13 February 2012
Late in the day, dusty hills surrounding Jericho prepare for sunset. (photo: Gabriel Delmonaco)
CNEWA’s Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., and Gabriel Delmonaco are accompanying a group of friends and benefactors on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Saturday, 11 February
As if modern Magi, we are looking for the birthplace of Jesus, but unlike them we are not following complicated astronomical trajectories. Our comet and guiding star is a Palestinian named Tony and instead of slow camels we are using a much faster and reliable Hyundai minivan. Unlike the Magi of the East, we came from the United States with one thing in common: we, in different ways, work for a papal agency that strives to support Christians in the Middle East and other troubled countries in the world. We don’t carry precious gifts ... only our desire to learn more about the situation of Christ’s followers and the way CNEWA is making a difference in their lives.
The Holy Land of the Magi has changed a lot. Villages on the shores of the Sea of Galilee are now inland; the waters are receding at a remarkable rate. Others are only remembered on dusty plaques; their ruins have been swallowed by earthquakes or ravaged by wars. The Magi didn’t have to go through Israeli checkpoints to adore the Christ child. Today, they wouldn’t even have been able to cross the River Jordan since the country traditionally associated with the Magi, Iran, isn’t exactly on good terms with Israel.
Despite all these differences with our predecessors, Father Guido, Steve, Joe, Al, Mary and I are motivated by the same desire of learning more about the man who changed our lives so much.
In Nazareth, at the site of the Annunciation, we reflected on the feelings of Mary when she was announced the great news. In Capernaum, a flourishing town in the time of our Lord, we walked through the sites where he performed his ministry and called some of his disciples. Although this village is now a quiet archaeological site, we could easily imagine what life must have been like. As we walked from the house of Peter to the Synagogue Jesus attended on the Sabbath, we brought the life of the town back again.
As Father Guido read the pages of the Gospel, we heard Jesus say, “Which is easier to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven, ’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
On the Mount of the Beatitudes, we could still hear the awe of the people listening to his message and witnessing the multiplications of loaves and fish. Steve Marcus, a Maronite deacon of the Eparchy of Brooklyn and a loyal benefactor to CNEWA, said that he’ll never hear the Gospel the same way after this trip. As we travel and listen to the Gospel, he avidly takes notes for future homilies.
Mary and her father Al from Boston cannot believe how beautiful these biblical places are and how torn by political issues they have become today. Joe, a retired lawyer, reflects silently, overwhelmed by this experience.
Sunday, 12 February
On the second day, on board our air-conditioned and comfortable four-wheel camel, we circumnavigated the Sea of Galilee. From Tabgha, we drove north and then east and south, through the occupied Golan Heights, once a part of Syria. Observing the level of infrastructure that has been built since the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, it seems unlikely these lands will one day be returned. The hilly Golan Heights strategically overlook Galilee and the land beyond.
As we approached Jericho, Father Guido noticed how unusually green and lush the soil was. Our comet, Tony, explained that there has been an unusual, steady rain in the past few days.
Before reaching Jericho, we stopped at the rocky and deserted area of Qumran. What appeared before our eyes, although blinded by the strong midday light, was a monumental excavation site that brought to life the place where the Essenes, a monastic religious Jew community, once thrived. The area is important, for it is here that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin in 1947.
After a quick look at the Dead Sea, where we saw swimmers floating on the salty waters, we entered the lowest and oldest city of the world: Jericho. Described in the Bible as the city of palm trees, today it is inhabited by 20,000 people. When I last visited in 2009, I had to go through two check points: first an Israeli followed by a Palestinian. Today, only the Palestinian one is active and the soldiers greeted us cheerfully. Jericho is an important biblical site. The Old Testament describes Joshua’s army of Israelites marching around the city, blowing their trumpets and destroying its walls. The New Testament documents the conversation between Jesus and the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, on a sycamore tree.
Before the sun disappeared completely behind the mountains beyond Jericho, we decided to walk through an impervious canyon carved out of a rocky deserted mountain to reach the monastery of St. George of Koziba. Located in Wadi Qelt, in the eastern West Bank, minutes from Jericho, this Orthodox monastery is built into a cliff and it took us about 2,000 steps to reach it at the bottom of the canyon. After praying in a crypt and meeting some of the monks, we decided to head back. What on the way down had been a pleasant walk now seemed a harsh and steep climb. Two in our group didn’t feel they could handle the hard walk. They closed a deal with Bedouins and returned on the back of a donkey. Unfortunately, we have a gentleman’s agreement and I cannot disclose their names ... But I guess I can tell you one is a deacon and the other a lawyer.
After a typical Middle Eastern dinner, we returned to our modern camel and headed toward Bethlehem.
13 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Holy Land Pilgrimage/pilgrims
Folk songs remain very popular in both rural and urban areas in Georgia.
(photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)
Last night, people around the world tuned in to what many consider “music’s biggest night” — The Grammy Awards. Music also plays a central role in the lives of the families and communities CNEWA serves. Traditional songs, dances and spiritual hymns contribute to the rich cultures of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe. In this photo, a family in Georgia sings a folk song in celebration of a wedding.
9 February 2012
Tags: Cultural Identity Georgia Tbilisi
Residents inspect the damage inside St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church after a bomb attack in central Kirkuk, Iraq, 15 August. A parked car bomb and a motorcycle bomb killed one person and wounded 12 others in central Kirkuk, hospital and police sources said.
(photo: CNS / Ako Rasheed, Reuters)
This week’s cover story in the U.S. magazine Newsweek features a provocative, bloodstained image of Christ with the even more provocative tag line that reads, “The War on Christians.” Authored by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch activist, the article is laden with anecdotes about anti-Christian violence in the Muslim world.
“A wholly different kind of war is underway,” she writes, “an unrecognized battle costing thousands of lives. Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion. It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm.”
The author believes this war has been unreported or worse, ignored, by the mainstream media for fear of encouraging fear of Islam, or Islamophobia.
“But a fair-minded assessment of recent events and trends leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the bloody Christophobia currently coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other,” she writes. “The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance has to stop. Nothing less than the fate of Christianity — and ultimately of all religious minorities — in the Islamic world is at stake.”
Wow. Surprising words for a self-proclaimed atheist with strong opinions about all religions, not just the Islamic faith of her ancestors.
No doubt, violence directed against Christians in the Muslim world has increased, particularly since the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the pages of our bimonthly magazine, ONE, and on the news feed on our web site, CNEWA has covered the violence directed against Christians in the Middle East. Catholic media have also diligently reported on these events, as have the mainstream media, including The New York Times.
Last September, the conservative blog Catholic Culture reported on Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria, quoting Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama of Jos.
“At least 14 people have died in tribal clashes in central Nigeria in the early days of September . Although the violence has pitted Christians against Muslims, a Catholic bishop insists that religion is not the fundamental cause of the conflict,” the report begins.
“The violence began when Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan were attacked. Their assailants were described as Christians, but local church leaders did not recognize them. ‘I do not know who these people are and what denomination they belong to, ’ the archbishop said.
“In response to that attack, Muslims raided several Christian villages on Sunday and Monday. The bloodshed occurred around Jos, in the center of the country, where the mostly Muslim north meets the Christian south.
“Archbishop Kaigama said that the violence reflected a breakdown in overall security. ‘It is very convenient for those in authority to say that the whole crisis is about religion,’ he observed.
“ ‘Christians and Muslims are fighting. Yes, I don’t deny that,’ the archbishop continued. ‘But then, the factors that are fueling that crisis are not certainly only religions.’ He pointed to old tribal animosities, complaints about theft of cattle, and the influence of outside agitators.”
The archbishop is not denying Christian-Muslim violence. But unlike Ms. Hirsi Ali, he sees other forces at work, and believes there are factors unrelated to faith identity also fueling these hostilities. The same is true throughout the Arab world. These factors are socio-economic, political, tribal. And they are playing out in a culture beset by enormous change that even dictators cannot suppress.
“Islam is experiencing an identity crisis,” a colleague said during a recent editorial team meeting. And when a faith community experiences a crisis of identity, extremists act on their fears.
Is there a global Islamic conspiracy to create “pure” Muslim societies? If there is, which form of Islam? Sunni or Shiite? Sufi or Ibadhi? What about Alawi and Druze? As ONE magazine reported back in 2007, “the very nature of the Islamic faith, with its lack of a governing religious authority and reliance on group consensus for legitimization of Islamic identity, ensures that the continuing proliferation of splinter groups, large and small, is inevitable and will result in variations in doctrine and practice until the ‘last days.’ ”
To be sure, the author of the Newsweek piece admits no conspiracy exists: “No, the violence isn’t centrally planned or coordinated by some international Islamist agency. In that sense the global war on Christians isn’t a traditional war at all. It is, rather, a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities.” But pulling atrocities out of context, and ignoring that context, is irresponsible — as are misleading banners and headlines.
“News reporting” such as this does not contribute to the dialogue that is necessary if Christians and Muslims are going to continue to live together.
9 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Christians Middle East Violence against Christians Holy Land Christian-Muslim relations
In this unpublished photo, taken in 2003, two young boys play in front of a church in a Christian Village near Homs, Syria. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
As the situation in Homs, Syria, continues to grow more bloody and violent by the day, Independent Catholic News reports that many Christians have fled the city in large numbers, including three bishops:
This is not because they have received threats — most churches and places of worship have escaped attack — but because the situation generally is “becoming more dangerous by the hour.”
Three bishops — one Catholic and two Orthodox from the Dioceses of Homs and Hama, have left. Syria’s third largest city is now mainly inhabited mainly by Alawites (President Bashar al Assad’s tribe) and Sunnis.
Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the United States closed its embassy in Syria as a result of the escalating violence.
To learn more about the history of Christian villages in Syria, read Syria’s Christian Valley from the January 2011 issue of ONE.
7 February 2012
Tags: Syria War Emigration
Sister Mariam Almiron of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word spins a small child around following Sunday Mass at the Holy Family Catholic Parish in Gaza. There are only about 3,000 Christians in Gaza, of which a little more than 200 are Catholic.
(photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey)
As a small minority in many countries of the Middle East, Christians often face great challenges. Last summer Sami El-Yousef, regional director of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission for Palestine and Israel, paid a visit to Gaza to see how the Christian community there is faring:
Life in Gaza is not easy. While the government there tolerates Christian institutions and the Christian presence, it is clear that adopting a more conservative Islamic way of life does conflict at times with the more open society these Christian institutions and individuals are accustomed to.
There is an uneasy balance that seems to be maintained and holding thus far. It is certainly not easy for a teenage girl who follows a literary Tawjihi stream and finishes tenth grade and has no option but to complete her high school education in the public school system and finds herself being veiled to go to school. Neither it is easy for college-age females who are locked up in Gaza due to the blockade and want to get a college education and have no choice other than the Gazan universities and again must be veiled to go to classes. This also applies to men and women, boys and girls engaged in joint sports activities at the local YMCA who feel that they are under the watchful eye of a conservative class that does not approve of gender integrated activities.
There are other trivial matters that affect Christians, too, such as the Muslim ban on the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. These may be little inconveniences and some of them actually may be good for you, but these are additional restrictions Christians have to deal with on top of the pressures and restrictions of the occupation and the blockade. There are no easy answers, but one needs to be aware of the difficulties of daily life in Gaza, especially to the Christian community, and to appreciate the need to strengthen the Christian institutions and the Christian presence. There are many possibilities for assistance, and we hope to be able to fundraise and implement some of the projects in the near future.
After all, Christian institutions promote Christian values of worship, love, respect, honesty, humility, hope, forgiveness, compassion, integrity and self discipline among others. Gaza can only be a better place if these values are ingrained in society, and what better way to do this other than to strengthen the Christian institutions and empower them to continue to provide their services to all Palestinians alike with these values in mind.
You can read much more here. And visit our website to learn how you can join CNEWA and support Christians in the Middle East.
6 February 2012
Tags: Middle East Christians Gaza Strip/West Bank Middle East
The faithful proceed to St. George Kvashveti Church in Tbilisi, Georgia for its patronal feast.
(photo: Molly Corso)
In the March 2007 issue of ONE, Molly Corso wrote about the return of Orthodox traditions and practices in Georgia some 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and imposed atheism:
A crowd swelled around Bishop Tevdora Chuadze as he blessed the faithful in Tbilisi’s St. George Kvashveti Church on 23 November, the feast of St. George.
Hundreds of believers filled the church, spilling into the adjoining courtyard where they waited to kiss and venerate the patronal icon of St. George. That afternoon, all of Georgia’s television stations broadcast the baptism of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s son by the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.
On that day, some 15 years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Communist-imposed atheism, it seemed the Georgian Orthodox Church had made a full recovery. A recent poll by the Caucasus Research Resource Center found that 63 percent of Georgians “fully trust” the church. (About 80 percent of Georgia’s 4.7 million citizens belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church.) In contrast, only 22 percent placed similar trust in President Saakashvili.
“The Georgian people were very strong, and did not lose their faith,” said Father Giorgi Getiashvili of the Kvashveti Church, one of the capital’s premier parishes.
Under Communist rule, people continued to go to church in secret. And after the fall of the Soviet Union, the church was reborn, Father Giorgi explained. “It was freed.”
For more, read A Georgian Revival.
2 February 2012
Tags: Georgia Georgian Orthodox Church
Filipino domestic workers sing choir songs, as they crowd into the tiny shelter to attend Mass with Father Kevin O’Connell at English-speaking Sacred Heart Latin Catholic Church in Amman, Jordan. (photo: Tanya Habjouqa)
Yesterday the Independent Catholic News reported on a convention held by the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) that has provided some hope for international domestic workers:
The Convention constitutes an international commitment to work at improving the living and working conditions of a very large segment of the work force employed in the informal sector. The very first commitment is to recognize domestic workers as employees who are legally entitled to the minimum protection that all other categories of workers enjoy.
By establishing the principle that like any other workers, domestic workers are entitled to a minimum set of protections, the Convention is an acknowledgment of the crucial social and economic contribution of care workers. Since 90 to 92 percent of the domestic work force is made of women and girls, this principle is also very significant for gender equality.
Specific provisions in the Convention address the vulnerability of particular groups of domestic workers: migrant domestic workers, young domestic workers — those above the minimum age of employment but below 18 years of age — and for live-in domestic workers.
In November 2011, we featured a story about Filipino migrant workers in Jordan who — in spite of the tough circumstances they face as domestic workers — have found solace in faith:
Some have fled abusive employers, but most cite nonpayment of wages as the main reason why they left their jobs. As runaways, they are considered in breach of their work contracts under Jordanian law and no longer have the right to work in the country. Repatriating them is a complicated process, involving possible hefty fines and other legal and diplomatic wrangling. Some have lived at the shelter for years, waiting for official clearance to return home.
Father O’Connell proceeds to one of its administrative offices. He heads to an old desk at the front of the room. Atop the desk sit several small statues of the Virgin Mary in between an outdated computer monitor and a cheap, cardboard desk calendar.
The priest smiles at the some 35 Filipino women who have gathered in the small room. Some are middle-aged, but most are very young. Sitting on stackable plastic chairs, they gaze eagerly at the priest. From behind the desk, which also serves as an altar, he begins Mass.
For these migrant women, Mass offers them the spiritual solace they need to cope with the despair that otherwise can fill their daily routine. During the Rite of Peace, the women hug each other and laugh freely. At the celebration’s end, they applaud and cheer. New arrivals often cry, moved by the joy of their first Mass in months.
For more, read Far From Home by Nicholas Seeley.
27 January 2012
Tags: Jordan Amman Teresian Association
A demonstrator holds up a crucifix and a Quran during a protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday. Scores of Egyptian youth protesters marking the one-year anniversary of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak bedded down in Tahrir Square and pledged to stay put until the ruling military council hands power to civilians. (photo: CNS/Suhaib Salem, Reuters)
Yesterday, thousands of protesters filled Tahrir Square to mark the one-year anniversary of the uprising that led to the ouster of Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. What took place in Egypt last year seemed to echo similar protests throughout the Middle East, part of a wider movement that came to be known as the “Arab Spring.”
In the July 2011 issue of ONE, John L. Esposito, Ph.D., a professor of international affairs and of Islamic studies, wrote about the Arab Spring uprising and delved into the question, “Is Islam Compatible With Deomcracy?”:
The relationship of Islam and democracy remains central to the development of the Middle East and the Muslim world in the 21st century. As U.S. President Barack Obama stated in his Cairo speech: “All people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
Check out this video from our September 2011 issue, in which journalist Sarah Topol talks about how it felt to be a reporter in Tahrir Square during last year’s uprising.
24 January 2012
Tags: Egypt Middle East Africa Arab Spring
A young student at the Ephpheta Institute responds to hearing a new sound through an external hearing device. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Today is the Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales, the patron of journalists and writers. He is said to have developed a sign language to teach a deaf man about God, and is therefore the patron saint of the deaf as well. Since 1971 the Ephpheta Institute in Bethlehem has provided hearing-impaired youth with an education and the confidence to participate in their communities.
Last month, CNEWA President Msgr. John Kozar visited the Holy Land, making a stop at the Ephpheta Institute, where he took this photo. He described this moment as “a wonderful level of affirmation when a sound is recognized.”
To learn more about the history of Ephpheta, read The Miracle of Ephpheta from the January 1996 issue of the magazine. To learn how you can help support the work there visit our website.
20 January 2012
Tags: CNEWA Education Bethlehem Disabilities
Nohad El Shami, who attributes her miraculous recovery from a stroke to St. Sharbel, embraces a pilgrim’s head at the saint’s tomb. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
In the the July 2009 issue of ONE, Marilyn Raschka wrote about the reach and impact of one of Lebanon’s most celebrated religious men, Saint Sharbel. Sharbel is known for having performed numerous miracles, and continues to touch lives even today. Every year thousands of pilgrims travel to Saint Sharbel’s hermitage and tomb seeking the saint’s intercession. The most famous miracle attributed to him is that of Nohad El Shami, who credits the saint for healing her after a paralyizing stroke on January 22, 1993:
And so, on the 22nd of every month, Mrs. [Nohad] El Shami visits Sharbel’s hermitage, and with a group of pilgrims, she walks from there to the monastery and church — about a mile away — to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Afterward, she greets the pilgrims.
As the liturgy ended, the now 70-year-old, gray-haired mother of 12 walked outside and stood quietly. Pilgrims crowded around her, trying to get close enough so she could place her hands on their heads and shoulders. Parents lifted their children for her to touch.
Mrs. El Shami’s gentle smile reassured the infirmed among the pilgrims. Her peaceful demeanor affirmed the message written on a sign across from where she stood: “Shine on me, Father, that I may reflect your light.”
For more, read A Saint Without Borders.
Tags: Lebanon Saints