11 January 2019
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.
2 October 2018
Tags: Muslim Arabian Peninsula
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.
26 September 2018
Tags: Lebanon Beirut
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.
11 September 2018
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.
30 August 2018
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.”
8 August 2018
Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees
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.
17 July 2018
Tags: Lebanon Armenia Beirut
A man walks next to a destroyed building in Aleppo, Syria. Carmelite nuns are bringing a message of hope to Syrians. (photo: CNS/Ghith Sy, EPA)
Amid the destruction in war-torn Syria, a community of Discalced Carmelites in Aleppo perseveres in its mission of continuous prayer and help to families in need.
The Carmelite nuns, four of whom are Syrian and two French, are in their quiet demeanor “a message of peace and a spiritual message of hope,” said the provincial of the Discalced Carmelite Fathers in Lebanon, the Rev. Raymond Abdo, who visited the convent 5-7 July.
The nuns’ convent on the outskirts of Aleppo, in an area that has often been a focal point of the fighting, once had a missile land in the yard. In seven years of civil war, the convent has suffered many food, water and electricity shortages, seen its windows shattered and a surrounding wall destroyed.
The sisters in the northern Syrian city are living a “very heroic situation, even if it’s difficult,” Father Abdo told Catholic News Service.
At one point, the nuns were hosting four uprooted Muslim families, who lived in a building adjoining the convent.
The nuns shared their food and the bounty from their vegetable gardens. Three families have since been resettled, and the convent is still supporting a family with 10 children.
Yet, the sisters have not lost their way of contemplative life, a structured routine that begins with silent prayer and includes Mass, working together in silence and more periods of prayer throughout the day and evening, Father Abdo said.
“They give a good example of real Christianity, because they don’t distinguish between Muslims and Christians,” he said.
A sister told Father Abdo how the head of one of the families who was sheltering at the convent approached her and asked, “Why do you help us?” The Muslim man then followed up with his observation, telling the religious, “You help us without asking anything in return. You Christians are very humble.”
“Giving this possibility to the Muslim people and other people to know the heart of Christianity” offers “real hope,” the priest said.
On the road from Homs to Aleppo, Father Abdo passed leveled villages, desolate and barren with “no sign of life anywhere.”
As well as destroying homes, war “destroys people, families, culture, social life, relationships, the economy -- everything,” he said.
Some reconstruction is happening in Aleppo, with new roads being built, Father Abdo said, noting that the city’s residents “are trying to make a normal life.”
While walking outside the convent on the evening before his return to neighboring Lebanon, the priest heard a missile, “whooshing like a big plane overhead, heading in the direction of the Turkish area north of Aleppo.” Bombs could also be heard in the distance.
The sisters and other residents of Aleppo told Father Abdo that such activity is normal.
“Getting used to living like that means the people have suffered so much,” he said. “Still, they have the courage to go on.”
22 June 2018
Tags: Syria Carmelite Sisters
The life-size icon of St. Ephrem, the patron saint of the Syriac Catholic Church, is seen in this undated photo. The icon features stanzas from the liturgy and prayers in Syriac text and notes. (photo: CNS/courtesy of Mothana Butres)
When Islamic State fighters overran Qaraqosh, Iraq, in the summer of 2014, Mothana Butres was able to grab only a single volume from his father’s collection of thousands of Syriac books and manuscripts.
The handwritten, 600-year-old book of Syriac hymns now inspires much of Butres’ work as an iconographer.
From a modest walk-up apartment in Zahle, Lebanon, a city not far from the Syrian border, the Syriac Catholic iconographer and refugee creates his sacred art in a sparsely furnished living room. As he works, he sings the hymns he has committed to memory from the sole book he managed to save.
Butres is the creator of the Our Lady of Aradin icon, a centerpiece of the first Catholic shrine dedicated to persecuted Christians. The shrine is housed in St. Michael’s Church in New York City and was dedicated on 12 June.
“The inspiration when I was working on Our Lady of Aradin was that it was the Virgin Mary who was protecting the Christians,” Butres told Catholic News Service.
He chose to present Mary in the traditional wedding dress of the Aradin area of Iraq “to represent that the Virgin Mary will always be a part of the Christians in Iraq and that she is the protector of Christians in Iraq and all the Middle East,” Butres said.
He said that when faced with an ultimatum by Islamic State fighters, Iraq’s Christians gave up their land but refused to give up their faith.
“The people who were persecuted, their blood is a stronger message than anything I could ever convey,” he said. But the recent persecution and the oppression suffered by his ancestors led him “to the way I think and the way I do my work.”
Butres said he believes his icons can be an instrument for intercessory prayer. The prayers of the people who visit the shrine in New York and pray before the icon of Our Lady of Aradin are joined with those of the persecuted Christians.
“Based on what Jesus told us, that ‘if two people are gathered in my name, I will be among them,’“ he said.
The Syriac book Butres treasures from his father’s library collection also awakened him to the lost practice of writing books by hand, especially in the Syriac language, which is spoken by Christians in certain areas of Syria and Iraq, including Qaraqosh. Syriac also is used in the liturgy of some Eastern churches, including the Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Maronite Catholic churches. The language is related to Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
“I’m trying to revive the value of the handwritten texts. Books used to be handwritten,” Butres said.
As part of an ongoing personal project, Butres intends to write out the entire Bible in Syriac on a long scroll of leather just over a foot wide. In three months of work, the tiny, intricate text he has etched extends 16 feet in length and comprises the first five chapters of the Old Testament.
“I believe that in writing out the Bible, we can discover it in a new, deeper perspective, more than just reading it,” he said.
In his icons, Butres often incorporates streams of handwritten text related to the image, which contributes to preserving the Syriac language, heritage and spirituality. The icon of Our Lady of Aradin, for example, includes the Hail Mary in Syriac.
Butres’ introduction to iconography began at age 12; a deacon at his church in Qaraqosh taught him the ancient art as well as formulas for producing colors and varnishes from natural products, for example, using eggs and wine for shades of red, using beeswax for varnish and using deer musk to give the icon a scent.
Prayer and religious formation were part of Butres’ daily life growing up in a Syriac Catholic family as one of 16 children.
“We were very close to the church,” said. “Every day at dusk, we went to the church to pray,” he recalled, adding that for “anyone who didn’t participate, there was no dinner.” The same went for missing Sunday Mass: no lunch and dinner.
That pious upbringing fostered vocations, he said. One of Butres’ sisters became a Dominican nun. His brother, Nimatullah, is a priest serving the Syriac Catholic Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance, which is based in Bayonne, New Jersey. Father Butres attended the dedication ceremony for the Our Lady of Aradin shrine in New York.
The artistic Butres became a deacon at age 20 and studied theology at Holy Spirit University in Lebanon, earning a bachelor’s degree.
Butres intended to complete his master’s degree in theology, carrying out his research in Qaraqosh, but had to abandon all he had accomplished there when Islamic State attacked his childhood home.
That home, overtaken, gutted and ruined by Islamic State, is under repair now. From Lebanon, Butres created the Our Lady of Qaraqosh icon as a gift for his family, intending it as “a protector of the house where she was always present.”
29 May 2018
Tags: Syria Iraq Icons
Melkite Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi (in red) strolls through the ancient Mediterranean coastal city of Sidon in southern Lebanon on 26 May with Melkite Archbishop Elie Haddad of Sidon, left. The Melkite Eparchy of Sidon hosted an iftar banquet that day. The patriarch’s visit to Sidon was the first to southern Lebanon since becoming patriarch in June. (photo: CNS/courtesy National News Agency of Lebanon)
Christians and Muslims gathered in Sidon, Lebanon, for an iftar, the fast-breaking meal after sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“What a beautiful gathering we have on this memorable day of the holy month of Ramadan,” said Melkite Patriarch Joseph Absi to the more than 300 guests assembled for the 26 May banquet hosted by the Melkite Eparchy of Sidon, the ancient Mediterranean coastal city in southern Lebanon.
“And what is more beautiful is that we Christians and Muslims meet in the subject of our faith in God almighty,” he said.
Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset during Ramadan.
The patriarch noted that for Muslims and Christians, their respective time of fasting — Lent for Christians and Ramadan for Muslims — has the same aim of “drawing closer to God.”
“What we are witnessing now in this gathering is the model that we believe in and we are holding on to … not just because it is our destiny but because the Bible scriptures teach us that Jesus put all his efforts and himself for the well-being of every human being.”
The patriarch praised Melkite Archbishop Elie Haddad of Sidon for his development and social projects for Christians and Muslims alike that “witness the message of Lebanon of living together in a rich and diverse environment.”
Guests dined at the grounds of Dar el Einayeh, an orphanage and school founded by the late Melkite Archbishop Georges Kwaiter of Sidon. The Sidon Eparchy has hosted an iftar annually since 2007.
The patriarch, pointing to the iftar gathering he attended with various faith leaders hosted by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Catholic, at the Presidential Palace noted that “the Ramadan tables in Lebanon are no longer an Islamic matter, but are of a national nature.”
“Ramadan tables are the tables of fraternity and affection,” the patriarch said.
It was Patriarch Absi’s first official visit to southern Lebanon since becoming patriarch in June. He is based in Damascus, Syria.
Sidon’s Shiite Mufti Mohammad Ousaylar told Catholic News Service that even apart from the iftar banquet “it was our duty to honor him and welcome him” to the city on his first visit to the south.
“Sidon has always been a model of coexistence, welcoming, respectful and loving to its guests,” he said.
He said that welcoming the patriarch and jointly celebrating the iftar, is “a message that the people — Christians and Muslims — love each other and coexist and that the people want to be all united together.”
Unity, he said, “is important to everyone.”
Of Lebanon’s approximate population of 4 million, not counting refugees from war-torn Syria, about 40 percent are Christian.
13 February 2018
Tags: Lebanon Melkite
Msgr. Peter Azar reads as Chorbishop Dominic F. Ashkar, pastor of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Church in Washington, prepares ashes during Mass on 12 February. In the Maronite Catholic Church, ashes are distributed on Monday, two days ahead of the Latin rite’s traditional Ash Wednesday distribution. (photo: CNS/Bob Roller)
At the Monastery of St. Francis of Assisi in Bayada, north of Beirut, faithful gathered for Ash Monday Mass in the chapel on 12 February.
In the Maronite Catholic Church, ashes are distributed on Monday, two days ahead of the Latin rite’s traditional Ash Wednesday distribution. This allows Catholics to observe 40 days of Lent, but also celebrate two church feasts for which fasting is not required: the feast of St. Joseph and the feast of the Annunciation.
“To change our character, it is difficult, but we ask God for the grace to be able to fast,” Melkite Father Nidal Abourjaily said in his homily before distributing ashes.
“Fasting will help us to grow closer to God as we unite our sufferings with him, and this is the most important thing,” said Father Nidal, a Franciscan Capuchin and superior of the monastery.
Typically, in Lebanon, Catholics follow the recommendations of their respective rites regarding their fast for Lent. The Maronite Church, for example, asks for fasting daily from midnight until 12 noon, and abstinence from meat and dairy products for those in good health. Sundays are not considered days of fast or abstinence.
“All fast, in some way,” Father Nidal told Catholic News Service of the faithful — a blending from Catholic rites, including Maronite and Melkite as well as some Roman Catholic — who attend St. Francis.
Berthe Obeid, a Melkite Catholic, told CNS she fasts until noon and sometimes until 3 p.m.
“I like chocolate and nuts, so I try to stop eating those as well,” said Obeid.
“It’s not so difficult when I know I am doing this for the Lord. I want to do something to please him, to be near him, so he gives me more strength to do it. Lent is a time to draw closer to God, to leave the things that can pull us away from him,” she explained.
“Looking back over the years, I can see now how I’m growing in my faith because of Lent,” Obeid added.
During Lent, Myrna Chaker, a Maronite Catholic, will be fasting each day until noon and will abstain from dairy and meat.
“I also try as much as possible to give up the things I really like,”
Chaker said, noting that she likes crispy foods such as crackers and toasted bread. “And definitely sweets. I love chocolate.”
“When I give up material things, it helps me more in the spiritual life. I should forget myself during Lent and focus on how to help people and how to show more and more love. I want to offer up this Lent more for the people around me,” Chaker explained.
Aside from fasting, Chaker said she tries to devote more time to prayer and to attend Mass every day as well as eucharistic adoration.
“I ask God to use me as an instrument,” she noted, adding that social media offers an opportunity to share Scriptures, prayers and inspirational tidbits to encourage others in their Lenten journey.
Joseph Haddad, a Melkite Catholic, is a self-described cheese addict, but said he will not eat meat or dairy products during Lent.
“Lent is the time to work on the will. It’s the least I can do for the Lord,” said Haddad. “I need to step forward to the kingdom of God.”
“Actually, I was waiting for Lent. For Christians who don’t experience Lent, they don’t know what they’re missing,” Haddad said. “You might not see any difference during Lent but, afterward, surely there’s a blessing, even if it’s a few months later. And you see yourself maturing more with God.”
Haddad said he would intensify his fast during Holy Week. For three days, beginning on Holy Thursday until noon on Holy Saturday, Haddad fasts completely, taking only occasional sips of water.
Especially during Holy Week, Father Nidal senses that the faithful “really suffer with Christ and participate in his sufferings.”
“You can sometimes see people crying” in church, he said. “They know that Jesus saved us by giving himself on the cross. Knowing that, they in turn participate strongly.”
While some faithful have different ways of fasting during Lent, Father Nidal noted, “the most important thing is to arrive to a spiritual resurrection with Christ.”