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Current Issue
March, 2018
Volume 44, Number 1
  
25 May 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, center, meets Iraqi Christians who have opened a mobile cellphone shop in the Ninevah Plain following the defeat of ISIS. (photo: CNS/courtesy CAPNI)

In the aftermath of Iraq’s elections, Christians want to see a government formed that is free from the sectarianism that has torn apart the country, and they want Iran’s influence to diminish. Both issues have played a huge role in politics since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East, told Catholic News Service that although fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr has gained the majority of parliament’s seats, Al Sadr’s uncompromising nationalism, stand against corruption and against foreign meddling seem to have struck a chord among ordinary Iraqis, who are fed up with what many call Baghdad’s broken political system.

“Iraq’s Shiite politicians, whose population forms the country’s majority, are of two streams: one pro-Iran and the other freer from Iranian influence, and Sadr is the leader of this latter group,” the priest explained.

“Al Sadr has called for a Cabinet of technocrats, not politicians. So far, he is more acceptable with the public because of his slogans. But can he realize forming a coalition government? In Iraq, it’s very complicated,” Father Youkhana said.

Father Youkhana runs the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq or CAPNI, for displaced Iraqis around the city of Dohuk, partnering with CNEWA, in addition to rebuilding homes and restoring livelihoods in several towns in the Ninevah Plain following its destruction by Islamic State since 2014.

Iraq’s historic Christians and other religious minorities, such as the Yezidis, are also dismayed that the government has so far failed to address and counter the problems that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. And it has not contributed to rebuilding efforts in their communities.

“Now in Germany or the U.S., if a situation happens two or three times, they call for a debate in Congress. But in Iraq, it’s now four years from what happened, and there has been no national debate on what took place, how it happened, and how to prevent it from reocurring,” the priest said.

Yet, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael, now also a Cardinal-designate, has repeatedly called for a serious national dialogue to combat sectarianism in his homeland. So far, those calls seem to have gone largely unheeded.

Iraq’s military and police abandoned Christians and Yezidis in the face of the brutal attacks by Islamic State in 2014 that saw thousands killed, kidnapped, turned into sex slaves, maimed and displaced. The United Nations deemed the Islamic State the perpetrator of a genocide against the Yezidis of Iraq.

These events have left Iraq’s rich cultural mosaic of religious minorities feeling that they are second-class citizens. They sense that Iraq’s political leaders do not represent their interests or concerns.

Iraq’s Christian population, believed to number up to 1.4 million in the late 1990’s, now is estimated to be fewer than 500,000. They have been victims of sectarian violence, driven out of their ancestral homeland. Almost two-thirds of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

They worry that Shiite militias that fought Islamic State militants are staking claim to parts of the historic Christian Ninevah Plain, where they never before resided.

“Bartella is becoming a Shiite town,” said Father Youkhana. “Now when you enter Bartella, you see the photos of [Iran’s ayatollahs] Khomeini and Khamenei. This demographic change is protected and facilitated by the militias,” he said. “This is our concern.”

“The failure of the government goes beyond the material,” said Father Youkhana, referring to the Iraqi government’s lack of funding or efforts to rebuild the ancestral areas destroyed by the Islamic State militants where Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities historically have lived.

Most of reconstruction of these areas have been undertaken by Western governments and various Christian agencies, such as CAPNI, Catholic Relief Services and Caritas.

“I would also partially blame the church for giving the impression that we can do it ourselves. But the reality is that the church single-handedly doesn’t have the resources for that,” the priest said.

“People have been hesitating to return [to their towns] unless the government provides safety guarantees, but so far it hasn’t, and I’m not sure if the new Cabinet will do so,” Father Youkhana said. “I call for a mini-Marshall Plan.”

CAPNI has rebuilt 28 schools and some 300 partially damaged houses in Qaraqosh, Bartella, Bashika and Bahzani. He said these partially damaged homes are the focus of rebuilding efforts by Christian aid groups and Western governments, such as Germany and Hungary, to reinstall electricity, doors, windows, etc. Health centers also are being rehabilitated.

Father Youkhana estimates that about 40 percent of such houses have been reconstructed. Others, which have been burned or completely destroyed, are not being rehabilitated by relief groups.

“Houses are being rehabilitated, but still people need to have livelihoods” if the towns are to be viable, he added.

So far, an estimated 25,000 people have returned to the area’s main town of Qaraqosh, which once housed 50,000 Christians.

Sura Jamiel Hanna, who heads CAPNI’s community development work, said the group provides loans and grants for income generating projects to revive some 20 livelihoods for Christians, Yezidis and Muslims in the towns such as beekeeping, sheep raising, carpentry and hairdressing.

CAPNI, in conjunction with Jesuit Worldwide Learning, also provides English language courses as well as 13 others such as management, math, and ethics for those who already possess proficient English skills.

Teaching of Kurdish to Arabic-speakers, music, sports and studies on Eastern Christianity are also offered.

“This is important for us as a matter of identity,” Father Youkhana said of the latter, adding that advocacy is now vital for Iraq’s minorities to realize their rights in both school curriculum and national and local legislation.

“This is the way to address the roots of the problem,” he said of Iraq’s troubling sectarianism. “We are fighting to keep the hope of our people alive.”



Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians

12 March 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




Residents flee after Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters captured the village of Khaldieh in Afrin, Syria. Christian activists warn that a million Syrian civilians will face certain slaughter in northwestern Afrin, where they allege Turkey and its militant allies have already carried out war crimes. (photo: CNS/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters)

Christian activists warn that 1 million Syrian civilians will face certain slaughter in northwestern Afrin, where they allege Turkey and its militant allies have already carried out “war crimes” and “ethnic cleansing.”

They have appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump and top U.S. officials to stop the bloodshed, warning that failure to act jeopardizes the hard-fought U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State in Syria.

Civilians from other parts of Syria and outside the country have reportedly offered to stand as “human shields” between the Kurdish-backed fighters and Turkish forces set to storm Afrin.

Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria, said, “I have never seen so much violence as in Syria.” In remarks on 9 March, he likened the situation to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The nuncio called the situation in the war-ravaged land “hell on earth,” especially for vulnerable children.

In March, Syria’s conflict entered its eighth year. More than 350,000 people have died, 5 million are refugees and 6.3 million civilians are displaced within the country.

Syria is currently “one of the most dangerous places for children,” Cardinal Zenari said. “It’s terrible. I always say, it’s a massacre of the innocents.”

Two Christian activists, Bassam Ishak and Lauren Homer, told Catholic News Service of the relentless assault by Turkey and militants from hardline jihadist movements, including the so-called Islamic State.

“Turkey has committed war crimes and ethnic cleansing already in Afrin and the Federation of Northern Syria,” or FNS, they told CNS.

Ishak heads the Syriac National Council and is a member of the political bureau of the Syrian Democratic Council. He is a graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Homer, an Anglican, is a Washington, D.C.-based international human rights lawyer.

“Turkey has already ‘cleared’ villages of Yazidis, Kurds, Christians and others, promising to replace them with Syrian refugees. In fact, Afrin already has enlarged its population by 50 percent to house [internally displaced] Syrians, who are among those being killed, injured or captured,” they said.

People in and around Afrin are facing the warplanes, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons of NATO’s second-largest standing army, Turkey.

A local health authority reported more than 220 dead and 600 civilians injured in this mainly Kurdish area of northwestern Syria, some 30 miles from Aleppo.

Videos and photos from Afrin taken by both Kurds and members of the Turkish forces depict bombed-out houses, mangled bodies of children killed by the blasts and civilians being herded away.

Largely untouched by Syria’s deadly conflict until recently, this part of the Federation of Northern Syria succeeded in creating a nonsectarian, pluralist, inclusive government system not seen elsewhere in the Middle East in which there is religious freedom and equal rights are granted to all.

Activists are calling for an immediate no-fly zone over Afrin, enforced by U.S. drones or warplanes; implementation of the 24 February U.N. Security Council resolution requiring a cease-fire by Turkey in Afrin; humanitarian aid and safe passage out for civilians; and mediation of a long-term cease-fire and withdrawal of Turkish troops to its own borders — potentially with promises of U.S. or U.N. border monitors.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish council that governs Afrin demanded the U.N. Security Council establish a no-fly zone over Afrin and forcibly respond to the Turkish offensive.

“This U.N. and U.S. and NATO inaction will go down in infamy as an inconceivable abandonment of our ‘allies’ the SDF and the FNS. Genocide seems to be only something we are interested in in retrospect, to mourn and wring our hands over,” Homer warned.

Anti-aircraft weapons are needed to stop the attacks, observers say, but the Syrian Democratic Forces, composed of Kurdish and Christian fighters, were never given the necessary arms. At this point, U.S. aerial patrols would be needed. The Kurds and Christian fighters largely won the U.S.-led battle against Islamic State in Syria.

“Military solutions are no real solutions. Taking Afrin will not solve any problems, neither the internal problems for Turkey in the long run, nor will it help solve any issue that is part of the Syrian question,” Ishak told CNS. Turkey says it is battling Kurdish “terrorists” as its pretext for invading Afrin.

“Instead, it will just further complicate the situation and increase the level of competition between actors jockeying for influence in Syria,” Ishak said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian military, backed with Russian airpower, carried out intensive ground and aerial assaults on the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. Syrian government forces have reportedly captured more than half of the area.

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders said more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in the area since late February, while almost 400,000 residents are living under heavy bombardment, after having been subjected to nearly five years of siege, lacking food and medicines.

Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the international community to intervene in Syria to help end the violence. Calling the war in Syria “inhumane,” Pope Francis urged for an end to the fighting, immediate access to humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the injured and infirm.



Tags: Syria Middle East Christians War Syrian Conflict

23 February 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




Worshipers pray at St. George Chaldean Catholic church in Tel Eskof, Iraq, which was damaged by ISIS militants. Iraqi Catholic leaders are urging Christians to remain steadfast in this Lenten season as they encounter challenges of ISIS’ legacy in their historic lands.
(photo: CNS/Marko Djurica, Reuters)


Iraqi Catholic leaders are urging Christians to remain steadfast in this Lenten season as they encounter challenges of the ISIS’ legacy in their historic lands.

In a Lenten pastoral letter, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad urged Iraqi Christians to pursue unity with other Christians at this sacred time with “open hearts.”

“Many Christians today live in a crisis of faith and intellect because of the circumstances of war, instability, migration and the dominance of social media on the details of their daily lives,” he wrote in the letter, released on 21 February.

Many Chaldean Catholics lost their homes, properties and other possessions as they fled ISIS militants in the summer of 2014. Many are destitute, still living in camps for the internally displaced or sheltering abroad.

“However, these challenges should not discourage their determination and dissuade them from renewing their faith and deepening it, to witness of the Lord and his church,” the patriarch said, calling on Christians to “increase within themselves strength, confidence and enthusiasm.”

Patriarch Sako also repeated his appeal to fellow Iraqis from different religious backgrounds to recognize Christians as “part of the national fabric of Iraq and to stop their decline, for Christians have had a historical presence in this country, where they have a role and a message.”

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Yousif Mirkis of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah estimates that between “40-45 percent of the Christians have returned to the some of their ancestral villages, particularly Qaraqosh.”

But he and other Catholic leaders told Catholic News Service there are many challenges to those Christians hoping to return home after the ISIS occupation and expulsion.

“There are problems with Bartella. Although Bartella is not far from Qaraqosh, the Shiites have been imposing themselves and using the force of Iran to take over territory, etc. The Christians of Bartella are very upset by this situation,” Archbishop Mirkis told CNS by phone.

“Maybe the Americans and Baghdad government are not very aware of what is happening in these villages,” he said.

“The Christians of Bartella tell me: ‘We cannot go back. We don’t dare to go back.’ So, these people are still sheltering in Irbil or in the camps for internally displaced people in Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah,” Archbishop Mirkis said of the northern Iraqi cities providing Christians with refuge.

“Qaraqosh is a little bit better. There, houses are being repaired. Now, the people are returning, but many houses are burned and are completely destroyed. These Christians cannot afford the prices to reconstruct the houses,” he said.

The archbishop and his dioceses have been helping displaced Christians with material and spiritual support as well as providing transportation for hundreds of their university students. Many Christian supporters claim Christian organizations have been the sole sponsors of reconstruction efforts, without help from the government.

But Father Emanuel Youkhana told CNS that so far, the planned “return, reconstruction and rebuilding movement did not meet our expectations and hopes. Thousands of families are hesitating and/or unable to return, and they are still displaced in Kurdistan.”

The archimandrite, a member of the Assyrian Church of the East, heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI. He spoke to CNS by phone and email.



23 January 2018
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are seen on 22 January near, Afrin, Syria. Churches in Afrin are calling on the world to stop the slaughter of civilians during the Turkish military assault.
(photo: CNS/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters)


Churches in Afrin, Syria, are calling on the world to stop the slaughter of civilians during the Turkish military assault.

“We ask you to pray for us and for our city which, before a couple of days ago, was full of life, but today is not,” said the Rev. Saeed Daoud, a Syrian clergyman whose name has been changed at his request due to fear of retribution.

“The brutal attack of the Turkish military with extremist Islamic groups has been carried out, without any warning,” he told Catholic News Service in an email, referring to Turkey’s relentless shelling and ground offensive since 20 January.

In an appeal for international help, another religious leader wrote: “We are asking for intervention and protection against the violent attacks which are being levied against us at this moment.

“Many lives are in mortal danger,” said the Rev. Hakim Ismael. “We are unable to protect ourselves or our families against these attacks, neither are we able to offer assistance or shelter to the innocents. Please help us.”

The city of Afrin, located in a Kurdish-controlled area of northwestern Syria, is approximately 30 miles from Aleppo.

Father Emanuel Youkhana, an archimandrite of the Assyrian Church of the East, told CNS: “With the military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and the final phase of its defeat in Syria, we prayed and hoped to move forward in a new phase of reconciliation and rebuilding the life toward a future where all people — Christians, Muslims, Yezidis, Kurds, Arab, Assyrians and all — may live in dignity and justice.

“We are shocked by another brutal and violent attack on the people in Afrin. Here again, the innocent civilians are paying the price for political interests under the pretext of fighting against the terrorist,” said Father Youkhana, who runs Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, a Christian program for displaced Iraqis around the city of Dahuk.

“The Turkish military operations against Kurdish and Christian people of the Afrin region cannot be justified. The civilians cannot be attacked under any claim,” he said, calling for an immediate end to the military operations and immediate aid to the people.

“Attacking who fought ISIS is shocking and questionable action,” he said. “We pray for decision makers to work for peace. Battle cannot be a path to peace.”

Dutch human rights advocate Johannes de Jong told CNS: “The civilian population of Afrin is deliberately targeted and being killed off. This is also a specific threat to the Christian church in Afrin.

“The jihadist proxies used by Turkey to invade Afrin have themselves said that there is no room for Christians there,” added de Jong, who closely monitors events in Syria’s North.

“Will the Trump administration allow Afrin’s civilian population to be indiscriminately killed by the Turkish air force and permit jihadist proxies to invade Afrin and kill any Christian they can find?” he asked.

De Jong directs Sallux, formerly the Christian Political Foundation for Europe, based in The Netherlands. For the past several years, he has worked with minorities in Syria and Iraq, including Syriac Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen and Kurds.

The Kurdish-run city of Afrin has only four hospitals, now packed with “injured people and wounded innocent children,” Rev. Daoud said, adding that there are several reported cases of women who miscarried “due to shock and fear.”

Robar Refugee Camp, housing 600 displaced Syrians from the Aleppo countryside, was bombed with many injuries. Camp residents have appealed to the United Nations to intervene to stop the shelling.

In another instance, 11 members of the same family were killed when they tried to escape the bombardment by sheltering in a nearby village.

Turkish war planes began shelling Kurdish positions in Afrin shortly after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the launch of the military operation named Olive Branch. Erdogan has branded the mainly Kurdish YPG militia in the area a terrorist group; however, much of the bombing appears to be hitting civilian areas.

The YPG denies any direct links with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party and is a crucial part of a U.S.-backed alliance effectively battling Islamic State and other jihadists in northern Syria.

“That’s Turkey’s excuse for these raids, but in fact they (YPG) are not terrorists,” Lauren Homer, Washington, D.C.-based international human rights lawyer, told CNS of Erdogan’s claims. “To the extent they have fired weapons at the Turks, it’s in response to constant Turkish shelling of this and other areas along the Turkey-Syria border. It is a humanitarian catastrophe.”

“The bombing is quite indiscriminate. The church there is calling for a no-fly zone,” she said.

Erdogan is scheduled to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican on 5 February.



16 October 2017
Dale Gavlak




A shepherd leads his flock down a street between the Christian villages surrounding the city of Kerak in southern Jordan. (photo: Nader Daoud)

Dale Gavlak visited villages in Jordan for the current edition of ONE, and here offers some further impressions of a people working to preserve an ancient way of life.

I first met The Rev. Boulos Baqa’in in the CNEWA office in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Dressed in his black clerical shirt and white collar, the immense energy Father Boulos exudes is directed into confronting the crisis in his rural home area of Karak, south of the capital. Youth are leaving in droves due to little or no employment opportunities.

The area is the historical heartland of Jordan’s Christian Bedouin tribes, boasting the country’s last two remaining entirely Christian villages of Smakieh and Hmoud. But with the flight of youth to Amman or further afield to the Arab Gulf and their parents aging, there is serious concern for the future of the area’s Christian heritage.

These villages have also supplied the bulk of Latin and Melkite Catholic priests, as well as Orthodox priests and religious for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

That’s why Father Boulos is meeting with Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s regional director for Jordan, who is encouraging him to enter uncharted territory.

Father Boulas leads the liturgy at the Greek Melkite Church in Ader, in Jordan. (photo: Nader Daoud)

They’ve devised a plan to set up a powerful Internet connection between the CNEWA community center in Amman and one initially established at the Ader Greek Melkite Church to provide long-distance training of practical skills, such as IT by professionals.

Relevant teaching on pertinent health, education and cultural issues will also be provided to the villagers in a bid to educate the youth and older people alike. The hope is that the venture might also encourage telecommuting job opportunities with new found IT and other skills.

“It’s time for this project to move ahead,” Mr. Bahou says. This is how we will open these villages to the outside world. We need these villages to survive and these people to cope with what is going on.”

“Fresh ideas and thinking are wonderful for the old. We also hope to make skills for the youth and allow job prospects to take root in the villages,” Father Boulos says.

Father Boulos and his wife have their own bittersweet experience of the problem endured by many of the older residents in Kerak and the surrounding villages.

“In my family, I have two engineers and an economist,” he says. “These children are professional people, having gone to university, and are now working in Amman. My situation reflects that of the families in these villages. This is our problem now.”



25 July 2017
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




A boy carries his belongings in Mosul, Iraq, on 23 July. Some Iraqi Christians who are making their slow return to ancestral lands say it will take time to rebuild their lives and trust of those who betrayed them. (photo: CNS/Thaier Al-Sudani, Reuters)

As some Iraqi Christians make a slow return to the region around Mosul following the defeat of the Islamic State group, many say it will take time to rebuild their lives and even longer to rebuild their trust of those who betrayed them.

“The war isn’t finished yet and neither is the Islamic State. There is no stability and there is still fighting in Mosul,” said Patriarch Louis Sako, head of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church, who visited Mosul on 20 July, touring churches left badly damaged during the city’s three-year occupation by the extremists.

“How can Christians return when there are homes destroyed and there are no services? But most important is safety. The return of Christians needs time,” Patriarch Sako warned, in remarks carried by Radio Free Europe.

Although Iraqi forces declared victory over Islamic State fighters in Mosul early in July, the patriarch said the region remains unstable, leaving Christians uncertain about their future in their historic homeland.

“Trust must be rebuilt because the Christians of this region have endured such abuse and violence, leaving deep wounds,” Patriarch Sako said.

Father Emanuel Youkhana, an Iraqi priest, or archimandrite, of the Assyrian Church of the East, also warned that although Islamic State may be defeated militarily, “it doesn’t mean that its mentality, ideology or culture will be ended.”

Father Youkhana, who runs the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, a program for displaced Iraqis around the city of Dahuk, spoke to Catholic News Service via Skype.

“The mentality of Islamic State in terms of accepting or recognizing others who are different is still there among people. Although we are happy for the liberation of Mosul, in reality, no Christian or Yezidi will go back to Mosul. I say this with pain,” he emphasized.

“Now is the time to think about alternative places to set up public services, health care, businesses and economics in the region,” perhaps to establish these in “one of the Ninevah Plains towns, such as Telaskov, to serve Christians, Yezidis and Muslims,” he said.

Many see Telaskov as a prime location for the reconstruction and rebuilding of lives to start in earnest, because Islamic State militants spent less than two weeks occupying it, so damage is minimal.

Telaskov translates as “Bishop’s Hill” and, before the Islamic State takeover, was a thriving town of 11,000.

“Now, more than 600 families have returned to Telaskov; those formally from the town and nearby Batnaya because it is not possible to return to Batnaya due to huge damage,” Father Youkhana said.

“Life is regained, markets are open, the church is functioning and hoping the schools will be open there as well by the beginning of the school year,” he said.

Christians have expressed concerns that the current military line dividing the once predominantly Christian Ninevah Plains region will harden to become a de facto political/administrative line, dividing their numbers. In the north are towns like Telaskov and Batnaya, and the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters hold sway. Towns south of the line — where Qaraqosh, Bartella, and Bashiqa are found — are now under the control of the Iraqi army and Shiite militias.

Father Youkhana’s CAPNI organization has been able to rehabilitate more than 180 houses and properties and 17 schools north of the military line, where there is greater stability.

He expressed concerns especially for towns south of the military line, like Qaraqosh, once the biggest Christian town of 50,000 before the Islamic State takeover in August 2014.

“The Shiites are now trying to monopolize it and other towns. We have the challenge about how to keep them. We believe there will be a Christian town of Qaraqosh. The question is: Who will rule it? Questions also arise about the physical connectivity of Qaraqosh to other Christian towns in the Ninevah Plains given the different political and military sides that control the divided area.

Father Youkhana also shared a fear expressed by Christians that the victims of Islamic State extremists such as themselves, the Yezidis and other religious minorities will again become victims in the reconstruction process.

“Our people are concerned that Arab Sunni Muslims who hosted and joined Islamic State and helped the extremists against us will be given priority in reconstruction of Mosul, perhaps from the Iraqi government and the Arab Gulf states,” he said. “The victims will be ignored and neglected.”

Christians are calling on the international community, along with the Iraqi government, to help them and other citizens from religious minority backgrounds. Often, Father Youkhana said, there are unfair expectations that all the help will come from Christians themselves or the Western churches.

“It is the government and the international community that should commit to support these people,” he said.

“To rehabilitate a house is not enough to return. Beyond the politics, the security, there is the livelihood of how families can survive. When 30 families are coming to a neighborhood in Qaraqosh, they need a grocery, a bakery, jobs,” he said.

“We fled in one night from the Islamic State; we may take one or two years to return home,” he added.



24 July 2017
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, celebrates Mass in Marj Al Haman, Jordan, 23 July. (photo: CNS/Dale Gavlak)

Mideast church leaders meeting in Jordan developed a two-pronged action plan to help Catholic families.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told Catholic News Service the first step was to “change completely the preparation for the religious Catholic marriage.” Archbishop Pizzaballa explained that a revised teaching would entail “not just the immediate preparation to marriage that currently exists, but to start earlier the instruction with Catholic youth about what exactly marriage means.”

Secondly, he said the church sought to “create counseling offices in order to avoid couples immediately going to the courts” to deal with family problems that might arise.

In many Arab countries, where Islam and Islamic law predominate, there are no civil laws regarding marriage and divorce. That means that the state relies on religious bodies such as Catholic family law courts to certify marriages.

Often, civil divorce is impossible for Catholics in the Middle East, with many resorting to leaving the faith — becoming Orthodox or even Muslim — in order to find a tribunal that will allow them to escape their marriage.

With the Year of Mercy that began in late 2015, the church streamlined procedures for annulment cases, which have become a matter of urgency in many societies in the Middle East.

Archbishop Pizzaballa spoke to Catholic News Service 23 July after the conference’s closing Mass at Martyrs of Jordan Church. Delegations of clerics, judges and lawyers specializing in canon law from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Jordan participated in conference, which discussed a number of legal issues relating to marriage and the family. The proceedings were chaired by Father Emil Salayta, president of the church court in Jerusalem.

Archbishop Pizzaballa told CNS it is important to enhance the training for young people to “explain the meaning of a Catholic marriage and all the mutual commitments involved and to let them understand, with time in advance, what a Catholic marriage truly is.”

He said the main purpose of the conference was to help priests and lawyers who work in courts understand new regulations following Pope Francis’ September document bringing the basic legal instruments that govern the Latin- and Eastern-rite Catholic churches more closely into accord on several issues involving baptism and marriage.

“The decision has just been taken. Now we need to sit down with the pastoral offices, people, and other concerned offices to see what to do in order to build this,” Archbishop Pizzaballa said.

“We cannot expect in one year to have everything ready, but to build it. We are aware of the problem and we have to find not-easy solutions,” he said.

Archbishop Pizzaballa said today’s youth often have a “completely different mentality” about commitment, and preparations are needed to help them to make lasting ones.

“In the past, the youth used to ask: ‘Why do this?’ Now they ask ‘Why not?’” he said.

The papal nuncio to Jordan and Iraq, Archbishop Alberto Ortega Martin, stressed that “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation after two synods of bishops on the family, shows the importance of compassion that should be exercised by the church, especially on the subject of families.

He told conference participants that the Catholic courts should serve the law, demonstrate compassion and love through their judges and lawyers, and be witnesses to the greatness of marriage.



15 February 2017
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




Missak Baghboudarian, conductor of the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, stands with Italian Catholic cathedral organist Eugenio Maria Fagiani during a 9 February performance at the Damascus Opera House. (photo: CNS/Ghyath Haboub)

A famed Italian Catholic cathedral organist is believed to have been the first Western musician to perform in Syria since the start of the civil war nearly six years ago.

“It has been awesome. It was something unbelievable,” Eugenio Maria Fagiani told Catholic News Service by phone of his recent performances in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

“It has been a great privilege to make music with people so passionate, so full of life and joy,” Fagiani said of the camaraderie shared with members of the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra and its maestro, Missak Baghboudarian.

Together they performed Joseph Jongen’s “Symphonie Concertante” and Camille Saint-Saens “Symphony No. 3” at the Damascus Opera House 9 February.

“I chose these pieces (because) they make people feel really joyful,” Fagiani said, remarking of the 1,100-person packed audience. The concert was recorded and is expected to be broadcast in Syria.

“I was welcomed by these colleagues with such a warm feeling that I will never forget,” the organist said of the experience. “This moment will be forever part of my heart.”

The following day, Fagiani played at St. Anthony’s Latin Church in Damascus, at the invitation of Cardinal Mario Zenari and the parish priest, Father Fadi. Both concerts initiated the first Syrian Pipe Organ Festival, sponsored by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

A native of the northern Italian town of Bergamo, Fagiani is formidable in the world of international sacred organ music and is recognized for his composition and improvisation.

In Italy, he collaborates with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi and is also the cathedral organist in the town of Arezzo, especially playing services during which a bishop or archbishop presides. He regularly performs in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

Initially, Fagiani was concerned about traveling to Syria, especially with its security situation as reported in the media. For that reason, he said, he did not inform his loved ones about the trip. But he soon discovered Damascus to be calm and quite tolerant, he told CNS. When he slipped into a large mosque for a visit, “nobody looked at me strangely,” he said.

“I walked easily in Damascus without any problems or danger. There are a lot of checkpoints, a lot control, but you feel safe in that way,” he added.

However, in other parts of Syria, government troops and rebel forces of various political stripes are engaged in heavy battles for the country’s future. The United Nations said the conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced almost half of the Syrian population. The U.N. said another 600,000 people remain under siege by both by the Syrian military and rebel and jihadist groups.

Fagiani said he found that the devaluation of the Syrian currency coupled with high prices for fuel and other goods as well as electricity shortages have made life even for Syrians living in Damascus more difficult.

“This mission is bigger than us,” Fagiani said of the need to try to restore normalcy to ordinary Syrians. “The culture minister provided us with an extra two hours of electricity to ensure the concert at the church could happen.”

The concerts were co-sponsored by Syrian Culture Minister Mohammed Al-Ahmed, the Damascus Opera House and the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus.

Fagiani has also performed at various church-organized organ festivals, including in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Last October, he played at the reopening and dedication of the Memorial of Moses at Mount Nebo, Jordan, the site where Moses is believed to have seen the Promised Land and died.

“The culture minister and Cardinal Zenari told me that the concerts were a big gift for them,” Fagiani said. “They’ve opened doors. I hope that others will follow in my steps.”



31 January 2017
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




In this image from 2014, Syrian girls at Good Shepherd Social Center in Deir al-Ahmar, Lebanon, make Christmas decorations. Hundreds of Syrian refugees attend school at the center. As a result of President Trump’s executive action last week, Syrian refugees such as these are prevented from resettling in the U.S. until further notice. (photo: CNS/Brooke Anderson)

Promised resettlement in the United States after escaping death and destruction in their homeland, many Syrian refugees are frustrated and angry over President Donald Trump’s executive action banning their entry to the U.S. until further notice.

“We’re frustrated. We were told that we were accepted for resettlement in the U.S., and now everything is at a standstill,” a Syrian refugee woman told Catholic News Service, wiping away tears as she surveyed her crumbling home in the Jordanian capital.

“Neither the U.S. Embassy nor the International Organization for Migration have responded to our repeated telephone calls about our status or what to expect in the future,” said the mother of four young children, whose family fled to Jordan in 2013 after their home was bombed. Rahma provided only her first name for fear of reprisal.

“If there is no longer any chance of being resettled in the U.S., then we would like to know whether we can apply somewhere else which will welcome us,” she said.

The burden of not being able to work in Jordan over these past years has left Rahma’s family desperate, unable to provide even the basic necessities of food and heating for the winter.

Refugee Abdel Hakim, a pharmacist from the southern Syrian town of Daraa, cannot contain his anger at seeing his dreams of starting a new life in the United States dashed. He and his family were far along in the approval process and expected to travel shortly from Jordan to the U.S. He called the measure “discriminatory and racist.”

“In the beginning, we didn’t want to leave Syria. But as it’s been plunged deeper in war, we now find even the door to America has been slammed shut in our faces,” he told CNS.

Trump’s 27 January presidential action ended indefinitely the entry of Syrian refugees to the U.S., pending a security review meant to ensure terrorists cannot slip through the vetting process. As well, it suspended the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days.

The action also slapped a 90-day ban on all entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries with terrorism concerns, including Syria. While Jordan is not on that list, the Middle East kingdom hosts more than 1.5 million refugees who have fled conflicts in neighboring Syria and Iraq, including flight from the so-called Islamic State militants.

“These dramatic and discriminatory policies will only harm, not help, U.S. interests and our national security,” Jesuit Refugee Service-USA said in a statement criticizing the decision.

For the past 15 years, as waves of refugees fleeing the 2003 Gulf war, the Syrian civil war and those persecuted by Islamic State militants have flooded Jordan in search of a safe haven, Catholic and other churches have provided food, clothing, heating and other items, regardless of the refugees’ religious background.

International faith-based aid groups, such as Catholic Relief Service and Caritas, have been at the forefront of efforts helping refugees, mainly from Syria and Iraq, but also those who fled the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Resource-poor Jordan has struggled to provide water and electricity, education and health services to hundreds of thousands of refugees as the grinding conflicts in their homelands show little sign of ending. Many Syrian refugees accepted for U.S. resettlement have arrived from Jordan.

More than 27,000 Syrian refugees from 11 Middle Eastern host countries were under consideration for resettlement to the U.S. and in various stages of the approval process at the time of Trump’s action, according to the International Organization for Migration, a U.N.-related agency that interviews and prepares refugees for resettlement.

Quickly, the measure sparked mass protests at U.S. airports and other venues, where people demanded its repeal. Angry demonstrators criticized the ban as completely contrary to America’s ideals and its storied history of accepting immigrants fleeing persecution in search of a better life.

King Abdullah II of Jordan visited Washington Jan. 30, becoming the first Arab leader to meet members of the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence and the secretaries of defense and homeland security.

The king raised the controversial bans in his talks, according to an official statement, which said he “emphasized that Muslims are the No. 1 victims” of Islamic terrorists, whom he called religious “outlaws” who “do not represent any faith or nationality.”

King Abdullah will address the National Prayer Breakfast 2 February and is expected to meet Trump.

The monarch is considered Washington’s closest Arab ally battling the Islamic State as part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria. Jordan hosts considerable U.S. military hardware and personnel, serving as a critical base for U.S. air operations against the Islamic State in Syria. It has also experienced deadly Islamic State attacks on its territory.

Jordan has also called the new administration’s proposal to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem “a red line” that could evoke “catastrophic” consequences, including widespread violent unrest at home and in the region. Jordan is the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem under a 1994 peace treaty with Israel, only one of two treaties the Jewish state has with Arab countries.



17 October 2016
Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service




In this image from April, a woman prepares tea in a camp for internally displaced families in Ain Kawa, near Erbil, Iraq. Residents of the camp were displaced from Mosul and other communities in Iraq when ISIS swept through the area in 2014. On 17 October 2016, a battle began to retake Mosul from ISIS — sparking both hope and concern among displaced Iraqis.
(photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey)


Iraqi Christians are cautiously welcoming the start of the battle for Mosul and the Ninevah Plain, their ancestral homeland of the past 14 centuries from which they were brutally driven out by the Islamic State group more than two years ago.

“They’ve been waiting for this day after being forced out in the summer of 2014, and many Christians have been living in very miserable conditions since. A number are eager to go back,” Father Emanuel Youkhana told the Catholic News Service. The archimandrite, a member of the Assyrian Church of the East, heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI.

“Of course the military operation is just the first of several phases paving the way for their return. They will need security and other guarantees before they go back,” Father Youkhana said. “Also much reconstruction and rehabilitation of the region occupied the Islamic State militants will need to take place.”

This summer, the U.N. said that as the Mosul crisis evolves, up to 13 million people throughout Iraq may need humanitarian aid by the year’s end — far larger than the Syrian crisis. This would make the humanitarian operation in Mosul likely the single largest, most complex in the world in 2016.

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis of Kirkuk, Iraq, told CNS Iraqi Christians view these operations “with hope and fear.”

“Everything is complicated. Still, we are waiting for what will happen after Daesh (the Arabic slang name for Islamic State), because maybe those criminals will be thrown out of Iraq, but the mentality remains in those who welcomed them,” Archbishop Mirkis said. “So how do we heal the country from this kind of fanaticism, which is very deep in society?”

The Kirkuk Archdiocese has taken in and ministered to hundreds of Iraqi Christians displaced by the brutal attacks of the Islamic State militants, who demanded Mosul residents leave their homes and businesses, convert to Islam or be killed.

Prior to the Iraqi military’s capitulation to a small group of Islamic State fighters in 2014, Mosul was inhabited by more than 2 million people. It’s believed that only about 1 million residents remain today. Some 130,000 have fled to other areas within Iraq, such as Kirkuk or Kurdistan. Thousands of others are being housed in neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, while perhaps hundreds have been resettled or are awaiting resettlement in the U.S., Australia and Canada. Some live in cramped conditions in church basements. Caritas and other Catholic organizations have been working to help them.

International humanitarian organizations are warning that Iraqis, mainly Sunni Muslims, left in Mosul are “now in grave danger.” The Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children and others are urging the establishment of safe exit routes for civilians to flee the city.

“Unless safe routes to escape the fighting are established, many families will have no choice but to stay and risk being killed by crossfire or bombardment, trapped beyond the reach of humanitarian aid with little food or medical care,” said Aram Shakaram, Save the Children’s deputy country director in Iraq.

“Those that try to flee will be forced to navigate a city ringed with booby traps, snipers and hidden land mines. Without immediate action to ensure people can flee safely, we are likely to see bloodshed of civilians on a massive scale,” Shakaram warned.

The humanitarian groups criticize instructions from Iraq’s military urging inhabitants to hunker down inside their homes.

At best, this is impractical in a brutal urban conflict, the groups say. At worst, it risks civilian buildings being turned into military positions and families being used as human shields, they argue.

But even if people do manage to flee, they also face some uncertainty. Although aid agencies have been preparing for months, observers believe camps for the internally displaced are ready for perhaps some 60,000 people, and these camps could be overwhelmed within days.

The U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs reported it is locating additional land for extra camps to be set up. It reported that construction of additional sites, with capacity for 250,000 people, is underway. Food rations for 220,000 families are ready for distribution, 143,000 sets of emergency household items are in stock; latrines and showers are being readied for dispatch and 240 tons of medication are available at distribution points. But funding toward a flash appeal has been insufficient to prepare fully for the worst-case scenario.

Even if the operation rids the area of Islamic State, Archbishop Mirkis said a number of Christians have serious concerns about returning home without iron-clad guarantees for their future safety.

“Who can give such assurances? Maybe the big countries. But those who suffered the most are the Yezidis. The Yezidis and all the minorities face the same problem. How can we have peace with neighbors who looted our houses?” he asked. He also expressed concerned for civilians inside Mosul.

“All those children, elderly and civilians are caught like in a prison. We have to think about them too. We have to read the book of Jonah. It can explain many things to us,” the Catholic Chaldean leader said.







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