21 December 2015
Patriarch Fouad Twal greets the children of Gaza who held the first Christmas performance at the newly refurbished parish center funded by CNEWA–Pontifical Mission. (photo: CNEWA)
20 December 2015 will be one great day to remember.
It was the day of the Christmas celebration at the Holy Family Church in Gaza, celebrating with members of the heroic small Latin parish who call Gaza home.
Again I was fortunate to be one of the few people of my status, a Palestinian East Jerusalem “resident” of the State of Israel, to be granted a one day permit to go to Gaza, despite the ongoing ban. I accompanied the official delegation of his Beatitude Patriarch Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The St. Joseph scout troop was there to receive us upon arrival with traditional Palestinian and Christmas songs. The drums were louder than ever to announce the arrival of the delegation. Shortly after arrival, His Beatitude opened the Door of Mercy at the Latin Parish Church in Gaza before celebrating the Christmas Mass with the parish members and the clergy. He was assisted by Bishop Marcuzzo from Nazareth and some 10 priests from the Latin Patriarchate who all came specifically for the day. The Superior General of the Rosary Sisters accompanied the delegation as well as the Superior of the Order of the Fathers of the Incarnate Word, the President of the Christian Schools Commission in Palestine, the Rev. Faisal Hijazin, and the Rev. Raed Abu Sahlieh, Director of Caritas Jerusalem.
In his homily, the patriarch reflected on the Year of Mercy, as well as on his continued prayers for peace and justice in our region. He affirmed his continued support and that of the Catholic Church for the small Catholic community of Gaza. He stated that he continuously prays for them, especially for an end of the blockade of Gaza and for unity within the Palestinians so that the situation there will improve and they will live a better life in the near future. He asked the people to remain steadfast and reminded them that they are suffering on earth and truly living the life of our Lord Jesus Christ who did not have an easy life in this land. He assured them that their suffering will not go unnoticed and that their rewards will be in heaven.
As soon as Mass ended, the renovated areas of the Latin parish complex were visited and blessed by his Beatitude. This included the newly renovated and refurbished parish center which was completely funded by CNEWA–Pontifical Mission. The renovated center includes a new library fully stocked with a variety of Christian books for all ages, as well as a new gymnasium with state of the art equipment, a sitting area and a kitchen, renovated rest rooms, and a large parish hall. During our visit, the first formal performance took place: a Christmas play by the parish children. All the children perfected their roles, and the long hours of practice as part of the CNEWA–Pontifical Mission “Oratorio” program paid off.
Aside from the official celebrations, there was noticeable respect granted to the official delegation by both the Israeli authorities at the Erez Crossing, as well as by the Palestinian government officials in Gaza who came to visit with his Beatitude and bid him and the parish congratulations for Christmas. Also noticeable was the large number of local and international press representatives who all wanted to interview many people so that the voices of the Christian community of Gaza are heard both locally and internationally.
One of the important people in attendance was Elias Manneh, the former Chairman of the Board of our partners, the Near East Council of Churches (NECC) in Gaza, who is now in retirement. He reminded me of a conversation we had six years ago when I first met him and we were discussing the dwindling Christian presence in Gaza as emigration was on the rise.
He said then: “Despite our small number, we are a force to be reckoned with. We are respected by the government and the larger community. Quality and not quantity is what counts in Gaza.” Our wish for this small, but brave community is to enjoy the Christmas celebrations in Gaza, Many confided that although Israel issued permits for a full month (20 December 2015 through 20 January 2016) to hundreds of Christians from Gaza to enter the West Bank and Jerusalem (as was the case in previous years) it was rare that a complete family received the permits. The ban on youth aged 16-35 continues; none in this age group was granted a permit. The Rev. Mario da Silva, the parish priest at the Holy Family parish, will celebrate midnight Mass in his beautiful church. Undoubtedly the same prayers heard today will be repeated again for pace and jkustice for all in our Holy Land, especially for our suffering people in Gaza.
This was my shortest visit to Gaza. Despite the great joy of being able to be there for the day to show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters, I left with a heavy heart, knowing that most of them will not be able to join us in Bethlehem for the celebrations. Please keep the people of Gaza in your prayers and join me in wishing them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
21 December 2015
As part of a pre-Christmas tradition, children bring figurines of the baby Jesus to be blessed in St. Peter’s Square as Pope Francis leads the Angelus on 20 December. (photo: Vatican Radio)
21 December 2015
A displaced Syrian woman holds her ten-day-old twin grandchildren in a town on the outskirts of Damascus where they have taken shelter on 20 December 2015.
(photo: AFP/Amer Almohibany/Getty Images)
Pope appeals for peace in Syria (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis appealed for peace in Syria on Sunday, calling on the international community to realize in concrete action and genuine fact the endorsement of a UN-sponsored roadmap toward peace in the war-torn nation...
Christians disappearing from Gaza (USA Today) Dim lighting and candles softly illuminate decorative tapestries as the smell of incense fills the air and the harmonic sound of hundreds singing in unison drifts onto a busy street next to an overflowing church on a wet and windy Sunday morning. Despite the packed pews at Gaza’s Church of St. Porphyrius just weeks before Christmas, Christianity is not booming here. Rather, the worshipers at the 1,600-year-old shrine believe they may be the last group of Christians in Gaza, where they have lived and prayed since the birth of Jesus. The ongoing Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the highest unemployment rate in the world are prompting Christians to leave the besieged area in droves, some using the holiday season to their advantage...
Pope prays for flood victims in India (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis prayed for the victims of massive flooding in India on Sunday. Speaking to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square after the traditional Angelus prayer, Pope Francis said. “My thoughts turn in this moment to the dear populations of India, recently stricken by a great flood.” The city of Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu state in southeastern India, was overwhelmed earlier this month after a series of record-breaking rainfalls triggered the flooding, in which some three hundred people perished. Much of the city’s 4.8 million population remains exposed to the threat of disease outbreak as a result of the flooding. Meteorologists fear unusually intense weather patterns could bring more rain...
President Assad visits a Catholic church (Fides) Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the Melkite Catholic parish of Our Lady of Damascus, in the Damascene district of al Qussur, with his wife Asma. Of the presidential visit, which took place on Friday evening, 18 December, the official Syrian media released photos and video the next day...
Russia confirms food embargo against Ukraine (AFP) Russia will introduce a food embargo against Ukraine next month over Kiev’s trade deal with the EU, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Monday, extending punitive measures already in place against Western countries. “These measures will be extended to Ukraine too,” Medvedev said at a government meeting. “I have just signed the relevant decree...”
Visiting a monastery in Ethiopia (Daily Mail) The rope being tied around my waist by a monk comprised lengths of scraggly old leather attached to each other by granny knots. I have a fear of heights, and as I looked up, the cliff seemed to topple towards me by degrees. But this was the only way to visit the 6th century monastery of Debre Damo, which perches on a plateau in northern Ethiopia, a true wilderness...
18 December 2015
Tags: Syria India Pope Francis Ethiopia Gaza Strip/West Bank
CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, Sami El-Yousef, third from left, meets with recipients of a CNEWA scholarship who are now employed at Al Ahli hospital through its training and job creation program. (photo: CNEWA)
This was my first visit to Gaza since Israeli authorities placed a ban on East Jerusalem ID holders back in July 2015. Though the ban is still in effect, a limited number of permits were allowed, and I feel lucky to be one of the few approved.
Upon arrival in Gaza, there seemed to be a general feeling that life is gradually returning to “normal.” Traffic was busy and more people were on the streets; shops seemed sufficiently stocked with no lines at gas stations. There were also a limited number of construction projects and more workers doing odd jobs. People seemed more relaxed than in previous visits. The two main streets crossing Gaza from the north to the south — Salah Eddin Street and Beach Street — have been widened and paved with new street lamps and beautiful landscaping, and the promenade area has been totally refurbished.
However, when one digs deeper into the situation, it is clear that not much has really changed. Electricity is still on either 6- or 8-hour shifts; unemployment continues at an all-time high; the Rafah borders continue to be tightly closed, severely limiting travel; the fragile industrial base is still in ruins; prices of goods and services are through the roof; and most of the people who lost their homes during previous wars continue to face extreme temporary living conditions. The hoped for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas continues to be a dream. Thus, for all practical purposes, not much has changed, except that the people of Gaza have become resigned to their current state of affairs and accustomed to living on much less than their counterparts in the West Bank, and certainly with much lower standards than their neighbors in Israel. For now, they seem content with what is available to them. There is a strange sense that life must go on regardless of the harsh reality on the ground.
What did we find? You can read a full report on the Gaza visit here.
18 December 2015
Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine Economic hardships
The Rev. Francis Eluvathingal performs a wedding ceremony at the Jyotis Care Center in Navi Mumbai. To learn more about the growing church in Mumbai, read A Church of Their Own from the January 2012 edition of ONE. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
18 December 2015
Tags: India Indian Christians Mumbai
Jasan Zided of Hebron, West Bank, waits to sell Santa hats to tourists in an empty Manger Square on 15 December in Bethlehem, West Bank. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Middle East situation dampens Christmas in Bethlehem (Catholic Register) Though the Christmas tree was lit in Nativity Square in the traditional ceremony, and some traditional pre-Christmas parades have taken place, the Christmas spirit this year in Bethlehem has been dampened by the political situation, which, since October, has taken the lives of almost 100 Palestinians and 22 Israelis. Few pilgrims are visiting the holy sites — or the souvenir shops that line Manger Square — and there is none of the customary festive caroling at the square in the evenings leading up to Christmas Eve…
Israel and Turkey agree to restore diplomatic ties (The New York Times) Israel and Turkey have reached a preliminary agreement to begin restoring full diplomatic relations after years of deep freeze, Israeli officials said on Thursday. The two countries, once close regional allies, fell out after a deadly confrontation in 2010 between Israeli commandos and Turkish activists on a passenger vessel seeking to breach Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip…
Syrian refugees snared in poverty (UNHCR) Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are facing dire levels of poverty, with the situation expected to worsen in the near future, a study published today by the World Bank Group and the UN Refugee Agency revealed. Nearly 1.7 million Syrian refugees registered in Jordan and Lebanon live in miserable conditions, often unable to afford the very basics including sufficient food, clothes and medicine. The majority are women and children who live on the margins in urban and rural areas, often in substandard accommodation, rather than in refugee camps…
Mother Teresa to be declared a saint (Vatican Radio) Blessed Teresa of Calcutta is to be made a Saint. Pope Francis on Thursday authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree regarding a miracle attributed to the intercession of Blessed Teresa (née Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu)…
Coptic monasteries will not close over jihadist threats (Fides) Historical Coptic monasteries in the Wadi Natrun region will not suffer any closure for security reasons, after the jihadist threats aimed in particular against the monastery in Baramos, dedicated to the Virgin Mary…
Indian government assures justice for country’s Christians (UCANews.com) India’s government has assured the country’s Christian community of justice and protection against persecution. “We have always been with the Christian community and will always remain with them. There should be no confusion regarding this,” said Rajnath Singh, federal home minister, and second-in-command to India’s prime minister. Singh was speaking at a Christmas dinner organized by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India in New Delhi on 17 December...
17 December 2015
Tags: Refugees Israel Turkey Indian Christians Bethlehem
A Russian Old Believer has her hair braided on her wedding day in Staraya, near St. Petersburg. (photo: Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images)
As Vladimir V. Putin asserts Russia’s position in the international community, the leadership of Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church — the Moscow Patriarchate — has allied itself with his government, resurrecting hopes for many and fears for some that a reinvigorated Orthodox Church aligned with a burly government will forge a more cohesive “Russian” nation.
Yet Russia’s population of 143.5 million includes an array of distinct ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, and the Moscow Patriarchate — which seeks to restore what the Communists had destroyed — is not the sole guardian of the country’s Russian legacy. Russia’s Old Believers (or Starubryadsty, meaning Old Ritualists) once preferred imprisonment, exile or even death to the liturgical reforms of the 17th century that were initiated by the confidant of the tsar, Patriarch Nikon of Moscow.
Put to the sword for their rejection of these reforms, surviving Old Believers fled the reach of tsar and patriarch, settling in the isolated steppes or tundra of the vast Russian empire. They fled without bishops, priests and, consequently, the sacraments. Thus denied a hierarchy, these bezpopovsty (priestless) believers organized themselves into self-sustaining lay communities that elected their own nastavnik, or teacher.
As the tsars extended their reach beyond the Ural Mountains, consolidated their realm, eliminated the patriarchate and subordinated the power of the clergy and nobility, they escalated their persecution of Old Believers, who may have composed as much as a quarter of the Russian population by the late 18th century.
Russian Old Believers pray inside a chapel in Rostov-on-Don. (photo: Alexander Blonitsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Isolated and spread over vast areas of two continents, Old Believers consequently split into many fiercely independent groups. Each community developed its own peculiarities and characteristics. Nevertheless, they all retained traditional Russian iconographic forms; preserved traditional church architecture and church appointments, even though they lacked priests and sacraments; and upheld the language and theology of the pre-reformed Orthodox Church of Russia.
After Tsar Nicholas II issued the Edict of Toleration in May 1905, Old Believers were legally recognized and permitted to practice their faith openly. Soon after the tsar’s decree, the altars of the Old Believers’ chapels were “unsealed” and a “golden age of Old Belief” flowered, coinciding with the rise of Russia’s merchant princes, many of whom belonged to prominent Old Belief families. These industrialists commissioned the nation’s leading architects and artists to design new churches and encouraged a revival of ancient chant and scholarship.
This golden age ended abruptly with abdication of the tsar in 1917 and the subsequent Bolshevik coup d’état in 1918. These militant atheists saw the Old Believers as capitalists and defenders of an older order. They ruthlessly persecuted Old Believers as they did all believers. Little is known of Russia’s Old Belief communities between 1918 and 1991.
Today, perhaps as many as 10 million Old Believers — scattered throughout European and Asian Russia as well as the Balkans, the Baltic states and North America — safeguard the cultural and spiritual heritage of Russia’s pre-westernized civilization, holding dear the “true” traditions of Russian Orthodoxy, free of the influences that came to dominate the Russian state in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Click here to read more, and of the recent developments to heal this breach in Russian Orthodoxy.
17 December 2015
Tags: Russia Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches
Pope Francis blows out the candle on a birthday cake presented by a young member of the Italian branch of Catholic Action during an audience with the group at the Vatican on 17 December. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano, handout)
Today marks the pope’s 79th birthday — and celebrating with him are young members of Catholic Action, a lay organization:
To follow a path toward Christ, one must follow the good path of forgiveness, peace and solidarity, and avoid following the evil path of vengeance, war and selfishness, Pope Francis told hundreds of Italian children.
The members of Catholic Action’s children’s section, parish-based groups of young people from 4 to 14 years of age, spent the year on various projects that aided migrants in the Italian diocese of Agrigento.
Upon the pope’s arrival, the youth sang “Happy Birthday” and presented him with a cake for his 79th birthday Dec. 17 during his traditional pre-Christmas audience with them.
The pope blessed and thanked the youth for their work with migrants, saying that they welcome in an exemplary way “so many brothers and sisters who arrive full of hope, but are also wounded and in desperate need of so much, including peace and bread.”
“You can offer a special contribution to this initiative with your enthusiasm and prayer, which I advise you to accompany with a small sacrifice, to share their essentials with others who do not have them,” he said.
Departing from his prepared speech, the pope asked the youth what would they do if they had two candies and their friend had none. “I’ll give him one,” a child responded.
“And if you have one candy and your friend has none, what do you do?” he asked. “Half!” another child exclaimed.
“Yes, half. Very good! Go forward this way,” the pope said.
After thanking the leaders of Catholic Action’s Italian branch, Pope Francis led the group in praying the “Hail Mary” and thanked them for their “commitment and dedication to Christian education.”
17 December 2015
Tags: Pope Francis Catholic Migrants Youth
During his annual Moscow press conference on 17 December, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks on a number of topics, including the situation in Ukraine and the downing of a Russian combat jet by Turkey last month. (photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Putin: Russia did have people in Ukraine doing ‘certain military tasks’ (Reuters) Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia did have personnel in eastern Ukraine who were carrying out certain military tasks but denied Moscow had deployed regular troops there. “We never said there were no people there who were carrying out certain tasks including in the military sphere,” Putin told an annual news conference. Putin said Russia was ready to persuade separatists in eastern Ukraine that a compromise was needed in order to achieve a political settlement of the conflict there…
Saudi Arabia’s new anti-terrorism coalition stirs questions and controversy (Los Angeles Times) In a region chock full of anti-terrorism coalitions, the newest alliance, founded by Saudi Arabia, has managed to raise the ire of countries left out — as well as eyebrows among some named as part of the club. Absent from the list of countries are Iraq and Syria, despite the coalition’s operations being aimed at fighting terrorism in those countries. Also missing is Saudi Arabia’s regional rival and Shiite powerhouse Iran, which is pitted against the Saudis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen…
Iraqi Christian refugees share their most treasured possessions (ABC News) Iraqi Christian Annosa Ishaa, poses for a photograph in her tented shelter erected in the grounds of Mazar Mar Elias Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq. The church houses hundreds of Iraqi Christians who were forced to flee their homes — many with less than an hour to do so — as the Islamic State advanced last year. Asked, after her family what was the one thing she could not leave behind, the nurse from Qaraqosh said her passport…
Christians mark 40th anniversary of celebrating Christmas together in Jordan (Fides) This year marks the 40th anniversary of the unification of the date on which all the Churches and Christian communities in Jordan celebrate Christmas. In 1975, the heads of Christian churches agreed to celebrate Christmas on 25 December, according to the Gregorian calendar, while celebrating Easter according to the Julian calendar…
In India, Christmas in solidarity with flood victims (Fides) Churches in South India will experience a Christmas of solidarity and humanitarian aid, to help the victims of the flooding that occurred in recent days in the area of Chennai, in the state of Tamil Nadu. The effort of the churches will involve all the faithful pitching in time and resources; parishes, priests, religious communities, associations, lay people and families will donate money they would have spent on the celebrations Christmas in charity initiatives for families affected by the flood, estimated as “the worst in a hundred years…”
Why Jewish-Catholic reconciliation gives hope for the future (Vanity Fair) The church faithful have, for the most part, become the allies of the Jews, not only in their long-term war against anti-Semitism, but also and especially in the joint effort to repair the world and restore human universality…
The Oromo protests and Ethiopia’s political vulnerabilities (Tesfa News) At least 40 people have been killed, hundreds wounded, and thousands detained in more than three weeks of uprisings in Ethiopia’s Oromia state, the largest of nine linguistic-based states. The Oromo people make up close to 50 percent of Ethiopia’s population. Protesters primarily oppose a draft for a plan that, if implemented, will expand the jurisdiction of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia. The ongoing protests began last month in Ginci, a small town about 50 miles west of Addis Ababa. There, the demands were limited and benign, largely centering on the ownership transfer of a local stadium and the clearing of nearby forest for development by foreign investors. The master plan formed only one piece of their demands. Authorities responded using disproportionate force, triggering a widespread outrage…
16 December 2015
Tags: Ethiopia Middle East Iraqi Christians Christian-Jewish relations
People attend the lighting of the Christmas tree on Manger Square in Bethlehem, West Bank, 5 December. In a message released today, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal urged a more spiritual celebration of Christmas this year and called for an end to the arms trade.
(photo: CNS/Abed Al Hashlamoun, EPA)
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal urged moderate celebrations of Christmas this year because of the current political situation, but he also called for an end to the arms trade.
In his 16 December Christmas message, he urged a more spiritual holiday celebration and also encouraged all parishes to turn off the Christmas tree lights for five minutes in solidarity with all the victims of violence and terrorism. In Bethlehem, West Bank, the Christmas Mass will be offered for the victims and their families, he said, “that they take to heart the participation in the joy and peace of Christmas.”
At the local level, he urged Palestinian and Israeli leaders to have the courage to work toward a just peace, rather than war and violence.
“Enough of stalling, reluctance and false pretenses,” he admonished. “Respect international resolutions. Listen to the voice of your people who aspire for peace, act in their best interest. Each of the two peoples of the Holy Land, Israelis and Palestinians, have the right to dignity, to an independent state and sustainable security.”
“What suffering it is, to once again see our beloved Holy Land caught in the vicious cycle of bloody violence. What pain to see anew, hatred prevail over reason and dialogue. The anguish of the people of this land is ours, which we cannot ignore or disregard. Enough! We are tired of this conflict as we see the Holy Land sullied with blood,” he added.
He called for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and for the two to exist in “peace and tranquility.”
Without naming specific groups, he said the situation in the Holy Land is a reflection of what is happening around the world, which is “facing an unprecedented terrorist threat.”
He said that though recent attacks have taken place against France, Lebanon, Russia and the United States, people in Iraq and Syria have been suffering for years from the war. Syria is at the center of the crisis, he said.
“The future of the Middle East depends on the resolution of this conflict,” he said.
He also condemned and called for an end to the weapon trade, which he said is perpetuating the conflict. He blamed “several international powers” for the continuation of a situation of “total absurdity and duplicity.”
“On the one side, some speak of dialogue, justice and peace, while on the other hand promote the sale of arms to the belligerents,” he said in his message. “We call to conversion these unscrupulous arm dealers who may be without conscience, to make amends. Great is your responsibility in these devastating tragedies, and you will answer before God for the blood of your brothers.”
He urged world leaders to find the roots and cause of “this scourge.”
“We must combat poverty and injustice, which may constitute a breeding ground for terrorism. Similarly we must promote education on tolerance and acceptance of the other,” he said.
In response to a journalist’s question, the patriarch said that while he welcomed current international attention and solidarity with the plight of Christians in the Middle East in light of the fighting, he lamented that it is only when their own interests are affected that they have finally begun to take notice of the Christians of the Middle East.
“There have been thousands and thousands of Iraqis and Syrians who are suffering,” he said.
He noted the importance of the 50th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, and its role as the foundation for dialogue.
“Here in the Holy Land, this dialogue is of paramount importance where difficulties exist, but it is necessary to continue to hope all the more, to the viability of a Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue,” he said.
He invited pilgrims to continue visiting the Holy Land, despite the current tense situation, and said they would find three doors designated as Doors of Mercy during the Year of Mercy.
“The pilgrim route is safe and they (pilgrims) are respected and appreciate by all sectors in the Holy Land,” he said.