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Current Issue
July, 2019
Volume 45, Number 2
  
25 June 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




Syriac Catholic bishops from around the world met for their annual synod in Lebanon last week, led by Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan. (photo: CNS/courtesy Syriac Catholic patriarchate)

Faced with the migration of Christians from Syria and Iraq, Syriac Catholic bishops meeting in Lebanon for their annual synod called upon church members “scattered everywhere in the East and West” to cling to their faith with hope so they “can be witnesses to the joy of the Gospel wherever they are.”

In a statement at the conclusion of the 17-22 June gathering led by Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, the bishops acknowledged the suffering of the faithful in the face of “endless wars, persecutions, acts of violence, terrorism, displacement, murder and destruction, and the uprooting of a large number of nationals from the land of fathers and grandparents -- Syria and Iraq -- and their dispersion throughout the world.”

Yet the bishops stressed that they also are optimistic, “thanking God for the return of many displaced people to their villages” in Iraq and Syria.

The prelates noted that Christians “are an authentic component and founder in these two countries.” They called for solidarity among all citizens to build peace, hope and unity.

Synod participants came from dioceses and patriarchal and apostolic offices in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the United States, Venezuela and Australia. They were joined by the patriarchal vicar in Rome.

In studying pastoral service in the countries where Syriac Catholics relocated -- primarily Europe, the Americas and Australia -- the bishops acknowledged the plight of migration “to the country of alienation and painful assimilation” and the importance of sending “priests of good quality.” They pointed to visits from the patriarch and bishops to Syriac Catholics worldwide in which the faithful were called “to preserve the deposit of faith and trust for their churches, the Syriac heritage and native lands.”

The bishops reiterated their demand to stop wars and “resolve disputes through dialogue and peaceful means, and to achieve a just, comprehensive and lasting peace.” They called for the return of all displaced persons, refugees and abductees to their homelands.

The synod also stressed “the right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and establish their state on their land,” emphasizing that Jerusalem “is a holy city for the followers” Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

They called on Lebanon’s president, prime minister “and all concerned” to find an immediate solution to the country’s economic recession and crisis in the housing sector that pushes Lebanese youth, in particular, to emigrate.

In their statement, the prelates welcomed efforts made “to obtain the official recognition of our Syriac Church in Jordan.”

They also praised the establishment of a Syriac Youth Meeting in Syria in early July and plans for a World Youth Meeting in 2021, which both follow the first World Youth Meeting in Lebanon in the summer of 2018. The bishops recommended such meetings be held in eparchies and other countries.



Tags: Syriac Catholic Church Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan

10 June 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




Syriac Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Nizar Semaan is seen during his 7 June 2019, episcopal ordination at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, Iraq, his birthplace.
(photo: CNS/Syriac Catholic Patriarchate)


Syriac Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Nizar Semaan begins his new mission in Iraq with hope “that Christianity will flourish again” in his homeland.

Bishop Semaan chose the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, Iraq, his birthplace, as the site of his episcopal ordination on 7 June.

Still scarred from the Islamic State group and not yet fully restored, the church, Bishop Semaan said, is “a symbol of what happened to our cities and villages in 2014 until the liberation (in 2017) from ISIS.”

It’s also the church where the new bishop was ordained a priest in 1991.

Located in the Ninevah Plain, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian city in Iraq. Its 50,000 residents -- all of them Christian -- were expelled by Islamic State forces in a single night during the summer of 2014. They were among 120,000 Christians uprooted from Mosul and the Ninevah Plain that summer.

Of his new mission as a bishop, Bishop Semaan told Catholic News Service his ministry is “all about challenges: political challenges, economical challenges, spiritual challenges, social challenges.”

Yet he is optimistic.

“I’m sure with the help and prayers of many people who are interested in the Christians of Iraq, we will carry our mission and we will go ahead for a brighter future,” he said.

In his homily during the ordination Mass, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan acknowledged the challenges facing the church in northern Iraq. Pointing to the “terrible calamity” that affected “the most precious diocese in our Syriac Catholic Church,” he said his people’s resilience is “an example of the heroic testimony and the steadfastness in the face of the evil forces that wanted to kill hope in your believing souls.”

The patriarch noted how parishioners “carried the cross,” following the example of Jesus. “Your hope has won the admiration of the faithful around the world, in the East and West.”

Bishop Semaan, who spent 14 years as a priest in London, said he plans to focus on building: not just in the physical sense with new construction, but especially restoring relationships among Iraqis and to work on healing “the psychological and spiritual injury of our people.”

“It wasn’t easy for our people, who lived here their entire life and in one night, suddenly, immediately they lost everything, and found themselves without a piece of bread to eat, sleeping in the street, to be forced to live as refugees in the north, Ankawa, Kurdistan, Irbil,” he said.

Such horrific trauma, he explained, left deep wounds in people’s hearts and minds.

Stressing the pastoral role of priests and bishops, he said that establishing peace, political stability and security in Iraq is not in the hands of the church.

“For this, we need the help of the international community,” to put pressure on the Iraqi government so that people can live in dignity, with democracy and respect for human rights, he said.

Without security, Bishop Semaan noted, it is difficult for Christians to be expected to stay in Iraq and restart their lives. Likewise, he said, the lack of security hinders economic investment.

He urged Christians in the West to encourage their government “to look at the situation of Christians in Iraq and try to find a political solution.”

“We need their support and prayers, as well as economic help,” Bishop Semaan said.

While touring Qaraqosh before his installation, the new bishop said he was struck by how, in two years, the community was able to rebuild again, citing as evidence numerous homes, shops and restaurants.

“It’s kind of like a miracle,” he said. “This is a sign of hope, really.”

More reconstruction is needed, Bishop Semaan told CNS, and for that the Christian community in the region must depend on the continued help from international charities and church groups.

Although there are no exact figures, Bishop Semaan said about 20,000 people have returned to Qaraqosh, where he will be based initially.

Bishop Semaan said his return to Iraq is grounded in the hope “that Christianity will flourish again in Iraq, and every Christian will play his positive role in rebuilding the new Iraq.”

“Everyone around the world should care about what is happening to the Christians of Iraq,” Bishop Semaan said, adding that without help, “in 20 years we will vanish from here.”

Bishop Semaan noted that Pope Francis “is always talking about the importance of Christianity in the Middle East, the importance of staying here, giving testimony to our faith. We need help to continue our mission in the Middle East.”

In 2003, about 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq. Their presence dates to apostolic times. Now that number has dwindled to about 250,000, according to international observers.

For his motto as bishop, Bishop Semaan chose Galatians 5:22: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness. “Most important is peace and patience,” he said.

He said he hopes to bring that inspiration to the people of Iraq.

“If you look at the faces of our people and what they endured, you can see the sadness in their eyes,” he said. “They need a happy person.”



Tags: Iraq Syriac Catholic Church

20 May 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




Cardinal Nasrallah P. Sfeir, Lebanon's retired Maronite Catholic patriarch, died on 12 May 2019. He is pictured in a 2010 photo. (photo: CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Church bells could be heard ringing throughout Lebanon on 12 May mourning Cardinal Nasrallah P. Sfeir, the country’s retired Maronite Catholic patriarch known for defending his country’s sovereignty and independence.

Cardinal Sfeir would have been 99 on 15 May.

“The Maronite church is orphaned and Lebanon is in mourning,” said a statement from Bkerke, the Maronite patriarchate, announcing his death.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch since 2011, said in his Sunday homily at Bkerke a few hours later, “In this patriarchal chair, where 63 years of continuous life has lived a priest, bishop, patriarch and cardinal, we lose an icon, but we all have gained a patron in heaven.”

In a telegram of condolence released 14 May, Pope Francis said that as an “ardent defender of the sovereignty and independence of his country,” Cardinal Sfeir would “remain a great figure in the history of Lebanon.”

Governing the Maronite church with “gentleness and determination,” he was a “free and courageous man” on the public stage, wisely knowing how to bring people together in the name of peace and reconciliation, the pope said in the message to Cardinal Rai.

Cardinal Sfeir served as Maronite patriarch from 1986 to 2011. His last public appearance was at Easter Vigil Mass at Bkerke. He was hospitalized a few days later with a pulmonary infection, his condition later worsening.

The cardinal was considered a respected power broker during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, which saw bitter infighting between rival militias, including opposing Christian factions.

“The national arena will miss the presence of the patriarch, a man of solid faith in his national positions and in defending Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence at the most difficult stage,” said Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

“The Maronite Church lost one of the most prominent patriarchs who had fingerprints on church affairs, heritage and traditions,” added Aoun, a Maronite Catholic.

Cardinal Sfeir was “a very simple, humble person, always ready to listen,” said Maronite Archbishop Paul Sayah, patriarchal vicar for foreign affairs, of the prelate he had known for more than 30 years.

“He spoke very little and listened a great deal. If you asked him a question, he would answer with a few words, but always deep and down to the point,” the archbishop told Catholic News Service.

The cardinal was a man “who was always open to dialogue, a man of peace and reconciliation,” Archbishop Sayah said.

“He believed very deeply in the Christian-Muslim coexistence. On the other hand, he was very adamant about safeguarding freedom: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. One of his famous sayings was, ‘Lebanon could not exist unless it were free,’“ Archbishop Sayah said.

In September 2000 Cardinal Sfeir issued, with the Maronite bishops, an appeal for an end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which began during the war in 1976 and lasted until 2005.

“No one dared at that time” to take such a step and “break the taboo” predominating in Lebanon to speak out against the Syrian hegemony, “but he had the courage, the foresight,” Archbishop Sayah said.

For this stand, Cardinal Sfeir was referred to as the father of Lebanon’s second independence.

As patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir often told the faithful that despite the difficulties of current times, their circumstances now were simpler than “the miseries and persecution that befell our people throughout the ages. Our church is a church struggling for excellence.”

He is credited with organizing the 2004 Maronite Synod of Bishops, the first full Maronite synod to take place in Lebanon in 150 years, and the first in which women participated. It resulted in an 800-page document, an extensive study of the identity of the Maronite Catholic Church and its mission in the world.

In his later years, still at the patriarchate, Cardinal Sfeir continued to participate in church activities. He spent his time in prayer, and also reading and writing.

“He had a fantastic habit of writing in his diary every day,” Archbishop Sayah noted, and could be found writing, revising on his laptop at his desk.

“His legacy will remain for a very long time,” Archbishop Sayah said.

“He had that beautiful smile, that really reflected a deep internal peace,” Archbishop Sayah noted, attributing it to the cardinal’s life of intense prayer and meditation. He was even smiling as he was going into the hospital, the archbishop recalled. “I saluted him.”

“We are sad, but we rejoice at the legacy he left us,” Archbishop Sayah said.

Sheikh Abdul Latif Daryan, grand mufti of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, described Cardinal Sfeir as “a role model for moderation, openness, wisdom, dialogue, love and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”

Born in 1920 in Rayfoun, Lebanon, Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir was ordained a priest in 1950 and ordained bishop in 1961.

He was appointed cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994.

Cardinal Sfeir was fluent in Arabic, French, English, Italian and Latin, as well as Syriac, the historical spiritual language of the Maronites.

He served as president of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon and was a founding member of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs in the East.

Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation in 2011.

His death leaves the College of Cardinals with 221 members, 120 of whom are under 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave.



Tags: Lebanon Maronite Catholic

24 January 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




In honor of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 18-25 January, Middle East Christian leaders attended an ecumenical prayer service at St. Severus the Great Church in Atchaneh, Lebanon. (photo: CNS/courtesy Syriac Orthodox patriarchate)

At a gathering of Middle East leaders coinciding with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Syriac Orthodox patriarch emphasized the need to unify efforts against extremism and terrorism.

“A hundred years after the genocide during the Ottoman Empire and major displacements,” Christians in the region are still facing similar circumstances, said Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch.

“Many of our churches have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of our Christian brothers have been forced to migrate from the land of their fathers,” Patriarch Aphrem said. “To whose benefit is it if the region is emptied of Christians?”

He opened the 22-23 January executive committee meeting of the Middle East Council of Churches, which he hosted at the patriarchal residence in Atchaneh, Lebanon.

Members of the executive committee attending the meeting included Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of Chaldean Catholics; the Rev. Habib Badr, senior pastor of the National Evangelical Church of Beirut; and Souraya Bechealany, acting secretary-general of Middle East Council of Churches; as well as bishops and representatives from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches in the Middle East.

Patriarch Aphrem called for regular meetings, at both the spiritual and political levels, to unify efforts against extremism and terrorism, as well as “to promote the principles of coexistence, human values, religious freedom and the spiritual and social values that exist.”

“We know that our future is the future of living together with our Muslim brothers,” the patriarch said, adding that “if we want to have a secure future,” all must work together.

The patriarch lamented “the great silence of the great world powers” regarding the fate of two bishops kidnapped in Syria nearly six years ago, Orthodox Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo and Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna of Aleppo.

In its final statement, the executive committee called on “the international community and the Arab world to work for the release of the kidnapped bishops” as well as priests and lay abductees.

It called for “the establishment of peace in Syria and the dignified and safe return of displaced persons to their homeland and for the restoration of Iraq’s recovery and the return of uprooted children to their land.”

It rejected the decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of “the occupying power” and called for the “realization of the state of Palestine stipulated in the relevant international resolutions.”

It also condemned “all forms of extremism and terrorism,” expressing their hope for the “cooperation between churches and Islamic authorities to build a religious discourse” based on “the values of love, peace, social justice and dialogue.”



Tags: Middle East

11 January 2019
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




Young Catholics from around the world pray at a church in United Arab Emirates in this undated photo. Approximately one million Catholics reside in the UAE as expatriate workers, according to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia. Pope Francis will visit Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital next month. (photo: CNS/Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia)

Catholics from around the world living in the United Arab Emirates are waiting with great anticipation for Pope Francis’ 3-5 February visit, the first papal trip to the Arabian Peninsula.

“Pope Francis is the ambassador of peace, courageously crossing borders and fostering personal encounters with religious leaders, heads of states and humanitarian organizations in the Arab world,” said the Rev. Johnson Kadukkan, parish priest at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, where Pope Francis will stop for a private visit on 5 February before celebrating Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium.

There are eight Catholic churches throughout the seven emirates of the UAE, with a ninth church under construction. Each church offers an extensive schedule of “weekend” Masses, all of which are full. Since the UAE is an Islamic country and Friday is considered a day of prayer for Muslims, Catholics attend weekend Mass on Friday or Saturday; Sunday is a workday.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, for example, has about 90,000 parishioners, with eight priests celebrating nearly 20 Masses during the weekend in various languages: Arabic, English, Tagalog, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Korean, Polish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Sinhalese and the Indian languages of Konkani, Malayalam and Tamil.

“The rulers of the UAE have been benevolent and tolerant, allowing us to practice our faith in the places of worship, and for this we are very thankful,” Father Kadukkan said.

Reflecting on the significance of Pope Francis’ visit, Joseph Khadige, a Lebanese who has been working in the UAE since 1982, told Catholic News Service that Pope Francis’ visit is “a sign from God. It is something we never thought would happen in our lifetime, for a pope to visit the UAE. The world should understand: This is not a small thing.”

Some people in the West confuse the UAE with Saudi Arabia, Khadige noted.

“So, when we say that 70,000 people attend a single church, they might say ‘impossible,’“ he said, in reference to the approximate number of parishioners at his parish, St. Michael’s in Sharja, an emirate close to Dubai.

On the contrary, Khadige said, “Here in the UAE, we practice our faith in full.”

From his experience, Khadige, general manager for an Italian global firm, has noticed that many Christians from the West who are lukewarm or practically atheists when they first arrive in the UAE as expatriate workers eventually are influenced by their active Christian peers.

“They see a lot of staff in their companies and organizations are going to church.” Little by little, he said, they are inspired to return to the church.

“They are now believers, and they are calling the priests to bless their house, to bless their children. And they enroll their children in catechism classes to be more active,” Khadige said, noting that in every church, there are around 5,000 children enrolled in such classes.

“It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about what is happening in a Muslim country,” he said.

Ed Magbag of the Philippines, a project manager with a design and engineering firm who has worked in the UAE for 14 years, notes that the UAE “is like a home away from home for all Christians.”

Parishioners of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, he and his wife are active in Couples for Christ, a global lay ecclesial movement, which has about 15,000 active members in the UAE.

Pope Francis’ visit “will show the world that despite different cultures, races, religions and practices, there is respect, love and coexistence of all local people and expatriates in the UAE,” Magbag told CNS.

Magbag considers Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE as “the best gift,” that “rekindles the fire in the heart of the faithful,” who are expecting spiritual nourishment.

Like many fellow Catholics in the UAE, the Magbags cut short their vacation to their homeland to be present in the UAE for Pope Francis’ visit.

“This is one experience we must not miss,” he said. Many workers are asking for a day of leave for the Pope’s 5 February Mass at the stadium.

“Pope Francis symbolizes God’s presence on earth and so, when the Pope Francis is visiting the UAE, it is as if God is visiting his children in the Middle East, not only Christians, but our Muslim brethren as well,” Magbag added.

“Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” is the theme for this papal visit, taken from the opening words of the Prayer of Peace of St. Francis Assisi, from whom Pope Francis has taken his name. The logo of the visit is a dove bearing an olive branch.

“Pope Francis is building bridges and creating an environment for peaceful dialogue to achieve peace and harmony globally,” Father Kadukkan told CNS.

“The UAE government has made huge strides by inviting Pope Francis to the country, and this is a step in the right direction to achieve tolerance, both within the Emirates as well as within the region,” the Indian priest told CNS.

The UAE government is organizing the visit with support from the Catholic Church.

Additionally, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE president, has declared 2019 as the Year of Tolerance.

Approximately 1 million Catholics reside in the UAE as foreign workers, according to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia.

They come from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, with the majority from India and the Philippines.



Tags: Muslim Arabian Peninsula

2 October 2018
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




Some 500 members of the Fraternities of the Youth of Virgin Mary sing the group's anthem on 30 September at St. Joseph School in Cornet Chewan, Lebanon, during the annual commemoration of the Marian group. (photo: CNS/courtesy Congregation of the Youth of Mary)

Church youth groups provide an escape from life’s pressures and help in forming strong friendships, young Lebanese Catholics said at the annual meeting of their Marian group.

Under the theme, “Mary is Our Captain,” some 500 members of the Fraternities of the Youth of Virgin Mary met on 30 September at St. Joseph School in Cornet Chahwan, north of Beirut.

Celebrating Mass for the gathering, Maronite Bishop Michel Aoun of Jbeil urged the young people “to be like eagles,” to rise up above the world and to keep their eyes on Jesus.

“That’s how the Christian life should be,” he said.

“You were chosen by God to be a light. You can be a witness to others who don’t know Jesus,” Bishop Aoun said, noting the 3-28 October Synod of Bishops to discuss “young people, the faith and vocational discernment” at the Vatican.

After the Mass, Christine Zaghrini, 27, told Catholic News Service: “This group is my escape. It’s a place where I meet God.”

“With all the chaos and stress we face, it’s easy to ‘lose’ God. But I know that on the day we have our weekly meeting ... I can be refreshed in my faith,” said Zaghrini, who works in information technology.

“I feel the presence of the Lord when I’m with this group,” Zaghrini said. “The church listens to us. The church helps us,” and young people need its support, she said.

The Fraternities of the Youth of Virgin Mary has membership for young people, ages 20-35, in 17 regions throughout Lebanon, with around 1,200 members in 121 local groups. The organization also has groups for children, teens and adults over 35.

“I grew up in this group,” said Nassib Achkar, 25, a talent agent. “I have good friends here, and I found a special love and bond, like brothers and sisters.”

Working in the entertainment industry, Achkar often encounters atheists and people with little faith, he said.

“They are lost. Sometimes they make fun of me,” he said, noting that his faith is “something they can’t understand.”

“I feel I have a responsibility to be a witness. God put me in this profession for a reason, to help people to believe,” Achkar said.

Joe Allam, 26, in his first year as a seminarian, told CNS that the youth fraternities helped him to discover his vocation.

After all the spiritual retreats, “I could hear Jesus talking to me and inviting me to this road,” he said, noting that “when you are close to Jesus ... you become familiar with his voice.”

“Every young man and woman has to know that their church has a past, and the older generation should feel assured that the church has a future -- we are the future of the church,” Allam said.

Concelebrating the Mass with Bishop Aoun was the Rev. Marcellino Assaf, who was ordained in September and heard his calling to the priesthood as a member of the Fraternities of the Youth of Virgin Mary.

Bishop Aoun told the young people it is every Christian’s vocation “to be a message of life and love.”

Families and work “should be a means to gain the kingdom of God, so that God is the only constant in your life,” he said, noting that through Mary’s help, “everything you do can lead you to God.”

Especially with the synod happening in the same month, it is good to see Lebanese youth “gathering with such joy and enthusiasm,” Msgr. Ivan Santos, charge d’affaires of the Vatican Embassy in Lebanon, told Catholic News Service.

“They are the hope of Lebanon,” he said.

Msgr. Santos urged the young people to follow Pope Francis’ call to pray the rosary each day in October.

“Young people, you are the answer for the church and for your country,” he said.



Tags: Lebanon Beirut

26 September 2018
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




Lebanon's Our Lady of Kaftoun (Deir Saydet Kaftoun) Monastery in Kaftoun is pictured in this 2013 photo. Now the land of the cedars is accessible virtually, via a free app in English -- called Holy Lebanon -- aimed at promoting religious tourism. (photo: CNS /courtesy Nour Farra Haddad)

From its high majestic mountains, picturesque villages and coastal towns to its bustling cities, Lebanon is rich in breathtaking scenery, cultural diversity and religious sites.

Now the land of the cedars mentioned in the Bible 96 times is accessible virtually, via a free app in English -- called Holy Lebanon -- aimed at promoting religious tourism.

“Even if you can’t come to Lebanon to visit, you can download the app and have an idea about different religious sites around the country,” Nour Farra Haddad, developer of the Holy Lebanon app, told Catholic News Service.

“Holy Lebanon,” introduced in June, was followed in July with an announcement from the Vatican that it will authorize official pilgrimage visits to Lebanon in 2019.

The multifaith app features 300 religious sites, representative of all of Lebanon’s 18 religious traditions, including Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim. The sites include churches, monasteries, convents, shrines and sanctuaries as well as mosques, many dating back centuries ago.

“It is just a beginning,” Farra Haddad said, noting that more sites will be added to the Holy Lebanon app in the future.

While the app took two years to develop, it is based on Farra Haddad’s 10 years of research as a religious anthropologist.

Lebanon, about two-thirds the size of Connecticut, is visibly steeped in religion.

“This is something that really surprises people: We have about 6,000 religious sites all around Lebanon,” Farra Haddad said, although she notes that no formal comprehensive survey of the exact number of sites has been compiled.

“Because Lebanon is considered an Arab country, sometimes people assume it’s a Muslim country only or that it’s related to the Islamic world, but Christianity was born in this area,” Farra Haddad said.

“I think people who have a curiosity about the Holy Land forget that South Lebanon is a part of the Holy Land where Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary walked,” Farra Haddad said, referring to Sidon and Tyre. “There is no doubt about that.”

In Lebanon, Christians account for approximately 40 percent of the population.

The country’s president is a Maronite Catholic, and half of the country’s 128 parliamentary seats are reserved for Christians.

Lebanon has approximately 900 religious sites dedicated to Mary, according to the app. That’s not counting informal shrines, thousands of which dot the country near buildings and roadsides.

Aside from the sites of Lebanon’s native saints -- Charbel, Rafka and Hardini -- which are visited by Christians and Muslims, St. George is the most popular saint, with 350 Christian sites and about 20 Muslim sites.

Western saints -- including Sts. Francis of Assisi, Rita, Bernadette of Lourdes and Therese of Lisieux -- also hold a special place in believers’ hearts, and churches and sanctuaries dedicated to them can be found throughout Lebanon.

By far the most popular pilgrimage site is the Our Lady of Lebanon shrine and basilica -- Harissa -- perched high above the Mediterranean Sea. Each year more the shrine receives than 2 million pilgrims, Muslims and Christians alike, as Mary is venerated by Muslims, and a full chapter is devoted to her in the Quran.

“It’s very important to let people around the world know that there are Christians in Lebanon,” the Rev. Khalil Alwan, vice rector of Harissa, told CNS.

Maronite Father Alwan said it is fitting that Muslim sites are included in the app.

“In Lebanon, Christians and Muslims coexist. This is the mission of Lebanon. That’s what John Paul II said,” he emphasized, referring to the saint’s quote: “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”

“Lebanon is a holy land for Muslims and Christians,” Father Alwan added.

The Holy Lebanon app also happens to coincide with Harissa’s yearlong commemoration of the Marian shrine’s jubilee, 110 years since the shrine was inaugurated in 1908. Until 4 August 2019, pilgrims to the Marian shrine can receive an indulgence offered by the Vatican.

Farra Haddad pointed out that the Holy Lebanon app was designed for friendly navigation. “It’s not complicated, and the menu is easy,” she said, adding that elderly people have told her the app is simple to use.

From anywhere in the world, the Holy Lebanon app can be downloaded for free from the App Store or Google Play.

Navigating between the six sections of the app, users can access historical details about each of the 300 religious sites; background about the saint or holy figure; details about Christian and Muslim rituals; a calendar of feast days and celebrations; suggested itineraries for tours; and lodging possibilities at monasteries and convents.



Tags: Lebanon

11 September 2018
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, left, leads a procession on 9 September at the restored Our Lady of the Assumption Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Aleppo. During the inauguration and rededication of the cathedral, Patriarch Younan said, "We will always be people of hope and life." (CNS photo/courtesy Syriac Catholic Patriarchate)

In war-torn Aleppo, Syria, the Syriac Catholic patriarch proclaimed that “the will of life has overcome death; hope and security have overcome despair and chaos. Our people have overcome.”

Celebrating the liturgy on 9 September at the inauguration and rededication of the restored Our Lady of the Assumption Syriac Catholic Cathedral, Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan said, “We will always be people of hope and life.”

The cathedral’s inaugural liturgy, filled with worshippers, was attended by Cardinal Mario Zenari, the Vatican nuncio to Syria; bishops of other Christian churches; and representatives of Aleppo civil authorities.

The patriarch led a procession through the nearby streets to the restored cathedral, then cut a white ribbon fastened to the main door and entered.

In his homily, Patriarch Younan recalled his visit to Aleppo in 2017, when he celebrated Palm Sunday Mass in the damaged cathedral with the faithful assembled under umbrellas “because the rain was falling on us from all sides of this cathedral.”

“We are gathered today to sing thanks and praise to the Lord who gave us this wonderful gift to be able to repair this cathedral in order to recuperate its beauty of the past. We are so delighted to come once again and pray with you, in this cathedral so dear to you,” the patriarch said.

“For many years, this house of God suffered a lot of devastation, being at the demarcation line with terrorists. It is now restored for worship, a sign of hope and victory of the good over the evil that destroyed so many churches and mosques in this beloved city, Aleppo,” Patriarch Younan said. He noted that Aleppo was recognized for centuries as the most important center for many Christian communities.

“During the horrendous siege at the hands of criminals that lasted four years, this second-largest and prosperous city of Syria was deprived of basic necessities,” the patriarch said. “You lacked water, food, fuel and electricity. All this happened under the eyes of the ‘civilized’ world.’“

“You and hundreds of thousands of civilians under the ruling of the legitimate Syrian government were forgotten, abandoned even manipulated by those opportunistic geo-politicians of our present time,” he said.

In December 2016, the Syrian army retook control of almost the entire city of Aleppo. The city had been split between government and rebel control since 2012.

“Aleppo has returned, and Syria will return to its previous glory, and even more beautiful, because there are many civil and spiritual officials who felt the duty of their responsibilities to serve ... with integrity and honesty,” Patriarch Younan said.

“We should first thank God almighty that helped you, beloved brothers and sisters, under the leadership of our brother-Archbishop Antoine Chahda (of Aleppo), to undertake the hard and costly works of repairing this wonderful cathedral built in the 1970s,” the patriarch said.

He thanked the “generous benefactors” from the archdiocese, Catholic organizations and the government of Hungary.

“We owe to our Catholic brothers and sisters from around the world a lot of appreciation and gratitude for the charitable and unconditional solidarity toward us and all Christians of the Middle East, most particularly the two beleaguered countries of Syria and Iraq,” Patriarch Younan said.

The liturgy commemorated the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary.

“Our thanks go to our heavenly Virgin Mary, who protected the faithful of this cathedral, and protected the people of Aleppo,” the patriarch said. He stressed that Aleppo still needs her intercession after so much suffering and prayed that she would grant the Middle East “a true peace and unshakable security based on justice for all.”

He also prayed that she would hasten the return of Syrians who migrated to other countries.

The patriarch’s four-day visit to Syria from the patriarchate in Beirut included meetings with government officials and Muslim clerics. During the liturgy at the restored cathedral, the patriarch ordained six new deacons.



Tags: Syria

30 August 2018
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




Syrian refugee youth in Lebanon participate in a Caritas Lebanon education program. Christian and Muslim religious leaders appealed this week to the international community to work toward peace in the region to ensure the dignified return of refugees to their homes. (photo: CNS/courtesy Caritas Lebanon)

Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim religious leaders, meeting with the president of Switzerland, appealed to the international community to work toward peace in the region and to ensure the “dignified” return of refugees to their homelands.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of Maronite Catholics, hosted Swiss President Alain Berset at Diman, the patriarchal summer residence in northern Lebanon on 28 August.

“This presence of high Muslim and Christian dignitaries clearly reflects the uniqueness of Lebanon as a country of convergence and interfaith dialogue,” Cardinal Rai said in welcoming Berset.

“In these difficult times, the countries of the Middle East are well aware of the fact that such cooperation and coexistence between Christians and Muslims is a beacon of hope for the peoples of this tormented region,” the cardinal said.

Those attending included Melkite Patriarch Joseph Absi; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan; Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II; Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X -- all of whom were born in Syria -- Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia for the Armenian Orthodox Church; Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, papal nuncio to Lebanon; Mohammad Sammak, secretary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue; Muslim and Druze representatives, as well as Swiss diplomats.

“We appeal to the international community to shoulder its responsibility and strive to put an end to the ongoing conflicts and wars and to ensure the dignified return of the Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrians, Iraqis and others to their country,” Cardinal Rai told the Swiss president.

Lebanon, a country of about 4 million, is host to more than 1 million refugees from neighboring war-torn Syria. In addition, thousands of Iraqi Christians who were uprooted from their homes in Iraq’s Ninevah Plain by the Islamic State organization, and 500,000 Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war also are in Lebanon.

“This right of return must be a priority,” Cardinal Rai continued, regarding the refugee presence in Lebanon.

“It is their right as citizens to preserve their culture and civilization and to continue to write their history. Therefore, the question of their return should not be linked to political solutions that may take years and years,” particularly as they relate to the interests of various regional and international powers, the Lebanese cardinal continued.

For his part, Berset said, “My visit to Lebanon is a sign of support for this country at a time when the Middle East is witnessing a hostile, weakened” situation.

“Spiritual leaders have a great responsibility toward each other to denote the path of dialogue, exchange and peace. We know very well how rugged this road is and the difficulties it faces,” Berset continued.

“Lebanon is a world center for civilizations and for dialogue between religions and people,” Berset affirmed to the religious leaders.

“This visit also aims to remind Lebanon that it is not alone concerned with the refugees and the displaced,” Berset told the gathering. He noted that the previous day he had met with Lebanon’s president, the house speaker and other officials “only to confirm our concern about helping Lebanon.”



Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees

8 August 2018
Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service




Children engage in a finger painting activity at a summer day camp run by the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation in the Bourj Hammoud section of Beirut. The camp is funded in part by CNEWA. (photo: CNS/Krikor Aynilian, courtesy Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation)

In the sweltering, crowded Bourj Hammoud district of Beirut, a group of children from poor Christian families have discovered a summertime oasis of joy.

The 390 children, ages 3 to 13, are participants in the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation’s day camp, funded in part by CNEWA .

Held in a school, the seven-week day camp combines sports, games, art and activities such as cooking, music and dance with a mix of instruction in nutrition, hygiene, math, English and Bible study. The children also go on weekly outings to places their families normally are not able to afford.

The camp gives children an opportunity “to have new friends, to enjoy their childhood, to have these moments of fun and lovely memories within their miseries,” Serop Ohanian, the corporation’s Lebanon field director, told Catholic News Service.

There are no playgrounds or green spaces in densely populated Bourj Hammoud, often referred to as Little Armenia. Settled by Armenians who had fled the early 20th-century genocide, the area has grown into a vibrant community. However, Lebanon’s economic crisis has caused more families to slip into poverty. The district also has seen Syrian refugees resettling there.

Half of the camp participants are Lebanese Armenians and half are Syrian Armenian refugees from Aleppo, Syria. All are Christian. Armenian is the principal language spoken.

The children are nurtured and guided by 34 volunteers, most of whom are university students majoring in education, psychology and special education, specially trained by the corporation.

Volunteer Nver Bodozian, who works with 3-year-old children, is a refugee from Aleppo herself. She and her family came to Lebanon six years ago, early in Syria’s civil war. Her great-grandparents -- who fled the Armenian genocide -- originally settled in Aleppo.

Bodozian and her family are hoping to obtain visas to be resettled in a Western country. Meanwhile, she is studying to become a teacher at Kinder Mesrobian College in Beirut.

“We show the children love and care,” Bodozian said. “Even though I feel they have so much stress and sadness in their lives, they are so happy here.”

Bodozian and another volunteer have just completed an art activity with the preschoolers. Brilliant finger-painted butterflies, still drying, are hung across the classroom.

Next on their program is short play, retelling “The Three Little Pigs” story.

Young Migel, in the role of the wolf, “taps” on an imaginary door, making threatening “woo” sounds. His classmates, portraying little pigs, gleefully scoot around the room in feigned fright.

Later, seated at colorful child-sized tables and chairs, the youngsters prepare to eat sandwiches before recess. Bodozian leads them in a short prayer: “Thank you, God, for this day. Thank you for our food. Please help the poor.”

“If they can have faith in God beginning at a young age, it’s everything,” Bodozian said.

“Although not a faith-based organization, we do encourage the children and their families to trust in God and live by faith,” Ohanian explained.

“We want to spread a beacon of hope within the community, within these neighborhoods and tell the children to dream big dreams, to get out from their difficulties and give them the opportunity to be a productive member within this community,” he said.

Downstairs, recess is already underway for the 7- and 8-year-olds. Balls zigzag across the outdoor courtyard, following the rhythm of the children’s joy. Some kids stroll together, chatting with arms joined. A group of girls practice dance moves.

Taking a break from shuffling a soccer ball, Kevin, 8, a refugee from Aleppo, said, “my best friends are here,” pointing to Sevag and Garbis, both of Lebanon.

Their teacher, Alice Majarian, 26, told CNS that she calls the trio the Three Musketeers.

Majarian recounted the camp’s first day when Kevin told his campmates that they should play nicely together. Kevin is “really organized and friendly,” Majarian said.

Sevag likewise promotes good manners to his campmates. Majarian said he frequently tells the class, “we should respect the teachers” and reminds them to say “please” and “thank you.”

Garbis, still eating his sandwich, hugs Majarian.

“When you see the children growing and blossoming before you, it’s a great satisfaction,” she said as the trio resumes playing.

The children come from “complicated” backgrounds, whether because of financial struggles in their family or from the hollowed-out existence as refugees, Majarian said.

“These children are not refugees voluntarily. It’s really difficult to be pulled away from your house, surroundings and friends, to see how your parents and neighbors suffered. Digesting all those traumas is too much for children to handle,” she said.

The corporation is a program of the Karagheusian Foundation, which was established in New York City in 1918 after the death of 14-year-old Howard Karagheusian from pneumonia. His parents resolved to establish a humanitarian mission in his memory, focusing at first on sheltering, feeding and educating orphaned children who had survived the Armenian genocide. The corporation has operated in Lebanon, Syria and Armenia for more than 95 years.

The program’s clinic in Bourj Hammoud sees 2,500 patients a month; 70 percent are Syrian refugees and 30 percent are Lebanese. Of the refugees, 60 percent are Muslim and 40 percent are Christian.

Children enrolled in the camp also receive a free medical checkup and dental care.

For another example of the generous work of the Karagheusian Corporation, read A Letter from Lebanon in the current edition of ONE.



Tags: Lebanon Armenia Beirut





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