18 October 2017
Sister Luma, from the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, enters her destroyed convent in Qaraqosh. Once a thriving Christian town, it was liberated recently from ISIS militants. On the wall is an inscription left by the militants: “There is only one God.” (photo: Raed Rafei)
In the current edition of ONE, photojournalist Raed Rafei reports on Iraqi Christians returning to their homes, and facing a very different existence along with some Hard Choices. Here, he adds some additional impressions.
Driving around the desolate town provoked an eerie feeling. How does one make sense of a once-thriving town that had witnessed for so long the daily hustle and bustle of people walking its streets, shopping from its stores and praying in its churches, now condemned to terrifying silence?
Batnaya, an Assyiran town north of Iraq, is one of the most heavily destroyed places after last year’s ferocious fighting between ISIS militants and Kurdish forces. Entering the town, one sees entire streets of one collapsed building after the other, an apocalyptic awe-inspiring scene.
Driving me through the mayhem, Rani Salam Asmaro, 31, points to a large empty piece of land. He remembers with disbelief the large soccer tournament organized on that field few years ago. It is hard to imagine how life can be sucked out of a place like this.
In the old town, we walk in the narrow streets where Islamists had left so many signs of a hateful ideology. At the entrance of a church, a handwritten sentence reads: “There is no place for the Christians in the land of Islam.” For Asmaro, a fitness trainer and an aid to a priest, the most painful aspect of the conflict is the realization that Christians who had found home in Iraqi land thousands of years ago would be “abhorred” by their Muslim neighbors and attacked so savagely because of their faith. Asmaro says that he always had Muslim friends but that he cannot trust them anymore after everything that happened.
I heard about this feeling of betrayal from many Iraqi Christians. For centuries, Christians have been an integral part of society sharing life with their neighbors from other ethnic groups. What the latest conflict has most tragically produced is the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Christians, but also further isolation for those who remained. Beyond the reconstruction of homes and churches, this will be the most challenging aspect of life in Iraq for Christians for the coming years. How can Christians feel trust again towards their Sunni neighbors and re-establish relations with them? For the Church leaders I talked to, the time is now still too early to talk about reconciliation. People need time to heal their wounds first.
Asmaro believes that the intolerance he has experienced as a community in Iraq has only strengthened his Christian faith and his determination to remain in the land of his ancestors. Asmaro is planning to get married to his fiancé soon and start a new family. I met many young men and women who were still marrying and having children despite the many uncertainties they faced.
Asmaro comes from the town of Al-Qosh, the only Christian enclave that was not occupied by the Islamic State. The inhabitants of Al-Qosh are people who are very proud of their Christian heritage and refuse to sell land to anyone whose origins are not from that town. They believe that this policy had protected their village from losing its character.
What makes the town historically significant is the ancient tomb of the Jewish prophet Nahum.
Many believe that this sacred place protected the town from invasion from Islamist militants. Others say that the strong Christian faith of the town’s people kept it safe. A more rational explanation is that Al-Qosh lies beyond an international road vital for commerce between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Regional powers would not have allowed the disruption of traffic along that road where goods and oil are transported, some say.
Asmaro’s brother, a professional singer, has composed many songs to express his love for his town. One of his video clips hails the resistance of Al-Qosh in the face of invaders and shows proud men in traditional clothes carrying arms and stationed in the mountain overlooking the town.
Asmaro remembers how, in 2014, he stayed with these men to protect their town from a possible invasion. Families had been evacuated to nearby safer towns.
“Despite the danger, with a friend of mine, we would sneak into the town to exercise for few hours at the gym there,” he said.
Read more in the September 2017 edition of ONE.
18 October 2017
People displaced by fighting eat lunch inside a heated tent at a train station during evacuations in 2015 in the Ukrainian city of Slaviansk. The Catholic bishop responsible for eastern Ukraine has backed calls for the deployment of international peacekeepers and praised “pressure from below” to end the four-year war. (photo: CNS/Anastasia Vlasova, EPA)
The Catholic bishop responsible for eastern Ukraine has backed calls for the deployment of international peacekeepers and praised “pressure from below” to end the nearly four-year war.
With the Ukrainian government ready to establish conditions for a peacekeeping force, “there are now good signs this could happen,” said Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, whose diocese includes rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk.
“Although some politicians still hope to use this conflict for their own power interests, pressure for reconciliation is spreading up from below among the people who’ve had enough of it. This is a positive change, and it brings a real chance of peace,” he told Catholic News Service 18 October.
Peacekeeping proposals were being debated by European Union and U.N. officials in mid-October to end the conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russia-back separatists.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said he has been in continual contact with people on both sides who believe pressure from the U.S. and Western governments would induce Russian President Vladimir Putin to “talk and reach agreements.”
“Those whose decisions led to this war, and who saw it as a way of making dirty money, will naturally stand by policies they’ve staked their reputations on,” Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said. “But people at large are demanding their leaders do something to end this terrible bloodshed. Peace will come sooner or later, from below if not from above.”
Ukrainian church leaders have accused Western governments of ignoring continued suffering in their country, where war has left more than 10,000 dead.
Ukraine’s armed forces have been substantially rebuilt with $857 million in “non-lethal” Western military aid. Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, chief of the military’s general staff, predicted in mid-October he could recapture Donetsk and Luhansk from the separatists with defensive weaponry requested from the U.S., but only at a heavy cost in lives.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said his church’s Caritas-Spes charity was helping needy Ukrainians on both sides of the conflict.
However, he added, more than 100,000 displaced people, a fifth of them children, were living in industrial containers, abandoned barracks and railway sheds in Kharkiv alone as winter approached. Effective humanitarian aid would be essential to any peace process, he said.
“Ukraine cannot stand alone. It needs support, and we’re grateful to people of goodwill in Europe and the U.S. who are engaging and showing solidarity with us,” the bishop said.
“The feeling we’re not abandoned has been very important for unifying Ukraine during this war. Although opinion was once divided between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups, no one now doubts our salvation lies in moving closer to the European Union,” he said.
18 October 2017
In the video above, U.S.-backed forces in Syria celebrate the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, the militant group’s self-proclaimed capital. (video: CBS News/YouTube)
Syrian fighters capture Raqqa (Al Jazeera) The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces backed by the US, have announced the capture of Raqqa city after a four-month operation to drive out ISIS fighters. SDF spokesmen announced the takeover of the strategic Syrian city on Tuesday after a final battle at a sports stadium where ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) made its last stand...
Iraq declares mission accomplished in Kirkuk (Al Jazeera) Iraq’s military says it achieved its objectives in a lightning-quick operation that saw troops sweep through disputed Kurdish-held territory in a punishing riposte to an independence vote last month...
ISIS militants stage attack outside Coptic church (AP) The militants drove into the city center of el-Arish in the morning, then split into two groups. One group traded gunfire with the guards outside the Church of Saint George, security and military officials said. Services at the church were suspended months ago, following a wave of attacks on Christians in Sinai.In a brazen daytime attack, about a dozen Islamic militants robbed a local bank, lobbed grenades and traded gunfire with security forces guarding an unused church in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Monday, killing seven people, including three civilians, officials said...
Vatican sends Diwali message to Hindus (CNA) With tensions between Christians and Hindu nationalists in India increasingly on the rise, the Vatican sent a message marking the Hindu feast of Diwali, urging members of both religions to go beyond mere tolerance of one another, and to foster a genuine mutual respect. Diwali is a Hindu festival of lights, and is being celebrated this year on 19 October...
American woman becomes Ethiopian princess in Orthodox wedding (The Independent) Fairytales are not known for beginning in a Washington DC nightclub, but for one American woman it was where she met the Ethiopian prince who would go on to become her husband...
17 October 2017
A patient chats with staff at Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Lebanon. Read more about this hospital and other institutions working to assist Lebanon’s most vulnerable in Reaching the Margins, from the September 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Don Duncan)
17 October 2017
Tags: Lebanon Health Care Caring for the Elderly
A member of the Kurdish-led S.D.F. coalition, backed by U.S. special forces, looks out from a building at the front lines in Raqqa on 16 October. (photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
ISIS makes last stand at a stadium in Raqqa, its doomed ‘capital’ (NPR) The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are in the process of kicking ISIS out of Raqqa, the extremist group’s self-declared capital. Now ISIS fighters are reportedly bottled up in a stadium complex in the Syrian city. As of Tuesday local time, the S.D.F. controlled “more than 90 percent” of Raqqa…
New tensions rise on the Nineveh Plain (Fides) A local formation of militias that include many Christian fighters among their ranks have told the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to abandon all areas of the Nineveh Plain under their control…
Crimes against Dalits on the rise (Fides) “The growing atrocities on the Dalits give the impression that India is returning to the age of Manusmriti, when Dalits were treated worse than slaves,” said Thomas Menamparampil, archbishop emeritus. His remark refers to the Hindu text that informed the country’s ancient caste system, in which Dalits occupy the most oppressed position in society. “The media reported recently that a 21-year-old Dalit man was beaten to death allegedly by a group of men belonging to a [higher] caste in Anand district, Gujarat. According to the news, he was killed only for reasons of caste,” the church leader says…
Diwali 2017: When is it and how is it celebrated? (Al Jazeera) Diwali, also known as the festival of lights, is the biggest festival celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists around the world. Its date changes every year and commemorates different things depending on local tradition and culture. As per India’s official holiday calendar, Diwali in 2017 will be on October 19, coinciding with the 15th day of Kartik, the holiest month in the Hindu lunar calendar. In southern India and in Singapore, Diwali will be observed on October 18, which is also an official holiday in Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Sindh province in Pakistan…
Roman theater uncovered at base of Jerusalem’s Western Wall (Washington Post) Israeli archaeologists on Monday announced the discovery of the first known Roman-era theater in Jerusalem’s Old City, a unique structure around 1,800 years old that abuts the Western Wall and may have been built during Roman Emperor Hadrian’s reign. The edifice’s elegant masonry was found during excavations carried out in the past two years below the Western Wall tunnels, a warren of ancient subterranean passageways running alongside a contested Jerusalem holy site built by King Herod in the first century B.C…
16 October 2017
Tags: Syria India Iraq Jerusalem
A shepherd leads his flock down a street between the Christian villages surrounding the city of Kerak in southern Jordan. (photo: Nader Daoud)
Dale Gavlak visited villages in Jordan for the current edition of ONE, and here offers some further impressions of a people working to preserve an ancient way of life.
I first met The Rev. Boulos Baqa’in in the CNEWA office in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Dressed in his black clerical shirt and white collar, the immense energy Father Boulos exudes is directed into confronting the crisis in his rural home area of Karak, south of the capital. Youth are leaving in droves due to little or no employment opportunities.
The area is the historical heartland of Jordan’s Christian Bedouin tribes, boasting the country’s last two remaining entirely Christian villages of Smakieh and Hmoud. But with the flight of youth to Amman or further afield to the Arab Gulf and their parents aging, there is serious concern for the future of the area’s Christian heritage.
These villages have also supplied the bulk of Latin and Melkite Catholic priests, as well as Orthodox priests and religious for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
That’s why Father Boulos is meeting with Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s regional director for Jordan, who is encouraging him to enter uncharted territory.
Father Boulas leads the liturgy at the Greek Melkite Church in Ader, in Jordan. (photo: Nader Daoud)
They’ve devised a plan to set up a powerful Internet connection between the CNEWA community center in Amman and one initially established at the Ader Greek Melkite Church to provide long-distance training of practical skills, such as IT by professionals.
Relevant teaching on pertinent health, education and cultural issues will also be provided to the villagers in a bid to educate the youth and older people alike. The hope is that the venture might also encourage telecommuting job opportunities with new found IT and other skills.
“It’s time for this project to move ahead,” Mr. Bahou says. This is how we will open these villages to the outside world. We need these villages to survive and these people to cope with what is going on.”
“Fresh ideas and thinking are wonderful for the old. We also hope to make skills for the youth and allow job prospects to take root in the villages,” Father Boulos says.
Father Boulos and his wife have their own bittersweet experience of the problem endured by many of the older residents in Kerak and the surrounding villages.
“In my family, I have two engineers and an economist,” he says. “These children are professional people, having gone to university, and are now working in Amman. My situation reflects that of the families in these villages. This is our problem now.”
16 October 2017
The Rev. Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas is a priest of the Chaldean Church. For the past 16 years he has been patriarchal vicar for northeastern Syria. Read his account of what it is like to lead his flock in A Letter from Syria in the current edition of ONE. (photo: Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas)
16 October 2017
The Rev. Samaan Shehata, shown above in an undated photo, was killed in a knife attack in Cairo, Thursday. (photo: Twitter)
Coptic Orthodox priest killed in street attack in Cairo (The Catholic Herald) Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church says a priest has been killed in a knife attack in a poor Cairo district, the latest deadly assault on members of the country’s Christian minority.
The church says the attack took place on Thursday. The priest was identified in the media as the Rev. Samaan Shehata...
Iraqi forces capture installations outside Kirkuk (BBC) Iraqi government forces have captured key installations outside the disputed city of Kirkuk from Kurdish fighters. A military statement said units had taken control of the K1 military base, the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field, and a state-owned oil company’s offices. Baghdad said the Peshmerga had withdrawn “without fighting,” but clashes were reported south of Kirkuk. The operation was launched a month after the Kurdistan Region held a controversial independence referendum...
Lebanese president says country ‘can no longer cope’ with refugees (AP) Lebanon’s president says his country “can no longer cope” with the presence of Syrian refugees and appealed to the international community for help to organize their return. Michel Aoun says the refugees’ return to safe areas in Syria will put an end to their suffering and save Lebanon from negative repercussions...
U.S.-backed forces in Syria begin assault on Raqqah (The Los Angeles Times) Syrian forces backed by the United States said Sunday that they have launched a final push to drive Islamic State from its last footholds in Raqqah, after tribal leaders and a provincial council negotiated the safe exit of civilians along with the surrender of local militants and family members...
How art is blooming amid the Gaza wasteland (The Guardian) It might seem incongruous to find an event commemorating the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in an isolated enclave corralled by electronically monitored fences, ruled by an armed and proscribed Islamic faction, and succinctly dismissed by Condoleezza Rice as a “terrorist wasteland.” But it was part of a long history of cultural life and heritage, easily overlooked amid a decade-long economic siege and three devastating wars...
13 October 2017
George and Najwa Saadeh meet with the leadership of St. Joseph High School.
(photo: Nadim Asfour)
In the current edition of ONE, journalist Diane Handal writes of how families are finding Love as a Healing Balm in Palestine. Here, she gives additional impressions from her trip.
The conveyer belt went round and round at baggage claim in Tel Aviv and I prayed. We had been delayed in New York two hours and I feared my luggage had missed the connection. Then, I saw the little green tag on the black bag that said, “Bella and Lola’s Nana!”
I jumped into a taxi and said, “Jerusalem please!”
This is Jerusalem from the taxi window:
Israeli flags on every street...lots of cranes...beautiful stone walls...newly paved roads...new apartments high on the hilltops...modern street lamps...cyprus, elm, and pine trees...Mc Donald’s...men wearing long beards with side curls emergent from their temples, big black round hats, white fringes hanging on either side of black pants, long black coats...cell phones pressed to ears...women wearing wigs, hairnets and head scarfs.
At Damascus Gate, there were several white police vans, and a strong presence of Israeli policemen. All wore sunglasses, steel gray uniforms, black flak jackets, and they carried assault rifles.
I had arrived at this ancient gateway to the old city of Jerusalem with its crowded bazaar and the holiest sites for Jews, Muslims, and Christians — unaware that it had become quite dangerous with a surge in knifing incidents.
I hired another taxi at the gate and argued over the price with the driver in my halting Arabic. The driver wanted to take me all around to enter Bethlehem to avoid the checkpoint. I knew that was prohibitive, cost-wise, so declined. The driver was not happy.
Finally, I agreed to pay $25 just to get to Checkpoint #300, where no one asked to see my passport and I walked through the long tunnel dragging my suitcase and computer bag. I walked up and down hills and still could not find the Jacir Palace Hotel. Finally, I paid another taxi $5 and it was just around the corner.
It was a very long journey. I was exhausted. The first room I was taken to had dirty rugs, a broken phone, and no hot water. I moved twice more with much of the same issues and finally, gave up.
Dinner was sparkling water and biscuits I bought at a nearby market.
Back at the hotel, I took a lukewarm shower and passed out for a few hours. I went down for breakfast and had two fried eggs, Arabic bread, and coffee. The chef and I began talking and he asked my family name. He then told his boss — and every morning, two fried eggs appeared at my table.
George Saadeh is picking me up about 9:30am in the lobby. He sounded very nice on the phone.
The next day, I was inside the “open prison.” I felt the sense of gates closing behind me from the minute I walked through the checkpoint to the other side of the “separation wall” into the streets of Bethlehem.
A heavy weight descended upon me and I thought this was just a touch of what the Palestinians live with every single day.
The sun was shining and the houses and apartment buildings on the hill were all beige, broken by only a few green trees and some black water tanks in the distance.
Water is scarce here and there are many cisterns as the Palestinians are dependent on the Israelis for water. They receive only 17% of the water supply while the Israelis receive 83%, under the Oslo Accords. The settlements have 24–hour water access and that includes water for swimming pools.
Cars were speeding past me and going round and round through the city.
I went to change money in a tiny dark closet of a store and then, walked across the street to Abu Alees, my favorite shawarma place near my family’s home off Orient Street. The wrap was fresh, the chicken tender, the tomato, cucumber, and parsley salad fresh, and the hot sauce burned in my mouth. I was in heaven.
Later, I walked up the street toward town to buy some cherries and oranges and the owner gave me a discount and smiled. I asked for teen (figs), but he said they were not in season. The Palestinians are kind people.
For three shekels, less than $1, I took a “service” (a taxi that picks up people along the way) back to my hotel.
My friend Wajdi Zoughby — who is an IT genius — greeted me with a hug at the hotel.
He is married now and just had his second child, a little girl named Marion. His son Khuder is two and named after his father, George, who died a few years ago. I often think of the opportunities Wajdi could have had on the other side of this Wall.
Yesterday, I met George Saadeh and spent the day with him at the Greek Orthodox School where he is principal. He is a good man who is very smart, very kind, and works hard to see change in a community under occupation.
His daughter Christine was just 12 when she was killed in an Israeli raid. The family was on their way to the market. Hundreds of bullets shattered the windshield and windows. Christine was shot in the head and neck and died. Nine bullets struck her father George. His eldest daughter Marion was shot in the leg; his wife’s body was laden with shrapnel.
He is a strong man despite this pain and suffering no parent should endure and he has held onto his faith throughout a very difficult journey.
George, Najwa, his wife, and I went to St. Joseph’s convent. The sisters there taught Najwa and her daughters at the St. Joseph School. They have been a tremendous support for Najwa, particularly Soeur George.
And, Soeur George knew my grandmother Jameleh. She met her when we visited Bethlehem and stayed at the convent. I was 10 years old at the time. She was 21 and had just entered the novitiate.
We went to the Church of the Nativity later, which is being renovated. A huge crane sat on the roof of the church, the only one I saw in Bethlehem.
Najwa, George, the photographer Nadim, and I went to dinner at a café next to the church.
After dinner, I interviewed Najwa. My heart broke for her, for them. But their strong faith and their journey toward forgiveness through their fervent belief in peace and reconciliation have given them the tools to survive.
God bless them.
13 October 2017
The Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski blesses tourists outside the Church of the Visitation on 5 October in Jerusalem. Franciscan Father Brzezinski has been superior at the church for the past 10 years.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
On his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land just at the outbreak of the intifada, the Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski was awed by the quiet contemplation with which a fellow friar was able to pray under a sprawling sabra cactus in the courtyard of the Church of the Visitation.
Little did he know that his life’s path would eventually lead him back to this Franciscan shrine which, according to Christian tradition, marks the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah and commemorates the meeting between Mary her cousin, Elizabeth, when Mary recited the Magnificat as Elizabeth announced she was pregnant.
Franciscan Father Brzezinski, who wanted to be sent as a missionary to Africa, followed his vow of obedience and remained in Poland. In 2003, his superiors sent him to the Holy Land, where the Franciscan custos and his staff serve as guardians of the Catholic holy places and welcome pilgrims.
Upon his arrival, Father Brzezinski, now 53, spent seven months serving at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and four years at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, three of them as the superior. But for the past 10 years, he has been superior at the Church of the Visitation.
Nestled at the top of a steep stairway in the sleepy Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem, on the outskirt of the southern part of the city, the shrine where he and one other Franciscan live is far from the local Christian community.
“The Church of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre are very important for Christians,” said Father Brzezinski. “In the Holy Sepulcher, (religious) life is 24 hours a day ... it is very special for this, but it is also a very difficult life.”
Working as superior at the Holy Sepulchre, with its rigorous prayer schedule and hundreds of daily visitors, can be very trying, he said, noting that while other friars have a week off every five weeks, the superior does not.
Coming to serve at this smaller shrine was like coming to a “sanatorium,” he said, where he now has time for his own prayers and to pray for others who have asked for his prayers. He also has time to spend a few moments with some of the pilgrims who visit the shrine.
“When I am looking at people, 70 years old, going up those stairs slowly — those are holy people, they want to touch these stones, the story of the New Testament,” he said.
As the Franciscans celebrate the 800th year anniversary of their presence in the Holy Land, the sacred role the 300 friars from 34 countries continue to play is a blessing, he said.
“We are continuing our mission until now. We have never followed the politics (of the time) but we have always been here for the holy sites and the pilgrims and (local Christians) who need us. It is a very important mission,” he said.
The Church of the Visitation is one of 29 shrines in the care of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. On a busy day, the church receives up to 20 pilgrimage groups, he said, though some days there are none. Father Brzezinski and the other friar have begun to work on the garden to make it more inviting for pilgrims and visitors, so they will stay for a bit longer than the average half-hour visit and contemplate the miracle of the place, he said. Many of the Jewish neighbors also come to visit and, often on Saturdays, Jewish Israelis from around the country are among the visitors.
“They are very kind people, very gentle people,” he said. “We have the occasion to have a meeting here, like Mary and Elizabeth. It is a very good occasion to be together.”
In this way, he said, the shrine seems to still reflect the meeting between Mary, representing the New Testament, and Elizabeth, representing the Old Testament.
In a crypt below the modern day church, the “rock of concealment” marks the spot where tradition holds St. John and Elizabeth were hidden from Herod’s soldiers. The compound also consists of Byzantine-era ruins and a well-preserved Crusader hall.
Following the Muslim defeat of the Crusaders, the church fell into disrepair, though it was under the care of Armenian monks for a time. The Franciscans, who returned to the Holy Land in 1217, purchased the property from an Arab family in the mid-16th century.
Recently, a group of Polish-American pilgrims admired the mosaic verses from the Magnificat on a wall of the courtyard. One woman from the group spied Father Brzezinski and asked him for his blessing, and others in her group quickly formed a line behind her.
The priest said it is these moments that are most precious to him.
“I want to understand their life, why they are asking for a blessing. Sometimes they tell me, sometimes it is between them and God,” he said.