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?”
20 December 2016
Tourists walk past a large Santa Claus on 17 December near the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
19 December 2016
In this image from December 2011, CNEWA’s president Msgr. John E. Kozar meets with children of Blessed Sacrament Orphanage in Ain Warka, Lebanon. You can read more about that memorable visit here. (photo: CNEWA)
16 December 2016
Pilgrims light candles at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, on 11 December.
(photo: CNS/Abed Al Hashlamoun, EPA)
15 December 2016
An Egyptian girl wants a closer look at Verbo Encarnado Sister María de la Santa Faz. The sister and her congregation serve some of the poorest of the poor outside Alexandria, Egypt. To learn more, read Building a Brighter Future from the November 2004 edition of ONE.
(photo: Mohammed El-Dakhakhny)
14 December 2016
Fairuz Rassam, a long-time Chicago resident, sent for her Iraqi sisters, Firaz and Victoria, so they could escape the conflict in Iraq. They are seen at Mass on 4 December at St. Ephrem Chaldean Catholic Church in Chicago. (photo: CNS/Simone Orendain)
On a recent overcast Sunday morning in northwest Chicago, the pews of the small wood-paneled St. Ephrem Chaldean Catholic Church were filled to overflowing. Among the rows of Massgoers sat Firaz Rassam and her sisters.
After the Mass, Rassam and her sister, Victoria Rassam, said they “pray, pray that (Victoria’s) children would be able to get out (of northern Iraq) in time” before any major Islamic State attack or any other conflict reaches their neighborhood in Ain Kawa, a Christian hub in the Kurdish region. Firaz Rassam, who arrived in Chicago in September, said this year she would not be able to celebrate Christmas “with the type of happiness that (her family) normally would celebrate.”
Speaking through their nephew who interpreted from their native dialect, an Aramaic derivative, Firaz Rassam, 44, told Catholic News Service that she and her three children came ahead of her husband after her other sister, Fairuz Rassam, sent for her.
“The environment over there,” said Firaz Rassam, who used to be a librarian. “There’s no electricity. It’s dangerous. There’s no work. I want to have a better future for my kids.”
Victoria Rassam, 56, who migrated to Chicago two years ago, was still waiting for her family to come. She said all she could do was pray and that she was “really hoping” she would see her children again soon.
“This Christmas we will celebrate by going to midnight Mass and praying for them,” said Victoria Rassam.
Since the second Gulf War in 2003, oil-rich Iraq has been unstable with ethnic and religious conflicts that have given rise to various terror organizations, including the Islamic State group, which grew out of Saddam Hussein’s military, factions of al-Qaida and other groups. Many Christians migrated; others fled Islamic State and other terror organizations.
Deacon Hameed Shabila, a longtime Chicago resident who works at St. Ephrem, told CNS his siblings in the Baghdad area have not been able to attend midnight Mass for years because it is not safe. He said the churches are heavily guarded by armed forces after dark.
Deacon Shabila, who has asked that his siblings be allowed to come to the U.S., said it was also around Christmas time that one parishioner's adult son was killed in Iraq 10 years ago. Shabila served as interpreter for the parishioner, Maria Yonan.
Yonan said she fled Iraq with her daughter-in-law and two grandsons immediately after her son was killed when he was celebrating on New Year’s. The 77-year old widow was hesitant to speak with CNS and feared for her grandsons’ safety as she described how a group she called terrorists attacked her son and his friends.
Yonan and her daughter-in-law spent a couple of years as refugees in Syria, trying to get to Australia, where her daughter-in-law has family. But the wait was too long and they decided to come to the U.S., which was readily accepting refugees. Her daughter also came to the U.S. as a refugee and is living in California, but one other daughter stayed behind with her own family.
Yonan, who recently became a U.S. citizen and lives in low-income housing, said at Christmas she likes to go to midnight Mass at St. Ephrem, where she can be with people who speak her language. She has tried to keep up some of the same Christmas traditions that her family kept in Iraq.
Yonan said every Christmas her grandsons visit and she makes special Christmas candy called klecha, a treat that "makes people happy" and signifies a joyful time. But this year, Yonan said she was not planning to make the candies because she is in mourning after the 25 November death of her son-in-law, who suffered a heart attack in Baghdad.
Hazim Maryaqo and his family also will not be celebrating Christmas this year because of the death from illness of his brother in Baghdad. Maryaqo, 49, arrived in the Detroit area 4 October4 with his pregnant wife and three children, all younger than 8.
In a phone interview with CNS, he said through an interpreter that when the family was living as refugees in Turkey during the two years before coming to the U.S., “There was no (Christmas) celebration.”
“The three or four (Christian) families that were around us, they came to our house, we went to their house. That was as simple as we could do,” said Maryaqo, who was threatened with death at his family pastry shop in central Baghdad for selling certain cakes with liqueur in them.
Maryaqo said now that he is in Michigan, his family tries to go to Mass often, but sometimes trying to find transportation is tough. He said he is hoping to find work as a pastry chef so that the family can have some stability and get to church more regularly. But he also expressed anxiety about the safety of his elderly father and siblings left behind in Baghdad.
“I will never go back to Iraq, but I hope I can bring my family here,” he said.
Going to Christmas midnight Mass was something that Eevyan Hanoon said she longed for when she lived with her husband and toddler for three years at a refugee camp in Turkey. She told CNS by phone that she made klecha and tried to make the most of the season. But something was lacking.
“The difference at Christmastime was the Eucharist. I missed taking the Eucharist. I was with two church choirs in Mosul (Iraq),” said Hanoon, 28. “This is the most important thing in our life. We have not missed a single Sunday” since arriving in Michigan in September.
In Chicago, the Rassam sisters’ nephew, Rakan Kunda, said even if his own family has been living in the U.S. for two decades, they “always remember ... family back home” at Christmastime.
“We think about them,” said Kunda, 26. “We pray for them but there’s nothing we can do at this point. Until all this is over.”
13 December 2016
A boat representing migrants is pictured in the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 9 December. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
The Vatican installed its annual Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square last week, and the figures in the scene this year carry particular significance:
The Christmas tree and Nativity scene are symbols of God’s love and hope, reminding us to contemplate the beauty of creation and welcome the marginalized, Pope Francis said.
Baby Jesus, whose parents could find no decent shelter and had to flee persecution, is a reminder of the “painful experience” of so many migrants today, he said on 9 December, just before the Vatican Christmas tree was to be lit and its Nativity scene was to be unveiled.
Nativity scenes all over the world “are an invitation to make room in our life and society for God — hidden in the gaze of so many people” who are living in need, poverty or suffering, he told people involved in donating the tree and creche for St. Peter’s Square.
The northern Italian province of Trent donated the 82-foot-tall spruce fir, which was adorned with ceramic ornaments handmade by children receiving medical treatment at several Italian hospitals.
The 55-foot-wide Nativity scene was donated by the government and Archdiocese of Malta. It features 17 figures dressed in traditional Maltese attire as well as replica of a Maltese boat to represent the seafaring traditions of the island.
The boat also represents “the sad and tragic reality of migrants on boats headed toward Italy,” the pope said in his speech in the Vatican’s Paul VI hall.
“In the painful experience of these brothers and sisters, we revisit that (experience) of baby Jesus, who at the time of his birth did not find accommodation and was born in a grotto in Bethlehem and then was brought to Egypt to escape Herod's threat.”
“Those who visit this creche will be invited to rediscover its symbolic value, which is a message of fraternity, sharing, welcoming and solidarity,” the pope said.
The Nativity scene and tree will remain on display until 9 January, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.
12 December 2016
Sreya Maria Therese attends Ashabhavan — a school for children with special needs, administered by the Sacred Heart Sisters — in Rajakkad, in the Idukki district of Kerala. To learn more about how this institution changes the lives of the children it serves, read Kerala’s House of Hope, appearing in the Winter 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: Jose Jacob)
7 December 2016
Tags: India Children Sisters Education Catholic education
Palestinians walk past a shop selling Christmas decorations on 5 December near Manger Square in Bethlehem, West Bank. After two Christmas seasons in which the political reality had overtaken holiday cheer, people seem primed to finally feel some merriment in Bethlehem.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Even the Christmas decorations seem more cheerful this year in Bethlehem.
A new display of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh were about to alight at the main traffic circle on Manger Street, and a big white Christmas tree made of lights perched merrily next to them. The official Christmas tree in Nativity Square was a focus of great commotion as pilgrims and locals struck poses for photos and selfies on 5 December. A few days earlier, at the official tree lighting ceremony, the square was packed with hundreds of onlookers ready to welcome the Christmas season to the birthplace of Jesus.
After two Christmas seasons in which the political reality had overtaken holiday cheer, people seemed primed to finally feel some merriment in Bethlehem. In 2014, the summer Gaza war was still keeping away tourists, and last year a spate of stabbings and shootings overshadowed any hope of holiday cheer.
This year, the Israeli separation barrier construction continues to slowly creep around Bethlehem, creating an isolated enclave. There has been no real move toward a long-term peace agreement, nor any easing of travel restrictions or any significant improvement in the economic or political situations, but Palestinians are embracing what they can of the holiday spirit.
Storekeepers like Muslim Samer Laham, 37, whose front entrance displays rows of hanging Santa Claus hats, are putting out their Christmas wares and readying for the celebrations.
“People haven’t started buying the hats yet, but they will in a few more days,” said Laham confidently.
Ashraf and Shahad Natsheh, who are also Muslim, took the afternoon to come from Hebron, West Bank, to take pictures of their 10-month-old daughter Na’ara in front of the official Bethlehem Christmas tree with its life-sized creche and gold-colored ornaments.
“The atmosphere is definitely better than last year, the roads are open and there is more calm,” said Shahad Natsheh, 26. “We come to see the tree because it is beautiful.”
Ian Knowles, the British director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre on historic Star Street, which used to be the main thoroughfare into the city center, said although people are still a bit apprehensive about the general situation, “Christmas hope still flickers.”
Seeing the apparent defeat of Islamic State in several battles in Iraq and Syria has also brought a sense of optimism to the Christian community, which had harbored fears that they might be next if the militants were not stopped, he said.
“People here have family in Jordan and Lebanon, and they were feeling (that this) could happen to them,” said Knowles. “Now they are watching as Christians are slowly returning to their churches and celebrating Masses in the charred remains.”
Catholic tattoo artist Walid Ayash, 39, and his staff stayed up almost half the night cleaning his tattoo studio and barber shop and putting up Christmas decorations.
“Two days ago they lit up the Christmas tree in the city. Everybody is happy. The kids are happy. I have four kids and they are happy,” he said. “Last year it was very sad, the situation was bad, but we hope this year will be better than before.”
“I want to be happy with my family. I am very religious. I thank God I am in Bethlehem. We celebrate. My workers dress like Santa Claus and throw candy for the children. The kids will be here, the atmosphere will be happy. You know, it’s Christmas,” he said.
Cradling one of his white doves — “peace pigeons” as he has dubbed them — in his hands in their rooftop roost above Star Street, Anton Ayoub Mussalam, 75, who is Catholic, said everyone is waiting for Christmas.
From 1987 until 2015, he and his wife, Mary had not had permission to go to Jerusalem, where one of their daughters lives.
“Maybe there will be a happy Christmas,” Mussalam said. “We hope everyone will be happy. We hope there will be a small piece of peace. We need peace like we need food and water.”
6 December 2016
A gift from the Catholicos Patriarch llia II of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, this 18th-century Russian icon of St. Nicholas hangs in CNEWA’s New York offices.
Today, the universal church celebrates the feast of St. Nicholas. Several years ago, CNEWA’s Michael J.L. La Civita paid tribute to this beloved saint:
Nowhere is the universal nature of St. Nicholas’s popularity more apparent than in the southern Italian city of Bari. In early May I traveled to this bustling port, the capital of Puglia, an agricultural region hugging the Adriatic coast. While traveling through the region I observed bands of nomads, grasping decorated staffs and burdened with backpacks. When I mistook them for Albanian refugees, my traveling companion informed me that these travelers were making an annual pilgrimage to Bari. There, on 9 May, in an impressive medieval basilica that bears his name, the church celebrates the “translation” of the relics of St. Nicholas to Bari.
According to tradition, Nicholas was born in the mid-third century to a wealthy Christian couple in Patara, a town near the southern shores of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). After the premature death of his parents, Nicholas gave up his wealth and entered a monastery, later traveling to Egypt and the Holy Land. He returned to his monastery, hoping to live quietly as a hermit. However, against his will, he was elected as Bishop of Myra, a small town near Patara.
Although little else is known about Nicholas, his popularity rests on his compassion for the poor and his passion for the faith.
“The reason for this special veneration of this special bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings,” writes Leonid Ouspensky, a noted Russian theologian, “is evidently that the church sees in him a personification of a shepherd, of its defender and intercessor.”
One of the most powerful stories reveals Nicholas’s compassion for the poor. There were three young girls whose father had lost his fortune and, consequently,
their dowries. Due to their poverty, the girls were ignored by all the eligible men. Moved by their plight, Nicholas, under the cover of darkness, went to the man’s home and dropped a bag of gold through an open window. Finding the gold the following morning, the man was overwhelmed and, thanking God, married off his eldest girl.
Several nights later, Nicholas secretly deposited a second bag of gold. Dumbfounded, the man used it for his second daughter’s dowry.
The man, however, was determined to identify his benefactor and waited for the unknown person’s appearance. Again, under the cover of darkness, Nicholas left yet another sum of gold. Hearing a thump, the man rose to his feet and caught up with his mysterious benefactor, whom he recognized immediately. Nicholas demanded silence, binding the man to an oath never to reveal his identity.
St. Nicholas’s generous spirit continues to inspire countless people around the world (where do you think we get the idea of Santa Claus?) and his compassion toward the poor and needy also animates our work here at CNEWA. May he continue to enliven our hearts during this special time of year — and always!