22 August 2019
In this image from 2017, Pope Francis meets Nadia Murad Basee Taha, who escaped from ISIS slavery in Iraq. She is now a human rights activist and is a UN goodwill ambassador for its office that fights human trafficking. (photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)
Slavery is a permanent stain on the soul of humanity. As a reminder, on Friday 23 August the United Nations (UNESCO) observes the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.
It is an observance; it is not a celebration — and one that resonates deeply today, especially in the world CNEWA serves.
The roots of slavery are sunk deep into human history and its bitter fruits are still present. In the ancient world, the economies of almost every great empire were built on slavery. Those slaves could be prisoners of war, criminals, poor people forced to sell themselves into slavery and those born into slavery. Slavery was taken for granted and, while the Bible makes some modifications, even it simply accepts slavery as it is. In Exodus, we find laws about slaves. Hebrew slaves are to be freed in the seventh year of their servitude. However, if the owner “gives him [the slave] a wife and she bears him sons and daughters, wife and children shall belong to the master, and the man must leave alone” (Exodus 21:4). The inhumanity of the law is overwhelming in our contemporary world.
Scholars estimate that the economy of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus was built almost entirely on slave labor. Some estimates set the number of slaves in Italy around the time of Christ to be about two million, or one slave for every three free people. In his work On Mercy 1:24 Seneca (65 AD) wrote “It was once proposed in the Senate that slaves should be distinguished from free people by their dress, but then it was realized how great a danger this would be, if our slaves began to count us.”
The Greek word doulos, “slave,” appears 127 times in the New Testament. The word diakonos, often translated “minister” or even “deacon,” refers sometimes to a slave of a higher class, perhaps a slave entrusted with running the household of his own. Paul’s letter Philemon throws an often-overlooked harsh light on the ethos of the time. Paul writes to Philemon, a Christian whose slave, Onesimus, has run away and whom Paul is now sending back to his master. While Paul does ask Philemon to take Onesimos back as a brother (Phil 16), he does not ask him to free him. It is fair to say that for the Bible (and for millennia thereafter) slavery was considered part of the natural order.
Slavery is a social and economic reality. Until the middle of the 19th century the economies of the United States and other countries were heavily dependent upon save labor. For thousands of years this was seen as “natural.” Slavery, however, is also a moral and spiritual reality. It is built on the belief that God has created some to be slaves and some to be free. Changing the title of a film (later play) by Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff, slaves are “Lesser Children of God,” often lesser in every way than the “free” children of God.
It is difficult to pinpoint precisely when slavery as an institution began to unravel (at least in some places). The United States was one of the last countries in the European-based world to abolish slavery, which began in Virginia in 1619 — exactly 400 years ago — and was ended by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
While slavery has been made illegal and dismantled in many parts of the world, it is far from gone as a social and economic reality. The UN and the Catholic Church often speak of “contemporary forms of slavery.” These include trafficking human beings for labor or for the sex trade. This is still a frightening reality, even in countries where slavery is illegal. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) has studied thousands of case of trafficking and slavery throughout the world. Social and economic slavery in modern dress still stalks our world, preying on women, children, the weak and the poor.
Slavery persists, as well, as a moral and spiritual reality. It is still alive in far too many places, where it can be more subtle and even more poisonous. The belief that some people (any people) are somehow of less value and less deserving of dignity and freedom can bring about that racism, that crippling of the soul that affects almost all of us. Racism is a shape-shifting chimera, born of the belief that some people are “naturally” lesser; it is capable of taking many forms. Some of those forms are crude and open. Other forms are more subtle and even genteel. In any case, all forms are toxins for the soul.
Racism can be the subconscious underpinning of so much in society. What should be, for example, the equal access to resources such as health care and education is often limited by racial foundations which are tolerated as being “the way things are.” Inequalities and lack of access to resources — once they become “normalized” — are little more than an updated version of the ancient belief that some people were created by nature to be slaves and underlings.
Slavery must be abolished on all levels — social, economic, and moral/spiritual.
It is something CNEWA can never forget. CNEWA works among the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak on our planet. The people we serve are constantly threatened by all forms of contemporary slavery. The UN Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition is a challenge and perhaps, even, an indictment. Slavery —and its hateful spawn, racism — are alive and well in our world. As followers of Jesus we are obliged to make Paul’s words a reality: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free person…you are one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28) and “when Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free” (5:1).
8 August 2019
In this image from 2017, a Dominican sister visits the Church of Sts. Behnam and Sarah in Qaraqosh, Iraq, heavily damaged by ISIS. (photo: Raed Rafei)
On Saturday 10 August this year, Jews all over the world observe Tish’a b’Av, literally “the ninth of (the month) Av.” On this day, Jews remember the destruction of the Temple of Solomon by the Babylonians in 587 BC and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD.
Although it is a Jewish observance, it gives all of us something to think about. The destruction of the sacred places of enemies and conquered peoples is almost as old as humanity itself. Tragically, it is a practice that has not waned in the contemporary world — including parts of the world CNEWA serves.
The briefest of researches uncovers some sobering data. Attacks on sacred places are far more common than most believers realize. Some of these desecrations receive media coverage. The vast majority do not.
In recent times there have been several attacks that have shocked the world. On 18 July 1994, a synagogue in Buenos Aires was firebombed and 85 people were killed. On 2 March 2001, with the entire world watching, the Taliban destroyed the 1500-year-old old giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. — dynamiting and shelling the statues into oblivion. Most recently, on 24 July 2014, ISIS destroyed the Shrine of Yunus (Jonah) in Mosul, Iraq. Built on a still-existing 6th century BC palace, this had been originally a Christian shrine. When Christians were no long able to maintain it, it was taken over by Muslims, but was revered and visited by both Muslims and Christians. It was architecturally a strikingly beautiful building.
The Taliban destroyed statues of the Buddha of Bamiyan in 2001. The image above shows before it was destroyed (left) and after (right). (photo: Wikipedia Commons)
Across the centuries, the targets have included many different religions. Throughout the Middle East, there are the almost unrelenting attacks on Christian places of worship, with almost no country in the region being immune. And even before the rise of ISIS, Yazidis, Mandeans and even other Muslims (e.g., at the Shrine of Yunus) have seen their sacred places destroyed.
Significantly, the ancient world isn’t the only place where these horrors are unfolding. You need look no further than parts of the United States.
Although not nearly as old as the Buddhas of Bamiyan or the Shrine of Yunus, African American churches in the U.S.—sacred places—have been under almost constant attack, to the point that there is often little or no coverage of the atrocities. An article in The Huffington Post on 21 October 2015 recounts 100 attacks since 1950 against churches whose congregants were primarily black. A Google search uncovered a Wikipedia article that lists the churches and dates of the attacks. Since 2001, a dozen black churches have been attacked, three in 2019 alone.
The attacks on the temples in Jerusalem and almost all of the other sacred spaces mentioned here involved assaults on physical structures: temples, shrines, statues, etc. But it is important to remember that other cultures, especially indigenous cultures, have sacred spaces without buildings or permanent structures — some of them with histories going back thousands of years. It is the place that is sacred; frequently, there are no buildings on it.
Often in the news we hear about Native Americans or indigenous peoples elsewhere protesting what they see as the desecration of land by outside developers. This, too, is an attack on the sacred that deserves attention and action. International bodies like the United Nations are becoming aware of the problem of the destruction of sacred places and are trying to develop protocols and conventions to protect them.
Attention must be paid. These kinds of attacks affect us all. This Saturday, as Jews around the world observe and mourn the loss of the two temples in Jerusalem, we should pause and remember the loss of the sacred that is still going on around the world—not just in far-off and ancient places, but in our own country and neighborhoods.
23 May 2019
Tags: Persecution Iraqi
In this image from 2017, Pope Francis at the Vatican addresses participants at an encounter marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The death penalty is "contrary to the Gospel," the pope said in his speech — echoing sentiments long expressed by Amnesty International. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
In CNEWA’s world, human rights are a constant concern. Freedom of religion, minority and women’s rights are constantly being challenged, if not violated, in one way or another throughout the world where we work and, indeed, the world in general.
Thus, an observance next week — which is fairly unheralded — is important for CNEWA and all people who are concerned with human rights. On Tuesday 28 May, the world observes Amnesty International Day. Most people have heard about Amnesty International and it is probably the largest and most active non-governmental human rights advocacy group in the world.
Amnesty, as it is commonly known, was founded in London in 1961 by Peter Benenson who had read about two students in Portugal who had been imprisoned for making a toast to freedom—something that did not sit well with the government of Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s dictator. Benenson and Eric Baker of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) published an article entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners” in The Observer in May of 1961 and Amnesty International was born.
From the outset, Amnesty has seen itself as advocate for the human rights enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Amnesty has been a particularly effective advocate for “prisoners of conscience,” i.e. those who are imprisoned for their faith or political beliefs. In 1977, Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Long before it became an important point of discussion, Amnesty opposed capital punishment, which is considered the ultimate violation of human rights. Dictatorships and authoritarian governments often used capital punishment as a way of permanently silencing their opponents. In far too many places in the world, people the government finds unacceptable are executed without even having had a trial. Amnesty is constantly calling out countries for extrajudicial executions. Opposed in principle to capital punishment, Amnesty is always alert for situations in which people are not even granted a fair trial before they are killed.
The developing social teaching of the Catholic Church under the last three popes — John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — has evolved to a point where the Catholic Church’s position of capital punishment is similar to that of Amnesty. On 11 October 2017 Pope Francis declared the death penalty to be “contrary to the Gospel.” He added that, “However grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” The following year, he revised the catechism to reflect that teaching. Using a slightly different theological hermeneutic, the pope closely approached the position of Amnesty.
After 50 years — and with over 7 million supporters —Amnesty International may very well be the largest and best- known human advocacy group in the world. However, its work is far from done. All over the world there remain prisoners of conscience and authoritarian governments who still find ways to kill people they find dangerous or inconvenient.
Amnesty Day may not be an observance of which many people are aware. However, for those working for peace and justice — not only in CNEWA’s world but in the entire world — it is a very important day.
Attention must be paid.
9 May 2019
Tags: Pope Francis United Nations
In this image from 2017, a man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an ISIS-controlled part of Mosul toward Iraqi special forces soldiers. (photo: CNS/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)
This week, the United Nations has a rather unusual observance, marking the Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation across two days, on 8 and 9 May.
On the surface, this commemoration does not look all that different from any number of days on which countries and peoples remember events of the past and the sacrifices made by their citizens in times of conflict. The UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation is, however, quite different. It was inaugurated by an act of the General Assembly on 22 November 2004. Recognizing that many countries had days that commemorated the victory of the Allies in World War II, the UN wanted to do something different: it wanted to remember everyone who died in World War II.
World War II had the highest casualties of any conflict in history. Although exact figures are difficult to come by, it is estimated that between 70 and 85 million human beings lost their lives. That alone makes World War II also the greatest human catastrophe in history.
By initiating this Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation, the UN is attempting to accomplish at least two things: first, to remember the horrors of war; and secondly, to work for reconciliation. The General Assembly document is clear. The horrors of World War II were the impetus for the founding of the UN. The very raison d’être of the UN was and remains to prevent war. In the UN Charter member nations are called to “make every effort to settle all disputes by peaceful means.” The bedrock on which the UN was founded was the horror of war. For the UN and its member states, war is never a solution, is never a good thing.
While the remembrances and memorials which most countries observe—we have Memorial Day later this month—are proper and good, the UN is making an important point. The horrors of World War II are fading in most people’s memory. The vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet were born long after the end of that war. With the fading of the memory of the horror of war often comes a fading of the commitment to avoid war at all costs. For far too many people, war is something that happens on a video screen or in another country. It is something the other people do in other places than our own. The idea of New York, London, Paris, Rome, etc. being leveled like Berlin in 1944 simply does not enter into the imagination of most people. We are shocked by natural disasters, but do not seem to realize that war is far worse and far more destructive than any natural disaster.
The UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation echoes what popes have been teaching for decades. Pope John XXIII published Pacem in terris (“Peace on Earth”) on 11 April 1963. Who can forget the impassioned plea of Pope Paul VI in his address to the UN General Assembly on 4 October 1965: “No more war, war never again!”? Since then, every pope has denounced war and called for just and peaceful solutions to the world’s conflicts. One cannot say their voices have been heard. Can it be because we have forgotten the horrors of war?
CNEWA works in places where people do not have to be reminded of the horrors of war. They experience it in their cities (Mosul, Raqqa and others), in their villages, their churches and their very bodies. As so many today play endless war games on cell phones and videos, the UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation reminds us that war is not a game. War is never as far away as we think. War is the worst of all possible solutions. The UN knows this; popes and the Catholic Church know this, and have consistently condemned war as a solution to anything.
Are we aware of this and do we agree?
24 April 2019
Tags: Iraq United Nations
In this image from 2016, CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John Kozar, leads benediction at the Al Bishara School in the Ain Kawa area of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. He remains inspired and deeply moved by the resilience and faith of those CNEWA is privileged to serve around the world. (photo: CNEWA)
In the current edition of ONE, CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, offers a few thoughts on the power of the cross — and the spirit of Easter:
During a number of my pastoral visits, not only have I witnessed firsthand the extreme sufferings of war, famine, natural disasters and the like, I have witnessed and been uplifted by the resilience of the human spirit. The survivors of these disasters not only survive, they thrive — oftentimes as a result of their profound faith and, among Christians, their support of the church. CNEWA is honored and humbled to witness this in our role of accompaniment of the local church.
I think of the large numbers of refugees of every age who had to flee the ravages of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But I especially recall the courageous women who carried their babies and clutched the arms of their elderly mothers and grandparents as they fled persecution to an unknown land — and a very uncertain future. But, inspired by their faith and nurtured by the church, they carried with them an abundance of hope, which has led them to a new life. Even if “new life” has meant living in a refugee camp or a cramped apartment, they have maintained their hope and have joyfully expressed it in their prayers and liturgical celebrations. I have had the great joy of participating in some of these liturgical events and have come away uplifted and renewed in my own faith.
The prominence of the cross of Jesus has been visible everywhere: on the fronts of tents or humble shelters, worn around their necks, painted on the exteriors of gathering places or displayed in some other ways. It proudly proclaims their identity and their sense of hope.
You’ll want to read it all — and check out the inspiring and thoughtful video reflection he offers below:
23 April 2019
A woman weeps during a memorial service for victims in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 23 April 2019, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island.
(photo: CNS/Dinuka Liyanawatte, Reuters)
The liturgies of Holy Week are filled with references to Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God. The reference is to four poems in the book of Isaiah that speak of a mysterious “servant of God.” In the fourth poem (Isa 52:13-53:12), when harshly dealt with, the servant “bore it humbly, never opening his mouth he was like a lamb led to the slaughter house.” The servant ultimately is abused and killed for the sins and transgressions of all. This image of Jesus as the non-violent suffering servant of God is rooted deep in Christian theologian and piety.
We see it again in the Gospels. When an armed crowd comes to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of his followers strikes out with a sword of his own, severing the ear of the High Priest’s servant. Jesus rebukes his follower and states “those who take up the sword, die by the sword” (Matt 26:53). Throughout the Passion narratives, in the face of incredibly cruel violence, Jesus remains the non-violent victim.
All this makes the tragic events of this past Sunday all the more poignant and powerful.
This year on Easter Sunday, almost 400 people were killed in Sri Lanka. Most of them were celebrating the Resurrection — the victory of the non-violent Christ. Terrorists targeted Christians as they worshipped — that is, as they were united with their Lord who had been mishandled, beaten and crucified, who did not respond to violence with violence and was victorious. Like the Jesus they were worshipping, the victims of the attack were non-violent innocent people.
Anger is a normal, human reaction. Anger directed towards violence, oppression and injustice can be a good thing. But it is very easy for anger, especially in the face of such brutal and senseless violence, to become rage and a drive for revenge. That is entirely understandable. The rage of those who lost loved ones must be understood and, to some extent, felt.
But at times like these, we Christians face our greatest challenge: will we opt to be violent like Pilate or non-violent like Christ?
It must never be forgotten that, after having endured hatred, violence and death, the risen Christ brings to the world a message not of revenge but peace.
The true mystery of Easter is that violence, brutality, death and power are not victorious. Rather, weakness, humility and non-violence overwhelm violence, conquering it with life and goodness.
There is something deadening and horrifying about what happened in Sri Lanka. However, it is by no means something with which Christians are unfamiliar. Violence has been directed against us since the time of our Lord; it has been with us since the beginning. Since that time there has always been an understandable temptation towards revenge. However, the risen Suffering Servant constantly and inconveniently reminds us of the divine power of non-violence.
It may be tempting at times like this to call for retribution and vengeance. But the words of Paul ring clear: “Never repay evil with evil but let everyone see you are concerned on with that which is good. … Never try to get revenge (leave that to God). … Resist evil and conquer it with good” (Rom 12:17-21).
It is the belief in the overwhelming power of non-violence over violence, rooted in the Resurrection of the non-violent Christ, that makes us who we are — or definitely who we should be.
11 April 2019
One of the most revered Desert Mothers was St. Mary of Egypt. She is depicted in this painting from the 16th century.
(image: Wikimedia/by Jacopo Tintoretto/Scuola Grande di San Rocco)
For more than 90 years, Catholic Near East Welfare Association has worked to be a beacon of hope — beginning in the Near East, then spreading to Africa, Central Europe and India. Through the generosity and commitment of its donors, CNEWA has brought help and hope to countless Christians and non-Christians in the world who otherwise would have had neither hope nor future.
Ninety years is a long time and the world has changed a great deal in that time. There have been two world wars, countries and even empires have come and gone; ideologies have sprung up, flourished and been replaced by new ideologies.
And yet so often things seem depressingly the same. The poor and innocent remain victims of war and oppression. The geography and the actors may change but it seems that the script remains relatively constant: war, refugees, famine, and migration. For nearly a century, CNEWA has struggled to deal with these almost intractable issues.
Charitable organizations such as CNEWA, whose work is dependent of the generosity of donors, often speak of “donor fatigue.” Donor fatigue is a very real thing. Even the most committed and generous donors can be excused if they wonder if their generosity is making a difference. The problems of the world can be overwhelming. Do their gifts make the world a better, safer, more just place? The questions are real and they are valid.
In thinking about these questions, I found some answers in an unexpected place: the desert.
As many know, CNEWA works with the Eastern churches--both Catholic and Orthodox. These churches date back to the time of the apostles and have rich traditions which are often unknown to Christians in the West. For example, Christians in the West are familiar with monasticism but almost exclusively in its western (Benedictine) form. They are unaware of a much older monastic tradition that existed centuries before St. Benedict in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Holy people went into the desert to live a life of prayer and penance as hermits. They often attracted followers and disciples and wrote treatises on the spiritual life. A body of literature exists consisting of the writings of these “Desert Fathers.” More recently and very happily, research has uncovered a tradition of the “Desert Mothers” as well — women who lived as hermits, had disciples and left behind “sayings” and writings.
In their aphorisms and writings, the Desert Fathers and Mothers spoke extensively of the spiritual life — the things which promoted it and things which damaged it. They wrote of virtues and vices and were the predecessors of the great medieval theologians. Many of the Desert Fathers and Mothers contributed to the development of the notion of the ”seven deadly sins”: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, anger and envy.
However, these men and women also wrote about what they called acedia. For the Desert Fathers and Mothers acedia was the most frightening vice of all. Acedia was the root of all vice and the opposite of all virtues. The word acedia means “not to care.” It is the state in which nothing matters. It lacks the violence of anger, the obnoxiousness of pride and envy, the prurience of lust. Nor does it evoke the guilt those vices do. Acedia, in fact, evokes nothing but indifference.
Acedia is the deep feeling that one can no longer make a difference. There is neither joy in doing good, nor guilt at doing nothing. But as time has gone on, one almost never hears of acedia any more. It is often weakly translated as “sloth.” That is, I suspect, a loss.
Faced with a world of overwhelming—and seemingly insoluble—problems, it is understandable that we get tempted to shut down. It is human to think, “I just cannot afford to care.”
It is precisely here that CNEWA takes up the ancient challenge of those holy Desert Mothers and Fathers. CNEWA reminds us that caring, hoping and believing—sometimes against the odds—matters.
At bottom, this is our call as Christians.
Believing that we can and do make a real difference is at the center of what it means to be followers of Jesus — and, by extension, distant descendents of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
7 February 2019
Pope Francis meets Sheikh Ahmad al Tayyeb during his visit to the U.A.E. earlier this week.
(photo: Vatican Media)
On Sunday 3 February Pope Francis made history, when he began a three-day visit to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and became the first pope to visit the overwhelmingly Muslim Arabian Peninsula. The visit coincided with an interfaith meeting of religious leaders and theologians which was taking place.
The pope was greeted by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed al Nahyan. The U.A.E. are home to a large number of Christians from south Asia who are working there. For several years the government has had a Ministry of Tolerance; Christians for the most part are able to worship freely, although not publicly. The U.A.E. is one of the more tolerant and open countries in the region.
While words like “unprecedented” are often used in the context of what Pope Francis does — and while such words tend to get overused and with inflation comes devaluation — one result of the visit, nevertheless, stands out in a special way. Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad al Tayyeb, the head of Al Azhar University, arguably the premier Sunni Muslim university in the world, produced a common document entitled Human Fraternity. It is a landmark document in many ways. While popes and Muslim leaders have made similar calls for peace and justice, this is unique in that it is a joint call, signed by the two men.
People familiar with reading statements of religious leaders recognize a certain “style” of writing peculiar to different traditions. Human Fraternity, however, is unique in that it evidences not only a “Catholic” style of writing but also a “Muslim” style of writing. It was and is intended to be both a Muslim and Catholic statement.
And this is especially significant: there is something new happening in the ecumenical and interreligious movements that can be seen at work in Human Fraternity. The Ecumenical and interreligious movements have been part of the central mission of the Catholic Church since Vatican II (1962-1965). In the decades following the council, there was tremendous progress made in the official dialogues between the Catholic Church and other churches and religions. Several “convergence” documents have been agreed upon, and in 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church published A Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The Doctrine of Justification was the primary theological point of difference between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Reformers in the 16th century.
Yet for all the tremendous progress made on the theological level, by the 1990’s one began to hear of an “ecumenical winter” — or at the very least, ecumenical doldrums. It seemed to many that the incredible progress made through dialogue had not been translated into a change of attitudes. To many, it seemed that something was missing; on so many levels, it appeared that little had really changed.
But Pope Francis, merely by his presence and his approach, appears to be causing a noticeable shift.
One of the outstanding things about Francis’ various encounters is that there is — though it may be overlooked — a genuine sense of friendship and affection between the pope and his dialogue partners. This is most evident in the relationship between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It is very obvious that they like and trust each other; they are friends. This has led to extraordinary cooperation between the two leaders and their churches in areas of ecology, human rights, refugees and immigration. Both are very smart men. They realize that friendship and trust alone will not overcome the divisions between the churches.
They also realize, however, that all the convergence statements and joint declarations remain merely pieces of paper if trust and affection are lacking between the churches and their leaders.
This brings us to this week’s historic meeting. One can see a similar phenomenon between Pope Francis and Sheikh al Tayyeb. Al Azhar University broke off relations with the Holy See in 2011 after Pope Benedict XVI’s statement on the situation of Coptic Christians. Relations between the Holy See and Al Azhar were resumed under Pope Francis. The pope and the sheikh have met several times and it is clear that a warm and cordial relationship has developed between them.
Neither man, of course, is naïve about issues dividing Catholics and Muslims. However, both have achieved a level of trust that allows them to cooperate on a document which is at once truly Catholic — and truly Muslim.
Much of CNEWA’s work, of course, involves work among Muslims, especially in the Middle East. Witnessing this historic moment, with its spirit of cooperation and collaboration, is both an inspiration and a beacon of hope.
And it should serve as a sign to us all. Pope Francis has shown that theological ecumenism is not dead, but that it needs the human components of trust and friendship to transform theological papers into living documents that can change lives and help make our world a better, safer place.
31 January 2019
Tags: Pope Francis Ecumenism Muslim Abu Dhabi
In this image from 2016, Pope Francis greets a Buddhist monk during a an audience with religious leaders at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)
On Friday 1 February, the UN begins the observance of Interfaith Harmony Week. No one knows better than CNEWA how important interfaith harmony is and how difficult it is to achieve. Many of the places where we work are the scene of discrimination and outright persecution, not only of Christians but of other believers. In Iraq and parts of Syria Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and others have been massacred by the Islamic State. Egypt is the scene of ongoing sporadic violence against all types of Coptic Christians. In India there has been an increase in violence against Christians. There has, of course, been a long tradition of violence between Christians and Muslims in northern India.
Over the years, the Pew Research Center has documented persecution of and discrimination against all faith groups. The situation throughout the world is not getting better. One of the more disturbing findings is that most of the persecution and discrimination occurs in countries with some type of religious marker in their self-identification. Looked at in the broadest of terms, Pew’s record of religious persecution and discrimination is a record of one religious group behaving badly against another religious group.
It is very important to avoid two extremes here. One extreme would blame religion for all the persecution and conflict in the word. The other extreme is for religions to excuse themselves and to declare that their members who are acting violently against others are “politically” motivated and not really good believers. This is becoming increasingly untenable morally. Very few conflicts are purely political, purely economic or purely religious. Most often, they are a mixture of all three. However, it has been shown that conflicts that have a religious element tend to be more intractable and more difficult to solve than those lacking a religious element. Religions can provide powerful symbols which can demonize the other and rend compromise something akin to apostasy.
No religion is free of these tendencies to discriminate or even persecute. In Muslim majority countries, we find violence by Muslims against religious minorities. The Muslim Rohingyas of Burma are suffering greatly at the hand of Burmese Buddhists, a religion which supposedly values non-violence. In India Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians are often involved in persecution and conflict. In Russia, non-Orthodox Christians are legally discriminated against by fellow Christians who are orthodox.
On 31 March 2005, at the opening of the Exhibit of the World’s Religions at Santa Clara University in California, the famous German theologian Hans Küng made a statement which has been repeated hundreds of times and which perfectly encapsulates the meaning and importance of World Interfaith Harmony Week: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the nations.”
This is a truth which CNEWA experiences every day in the places where we work. Interfaith dialogue leading to interfaith understanding, harmony and cooperation has also been a constant teaching of popes since the Second Vatican Council. St. John Paul II even made interfaith dialogue a key part of his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, (The Redeemer of Man), when he wrote about the legacy of Vatican II in 1979:
“The Fathers of the Church rightly saw in the various religions as it were so many reflections of the one truth, ‘seeds of the Word,’ attesting that, though the routes taken may be different, there is but a single goal to which is directed the deepest aspiration of the human spirit as expressed in its quest for God and also in its quest, through its tending towards God, for the full dimension of its humanity, or in other words for the full meaning of human life. The Council gave particular attention to the Jewish religion, recalling the great spiritual heritage common to Christians and Jews. It also expressed its esteem for the believers of Islam, whose faith also looks to Abraham.”
We need to take these words to heart; they help remind us that working for interfaith harmony is part of what it means to be a Catholic in the 21st century.
24 January 2019
Tags: Muslim Jews Interfaith
Pope Francis remembered the Holocaust and honored its victims with a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in 2016 (video: CNS)
This year on Sunday 27 January, the world observes Holocaust Remembrance Day. Different from the Jewish observance of Yom HaShoah, The Day of the Holocaust (this year on 2 May), Holocaust Remembrance Day is the result of a UN resolution on 1 November 2005. It chose 27 January for the observance because it was also the 60th anniversary of the liberation Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi extermination camp, on 27 January 1945. In the resolution, the UN recognized the horror of the Nazi extermination program which killed 6 million Jews, 5 million Slavs, 3 million Poles and over a half million more “undesirables.”
Figures like this are almost impossible for the human mind to comprehend. It has been said that the human mind can visualize nine as three rows of three. Beyond that visualization becomes more and more difficult. The number 14 million simply cannot be visualized. It is something like the complete annihilation of New York, London or Tokyo. The suffering which that involves overloads the human capacity for compassion and we tend to shut down. That is why the UN Holocaust Remembrance Day is so important: it reminds the world not merely of the horrors of which we are capable but of the horrors which we have actually committed.
Every generation creates its own vocabulary. The experience of the 20th century resulted in the word "megadeath." Between the beginning of World War I in 1914 and the end of the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1979, it is estimated that over 135 million human beings were killed. Jews, Armenians, Slavs, Gypsies, Ukrainian peasants, soldiers, Cambodian intellectuals and others were killed in numbers that stagger the imagination. Megadeath had become a reality. Technology has been harnessed and used with incredible effectiveness to kill tens of millions of people.
In CNEWA’s world this has been a tragic, almost unbearably cruel fact of life. The Middle East was, especially between the two World Wars, the scene of numerable massacres of tens of thousands of people at a time. One of the things that deeply motivated Fr. Paul Wattson to co-found CNEWA was precisely the suffering of millions of Christians in Armenia, Turkey and the Middle East.
It is easier for the human psyche, even the psyche of a compassionate person, to forget the horror of megadeath than to deal with it. But wise people know that forgetting is a dangerous thing. Forgetting allows the horror to fade and, when the horror fades, the will to prevent that horror from reoccurring also fades.
The UN is acutely aware of this. When Auschwitz-Birkenau becomes a faded memory, expressions like “some Nazis are good people” move into the field of acceptable speech. When anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism edge towards the center of our societies and threaten to become “mainstream,” the overwhelming evil of megadeath begins to lose its horror; we and our leaders begin to believe that there are worse things than total war. The UN knows this is wrong. Popes throughout the 20th and 21st centuries know this is wrong and have continued to forcefully call for peace and justice.
UN Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds the world of the evil we have done. This day challenges us to face the horror of megadeath and to realize that it must not happen again—ever or anywhere.