28 December 2017
Christians in Baghdad, Iraq, celebrate Christmas after Mass on 25 December. Catholic patriarchs of the Middle East called for peace, security, prayer and solidarity at Christmastime.
(photo: CNS/Ali Abbas, EPA)
Catholic patriarchs of the Middle East — with hope, despite uncertainty in the region — called for peace, security, prayer and solidarity at Christmastime.
From Baghdad, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako expressed hope for a “new phase” for his country, that the recent triumph over the Islamic State and the termination of terrorist control of Mosul and other Iraqi cities is a step toward security and stability.
But the liberation of those areas, he said, requires the Iraqi government to work to facilitate “the return of Christians to their homes and properties, preserving their rights as indigenous citizens, recognizing their culture, civilization and heritage as an essential part of Iraq’s history and preventing demographic changes in their historical geographic areas.”
Patriarch Sako reiterated that before the American-led invasion of 2003, there were more than 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. More than half of that Christian population has migrated due to discrimination, threats, abductions and the expulsion from their homes in Ninevah Plain by the Islamic State in 2014, he said.
“This is our homeland and we insist (we) remain here,” he said.
He called for unity among Iraqi Christians as well as for them to work “hand in hand with their fellow Muslims.” The future, Patriarch Sako said, “cannot be built without tolerance and coexistence.”
“So, let us move to the path of hope together,” Patriarch Sako said.
“In regard to Muslims, an honest dialogue is a must, to understand the truth of each side and accept it,” he said.
Alluding to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Chaldean patriarch urged Christians “to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, who have been suffering from injustice and displacement for 70 years.” He also called on them “to pray for Jerusalem to remain a holy city for Christians, Muslims and Jews.”
In his Christmas message, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch, also touched upon Trump's declaration regarding Jerusalem.
“We categorically reject it because it is an unjust and hostile decision toward Christianity and Islam, and of the Palestinian people in particular,” Cardinal Rai said. He said the decision demolished peace negotiations and could “ignite a new uprising and even war, God forbid.”
Citing World Bank studies, Cardinal Rai noted that one-third of the Lebanese people remain below the poverty level. Furthermore, the presence of 1 million displaced Syrians and hundreds of Iraqis as well as half a million Palestinian refugees is “compounding the needs of the Lebanese.”
Cardinal Rai called upon the Prince of Peace to protect Lebanon and “this growing (Middle East) region where Christianity originated, and to spread the culture of love, brotherhood and peace.”
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan noted that Lebanon, “the only country where all citizens enjoy the best possible liberty and equality,” had faced numerous trials in 2017. In his Christmas message from the patriarchate in Beirut, he thanked God that the Lebanese army dispelled terrorist groups that were threatening Lebanon’s “very existence.”
“During this joyful season, our thoughts and prayers will particularly go to our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq, who have been suffering for long, because of their steadfast faithfulness to the Gospel,” Patriarch Younan said.
“Their presence as Christian minority that endured every kind of hardship is essential to the rebirth of their respective countries.”
He added that “there is still a lot to do that would inspire confidence to our eradicated and exhausted community in order to return to their ancestral land” in Syria and Iraq.
“Economic sanctions on Syria must be lifted,” the Syriac Catholic patriarch said. The sanctions, he said, “are like crimes against humanity, because they target the most vulnerable segments of a nation.”
Melkite Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi, in a message from the patriarchate in Damascus, Syria, noted that “as the various currents of the world invade the spirit of the people” and “as the land of the East is trampled by war and displacement,” the faithful sometimes wonder about the presence of God “and his role in our lives.”
But Patriarch Absi offered hope and reassurance in his message that “Christmas comes, the Divine Incarnation, to reveal to us that God’s hand appears and accompanies us, especially in the difficult stages of our lives.”
23 August 2017
Volunteers prepare some 5,000 sandwiches for the Lebanese army, which is waging an offensive against an Islamic State enclave near Ras Baalbek, Lebanon. Hundreds of volunteers, Christian and Muslim, are involved in the project, spearheaded by Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a Lebanese Carmelite nun. (photo: CNS/Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross)
As the Lebanese army wages an offensive against an Islamic State enclave near the border of Syria, Lebanese civilians — Christian and Muslim — are working side by side, not far from the frontlines, to feed some 5,000 soldiers.
The project was spearheaded by Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a Lebanese Carmelite nun who is superior of the Melkite Catholic monastery of St. James the Mutilated in Qara, Syria. The monastery is about 2.5 miles from the battle.
“Soldiers are involved in a very dangerous operation to defend and liberate the Lebanese territory from Daesh, so it’s very natural to offer help to the army,” Mother Agnes told Catholic News Service, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “Now with the international war on terror, the army has a special importance, and these Lebanese soldiers are offering their lives to save our lives.”
When Mother Agnes visited the army compound, she saw that the kitchen was essentially an empty shell.
The nun talked to local priests, local Christian associations, Scout groups and organizations such as Caritas and “everybody was very thrilled to help.” They mobilized to equip the space — located about six miles from the frontlines of the battle — with “elementary things” such as refrigerators, stoves, pots, utensils and tables for working.
The Lebanese army began its operation in the outskirts of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa in Lebanon on 19 August. By 22 August, the army said it had recaptured two-thirds of the territory in the area.
At first people from mostly the villages of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa came to volunteer, but as word spread of the effort to help feed the Lebanese army, the project mushroomed, and now there are nearly 300 volunteers involved.
Businesses are chipping in. Mother Agnes likened the response of solidarity to a “rolling ball,” with new offers of assistance each day from bakeries and supermarkets.
“Since the very beginning Muslims asked to participate. And they were very much welcome.” People are coming to volunteer from Shiite villages and Sunni villages, she said.
“Everyone works together knowing that the military are also from all the denominations,” she said.
Organized in assembly lines, the volunteers — covered in hairnets, aprons and gloves — prepare 5,000 pita bread sandwiches daily, using chicken and beef cooked at the facility, topped with hummus and pickles. The menu also includes fruit and something sweet, like a piece of cake. Just for the chicken sandwiches, the effort requires 1,763 pounds of chicken each day. Battalion trucks load up the meals for delivery to the soldiers.
“To see all these people giving their time, sharing their skills, to cook, to organize with very limited means, it is a beautiful expression of solidarity with the army. All religions are unified with the purest love for our country, our wounded country,” said Mother Agnes.
Prayers are also being said for the safety of the soldiers and the success of the military mission.
“We have been living this battle moment by moment in prayer, in supplication, in hope and in solidarity,” Mother Agnes said. She added that while working, the volunteers pray the rosary, sing Marian hymns as well as the national anthem and patriotic songs.
Mother Agnes noted that, as is customary in Lebanon, many Muslims attended Christian schools.
“We are praying to holy Mother Mary and they (Muslims) also venerate her, so they don’t mind if we pray our Christian prayers, and they even join in, because, all together, we work and we pray,” she said.
Mothers whose sons were killed in previous battles are coming to help “with a lot of joy and hope,” Mother Agnes said. “They give us a very good example,” she said.
The project will continue “until the end, when victory is achieved,” she stressed. “We hope that this battle will finish very soon, that it's a matter of a few weeks, if not a few days.”
14 August 2017
Prelates pose for a photo on 9 August during a meeting of Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs of the Middle East at Diman, the summer residence of the Maronite Catholic patriarch,
in northern Lebanon. (photo: CNS/Mychel Akl, Maronite Patriarchate)
Mideast Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs decried the desperate situation they face as shepherds of churches “whose existence is in real danger.”
They categorized the continued displacement of Christians from the Middle East as “a genocidal project, a humanitarian catastrophe and a plague of the earth’s civilization.”
“The time has come to make a prophetic cry” and to speak “the truth that frees us in the spirit of the Gospel,” the Council of the Eastern Patriarchs said in a statement on 11 August after a meeting in Diman, Lebanon.
“We, the custodians of the ‘small flocks,’ are hurting because of the exodus of Christians from their native lands in the Middle East,” the patriarchs said.
They appealed to the United Nations and to “the states directly concerned with the war in Syria, Iraq and Palestine to stop the wars that have arisen, as are evident in the demolition, killing, displacement, revival of terrorist organizations and the fueling of intolerance and conflicts between religions and cultures.”
They categorized as a “stain on the forehead of the 21st century” the persistence of the situation, “the inability to bring about a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region” and “the neglect” of the return of refugees, displaced and uprooted people to their homelands and property “in dignity and justice.”
In a plea to Pope Francis, the prelates asked, “Who else but the Rock of Peter can we resort to?”
“We are ready to heed the call to holiness by following the path of the faithful,” they said, but “we represent churches ... whose existence is in real danger.”
“Only you, Your Holiness, are left to call on the representatives of the people who control the destinies of peoples, to remind them and even to scold them that the continued displacement of Christians from the Middle East is certainly a genocidal project, a humanitarian catastrophe, but a plague of the earth’s civilization.”
The patriarchs expressed the belief that “the heavens must triumph.”
“Our call today is to become the yeast in the dough and a shining light in a world that is thirsty for the life-giving spirit,” they said.
Christians “will remain rooted in the land of our fathers and forefathers, looking forward with ‘hope beyond all hope’ to a future in which we see our ancient heritage characterize our societies as well as the church of the whole East and West.”
The statement included the Christian leaders’ assessments of the countries in the region.
Pointing to Iraq, they said they were pleased about the liberation of Mosul and towns in the Ninevah Plain from the Islamic State, but that they were concerned about the persistence of extremist groups’ “ideology, inflammatory rhetoric and the climate of conflict in this region.”
The patriarchs appealed to local and international leaders “to respect the rights of Christians and other national constituents to determine the future of their country, away from pressures, in order to achieve their fair share of participation in management, employment, political life” and to keep their “historical and geographical status.”
They encouraged the Iraqi faithful to remain in the country to preserve their civilization and help build a new civilian state.
As for “the bloody horrors” in Syria, the patriarchs said “these events must end, and Syria must emerge from it as a strong, prosperous and secure nation.”
“The future is not for violence and war, but for peace and common life ... based on citizenship,” they said. “We will remain wedded to our land in order to build the homeland that we want, a homeland of freedom and dignity.”
The patriarchs said they were following “with great interest the suffering of the Palestinian people as they seek to determine their own destiny and regain their sovereignty over their land.”
They pointed to the “daily harassment” of those who live in Jerusalem and said “the lack of reunification, the continuity of settlement construction and the confiscation of land are the risks to which they are exposed.”
“We know that the economic and security situation has led to the exodus of many of our Christian children from Palestine, but the Holy Land needs to be present, even if some sacrifices are needed in order to reach a political solution in which Jerusalem would be the capital of two peoples and a holy city open to all,” the patriarchs said in their statement.
The delegation of patriarchs met with Lebanese President Michel on 9 August. They asked him to resolve the issue of displaced persons and refugees who have become “a heavy burden and a political, economic, security and social threat to Lebanon.” Between one-quarter and one-third of the population of Lebanon is refugees; more than a million are Syrians.
27 July 2017
Young people clap during the World Maronite Youth Days 19 July in Beirut. The event, organized by the Maronite Patriarchate Youth Pastoral Office, followed the World Youth Day model.
(photo: CNS/Johnny Antoun)
They came from around the world, from Australia, South America, Europe and the United States. Some came from Africa, and some from nearby countries in the Middle East.
They clapped and ululated, creating a celebratory atmosphere as nearly 500 young people from other countries joined 1,000 Maronite Catholic youths from Lebanon for World Maronite Youth Days.
Some participants came with a durbakke, a popular Lebanese hand drum, to accent the mood with a rhythmic beat. When a troupe of folk dancers performed the traditional dabke dance, many youths rushed from their seats to form snakes on the perimeter of the seating area, hands joined for the step-and-stomp line dance. Even nuns joined in.
“Everyone is singing songs, outwardly praising,” said Michel Kahwajy, 24, a Maronite Catholic from Richmond, Virginia.
“Meeting people that are my age that are passionate about their Maronite faith, that’s been a really moving thing for me,” he told Catholic News Service.
Although “America is a little bit more diverse ... being a ‘melting pot’ that it is, life is built more around religion here (in Lebanon),” Kahwajy said.
Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, the Vatican nuncio to Lebanon, welcomed the people “with great love” and told them “Pope Francis is among you and encourages you all.” Each participant received the Gospel of Luke in booklet form, a gift from the pope, and the nuncio urged them “to be a living Gospel.”
The World Maronite Youth Days ran 15-25 July. Pilgrims stayed with host families throughout Lebanon’s 13 Maronite eparchies, or dioceses, for the first few days to experience the day-to-day culture and spiritual life in a Lebanese Maronite Catholic parish. Later, monasteries and convents hosted the youth.
Young people gather for an evening event at the World Maronite Youth Days July 19 in Beirut.
(photo: CNS/Johnny Antoun)
Each morning began with Mass, prayers, catechesis and discussion groups. The youth also visited holy sites of Lebanon, including the tomb of St. Charbel, and they trekked through the forest of the famous Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab), cited 103 times in the Bible.
“Despite differences of culture and language, we are bridge builders,” said Father Toufic Bou Hadir, coordinator of the youth pastoral ministry for the Maronite Patriarchate. He told the young people: “In the face of terrorism, violence and conflicts, let’s say: ‘We are strong and courageous.’”
“It changed me a lot, this experience, sharing with a lot of young people, (who are) different, but with the same belief,” 18-year-old Ismael Azar of Buenos Aires, Argentina, told CNS. Even during times of fun, Azar noted, “it’s a spiritual moment too, because the climate of the event is very spiritual.”
“What I’m bringing back to Argentina,” Azar said, “is a lot of (new) friends that treat us like a family,” and a mission “to bring Jesus to the others.”
Sandy Agob, 23, said she and 13 others from the area around Aleppo, Syria, were “trying to stay happy, and that’s why we are here to celebrate with the Maronites, although there are bombs and problems in Syria.”
Agob said she appreciated the fellowship aspect of the event.
“We should stay strong even if all the situation is against us. We need to stay together, all the Christians in the world,” she said.
Watch a video of the event below.
21 December 2016
A life-size manger scene decorates a busy intersection on 12 December in Beirut. Amid the turmoil in the Middle East and persecution of Christians in surrounding countries, the Christmas spirit is evident in Lebanon. (photo: CNS/Johnny Antoun)
Amid the turmoil in the Middle East and persecution of Christians in surrounding countries, the Christmas spirit is evident in Lebanon: sparkling lights, decorated trees and even mangers in public places.
“Wherever you go you can find Christmas decorations,” even in the cities and the places where the residents are Muslim, the Rev. Joseph Soueid told Catholic News Service.
“I feel that here in Lebanon, we have this grace, that really, Jesus is the reason for the season,” said the priest, pastor of St. Takla Parish, which serves 6,850 Maronite Catholic families. With seating for just 280 people, the church overflows with the faithful for each of its eight Masses on Sundays and has generated 24 vocations in the past eight years. Its outdoor manger near the entrance to the church is just a few steps away from a busy street intersection.
Father Soueid noted that because most of the municipalities in Lebanon are a mix of Christian and Muslim, the influence of Christianity gives the Lebanese an opportunity to “make this season a season of joy.”
Muslims also have attended and continue to attend Christian schools in Lebanon. So it follows that “when they grew up, they found themselves familiar with our traditions and with the way we celebrate our great celebrations, like Christmas, like Easter,” Father Soueid said.
The splendor of Christmas is not only a feast for the senses in Lebanon, but also a witness of Christianity, he said.
“Sometimes you can feel the spirit of Christmas by the choirs that come out of the churches during this season to public places to sing the glory of Jesus,” Father Soueid added.
“That’s why I consider that in Lebanon, we do not have a big problem when we spread the good news” through the media, on TV, magazines, “everywhere,” he said. “We can share the way we think openly without having any fear of the others. Because they accept us.”
At City Mall, huge cutout stars, glistening Christmas trees and garlands adorn the tri-level shopping concourse. There is also a sprawling, rustic, miniature crafted scene reminiscent of a Lebanese red-roofed village from centuries ago: women at the well with jugs of water, shepherds with their sheep, people gathering in the center square.
The Nativity is prominently featured in the display. Nestled in a cave, Mary and Joseph lovingly gaze upon the newborn King, his arms outstretched, lying in a simple manger illuminated with a soft light. Livestock surround the Holy Family. Outside the cave, the Wise Men have already arrived to pay homage to the savior; a shepherd tends to his sheep, with his head cocked toward baby Jesus.
Shoppers stroll by — Christians and Muslims — many stopping to get a close look at the magical scene and to snap pictures. Young children typically rush ahead of their parents to step up and lean against the translucent railing to get the closest view possible.
That’s just what 5-year-old Angelina Youssef did, arriving ahead of her mother, Samar, who pushed 1-year-old Roy in a stroller.
“It’s amazing,” the mother said of the mall’s manger display. “Kids like it. We come every year to see it. It gives us the Christmas spirit.”
Gazing at the manger, Samar Youssef, a Maronite Catholic from Beirut, said: “Everything sparkles. Christmas is when Jesus was born, so we must always remember this before we think about trees and gifts. Jesus is the joy of Christmas.”
Grace Abou Tayeh smiled as her 1-year-old son, Joe, looked with wonder at the creche.
“I like when my son sees Jesus inside so he won’t forget what’s the meaning of this holiday,” she told CNS.
Her husband, Charbel Abou Tayeh, also Catholic, pointed to the appeal of Christmas within other faiths.
“The birth of Jesus is for all mankind, so no matter what the religion is — Christian, Muslim — it’s for everyone, so we all share the happiness of Christmas here in Lebanon,” said Charbel Abou Tayeh.
“And I’m seeing it, even all my Muslim friends have (Christmas) trees, and some even have the baby Jesus in their houses,” he said, calling it an example of “the unique culture of our country.” With 18 religious sects represented in Lebanon, he added, “we’re still hanging on here,” referring to the Christian presence.
In Beirut’s Sassine Square, a life-size manger scene is featured next to a towering cone-shaped Christmas tree. Mary and Joseph — an angel between them — look upon the empty crib, filled with straw.
Admiring the site as he passed, George Abdul Malak, a Greek Orthodox from Beirut, told CNS, “It’s a part of our culture that even in homes in Lebanon, we find this accompanying the tree all the time, the creche.” He added that many people wait until Christmas Eve to put baby Jesus in the crib.
“Maybe globally we don’t find the custom of creches, we find (Christmas) trees more,” Abdul Malak said. But in Lebanon, the presence of a creche in a public place “means that we have some kind of freedom of expression.”
Karim Al Younis, a Shiite Muslim visiting Lebanon from Basra, Iraq, stopped to gaze at the manger scene. Asked how he feels about the display, he told CNS, “What can you see here, except peace, love and family?”
5 December 2016
A damaged statue of Mary is seen in a church in Qaraqosh, Iraq, on 25 November.
(photo: CNS/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)
The Syriac Catholic patriarch said he was horrified to see widespread devastation and what he called “ghost towns” during a recent visit to northern Iraq.
Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan wrote in an email to Catholic News Service that there was little left in some of the communities that he toured 27-29 November and that “the emptiness of the streets except for military people ... the devastation and burned-out houses and churches” was shocking.
About 100,000 Christians — among them more than 60,000 Syriac Catholics — were expelled from the Ninevah Plain by the Islamic State group in the summer of 2014 as the militants campaigned to expand their reach into Iraq.
Patriarch Younan also called for understanding from the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump about the plight and ordeal of all minorities, including Christians affected by violence in the region.
The patriarch told CNS about “walking through the Christian towns of Qaraqosh, Bartella and Karamles and witnessing the extent of devastation as if we had entered ghost towns!”
Graffiti and inscriptions “expressing hatred toward Christian symbols and doctrine were seen everywhere” on walls near streets, outside and inside houses and churches, he wrote.
“Aside from the looting, destruction of and damage to buildings, we discovered that the terrorists, out of hatred to the Christian faith, set fire to most of the buildings, including churches, schools, kindergartens and hospitals,” the patriarch’s message said, noting that only Christian properties were targeted.
In Qaraqosh — once inhabited by more than 50,000 Christians — the patriarch celebrated the Eucharist 28 November “on an improvised small altar” in the incinerated sanctuary of the vandalized Church of the Immaculate Conception. That church, which had 2,200 seats before its desecration by Islamic State, was built by parishioners in the 1930’s.
Few people could attend the liturgy, among them a few clergy and some armed youth and media representatives, the patriarch said.
“In my short homily, I just wanted to strengthen their faith in the redeemer’s altar and cross, although both were half broken behind us. I reminded them that we Christians are the descendants of martyrs and confessors, with a long history dating back to the evangelization of the apostles,” he wrote.
“I had the intention after its restoration five years ago, and still have it, to ask the Holy Father, the pope, to name this church as a minor basilica,” the patriarch added.
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan recently visited Christian villages in Iraq that were liberated from ISIS and described them as being like “ghost towns.”
(photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn)
In addition to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, all of the churches the patriarch's delegation visited, including St. Behnam and St. Sarah Monastery, which dates to the fourth century, sustained significant damage or were destroyed.
In opening the trip 27 November in Erbil, which escaped being occupied by the militants, Patriarch Younan celebrated Mass for more than 800 displaced people at Our Lady of Peace Syriac Catholic Church. Located in the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, where many of those uprooted from the Ninevah Plain sought refuge, the church recently opened to serve refugees.
The patriarch also said he met with the faith community, religious leaders and nongovernmental organizations to discuss the future of Christianity in northern Iraq.
Based on “what happened in recent times,” the patriarch noted, “it was the overall opinion that none would dare to return, rebuild and stay in the homeland, unless a safe zone for the Christian communities in the Plain of Ninevah is guaranteed.”
He called for a “stable, law-abiding and strong government” to support the establishment of an eventual self-administrative province under the central government of Iraq.
“I therefore reiterate what I have been saying for years. We, Christians in Iraq and Syria, feel abandoned, even betrayed, by the Western politicians of recent times,” Patriarch Younan said.
“We have been sold out for oil and forgotten because of our small number compared to the ‘Islamic Ummah’ (Islamic nation) in which we have lived for centuries.”
The patriarch urged the “so-called ‘civilized world’ to uphold its principles and to seriously defend" the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he described as “vital for our survival.”
“It is time to stand up and condemn those regimes that still discriminate against non-Muslim communities, with (their) excuses such as ... ‘our law, our education and governing system’ are based on our ‘particularities of culture, history and religion,’” the patriarch continued.
Patriarch Younan expressed his “strong hope” that the Trump administration “will understand our plight and the ordeal of all minorities, including Christians.”
“It is time that the United States be respected around the world,” and most particularly in the Middle East, as “a nation of hope and freedom and not a land of opportunism.”