6 December 2018
This image from January shows one example of modern migration that has become all-too-common: a raft with 112 passengers drifts in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast before being rescued. (photo: CNS/Yannis Behrakis, Reuters)
On 18 December every year, the United Nations observes International Migrants Day. There are very clear and important legal differences between refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers and migrants that should not be forgotten. (You can read more about what they mean at this blog post.) These categories are kept separate and distinct by the UN. However, CNEWA works in a world where all of these categories are present — and, at times, massively present. Today, I will look at how the various migrations of peoples have affected the globe and had a significant impact on the world CNEWA serves.
It is important to understand several things. Mass movements of people are not new; as you’ll see below, they have occurred several times in at least past two thousand years. The movements cause untold suffering for those who are displaced. However, they have also caused the destabilization and even destruction of civilizations and cultures which were the “host” or target countries/peoples. The problems caused by these movements often provide demagogues with deceptively easy “solutions,” which are often little more than thinly veiled forms of racism. Nevertheless, the problems and challenges are real.
Let’s look at how these migrations have occurred, and some important examples.
Throughout history people and groups have moved to find better or safer living conditions — at times, doing so in great numbers. There are many causes for this. The biblical book of Ruth speaks of Naomi and her family leaving Judah for Moab because of famine. Over the last 2,000 years there have been times of massive movements of peoples. War and military aggression are among the chief drivers of the mass movement of peoples. The arrival of the Huns on the stage of world history in the 4th to 6th centuries caused massive movements of peoples from Central Asia to the west, fleeing the armies of the Huns. The Huns coming from the east put pressure on the Goths and other “barbarians” who, in turn, pressured and ultimately brought about the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west.
In the late 11th centuries, it was the Mongols, again coming from eastern Asia, that caused great destruction and displacement from central Asia to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The Mongols brought the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate to an end and destroyed other kingdoms in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Lastly, the mass movement of Europeans to the “New World” which began in the 16th century had major impact on the indigenous peoples of North and South America, causing the extinction of many native civilizations and cultures. In each of these, climate, military conquest and economic issues all played varying roles.
In the last 20 years, it appears that there is a new mass movement of peoples. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are 68.5 million “forcibly displaced” people in the world. That number is broken down into 40 million internally displaced people, 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum seekers. As has been the case with every massive movement of peoples, this brings with it huge social, political and economic changes, all of which—at least initially—are destabilizing.
While it is common for the media in Europe and the United States to focus on the impact these people have on the situation in Europe and the U.S., in point of fact, the major “hosting countries,”— i.e., countries targeted by the movement of peoples—are Turkey (3.5 million displaced people), Uganda (1.4 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (just under 980,000).
The UN recognizes that this is a humanitarian crisis of the highest magnitude for those people who are displaced. However, it presents almost insurmountable political, social and economic problems for the “hosting countries,” few of which are that economically—and at times politically—stable themselves.
In an attempt to address this, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was signed 13 July 2018. While not a treaty and not formally binding under international law, the Compact is an attempt to deal both with the problem both practically and compassionately. The Holy See. especially through its Permanent Observer Mission at the UN, has been active in promoting the Global Compact as a possible way of dealing with the problem. The main goals are not merely to provide for a safe and orderly migration of peoples but also to eliminate those “drivers of migration” that force people to leave their homes— i.e., climate change, war, poverty.
As a papal agency working in areas where the mass movement of peoples has had profound and almost invariably negative impact on all involved, CNEWA encourages our readers to become informed about the issues involved and remain familiar with what the Catholic Church is trying to do to address these important challenges.
Next week, we’ll look at how the various migrations of peoples have had a lasting impact — spreading new traditions, beliefs, practices and cultures to different corners of the world.
29 November 2018
Tags: Refugees Migrants
In this image from May, Pope Francis greets Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople during a meeting in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
The last day of November holds a special significance for many Christians — and serves to remind us of the much-desired unity for which CNEWA and so much of the Christian world ardently pray.
In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) of 25 May 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote of the necessity of the church living and breathing with its “two lungs.” By that he was referring to the Catholic Church including Catholics not only of the Latin Rite but also the many different Orthodox Churches who were not in communion with Rome.
Historically it seemed that once Christians stopped being persecuted, they started arguing with each other. Churches broke relations (communion) with each other starting in the 4th century and continued to do so throughout the centuries. Some of the breaks were not that noticeable; others such as the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in 1054 and the Protestant Reformation which started in 1517 were nothing short of tectonic and impacted major parts of the Christian world.
At the opening of the 20th century, Christianity found itself seriously divided and it seemed that those divisions were incurable. However, there were stirrings of the Spirit among some broad minded Christians, leading them to believe not only that divisions among Christians were wrong but also that they could be healed. The Ecumenical Movement was born.
With Vatican II (1962-65) the Catholic Church formally committed itself to this movement and to work for Christian unity by engaging in dialogue with other Christians. One of the most dramatic ecumenical events to occur took place during the council. Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land—the first pope to do it since St. Peter. While there, he met with Athenagoras, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople in January of 1964. Although the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople among the Orthodox Churches is quite different than that of the pope in the Catholic Church, he is, nevertheless, the “first among equals” and the Ecumenical Patriarch.
The historic meeting ultimately resulted in the lifting of the mutual excommunications which had been promulgated by the two churches in 1054; it also brought about the commitment to engage in dialogue and the pledge of regular visits between the Phanar (the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople) and the Holy See. It was decided that the patriarch would visit or send a delegation to the Holy See every year on 29 June, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome. The Holy See would return the visit every year on 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew, patron saint of Byzantium.
The initial meetings were cordial, ceremonial and, of course, very important. Sometimes the patriarch himself came to Rome and the pope went to the Phanar in Istanbul. More often, high level delegation exchanged visits to celebrate the feast of the other church.
Over the decades what had begun as a cordial and ceremonial—though important—event has evolved into the meeting of friends and brothers. The small steps of rapprochement made by Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras in the Holy Land, have evolved into a deep friendship and cooperation between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
When the representatives of Pope Francis celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew tomorrow in Istanbul, they are representing two friends—Francis and Bartholomew—who have not only met several times but have worked together in issues such as the environment, world peace and the plight of refugees.
CNEWA’s world is deeply rooted in places where Orthodox Christians are in the majority. The yearly meetings between the pope and patriarch are signs to us that in a world of nationalism, xenophobia—if not downright hatred of “the Other”—and division, the “two lungs of the church” are working together to breathe new life in the two major Christian traditions of the world.
15 November 2018
Tags: Pope Francis Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Catholicos Gewargis III, patriarch of the Church of the East, left, during a private audience on 9 November at the Vatican.
(photo: CNS/Gregorio Borgia, pool via Reuters)
Shortly after the Ascension of Jesus, his followers moved out into the world beyond Jerusalem. Jerusalem was, in a sense, at the center of the known world. Situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, Jerusalem could look to the west and see the Roman Empire and its deeply rooted Greek culture; looking to the east, it would see the whole Asian continent. With Peter and Paul, Christianity moved westward, took root and grew. That is one reason why, when most modern Christians think of Christianity, they think specifically of Western Christianity. The truth, however, is that Christianity also moved eastward and entered a world very different from that of Europe and the Mediterranean.
From that, a different type of Christianity evolved, separated from and often unknown to Christians of the West.
One of the places CNEWA works, of course, is the Middle East; there, one can find some of the most ancient Eastern churches, which date back to the times of the apostles. CNEWA works with all of them. One of these churches is the Church of the East. It is sometimes known as the Assyrian Church of the East and, less accurately, the Nestorian Church.
The Church in the East flourished in the Persian Empire. Since the Persian and Roman Empires were almost constantly at war, Eastern Christians had little contact with their co-religionists in the West. But the achievements of these Eastern Churches were remarkable — and to many Christians in the West, perhaps, largely unknown. There were Assyrian Christian churches in China 1,000 years before the arrival of Francis Xavier. When Charlemagne was crowned by the pope on Christmas Day 800, there was already an Assyrian metropolitan (archbishop) in Tibet!
The first five centuries of Christianity saw a great deal of conflict between Christians over the nature of Christ and salvation. This led to bitter and, at times, violent conflicts between Christians. The Emperor in Byzantium enforced — often violently — the “orthodox” position throughout the empire, although many Christians resisted it.
To some extent, the Church of the East was involved in these controversies. The high (or low) point of the conflict was in the bitter exchanges between Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople and Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt. However, politics and geography ended up being more important than theology; and the Church of the East went its own way.
It has a famous school of theology in Nisibis in modern day Turkey, which produced many theologians. These scholars, working in Syriac, a Semitic language, developed their own theology simply outside the context and controversies of Western Christianity.
As a result, the Church of the East has an ancient theology about the nature of Christ that was developed in a Syriac — and not Greek-speaking — world. Although Assyrian Christians were uncomfortable with some of the theological expressions of Western Christianity — such as the title theotokos, “God-bearer,” for Mary — for the most part, their Christology developed independently and without much interaction with the West.
With the advent of the ecumenical movement and with increasing familiarity with the Eastern churches, the Catholic Church began a dialogue with the Church of the East. Accustomed to Byzantine, Protestant and other western theologies, the Catholic Church encountered a very different theological framework in the Church of the East. With great courage and openness, the two churches dealt with their very different attempts to articulate the nature of Christ.
After long and deep dialogue, the Catholic Church and the Church of the East produced a “Common Christological Declaration” on 11 November 1994. The statement declared: “Whatever our Christological divergences have been, we experience ourselves united today in the confession of the same faith n the Son of God who became man so that we might become children of God by his grace.”
While the agreement may not have caused great excitement in the ecumenical world, it was and remains a profound moment in the history of the ecumenical movement and the history of Christian theology. It was, however, an important sign that catholicity is not the same as uniformity. The agreement recognized that there can be different ways of looking at and expressing some very important things — such as the nature of the Incarnation.
It also made clear that those differences need not be a cause for division — to say nothing of hatred and violence.
Nearly 25 years later, it stands as a sign of hope.
Related: Profile of The Church of the East
8 November 2018
Tags: Syria Church of the East
Germans pass by the broken shop window of a Jewish-owned business in Berlin that was destroyed in 1938 during Kristallnacht. That year, from 9 to 10 November, Nazis in Germany torched synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes and schools. (photo: CNS photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.)
It has been said that, though history does not repeat itself, it certainly does rhyme. More academically and more ominously, the philosopher George Santayana is reputed to have said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Eighty years ago on the night of 9 November, there were riots in Germany. Because of the amount of broken glass on the street, the night is remembered in history as Kristallnacht, literally “the night of crystal,” or the Night of Broken Glass. Synagogues were torched and Jewish business destroyed. The Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin was burned and photos of the ruins have become icons of the horrors to follow. On that night 100 Jews were killed. In the days that followed, more than 30,000 Jews were arrested and government restrictions on Jews became increasingly harsher. The supposed cause for the riots was “patriots” responding to the assassination of the Nazi diplomat Ernst van Rath by a 17-year-old Polish-German Jew in Paris.
Almost exactly 80 years after Kristallnacht, an American hater of Jews in Pittsburgh brought an assault weapon and hand guns to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shouting “death to Jews,” he killed 11 worshippers, among whom were three octogenarians and one 97-year-old. This occurred at the end of a week in which bombs were mailed to prominent political figures in the United States.
In a country where mass shootings are quite literally a weekly occurrence — we are seeing it again this very day, in Thousand Oaks, California — it is easy to become numb to the violence and write it off as the work of another crazy person. That would be a big mistake. Words and actions have effects. Those familiar with Nazi Germany found the torch-carrying, anti-Jew-shouting neo Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, eerily similar to the Party Rallies held in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1927-1939 — torch processions and all. While one may not be able to draw a direct and causal connection between Charlottesville and Squirrel Hill, it is naïve in the extreme to consider the two events merely coincidences.
Anti-Semitism is a recurring cancer in Western society and culture. Recognizing the role it played in the anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish rhetoric of the past, the Catholic Church in Vatican II rejected all forms of anti-Semitism and even declared it a sin. Every pope since John XXIII (d. 1963) has condemned anti-Semitism.
Like any cancer, when it comes to anti-Semitism it is important to remain vigilant. We can never assume that the hateful fires of Kristallnacht are out forever. They can tragically flare up at any time. Vigilance requires awareness. We must be aware both individually and communally that anti-Semitism is a sin and that it persists. One cannot hate Jews and be a good Catholic or Christian at the same time. Pope Francis himself told a group of rabbis just days ago, ”A Christian cannot be an anti-Semite; we share the same roots. It would be a contradiction of faith and life. Rather, we are called to commit ourselves to ensure anti-Semitism is banned from the human community.”
As an agency of the Holy See committed to interreligious dialogue and understanding, we at CNEWA can only echo that sentiment with a heartfelt “Amen.”
Times of great division, times of racial hatred and times of authoritarian governments throughout the world are times which have historically been fertile grounds for anti-Semitism. With Pope Francis and his predecessors, all Catholics need to stand against anti-Semitism and anything that nurtures it in our communities and our world.
25 October 2018
Archbishop Bernadito Auza serves as the Holy See's Permanent Observer at the United Nations. (photo: Vatican Media)
On 24 October every year the world observes United Nations Day. This week, then, offers us an opportunity reflect on the important work of this body—and the Holy See’s involvement in it. CNEWA, as an agency of the Holy See, has significant interest in what the United Nations does — and it often impacts our work.
The United Nations or the UN was formed in 1945 immediately after World War II. The planet had experienced two major wars within a 30-year period. It has been estimated that up to 80 million people died in both wars; cities were leveled, populations were displaced and there was unimaginable suffering. Although the horror of those wars ominously seems to have faded for many people, the UN was founded precisely to prevent war, which was then rightly seen as the worst of all possibilities for humanity.
The UN consists of three different groupings: the Member States, which includes the General Assembly and the Security Council; UN Agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF, etc.; and civil societies which consists of Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who engage in advocacy for causes such as peace, disarmament, human rights, etc.
There are 193 sovereign member states at the UN. Each of these countries maintains a Permanent Mission to the UN in New York and often in Geneva. The head of the mission is the Permanent Representative, who holds the rank of ambassador and is often referred as such and such a country’s “ambassador to the UN.” All of these countries form the UN General Assembly (GA), which meets in plenary session every year in September but can meet at any other time. The GA works on issues that are before it on any number of issues, many of which result in conventions by which member states bind themselves by treaty to follow, maintain and enforce certain issues.
The UN Security Council (SC) consists of five permanent members (the P5): China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, each of whom enjoys absolute veto power over measures brought to the Council. Ten member states are elected by the General Assembly to serve on the Council for two-year terms.
In addition to the 193 sovereign member states, the UN recognizes two Permanent Observer Missions: the Holy See and Palestine. The Holy See, which has diplomatic relations with 180 states, was admitted to Permanent Observer status in 1964 and to full Observer Status in 2004. With full Observer Status, the Holy See has all the rights of a member state in the General Assembly except the right to vote.
The Holy See has a Permanent Observer Mission and a Permanent Observer Representative at the UN. The Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the UN is an archbishop with the rank of Nuncio. The Holy See is an active and effective member of the UN community as it advocates for, among other things, peace, disarmament, ecological responsibility, quality of life issues and very many others. One recent example: just last month, on 25 September 2018 Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, addressed the UN General Assembly advocating for the abolition of the death penalty. Although the Holy See is not a full member of the General Assembly, it plays a visible and important role in promoting peace and justice issues, serving in some ways as the conscience of the body.
The present and sixth Permanent Observer Representative is Archbishop Bernadito Auza, who was appointed on 1 July 2014. Archbishop Auza has shown himself to be an expert in increasing the visibility and, hence, effectiveness of the Holy See at the UN, especially through timely, strategic and informative conferences and side events. Through his work, the Holy See is an active participant in the issues affecting the contemporary world.
CNEWA has been accredited as an NGO at the UN for three decades, and I have been working at the UN for over 12 years, seven of which have been for CNEWA. It has been a fruitful and fascinating partnership, as CNEWA works with other NGOs to promote peace and justice in the Middle East — working with topics such as children’s rights, refugees and freedom of religion.
As we mark United Nations Day this week, it is good to recall the vital work the UN undertakes on behalf of the global community — and remember, as well, how all of us in the Christian community are called to work for unity and peace.
18 October 2018
Tags: United Nations
Russian Orthodox worshippers pray during a liturgy in 2017 at St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg. (photo: CNS/Anatoly Maltsev, EPA)
Editor’s note: Monday, the Christian world was rocked by the news that the Patriarchate of Moscow, which governs the Orthodox Church of Russia, was breaking its ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
While the history behind this is long and complex, its effects today cannot be ignored or easily dismissed. Millions of Christians around the world could ultimately be affected — especially those in the world of CNEWA.
Here’s a brief Q &A with Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D. , in which he addresses some of the questions we had about this break and its significance.
Okay. So the patriarchate in Moscow has announced it is breaking relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. What does that mean?
Initially it means that the Orthodox Church of Russia will no longer pray for the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. It can develop to the point where Russian Orthodox Christians will no longer be able to attend the liturgies of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and that Russian Orthodox bishops and priests will not be able to concelebrate liturgies with those Orthodox churches in full communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In other words, they are no longer in full communion. It is technically an excommunication.
Why are they doing this?
Because the Ecumenical Patriarch has begun the process which leaves room for a fully autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The Patriarch of Constantinople, who is considered the “first among equals” in the Orthodox communion of churches, traditionally has the right to do this. The Moscow Patriarchate, however, believes that Ukraine is part of its ecclesiastical territory.
What are the immediate effects of this?
Probably cessation of talks and relations between Moscow and Constantinople.
How does this impact those we serve?
CNEWA works in Ukraine where there are four Christian — three Orthodox and one Catholic — churches. While working primarily with the Catholic Church, CNEWA maintains good relations with the other churches. This will be greatly complicated and hostilities both old and new might surface.
Has this happened before?
Yes, this has happened before. Tragically, schisms remain a seemingly unavoidable part of Christian history. There were schisms after most of the Ecumenical Councils of the first five centuries; there was the schism between the East and West in 1054 and the great schism in the west brought on by the Reformation. Also, there have been schisms in the last two centuries involving other patriarchates, but these were healed eventually.
Why should we care?
A divided and mutually hostile Christianity is contrary to the will of Christ and undermines the ability of the church in preaching the Gospel. It took almost 1500 years to begin to heal the schisms of the first five centuries; discussions to heal the schism of 1054 are sporadic and of very varying success; the divisions of the Reformation, while showing some tractability, are still strong. This could have a lasting impact on any efforts to advance Christian Unity. With this in mind, we should fervently pray — as Jesus did in John’s Gospel — ”that all may be one.”
11 October 2018
Tags: Ecumenism Russian Orthodox Church
In this image from 1968, Pope Paul VI greets children as he visits the Church of St. Leo the Great in Rome. (photo: CNS/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)
As the world prepares to mark the canonization of Pope Paul VI this weekend, we are reminded of his remarkable legacy — and how a significant part of that touches the people and places we serve, most notably in the Holy Land.
There, an extraordinary event occurred in January of 1964. Pope Paul VI became the first Bishop of Rome, the pope, to visit the Holy Land since St. Peter left it almost 2,000 earlier. That alone would have been enough to make history. However, Paul VI was committed to the spirit of Vatican II, which included a call for the Catholic Church to be ecumenical. So, while in the Holy Land, the pope met with Athenagoras, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. The significance of this cannot be overstated: this marked the first time a pope had met with the patriarch since the Great Schism of 16 July 1054, when the legate of Pope Leo IX announced the excommunication of Patriarch Michael I Cerularius — who, in turn, then excommunicated the pope. Despite efforts over the centuries, the break between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches showed few signs of healing. Thus the meeting of the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople was by any and every measure historic.
However, the Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land was not merely an opportunity to meet with the patriarch. It was also an opportunity for him to meet the people of the land—Israelis and Palestinians. Popes had historically shown concern for the Palestinian people through the establishment of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine by Pope Pius XII in 1949, which is presently the operating agency for CNEWA in the Middle East. Paul VI was no exception.
Even before the 1967 War and the occupation of the West Bank by the Israelis Pope Paul VI saw that the situation of Palestinians was dire. Palestinians were leaving the Holy Land — and Christian Palestinians, often more educated than the general population, were emigrating in alarming numbers. After 1967, the situation became and has remained worse.
In an effort to improve the situation of Palestinians, Pope Paul VI suggested opening some kind of educational facility. The schools of the Latin Patriarchate were always in need of teachers and so originally the idea was for an institute to train teachers. However, in 1973 Brother John Manual, FSC, suggested a university—the first of its kind on the West Bank. Brother Manual’s community, the Christian Brothers of De La Salle, had been active in education in the Holy Land for decades. The community offered property which they owned in Bethlehem for the new project.
Bethlehem University was opened at the suggestion of Pope Paul VI and today continues to serve students of all faiths in Palestine. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Like the other schools the brothers ran in the Middle East, the new university would be built on “La Sallian” principles of education and ethics, providing higher education opportunities for Palestinians. The university opened in 1973 with three religious brothers, some Palestinian faculty members and 112 students. Over the decades, Bethlehem University has become one of the premier universities in the region. With the goal of providing not only education but also employment opportunities to its students, the university over the years has added schools of nursing, business, education and an Institute for Hotel Management and Tourism — critical for handling the vast numbers of pilgrims who visit the region from around the world.
The university now has more than 15,000 alumni and an enrollment of over 3,200 students. As the Christian population continues to diminish, Bethlehem University continues to serve all Palestinians—Christian and Muslim. By having Christian and Muslim students study together and get to know each other, the university is promoting a pluralistic culture of friendship and cooperation between Christians and Muslims in Palestine.
CNEWA has been intimately connected with Bethlehem University over the decades. The Pontifical Mission for Palestine is engaged with the university and the president of CNEWA sits on the university’s board of directors. Bethlehem University refers to its students and alumni as “the bright stars of Bethlehem.” One can hope that those “stars of Bethlehem” can lead the Palestinian people to a new and brighter future.
That is certainly what Pope Paul VI — soon to be St. Pope Paul VI — would have wished.
Read more about The Perseverance of Bethlehem University in the November 2004 edition of ONE magazine.
27 September 2018
Tags: Bethlehem Pope Bethlehem University
The lulav (palm fronds), a silver etrog box and the etrog (large lemon) are displayed during Sukkot, the last of the Jewish high holy days. (photo: Wikipedia)
CNEWA works in places with many different cultures, faiths and traditions — and during this time of year, we are reminded in a particular way of the rich religious and cultural traditions of the Jewish people.
In the fall — starting with Rosh Hashanah, moving through Yom Kippur and ending with Sukkot — Jews mark the ”high holidays” and issue in the New Year of their calendar with prayers and celebrations. This week, Jews throughout the world celebrate the feast of Sukkot, sometimes referred to in English as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, the latter from the Latin tabernaculum, “tent.”
Sukkot is one of the three great pilgrim festivals in the Old Testament: Passover, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost and Sukkot. Long before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Sukkot was an agricultural festival celebrating the end of the harvest. This is clear in Exodus 34:22 where it is called the Feast of the Ingathering (ha’asîf) at the end of the year and is paired with the Feast of Weeks, which is earlier in the year at the wheat harvest.
Sukkot runs for seven or eight days depending on whether one is in Israel or in the diaspora. The festival is outlined in detail in Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-43. It is to last seven days and the first and eighth (!) days are to be a “sacred assembly” on which no work is to be performed. It is a feast of celebration: “On the first day you shall take choice fruits, palm branches, boughs of leafy trees…and you shall rejoice in the presence of the Lord.” It is required that the people live in sukkot, “huts, shelters, booths,” made from branches of palm trees and other leafy trees. This is perhaps the most obvious practice that a non-Jew would notice. Jews throughout the world will build sukkot for the week. In major cities such as New York, it is not uncommon to see sukkot popping up on balconies of high rise apartments. For seven days, Jews will take their meals in the booths and some will even sleep in them. According to Leviticus, the booths are to remind the Israelites that their ancestors lived in shelters such as these during the Exodus.
During one of the central days of Sukkot, there is the ceremony of drawing water, reminiscent of the purification ceremonies at the Temple. This ceremony is specifically mentioned in the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel and may have provided the occasion for Jesus’ exclamation: “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me! Let the one come and drink, who believes in me” because he is “living water” (John 7:37-38).
Also during Sukkot, Jews will display the etrog and the lulav. The etrog is a large citrus like a lemon but considerably larger, while the lulav is palm fronds which are often artfully woven in ways familiar to what some Christian cultures do with palms on Palm Sunday.
Depending upon where one lives—in Israel or the diaspora—there are two different endings to the week of Sukkot. The first is Shmini Atzeret, the “eighth assembly/congregation” which closes the festival. The second, for those in the diaspora, is the festival Simhat Torah, “the joy of the Torah.”
Perhaps most significantly, though, the ending of Sukkot signals, in fact, a beginning — the start for Jews of a new year, full of promise and possibility.
20 September 2018
Smoke rises from a government-held area of Aleppo, Syria, after an explosion in December 2016. (photo: CNS/Omar Sanadiki, Reuters)
Every year on 21 September the United Nations observes International Peace Day. In 2001 the UN General Assembly called on the member states to observe the day through non-violence and ceasefires.
How well that has been observed is tragically clear for all to see.
There are many ways to calculate “armed conflict,” which can cover everything from a full-blown war to local terrorist attacks. Generally speaking, armed conflicts are registered in terms of casualties per year: over 10,000, 1,000-9,999, and 100-999 deaths. Using this metric, it is estimated that there are 38 armed conflicts raging in the world during 2018. These range from smaller local conflicts to larger ones involving massive loss of life in places like Syria, Yemen and Burma.
Almost every religious tradition speaks of peace, although some would limit that peace to fellow believers. Christians speak of pax and eirene, Jews speak of shalom and Muslims of salaam. The religions of the Indian subcontinent speak of shanti and ahimsa (non-violence). Leaders from every world religion speak with some frequency about the importance of peace. International groups and movements such as Religions for Peace and the Parliament of the World’s Religions work tirelessly to promote peace and understanding.
Yet for all this talk and all these efforts, there is still tremendous violence in the world. If we are honest, all too often the conflicts have religious components. It is common for religious people to claim that this or that conflict is political and not religious. In some cases that might be true. However, denying religious components to many conflicts is built on the naïve and faulty assumption that religion cannot be politicized. It can and it is. While religion may not be the only factor in some major conflicts, it definitely plays a role: Buddhists vs. Rohingya Muslims in Burma; Sunni vs. Shi’ite Muslims in Yemen and, to some extent in Syria; Muslims against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq; Hindus against Christians in part of India; and majority Christians against minority Christian groups in places like Russia. One is reminded of the verse in the book of the prophet Jeremiah: “Peace, peace, they say, but there is no peace” (Jer 6:14; 8:10).
If almost all religions speak of peace, if so many religious leaders around the world speak of the importance of peace, why is there so much conflict and not just conflict but conflict involving religion? Perhaps a partial answer can be found in the UN International Peace Day. It is a day not when governments and religious leaders speak of global peace and peace on the much touted macro-scale; it is, rather, a call for not just religions but individual believers to practice peace and non-violence. As long as religious people do not see themselves obliged by their faith to be active agents of peace and reconciliation — but rather allow and even promote conflict in their families, workplace and neighborhoods — conflicts will continue to rage in our world.
CNEWA, of course, is no stranger to conflict. We work in war-torn areas such as the Middle East and the Horn of Africa; we also work with refugees, those quintessential victims of violence, in refugee camps and displacement centers throughout the world. We serve in areas where there are intra-religious conflicts like Ukraine. The words of Jeremiah ring often in our ears.
International Peace Day provides us with an opportunity and a challenge: an opportunity to evaluate our role as believers who work actively to promote peace and reconciliation, and a challenge to bring that peace and reconciliation into our daily lives and local communities.
13 September 2018
Tags: Middle East United Nations
In this image from August, Muslim pilgrims touch Kaaba's wall and pray at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (photo: CNS/Sedat Suna, EPA)
In countries where CNEWA serves, there are sizable—often majority—Muslim communities. And, of course, in the Holy Land, there is a majority Jewish community.
But in a rare coincidence, both Islam and Judaism are observing their respective New Years this week.
On 10 September, Jews around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head of the year,” and the following day Muslims observed the first of Muharram, the New Year in the Muslim calendar. Although Muslims and Jews (to some extent also Christians) follow a lunar calendar of twenty-nine days, Jews and Christians in different ways “correct” the lunar calendar to keep it in line with the 365-day solar calendar. Muslims, however, do not and the Muslim calendar year is 10-11 days shorter than the “corrected” calendar used by Jews and Christians. As a result, festivals like Ramadan, the Breaking of the Fast and New Year move “backwards” through the calendar commonly used. Thus 1 Muharram fell on 14 October in 2015 and will fall on 10 August in 2021. It is unusual, therefore, that 1 Muharram and Rosh Hashanah occur so close to each other.
There is some interesting history behind all this. The Islamic calendar — and hence, New Year — is calculated from the Hijra or emigration/flight of Muhammad and the Muslim community in 622 from a hostile Mecca to Medina where the community would thrive. After enduring more than a decade of often violent persecution in Mecca, Muhammad and his community were invited by the people of Medina, an oasis city over 200 miles north of Mecca, to move there and for Muhammad to govern the city. The story of the Hijra is tense and thrilling. As the Muslims were leaving the city, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s son-in-law, disguised himself as Muhammad in the Prophet’s bed to throw off those who were trying to kill him. Muhammad and his faithful companion Abu Bakr hid from the pursuers in a cave for three days before finally beginning the trip and arriving safely in Medina.
It is important to understand the relationship between the Hijra and the Muslim New Year. It is estimated that the Hijra took place in June of 622. The 1 Muharram after the Hijra is the beginning of the Muslim calendar, which is abbreviated AH (anno hegira). One of the four “sacred months” in the Muslim calendar, Muharram is second in holiness only to the month of Ramadan. Muharram is traditionally a time of non-violence. War, fighting and even hunting is forbidden during the sacred month.
The 10th day of Muharram is Ashura, which for Shi’ite Muslims is a day of great mourning, recalling the murder of Hussein ibn Ali, the Prophet’s grandson, in 680. Ashura is extremely important for Shi’ites who observe the martyrdom of Hussein with re-enactments of his death and mourning rituals. Sunnis do not observe Ashura in this way and in some parts of the world this leads to conflict between the Shi’ite and Sunni communities.
Both Judaism and Islam observe their particular New Years in different ways, with different ceremonies, with rich and varied meanings for those communities. However, the New Year is always a time for looking back and looking forwards — the Roman god Janus, for whom January is named, is portrayed with two faces, one looking forward, the other backwards.
It is a time for remembering the past and correcting what needs to be corrected and a time for looking forward in faith and hope for the year to come.
Tags: Muslim Islam Jews