21 November 2019
Samia Sleman, 15, a Yazidi who was held hostage and raped by members of ISIS when she was 13, cries while speaking at a conference addressing the persecution of Christians and other minorities at the United Nations on 28 April. Also pictured is human-rights advocate Jacqueline Isaac.
(photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
People around the world were horrified when they read about the systematic rape of Yazidi woman after ISIS had taken control of Mt. Sinjar, the center of the Yazidi community in northern Iraq. It is a part of the world CNEWA knows well. CNEWA works in Iraq and continues to help both Christian and Yazidi women who were raped by ISIS and whose lives have been destroyed.
While that shock and outrage were justified, most people don’t realize how common and widespread violence against women is. Of course, when a sports or entertainment personality is accused of violence against a woman in the U.S., the coverage is often lurid. However, two things need to be noted: 1) most often the reporting is more about the abuser than the victim and 2) the reporting often gives at least the impression that such abuse is an uncommon event.
In the rest of the world, it is often a very different story.
Towards the end of the 20th century, it was noted that in the conflicts raging in the Great Lakes Region of Africa the number of military casualties was unexpectedly low. Further research indicated that the reason was that the fighting was not so much soldier against soldier as it was soldier against civilian and most often against women civilians. Although the reality is as old and vicious as war itself, it wasn’t until recently that rape as a weapon of war entered the area of international humanitarian law. On 19 June 2008 the UN Security Council condemned rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity in SC Res 1820.
It is a crime that can no longer be ignored or overlooked. And next week, attention will be paid.
On 25 November the UN observes the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. For far too many of us in the west this is just another UN observance. Violence in our world is probably the strongest proof for the existence of evil. To see violence against women, however, as merely a subset of human violence in general overlooks characteristics of this crime that are uniquely vicious and evil. In the small space allotted to this piece, I would like to highlight two issues of importance regarding violence against women. They are by no means the only issues but they are, nevertheless, significant and also demonic in their efficiency.
They are: rape as a weapon of war and human trafficking.
Rape as a weapon of war became prominent as an issue not only in the context of conflicts in Africa but also in the atrocities regularly committed against women by ISIS in the Middle East. Similar atrocities have been committed against student girls by Boko Haram in West Africa. As a weapon of war, rape is horrifyingly efficient. It reduces the risk of injury to the military; it demoralizes the civilian population and—something which is often overlooked—it is also a method of genocide. In many cultures a woman who is raped becomes a social outcast and ineligible for marriage even though she is an innocent victim. She is doubly violated—by the rapist and by her own culture. In some cultures “unmarriable” women are outcasts, cut off from their parental families and from the overall culture. If the number of potential wives and mothers is radically reduced, the future of a people is threatened. Rape, therefore, can prevent a people from reproducing and can ultimately condemn them to extinction.
The pain that these innocent women suffer is simply unimaginable. In 2009 Jonathan Torgovnik, a professional photographer, published a book of interviews and photographs entitled “Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape” (Aperture, 2009). Torgovnic gives not only voices but faces to the women raped in the conflict. He takes statistics and with his camera and interviews produces a searing witness of the suffering these women continue to endure. It is a very important book and should be read with the realization that what happened to these women in Rwanda is happening throughout the world where rape is seen and used as a weapon of war.
The second issue is the trafficking of persons — or “contemporary forms of slavery,” as it is sometimes called. This is a world-wide issue. There is a tendency to think that trafficking is limited to underdeveloped countries. That is absolutely untrue. Several years ago law enforcement uncovered a large trafficking business that literally shuttled slave labor daily between New York City and Philadelphia. Developed countries in western Europe, the United States and Canada all have serious problems with trafficking.
Documentation on human trafficking indicates the following:
1) studies show that, due to increased police work against trafficking, statistics are getting more accurate. It is estimated that in 2018 the average number of detected victims of trafficking per country was 25,400;
2) the sex trade is the major outlet for trafficking in the world;
3) of the victims of trafficking 21 percent are men, 49 percent are women, 23 percent are girls and 7 percent are boys.
With 72 percent of the victims being adult or under aged females, the problem of trafficking is clearly an issue of violence against women.
Pope Francis has frequently been outspoken against violence towards women. In an interview on 28 May 2019, he condemned such violence; as recently as 11 October 2019, the Permanent Observer Representative of the Holy See to the UN addressed the body on the importance of combatting this scourge.
CNEWA has worked for generations to support and empower women in countries where we serve — through education, catechesis, skills training and health care. Significantly, much of that work is being carried out by other women, frequently women religious, who are helping restore dignity and witnessing the Gospel to those who have been abused, victimized or treated merely as commodities.
But there is still so much to do, by all of us.
Slightly more than half the human race is female. How can it be that half of humanity is so invisible? One day a year the UN observes an International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. However, that one day should remind all of us that violence against women is not just a woman’s problem. It is a problem for all of us.
We must be aware of it in our own society and country and in the world at large. We must be aware that there will never be peace and justice worthy of the name while women are singled out as targets of violence.
14 November 2019
Tags: ISIS Women
In this image from 2015, Pope Francis greets an elderly woman as he meets with people in a poor neighborhood in Asuncion, Paraguay. Pastoral care of the poor and those in need has been emphasis of the pontificate of Pope Francis. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Once again this year Pope Francis has opened a walk-in clinic in St. Peter’s Square to provide health care for the poor of Rome. The poor have been a constant theme for Francis’s preaching. In this he echoes Jesus, who not only preached about the poor, but also associated with them. This year 17 November is the World Day of the Poor for the Catholic Church.
The poor, the orphaned, the war torn, those driven from their homes are CNEWA’s constant companions. As we move across CNEWA’s world, cultures, languages, ways of dressing change like a kaleidoscope. Suffering and crushing poverty, however, remain a gray and ugly constant.
While the poor may be pushed to the peripheries of many societies in our world, they are central to both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament alone there are over 150 references to the poor; it appears over 30 times in the New Testament. It is a constant theme of the prophets who thunder against those who oppress the poor or treat them unjustly. The prophet Amos, speaking in God’s name, condemns those who “trample on the needy” and “suppress the poor,” those who “lower the bushel, raise the shekel” and “swindle and tamper with the scales,” i.e. charging more and giving less to poor customers. In response, God states, “Never will I forget a single thing you have done!” (Amos 8:4 ff.) God is angered not only by physical abuse of the poor but also by the economic exploitation of the poor through dishonest and exploitive business practices.
Jesus sees his ministry as intimately related to the poor. In his “inaugural” sermon in Nazareth Jesus describes himself and his ministry in the words of the prophet Isaiah “[God] has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor… (and) to set the downtrodden free.” (Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1 ff). The first of the Beatitudes is “How blessed the poor in Spirit…” (Matt 5:3; note that Luke 6:20 has simply “how blessed the poor.”) Luke is disturbingly harsh in his contrast between the poor and the powerful. In the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:16-31), the only reason Abraham gives for the rich man to be in hell is that he was rich: “…remember, my son, that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things…to Lazarus. Now he is being comforted here while you are in torment.” (16:25) This is a very disturbing position but one we simply cannot ignore. Luke is quite clear: to ignore the poor—to say nothing of oppressing and exploiting them—is something we do at great spiritual risk.
It is interesting that care for the poor is central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each realizes the seductive pull of wealth and power. Each realizes that it is easy to take one’s wealth as a sign not of only of God’s blessing but of God’s approval — and to move from there to a sense of entitlement.
For his part, Pope Francis speaks of “global indifference.” It is a truly frightening concept. It can arise from a sense of helplessness, vis-à-vis the seemingly overwhelming poverty, suffering and injustice in the world. For people experiencing this crippling sense of helplessness, the Gospel offers hope and courage: God is on the side of justice and goodness; grace and love will ultimately be victorious.
However, global indifference can also arise from a sense of entitlement — a sense that overwhelming poverty, suffering and injustice in the world is just not my concern. It is the attitude of: “I have enough to worry about without worrying about people I don’t know and really don’t care about.”
But for people suffering from an sense of entitlement and indifference, the Old and New Testament both offer a stark message: the prophets and Jesus warn us that indifference to the poor can put one’s very salvation in jeopardy (Matt 25:31-46).
The observance of the World Day of the Poor can provide us with a very important opportunity to examine what our attitude is to those for whom Jesus and the prophets were so concerned.
7 November 2019
Tags: Pope Francis CNEWA
Prisoners discuss scripture as part of a Bible study group at Shano Prison in Ethiopia.
(photo: CNEWA/Don Duncan)
The first three chapters of the Book of Genesis describe the creation of the universe and the disobedience and ultimate expulsion of the first man and woman from the Garden of Eden.
Then, in chapter 4, the first thing human beings do after leaving the Garden is kill — Cain murdering his brother Abel.
It seems that violence and killing are the curse and constant companion of humanity. Every social unit from the family to the empire has had to deal with violence. In many places where CNEWA works, especially most recently in the Middle East, the violence is numbing and seems never to stop. Throughout history, humans have tried to contain violence through punishment—simply put, with more violence.
To say that using violence to prevent further violence has not been successful should be obvious.
Over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have struggled with the notion of justice. By the 21st century one finds three notions of justice: retributive justice, which focuses on punishment; distributive justice, which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders; and, most recently, restorative justice. Beginning on 17 November, the UN observes International Restorative Justice Week, to focus the world’s attention on this vital and increasingly important concept.
The notion of restorative justice brings together the offender and the victim with the goal of “sharing the experience of what happened, to discuss who was harmed by the crime and how, and to create a consensus for what the offender can do to repair the harm from the offense.” Relatively new to modern systems of justice, restorative justice — whether called by that name or not — has been practiced in many ancient, traditional societies. It has been noted that in some Native American communities in the U.S. and Canada and the Maoris in New Zealand, the response of the communities after a crime is to attempt to restore the societal balance in a community that has been destroyed by violence.
The method of restorative justice in the modern world was most clearly seen in the Truth and Reconciliation Committees which met after the dismantling of the racist apartheid system of government in South Africa.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was influential in this. He was convinced that there had been great violence and injustice against South African people of color for decades. He was also aware that the perpetrators needed to face the victims and understand the pain and suffering that the system caused. Most importantly, as a proponent of restorative justice, Archbishop Tutu knew that mere retribution or punishment, regardless how understandable or justified, would not heal the deep wounds and divisions in South African society.
The practice and theory of restorative justice is being studied and applied in some places in the world. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, based on “the potential benefits of using restorative justice with respect to criminal justice systems,” in 2018 encouraged member nations to consider applying it in local situations.
It is important to note that restorative justice does not minimalize the gravity of the crime or the injustice and suffering in inflicts on its victims. What it does is makes the injustice and suffering personal to both the offender and the victim. It is a process whose goal is to get the offender to recognize the enormity of the crime committed and to recognize the humanity of the victims of the crime and to help victims overcome a sense of powerlessness.
Several popes have spoken about the importance of restorative justice. Pope Benedict XVI in Munus Africæ, the Apostolic Exhortation (19 November 2011) promulgated after the Synod on Africa, wrote of restorative justice. Last year Pope Francis in his address to the 19th Congress of the International Criminal Law Association in Buenos Aires also stressed the importance of this concept.
One of the few signs of hope in the violence-torn Middle East has been the emergence at different times and in different places of the notion of musaliha, “reconciliation.” Although it is difficult to determine exactly when and from whom this emerged, one finds references to it from Franciscans first in Damascus and then in Aleppo. Although it has hardly reached the level of a “movement,” religious leaders in Lebanon have also spoken about the importance of musaliha, which can be seen as an attempt at restorative justice.
Last year in the pages of CNEWA’s magazine, ONE, we reported on efforts by the church in Ethiopia to practice restorative justice, and bring hope and possibility to those behind bars through education, skills training and counseling. As one of the chaplains put it, ”In the heart of each prisoner we come into contact with, we are building love, a love for God and a love for his church.”
In a world of not only unabated violence but also of increasingly available means of mass destruction, the problem of justice is extremely important. However, unless the cycle of violence is broken, there may be retribution but a truly just society still appears an unattainable goal.
Restorative justice may provide a new approach to the problem of violence, a problem which has resisted solution since Cain and Abel.
24 October 2019
Tags: Ethiopia Middle East
Days after the UN observed the International Day of Nonviolence, these Kurdish women and children fled violence this week, seeking safety in a Syrian classroom after Turkey launched the invasion of their homeland. (photo: CNS/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)
On 2 October the UN observed the International Day of Nonviolence. CNEWA works in some of the most violent places of the world. We have served and continue to serve the victims of ISIS, of wars, of religious persecution, ethnic hatred, etc., on a scale that often numbs the spirit. In serving these people, we also serve the cause of nonviolence and peace — and it is worth taking this occasion to look at Christianity’s call to pacifism and how it has impacted our history and our culture.
Christianity and non-violence have had a complicated relationship over 2,000 years. For 300 years, Christians were fairly regularly at the receiving end of the violence of the Roman Empire. The Roman occupation of Palestine, which Jesus experienced firsthand and under whose law and Procurator he was executed, would ultimately destroy Jerusalem and the Temple. With Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313), however, Christianity became a legally tolerated religion in the Empire. Rather quickly it became the official religion of the Empire.
While the New Testament tells of Jesus interacting with soldiers, of John the Baptist telling soldiers to avoid bullying, extortion and to be happy with their pay (Luke 3:14) and of Paul sending greetings “especially to those of Caesar’s household.” (Philippians 4:22), the acceptance of Christianity into the Roman Empire brought a major change. Christians went from being a persecuted minority to being civil servants and even emperors. They went from beings victims of power to agents of power.
There is clearly a strong voice for non-violence in the teaching of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus blesses the meek and the peacemakers. Famously Jesus challenges his followers to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39; Luke 6:29). In recounting the arrest of Jesus, all four Gospels speak of someone striking out with a sword. In Mark 14:47 it is “one of the bystanders;” in Matthew 26:51 “one of those with Jesus;” in Luke 22:49 “those around him;” and in John 18:10 it is Simon Peter. I mention these details because, in an odd reversal of the point of the text, some have used this to indicate that Jesus’ followers were armed; they use it as a justification for Christian violence. In every case, Jesus rejects the use of violence and in Matthew 26:52 he states, “those who take up the sword will be destroyed by the sword.”
In the centuries after Constantine, Christianity worked out an accommodation with the coercive power of the state. That accommodation alternated between strong support and criticism. After having enjoying the (sometimes deleterious) benefits of the support and protection of the Roman Empire, Christians faced a major crisis with the fall of the empire. How were they to react? Augustine of Hippo wrote The City of God in an attempt to deal with the question of whether God was abandoning Christians with the fall of the empire. It is also important to note that historians also trace the beginning of an articulated Christian theory of the just war to Augustine. The stress was now on the defense of Christianity.
By the Middle Ages, the just war theory was central to sometimes rather questionable Christian military endeavors, such as the Crusades (against not only Muslims but Jews and Christians such as the Orthodox and Albigensians who were considered heretics), various papal wars against Italian city states, etc.
Non-violence, however, while never really front and center in Catholic teaching in the Middle Ages, was also never totally absent.
Medieval laws — such as the Peace of God and the Truce of God — tried to limit violence. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) started his career as a knight enthusiastically engaged in glorious military endeavors against neighboring Italian cities. After his conversion, he was opposed to all wars, even to the point of visiting Sultan Malik al-Kamil on the battle field of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade. Some Franciscan scholars believe that Francis tried (successfully) to obtain an indulgence for visiting the Church of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi as a protest against war. Indulgences were very popular in the early Middle Ages and were attached to the different Crusades as a motivation for Christians to join the fight. Some scholars believe that Francis was offering his contemporaries a non-violent way to obtain an indulgence.
During the time of the Reformation, some of the Reformers, especially but not exclusively in the Anabaptist Tradition, once again brought the non-violent teachings of Jesus to the forefront. The Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites, Bruderhof and others stressed and stil stress non-violence and pacifism as an essential part of the Christian witness.
In recent decades, the popes have put increasing stress on the importance of peace and non-violence. Pacem in Terris, the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII was the first of a still-ongoing series of encyclicals, papal statements, addresses to the UN General Assembly, etc., on the importance of peace and of achieving a just peace through non-violent means.
Catholic attempts to promote peace and non-violence have not been limited to papal announcements. It has been reflected in the piety of the church. In 2007 Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943), an Austrian layman, was beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI. A conscientious objector, he was executed by the Nazis in 1943 and vilified by his contemporaries and countrymen for years before his beatification. The cause for the beatification and canonization of Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a famous New York pacifist, has now begun. On a practical level, Catholic organizations such as Pax Christi, the Community of Sant’ Egidio and others work and advocate for peace and non-violence. Pax Christi, founded in France in 1945, works in 50 countries and at the UN to achieve justice and an end to violence. In recent years, it has developed a section specifically to promote Catholic non-violence.
The people we at CNEWA serve know — tragically first-hand — that violence not only solves nothing, but like the mythical Hydra, it only generates more violence in an unending cycle. The words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, ”blessed are the peacemakers,” challenge us today as they challenged the first Christians 20 centuries ago.
With great Catholic Christian heroes throughout the centuries, we too hope, pray and work for a world truly blessed with peace, a world without violence.
26 September 2019
Tags: Middle East Christianity
In this image from 2016, Pope Francis greets Syrian refugees he brought to Rome from the Greek island of Lesbos, at Ciampino airport in Rome. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
The World Day of Migrants and Refugees is observed this year on Sunday 29 September. Pope Francis has presented an important message to set this year’s observance within a context.
The world is facing the largest mass movement of people in history. There have been mass movements of people before. Most of these were connected with violence. The movements of the “barbarians” in Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries and the Mongol invasions of the 13th century are merely two examples. Each of these was accompanied by great destruction and changed the world forever. The present mass movement of peoples is different in several ways: it is not connected with military violence and it is not limited to one people like the Vandals, the Huns or the Mongols.
With refugees coming from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and elsewhere the contemporary mass movement of people is unique in world history. The world of CNEWA is doubly impacted by this kind of movement. Some of the countries where we work, such as Iraq, are experiencing massive emigrations, especially of the young. Other countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, are “target countries” that are being flooded with refugees they can hardly sustain.
Which brings us back to Pope Francis.
The theme of his message is “it is not just about migrants.” Speaking of a “growing trend to extreme individualism” and “a utilitarian (value = usefulness) mentality,” the pope speaks of a “globalization of indifference.” This is a truly frightening concept. Resistance and even opposition may be difficult but they can usually be dealt with. Indifference, on the other hand, is almost invincible. Why? Because it says “I just don’t care.”
In his message, the pope recognizes the challenges which “target countries” face in receiving and absorbing often large numbers of displaced people. Consider, for example, Lebanon. For a period, almost a quarter of the population of Lebanon consisted of refugees. The social, political and economic impact of this reality was almost impossible for Lebanon, a tiny country about one-third the size of Maryland. Francis recognizes that this generates fear and “to some extent, the fear is legitimate…because the preparation for this encounter is lacking.”
Nevertheless, in this tremendous challenge, the pope sees an opportunity to retrieve the compassion which is central to the message of Jesus.
There is no doubt that the mass movement of peoples in our world has an impact on just about every aspect of a target county’s life. It would be naïve and foolhardy—and Francis is most definitely neither—to overlook the overwhelming political challenges which are inextricably interwoven with the moral and religious dimensions.
The moral and religious dimensions of treatment of migrants are something also deeply woven into the much touted Judeo-Christian moral code. While Francis is aware of this, far too many Catholics are not. But it is deeply engrained in our religious tradition. The word ger in Hebrew means “alien, foreigner, stranger.” It appears 88 times in the Old Testament, mostly in the legal texts. The Law of Moses consistently sees three specially protected groups in Israelite society: the widow, the orphan and the stranger (ger). Abuse and mistreatment of these people are what traditionally are referred to as “crimes that cry out to God for vengeance.” That is to say: in the Law of Moses, if the widow, the orphan and stranger are not protected by the dominant society, God will punish that society.
It is rare but not unheard of that a law in the Old Testament is accompanied by a rationale. However, there is an extraordinary verse in Leviticus 19:33 (with similar verses in Exodus 22; 21, 23:9): “If a stranger lives in your land, you must not molest him. The stranger (ger) is to be to you like a native. You must love the stranger (ger) as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH your God.” There are several things important here. By ending the law with “I am YHWH your God,” it is clear this is not merely a suggestion or ideal. It is a demand of the God of Israel.
Another interesting point, with contemporary implications, is that the Israelites are commanded to treat the stranger like a “native.” The Hebrew word used here is ?ezra?. It has the connotation of something which has sprung up from the native soil (see Psalm 37:35). It is interesting that the racism of the Nazis was expressed by Blut und Boden (“Blood and Soil”). Recently the expression has been used by people and politicians on the extreme right to attack migrants as “foreigners” (very often of a different skin color).
But such treatment contradicts the Judeo-Christian tradition. With an almost uncanny precision, God commands the Israelites to love the stranger as if he or she were as native as the local soil.
That is not an easy thing to do. There are huge challenges and people are—at times justifiably—afraid. However, Pope Francis in a pastoral way is calling us to overcome our often very real fears and respond to the challenge—indeed the command—of God to love the stranger as ourselves.
For Jesus, this is the Great Commandment: to love our God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves.
For the follower of Jesus, regardless how difficult it may be, this is not merely an option.
12 September 2019
Tags: Refugees Migrants
As part of a long tradition, the Passion Play is staged for a few weeks every 10 years in Oberammergau, Germany. This photograph is from the mid-19th century.
(photo: Josef Albert via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.)
Sometimes, people can be surprised at the similarities between Christianity and Islam — bonds that often aren’t easily apparent. We encounter this in the world CNEWA serves, where very often the two religions dwell peacefully together, with believers sharing cultures and, sometimes, traditions.
This month brought another example of this striking commonality.
This year on 10 September, Shi’ite Muslims all over the world observed Ashura, marked on the 10th day of the Islamic Month of Muharram. Muharram is the first month of the Muslim calendar and is one of the four sacred months (Qur’an 9:36) during which war and violence are forbidden.
Muharram also has special meaning for Shi’ite Muslims. It was on the 10th of Muharram almost 1,500 years ago that the army of the Umayyad Calif, Yazid, slaughtered Hussein bin Ali, the grandson of the Prophet. He also killed 70 of his followers, including infants.
It was the death of Ali’s youngest son, Hussein, that was the foundational experience for the Shi’ite sect in Islam.
The Muslim calendar is lunar and is 354/355 days long. Unlike Christians and Jews, who also follow a lunar calendar, Muslims do not correct the lunar calendar over against the solar calendar with 365/6 days. As a result, Muslim holy days move “backwards” during the solar year. Every year on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, Shi’ite Muslims observe the death of Hussein. In most countries the observance takes the form of the ta ? ziya, or passion play. In Shi’ite countries the faithful — with great zeal and at time shocking fervor — re-enact the death of Hussein on the field of Karbela. The re-enactment is accompanied by processions in which believers flagellate themselves or strike the foreheads with stones to the point of drawing blood. Ecstatic manifestations are fairly common during these observances.
Passion plays, of course, are not unique to Shi’ite Islam. In the pre-Reformation Middle Ages, Christians in Europe often re-enacted the Passion and Death of Jesus during Holy Week. Although deeply religious, passion plays also had secular and social overtones with different guilds presenting the passion play in different ways. Wikipedia lists over 15 countries which had or still have some form of passion play.
During the Reformation, with its sober and at times puritanical values, the exuberance and ecstatic nature of passion plays began to be looked down upon. While once extremely prevalent, passion plays in Protestant countries in Europe disappeared after the Reformation.
Of course, for Roman Catholics the legendary Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, is the most famous. In 1633 the Bavarian town of Oberammergau was in the midst of the plague. The town vowed that, if the plague abated, they would re-enact the Passion of Christ every 10 years. Their prayers were answered and for almost 250 years the town has staged the play. Over the years the spectacle has been updated to be in harmony with the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Jews since the document Nostra Aetate (1965) of Vatican II.
In the year when the play is performed—the next is in 2020—thousands of pilgrims and tourists come from all over the world to attend.
In other places like the Philippines and South and Latin America passion plays—often with shocking detail and realism—are part of the observance of Holy Week. While nonexistent in many parts of the world, passion plays, be they Muslim or Christian, are an attempt by believers to reconnect in a very concrete way with the redemptive sufferings and death of Imam Hussein bin Ali or Jesus Christ.
Similar phenomena can also be found in many of the other religious traditions of the world —serving to remind us that the human experience of faith and belief often finds expression in ways that are startling, dramatic and — despite our differences — profoundly universal.
6 September 2019
Two employees of Caritas Armenia care for 80-year-old Marjik Harutyunyan. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Every year on 5 September the world observes the UN International Day of Charity. On 17 December 2012, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution establishing an International Day of Charity to encourage people to volunteer services and engage in acts of philanthropy throughout the world. The UN chose 5 September as the date for the observance because it is also the anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Calcutta), who died on 5 September 1997. That date now serves as her feast day on the Catholic calendar.
Charity is at the very core of the work of CNEWA. In the many countries where we work, we strive to help people who have been driven from their homes, are suffering from illnesses and crushing poverty. The list can be extended almost infinitely. The Welfare in Catholic Near East Welfare Association is almost identical to Charity in the International Day of Charity.
This day, then, serves as a good opportunity to reflect on what we mean when we talk about ”charity.”
Words are interesting things. They move through space and time. The ancient words of sacred texts of the Bible are alive and well in the languages of modern people. The inspired texts, originally in Hebrew, some Aramaic and Greek have been translated into literally thousands of languages, starting with Latin and Syriac in the earliest centuries of Christianity. As words move from place to place and century to century, they are not static. Words change. Sometimes they change radically and take on new meanings that may be almost the opposite of the original meaning. For example, in the time of Shakespeare the word ” ice” had the connotation of quibbling, silly and picky. It could also mean nice in the modern sense — but generally it was not a compliment. More often words take on or shed layers of meaning—the connotation is almost constantly evolving. In American English of the mid-20th century, for example, a turkey was a bird and that’s all it was. By the turn of the century a turkey — in addition to being a bird — became a naïve or unintelligent person.
Most of these changes, while interesting, are not earth-shaking. However, sometimes words from sacred texts change in ways that can be confusing. ”Love” is one of those words.
In Hebrew, the common word for love is built on the root 'h b. It — and its opposite, hate — mean pretty much what ”love” and ” hate” mean in modern English. However, they are also used to show a legal relation in a covenant. A vassal king “loves” his overlord and “hates” the enemies of his overlord. There is no sense of emotion or feeling. To “love” the overlord means to be faithful to the legal treaty — the covenant — between the two.
The Greek of the New Testament has three words for love, each with a slightly different connotation.
The first is erao. It has the connotation of passionate, physical love. Our English word ”erotic” is derived from Greek erao. To the best of my knowledge, this word does not appear in any form in the New Testament.
The two other words are phileo, which has the connotation of loving and befriending, and agapao, with its noun agape which is the love we find mostly in the New Testament. The word phileo in all its forms appears some 27 times, including three times with the connotation of “to kiss” (Matt 26:48; Mark 14:44; Luke 22:47)— all in relation to Judas Iscariot.
Agapao is clearly the preferred word in the New Testament, appearing some 256 times. When Paul speaks of “faith, hope and love” (1 Cor 13:13), he uses agape.
While some scholars have seen deep differences between the two words — with agapao being the more important of the two — that does not seem to be the case. While agapao is clearly the preferred word, phileo is nonetheless used to describe the love of the Father for the Son (John 5:20). More interestingly in the dialogue between Jesus and Simon Peter in John 21:15-18 Jesus asks Peter twice “do you love me” (agapas me) and twice Peter replies, “You know I love you” (philo se). The third time Jesus asks “Do you love me” (phileis me), he uses Peter’s word for love. It is most unlikely John would have Jesus use a lesser word for love, merely because Peter used it.
Some problems do occur, however, in later translations. Latin, for example, does not have the same broad choice of words for “love” as Greek. In the Latin Vulgate, there is a tendency to translate agape as caritas. When the verb “to love” is translated into Latin, the preferred word is diligo.
Words change as they travel. The Latin caritas, used to translate the Greek words for love, comes into English as ”charity.” However, over the centuries charity has taken on the additional and perhaps now primary meaning of “acts of charity,” which the New Testament often refers to as “acts of mercy” (from the Greek eleeo, “to be compassionate”).
As a result, as least in English, charity becomes increasingly unmoored from love. It becomes at least theoretically (to say nothing of practically) possible to be charitable without being loving.
In point of fact, nothing could be further from the ideal preached by Jesus. Acts of charity are acts and signs of love. We must never allow “charity” to become a substitute for ”love.”
Which brings us back to our mission at CNEWA.
At CNEWA, so much of what we do may be considered a work of charity.
But that word reminds us: it is all, really, a work of love.
29 August 2019
The recent flooding and landslides in Kerala, India, are yet another reminder of the challenges we face caring for our world. (photo: CNEWA)
If the Amazon rainforest forms the “lungs of the planet,” Mother Earth has pneumonia.
It has been a bad summer. As the G-7 met in France this week to discuss, among other things, climate change, several thousand fires were burning in the Amazon. Many of the fires were set by humans using “slash and burn” techniques to “clear” the land. Europe experienced its hottest weather ever with temperatures in France reaching 107°F. It is estimated that 10 billion tons of ice (in pounds, that’s 20 followed by twelve zeroes) melted in Greenland on Wednesday 31 July 2019—one single day! Indonesia has recently announced that it is moving its capital from Jakarta because the city is being drowned by rising sea levels.
CNEWA’s world is not being spared either. Southern India, which was devastated by monsoon flooding in 2018, is once again under water, bringing suffering and death to hundreds of thousands. (CNEWA has received urgent appeals for help from our brothers and sisters in Kerala. Click here to learn what you can do.)
All of the above is becoming the “new normal.”
This has implications not only for those CNEWA serves but, in fact, for every one of us. Pope Francis stated as much four years ago.
On 24 May 2015, Pope Francis published Laudato si’ (“be praised!” from the opening line of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun). Most encyclical letters are addressed to Catholics around the world; some will mention “people of good will.” But in this encyclical, which bears the subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis explicitly addresses “every person living on this planet.” Written in close cooperation with Bartholomew, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the encyclical is ecumenical in a new and very practical way.
It is, however, more than ecumenical; it addresses and challenges every one in the world. And for good reason: each of us has a stake in caring for the planet, and will bear responsibility for what we leave behind for future generations.
Make no mistake: climate change is real. While there are disagreements about the details of climate change and about the extent of human involvement, there is no serious disagreement among scientists about the fact of climate change — and that human agency is one of the main drivers of the change.
Science, of course, is not religion. One can agree or disagree with scientific conclusions and try to prove one’s point of view. “Not believing” in a given scientific fact/theory, however, is simply an irrelevant position and, one is tempted to say, one that does not merit a response. Gravity, for example, is not as simple a scientific “fact” as the average person would think. Gravity too is a “theory,” and a very complicated one at that. However, to walk off a roof because gravity is “only a theory” and, hence, not worthy of “belief” would be foolish in the extreme.
To ignore climate change is no less foolhardy.
Pope Francis (and Patriarch Bartholomew) sees responsibility for the environment through a spiritual/moral lens. Both realize that self-interest plays a great role in caring for our “common home.” If that home can no longer sustain human life, we humans will go extinct like thousands of other species. When an organism—like the planet—has a pathogen, one of the responses is to raise the temperature—in bodies, a fever—to make the environment hostile to the pathogen and ultimately kill it. It is unlikely that life will go entirely extinct on earth. There are any number of organisms that can easily survive temperatures that would kill human life. We humans may bring about our own extinction but life will go on.
Francis realizes that it is in our self-interest to be aware of the danger. However, he also sees that danger as a spiritual one. There is the temptation to be utilitarian, to see creation no longer as a marvelous gift of the Creator but as little more than the raw material for making money. Francis realizes that such thinking brings with it not only a real risk of physical extinction for humanity, but also of the spiritual death of humanity.
Christians and other peoples of faith in different ways have looked upon humanity as stewards of creation. Stewards are those who “work and protect” (Gen 2:15) the creation entrusted to them. Francis speaks of an “integral” spirituality which, while realizing our dependence on the planet for food, resources, etc., also recognizes an ethic which uses the goods of the earth in a responsible way. This should not be overlooked. To be sure, climate change has scientific, social and economic ramifications. However, Francis is making a strong point that living responsibly on our planet, our common home, needs to be part of our spirituality as Catholic Christians. It is not something “added on” to our Christian lives. Francis sees it as an essential—integral—part of what it means to be a Catholic follower of Christ.
Religious leaders are more and more realizing the importance of living ethically on our planet. We are responsible for those who will follow. To let greed determine our decisions, to wantonly plunder the planet and its resources and to leave our descendants an increasingly uninhabitable planet is the ultimate crime against humanity.
Ironically it is not those who are the major consumers of the planet’s resources who are the first to experience the devastation of climate change. For the most part, those who are on the cutting—one might well say killing—edge of climate change are those living in farming or fishing communities, those living in small island nations, those whose survival is closely linked to the availability of clean water and the vagaries of weather — in short, those who inhabit the very regions CNEWA serves. While these may not be concerns of the developed world, Pope Francis reminds us forcefully that this is our common home. Those very things which threaten the existence of others today will sooner or later threaten the existence of even the wealthiest and most privileged.
When such a time comes, Francis knows it will be too late. All the money and power in the world will not be enough to stop it.
22 August 2019
Tags: India Pope Francis
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.
Tags: Persecution Iraqi