26 September 2019
In this image from 2016, Pope Francis greets Syrian refugees he brought to Rome from the Greek island of Lesbos, at Ciampino airport in Rome. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
The World Day of Migrants and Refugees is observed this year on Sunday 29 September. Pope Francis has presented an important message to set this year’s observance within a context.
The world is facing the largest mass movement of people in history. There have been mass movements of people before. Most of these were connected with violence. The movements of the “barbarians” in Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries and the Mongol invasions of the 13th century are merely two examples. Each of these was accompanied by great destruction and changed the world forever. The present mass movement of peoples is different in several ways: it is not connected with military violence and it is not limited to one people like the Vandals, the Huns or the Mongols.
With refugees coming from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and elsewhere the contemporary mass movement of people is unique in world history. The world of CNEWA is doubly impacted by this kind of movement. Some of the countries where we work, such as Iraq, are experiencing massive emigrations, especially of the young. Other countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, are “target countries” that are being flooded with refugees they can hardly sustain.
Which brings us back to Pope Francis.
The theme of his message is “it is not just about migrants.” Speaking of a “growing trend to extreme individualism” and “a utilitarian (value = usefulness) mentality,” the pope speaks of a “globalization of indifference.” This is a truly frightening concept. Resistance and even opposition may be difficult but they can usually be dealt with. Indifference, on the other hand, is almost invincible. Why? Because it says “I just don’t care.”
In his message, the pope recognizes the challenges which “target countries” face in receiving and absorbing often large numbers of displaced people. Consider, for example, Lebanon. For a period, almost a quarter of the population of Lebanon consisted of refugees. The social, political and economic impact of this reality was almost impossible for Lebanon, a tiny country about one-third the size of Maryland. Francis recognizes that this generates fear and “to some extent, the fear is legitimate…because the preparation for this encounter is lacking.”
Nevertheless, in this tremendous challenge, the pope sees an opportunity to retrieve the compassion which is central to the message of Jesus.
There is no doubt that the mass movement of peoples in our world has an impact on just about every aspect of a target county’s life. It would be naïve and foolhardy—and Francis is most definitely neither—to overlook the overwhelming political challenges which are inextricably interwoven with the moral and religious dimensions.
The moral and religious dimensions of treatment of migrants are something also deeply woven into the much touted Judeo-Christian moral code. While Francis is aware of this, far too many Catholics are not. But it is deeply engrained in our religious tradition. The word ger in Hebrew means “alien, foreigner, stranger.” It appears 88 times in the Old Testament, mostly in the legal texts. The Law of Moses consistently sees three specially protected groups in Israelite society: the widow, the orphan and the stranger (ger). Abuse and mistreatment of these people are what traditionally are referred to as “crimes that cry out to God for vengeance.” That is to say: in the Law of Moses, if the widow, the orphan and stranger are not protected by the dominant society, God will punish that society.
It is rare but not unheard of that a law in the Old Testament is accompanied by a rationale. However, there is an extraordinary verse in Leviticus 19:33 (with similar verses in Exodus 22; 21, 23:9): “If a stranger lives in your land, you must not molest him. The stranger (ger) is to be to you like a native. You must love the stranger (ger) as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH your God.” There are several things important here. By ending the law with “I am YHWH your God,” it is clear this is not merely a suggestion or ideal. It is a demand of the God of Israel.
Another interesting point, with contemporary implications, is that the Israelites are commanded to treat the stranger like a “native.” The Hebrew word used here is ?ezra?. It has the connotation of something which has sprung up from the native soil (see Psalm 37:35). It is interesting that the racism of the Nazis was expressed by Blut und Boden (“Blood and Soil”). Recently the expression has been used by people and politicians on the extreme right to attack migrants as “foreigners” (very often of a different skin color).
But such treatment contradicts the Judeo-Christian tradition. With an almost uncanny precision, God commands the Israelites to love the stranger as if he or she were as native as the local soil.
That is not an easy thing to do. There are huge challenges and people are—at times justifiably—afraid. However, Pope Francis in a pastoral way is calling us to overcome our often very real fears and respond to the challenge—indeed the command—of God to love the stranger as ourselves.
For Jesus, this is the Great Commandment: to love our God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves.
For the follower of Jesus, regardless how difficult it may be, this is not merely an option.
12 September 2019
Tags: Refugees Migrants
As part of a long tradition, the Passion Play is staged for a few weeks every 10 years in Oberammergau, Germany. This photograph is from the mid-19th century.
(photo: Josef Albert via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.)
Sometimes, people can be surprised at the similarities between Christianity and Islam — bonds that often aren’t easily apparent. We encounter this in the world CNEWA serves, where very often the two religions dwell peacefully together, with believers sharing cultures and, sometimes, traditions.
This month brought another example of this striking commonality.
This year on 10 September, Shi’ite Muslims all over the world observed Ashura, marked on the 10th day of the Islamic Month of Muharram. Muharram is the first month of the Muslim calendar and is one of the four sacred months (Qur’an 9:36) during which war and violence are forbidden.
Muharram also has special meaning for Shi’ite Muslims. It was on the 10th of Muharram almost 1,500 years ago that the army of the Umayyad Calif, Yazid, slaughtered Hussein bin Ali, the grandson of the Prophet. He also killed 70 of his followers, including infants.
It was the death of Ali’s youngest son, Hussein, that was the foundational experience for the Shi’ite sect in Islam.
The Muslim calendar is lunar and is 354/355 days long. Unlike Christians and Jews, who also follow a lunar calendar, Muslims do not correct the lunar calendar over against the solar calendar with 365/6 days. As a result, Muslim holy days move “backwards” during the solar year. Every year on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, Shi’ite Muslims observe the death of Hussein. In most countries the observance takes the form of the ta ? ziya, or passion play. In Shi’ite countries the faithful — with great zeal and at time shocking fervor — re-enact the death of Hussein on the field of Karbela. The re-enactment is accompanied by processions in which believers flagellate themselves or strike the foreheads with stones to the point of drawing blood. Ecstatic manifestations are fairly common during these observances.
Passion plays, of course, are not unique to Shi’ite Islam. In the pre-Reformation Middle Ages, Christians in Europe often re-enacted the Passion and Death of Jesus during Holy Week. Although deeply religious, passion plays also had secular and social overtones with different guilds presenting the passion play in different ways. Wikipedia lists over 15 countries which had or still have some form of passion play.
During the Reformation, with its sober and at times puritanical values, the exuberance and ecstatic nature of passion plays began to be looked down upon. While once extremely prevalent, passion plays in Protestant countries in Europe disappeared after the Reformation.
Of course, for Roman Catholics the legendary Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, is the most famous. In 1633 the Bavarian town of Oberammergau was in the midst of the plague. The town vowed that, if the plague abated, they would re-enact the Passion of Christ every 10 years. Their prayers were answered and for almost 250 years the town has staged the play. Over the years the spectacle has been updated to be in harmony with the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Jews since the document Nostra Aetate (1965) of Vatican II.
In the year when the play is performed—the next is in 2020—thousands of pilgrims and tourists come from all over the world to attend.
In other places like the Philippines and South and Latin America passion plays—often with shocking detail and realism—are part of the observance of Holy Week. While nonexistent in many parts of the world, passion plays, be they Muslim or Christian, are an attempt by believers to reconnect in a very concrete way with the redemptive sufferings and death of Imam Hussein bin Ali or Jesus Christ.
Similar phenomena can also be found in many of the other religious traditions of the world —serving to remind us that the human experience of faith and belief often finds expression in ways that are startling, dramatic and — despite our differences — profoundly universal.
6 September 2019
Two employees of Caritas Armenia care for 80-year-old Marjik Harutyunyan. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Every year on 5 September the world observes the UN International Day of Charity. On 17 December 2012, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution establishing an International Day of Charity to encourage people to volunteer services and engage in acts of philanthropy throughout the world. The UN chose 5 September as the date for the observance because it is also the anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Calcutta), who died on 5 September 1997. That date now serves as her feast day on the Catholic calendar.
Charity is at the very core of the work of CNEWA. In the many countries where we work, we strive to help people who have been driven from their homes, are suffering from illnesses and crushing poverty. The list can be extended almost infinitely. The Welfare in Catholic Near East Welfare Association is almost identical to Charity in the International Day of Charity.
This day, then, serves as a good opportunity to reflect on what we mean when we talk about ”charity.”
Words are interesting things. They move through space and time. The ancient words of sacred texts of the Bible are alive and well in the languages of modern people. The inspired texts, originally in Hebrew, some Aramaic and Greek have been translated into literally thousands of languages, starting with Latin and Syriac in the earliest centuries of Christianity. As words move from place to place and century to century, they are not static. Words change. Sometimes they change radically and take on new meanings that may be almost the opposite of the original meaning. For example, in the time of Shakespeare the word ” ice” had the connotation of quibbling, silly and picky. It could also mean nice in the modern sense — but generally it was not a compliment. More often words take on or shed layers of meaning—the connotation is almost constantly evolving. In American English of the mid-20th century, for example, a turkey was a bird and that’s all it was. By the turn of the century a turkey — in addition to being a bird — became a naïve or unintelligent person.
Most of these changes, while interesting, are not earth-shaking. However, sometimes words from sacred texts change in ways that can be confusing. ”Love” is one of those words.
In Hebrew, the common word for love is built on the root 'h b. It — and its opposite, hate — mean pretty much what ”love” and ” hate” mean in modern English. However, they are also used to show a legal relation in a covenant. A vassal king “loves” his overlord and “hates” the enemies of his overlord. There is no sense of emotion or feeling. To “love” the overlord means to be faithful to the legal treaty — the covenant — between the two.
The Greek of the New Testament has three words for love, each with a slightly different connotation.
The first is erao. It has the connotation of passionate, physical love. Our English word ”erotic” is derived from Greek erao. To the best of my knowledge, this word does not appear in any form in the New Testament.
The two other words are phileo, which has the connotation of loving and befriending, and agapao, with its noun agape which is the love we find mostly in the New Testament. The word phileo in all its forms appears some 27 times, including three times with the connotation of “to kiss” (Matt 26:48; Mark 14:44; Luke 22:47)— all in relation to Judas Iscariot.
Agapao is clearly the preferred word in the New Testament, appearing some 256 times. When Paul speaks of “faith, hope and love” (1 Cor 13:13), he uses agape.
While some scholars have seen deep differences between the two words — with agapao being the more important of the two — that does not seem to be the case. While agapao is clearly the preferred word, phileo is nonetheless used to describe the love of the Father for the Son (John 5:20). More interestingly in the dialogue between Jesus and Simon Peter in John 21:15-18 Jesus asks Peter twice “do you love me” (agapas me) and twice Peter replies, “You know I love you” (philo se). The third time Jesus asks “Do you love me” (phileis me), he uses Peter’s word for love. It is most unlikely John would have Jesus use a lesser word for love, merely because Peter used it.
Some problems do occur, however, in later translations. Latin, for example, does not have the same broad choice of words for “love” as Greek. In the Latin Vulgate, there is a tendency to translate agape as caritas. When the verb “to love” is translated into Latin, the preferred word is diligo.
Words change as they travel. The Latin caritas, used to translate the Greek words for love, comes into English as ”charity.” However, over the centuries charity has taken on the additional and perhaps now primary meaning of “acts of charity,” which the New Testament often refers to as “acts of mercy” (from the Greek eleeo, “to be compassionate”).
As a result, as least in English, charity becomes increasingly unmoored from love. It becomes at least theoretically (to say nothing of practically) possible to be charitable without being loving.
In point of fact, nothing could be further from the ideal preached by Jesus. Acts of charity are acts and signs of love. We must never allow “charity” to become a substitute for ”love.”
Which brings us back to our mission at CNEWA.
At CNEWA, so much of what we do may be considered a work of charity.
But that word reminds us: it is all, really, a work of love.
29 August 2019
The recent flooding and landslides in Kerala, India, are yet another reminder of the challenges we face caring for our world. (photo: CNEWA)
If the Amazon rainforest forms the “lungs of the planet,” Mother Earth has pneumonia.
It has been a bad summer. As the G-7 met in France this week to discuss, among other things, climate change, several thousand fires were burning in the Amazon. Many of the fires were set by humans using “slash and burn” techniques to “clear” the land. Europe experienced its hottest weather ever with temperatures in France reaching 107°F. It is estimated that 10 billion tons of ice (in pounds, that’s 20 followed by twelve zeroes) melted in Greenland on Wednesday 31 July 2019—one single day! Indonesia has recently announced that it is moving its capital from Jakarta because the city is being drowned by rising sea levels.
CNEWA’s world is not being spared either. Southern India, which was devastated by monsoon flooding in 2018, is once again under water, bringing suffering and death to hundreds of thousands. (CNEWA has received urgent appeals for help from our brothers and sisters in Kerala. Click here to learn what you can do.)
All of the above is becoming the “new normal.”
This has implications not only for those CNEWA serves but, in fact, for every one of us. Pope Francis stated as much four years ago.
On 24 May 2015, Pope Francis published Laudato si’ (“be praised!” from the opening line of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun). Most encyclical letters are addressed to Catholics around the world; some will mention “people of good will.” But in this encyclical, which bears the subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis explicitly addresses “every person living on this planet.” Written in close cooperation with Bartholomew, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the encyclical is ecumenical in a new and very practical way.
It is, however, more than ecumenical; it addresses and challenges every one in the world. And for good reason: each of us has a stake in caring for the planet, and will bear responsibility for what we leave behind for future generations.
Make no mistake: climate change is real. While there are disagreements about the details of climate change and about the extent of human involvement, there is no serious disagreement among scientists about the fact of climate change — and that human agency is one of the main drivers of the change.
Science, of course, is not religion. One can agree or disagree with scientific conclusions and try to prove one’s point of view. “Not believing” in a given scientific fact/theory, however, is simply an irrelevant position and, one is tempted to say, one that does not merit a response. Gravity, for example, is not as simple a scientific “fact” as the average person would think. Gravity too is a “theory,” and a very complicated one at that. However, to walk off a roof because gravity is “only a theory” and, hence, not worthy of “belief” would be foolish in the extreme.
To ignore climate change is no less foolhardy.
Pope Francis (and Patriarch Bartholomew) sees responsibility for the environment through a spiritual/moral lens. Both realize that self-interest plays a great role in caring for our “common home.” If that home can no longer sustain human life, we humans will go extinct like thousands of other species. When an organism—like the planet—has a pathogen, one of the responses is to raise the temperature—in bodies, a fever—to make the environment hostile to the pathogen and ultimately kill it. It is unlikely that life will go entirely extinct on earth. There are any number of organisms that can easily survive temperatures that would kill human life. We humans may bring about our own extinction but life will go on.
Francis realizes that it is in our self-interest to be aware of the danger. However, he also sees that danger as a spiritual one. There is the temptation to be utilitarian, to see creation no longer as a marvelous gift of the Creator but as little more than the raw material for making money. Francis realizes that such thinking brings with it not only a real risk of physical extinction for humanity, but also of the spiritual death of humanity.
Christians and other peoples of faith in different ways have looked upon humanity as stewards of creation. Stewards are those who “work and protect” (Gen 2:15) the creation entrusted to them. Francis speaks of an “integral” spirituality which, while realizing our dependence on the planet for food, resources, etc., also recognizes an ethic which uses the goods of the earth in a responsible way. This should not be overlooked. To be sure, climate change has scientific, social and economic ramifications. However, Francis is making a strong point that living responsibly on our planet, our common home, needs to be part of our spirituality as Catholic Christians. It is not something “added on” to our Christian lives. Francis sees it as an essential—integral—part of what it means to be a Catholic follower of Christ.
Religious leaders are more and more realizing the importance of living ethically on our planet. We are responsible for those who will follow. To let greed determine our decisions, to wantonly plunder the planet and its resources and to leave our descendants an increasingly uninhabitable planet is the ultimate crime against humanity.
Ironically it is not those who are the major consumers of the planet’s resources who are the first to experience the devastation of climate change. For the most part, those who are on the cutting—one might well say killing—edge of climate change are those living in farming or fishing communities, those living in small island nations, those whose survival is closely linked to the availability of clean water and the vagaries of weather — in short, those who inhabit the very regions CNEWA serves. While these may not be concerns of the developed world, Pope Francis reminds us forcefully that this is our common home. Those very things which threaten the existence of others today will sooner or later threaten the existence of even the wealthiest and most privileged.
When such a time comes, Francis knows it will be too late. All the money and power in the world will not be enough to stop it.
22 August 2019
Tags: India Pope Francis
In this image from 2017, Pope Francis meets Nadia Murad Basee Taha, who escaped from ISIS slavery in Iraq. She is now a human rights activist and is a UN goodwill ambassador for its office that fights human trafficking. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano, handout)
Slavery is a permanent stain on the soul of humanity. As a reminder, on Friday 23 August the United Nations (UNESCO) observes the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.
It is an observance; it is not a celebration — and one that resonates deeply today, especially in the world CNEWA serves.
The roots of slavery are sunk deep into human history and its bitter fruits are still present. In the ancient world, the economies of almost every great empire were built on slavery. Those slaves could be prisoners of war, criminals, poor people forced to sell themselves into slavery and those born into slavery. Slavery was taken for granted and, while the Bible makes some modifications, even it simply accepts slavery as it is. In Exodus, we find laws about slaves. Hebrew slaves are to be freed in the seventh year of their servitude. However, if the owner “gives him [the slave] a wife and she bears him sons and daughters, wife and children shall belong to the master, and the man must leave alone” (Exodus 21:4). The inhumanity of the law is overwhelming in our contemporary world.
Scholars estimate that the economy of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus was built almost entirely on slave labor. Some estimates set the number of slaves in Italy around the time of Christ to be about two million, or one slave for every three free people. In his work On Mercy 1:24 Seneca (65 AD) wrote “It was once proposed in the Senate that slaves should be distinguished from free people by their dress, but then it was realized how great a danger this would be, if our slaves began to count us.”
The Greek word doulos, “slave,” appears 127 times in the New Testament. The word diakonos, often translated “minister” or even “deacon,” refers sometimes to a slave of a higher class, perhaps a slave entrusted with running the household of his own. Paul’s letter Philemon throws an often-overlooked harsh light on the ethos of the time. Paul writes to Philemon, a Christian whose slave, Onesimus, has run away and whom Paul is now sending back to his master. While Paul does ask Philemon to take Onesimos back as a brother (Phil 16), he does not ask him to free him. It is fair to say that for the Bible (and for millennia thereafter) slavery was considered part of the natural order.
Slavery is a social and economic reality. Until the middle of the 19th century the economies of the United States and other countries were heavily dependent upon save labor. For thousands of years this was seen as “natural.” Slavery, however, is also a moral and spiritual reality. It is built on the belief that God has created some to be slaves and some to be free. Changing the title of a film (later play) by Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff, slaves are “Lesser Children of God,” often lesser in every way than the “free” children of God.
It is difficult to pinpoint precisely when slavery as an institution began to unravel (at least in some places). The United States was one of the last countries in the European-based world to abolish slavery, which began in Virginia in 1619 — exactly 400 years ago — and was ended by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
While slavery has been made illegal and dismantled in many parts of the world, it is far from gone as a social and economic reality. The UN and the Catholic Church often speak of “contemporary forms of slavery.” These include trafficking human beings for labor or for the sex trade. This is still a frightening reality, even in countries where slavery is illegal. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) has studied thousands of case of trafficking and slavery throughout the world. Social and economic slavery in modern dress still stalks our world, preying on women, children, the weak and the poor.
Slavery persists, as well, as a moral and spiritual reality. It is still alive in far too many places, where it can be more subtle and even more poisonous. The belief that some people (any people) are somehow of less value and less deserving of dignity and freedom can bring about that racism, that crippling of the soul that affects almost all of us. Racism is a shape-shifting chimera, born of the belief that some people are “naturally” lesser; it is capable of taking many forms. Some of those forms are crude and open. Other forms are more subtle and even genteel. In any case, all forms are toxins for the soul.
Racism can be the subconscious underpinning of so much in society. What should be, for example, the equal access to resources such as health care and education is often limited by racial foundations which are tolerated as being “the way things are.” Inequalities and lack of access to resources — once they become “normalized” — are little more than an updated version of the ancient belief that some people were created by nature to be slaves and underlings.
Slavery must be abolished on all levels — social, economic, and moral/spiritual.
It is something CNEWA can never forget. CNEWA works among the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak on our planet. The people we serve are constantly threatened by all forms of contemporary slavery. The UN Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition is a challenge and perhaps, even, an indictment. Slavery —and its hateful spawn, racism — are alive and well in our world. As followers of Jesus we are obliged to make Paul’s words a reality: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free person…you are one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28) and “when Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free” (5:1).
8 August 2019
In this image from 2017, a Dominican sister visits the Church of Sts. Behnam and Sarah in Qaraqosh, Iraq, heavily damaged by ISIS. (photo: Raed Rafei)
On Saturday 10 August this year, Jews all over the world observe Tish’a b’Av, literally “the ninth of (the month) Av.” On this day, Jews remember the destruction of the Temple of Solomon by the Babylonians in 587 BC and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD.
Although it is a Jewish observance, it gives all of us something to think about. The destruction of the sacred places of enemies and conquered peoples is almost as old as humanity itself. Tragically, it is a practice that has not waned in the contemporary world — including parts of the world CNEWA serves.
The briefest of researches uncovers some sobering data. Attacks on sacred places are far more common than most believers realize. Some of these desecrations receive media coverage. The vast majority do not.
In recent times there have been several attacks that have shocked the world. On 18 July 1994, a synagogue in Buenos Aires was firebombed and 85 people were killed. On 2 March 2001, with the entire world watching, the Taliban destroyed the 1500-year-old old giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. — dynamiting and shelling the statues into oblivion. Most recently, on 24 July 2014, ISIS destroyed the Shrine of Yunus (Jonah) in Mosul, Iraq. Built on a still-existing 6th century BC palace, this had been originally a Christian shrine. When Christians were no long able to maintain it, it was taken over by Muslims, but was revered and visited by both Muslims and Christians. It was architecturally a strikingly beautiful building.
The Taliban destroyed statues of the Buddha of Bamiyan in 2001. The image above shows before it was destroyed (left) and after (right). (photo: Wikipedia Commons)
Across the centuries, the targets have included many different religions. Throughout the Middle East, there are the almost unrelenting attacks on Christian places of worship, with almost no country in the region being immune. And even before the rise of ISIS, Yazidis, Mandeans and even other Muslims (e.g., at the Shrine of Yunus) have seen their sacred places destroyed.
Significantly, the ancient world isn’t the only place where these horrors are unfolding. You need look no further than parts of the United States.
Although not nearly as old as the Buddhas of Bamiyan or the Shrine of Yunus, African American churches in the U.S.—sacred places—have been under almost constant attack, to the point that there is often little or no coverage of the atrocities. An article in The Huffington Post on 21 October 2015 recounts 100 attacks since 1950 against churches whose congregants were primarily black. A Google search uncovered a Wikipedia article that lists the churches and dates of the attacks. Since 2001, a dozen black churches have been attacked, three in 2019 alone.
The attacks on the temples in Jerusalem and almost all of the other sacred spaces mentioned here involved assaults on physical structures: temples, shrines, statues, etc. But it is important to remember that other cultures, especially indigenous cultures, have sacred spaces without buildings or permanent structures — some of them with histories going back thousands of years. It is the place that is sacred; frequently, there are no buildings on it.
Often in the news we hear about Native Americans or indigenous peoples elsewhere protesting what they see as the desecration of land by outside developers. This, too, is an attack on the sacred that deserves attention and action. International bodies like the United Nations are becoming aware of the problem of the destruction of sacred places and are trying to develop protocols and conventions to protect them.
Attention must be paid. These kinds of attacks affect us all. This Saturday, as Jews around the world observe and mourn the loss of the two temples in Jerusalem, we should pause and remember the loss of the sacred that is still going on around the world—not just in far-off and ancient places, but in our own country and neighborhoods.
23 May 2019
Tags: Persecution Iraqi
In this image from 2017, Pope Francis at the Vatican addresses participants at an encounter marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The death penalty is "contrary to the Gospel," the pope said in his speech — echoing sentiments long expressed by Amnesty International. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
In CNEWA’s world, human rights are a constant concern. Freedom of religion, minority and women’s rights are constantly being challenged, if not violated, in one way or another throughout the world where we work and, indeed, the world in general.
Thus, an observance next week — which is fairly unheralded — is important for CNEWA and all people who are concerned with human rights. On Tuesday 28 May, the world observes Amnesty International Day. Most people have heard about Amnesty International and it is probably the largest and most active non-governmental human rights advocacy group in the world.
Amnesty, as it is commonly known, was founded in London in 1961 by Peter Benenson who had read about two students in Portugal who had been imprisoned for making a toast to freedom—something that did not sit well with the government of Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s dictator. Benenson and Eric Baker of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) published an article entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners” in The Observer in May of 1961 and Amnesty International was born.
From the outset, Amnesty has seen itself as advocate for the human rights enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Amnesty has been a particularly effective advocate for “prisoners of conscience,” i.e. those who are imprisoned for their faith or political beliefs. In 1977, Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Long before it became an important point of discussion, Amnesty opposed capital punishment, which is considered the ultimate violation of human rights. Dictatorships and authoritarian governments often used capital punishment as a way of permanently silencing their opponents. In far too many places in the world, people the government finds unacceptable are executed without even having had a trial. Amnesty is constantly calling out countries for extrajudicial executions. Opposed in principle to capital punishment, Amnesty is always alert for situations in which people are not even granted a fair trial before they are killed.
The developing social teaching of the Catholic Church under the last three popes — John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — has evolved to a point where the Catholic Church’s position of capital punishment is similar to that of Amnesty. On 11 October 2017 Pope Francis declared the death penalty to be “contrary to the Gospel.” He added that, “However grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” The following year, he revised the catechism to reflect that teaching. Using a slightly different theological hermeneutic, the pope closely approached the position of Amnesty.
After 50 years — and with over 7 million supporters —Amnesty International may very well be the largest and best- known human advocacy group in the world. However, its work is far from done. All over the world there remain prisoners of conscience and authoritarian governments who still find ways to kill people they find dangerous or inconvenient.
Amnesty Day may not be an observance of which many people are aware. However, for those working for peace and justice — not only in CNEWA’s world but in the entire world — it is a very important day.
Attention must be paid.
9 May 2019
Tags: Pope Francis United Nations
In this image from 2017, a man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an ISIS-controlled part of Mosul toward Iraqi special forces soldiers. (photo: CNS/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)
This week, the United Nations has a rather unusual observance, marking the Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation across two days, on 8 and 9 May.
On the surface, this commemoration does not look all that different from any number of days on which countries and peoples remember events of the past and the sacrifices made by their citizens in times of conflict. The UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation is, however, quite different. It was inaugurated by an act of the General Assembly on 22 November 2004. Recognizing that many countries had days that commemorated the victory of the Allies in World War II, the UN wanted to do something different: it wanted to remember everyone who died in World War II.
World War II had the highest casualties of any conflict in history. Although exact figures are difficult to come by, it is estimated that between 70 and 85 million human beings lost their lives. That alone makes World War II also the greatest human catastrophe in history.
By initiating this Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation, the UN is attempting to accomplish at least two things: first, to remember the horrors of war; and secondly, to work for reconciliation. The General Assembly document is clear. The horrors of World War II were the impetus for the founding of the UN. The very raison d’être of the UN was and remains to prevent war. In the UN Charter member nations are called to “make every effort to settle all disputes by peaceful means.” The bedrock on which the UN was founded was the horror of war. For the UN and its member states, war is never a solution, is never a good thing.
While the remembrances and memorials which most countries observe—we have Memorial Day later this month—are proper and good, the UN is making an important point. The horrors of World War II are fading in most people’s memory. The vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet were born long after the end of that war. With the fading of the memory of the horror of war often comes a fading of the commitment to avoid war at all costs. For far too many people, war is something that happens on a video screen or in another country. It is something the other people do in other places than our own. The idea of New York, London, Paris, Rome, etc. being leveled like Berlin in 1944 simply does not enter into the imagination of most people. We are shocked by natural disasters, but do not seem to realize that war is far worse and far more destructive than any natural disaster.
The UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation echoes what popes have been teaching for decades. Pope John XXIII published Pacem in terris (“Peace on Earth”) on 11 April 1963. Who can forget the impassioned plea of Pope Paul VI in his address to the UN General Assembly on 4 October 1965: “No more war, war never again!”? Since then, every pope has denounced war and called for just and peaceful solutions to the world’s conflicts. One cannot say their voices have been heard. Can it be because we have forgotten the horrors of war?
CNEWA works in places where people do not have to be reminded of the horrors of war. They experience it in their cities (Mosul, Raqqa and others), in their villages, their churches and their very bodies. As so many today play endless war games on cell phones and videos, the UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation reminds us that war is not a game. War is never as far away as we think. War is the worst of all possible solutions. The UN knows this; popes and the Catholic Church know this, and have consistently condemned war as a solution to anything.
Are we aware of this and do we agree?
26 April 2019
Tags: Iraq United Nations
In this image from several years ago, Macedonian worshipers greet Easter with lighted candles at St. Nikolai Church in Ohrid on Holy Saturday — which many there will observe this weekend.
(photo: Sean Sprague)
Around the world, many Christians are still preparing to celebrate Easter this weekend. A few years ago, I posted this piece to help explain why:
At present the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches calculate the date of Easter differently than the Orthodox churches. This results in both sets of Christian churches often having different dates for Easter. The bishops believed that all Christians celebrating Easter on the same day would be a sign of Christian unity.
When I was asked to write on this, I thought that there were some deep theological differences involved. Research into the topic made me realize that I was in the exciting area of “things I thought I knew but didn’t.” To understand more, you have to start at the beginning — the very beginning.
I know that the Gospels are not in total agreement about the date of the Last Supper. The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) see the Last Supper taking place on the first day of Passover, which began at sundown on Thursday. John, on the other hand, sees the Last Supper taking place on the evening before Passover, which according to John would have begun Friday at sunset. I was aware of a group of Christians in the early church called the “Quattuordecimans” (“Fourteeners”) who celebrated Easter on the 14th of Nisan, the same day Jews celebrated Passover. For the Quattuordecimans, Easter could fall on any day of the week. Most Christians, however, celebrated Easter on the Sunday after Passover. There were some controversies between the two groups. The Council of Nicea (325), however, settled the matter and decreed that Easter would be on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. The date of the equinox, with some slight astronomical inaccuracy, was determined as 21 March.
It would seem, then, that the question was solved in 325. What was the problem? The problem was not based on a deep, theological or mystical difference. The problem was based on an astronomical calculation: the length of the calendar year.
Read on to understand more about why there are two dates for Easter.
And to our Eastern and Orthodox siblings: Have a blessed and happy Easter this Sunday!
23 April 2019
Tags: Easter Eastern Catholic Churches
A woman weeps during a memorial service for victims in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 23 April 2019, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island.
(photo: CNS/Dinuka Liyanawatte, Reuters)
The liturgies of Holy Week are filled with references to Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God. The reference is to four poems in the book of Isaiah that speak of a mysterious “servant of God.” In the fourth poem (Isa 52:13-53:12), when harshly dealt with, the servant “bore it humbly, never opening his mouth he was like a lamb led to the slaughter house.” The servant ultimately is abused and killed for the sins and transgressions of all. This image of Jesus as the non-violent suffering servant of God is rooted deep in Christian theologian and piety.
We see it again in the Gospels. When an armed crowd comes to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of his followers strikes out with a sword of his own, severing the ear of the High Priest’s servant. Jesus rebukes his follower and states “those who take up the sword, die by the sword” (Matt 26:53). Throughout the Passion narratives, in the face of incredibly cruel violence, Jesus remains the non-violent victim.
All this makes the tragic events of this past Sunday all the more poignant and powerful.
This year on Easter Sunday, almost 400 people were killed in Sri Lanka. Most of them were celebrating the Resurrection — the victory of the non-violent Christ. Terrorists targeted Christians as they worshipped — that is, as they were united with their Lord who had been mishandled, beaten and crucified, who did not respond to violence with violence and was victorious. Like the Jesus they were worshipping, the victims of the attack were non-violent innocent people.
Anger is a normal, human reaction. Anger directed towards violence, oppression and injustice can be a good thing. But it is very easy for anger, especially in the face of such brutal and senseless violence, to become rage and a drive for revenge. That is entirely understandable. The rage of those who lost loved ones must be understood and, to some extent, felt.
But at times like these, we Christians face our greatest challenge: will we opt to be violent like Pilate or non-violent like Christ?
It must never be forgotten that, after having endured hatred, violence and death, the risen Christ brings to the world a message not of revenge but peace.
The true mystery of Easter is that violence, brutality, death and power are not victorious. Rather, weakness, humility and non-violence overwhelm violence, conquering it with life and goodness.
There is something deadening and horrifying about what happened in Sri Lanka. However, it is by no means something with which Christians are unfamiliar. Violence has been directed against us since the time of our Lord; it has been with us since the beginning. Since that time there has always been an understandable temptation towards revenge. However, the risen Suffering Servant constantly and inconveniently reminds us of the divine power of non-violence.
It may be tempting at times like this to call for retribution and vengeance. But the words of Paul ring clear: “Never repay evil with evil but let everyone see you are concerned on with that which is good. … Never try to get revenge (leave that to God). … Resist evil and conquer it with good” (Rom 12:17-21).
It is the belief in the overwhelming power of non-violence over violence, rooted in the Resurrection of the non-violent Christ, that makes us who we are — or definitely who we should be.