25 January 2019
World Youth Day pilgrims from Venezuela take a selfie with Muslims from Jumma Mosque in Panama City. The Muslims handed out complimentary cold bottles of water to people as they waited to get into a welcoming ceremony with Pope Francis on 24 January 2019. (photo: CNS/Chaz Muth)
Thousands of World Youth Day pilgrims stopped by the Jama Mosque on 24 January en route to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.
“Brothers, sisters, you need water,” Hashim Bhana yelled at them from under a tent that announced a “hydration center” outside the mosque, a place where pilgrims could pick up free water, or catch some needed shade and a smile as they struggled to stay hydrated under the blazing sun.
“This is an event for the good of young people, it benefits them so how could we say no” to helping them, said Bhana.
While hundreds of vendors sold water to the thirsty, the Muslim community at the oldest mosque in Panama City gave it away for free near a banner that said, “Welcome Pilgrim Friends.” By the time Pope Francis had arrived at Santa Maria la Antigua Field, they had handed out 15,000 bottles and were looking for more because of the demand, said Bhana.
In Panama City, people of different religions get along well, he said, so the gesture was not unusual.
“What’s important to us is that we’re all brothers and sisters. We don’t ask about your religion, your skin color, age. We’re all humans and we want everyone to be well,” said Kasim Bhana, who was helping distribute water.
Having the pope in Panama City is a blessing, he said, adding that the Muslim community would be providing free water until World Youth Day was over, particularly because the venues for many of the events were near the mosque and they did not want the pilgrims to dehydrate or suffer.
The mosque has about 8,000 members, give or take, said Kasim Bhana, and many were taking turns staffing the water stations during the hottest times of the day. Others bought and delivered water and ice to keep the water bottles cold.
But on the day the pope was going to be closest to the mosque, they opened earlier.
“This was the best day,” he said.
21 November 2017
Tags: Pope Francis Muslim Interfaith
A conservator cleans the surface of the Edicule, the traditional site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Oded Balilty, National Geographic)
In the nation’s capital, a $15 museum ticket and pair of 3-D glasses is the passport Christian pilgrims and others need to experience what may be the holiest site in Christianity.
Employing state-of-the-art technology, the National Geographic Museum in Washington on 15 November opened an exhibit that virtually transports visitors to the streets of Jerusalem and through the doors of a small church that protects what is believed to be the site of Christ’s burial and, to Christians, the site of his resurrection.
“We put you in the Old City, we talk to you a little about the walls of the city, how they move over time and where the Gospels say that the Crucifixion took place, and try to give you the context,” said Kathryn Keane, vice president of exhibitions for National Geographic during an interview with Catholic News Service.
After an introductory video explaining some of the tumultuous history surrounding the tomb of Christ site, where structures above have been built and torn down repeatedly over the centuries, visitors walk toward a set where a virtual guide projected on a wall welcomes them to a courtyard just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It’s a visual appetizer to get them ready for the experience of, not just entering via 3-D through its doors, but also of flying over it and witnessing, from a bird’s eye view, a time-lapse of the structure’s physical history.
“We’re not only taking you in the church the way it looks today but we also go up above the church and we take you back through time,” said Keane. “It’s a bit of a time machine and we show you all the evolutions of the building, from the time that it was, under [Roman emperor] Hadrian, a pagan temple.”
“This is not what I would consider a traditional exhibit. It’s more an experience than it is an exhibit,” said National Geographic archaeologist Fred Hiebert, whose unique experience inside the church led to “Tomb of Christ: The Church of Holy Sepulchre Experience,” which runs at the Washington museum until August 2018.
Last year, Hiebert witnessed various stages of a nine-month-long, $3 million restoration of the small shrine within the Holy Sepulcher that protects the tomb of Christ. The shrine often is referred to as the Edicule, Latin for “little house.” During the process, the three religious groups with jurisdiction over the structure, and who had agreed on its restoration — the Armenians, the Franciscans and the Greek Orthodox — agreed to also allow restorers to put a moisture barrier around the the tomb itself.
The tomb likely had not been opened in centuries and, at some point, marble slabs were placed on top, perhaps to keep pilgrims from taking home parts of it. It has been venerated since the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor who, in the fourth century, sent a team in search of the holy burial site. Soon after, they identified a quarry as that place and Constantine’s mother, Helena, had a shrine built around it.
The exhibit explains how the effects of weather, earthquakes and also great numbers of pilgrims, many of whom light candles that contribute to a buildup of soot, had brought the structure to the brink of collapse.
It also explains the dilemma religious leaders faced when they learned that by injecting liquid mortar into the shrine to reinforce it, it presented the possibility that it would seep into the tomb itself — defeating the purpose of protecting the most important part. They had to swiftly decide to shut down the shrine to allow the team to protect the tomb — and that meant briefly opening it.
“They said, ‘Do it, but don’t take more than 60 hours to do it,’“ said Hiebert.
When restorers temporarily shut down the site, Hiebert and other members of the National Geographic team were present to witness the opening of the tomb, which exposed the original limestone bed and the walls of the cave, which Christians believe witnessed Christ returning to life.
“To think that we, we were some of the few people who were locked in that church, got to see what people for hundreds and hundreds of years of Christianity hope to see, and we had a chance to see that. … If there’s anything that drove me to do a virtual exhibit, it was that guilt,” Hiebert said to an audience gathered at the museum on the opening night of the exhibit. “We have to tell the world about this.”
The National Geographic team scanned the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the smaller structure inside, the Edicule, in such detail, that visitors who stop by the exhibit can don a VR, or virtual reality, headset and enter the tiny shrine, navigate the small passage way that leads to the tomb, a space that accommodates no more than three or four people, and see an exact visual representation of the tomb, without the real-life inconveniences.
“As tourist, you get maybe 15 seconds in the tomb and then they move you out,” explained National Geographic engineer Corey Jaskolski at the opening night event. “Part of capturing this and being able to share it with the world through the National Geographic Museum is that we can let people spend as long as they want in the tomb. You can go in there and have your own personal experience and be able to see it in all its glory without the interruptions and bustle of the crowd around.”
The exhibit explains some of the technology the restoration team from the National Technical University of Athens used, as well as what National Geographic used to scan the images that made the visual aspect of the exhibit possible.
“We can tell a story about great science and there’s a certain great aspect of faith to it, too,” said Hiebert.
Keane said the project is an intersection of history, architecture, science, technology and faith.
“All of these things aren’t at odds with each other,” she said.
The exhibit displays the document that Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Franciscan leaders signed in 2016, which made the restoration possible, while also noting in a timeline that the groups had agreed in principle in 1959 that the “little house” needed the renovations.
Hiebert applauded the cooperation among the religious groups as a “brave” and said of their ability to agree, “That happens once in a lifetime with these guys.”
The project shows, Hiebert said, that there can be cooperation among different groups in the Middle East.
“Having reviewed the history of the [Holy Sepulcher] church, and realizing that it’s a contested space, in a contested area … here was a project that was bringing people together to do something that was positive,” he said. “That is a metaphor for optimism in the Middle East. In a place as difficult as Jerusalem, as complex as the Middle East, it’s still possible to do an optimistic idealistic project.”
Archaeologist Hiebert said the exhibit, as well as a TV show about the restoration of the tomb of Christ that National Geographic documented, will debut 3 December on its cable channel. The December cover story of National Geographic magazine also focuses on archaeology and what it reveals about the life of Christ. It shows that science and faith can go hand in hand, Hiebert said.
“When we look back on the history of exploration and even the history of National Geographic, we realize that this idea that science is divorced from faith is not true,” he said. “It seemed to me natural that National Geographic would be in a position of, here’s a site, which is sacred and historic, and we’re about to embark on an epic adventure.”
7 November 2016
Tags: Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, the new custos of the Holy Land Franciscans, was interviewed in Washington last week. He says “We help everybody. We don’t ask what is your religion when we help someone because we recognize in every person a living image of God and of Jesus who’s asking to be welcomed.” (photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn)
The responsibilities entrusted to him are great: caring for about 50 shrines, more than two dozen parishes, various schools and other services provided by more than 250 Franciscan friars stationed at some of the most embattled places in the Middle East.
But Franciscan Rev. Francesco Patton seems almost serene about the mission and his new post as the custos of the Franciscans of the Holy Land. In almost any other religious order, he’d be called a provincial or a superior, but because the founder of the Franciscans didn’t like terms that would denote superiority of one brother over another, he is called the custos, Latin for custodian, of the Holy Land Franciscans.
“This is Franciscan vocabulary,” he explained. “(St.) Francis said we are all equal in the Gospel. We are all brothers ... the custos is the (custodian) of the sheep and it is an important vocabulary because the sheep, they are not the property of the custos. We all are sheep of Jesus, but we have to take care of one another. It's pastoral vocabulary.”
Pastoral vocabulary is familiar and dear to Father Patton, whose father tended the fields of northern Italy. He said he feels comfortable and grounded in his farming community roots.
As custos, he said, his duty is to take care of the friars, and particularly to assume primary trust of places important to Christians in the Holy Land, including shrines in Galilee, Bethlehem, Emmaus and Jericho, as well holy places in Jordan and Syria.
It is a challenging post to be in, to be sure, especially because some of those places find themselves in political conflict, violence or outright war.
“In this moment, the land of conflict is Syria,” said Father Patton. “So, our shrines (in Syria) now are not visited by pilgrims. It’s impossible to organize a pilgrimage in Syria.”
Before the recent conflict broke out in 2001, Christian pilgrims would visit locales such as the Memorial of St. Paul, the place where he converted to Christianity, and the house were Ananias baptized him. Both places are in or near Damascus, Syria, and are under the care of the Holy Land Franciscans there.
“Now these are places in which local Christians are praying and asking for the end of this war,” Father Patton said.
Since the pilgrims are gone, they are places the friars use to provide shelter for those running from the daily conflict in other parts of the country. The guest house close to the memorial of St. Paul, where pilgrims used to stay, is now hosting refugees, he said. And the friars, even under danger, are providing food and any necessities to anyone who might need help.
Recently, the friars launched a campaign at myfranciscan.org/syria, which includes a video and social media component, using the hashtag #Syriafriars, asking for prayers as well as material help for the Franciscans trying to assist the local populations.
“We help everybody,” said Father Patton in an interview with Catholic News Service 3 November in Washington, where he was visiting in early November trying to call attention to the dire situation in Syria.
“We don’t ask what is your religion when we help someone because we recognize in every person a living image of God and of Jesus who’s asking to be welcomed,” he said.
Friars and nuns find themselves in desperate situations trying to help burgeoning populations such as Lattakiah, near the Mediterranean, where parish populations have doubled, as people run from conflict zones to areas of relative safety. The conflict has drained once Christian strongholds such as Aleppo.
Aleppo was once a very important city and known as the “second cradle” of Christianity, said Father Patton, who recalls it had a Christian population anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000. These days, estimates say it could be down to 40,000 or 30,000 Christians, he said. Most have fled in the past five years, but many also have died there.
“Now there are unfortunately many funerals, also of children,” he said.
For the Christians who remain there, he said, it’s important that other Christians know of their suffering.
“They feel often abandoned by the other Christians,” he said. “They feel that many Christians are not interested in their suffering or what they are doing to remain Christian there. Many of them have lost everything. The only thing they haven't lost is the faith.”
It’s important to know what’s happening to them, to pray for them but also to act, Father Patton said.
“Our Christian faith is that the word of God became flesh,” he said. “We are not part of an intellectualistic religion in which we think it is enough to think and to pray. We have to support concretely.”
The friars are helping the local communities with food, electricity, water, gas, diesel, restoring houses after bombardments.
“We need support,” he said.
Yet for all the abundance of misery, there also is abundance of hope, not just in Syria but also in the Holy Land, said Father Patton.
“I find hope in our schools, when I see children from different religions living together, becoming friends,” he said. “I find hope when I go to the shrine of Emmaus, in a small village in which there is only one Christian family and the others all are Muslims and when there is the feast of St. Cleophas, and a Muslim family pays the dinner for all the people present.”
There are countless stories in the region of collaborations among Jewish, Christians and Muslim teachers and students and their families, he said.
“I find hope when I have meetings with the religious leaders of Greek Orthodox and Armenians and we are able to find agreements, to do work together,” he said. “There are many, many signs of hope, but we need eyes to see the signs of hope. If we are blind, we cannot see signs of hope.”
And the Franciscans are involved in trying to build the bridges necessary to one day have lasting peace in the region, he said, and it starts with children.
“The first field is the first field of education,” he said, adding that Franciscan schools have a mix of Christians, Muslims and other religions. “It’s an important experience of living together and we notice that in these schools the prejudice is reduced.”
When children learn to live together and become friends with people who hold
different beliefs, their families, too, learn to hold different views, he said.
“If we do something to connect with the other people, if we do something to reduce the prejudice against Christians, we are working for peace,” Father Patton said. “When they have an experience of Christian charity, they can change their mind on Christians.”
Father Patton sees this type of peacebuilding as some of the most important type of work in the world. He talks about the recent visit of Pope Francis to Sweden and the example in peacebuilding that he is setting. The Franciscans, following his lead, also have been involved in interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
“In this moment, in every part of the world, it is important to have dialogue with people of other faiths,” he said. “It may be the most important field for the future.”
And it started with the Second Vatican Council, which said that “it is important that everyone can express his religious identity and it is important that everyone respects the religious identity of the others,” said Father Patton, adding that “in the Holy Land, this is a good season for ecumenical dialogue.”
Franciscan friars are involved in interreligious dialogue with Jews and Muslims and other similar initiatives involving youth in the area, he said.
“And so these are good news,” he said. “We know there are also fanatics, but the only possibility to reduce the number of fanatics, I think, is to work to increase the number of open-minded people.”
26 September 2016
Bassem Hazboun, a Catholic Palestinian chef from Bethlehem in the West Bank, center, is pictured in an undated photo. Hazboun says food is part of his identity and he loves sharing cuisine from the Holy Land with those who are not familiar with it.
(photo: CNS/courtesy Bright Stars of Bethlehem)
When he was a child, Bassem Hazboun loved helping his mother prepare French delicacies in their Bethlehem kitchen. But it was his father who kept trying to steer him to study engineering as he reached his teens.
“You don’t need this,” his father said when Hazboun told him he wanted to take a cooking course. But the passion he found while cooking by this mother’s side never left.
“My food is my identity,” said Hazboun, a Catholic Palestinian who traveled in September from his native Bethlehem in the West Bank to showcase food from his homeland to various U.S. cities, including Washington and Connecticut, part of the “Room for Hope” festival. The festival aims to raise money for scholarships to help youth in the Holy Land study music, dance, cooking and other arts.
Chef Hazboun, 39, studied at Bethlehem University, a Catholic university in the Holy Land, and is the head of the culinary arts program at Dar al-Kalima University’s College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, which helps youth in the Holy Land hone skills in arts and culture.
Hazboun said food from the Holy Land is in a way unique for Christians because some of it hails from biblical times. Sometimes he prepares biblical menus, he said, for those who arrive in the Holy Land for religious pilgrimages. This may mean a menu that includes a lentil soup, a dish of lamb and yogurt, too. Food from the Holy Land also features lots of olives, which are abundant in the region, he said, and spices you won’t find elsewhere.
“All the foods are special,” he told Catholic News Service.
It’s important for him, he said, to help his students develop a love for the food of their region and to see something positive about their identity as Palestinians through the craft. It’s a love that many of them can share with others and can also allow them to stay in the Holy Land, where work for Palestinians is scarce. Luckily, with tourism, many of them are able to find jobs at restaurants in Bethlehem, he said.
“Sometimes I visit the restaurant and they feed me good,” said Hazboun.
Beth Nelson Chase, executive director of Bright Stars Bethlehem in the U.S., the nonprofit that sponsored the festival, said programs such as the ones chef Hazboun teaches in Bethlehem help students learn skills that are useful for the economy of their homelands, where coming across a job can sometimes prove difficult.
“It gives people hope,” Chase said.
The Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor and president of Bright Stars of Bethlehem, said in a statement that the events focusing on the arts and food of the Holy Land were part of the mission of building cultural bridges “important for both the U.S. and Palestine.”
“We are excited to expose our friends in the U.S. to Palestinian culture and art,” he said.