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September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
12 November 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral’s current structure was built about a thousand years ago in Mtskheta, near Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi. (photo: Michael La Civita)

It did not take me long upon arriving in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Saturday to feel as though I had come upon a different land in a different era, as if I were suddenly transported to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Mountains are capped with castles and chapels. Villages huddle close together on the mountainsides. Stone churches, seemingly hewn from the rock, ambitiously rise to the heavens. Church bells summon the faithful. Wood fires and burning brown charcoal permeate the air.

Police sirens, automobiles and celebrating teenagers dressed in the universal uniform of jeans and black sweaters, however, grounded me in the 21st century.

“But where am I?” I thought. “Is this Asia or Europe? East or West?”

On Sunday, my colleague Thomas Varghese and I attended Mass in the restored 19th-century Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The neo-Gothic church, the statues of the Little Flower and St. Joseph, and the familiar melodies were comforting. Yet the great choir, dominated by a formidable contralto and mezzo-soprano, sang in a language barely penetrable.

We began our journey through Middle Earth in earnest in the ancient Georgian capital of Mtskheta (pronounced “Skayta”).

Set at the confluence of two rivers and surrounded by mountains, this has been Georgia’s spiritual center for some 3,000 years.

High above the town, the sixth-century Jvari Church crowns a mountaintop. An impressive structure, it employs certain architectural techniques contemporary with the great churches of Constantinople and in advance — 500 years or so — of the Romanesque churches of Italy and western Europe.

Down below, dominating the town is the Cathedral of the Life-Giving Column. Sounds pagan? Therein lies a legend.

The structure dates to a fourth-century Christian king, Mirian III, who ordered the church to be built over a Zoroastrian temple after heeding the words of a missionary named Nino. Armenian, Byzantine, Georgian, Greek and Latin sources all indicate that, in circa 300, Nino, a woman from Cappadocia, left Jerusalem for the ancient Georgian kingdom of Kartli in search of the robe from Christ’s crucifixion.

“Equal to the apostles,” as Georgians revere her today, St. Nino worked primarily among the kingdom’s Jews, who were her first disciples. Written about a century after her death, “The Life of St. Nino” records the close relationship that existed between Nino and the Jews of Mtskheta (the capital of Kartli), as well as between the churches of Georgia and Jerusalem. It also details the conversion of King Mirian III, his establishment of Christianity as the faith of the kingdom and the erection of the shrine in Mtskheta to house the robe of Christ, known as the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli, or the “life-giving pillar.”

As we approached the cathedral, bells and bongs in an ominous rhythm deafened us. The sights and sounds here were unlike anything I had experienced.

Entering the cathedral, which was rebuilt in the 11th century — surviving even the onslaught of the murderous Timur the Lame 300 years later — we were caught up in a whirl of activity; priests were baptizing infants, children and even adults in the baptistery, near a medieval replica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, while others celebrated weddings before the greenish iconostasis.

Dressed in fashionable white gowns and veiled as required in the Orthodox Christian tradition, the brides seemed pale holding the marriage candles. Their grooms, dressed simply in black, held the arms of their brides as they processed three times in front of the iconostasis, wearing Georgian-style marriage crowns adorned with seed pearls and gems. To a couple — there were four — they looked like prince and princesses on their wedding day: regal, erect, solemn.

As we stood there, marveling at the liturgies, the ancient space, the crowds, the frescoes and icons, I thought back to the musings of my Georgian host, Liana, after we had consumed a liter and a half of wine at dinner Saturday night.

“We Georgians are day dreamers, aristocrats,” she said, laughing. “We feast, laugh, celebrate living, and the next day, we are depressed, wondering how we will pay for it. It does not occur to us to work hard, like the Armenians.”

Monday, Thomas and I spent the day meeting various church leaders — Armenian and Roman Catholic as well as the Vatican ambassador — and Caritas, with whom we have partnered for years.

“We are here to listen and learn,” I explained. We heard a lot.

The churches here are doing wonderful things: Caring for the elderly who have been abandoned; working with street children and protecting them from trafficking; providing assistance to impoverished families; resettling internally displaced families. The list goes on and on.

These efforts are being done with almost no money, in an impoverished country, with little assistance from the outside world. The assistance is given to all regardless of belief or unbelief; “need does not discriminate,” we heard in many forms, time and time again.

Yes, there are challenges. But what unites those behind these efforts is the commitment to serve as commanded by the Gospel so “that all may be one.”

Carvings such as this adorn the stone surfaces of the Jvari Church. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Tags: Christianity Georgia Church history Architecture Caucasus

12 November 2013
Greg Kandra

The Mother of Mercy Clinic provides a wide range of services to as many as 30,000 patients each year, with a special focus on prenatal and postnatal care. (photo: Steve Sabella)

In the Autumn issue of ONE, we take readers to the Mother of Mercy Clinic in Jordan, where healthcare workers care for the growing number of refugees:

Since early 2011, more than half a million Syrians have found refuge in a country with a population of barely more than six million. Hundreds of people arrive every day, many of whom come with severe injuries, long-term health issues or both. Many women arrive pregnant — some of whom, married at a young age, are barely more than children themselves.

Early in the crisis, the kingdom offered all Syrian refugees free health care in the public system. But as the demand for care grew, it came close to bringing the system to its knees. In March, Dr. Yaroub Ajlouni, president of the Jordan Health Aid Society, reported that the health system in northern Jordan — where many Syrian refugees live — was on the verge of collapse. Beds were unavailable in the public hospitals, intensive care unit spaces and incubators were full, drugs in short supply. Since then, Dr. Ajlouni and other aid workers say the kingdom has relieved some of the crowding, quietly scaling back the amount of health care refugees can access, implementing new restrictions and asking international organizations to carry more of the burden. The crisis has affected everyone.

Sister Najma says the Mother of Mercy Clinic sees few refugees — perhaps 10 or 15 a day — but demand for its services is constantly growing, and the clinic is struggling to keep up with the increase. Part of this is because space is limited, Mr. Bahou explains, and part of it is that the same economic factors squeezing Jordanians are also putting pressure on private health care providers. “It’s getting tight, because we cannot increase the budget anymore,” says Mr. Bahou.

“We’re trying to keep the budget as it is and absorb the higher cost of maintenance and utilities.

“We have many generous donors, but it’s not easy,” says Mr. Bahou. “We’re managing with the amount we’re receiving — we don’t have a problem — but it’s very tight. Every penny we spend, it should be used very reasonably.”

Things are not yet dire — the clinic is slated for renovation this year, funded in part by the U.S. Eastern Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. But Sister Najma says the pressure on the sisters is growing, and there is no room to treat more patients.

Read more about Overwhelming Mercy in the Autumn issue of the magazine.

And visit this page to learn how you can help support CNEWA’s work in Jordan.

Tags: Refugees Children Jordan Health Care Women

12 November 2013
J.D. Conor Mauro

In this 24 October photo, Comboni Sister Azezet Kidane, known as Sister Aziza, hugs a child at the nursery school in the African Refugee Development Center’s shelter in Tel Aviv, Israel. The shelter for single mothers and pregnant women has been helping Eritrean women fleeing to Israel through Egypt. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)

Comboni nun works to help Eritreans tortured, raped en route to Israel (CNS) Comboni Sister Azezet Kidane is fluent in Amharic, Tigrit, Arabic and Sudanese dialects, so she was a natural choice when a shelter for African refugees needed help. It was only after the nun, known as Sister Aziza, began conducting interviews with Eritrean refugees that she realized the people she was talking to had been tortured. “It is a horror story what is happening,” she told Catholic News Service from the African Refugee Development Center’s shelter for single mothers and pregnant women in a low-income neighborhood of Tel Aviv. “Sister Aziza is a blessing for us. People feel comfortable opening up to her,” said Shahar Shoham, director of migrants and statusless people at Physicians for Human Rights Israel. “The torture continues even now. As we are speaking it is happening…”

Activist groups condemn Eritrean human rights abuses (Open Doors) The United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, recently told the General Assembly that human rights abuses in Eritrea are causing “countless Eritreans” to flee the country. Eritreans, according to U.N. figures, are second only to Syria in the number of those who have fled to Italy by sea as of 30 September. A number of rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have condemned Eritrea’s human rights record. Amnesty International claims that Eritrea’s prisons are filled with “thousands of political prisoners, locked up without ever being charged with a crime, many of whom are never heard from again…”

Shelling in Damascus: children, civilians and churches affected (Fides) Mortar shells damaged the St. John Damascene Primary School yesterday in the district of Al Qassaa in Damascus, killing 5 children and wounding 27 others. Another rocket hit a school bus in Bab Touma, a predominantly Christian suburb in Damascus, injuring five students…

Syrian priest describes war of ‘all against all’ (Fides) The leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman Zawahiri, made an official pronouncement delegitimizing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the jihadist organization that last year had assumed a hegemonic position in the frontline of anti-Assad militias. This illustrates the growing conflicts between the factions fighting the Syrian army government, loyal to Assad. The Rev. Paul Karam, director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in Lebanon, commented on this turn of events. “On Syrian ground it is a war, all against all. … Who pays for all this? Only the exhausted Syrian population and, within society, the minorities who are the most vulnerable of all,” he said. “It is necessary to promote a true path of peace that does not take the form of a plan for the division of the country…”

Pope meets with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis met on Tuesday with Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. This meeting coincided with the meeting of Cardinal Angelo Scola and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Moscow…

Interreligious dialogue in the teaching of the Catholic Church (VIS) TheHoly See Press Office held a press conference to present the book “Il Dialogo Interreligioso nell’Insegnamento Ufficiale della Chiesa Cattolica (1963-2013)” (“Interreligious Dialogue in the Official Teaching of the Catholic Church, (1963-2013)”). The speakers in the conference were Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; the Rev. Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, M.C.C.J., secretary of the same dicastery; and Bishop Francesco Gioia, O.F.M., editor of the work. The aim of this third edition, which covers the papal magisterium from the Vatican Council II until Pope Benedict XVI, is to present directly to both Catholics and followers of other religions the official thought of the church…

Tags: Refugees Syrian Civil War Ecumenism Eritrea Interfaith

8 November 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

New York’s Cardinal Edward M. Egan presents CNEWA’s Peg Maron with the prestigious Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Award in January 2002. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)

Yesterday, I learned of the death of Peg Maron, CNEWA’s indomitable copy and production editor from 1992 until her retirement in January 2002.

Peg joined CNEWA in 1990 and quickly became known for her dogged determination to track down every fact, not leave any participle dangling, have every verb and subject agree and check my tardiness — despite the fact I was the “boss.”

Edith to my often cantankerous Archie, Peggy’s tenacious attention to detail and accuracy earned her the respect of all — even if her nimble ballerina stretches stunned patriarchs and prelates alike.

I never heard Peggy utter an unkind word. Her years of service to the church — as a member of Pax Romana and its successor, Pax Christi; involvement with the Grail and the liturgical movement of the 1950’s; friend and colleague of Eileen Egan, a founder of Catholic Relief Services; service as a Catholic school teacher in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Kennedy Child Center; participation in the life of the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri at St. Boniface Church in Brooklyn and lastly as my partner in arms at Catholic Near East, CNEWA World and ONE magazines — will undoubtedly earn her a place with Providence. Her years as a dancer with Martha Graham, however, earned my respect.

I remember when I first realized what an unsung hero she was: the funeral Mass of her husband, circa 1992, in Brooklyn’s church of St. Jerome. As she followed his casket down the center aisle after the Final Commendation, she cast her eyes down, wrapped her arms tightly around her person and hunched her shoulders. She lumbered down that aisle as if the weight of the world would have crushed her. But it did not.

She was a woman of few words, little emotion and complete self-control. She had many credentials and enormous talent. The only way I could show her my affection was to tease — and she loved it. Whether it was accusing her of bathing in gin or mooning a patriarch, she would laugh so joyously, but rarely would a sound escape from her lips.

My dear sweet Edith has left this world to meet her God, whom she loved deeply, her husband, Jim, her sister and all those she loved who went before her — almost all of whom died young. God be with you, Edith!

Love, Archie.


8 November 2013
J.D. Conor Mauro

Egidio Sampieri, the “bishop farmer,” and one of his helpers pick vegetables from their garden. (photo: Mohammed El-Dakhakhny)

In 1999, we profiled Bishop Egidio Sampieri, O.F.R., the Latin Catholic apostolic vicar of Egypt — though he was also known by another name:

Cradling a large gray rabbit in his arms, the “bishop farmer” grins. “This is my passion. I love animals.” Stacks of cages full of rabbits of all sizes surround Bishop Egidio Sampieri, O.F.R., and his two helpers as they feed countless hungry mouths with verdant leaves from the nearby garden.

True to the spirit of St. Francis, Bishop Egidio, as he is affectionately known, loves not only animals but people too. Perhaps it is his warm smile, sympathetic air and open manner that keeps the prelate at the center of a constant swirl of Egyptians, Sudanese and other Africans who seek his fatherly counsel and encouragement.

Bishop Egidio serves as Apostolic Vicar for the Latin Catholic community in Egypt. The post was first established by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 and at that time covered Egypt and Arabia; Bishop Egidio was appointed by Pope Paul VI in 1978. Al-though the prelate charge is the Latin Catholic community, his ministry stretches much farther.

What distinguishes Bishop Egidio among church leaders in Egypt is the spirit of ecumenism that permeates his words and actions. He is a unique character in a place where religious sensitivities can run high among the various Christian and Muslim communities.

Though Bishop Egidio passed away in 2000, we invite you to read about his life and his important work, the impact of which can still be felt to this day.

Tags: Egypt Unity Ecumenism Catholic Farming/Agriculture

8 November 2013
J.D. Conor Mauro

Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, Syria, pictured here in 2007, expressed concerns about the potential impact of combat over a Syrian power plant. (photo: CNS/Liana Allos)

Clashes at power plant put Aleppo at risk of environmental catastrophe (Fides) “For three days there has been no electricity in the center of Aleppo. There have been clashes at the power plant in Al Harrarieh, and there is very dangerous situation because hazardous materials are located in that area,” says Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo…

Syrian archbishop denies massacre in Qamishli (Fides) According to Syriac Catholic Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo, there was no massacre of Christians in the Syrian cities of Hassaké and Qamishli. False news of a massacre of 70 Christians — including three priests — carried out in Qamishli by anti-Assad rebels had been launched on some sites already known for previous operations of misinformation…

Lebanese Shiite leader launches interfaith dialogue (Al Monitor) The prominent Lebanese Shiite scholar Ali Fadlallah has launched a new initiative aimed at promoting interfaith dialogue and cooling sectarian tensions in the region. This forum was announced during a ceremony held in Beirut on Tuesday, 30 October. A number of religious leaders were also in attendance, including the Rev. Fadi Daou, a representative of Maronite Patriarch Bechara Peter; the Rev. Sulaiman Wehbe, a representative of Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III; a representative for the papal ambassador to Lebanon; Archbishop Daniel Sukkar, a representative of Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I; and a number of Sunni, Shiite and Druze religious scholars from Lebanon and the Arab and Islamic world…

Egypt-Ethiopia Nile talks end on sour note (Al Monitor) Disputes and disagreements erupted again between Egypt and Ethiopia concerning the Nile River dam construction, after both countries failed to reach an agreement governing the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in their initial negotiating session. The attempt at dialogue quickly ended, while the crisis of trust between the two countries resurfaced as their fears that the other might appropriate the Nile’s waters became evident…

Tags: Ethiopia Syrian Civil War Violence against Christians Interfaith Environment

7 November 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

Workers make commercial and liturgical candles and bathroom loofas in Fatka village in the area of Keserwan district on Mount Lebanon. Jihad Lteif, a father of four and the owner of the workshop, is the recipient of a loan from the microcredit program of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Today was a study in contrasts. After spending some quality time with the dedicated folks who make up the team in CNEWA’s Beirut office, Msgr. Kozar and I accompanied two of our colleagues, Michel Constantin and Norma Rizk, on a visit to the village of Fatka.

The village is perched high atop the coastal mountains of Lebanon’s Keserwan district — an almost entirely Christian area northeast of Beirut that resembles Monte Carlo in its gorgeous terrain, vegetation and ostentatious display of wealth. Fatka, which is a Syriac word, is an ancient settlement now smothered with opulent homes, extravagant hotels and luxury high-rise buildings. Yet not all of its residents are wealthy.

After lifting our jaws off the floor, our car made a few hairpin turns and pulled into a narrow unpaved driveway. Walking by some crumbling walls and impressive Ottoman-style arches, we were greeted by Jihad Lteif, an amiable 43-year-old father of four eager to show us his workshops.

Some 15 years ago, Mr. Lteif established a workshop for the production of candles in the ruins of his grandfather’s house. He began with one locally made machine that produced one size of candles. Using cotton wicks from Lebanon and paraffin imported from Greece, Egypt and China, he quickly established a successful business, distributing his candles to suppliers from his workshop.

The cotton string used for candle wicks is made in Lebanon. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Candles are important in a country where every institution, building and house relies on generators, he said. “Electricity supplied by the municipalities is unreliable.”

A year ago, Mr. Lteif applied for a loan from CNEWA’s microcredit program to help purchase a third machine. This machine he designed to produce devotional candles used throughout Lebanon’s many churches, monasteries and shrines. This effort has enabled him to double his daily production of candles from 1,100 pounds to a metric ton, increasing his income by $500 a month.

With help from CNEWA’s generous donors, the workshop has been able to double its production. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Working under images of St. Theresa the Little Flower and St. Charbel, his two workers melted the paraffin, poured it into molds and cooled the candles into shape. Beaming, he took us outside and then into another workshop in which he produces bathroom loofas. Walking through an open door, we entered a large, well-ventilated room — whitewashed — with open windows and spectacular views.

“You and your team have better views than the millionaires who built those houses down there!” Msgr. Kozar pointed out to the proud man.

“My family and I are fighting to stay in our village,” he replied. “I’ve had offers to sell my land, but my family wants to stay here.”

CNEWA’s microcredit program in Lebanon is not a huge government-funded scheme to bolster the nation’s beleaguered economy. Rather, it is a targeted effort that helps people to help themselves, invigorates local economies and encourages families to remain in the lands of their forefathers.

“We have a 99 percent success rate!” said CNEWA’s Norma Rizk, who launched the program in 2003. Ms. Rizk works with each applicant, all of whom are recommended by a parish priest or local religious. She also closely monitors the project, overseeing more than 500 projects in the last decade.

CNEWA’s Norma Rizk explains the process of finishing a loofa. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Turning to Jihad Lteif, I congratulated him: “Your grandfather would be proud.”

“We could have left Fatka,” he replied, “but where would we go? Where would I raise my children?

“Here, we are home and free to live our faith.”

Tags: Lebanon CNEWA Beirut Employment Micro Credit Program

7 November 2013
J.D. Conor Mauro

The Godano Rehabilitation Project, which serves about 140 women under the age of 20, offers computer and beauty-school classes. (photo: Cody Christopulos)

In the Summer issue of ONE, we detailed ways the CNEWA-supported Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School in Addis Ababa is changing the lives of some of the most vulnerable youngsters in Ethiopia. However, that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg that is CNEWA’s support for education:

Improving the lives of poor young adult women is an important part of CNEWA’s mandate. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Godano Rehabilitation Project, which serves about 140 women (and a few men), all under 20. Many are single mothers.

“It’s a common, sad story,” said Mulatu Tafesse, the Catholic layman who founded the program. “These girls come into Addis from the country to work in households, doing the cleaning and cooking. Many of them are raped, become pregnant and are fired. They can’t go back to their families because of the stigma, so they turn to begging or prostitution, and a prostitute in Ethiopia is very likely to get AIDS.”

Mr. Tafesse takes in as many women as he can. He has had many years of experience helping the needy. During Ethiopia’s famine of 1984-1985, he helped Save the Children bring relief to starving refugees (as did CNEWA’s Gerald Jones, his then-boss). At Godano, he also utilizes his professional experience as an engineer. By modifying shipping containers, Mr. Tafesse has erected a mini-city of classrooms, workshops and leisure areas. Living quarters are nearby.

For a year, the young women learn a variety of skills — cooking, hairdressing, computer literacy, handicrafts — and are given a basic education. Meanwhile, their infants receive appropriate attention.

The women earn some money, but the larger aim is to find them jobs after a year of training. Most do, and eventually many also reunite with their families.

Read more about Breaking Barriers in Ethiopia.

Tags: Ethiopia CNEWA Children Education Women

7 November 2013
J.D. Conor Mauro

In this September photo, Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Louis I delivers a homily in St. Raphael Chaldean Cathedral in Beirut during his pastoral visit to Lebanon. (photo: Chaldean Patriarchate)

Chaldean patriarch sends letter to clergy (Chaldean Patriarchate) On 31 October, His Beatitude Patriarch Louis Raphael I sent a second letter to the Chaldean clergy that came as a continuation for the first letter, sent on 4 July. This letter reminds the clergy, monks and nuns of the high vocation to which the Lord has called them. He focused especially on the values of daily prayer, communal life, humble service, clarity and transparency in dealing with financial matters. “‘The church is not an institution devised and built by men,’” the patriarch says, quoting theologian Romano Guardini, “‘but a living reality…’”

Iraqi children face poverty, violence, exploitation (Al Monitor) After more than ten years of continuous conflict in Iraq, children remain consistent victims of widespread poverty, political dysfunction and sectarian violence. Terrorist groups in Iraq have not excluded children, as numerous attacks have targeted places where children are likely to be present. This was the case in the attack that targeted an elementary school in one of the villages in northwestern Iraq on 6 October. This attack claimed the lives of more than a dozen children, while 44 were injured by the blast caused by two car bombs…

Pope Tawadros declines to celebrate the anniversary of his inauguration (Fides) Pope Tawadros II canceled the celebrations planned to mark the first anniversary of his inauguration as the pope and patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The anniversary falls on 18 November. This renunciation is due to the difficult condition experienced by the Coptic Church and the whole of Egypt. The Coptic pope nevertheless said that he will recite the liturgical prayers of that day, asking God to grant peace…

Middle East Christians consider threats to their communities (Al Monitor) During a gathering of Christian representatives from across the Middle East in Beirut, participants were divided on the matter of prioritizing dangers. The disparity in the opinions of the six delegations regarding the most important threats facing Christians was stark. In simpler words, there was disagreement over the first, immediate and spontaneous answer to the question: Who is currently your enemy? A point of broad agreement, however, concerned calling upon the West to support the cause of Christians in the Middle East…

Israel reportedly proposes separation wall as Palestinian border (Al Jazeera) Israeli negotiators told their Palestinian counterparts that the separation wall that cuts through the occupied West Bank will serve as the border of a future Palestinian state, according to Israeli media reports. Since peace talks resumed in late July, the Palestinians have repeatedly complained about Israel’s lack of clarity on the issue of borders. The Palestinians insist the peace talks should be based on the lines that existed before the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel seized and occupied Gaza, the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem…

Pope to receive Russian president at the Vatican (Times of Malta) Pope Francis will receive Russian President Vladimir Putin on 25 November, an encounter that could help mend strained relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian-Vatican relations have been fraught since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, with Moscow accusing the Catholic Church of trying to poach believers from the Russian Orthodox Church, a charge the Vatican denies…

Tags: Iraq Pope Francis Middle East Christians Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II

6 November 2013
Michael J.L. La Civita

Msgr. John E. Kozar snaps a picture of Sunni Muslim refugee children being taught by the Good Shepherd sisters in the village of Deir el Ahmar, Lebanon. (photo: Michael La Civita)

CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, and chief communications officer, Michael La Civita, are making a round of pastoral visits in Lebanon this week. On Saturday, Mr. La Civita will join Thomas Varghese, CNEWA’s programs officer, for two weeks in the Caucasus, assessing the needs of the churches in Georgia and Armenia.

Today, Msgr. John Kozar and I traveled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley with two of our Beirut staff, Michel Constantin and Kamal Abdel Nour. Driving in Lebanon is not for the faint of heart. Cars, buses and trucks careen through pockmarked streets. Exhaust fumes permeate the air. Chaos reigns. Horns dominate. After more than two hours on the main road linking Beirut and Damascus — which required climbing elevations of more than 4,000 feet — we reached the ancient town of Baalbek. There, we turned west toward a cluster of Christian villages on the eastern slope of Mount Lebanon about 20 miles from the Syrian border. Our destination: Deir el Ahmar, the Red (or bloody) Convent, a village named for a massacre of monks there ages ago.

As we arrived, we were greeted as old friends by Good Shepherd Sisters Micheline Lattouff and Rita Hadchity and their dedicated team of Lebanese and Syrian volunteers. Together, they work to help the nearly 300 refugee families who have made their home in the area as a result of the civil war in Syria. Some 260 of these families are Sunni Muslim, and they have named their settlement of plastic-wrapped cardboard huts Ezzedine after their native village near Homs.

Although the families arrived with nothing, they found friends in a Maronite village community. The village’s Good Shepherd sisters acted quickly — winter was approaching — providing heating fuel, mattresses, blankets, coats, drinking water and food. The sisters then began to visit the refugee families, as well as some 25 Christian families who settled with their kin in the village. Initially, they spent time with the mothers, who naturally worried about their children, whose childhoods have been robbed by violence and their futures compromised by displacement and poverty.

Known worldwide for their care of single mothers, children and the poor in general, the Good Shepherd sisters immediately recognized the signs of posttraumatic stress disorder and decided to intervene, with the consent of the mothers.

This summer, Sister Micheline set up three tents, where she and her volunteers worked and played with the children, winning the support of their parents. Just a few weeks ago, on 21 October, they opened an elementary school program in the sisters’ social center, providing remedial education to some 220 children and utilizing the services of qualified Syrian teachers. Under images of the Good Shepherd and the Blessed Mother, these children, all of whom are Sunni Muslim, are for at least a few hours a day returning to their childhood. They play games, laugh, learn and share secrets so important in childhood. Not exactly a shy soul, Msgr. Kozar livened up the classrooms with joyful questions and riddles, winning smiles and shouts of joy from the children. He won over even the serious teachers who are confronted with the enormous task of teaching these displaced children the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

I was impressed with the facility, which already resembles a typical Catholic school. Order and cleanliness prevail, despite the grinding poverty impacting children living without running water, a sanitary environment, nutritious food or the basics in health care.

After a quick lunch with the children, we visited one large family presided over by a matriarch named Frengieh. Draped in black from head to toe, she took us into her cardboard home, introduced us to her sons and daughters and her grandchildren. Her delightful sense of humor, her sense of hospitality and her warmth made us forget that she was essentially homeless. The fact that she encouraged her family and the sisters to pose for a group portrait by our “staff photojournalist,” Msgr. Kozar, indicated the warmth and trust that exists between the refugees and the sisters. Most refugees fear reprisals back home if their photographs are seen by the enemy, which could be anyone.

Caesar, Abdulahad and Ulah Yakoub, the children in a Syriac Christian family that have fled to Lebanon, relax at home and talk about their new life in the village of Bechouat. (photo: Michael La Civita)

After a cup of tea with Frengieh, we traveled up to the nearby village of Bechouat to meet with Yakoub family, a Syriac Christian family who two years ago fled the extremist rebels in Hassake, near the Syrian border with Iraq. The father, who took time from his custodial concerns for the local Maronite shrine dedicated to Our Lady, recalled the travails of traveling to Damascus on a public bus for more than 18 hours through 17 checkpoints with his wife and three children Ulah, Abdalahad and Caesar. Leaving behind his elderly parents and his younger brother, they hitched a ride to Bechouat, where they live in a small room provided and furnished by the parish. The children, dressed in their school uniforms, spoke to us about the difficulties of attending a French-curriculum school while knowing only Arabic. Ulah, a shy 15-year-old, quietly asked Sister Micheline if the sisters could help them with their studies. “Of course!” she replied, beaming at the chance to lend a hand.

Afterward, over a cup of sweetened Arabic coffee, the exuberant sister told us that the presence of the Good Shepherd motivates her. “I never think I am tired or that we can’t do anything else,” she said. “The Good Shepherd is here; he is here among his people. He loves his people, because he loves his Father.”

“He loves you,” I added with a smile. She lowered her head, looked at me and replied, “I know, and that is why I am happy.”

Today’s visit speaks volumes why it is imperative Christianity thrive in the Middle East. And it speaks volumes why the support given to the churches and peoples of the region through CNEWA by readers such as you is so important: Simple initiatives such as these, brought about by religious sisters and parish volunteers — all motivated by the Gospel — are restoring dignity, self-respect, trust and even joy to Christian and Muslim families once robbed of these basic human values.

Remember them in your prayers.

To learn how you can help, check our Syrian relief page.

Tags: Lebanon Refugees CNEWA Sisters Beirut

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