claude Naddaf, the superior general of the Good Shepherd congregation and Father Eliane Nasrallah, a good friend of CNEWA and the Greek Catholic parish priest of Al Qaa village (a Lebanese village located on the eastern border with Syria), the majority of the Christian families of Homs and the surrounding villages left during the escalations and found refuge in three areas:
- The Valley of Christians (inside Syria). It’s around 60 kms away from Homs on the international road between Homs and Tartous, which is a popular tourist site in western Syria, close to the Lebanese border. Most people in the area are Christians (Greek Orthodox, in particular.)
- The coastal city of Tartous (inside Syria). The Sisters of the Good Shepherd screened around 150 Syrian Christian families who escaped from Homs and found refuge in that area in addition to around 50 families who found shelter in Damascus.
- The Lebanese village of Al Qaa. Father Nasrallah says that at present 40 Christian families found refuge at their relatives’ homes within his parish. After visiting a majority of them, he reported that all of them are needy and living in very difficult conditions.
All displaced Christian families are struggling with severe weather. They are without power and basic necessities. They need emergency assistance such as food, foam mattresses, blankets, heating fuel and medications.
Christians are concerned about the repercussions of the events taking place in the region. They fear that the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon — which took place against the backdrop of a civil war — could play out again in their own lands. These concerns haunt the Syrian Christians, and have only been exacerbated by the death of more than 200 Christians in Homs as a result of the violence in the area, where the only victims have been civilians. It was reported that Christian residents of Hamidiya had been stopped from leaving Homs by anti-government forces, and were forced to evacuate their homes in the mosque to use them as human shields for protection against government troops. Further, the Virgin Mary Church, one of the oldest churches dating back to the early Christian era, was attacked by terrorists on 24-25 February. The surrounding commercial area, mainly owned by Christians, was also attacked. The same pattern that emerged in Iraq is now playing out in Syria: Islamic militants are now kidnapping and killing Christians.
At present, the priority of the local church is to help the displaced Christian families in Lebanon and inside Syria. Displaced Muslims are supported by Muslim NGO’s (mostly religious and Salafi institutions) and are receiving substantial funds from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Christians are finding refuge with Christian communities where none of the Arab aid is available. The church is their only hope.
CNEWA is in the process of raising funds to assist some 260 families inside Syria and in Lebanon in coordination with Caritas Lebanon, which has already started providing some necessary items such as blankets to some families, regardless of religious affiliation. Click here to help!
It is worth mentioning: the Lebanese government has adopted a policy of remaining unbiased to the conflict in Syria. Accordingly, it is allowing demonstrations and free speech for both sides, without discrimination.
7 March 2012
Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees Middle East Christians Relief
In this photo taken in 2000, Armenian Catholics celebrate Divine Liturgy in a village near Gyumri, Armenia. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Today, Pope Benedict XVI addressed Middle East Christians in his general audience, encouraging church leaders and faithful in the region to remain hopeful in these arduous times:
“I extend my prayerful thoughts to the regions in the Middle East, encouraging all the priests and faithful to persevere with hope through the serious suffering that afflicts these beloved people,” he said.
The pope made his remarks when he greeted Armenian Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni of Beirut and Armenian bishops from around the world attending their synod in Rome.
At the end of the general audience March 7 in St. Peter’s Square, the pope expressed his “sincere gratitude” for Armenian Catholics’ fidelity to their heritage and traditions, and to the successor of St. Peter.
Such fidelity has always sustained the faithful throughout “the innumerable trials in history,” he said.
The majority of Catholics in the Middle East belong to Eastern Catholic churches — the Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite or Melkite churches.
For more check out the full CNS story in the ‘News’ section of our website. To learn how you can support Middle East Christians, visit our website.
6 March 2012
Tags: Middle East Christians Pope Benedict XVI Armenia Armenian Catholic Church
The Pontifical Mission-built reservoir in Deir El Ahmar holds up to 13.2 million gallons of water. (photo: Laura Boushnak)
Like the dysfunction in the electricity, internet and public sectors in Lebanon, the country’s patchy water sector is also seen, by many Lebanese, as an apt reflection of its hobbled government. Since the civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, Lebanese have learned how to manage as private citizens and not rely on the government for support and protection. This mentality continues to this day and while it serves them well in surviving and managing during power and water cuts, it is also harmful in that few Lebanese seek to hold the government accountable for these shortcomings.
There is a widespread conviction here that political corruption does more harm to water supply than global warming. For example, there are precious few Lebanese initiatives to unmask and end such systemic problems in governance and thereby improve the provision of basic services, like water, once and for all.
In Lebanon, politics and business run very, very close, and for every advocate for reform to the government’s handling of basic services, there is another government figure with business interests in the given sector that run counter to the interests of the larger public. Private water provision is big business in a country where the government runs short of public water demand by some 30 percent.
Unlike its neighbors of Syria and nearby Jordan, Lebanon is a water-rich country and sees enough rainfall and snowfall (in the mountains) to more than provide for its annual needs. Its problems are a lack of water collection and storage infrastructure, an antiquated network of pipes that leak some 40 to 50 percent of the water, and an almost complete lack of water treatment facilities to clean polluted water.
To improve many of Lebanon’s daily woes, like water shortage, a clean up of governance culture and a stamping out of corruption is required. In the meantime, the NGOs, church groups and foreign governmental funds are providing a stopgap role that certainly helps, but will only become truly sustainable when Lebanon has a political culture that can take such initiatives and scale them up nationally.
For a personal take on Lebanon’s water woes, check out A World Without Water. And for more on what’s being done to help the people affected, read Springs of Hope in Lebanon in the January issue of ONE.
2 March 2012
Tags: Lebanon Water
Hassan Atrache buys water from a delivery truck at his house north of Beirut.
(photo: Laura Boushnak)
Journalist Don Duncan wrote about Lebanon’s water woes in the January issue of ONE. Here, he offers a personal perspective.
There are several things I had to adapt to when I first moved to Lebanon in May 2009. Although it is the most “Westernized” of Arab countries, and that makes some aspects of the move easy for a Westerner, the Westernized veneer belies deeper cultural differences one must understand and assimilate to over time. But before any of this happens, there are more practical differences that are starkly obvious the minute you land. Many basic government services are patchy. Electricity outages are a daily occurrence, water cuts happen frequently — especially in the dry summer months — the postal service is not reliable, and the internet speed in Lebanon is among the slowest in the world.
Within a few weeks of my initial move, the hot summer season was firmly in place and the steady supply of water I had come accustomed to became less and less steady. I had just about gotten used to the daily three-hour power cuts, which rotate on a scheduled basis, when I would wake up to find my kitchen tap and shower dry. Water cuts, it seemed, were much less predictable than electricity cuts and so were much harder to get accustomed to. Cuts would happen sporadically and last many hours, sometimes entire days, and the worst was that I never knew, once the water was cut, how long it would be before it would come back on so that I could carry on my household chores. In the meantime, the sink would progressively fill with dirty dishes, laundry would sit unwashed and, worst of all, in the searing, humid Beirut heat, I would have to manage without a shower and feel hot and nasty indefinitely.
The situation became unbearable and I began to try out some solutions. I would buy water bottles in bulk and boil them in big saucepans on the gas stove to do the dishes and laundry. I’d warm up water and give myself a sponge bath in the shower to feel fresh again. It wasn’t the same, and it was really time-consuming.
Then I began to see how Beirutis did it. The rich ones had big reservoirs in their buildings which would be filled by private providers as part of the hefty building charges they paid every year. The poor would resort to pulling water from wells or taking a plunge in the sea to keep clean. Those in between, many of them my neighbors, would manage by saving and rationing their water and when that ran dry, they’d pay a private water provider who would come and pump water he had taken from a spring up in the mountains. He’d come along in his mini-tanker truck and connect its hose to their water tanks. For a set price, he would pump a thousand to two thousand liters, to be rationed over as long a period as possible.
I have gotten used to this kind of intermittent government provision since I moved here, although there are still times I become exasperated and marvel at how easily the Lebanese adapt to fluctuations in supply of the various government goods and services. The truth is that, since 1975, when their civil war first broke out and the government collapsed, the Lebanese have learned how to do it themselves and not rely so much on the state. Since the war ended in 1990, things have gotten better and the government is more present, but the Lebanese people’s ability to cope has endured — an asset of resilience when the going gets tough.
You can read more about this issue — and what is being done about it — in the story Springs of Hope in Lebanon.
1 March 2012
Tags: Lebanon CNEWA ONE magazine Beirut Water
Mar Musa, named after St. Moses of Ethiopia, is an ancient Syriac monastery famous for its medieval frescoes. Today, the monastery draws tourists and Christians and Muslims committed to interreligious understanding. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
This morning we received word from our regional director in Beirut, Issam Bishara, that a monastery north of the Syrian capital of Damascus was ransacked by masked gunmen around 6 p.m. on 22 February.
Deir Mar Musa is home to religious men and women under the protection of Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III. The following is a press release from the monastery describing the events that transpired:
Events of Wednesday, 22 February 2012, at Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi
Wednesday evening at 6 p.m., the following happened:
Around 30 armed men — all, except their commander, had their face covered — stormed the monastery’s sheepfold, where some employees were dwelling. They turned the premises upside down, looking for weapons and money, and asking for the father in charge. One of the shepherds was forced to lead some of the armed persons to another part of the monastery. Four of the sisters, who were about to go to the prayer, were confined to a room under surveillance. Right after, some of the aggressors entered the church. The monastic community, gathered for meditation, reminded them that this was a place of prayer, and as such should be respected. The armed men forced the people present to assemble in a side aisle of the church. Then, they forcibly intercepted other persons at the monastery. They went on searching for weapons and money, but to no effect, destroying all means of communication they could find, but without causing any major damage.
During the aggression, the individual responsible for the group was taking photos with his mobile phone. After having permitted that the prayer goes on, he ordered the people present to remain in the church for an hour.
The superior of the monastery was in Damascus, and could not return before daybreak on Thursday.
It is noteworthy that those with authority among the armed persons declared straight away that they did not have the intention to harm the people present at the monastery, and in fact, they kept their word during the aggression.
Naturally, the question arises as to the identity of the armed group. At the moment, it seems impossible to give a definite answer. For sure, those men were familiar with weapons, seeking material interests. The reason why they were looking for weapons at a monastery that has been well known for years for its choice and promotion of nonviolence remains obscure.
We thank God for the protection of his angels, and we prayed during Mass for our aggressors and their families. In spite of these painful events, we did not lose our inner peace nor the desire to serve reconciliation.
Deir Mar Musa
1 March 2012
Tags: Syria Damascus Syriac Catholic Church Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal and Father Emil Salayta of the Latin patriarchate toured CNEWA’s offices today. (photo: Erin Edwards)
“Peace cannot be obtained without justice and even without forgiveness,” said the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, at a conference in Washington, D.C., a few days ago.
“It’s not a question only of who’s right, who’s wrong. Forgiveness cannot be obtained without sacrifices, cannot be obtained without compromises. And I think peace is worth it to pay the price of sacrifice and compromise.”
To learn more about the conference, and the remarks of the patriarch, visit our news page.
22 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Christians Middle East Jerusalem Patriarchs
A procession during Holy Week in Jerusalem taken in 1988. (photo: Paul Souders)
Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season. It is a time of preparation for the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is also a time for reflection and sacrifice. What will you be doing this Lenten season?
CNEWA actually has a Lenten Giving Plan that may interest you. Check it out on our website.
21 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Jerusalem Easter
Al Lagan, CNEWA donor, Joseph Hazboun, Jerusalem office manager, and Sami El Yousef, regional director for Palestine and Israel, chat outside the CNEWA-Pontifical Mission office in Jerusalem. (photo: Gabriel Delmonaco)
CNEWA’s Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., and Gabriel Delmonaco recently accompanied a group of friends and benefactors on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Last Wednesday, 15 February, was an important day. Early in the morning, after crossing the New Gate and entering the Christian Quarter, only after a few steps on the uneven cobble stones, we saw the emerald-green iron gates of CNEWA’s office in Jerusalem (known locally as the Pontifical Mission). Sami El Yousef, the regional director, was already waiting for us on the threshold of the door with a welcoming smile. “Marhaba,” he said and introduced us to his devoted staff members ready to discuss with us the mission and operations of the office.
CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission recently celebrated its 60th year in the Holy Land. In 1949, right after the war and the subsequent exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Pope Pius XII decided to create a pontifical agency for the relief of refugees. Born as a temporary organization to respond to an emergency, the Pontifical Mission has grown in its scope and outreach, step by step with the problems of this troubled land.
Sami recalled that some Palestinian families who had lived in western Jerusalem for generations fled to the eastern part of the city and sought temporary refuge in his parents’ house that had some extra room. They told Sami’s family that they felt this war would be over in a few days and they could return to their homes soon. They fled with a few possessions and most importantly with the key to their house that they jealously kept. Days, months and more than 60 years went by and none of these families were able to return home. All the initial members died with the hope to receive justice and now their children carry the same dream. Some of them very cynically said that they’ll never see peace during their lifetime, but they still preserve the key of their parents’ house.
Gathered around a table with staff members, during the first 20 minutes of our meeting we watched a moving video presentation prepared to mark the 60th anniversary of this office. As the images and the voice of the narrator went through the six decades of struggle and hope, we realized how much was accomplished in the name of the Holy Father by a rather small staff. Food, housing, support, jobs, restoration of churches and negotiations are just some of the important needs addressed by the Pontifical Mission.
As the conversation proceeded, Sami presented the geopolitical and demographic analysis of the area. We all realized something very important, which explains the dedication and unity of this office. Our staff members are all Palestinians; they lived through the struggles and challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian violence. Some had their land confiscated, so that a dividing wall could be built in the name of security. Others saw their children emigrate abroad. All have to go through the indignity and inconvenience of crossing through check points to visit our programs and projects. But in the middle of all this, the Pontifical Mission provides hope and comfort, thanks to a dedicated staff who can understand this conflict because they are part of it. All our benefactors on this trip acknowledged the sacrifice and stoicism of these unknown heroes.
As the day unfolded, we continued with the visitation of other holy sites, following in the steps of Jesus in Jerusalem. I believe that whenever any of us knelt to pray, we could not stop thinking of how fortunate we are to enjoy freedom in our own country. We could not stop thinking of how fortunate we are to entrust the work of CNEWA in the Holy Land to such a dedicated and concerned staff. Shukran!
17 February 2012
Tags: CNEWA Palestine Israel Jerusalem Unity
Sister Bellegia Shayaf, the mother superior of St. Thecla’s Convent in Maaloula, holds an orphaned girl. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
Over the years, we have featured many stories on Christian life in Syria in the pages of ONE. With the ongoing violence and bloodshed in Aleppo, Homs and elsewhere, this beautiful image of a nun holding one of her orphaned charges from the ancient village of Maaloula serves as an important reminder of what is at stake for Syria’s Christians. Taken in 2007, this unpublished photo is from the story Echoes of Jesus From Syria’s Mountains in the May 2008 edition.
15 February 2012
Tags: Syria Middle East Christians Middle East Village life
Hana Habshi sits in the unfinished St. Charbel’s Maronite Catholic Church in the village of Deir El Ahmar, Lebanon. (photo: Laura Boushnak)
In the January 2012 issue of ONE, Don Duncan reported on water scarcity in Lebanon and how CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, is helping to remedy the problem as well as empower the beneficiaries, such as Hana Habshi pictured above:
The project has jump-started the local economy and is helping to revitalize Deir El Ahmar. Residents have pooled money to build a new church dedicated to St. Charbel. Still under construction, the Maronite church stands on a once desolate lot. Now, a lush, landscaped lawn and garden cover the grounds. On summer afternoons, locals often gather on the cool lawn in the shadows of the church to relax and take refuge from the sun’s sweltering rays.
“Water has brought us back to the lands,” says Mr. Habshi. “It has breathed life back into the community, and now it assures the completion of our church. What’s more, now I can afford to move back from Beirut and retire here.”
The reservoir is just one of many water projects the Pontifical Mission has spearheaded in Lebanon since 1993, when it became a key nongovernmental partner in the country’s post-war reconstruction. In the early days, the agency focused on restoring damaged water systems in rural communities, to ensure clean drinking water as well as to irrigate farms. In recent years, projects also include water collection and sewage treatment.
For more, read Springs of Hope in Lebanon featured in our January 2012 issue.
Tags: Lebanon CNEWA Middle East Water Church