14 December 2017
Hamas supporters take part in a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist movement, in Gaza City, on 14 December 2017. (photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
Syria border crossing to reopen after five years (Daily Sabah) Lebanon and Syria said Thursday they will reopen a border crossing closed five years ago, in another sign of the Syrian government’s increasing control over its territory. The crossing, called Al-Qaa in Lebanon and Jussiyeh in Syria, was closed in 2012 as fighting raged between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel fighters seeking his overthrow...
In the Middle East, Christians stew over Trump plan to move embassy to Jerusalem (The Washington Post) Some of the festive cheer was missing this weekend at a public Christmas tree lighting near the site where Christians believe an angel proclaimed Christ’s birth to local shepherds. “Our oppressors have decided to deprive us from the joy of Christmas,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the former archbishop and Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the crowd in the town of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Mr. Trump told us clearly Jerusalem is not yours...”
Hamas marks 30-year anniversary with Gaza rally (Al Jazeera) As the struggle for a Palestinian state continues, Hamas, one of the main Palestinian factions, is marking the 30th anniversary of its founding with celebrations in the Gaza Strip. Thousands of Palestinian men, women and children, brandishing Hamas’ green flags or sporting green scarves, gathered on Thursday at the al-Katiba Square in Gaza City...
Iraq executes more than 30 ISIS suspects on terrorism charges (The Independent) A total of 38 suspected ISIS fighters in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq have been executed on charges of terrorism, the justice ministry has said. The deaths on Thursday mark the largest number of executions in a single day since 25 September, when 42 people were put to death in the same prison on charges ranging from killing members of the security forces to making car bombs...
‘Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Jerusalem’ (The New York Times) Daoud Hanania was born in West Jerusalem in 1934, the grandchild of an Arab Greek Orthodox priest. But his family left Jerusalem in 1951, in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Jerusalem,” he wrote to The New York Times last week...
Dalit Christians march to protest quotas in Kerala (The Hindu) The capital witnessed a second consecutive day of protest on the issue of reservation on Tuesday as thousands of Dalit Christians took out a ‘reservation protection rally’ to the Secretariat. Inaugurating the rally, Church of South India (CSI) moderator Thomas K. Oommen said the discrimination of people based on their religious beliefs was violation of the Constitution...
13 December 2017
Palestinians walk past an inflatable Santa Claus on 12 December in Bethlehem, West Bank.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Not far from where journalists lined up for positions outside the guard tower at Rachel’s Tomb in anticipation of confrontations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, life in Bethlehem continued. Trendy young Bethlehem residents and visitors were lunching on vegetarian pizza, quinoa and salmon salad, and sandwiches with names like Sexy Morning at the popular Zuwadeh Cafe.
“No benefit will come (of the demonstrations), but people are getting their frustrations out like they have the right to do. It’s the least they can do,” said Mahmoud Hamideh, 25.
“People go and throw stones, but then life goes back to normal,” agreed his cousin, Saleh al-Jundi, 31, who just moved back to Bethlehem from Abu Dhabi with his wife and 14-month-old son. “But this time I am not sure after what Trump said.”
Palestinians leaders called for three days of protests following U.S. President Donald Trump’s 6 December official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and demonstrations have broken out in the West Bank, Jordan and other parts of the Muslim world.
Palestinians reported one killed and at least 35 injured in clashes in the Gaza Strip, with some 115 Palestinians injured in all protests 8 December. In Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at rock-throwing demonstrators.
Jerusalem is home to holy sites sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews and is contested as the capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state. The city has been a key point of contention in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which have been on hold since 2014.
Palestinians say that with his declaration, Trump has removed the United States from the status of neutral mediator.
Though concerned that a continuation of the hostilities may affect the busy Christmas season, shopkeepers and others in the tourism industry in Bethlehem said on 8 December that, for now, pilgrims are not canceling reservations.
“But people will be afraid and will think we have a war here,” said 21-year-old Marianna Musallam, who is Greek Orthodox, as she arranged oversized rosaries meant to be hung on the wall. “But we are always in war. Nothing has changed. Trump’s speech was not for good. Jerusalem is for us Palestinians. It is not possible to share.”
Several guests were busy checking messages on their smartphones in the lobby of the Franciscan Casa Nova Guest House, just steps from the Church of the Nativity, and an older couple dropped off their keys on their way out.
“Until now everything is good,” said Issam Matar, who was staffing the reception desk. “But no one knows what will happen in the future.”
Restaurant manager Mahmoud Abu Hamad, 30, a Muslim, said the Catholic owner had told him to close on 7 December for a one-day strike called by Palestinian leaders. He said they were not concerned about losing customers over Christmas.
“What we have to lose is bigger than anything. (Jerusalem), the capital of Palestine, is bigger than anything,” he said. “In the end, Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine. We don't care what (Trump) says.”
Others, like a Catholic shop owner and a Muslim in the tourism industry, both of whom did not want their names used, said the violence would not help the Palestinian situation.
“If people are smart they would not go out to the streets,” said the Muslim. “With a new conflict, we will lose more kids just because the leaders said to go out into the streets. They should send their own sons, not our sons, who don’t even know what they are fighting for.”
Inside the Church of the Nativity, a large part of which has been cordoned off due to ongoing restoration, pilgrims stood patiently in line, waiting to enter the creche that marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth.
Latvian pilgrim Janis Bulisi, 43, said he and his wife had disconnected from the internet since arriving in the Holy Land and had vaguely heard something about Trump’s announcement and the ensuing demonstrations.
“We are here on our pilgrimage. We have felt no tensions. We are just excited to be in the place where Jesus was born,” he said.
“Honestly, I did consider canceling the trip, but after thinking about it I saw the violence was more (in other areas), so I took the chance on still coming, though there is a lot of hesitation, nervousness and uncertainty,” said Daniele Coda, 34, of Italy.
Stella Korsah, 56, said though her group had seen some demonstrators on their way from Jericho to Jerusalem, they had not seen violence.
“I have been waiting for this (pilgrimage) for my entire life and I had the opportunity now,” said Korsah, who is a member of St. Catherine of Genoa Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York. “I was nervous listening to the news ... but I hope for peace ... and remember my purpose for coming here. We serve a living God, and I know peace will prevail.”
In the courtyard outside the Church of St. Catherine, a Spanish group from the lay ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation prepared, in song, for their Mass.
“We are here on our pilgrimage. We were a bit worried, but our priest reassured us,” said Cristina Gallego, 53, who directed the singing. “We pray for peace. Christ is here. Here one comes to see, touch and feel their faith.”
13 December 2017
Israeli security forces get orders in Bethlehem, West Bank, as Palestinians protest U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Muslim nations today urged recognition of East Jerusalem as the “occupied capital of a Palestinian state.” (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Muslim nations urge recognition of East Jerusalem as Palestinian capital (BBC) The leaders of 57 Muslim nations have called on the world to recognize East Jerusalem as “the occupied capital of a Palestinian state.” The Organization of Islamic Co-operation declared US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise the city as Israel’s capital unlawful. It also said the move had signaled Washington’s withdrawal from its role in the Middle East peace process...
Northern Lebanon struggles with backlash against Syrians (Al-Monitor) We are in northern Lebanon on a Monday night. Like every night, a team of 18 inspectors is dispatched around town to check that Syrians are not out in the streets after the curfew, to see who lives in which building, to photograph any new resident and record his name and city of origin in Syria, and to warn anyone whose residency permit has expired that they need to fix it as soon as possible...
International agencies announce 2018 response plan for Syrian crisis (The Jordan Times) United Nations agencies and NGO partners on Tuesday released the 2018 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), a $4.4 billion plan designed to support over five million refugees from Syria and the vulnerable host communities in neighboring countries...
Priest who was kidnapped receives Mother Teresa Award (Vatican Radio) The Rev. Tom Uzhunnalil SDB who was released after 18 months of captivity in Yemen received the Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice by Harmony Foundation Mumbai on Sunday. Father Tom despite having had the opportunity to leave the country chose to serve the elders of the Missionaries of Charity in Yemen. Harmony Foundation recognized his compassionate humanity and dedication and commitment to his work in a location of great danger. On this occasion he thanked God for the opportunity he was given to serve the mission in Yemen and for all those who prayed for his release...
Kerala government pledges to expedite help to victims of storm (The Hindu) The process for providing financial assistance to the kin of those killed due to Cyclone Ockhi would be expedited, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said...
Dioceses pledge to help Holy Land Christians (Vatican Radio) Eight dioceses in England have pledged to support vulnerable Christians in the Holy Land through Christmas crib donations. Churches in the dioceses of Arundel and Brighton, Birmingham, and Hexham and Newcastle will give their crib offerings this year to the Friends of the Holy Land (FHL), a charity that provides relief to Christians living in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and Jordan...
12 December 2017
This icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe is in St. Mary Parish in Whiting, Indiana. It is the first parish in the Eparchy of Parma, Ohio, to commission an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was created last year by iconographer Christine Uveges. (photo: CNS/Laura Ieraci, Horizons)
Renowned for its reverence for ancient tradition, the Byzantine Catholic Church is rather unhurried to add new feasts to its liturgical calendar.
However, in the past 20 years, the Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic Church in the United States has added at least four new feast days, namely for three 20th-century martyred bishops — Blesseds Paul Gojdich, 17 July, Basil Hopko, 23 July, and Theodore Romzha, 31 October — and one feast dedicated to the mother of God, Our Lady of Guadalupe, 12 December.
While Our Lady of Guadalupe has been on the Byzantine Catholic calendar since 1999, many Byzantine Catholics still are unaware that this feast, largely perceived as a devotion of Latin-American Roman Catholics, also is theirs to celebrate.
Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego at dawn on 9 December 1531, on Tepeyac Hill, in what is now northern Mexico City. She appeared to Juan Diego twice more, and the last time, on 12 December, filled his “tilma,” or cloak, with roses. When he emptied his cloak of the roses, he found that it bore her image. The cloak is enshrined in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
St. Mary Parish in Whiting, Indiana, has taken the lead in the Eparchy of Parma in promoting this Marian devotion. The parish commissioned a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe last year.
The eparchy includes Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic parishes in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin and most of Ohio.
The story that led to the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe being added to the Byzantine Catholic calendar is one of an American archbishop’s awakening to the need for the Byzantine Catholic Church to be engaged in the evangelizing mission of the church in North America.
During a pastoral visit to Mexico in January 1999, St. John Paul II named Our Lady of Guadalupe as the patroness of the Americas, and declared that 12 December would be celebrated as the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in all the dioceses of the Americas.
Also, in this context, St. John Paul declared her the patroness of the new evangelization, calling the church in the Americas to a deeper commitment to proclaiming the Gospel and to the conversion of nonbelievers.
Archbishop Judson Procyk of Pittsburgh, then head of the Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States, traveled to Mexico for the pope’s visit and attended the papal Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
One of the archbishop’s theological advisers later recounted that, upon Archbishop Procyk’s return from Mexico, he excitedly remarked, “The Guadalupana is ours.”
He added her feast day to the Byzantine Catholic calendar by circulating the related decree sent to all the bishops from the Congregation for Divine Worship.
Archbishop Procyk reportedly encountered something strangely familiar in Mexico City in the image on the tilma: In the mother of Americas, he found the mother of all Byzantine Catholics.
The mother of God appearing to St. Juan Diego has much in common with the Byzantine tradition of a miraculous icon comes to the lowly, such as the Icon Not Made by Human Hands — an icon of Christ — and the icon of Our Lady of Mariapoch.
In appearing as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mary is with child — represented by her belt worn high on her abdomen. It is the only recognized Marian apparition in which she is pregnant. The detail is particularly significant in the Byzantine tradition, which emphasizes Mary’s maternity as “Theotokos,” a term which means “she who bore God.”
As devotions go hand-in-hand with liturgical expression in the Christian East, Father Maximos Davies of Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin, wrote a Byzantine Catholic office for Our Lady of Guadalupe, which draws heavily on Byzantine tradition to cast a new light on the miracle of Guadalupe.
For instance, one of the hymns in the “aposticha,” or set of hymns, for the feast takes up the traditional vespers reading for the mother of God, in Chapter 9, verses 1-11, of Proverbs, that depicts Mary as Lady Wisdom, calling all people to feast on her Son at the eucharistic liturgy.
At the same time, the office honors the particular message of hope that the mother of God conveys specifically to the people of the Americas:
“Know all my smallest and most humble children that I am the Virgin who gave birth to God,The Word through whom everything has the breath of life! He has given you to me as your mother, all you peoples of the Americas; I will hear all your weeping and your complaints; I will heal all your sorrows, hardships and sufferings. Repent and believe in the Gospel! And together we will worship the Lord and lover of mankind!”
Byzantine Catholics in North America, who have adopted this feast and include this devotion in their common life of prayer, can contemplate a timely question: How does this miraculous icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe call us to engage in the new evangelization on this continent?
The Ruthenian Catholic Churches
After the Boom
Byzantine Catholics in the Midwest
12 December 2017
Tags: Byzantine Catholic Church Ruthenians
In India, newly professed religious sisters pose for a photograph after taking vows in eastern Jharkhand state on 8 December. Church leaders say vocations from ethnic minority groups are increasing. (photo: UCANews.com)
Syrian opposition urges Russia to rescue UN peace talks (The Guardian) Russia has been urged by the Syrian opposition to salvage the UN’s peace talks in Geneva this week by persuading the Syrian government delegation finally to begin direct face-to-face discussions. Basma Kodami, a leading member of the Syrian opposition negotiating team, urged the Russians to show they wanted to capitalize on the end of military operations in Syria by building a lasting peace...
Iraq holds national reconciliation meeting (Arab News) Iraq held a two-day meeting of the country’s elites in preparation for a national reconciliation conference. Co-organized by the Foreign Ministry, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Iraqi Reconciliation Committee, the meeting — which ended Tuesday — constitutes a first concrete step toward entrenching national reconciliation...
Lebanon crisis overshadows aid for refugees (EUObserver) Perched on the side of a mountain some 50km from the Syrian border, St John’s monastery in Lebanon is home to around a dozen hermits and priests. A printing press that published books in Arabic, the world’s first, can still be found within its halls. Today, the monastery has become an educational refuge for Syrian children hoping for a future that was removed from them when the regime under Bashar al-Assad indiscriminately dropped barrel bombs on his own people...
Vocations increase among ethnic minority groups in India (UCANews.com) Forty-one young women from ethnic minority groups took vows to become Catholic nuns in a rare event of this scale in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. Church leaders welcomed what they described as a trend for more tribal people to choose a religious path in life. More than 1,000 Catholics, including families and parishioners of the women, gathered 8 December for the ceremony at the Nirmala Catholic Church in the state capital, Ranchi...
Cairo cathedral marks one-year anniversary of blast (Egypt Today) Cairo Cathedral at Abbassiya district held a special liturgy Monday to mark the first anniversary of the martyrdom of 29 Copts at the explosion of St. Peter and St. Paul church, which are attached to St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. Families and friends of victims as well as survivors are gathered for the first anniversary of the church bombing...
Nuns return to St. Barbara Monastery (OCA.org) Mother Victoria and the nuns of Saint Barbara Monastery some 65 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, who had been evacuated as the Thomas Fire broke out late Monday, 4 December 2017, have returned to their monastery...
11 December 2017
Tags: Syria India Iraq Egypt Lebanon
The video above, from a French TV station in October, offers a brief tour of Qaraqosh and shows some of the damage to the Church of Al Tahira (the Immaculate Conception) and efforts to repair the building. (video: KTOTV/YouTube)
Over the weekend, we received this email with some uplifting news from CNEWA’s Michel Constantin in Beirut, with some details culled from a report by AFP:
Iraqi Christians celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception on Friday 8 December 2017 in the town of Qaraqosh for the first time since their displacement from Nineveh Valley that was previously occupied for three years by jihadists of ISIS.
The bell tower of the Church of the Immaculate Conception (Al Tahira) is still scarred by war, but its interior has been cleaned and signs of damage erased.
Some 300 faithful, mostly women and the elderly, attended Friday’s service.
Qaraqosh is about 18 miles from Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. Before being taken by ISIS, it had some 50,000 residents.
Qaraqosh used to have the greatest concentration of Christians in the country, estimated at 52,000 people in 2014. However, only a small number (estimated at 30 percent) have returned after the town was retaken from the jihadists.
The first Mass in the town following its liberation was held on 30 October last year.
“This is our first celebration of Holy Mary after three years when we were displaced,” said Hanaa Qasha, a 48-year-old teacher.
11 December 2017
Smoke rises as Palestinians protest on 8 December in Bethlehem, West Bank, in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
(photo: CNS photo/Debbie Hill)
Following days of violence and backlash after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Vatican appealed for “wisdom and prudence” to prevail.
The Holy See “reiterates its own conviction that only a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians can bring a stable and lasting peace and guarantee the peaceful coexistence of two states within internationally recognized borders,” the Vatican said in a 10 December statement.
President Trump announced his decision on 6 December to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, fulfilling a promise he made during his presidential campaign.
The announcement sparked anti-U.S. protests throughout Asia and the Middle East, including a four-day protest in the Palestinian territories, Reuters reported. An Israeli security guard in Jerusalem, the report said, was in critical condition after he was stabbed by a Palestinian man at the city’s bus station.
Pope Francis expressed his “sorrow for the clashes in recent days” and called for world leaders to renew their commitment for peace in the Holy Land, the Vatican said.
The pope “raises fervent prayers so that the leaders of nations, in this time of special gravity, commit themselves to avert a new spiral of violence, responding with words and deeds to the desires of peace, justice and security for the populations of that battered land,” the Vatican said.
Trump’s decision also drew warnings from Middle Eastern and European leaders that overturning the United States’ long-standing policy would further complicate peace negotiations.
Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had made similar promises to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital during their presidential campaigns. However, once in office, they did not carry through with the move, citing its potential negative impact on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The Arab League, a regional organization consisting of 22 Arabic-speaking member states, held an emergency meeting in Cairo, Egypt, on 9 December to discuss Trump’s announcement, calling it “dangerous and unacceptable.”
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital goes “against international law and raises questions over American efforts to support peace,” said Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Arab League's secretary-general.
Just hours before Trump had announced his decision, Pope Francis urged respect for “the status quo of the city in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the United Nations.”
In his appeal, Pope Francis said, “Jerusalem is a unique city, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims who venerate the holy places of their respective religions, and has a special vocation to peace.”
The Vatican consistently has called for a special status for Jerusalem, particularly its Old City, in order to protect and guarantee access to the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“The Holy See is attentive to these concerns and, recalling the heartfelt words of Pope Francis, reiterates its well-known position concerning the singular character of the Holy City and the essential need for respecting the status quo, in conformity with the deliberations of the international community and the repeated requests of the hierarchies of the churches and Christian communities of the Holy Land,” said the Vatican’s 10 December statement.
11 December 2017
Children pray at the start of the school day at St. Michael School in Aiga, Ethiopia. Read more about efforts to help children in Ethiopia — and see more poignant pictures — in the Summer 2016 edition of ONE. (photo: John E. Kozar)
11 December 2017
Women and children sit in a relief camp on 2 December after they were evacuated following cyclone Ockhi in the coastal village of Chellanam in the southern state of Kerala, India. The storm claimed the lives of at least 32 poor Catholic fishermen who were at sea and 200 more were missing. The local church is now appealing for help for victims. (CNS/Sivaram V, Reuters)
India diocese appeals for help for people hit by cyclone (Vatican Radio) India’s Catholic dioceses in the coastal regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala states are grappling with the “massive disaster” in the wake of the cyclone Okhi, that swept by Trivandrum and Kanyakumari districts on 29 November. Several hundred fishermen are feared missing, the Rev. Deepak Anto, executive secretary of the media commission of the Latin Archdiocese of Trivandrum, wrote in an email to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication urging for help...
Putin visits Syria airbase, orders start of pullout (BBC) President Vladimir Putin has ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, during an unannounced visit there on Monday. Mr. Putin was met by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he arrived at the Russian Hmeimim airbase, near Latakia...
Protests near U.S. embassy in Beirut after Trump’s Jerusalem decision (The New York Times) Lebanese security forces on Sunday fired tear gas and water cannons into crowds that had gathered near the United States Embassy, in a sign that protests against President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel may be escalating...
Mosul picks up the pieces after the fall of ISIS (The New York Times) For three years, this metropolis of three million people, Iraq’s second-largest city, lived under the harsh rule of the Islamic State. When the militant group was finally ousted in July, it signaled the beginning of the end of its self-declared caliphate, which once occupied a third of the country and much of Syria. American-backed Iraqi forces swept across the country, officially declaring the job finished this weekend. But the battle for Mosul lasted nearly nine months, killing thousands of people, displacing nearly a million and leaving entire districts in smoldering heaps of rubble...
Netanyahu expects EU to follow US recognition of Jerusalem (BBC) Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu says he expects European countries to follow the US in recognizing Jerusalem as his country’s capital. He is in Brussels for talks — the first time an Israeli prime minister has visited the city in more than 20 years...
Nuns at Orthodox monastery evacuated as California fire spreads (OCA.org) The nuns of Saint Barbara Monastery here were evacuated, along with their neighbors, after an explosive brush fire broke out late Monday, 4 December 2017. As widely reported in the media, fires continue to spread and threaten the entire Los Angeles region. “I learned from Mother Victoria that the monastery buildings still stand, but are not out of danger,” reported His Eminence, Archbishop Benjamin of San Francisco and the West on Thursday morning, 7 December. “The hillside behind the monastery burned and the monastery lavender field charred. So, the fire has come very close...”
7 December 2017
In this image from 2015, Mandaeans take part in a religious ritual on the bank the Shat al-Arab river in the southern city of Basra, south of Baghdad.
(photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
The Middle East has always been a crossroad to soldiers of fortune, traders and missionaries. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find some of the most exotic religions in the world there. One of these would be the Mandaeans, whose name comes from the Aramaic (manda ‘ḥay, “teaching/knowledge of life.”)
Almost at the same time as Christianity appeared in the Middle East, gnostic (from Greek γνῶσις, gnosis, “knowledge”) religions began to appear. The gnostic religions are very different each other, yet show a remarkable ability to take over beliefs from Indian religions, Greco-Roman religions, Judaism and Christianity itself. For over 300 years, Christianity resisted incursions of gnostic religion into its faith. One of these, Manichaeism — a dualist, anti-body form of Gnosticism — provided a major threat to orthodox Christianity. In fact, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the great theologian and saint, was a follower of Manichaeism before his conversion to Christianity.
The Mandaeans are within this large tradition of gnostic religions — one of many that interacted with Christianity in the region for centuries. It is estimated that Mandaeism took form in the 1st through 3rd centuries AD in Iraq, at the same time and place where Eastern Christianity was beginning to grow.
Traditionally, they were found in southern Iraq along the great rivers, which isn’t surprising. Water is very important for Mandaeans, since baptism is one of their major and frequently performed rituals. In fact, they are sometimes referred to as “baptizers.” Many years ago, I had an Arabic teacher from southern Iraq who told me she was a “Baptist.” I thought it strange because Baptists Christians are extremely rare in the Middle East, but one day I asked her if she was manda ‘ḥay. She lit up and said, “You know of us?” She was, of course, a Mandaean. While fascinated, I could not say I knew a lot about her faith.
As “baptizers,” Mandaeans hold John the Baptist in extremely high regard, though they do not consider him divine. They look upon Jesus as a false Messiah who corrupted the message of John the Baptist.
Mandaeans believe in a supreme deity from whom there are emanations into the created world. In their teaching, human beings were originally astral beings (stars) that have fallen to their present state. Such emanations from an original divine being are common in gnostic religions.Through observing the “Mysteries” — secret rituals — the believer is able to move through higher states of being until ultimate returning to his astral identity.
As is often the case in gnostic religions, there is a strict “caste” system. The “enlightened” are those who have achieved the teaching of life. Among the enlightened are the priests who hold the highest in rank. The majority of believers form the laity, whose task it is to purify themselves through repeated baptisms and to seek ever deeper awareness of the manda ‘ḥay until ultimately reaching enlightenment.
Most of the religious minorities we have dealt with in the past several weeks are secretive. For many of them, however, secrecy is a survival strategy, a way to protect themselves from the dominant religion in the region. Secrecy for gnostic religions, however, is an essential part of a faith which places great stress on the esoteric, i.e. secret, saving knowledge.
Time and history may have finally caught up with this religion, though. The Gulf War which began in 2003 forced many Mandaeans to flee. Living between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf along the two rivers, they found themselves in a battle zone. Already a tiny, minority faith, many Mandaeans fled to different places around the world — including the United States, where a small Mandean community of about 2,000 people resides in Worcester, Massachusetts.
At present it is estimated that they are between 60-70,000 Mandaeans in the entire world. Whether they will survive the 21st century is an open question.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 2: The Shabak
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 3: The ‘Alawi