16 November 2015
The Blue Ridge Mountains near Lynchburg, Virginia. (photo: CNEWA)
Late Sunday night, my colleague Norma Intriago and I returned to New York City after an inspiring trip to Lynchburg, Virginia, where we paid a visit to St. Thomas More Catholic Church.
St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. (photo: CNEWA)
Nestled near the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from the border with North Carolina, Lynchburg is an overwhelmingly Protestant enclave in the South — among other things, it’s home to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University — but the parish family at St. Thomas More is vibrant and enthusiastic and proud of their Catholic identity. They also care passionately about what is happening to Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria — which is why they invited us to come and talk about CNEWA.
The pastor, the Rev. Msgr. Michael McCarron, is a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre; he’s made 15 pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and is getting ready to lead his 16th next spring. He’s also a longtime CNEWA supporter and reader of our magazine, ONE. He and his parish team gave us a warm and enthusiastic welcome. They’ve already raised funds for Christians by selling cookbooks and small decorative ceramic tiles for the Year of Mercy, and they’ve made awareness of the plight of Christians a priority.
I preached at all three Masses — drawing some connections between what has happened in Paris and what is continuing to happen to people in Iraq and Syria — and Norma gave an excellent PowerPoint presentation that told more about the work we do and the mission we've undertaken.
Director of Development Norma Intriago speaks to parishioners. (photo: CNEWA)
The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Karen Birkmeyer proudly shows her support for Christians in the Middle East. (photo: CNEWA)
Parishioners gather more information from CNEWA after the Masses. (photo: CNEWA)
We thank the good people at St. Thomas More for their hearty welcome and passionate commitment to CNEWA’s work in the Middle East and around the world — and we need to give a special shoutout to Tom Lucente and Sybil Frey, who were our gracious hosts. And the big-hearted, big-voiced Msgr. McCarron made our visit a joy. Thank you!
We hope to come back soon.
Meantime, if you’d like us to visit your parish, drop us a line. We’d love to meet you and spread the word about how you can make a difference in the lives of the people CNEWA serves. Simply contact Norma Intriago at email@example.com.
Msgr. Michael McCarron, Norma Intriago and Deacon Greg Kandra. (photo: CNEWA)
16 November 2015
During a press briefing in Turkey this morning at the close of the G20 Summit, President Obama said it would be “shameful” and “un-American” to only take Christian refugees from the Middle East — and he used remarks by Pope Francis to bolster his case.
You can read the text here.
And you can watch the video below.
16 November 2015
Hanaa Elia and her husband, Georges Habbash, sit in their home in Jdeideh, Lebanon, a year after fleeing the Nineveh Plain. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
In the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE, journalist Raed Rafei looks at the plight of Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon. Here, he adds some additional thoughts from his experience reporting the story.
When you see a man in his mid-thirties, a father of four children, crying, you cannot but have a twinge in the stomach. Sarmad, like all the refugees I interviewed for my story on Christian minorities who fled their towns in Iraq and Syria because of invasions by extreme Islamist militias, feels completely hopeless. After a year in Lebanon barely surviving, relying on charity from his Catholic Assyrian Church and philanthropists, he is at the edge of a breakdown. It is very harsh to witness people in limbo, especially ones who are responsible for their families. Many told me they are unable to picture the future unless they are granted asylum in a western country, a chance that only a small percentage of refugees here will eventually have. In Lebanon, refugees lead a very difficult life in the absence of stable jobs and social and medical public care.
I remember vividly the look in Sarmad’s eyes when I asked him if he would go back to Iraq. It was a very bitter gaze. He said, “Iraq! I hate my parents for being born there.” His honest answer made me very uncomfortable. It’s only when people are in their most desperate moment that they renounce their origins this way. But I could not blame him. What the refugees I’ve met told me is that they had witnessed a carefully studied plan not only to drive them out of lands they had lived in for centuries but also to wipe out their entire heritage. These refugees, who are very proud that they speak the language of Christ and practice ancient Christian rites, seem nevertheless hopeless that they could ever go back and rebuild their homes and towns. The sense of betrayal from their Muslim neighbors is strong. Many showed me, on their mobile phones, videos and images of ancient churches and convents purposely damaged and desecrated by fundamentalists. These were the churches where they held all their happy and sad ceremonies. I was particularly touched by the story of a father who told me how blessings from a saint in a shrine in his hometown in Syria cured his ill son.
Despite all the desperate stories I heard, I was moved by the unity I witnessed at a Sunday liturgy for exiled Catholic Assyrians. The church, which is rented for a couple of hours every Sunday to absorb newcomers, was packed with hundreds of people praying with their children. Even after having lost everything they had built throughout their lives, they were, at least, grateful they were now alive and safe. Afterward, the scene was very cheerful in the front yard of the church, with children playing and adults chitchatting.
I felt a real sense of solidarity in a community thriving and still standing; a bruised community, yes, but one that has not given up just yet.
Below is a video produced by Raed Rafei, showing the life of one refugee family in Lebanon:
16 November 2015
In Paris on 16 November, a man weeps as people gather to observe a minute of silence at the Place de la Republique in memory of the victims of last Friday’s terror attacks.
(photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
16 November 2015
Women hold roses as Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris celebrates a Mass in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on 15 November to pray for those killed in terrorist attacks.
(photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis sends condolences to France (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has sent a telegram to Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris, assuring victims, their families and emergency personnel that he is united with them in prayer. Signed by the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the telegram condemns this and all acts of violence, and asks God to inspire thoughts of peace and solidarity...
Pope says nothing can justify terrorist attacks (CNS) Using God’s name to try to justify violence and murder is “blasphemy,” Pope Francis said 15 November, speaking about the terrorist attacks on Paris. “Such barbarity leaves us dismayed, and we ask ourselves how the human heart can plan and carry out such horrible events,” the pope said after reciting the Angelus prayer with visitors in St. Peter’s Square...
Text of initial Vatican statement on Paris attacks (CNS) Here in the Vatican we are following the terrible news from Paris. We are shocked by this new manifestation of maddening, terrorist violence and hatred which we condemn in the most radical way together with the Pope and all those who love peace...
Muslims condemn terror attacks in Paris (USA Today) Muslims worldwide on Saturday strongly condemned the terrorist attacks by the Islamic State that killed at least 127 people in Paris. Shuja Shafi, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella body that represents more than 500 organizations including mosques, schools and charities, described the killings as “horrific and abhorrent.” “My thoughts and prayers for the families of those killed and injured and for the people of France, our neighbours,” he said in a statement. “This attack is being claimed by the group calling themselves ‘Islamic State’. There is nothing Islamic about such people and their actions are evil, and outside the boundaries set by our faith...”
Archbishop: Religions must work together against hate (Vatican Radio) The President of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, said the upcoming Jubilee of Mercy is needed even more after the terrorist attacks in Paris. In an interview with the Italian magazine, Famiglia Cristiana, Archbishop Fisichella said all three monotheistic religions agree that God is merciful. “It is one more reason to work together — and to help each other in this task — to explain to the world that religions do not exist to be imprisoned by hate, but they are to spread compassion, and to work against fear as a way of life in all nations,” he said...
Israel approves entry of thousands of Ethiopians with Jewish lineage (Deutsche Welle) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday his government had given the green light to a proposal allowing more than 9,000 Ethiopians to settle in Israel. “Today we have taken an important decision, to bring to Israel within the next five years the last of the communities with links to Israel waiting in Addis Ababa and Gonder,” Netanyahu said in a statement. The Ethiopians in question, the last members of a group known as Falash Mura, claim Jewish ancestry even though they themselves are Christians, having converted in the 18th and 19th centuries. For this reason, they are not eligible for Israeli citizenship...
Christians get a Bible reading month in India (New India Express) Drawing inspiration from ‘Ramayana Masam’ during the Malayalam month of Karkatakam, the Catholic Church in Kerala is planning to observe December as ‘Bible Reading Month’, coinciding with the Christmas fast. It is an initiative of the Bible Commission of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC). According to KCBC, the plan is to observe Bible Reading Month every “December to highlight the theme ‘word become flesh’. As the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated in December, the month is appropriate. The faithful await Christmas with prayers and fasting. Reading the Bible will enrich prayers,” said KCBC deputy secretary the Rev. Varghese Vallikkattu...
13 November 2015
The Rev. Jacques Mourad poses for a photo on 11 November in the reception area at Our Lady of the Annunciation Church in Beirut, Lebanon. (photo: CNS/Doreen Abi Raad)
When a man dressed head-to-toe in black entered the room where the Rev. Jacques Mourad was being held by the Islamic State, the Syriac Catholic priest thought his time to become a martyr had come.
“That moment was really intense and difficult,” he recalled.
It was eight days after Father Mourad’s May abduction by Islamic State from Qaryatain, Syria, where he served as prior of the ancient Syriac Catholic Mar Elian monastery. The militants also kidnapped Boutros, a deacon. Together they spent 84 days in captivity.
To the two prisoners’ surprise, their would-be executioner did not treat them as though they were “infidels” (Christians), who are considered as impure and beneath fanatic Muslims: The man in black shook their hands, greeted them with “salam alaykoum” (peace be with you) and asked questions as if he would like to get acquainted.
When Father Mourad asked, “Why are we here?” the masked man told the priest to consider it as a “khaelwe,” which in Arabic means a time of spiritual reflection, a spiritual retreat.
“I needed this concept of a ‘spiritual retreat,’” the priest told Catholic News Service while visiting Lebanon on 11 November, a month after his escape. “I felt that the Lord was speaking through this masked Muslim. It gave me a push to keep going.”
Instead of the dreaded death sentence, the encounter turned out to be a turning point for Father Mourad. From that day, the priest said, his prayers had a whole new meaning, and he began to see his imprisonment as a way to carry and embrace the cross of Jesus.
In the 19-by-10-foot bathroom that served as their prison cell, Father Mourad and Boutros spent most of their time praying together.
“The prayer that really helped us, that was a source of strength, was the rosary,” the priest said. He added that they also relied on Scripture.
“I used to remember the verse from Matthew: ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.‘”
As far as the two Christians knew, they were the only prisoners. From behind the locked bathroom door, sometimes they could hear the muffled voices of their captors, or their footsteps. Otherwise, they were completely cut off from the outside world.
There was no electricity in their cell. Daylight entered through a tiny window near the ceiling. Nights were dark, long and especially difficult, Father Mourad recalled. The two prisoners were given rice and water twice daily. Tea was added to that ration three times during their captivity.
Periodically, Father Mourad and Boutros were threatened with the ultimatum, “Either you become Muslim, or we cut your head off.”
One time Father Mourad was beaten. He distinctly remembers that it was on the 23rd day of imprisonment. Nothing in particular provoked the punishment, which was carried out with a plastic hose, functioning as a whip.
“It really hurts,” the priest calmly recalled of the scourging, which he said lasted about half an hour. “They thought maybe I would succumb and agree to become a Muslim.”
Yet Father Mourad said Boutros “was suffering because he was watching me.” Every so often, the priest said, he would turn his head and smile at Boutros to console him.
“Personally, despite the pain, I lived this half hour in peace,” the priest said. “I felt privileged that I was participating in Jesus’ suffering. But at the same time, I considered myself unworthy of it.”
Clever tricks of manipulation were also used, the priest told CNS. The day after the beating, one of the captors apologized for his colleague who carried out the assault on the priest.
“It’s like a psychological game,” Father Mourad explained. “They scourge you, and then they apologize, as if they want to show that Islam is merciful.”
He said he responded, “Don’t worry, I had already forgiven him.”
On 4 August, Islamic State captured and demolished Mar Elian monastery, where Father Mourad had served for 15 years. Aside from the extensive archaeological excavation and renovations he oversaw, the priest promoted dialogue and coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
“For many years he built bridges between the religions. This has now proved its value in the war,” Father Jihad Youssef, a fellow Syriac Catholic, told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need after Father Mourad’s abduction.
Father Mourad also had been sheltering Christian and Muslim refugees at the monastery.
When asked by Catholic News Service how he sees his mission for the future, the priest shrugged his shoulders and responded: “After this happened to me, I have a bigger responsibility now, with Christian-Muslim dialogue. We can’t play with God’s will.”
13 November 2015
This image from June 2015 shows the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, speaking during a visit to Florence. The imam has condemned an attack on a Christian church in Egypt, saying it goes against Islam. (photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)
Imam condemns attack on evangelical church in Egypt (Fides) Attacks against places of worship “go against the authentic Islamic religion and its teachings of tolerance”, but fail to undermine the unity of the Egyptian people. This is how Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar condemned the attack carried out on Thursday, November 12 against a church in Cairo belonging to the Evangelical Coptic community...
Foundation opens nursery, kindergarten in Erbil, Iraq (Fides) The capital Erbil is home to about 250,000 displaced persons and refugees of
different ethnic groups; next to the Kurdish population there are also displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees. In order to allow these families to recover at least some normalcy in a situation deeply marked by discomfort, AVSI Foundation opened a nursery in 2015, run by a community of Dominican nuns, which houses about 130 children and is located in Ozal City. 1,200 families live in this area, of whom over 900 are Christians, some are Muslim yazides and others are Muslims, and have all fled the violence of ISIS...
Arafat’s Gaza home to become a museum (Haaretz) Yasser Arafat’s home in Gaza City will be opened as a museum after Hamas handed it back to Fatah, the party Arafat founded, in a ceremony on November 11th, the anniversary of Arafat’s death in 2004. The house has been closed since the Islamic militant group Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. Faisal Abu Shahla, a member of Fatah’s revolutionary council, said it was an emotional moment to enter the house, where Arafat resided from 1994 to 2001. The museum will tell the story of Arafat’s life, Shahla said...
Syrian refugees find new home in Miami (The Miami Herald) Rama Saleh always intended on leaving her hometown of Aleppo, Syria — but she never imagined a civil war would be the catalyst for her departure. In August, the 19-year-old arrived in Miami, with her parents, brother and two sisters. She had spent two years living in Turkey, where she worked 12-hour shifts in a T-shirt factory, six days a week, to help pay for her family’s rent and food. Today, Saleh is looking forward to furthering her education. The war prevented her from finishing high school, so her goal is to pass the GED exam and enter college. And while she is determined to create a better future for herself, the memories of her family’s escape still haunt her...
The smallest church in Frankfurt to be consecrated (ByzCath.org) From next week, Saint George’s Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology will have probably Frankfurt’s smallest church. The new house of worship, to be consecrated by Patriarch Gregorios III from Damascus, measures just 42 square metres. “This church is something special: small, but exclusive,” says artist Oleg Kuzenko while he contemplates his colourful paintings on the wall and the ceiling, For they depict Jesus Christ, his mother Mary, the Apostles’ Communion, John the Baptist and the four evangelists’ symbols. Oleg Kuzenko created the murals and the icons for Saint George’s Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology’s new Byzantine church, which will be consecrated next Wednesday by Patriarch Gregorios III Laham of Damascus and the Limburg Bishop Thomas Loehr. It will be called “Of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem...”
12 November 2015
Tags: Syria Iraq Egypt Islam Copts
Slovak Greek Catholic parishioners worshiping inside the church in
Ladomirová, Slovakia. (photo: Andrej Ban)
What divides the Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches of Central and Eastern Europe usually reflects the complex history and geopolitical realities of the continent more than any particular theological nuances, even papal primacy.
The Slovak Greek Catholic Church is a sui iuris (or self-governing) community in Slovakia — Byzantine in character and Catholic in faith — raised to the rank of a metropolitan church by Pope Benedict XVI in January 2008. It includes some 211,000 Greek Catholics from a number of ethnic groups living in the landlocked country, including Carpatho-Rusyns, Hungarians, Roma, Slovaks and Ukrainians.
Led by Metropolitan Archbishop Jan Babjak of Presov, the dynamic Jesuit has bolstered ties between the Slovak church and her daughter church in Canada, where some 2,500 Slovak Greek Catholics form the Eparchy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.
Additionally, the metropolitan archbishop — installed in 2002 — has deepened ties to Greek Catholics in other worldwide jurisdictions. These include the Metropolitan Archeparchy of Pittsburgh and its three dependent eparchies in the United States; the Apostolic Exarchate for Byzantine Catholics in the Czech Republic; and the Eparchy of Mukacevo, now in Subcarpathian Ukraine, or Transcarpathia.
Girls wearing traditional dress participate in an Easter celebration in Jakubany, a village in northern Slovakia. (photo: Father Damian Saraka)
In the celebration of the sacraments, Slovak Greek Catholic parish communities use Slovak and its Latin alphabet as well as Church Slavonic and its Cyrillic alphabet. And its territory is restricted to parish communities in the Slovak Republic.
Yet the church’s origins and development are synonymous with the various Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic churches of Central Europe. Together, the ancestors of these Catholics received the Christian faith from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the late ninth century. And they professed their full communion with the bishop of Rome in the chapel of the castle of Uzhorod in April 1646, centuries after the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches had drifted apart.
According to the Slovak Republic’s 2011 census, only 0.6 percent of the population of nearly 5.5 million identify as Carpatho-Rusyn, proof of the decline of a Carpatho-Rusyn identity among Slovakia’s Greek Catholics. Nevertheless, sustaining solidarity among other jurisdictions of Carpatho-Rusyn origin — Greek Catholic and Orthodox — remains a concern of the Slovak Greek Catholic leadership.
Reviving parishes of all ethnic communities; forming a new generation of priests, religious and lay leaders; instilling proper catechesis, especially among the urbanized youth; and restoring parish churches and other parish facilities take precedence for this new yet ancient church.
Read a full account of the Slovak Greek Catholic Churches here.
12 November 2015
Abanoub Sherif carries a beekeeper’s hat to his father’s apiary near their home in
El Mahalla, Egypt. (photo: David Degner)
In 2014, we visited a school for visually impaired children in Egypt and met one student, Abanoub, hoping to attend a university:
Abanoub is a 17-year-old student from El Mahalla el Kubra, an industrial city in the Nile Delta about two hours’ drive from Cairo. When he first came to the home at the age of 5, he admits, he was terrified. “But then I got used to the place and I felt that I wanted to stay there forever. I built a new life for myself and made new friends,” he says. He is currently in his second year of high school and wants to attend college and major in psychology. He recently started learning the guitar.
But the transition from a school for the blind to a university can be a challenge. Sister Souad says they begin preparing children for the task from day one.
“We tell them, ‘One day, you will leave here and go to university with all kinds of people around.’ Since they are prepared, the transition is normal. We encourage them to take recorders to class, then listen again at home. They study normally.”
One of their students recently received a scholarship to study in the United States.
“I hope other blind children learn that going away from their family is not that difficult; it can be much better for their future,” Abanoub says.
“We teach them there is nothing they can’t do,” Sister Souad says proudly. “They are normal children. The only difference is they cannot see, but that doesn’t mean they can’t live a normal life.”
Read more about young people in Egypt journeying “Out of Darkness” in the Spring 2014 edition of ONE. And to help support the Christians of Egypt, please visit this giving page.
12 November 2015
Smoke rises after the Peshmerga forces belonging to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) attack the Sinjar town of Mosul, Iraq, on 12 November 2015.
(photo: Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Report calls ISIS attacks on minorities “genocide” (Reuters) Islamic State militants committed genocide against Iraq’s Yazidis in the north of the country and carried out crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes against other minorities, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said on Thursday...
Pope urges Slovakia church to receive migrants in charity (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Thursday told the bishops of Slovakia the Church is called to receive migrants “in a spirit of charity and respect for the human person,” while, at the same time, necessarily observing the law. The Holy Father was meeting the bishops as part of their ad limina visit to Rome. He held an informal discussion with them, while presenting them his speech in written form...
Ukraine passes anti-discrimination law (BBC) Ukraine’s parliament has passed a law banning discrimination in the workplace, including that based on sexual orientation. It is the last of a package of ten laws that had to be approved for the European Union to consider visa-free travel for Ukrainians. Several previous attempts to get the bill through parliament failed over fears it would lead to the introduction of same-sex marriage in Ukraine...
Pope sends message to India’s Eucharistic Congress (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has sent a video message to the participants in India’s National Eucharistic Congress, taking place in Mumbai from 12-15 November. In the message, Pope Francis praises the gathering, saying, “The Eucharistic Congress is God’s gift not only to the Christians of India but to the entire population of a country so culturally diverse and yet so spiritually rich.” The theme of the Congress is the Eucharist as nourishment, which moves and inspires us to nourish others...
Coptic Church warns against collection of money on behalf of damaged monasteries (Fides) The Coptic Orthodox Church, with a statement sent to the Egyptian media through its official channels, has warned individuals and groups not to announce the collection of money for and on behalf of the historical monasteries in the area of Wadi al-Natrun, badly damaged by floods in recent weeks. The statement of the Coptic Church also indicates the only account number opened at a bank in Egypt and officially authorized by the church to collect donations for the restoration of the flooded monasteries...
Tags: India Iraq Pope Francis Ukraine Refugees