One Magazine June 2021

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one

June 2021

God • World • Human Family • Church

What Comes

Next?

Nurturing Hope in Syria • Saving Lebanon’s Catholic Schools Rebuilding Lives in Georgia • Healing Wounds in Iraq


one COVER STORY

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Oasis for the Vulnerable Rebuilding lives in Georgia by Paul Rimple

FEATURES

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Catholic Education: Lifeblood of a Nation Saving Lebanon’s Catholic schools text by Doreen Abi Raad with photographs by Raghida Skaff

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A Letter From Syria by Sister Jihane Atallah

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People, Look East: The Encounter of ‘Living Churches’ by Bishop Nicholas J. Samra

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The Samaritan Pope Healing wounds in Iraq by Laura Ieraci

DEPARTMENTS

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Connections to CNEWA’s world Perspectives by Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari

t The Rev. Thomas J. Loya baptizes Nandini Ann Kumar, 18, at Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Parish in Homer Glen, Illinois, in March 2018.

CNEWA.org CNEWA1926 CNEWA CNEWA CNEWA1926


OFFICIAL PUBLICATION CATHOLIC NEAR EAST WELFARE ASSOCIATION

Volume 47 NUMBER 2

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Making plans for the summer? Plan to give hope 14 Front: Vitaly Lazavoy, 32, smokes on the balcony of the homeless shelter in Batumi, Georgia, where he has received assistance for the past two years. Back: Loujein Kroma, a Syrian refugee student at St. Rita School in Zahleh, Lebanon. Photo Credits Front cover, pages 3 (lower right), 20, 22-25, 39 (lower right), Justyna Mielnikiewicz; Page 2, Jenny Forkal; Pages 3 (top), 32-34, 36, CNS photo/Paul Haring; Pages 3 (upper left), 6-13, back cover, Raghida Skaff; Page 3 (upper right), CNS photo/ Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters; Pages 3 (lower left), 16-17, 39 (upper left), courtesy of Sister Jihane Atallah; Pages 3 (far right), 29, 31, Nancy Wiechec; Page 4, Mathew Vadakkekuttu; Page 5, Wissam Nassar; Page 14-15, CNS photo/Ali Hashisho, Reuters; Pages 18-19, Nino Gambashidze; Page 21, Saba Shengelia; Pages 26-27, Cody Christopulos; Page 28, Laura Ieraci; Page 30, Michael Swan; Page 35, CNS/Vatican Media; Page 37, courtesy of Father Ammar Yako; Page 39 (upper right), CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters; Page 39 (lower left), Sean Sprague. Publisher Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari

18 Editorial Staff Paul Grillo Laura Ieraci Deacon Greg Kandra Michael J.L. La Civita Elias Mallon, S.A., Ph.D. J.D. Conor Mauro Timothy McCarthy

A bequest is a simple way to make a huge impact, helping us to Build up the church Affirm human dignity Alleviate poverty Encourage dialogue

ONE is published quarterly. ISSN: 1552-2016 CNEWA Founded by the Holy Father, CNEWA shares the love of Christ with the churches and peoples of the East, working for, through and with the Eastern Catholic churches. CNEWA connects you to your brothers and sisters in need. Together, we build up the church, affirm human dignity, alleviate poverty, encourage dialogue — and inspire hope. Officers Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Chair and Treasurer Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, Secretary Editorial Office 1011 First Avenue, New York, NY 10022-4195 1-212-826-1480; www.cnewa.org ©2021 Catholic Near East Welfare Association. All rights reserved. Member of the Catholic Media Association of the United States and Canada.

Make this summer a season of promise and possibility A bequest also has tax benefits Contact us today to learn more: Call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) 1-800-442-6392 (United States) Or email us at cnewa@cnewa.org cnewa.giftplans.org


Connections to CNEWA’s world CNEWA and COVID in India

A sister distributes hand sanitizer and other CNEWA-funded supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic in India. The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India has brought devastation across the nation. With daily death rates as high as 4,000, the number of COVID-related deaths now exceeds 350,000. At press time, daily infection rates had dropped from 400,000 earlier in May to 300,000, although medical professionals feared cases and deaths were underreported. “The situation is horrible,” said M.L. Thomas, director of CNEWA’s India office. Speaking to ONE from his home in Kerala, Mr. Thomas said people were dying due to a shortage of medical oxygen; a scarcity of remdesivir, the drug now commonly used to treat COVID-19; and lack of care due to an overburdened hospital system. “In some COVID wards, patients are sharing beds, while others wait outside for treatment,” he said. “Ambulances are working around the clock, assisting those in need of critical care — and transporting COVID victims to crematoriums. Numerous corpses are waiting to be cremated or buried. Vaccine shortages — only 2.1 percent of the population was vaccinated by midMay — mean there is no way of predicting an end to the loss of life.” The lockdowns and restrictions have made daily wage earners and the poor even more vulnerable.

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“Many initiatives of the church are reaching out to the poor,” he said. However, “it’s falling short definitely.” Faced with this need, CNEWA issued an initial response of “food packages for more than 16,000 families; medicine kits for 1,250 families; 3,400 P.P.E. kits; more than 7,000 boxes of soap, sanitizer, masks, gloves and face shields; 45 disinfectant foggers; 10 oxygen flowmeters and humidifier bottles; 10 medical cots; and 500 sets of bed linens,” he said, adding the SyroMalabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches are involved in procuring and distributing the items. The church in India has experienced significant loss of life from COVID-19, including more than 200 priests, 210 women religious and three bishops, of whom two were retired. Bishop Jacob Barnabas Chacko Aerath of the SyroMalankara Eparchy of St. John Chrysostom of Gurgaon, based in New Delhi, contracted COVID-19 and, at press time, was on a ventilator in a critical state. Mar Barnabas had been working among the poor during the first wave of the pandemic, distributing food in Delhi and the further reaches of his eparchy. The bishop, from his hospital bed, has insisted his priests continue the relief work among the poor. Learn how you can help at cnewa.org/india.


Ethiopia’s Two Crises In May, a priest of the Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where war broke out last November, said killings, abductions and rape continue in Tigray. The bishops issued a humanitarian appeal, saying people continue to flee or be displaced, seeking safety in camps; local churches are overwhelmed, farmers are unable to grow crops and food shortages are grave. CNEWA responded with humanitarian aid. “We have sent funds to provide basic provisions to more than 80 diocesan priests who are stranded in 34 parishes,” said Argaw Fantu, CNEWA’s regional director in Addis Ababa. “The bishop and his pastoral team are very grateful to CNEWA for rushing this special support,” he said. “It is the only agency that has responded to these urgent needs.” In addition, CNEWA rushed $25,000 to benefit needy children, who would normally receive nutritious biscuits at school. With schools currently closed, the program distributes food to them at home through local parishes. Ethiopia is also fighting against a growing number of COVID-19 cases. Freelance journalist Maria Gerth-Niculescu in Addis Ababa told CNEWA the country has between 1,500 and 2,000 official new COVID-positive cases daily, but testing capacity is very limited. “The number of severe cases has also increased drastically,” she said. “The health personnel are overworked and hospitals are facing a shortage of protective equipment.” The few Catholic health care facilities in rural areas are equally overwhelmed by the need, said Mr. Fantu.

Holy Land Cease-fire As we go to press, a fragile ceasefire appears to be holding between Israel and Palestine, after days of terror and bloodshed in May. At last report, the death toll in Gaza surpassed 200; among the dead were 60 children. At least 10 people, including two children, were killed in Israel. Tens of thousands in Gaza are reported to be homeless. “Everyone on both sides is terrified, exhausted and sleepless,” said Joseph Hazboun, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel. “For everybody, this is a nightmare.”

Patients at the Near East Council of Churches clinic in Shija’ia, which provides essential services to the people of Gaza.

Mr. Hazboun said, despite the cease-fire, construction materials are expected to be banned from entering Gaza, “which means no reconstruction efforts will take place for a few years.” He also spoke of the psychosocial trauma caused by the war, especially among children, and the need “to work together to bring back some sense and meaning to the lives of people.”

There is even more on the web

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To learn how you can support CNEWA’s life-saving work in India, Ethiopia and the Holy Land, please visit cnewa.org For exclusive videos and timely updates from the field, go to cnewa.org/blog

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bronze statue of Mary towers over the city of Zahleh and the surrounding Bekaa Valley. Steps away, St. Rita School lies beneath the shadow of her protection. At noon, the Angelus bells ring and echoes of “Ya Umm Allah” (“Mother of God”), a Marian hymn in Arabic, drift into the classrooms from the shrine’s loudspeakers. Inside St. Rita’s, students and teachers are reviewing lessons in preparation for exams. It is the first time they are gathering after extensive online learning due to COVID-19 restrictions. Despite their excitement to reunite with friends, students are engaged seriously with great focus. Zahleh, about 18 miles from the Syrian border, is a largely Melkite Greek Catholic city. But with the influx of Syrian refugees escaping the civil war that began some 10 years ago, Zahleh and the Bekaa Valley became host to nearly 40 percent of Lebanon’s total Syrian refugee population of more than one million, most of whom are Muslim. From the onset of the refugee crisis, Archbishop Issam John Darwish of the Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Zahleh and Furzol supported about 1,200 Syrian refugee families, Christian and Muslim. Initially, there were problems of acceptance between the local Lebanese community and the Syrian refugees. To foster fraternity, the archeparchy organized activities, such as camps for children, youth groups, women’s meetings and other initiatives, that have been successful at building bridges between the two communities and nurturing solid friendships. Sister Marie Nassar, director of Our Lady of Lebanon School in Rmeish, chats with a student.

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RESPONDING TO HUMAN NEEDS

Catholic Education:

Lifeblood of a Nation text by Doreen Abi Raad with photographs by Raghida Skaff

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St. Rita School is one of the fruits of that fraternity. “In this school, we have a combination of Syrian and Lebanese and also of Christian and Muslim students,” says school director Zeina Ammoury. “We are helping them to live together. We treat them as brothers and sisters in class. Here we are as one family.”

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f St. Rita’s 230 students, 82 are Syrian; 70 percent of the students are Christian, and 30 percent are Muslim. Lebanon’s Catholic schools have a longstanding tradition of educating Muslim and Christian students alike. “This is what makes Lebanon so unique,” says the archbishop. “In most of the Catholic schools, we have Muslims and Christians. They teach Christian values, as well as what is in common with Muslims, such as the values of family, good relations between neighbors and

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how to live as brothers and sisters in the same country. “This creates an ambience of dialogue, acceptance and fraternity between Muslims and Christians. Muslims love to send their children to Catholic schools. This is the reality. “And without Catholic education in Lebanon, society will collapse,” he underlines. Math teacher Sabine Ramia sees her role at St. Rita’s as more than an educator. “I don’t just explain the lesson,” she says. “I take time to explain morals and values, the skills they will use, not just in school, but as a person throughout their lives.” “This school is like my second home,” says Loujein Kroma, her knapsack packed with books and notebooks open beside her. “They teach us love and how to respect others’ opinions,” the selfassured fifth grader, a Syrian Melkite Greek Catholic, says of St. Rita’s.

When asked what she would like to be when she grows up, Loujein confidently responds without hesitation, her eyes shining: “A doctor.” Established by the archeparchy in 1947, St. Rita’s moved to its current location in 1989. But the future of St. Rita’s — as with so many Catholic schools in Lebanon — is in jeopardy, as the country slides deeper into economic crisis. With parents struggling to provide basic needs for their families and unable to pay tuition, Lebanon’s Catholic schools need donor support to sustain their mission. “Without the help of our brothers and sisters in the West, such as CNEWA, we cannot continue,” Archbishop Darwish says matter-offactly. If not for CNEWA’s help, he acknowledges, St. Rita School would have closed three years ago.


The

CNEWA Connection

At right, Zeina Ammoury, director of St. Rita School in Zahleh, looks at a French textbook with a student. Opposite, Sister Marlene Youssef stands with students in a damaged classroom of Immaculate Conception School in Beirut. The school was heavily damaged by the port blast last August.

The Lebanese currency has lost nearly 90 percent of its value since late 2019. So, a salary equal to $1,000 has slipped to $100, plunging the middle class into sudden poverty and sinking the poor further into destitution. According to the United Nations, an estimated 55 percent of the Lebanese population now lives below the poverty line in a country previously considered largely middle class. Unemployment is rampant, inflation is soaring and people are struggling to afford basic necessities. “How can I ask parents to pay their children’s tuition when they can barely afford to buy bread?” says Ms. Ammoury, the school director. Public schools are not considered a viable option, as the level of education is not up to par. Furthermore, there are not enough public schools for all the students in the country.

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ebanon’s Catholic school legacy stems from the Pontifical Maronite College in Rome, founded by Pope Gregory XIII in 1584 for the formation of Maronite priests. Many of them, returning to the lands that make up part of modern Lebanon, came home filled with a zeal to educate, opening schools all over their homeland. Missionaries from European Catholic orders followed, building Catholic schools around the country and establishing the educational system from the ground up.

CNEWA has long accompanied local churches in Lebanon, and key to this has been supporting schools, religious congregations and places that seek to help the young. But that is just the beginning. More recently, CNEWA also has been lending pastoral and humanitarian support to the nation on a variety of fronts as it struggles to rebuild and recover after last year’s horrific explosion on the Beirut waterfront. CNEWA was among the first to respond. CNEWA, with our partners on the ground, distributed food and supplies to thousands of families. We also coordinated worldwide Catholic aid for Lebanon’s Catholic health care and school systems. Among many other projects, CNEWA also spearheaded a campaign to renovate the Rosary Sisters and Geitawi hospitals, both damaged in the blast. Lebanon remains a vital and important part of the land we call “holy,” with deep roots of faith and religious tolerance. Your gift can ensure that this legacy endures during especially difficult times. To support the people of Lebanon, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada). In a letter last spring to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools in Lebanon warned of pending Catholic school closures in the midst of the economic crisis. In addition to calling on the government to assume its responsibilities as regards education, the letter also stressed the important and historic role of religious congregations of men and women for hundreds of years.

“They have carried out pioneering work in towns and villages, participating in the elimination of illiteracy, without any discrimination as to regional, social or religious affiliation, thus contributing to the constitution of Lebanon’s fundamental wealth, its exceptional human resources,” the secretariat wrote. “In this, they have remained faithful to the mission of the church, as ‘mother and educator,’

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“We are working on charity, on fraternity and living together, all religions, and taking care of the poor.” — Sister Marlene Youssef, director of Immaculate Conception School ensuring the development of man in knowledge, love, solidarity and national belonging.” Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, has also been vocal about the importance of Catholic education, often referring to the country’s Catholic schools as “one of the pillars of Lebanon.” Currently, there are 365 Catholic schools in Lebanon, belonging to 59 different eparchies and congregations, educating some 300,000 students. Known for its high-level academics, Lebanon’s Catholic schools are typically trilingual, with students learning in Arabic, French and English. Graduates often continue higher studies in the best universities in the West.

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“Teaching is love. If there is no love, it is like a garden without water.” — Pierre Habib, teacher at Our Lady of Lebanon School

n the Geitawi neighborhood of Beirut, Immaculate Conception School has been a landmark since it was established by the Daughters of Charity 126 years ago. Its current enrollment of nearly 500 students, of whom 30 percent are Muslim, includes refugees and migrants. “We are working on charity, on fraternity and living together — all religions — and taking care of the poor,” says Sister Marlene Youssef, director of the school. Immaculate Conception suffered tremendous devastation from the catastrophic Beirut port blast in August 2020, blowing out windows and doors and catapulting contents of the building’s 90 rooms. Damages totaled $1.4 million. “We lost everything,” says Sister Marlene.

She and Iranian-born Sister Sophie Khosrovian had just finished praying together minutes before the massive explosion. Thankfully, no children were in the school at the time. Sister Marlene says she “was saved by a miracle,” but 76-yearold Sister Sophie succumbed to her injuries. “She loved Lebanon and this school,” Sister Marlene says of her beloved sister. With the help of CNEWA and other church organizations, the school’s reconstruction is underway and should be completed this summer. “The education here is Catholic, based on Christian values. We are helping so many children from different religions to live together, to build a new Lebanon. That’s why we must continue our mission,” says


“All my teachers always encourage me to be strong and to ask questions if I don’t understand something. I feel very loved here.”

“Catholic schools are the blood of our society in Lebanon. If these schools close, or can’t continue their mission, it will be a disaster.”

— Tala El Wazwaz, student at Our Lady of Lebanon School

— Dr. Pierre Yared, general director of Geitawi Hospital

Sister Marlene, amid the constant clatter of banging and ear-piercing rounds of drilling. Aside from the building restoration work, Sister Marlene adds, the needs of the school’s families and teachers affected by the blast keep increasing, exacerbated by the country’s deteriorating economic situation. “At this point, they are very poor and barely surviving,” she says. “As a Catholic school, we took it upon ourselves to help them and, despite all the difficulties, to keep our doors open for their children. And we made their hardship our hardship.” The sisters’ solidarity with these affected families is rooted in the charism of the Daughters of Charity — founded in Paris in 1633 by Sts. Vincent de Paul and Louise

de Marillac — of service to the poor and suffering. They rely on donations to help the families with food and clothing. “The parents don’t have work,” Sister Marlene points out. “My priority now is to help our students with tuition,” she adds. “For that, we count on donors.” Marie Ange Garabedian’s bond with Immaculate Conception School began when she was 8 months old in the school’s nursery. “It’s been so special for me to grow up in this school,” says the eighth-grade Maronite, who aims to be a fashion designer. “I rushed to the school the morning after the explosion and I cried. I couldn’t believe how everything was destroyed. It’s so hard to see my school like this, my second home,” she says.

Her eyes again fill with shock as she enters a gutted classroom during a recent visit to the school. “Every night I pray for things to get better in Lebanon,” Marie Ange says.

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eventy miles south of Beirut, nestled in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and hugging the border with Israel, lies the village of Rmeish — an island of Christianity in a region of Lebanon that is about 90 percent Muslim. Rmeish’s nearly 6,000 Lebanese residents are all Christian, though about 1,000 Syrian refugees, mostly Muslim, have made the village their home, for now. Since it was established in 1959, Our Lady of Lebanon School has shone “as a light and the life of Rmeish,” says the Rev. Najib El Amil,

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the Maronite parish priest, who has served at the school for 30 years. The school is run by the Lebanese Antonine Sisters, whose main mission is to educate children in remote areas. Of the school’s 565 students, 45 are Muslim. Posters with encouraging messages in English, French and Arabic adorn the school’s hallways: “Light the Flame of Hope,” “Be Courageous, You are in the Heart of God,” “Let Your Light Shine.” Sister Marie Nassar, director of Our Lady of Lebanon, praises the dedication of the teachers. “They treat the children like their own. They are so caring, loving and very attentive to their problems. They know each one’s family,” she says. Pierre Habib, who has been teaching history, geography, civil Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Issam John Darwish (far right) visits a class at St. Rita School with director Zeina Ammoury (far left).

studies and Arabic at the school for 30 years, sums up his approach to his vocation: “Teaching is love. If there is no love, it is like a garden without water.” Tala el Wazwaz, an eighth-grade Shiite Muslim student who aims to be a surgeon, says, “Sister Marie and all my teachers always encourage me to be strong and to ask questions if I don’t understand something. I feel very loved here at school and I like to learn about other religions.” For Pauliana Hage, an eighthgrade Maronite, Our Lady of Lebanon “is such a part of me, and it is very important to this village. The teachers are amazing.” Pauliana would like to be a doctor, like her father, who also attended the school. The school does not refuse any student who cannot pay tuition, says Sister Marie, as there are no other alternatives to education — Our Lady of Lebanon is the only Catholic school in the village.

“We help the families as much as we can,” says Sister Marie. “Where will they go if we can’t continue our mission with them?” “Our priority is to keep the school going,” says Sister Marie, even as the economic situation for families “is getting worse.” The strong, energetic sister is overcome with emotion as she admits, “Honestly, sometimes I cry myself to sleep at night, worrying about how I will pay the teachers.” “We need financial support,” she says. “This school is so vital to this region.” In this dire situation, she adds, “every donation is a treasure.”

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mmaculate Conception, Our Lady of Lebanon and St. Rita’s are considered semi-gratuity schools, located in remote or impoverished areas. Tuition is nominal and the Lebanese government is to provide a subsidy of about 50 percent for a portion of the student body.


But the government has not paid any of the funds owed to semigratuity schools since 2016. With parents falling increasingly behind on tuition payments as each year passes, the future of the schools is uncertain. Alumni of Lebanon’s Catholic schools also share their deep concern regarding the future of Catholic education in the country. Dr. Pierre Yared, general director of Beirut’s Geitawi Hospital, looks back on his Catholic education at Mont La Salle School, run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools founded by St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle. Dr. Yared recalls the values of “honesty, love and transparency” he learned there. “All these values and the respect of the human being are so important in the medical field,” he says. “We were hard workers and the discipline was very strict,” he adds, recalling moments in the classroom. One of Lebanon’s first hospitals, Geitawi is entrusted to the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family. It suffered extensive damage in the Beirut port blast and CNEWA has helped with the restoration. “Catholic schools are the blood of our society in Lebanon,” he continues. “If these schools close, or can’t continue their mission, it will be a disaster for Lebanon.” Ella Bitar’s most vivid childhood memories are her “best years” at Besançon, the school of the Sisters of Charity of St. Jeanne-Antide Thouret. “The sisters had such a great impact on my life,” she says. “They gave us so many values: to help people, to have a heart for the poor,” all of which accompany her in her role with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as the international territorial vicepresident for the Middle East. In her 33 years with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Mrs. Bitar has

never seen the situation in Lebanon as dire as it is now. “Like never before. People have no hope,” she says. In coordination with the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the United States, Mrs. Bitar has organized an initiative to support Catholic school tuitions for 1,000 Lebanese children in need. “If we lose Catholic education, then Lebanon is finished,” she says, with a single clap of her hands to emphasize her point. Mrs. Bitar stresses it was a priority for her and her husband to educate their four children in Catholic schools, a legacy that continues with their grandchildren. Her daughter, Marianne Bitar Karam, credits her education at Jesus and Mary School, run by the congregation of the same name as an all-girls school at the time, for learning discipline, organization and acceptance of others regardless of their background. “I’m a very big advocate of girls and women. This is translated in my work, especially when it comes to education and their professional journey,” says Mrs. Karam, who works for Digital Opportunity Trust as the country director for Lebanon and the regional lead for the Middle East and North Africa. “We up-skill community members with technology, entrepreneurial and business skills,” she explains of the Canadian nonprofit’s mission of training women and youth to use technology in order to improve their employment opportunities. “Lebanon has nothing to export,” Mrs. Bitar adds. “The only thing we can export is our knowledge and our education. If we lose this, we have nothing.” Doreen Abi Raad is a freelance writer in Beirut. She also writes for Catholic News Service and the National Catholic Register.

She’s getting a Catholic education, thanks to CNEWA — and you cnewa.org I cnewa.ca

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Discover more about Catholic education in Lebanon and watch an exclusive video from the field at

cnewa.org/magazine

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Internally displaced Syrians wait in line for food at a camp outside Damascus in 2018.

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EMERGENCY RELIEF

A letter from

Syria

‘I heard the cry of my people...’ by Sister Jihane Atallah

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“We are becoming a much smaller minority, but that does not mean we do not contribute to Syrian society.”

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he cry of the Syrian people is growing louder. After 10 years of war, including two years of economic crisis, almost all Syrian families are affected in one way or another, either by the loss of a family member or by emigration. Great suffering has ripped hearts that still bleed today. Amid so much suffering, my sisters and I faced a dead end: what to do to console those around us? Our first role has been to be present to them, to listen to the people quietly or sometimes to cry with them. Before these hopeless people, it has been very important for us to be a sign of hope. This disastrous situation has made our

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religious community a “Wall of Lamentations.” People come to us to cry — to cry for help — and to seek consolation. Our congregation, the Sisters of Charity of St. Jeanne-Antide Thouret, was founded in Besançon, France, in 1799, and approved by Pope Pius VII in 1819. From the beginning of our congregational journey, our sisters have taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. We live in familial community; our style of life is built on charity, modesty and simplicity. Helping the poor is the main pillar of our mission. In Syria, our mission has taken on three forms: educational, pastoral and social.

Currently, we are four sisters in the community of Damascus, living and working in the suburbs of Jaramana and Al Mleha. One sister is a full-time social worker, and three sisters work full time at the local parish, St. Joseph Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and at our school, Al Riaya School in nearby Bab Sharqi. We have been very affected by the situation of war and crisis since it began. Our Besançon School in Al Mleha was located in a “hot zone,” and half of our students left within a month. We were like a mother who lost her children, without even being able to say goodbye. Many families fled the country, our school was damaged


Besançon Sisters Jihane Atallah (seated center) and Marie Azzi (far right) visit with a family in a Damascus suburb.

by the war and, in November 2012, we were forced to leave our home and our school in Al Mleha. We found refuge among our community in Jaramana, where we joined their mission, running Al Riaya School during the day and making visits to the displaced in the evening. We were in an undesirable situation overnight: what to do and where to go with our students? Like real soldiers, we did not give up. This sad event was an opportunity to spread love and adapt to a new situation with our displaced students at Al Riaya School. According to our educational and pastoral mission, we began to organize daily prayers with different families, as well as psychological counseling sessions to help children, teachers and families during these hard times. We began advocating for a dignified life for families by seeking aid through humanitarian agencies: food, schooling for students, rent for displaced families and financial support for education. Our catechism has been at the heart of our mission. We continue to hear the same questions from the people: “Where is God? Why doesn’t he intervene? Why didn’t he save my mother, my father, my son, my friend?” We have had to explain to them that God is always with us, he suffers with us. It is humankind who is far from God, who commits these evil acts and kills innocent people. God, who is love, did not even save his own Son who suffered on the cross because, in the end, the Resurrection is the answer to all sufferings. It is the only hope for every Christian. Pope Francis has proclaimed this year as the “Year of St. Joseph,”

dedicated to this great and humble saint who teaches us how to say, “Yes, I am the guardian of my brother and sister,” as he was the guardian of Jesus. Sister Joseph-Marie Chanaa’ is responsible for all of the social work activities of our congregation. “At the beginning of the war,” she says, “we were asked by our superiors if we wanted to leave Syria. The answer by all the sisters was, ‘no.’ We remained in solidarity with our people. Our relief work has consisted of serving our brothers and sisters affected and displaced by the war waged on Syria. We asked church-affiliated organizations for help and assistance. CNEWA has responded to our needs with love and care, and we experience that love through different programs, from emergency aid to educational and pastoral support.” We have collaborated with CNEWA on several programs, such as a children’s milk program in Damascus and neighboring villages, which is ongoing and serves hundreds of children. A food package program was, and still is, very vital. Hundreds of families do not have any source of income and are unable to secure food and basic necessities. They live in poverty and have been greatly affected by COVID-19 and its economic and health impacts. This program responds to their needs. In addition, the clothing distribution program during the Advent and Lenten seasons continues to serve needy children and families, providing them with suitable clothing for Syria’s cold winter and hot summer months. Our catechetical and pastoral program for Christian families in Syria supports them spiritually and psychologically, giving them strength through the Word of God, to be able to survive and adapt to their difficult situation.

We’re helping her kindle hope among children of war cnewa.org I cnewa.ca CNEWA has been our main support in efficiently and effectively helping the poor and needy during this indiscriminate war on our country and our people. These are our brothers and sisters: We were never going to abandon them and we never will. The most important challenge for us at this time is serving the poor of today, with the strengths we have, given our rising average age and lack of vocations. The Christian community in Syria has shrunk, from 10 percent of the population in the 1940s to 6 percent in 2020, due to greater emigration and declining birth rates. We are becoming a much smaller minority, but that does not mean we do not contribute to Syrian society. Our institutions, schools, hospitals and educated community members help in developing Syrian society and working toward a more harmonious coexistence. n

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Oasis for the Vulnerable Caritas offers hope and second chances to those at risk in Georgia by Paul Rimple

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Fatima and her children are beneficiaries of the St. Barbare Mother and Child Care Center in Tbilisi.

challenges of single motherhood and transition into new, independent living. The project works alongside the Georgian government, which chooses eligible beneficiaries. The state has no budget to operate such programs and depends on organizations, such as Caritas, to help Georgia’s neediest citizens. The center can accommodate up to 15 beneficiaries at a time for a maximum one-year stay. Staff includes a full-time, round-theclock babysitter, so that no one is ever alone, as well as a cook, psychologist, social worker and pediatrician. Gvantsa Bakradze, the center’s program coordinator, says it is not easy to prepare single mothers for independent living within a year’s time. “It’s hard to leave, everything is here: a roof, food, childcare,” Ms. Bakradze says. “We have to nurture self-motivation; no one is going to take care of you forever.” In Georgia, family values are deeply ingrained into a patriarchal concept of “tradition” that typically goes unquestioned. When the fabric of the family unit is broken through poverty, violence and substance abuse, women, who are expected to care for the family, bear the greatest burden. According to a 2017 U.N. study, one in seven women in Georgia are victims of domestic violence. Yet, nearly a quarter of women surveyed believe wife-beating is justified under certain circumstances and that a woman should obey her husband even if she disagrees with him. Ms. Bakradze notes the enormous stigma single mothers face in Georgia. The common perception is that they are promiscuous and unworthy of respect; or their

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atima worked as a housekeeper for a Tbilisi hotel before COVID-19 paralyzed Georgia’s hospitality sector, putting thousands of people out of work. With nowhere to go, the unemployed, single mother left the Georgian capital with her three children for Gori, about 55 miles west of Tbilisi, to live with her father. Then, her brother was released from prison and moved in, too. Fatima is no stranger to domestic violence or to moving in times of crisis, having been displaced by war in Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia’s northwest, 30 years earlier. To protect her children from her brother’s increasing abuse, they fled to a Gori police station. The authorities made phone calls and found them a spot at the St. Barbare Mother and Child Care Center in Tbilisi. Fatima recalls the welcome she and her children received when they arrived. “We were hungry and Caritas prepared us a supra (feast) and gave us clothes,” Fatima says, as her emotions begin to overwhelm her. “My family is one big tragedy, but this is my little paradise.” An aura of safety, warmth and compassion permeates the center — one not often found in state shelters, where people tend to be treated as numbers. St. Barbare’s beneficiaries — single mothers who are often victims of violence — receive sincere, personal attention. Founded in 2017, St. Barbare’s helps women manage the crises and


“We have Christians, Muslims, atheists under one roof and we celebrate everything together.” husbands left them because they “deserved it.” They often become victims of bullying and violence, sometimes within their own families. “We have a girl here that was married off when she was 16 and abused by her husband and his family until she ran back home with her baby, where she was abused by her father,” Ms. Bakradze recounts. The girl, an ethnic Azerbaijani, is now 20, uneducated but learning Georgian and manicuring through the center, although she shows a gifted talent for cooking, which Ms. Bakradze and her team are encouraging her to develop.

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“On Nowruz (Persian spring equinox festival), she prepared a dish of sweets and delivered it to everyone. It was wonderful!” says Ms. Bakradze. “We have Christians, Muslims, atheists under one roof and we celebrate everything together. We do things like Christmas and Easter twice — both Catholic and Orthodox — and people love it. Everyone cooks together,” she adds. To help develop relationships with estranged family members and the children’s fathers, the center encourages visitations and gives beneficiaries 20 “free days”

away from the center. COVID-19, however, has made it difficult to maintain this arrangement. The lockdown and school closures also overwhelmed the center’s caregivers, testing both the staff and beneficiaries. Nato and her 2-year-old son arrived at the center not too long ago. Originally from Eastern Georgia, she had married a man against her parents’ wishes, estranging her from her family. Later, when her husband became abusive, she fled to a state shelter in Gori. Her husband retaliated by murdering her father, an act Nato’s family blames entirely on her. Nato was going to be released from the Gori state shelter with nowhere to go when she learned about St. Barbare’s. The center helped her find hairstyling classes and, today, Nato works at a hair salon in the neighborhood. She and her son live in a small flat the center helped her find nearby. Although she works seven days a week, Nato is upbeat about her newfound independence and hopes to open her own salon someday. “I can’t imagine what would have happened to me, if not for this center,” Nato beams. “Whoever the donors are, I want to thank them.” The center is located in the Caritas center in the Didube district of Tbilisi. Established in 2003, the complex includes a children’s day center, an art therapy studio, offering both music and dance, and a large theater auditorium, available to St. Barbare’s child beneficiaries. On the first floor of the complex is a large cafeteria that functions as a soup kitchen, preparing hot meals daily for 250 seniors and 200 children. Caritas Georgia opened its first of two soup kitchens in Tbilisi in 1995, when the country was in the grips of economic collapse and smoldering from separatist wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and civil war in


Tbilisi. Although Georgia has since recovered with record economic growth, the disparity between the haves and have-nots is considerable, with 20 percent of the population living under the poverty line. Georgia’s elderly bear the brunt of the economic disparity. Since the average monthly state pension is only 240 lari (about $70), healthy pensioners keep working. Eleven percent of Georgia’s workforce is over the age of 65. As well, according to the 2014 census, one in five elderly women and one in

10 elderly men live alone. Seniors in poor health and living alone face destitution. The state has few social programs for seniors. Its soup kitchens allocate only 1.3 lari (38 cents) per person per day — enough for a bowl of soup and a piece of bread. At Caritas, beneficiaries receive soup, a side of pasta, buckwheat, potatoes or rice, vegetables, meat, bread and tea. “We try to balance a healthy diet with only fresh ingredients,” says Larisa Molashvili, a 25-year Caritas

Georgia volunteer. “The only thing frozen is chicken.” The kitchen also plays a vital role in the social lives of its seniors, who need the physical contact with their peers for mental health, she Larisa Molashvili (far left), coordinator of the Caritas Georgia soup kitchen in Tbilisi, and staff prepare packages for home delivery during the COVID-19 lockdown. Opposite, the Youth Day Care Center in Kutaisi provides children with lunch daily.

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Vitaly Lazavoy draws on a cigarette on the balcony of the shelter in Batumi. Tamaz Mghebrishvili (inset), the shelter’s coordinator, poses by the entrance. Opposite, Sister Loredana Monetti, program manager for Caritas in West Georgia, checks on the children during a meal.

explains. Seniors may also spend time at the Caritas Harmony Center, a separate program with its own activities, housed in a space that can hold 40 people. “They can visit and wait for dinner at 6 o’clock,” Ms. Molashvili explains. However, these social activities came crashing to a halt during the pandemic, an extremely challenging period in Caritas Georgia’s history. Project coordinators and volunteers had to shut the kitchen and find a way to continue feeding hundreds of hungry people. “We had to switch to delivery mode. It was a huge thing,” says Inga Chkheidze, who has been with Caritas for 10 years, running the social care program for the past three. Ms. Chkheidze and her volunteer team had to make tough calls on what to deliver and find the optimum frequency for delivery, now twice a month. Not every beneficiary has the means to cook, so groceries must be chosen carefully, she explains. Many seniors live in atrocious conditions. Some have physical challenges and for months were forced to stay indoors. “Our greatest motivation comes from seeing the work we are doing is right,” Ms. Chkheidze says. “Many of these people are very lonely. Elder care is one of the biggest problems in Georgia. Medical insurance covers little and the government offers no social support.” While COVID-19 restrictions in Tbilisi have kept the soup kitchen closed, case numbers in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, have

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The been sufficiently low to keep the Caritas soup kitchen there open. Sister Loredana Monetti, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Joseph, has been with Caritas Georgia for 25 years and, in 2006, helped establish the Kutaisi soup kitchen, originally a day center for vulnerable children. However, when two factories had closed — major employers in the district — seniors began arriving at the Youth Day Care Center, asking for food. Sister Loredana raised funds and expanded the kitchen services, which now feed 96 children and 70 seniors daily. “The kitchen saves lives,” says the sister. “We went from serving 60 older beneficiaries to 70. This indicates the situation is worsening.” The economic situation is indeed getting worse quickly. The annual inflation rate in Georgia soared to 7.2 percent in March from 3.6 percent in February, and consumer prices continue to climb. A loaf of bread that cost 50 tetri (14 cents) a few years ago now costs one lari (30 cents). Meanwhile, pensions have remained unchanged. Such conditions are enough to push a vulnerable family living on the edge, over it. Manana Vashakidze, 66, is a single mother, who cares for her 32-yearold son with physical challenges on a combined pension of $110. Her pension must also pay for her son’s medicine. “I can’t afford it,” she admits. “I don’t know how I would live without this help [from Caritas]. I am very lucky. I believe in God, that he is watching over me.” As in Tbilisi, the Kutaisi kitchen also functions as a social gathering spot in normal times, but not during the pandemic. Nevertheless, beneficiaries often come to the soup kitchen in pairs or trios to fetch parcels of food instead of having them delivered. Liana Zambakhidze has been feeding Kutaisi’s poor for 27 years.

CNEWA Connection

For decades, CNEWA has worked to help uplift those in need in Georgia, partnering with Caritas Georgia to give assistance to the sick, the orphaned and those living daily with the hardships of poverty or hunger. Georgia has been contending for generations with the aftershocks of earthquakes, war and political upheaval. CNEWA continues to stand with the people and help them know they are not forgotten. The projects and programs have expanded and evolved as the needs have changed. CNEWA has helped support soup kitchens and centers for the elderly — the “new orphans” who have been all but forgotten by succeeding generations, who have fled a longsuffering Georgia for better opportunities elsewhere. As Chorbishop Benyamin Beth Yadgar wrote previously in ONE: “It is important to help people realize that only by our good deeds can we be the living example of the eternal principles of Christianity — the infinite love and care for our neighbors and those in need.” To help us in this mission, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada). She helped Sister Loredana establish the kitchen and day center and now coordinates volunteers. “This is a difficult project, but it really changes lives. Our most basic need for survival is to eat,” says Ms. Zambakhidze. On this day, the cafeteria is halffilled with two dozen children, enrolled in the day center program by the state. Many are from single family households, others from homes broken by

poverty’s byproducts of abuse and dysfunction. They typically live near the center and come between school hours. Today’s lunch is meatball soup, potato, pickle and carrot salad, beef and buckwheat cutlet, bread, tea and juice. Their stomachs full, the children jump in to help clean the tables. About 70 miles west of Kutaisi is Batumi, an old, port town that has been undergoing a remarkable, if not chaotic, transformation into

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a major Black Sea resort town of modern high-rise hotels and casinos — built helter-skelter between 19th-century buildings and Soviet-era apartment blocks. Tucked away, off a narrow side street in the middle of Old Town, Caritas operates a shelter for the homeless. Georgia has been dealing with homelessness since the early 1990s, when civil wars displaced a quartermillion people and war with Russia in 2008 displaced an additional 20,000. In addition, thousands of citizens, who are not victims of ethnic cleansing but casualties of other complex social problems, live on the streets or illegally occupy vacant dwellings. While the state has addressed most housing issues for internally displaced people, it has no data on the number of homeless people in Georgia, nor a legislative definition of a “homeless person.”

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“I don’t know how I would live without this help. … I believe in God, that he is watching over me.” In 2003, Caritas staff member Tamaz Mghebrishvili saw far too many people living on Batumi’s streets. He and the Rev. Gabriel Bragantini, episcopal vicar of the Catholic Church in Western Georgia, lobbied the state for assistance. The state gave them a shell of a building, which Mr. Mghebrishvili and some diligent volunteers turned into a functioning shelter that today provides beds and showers for 35 people, and helps beneficiaries to resolve personal issues, when possible, and resume life in their own homes.

Beneficiaries are admitted for an initial three-month period. During this time, any issues that may have led them into homelessness are assessed. They may renew their contract every three months and stay as long as needed. Some beneficiaries have been here for up to seven years. They must vacate the shelter each day at 9 a.m., and return before 9 p.m. One woman from Kyrgyzstan goes out to sell sunflower seeds, some panhandle and others seek odd jobs. “If someone comes and doesn’t have an ID, we help them get one


At left, the Kutaisi soup kitchen provides hot meals and bread as carryout, rather than dine-in, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

so they can register. We help find lawyers, rebuild relationships with families and have a separate program, the House for Hope, for alcohol dependence,” says Mr. Mghebrishvili, the shelter’s coordinator, known as “the everything guy.” He comes to the shelter each morning and then is off running errands or volunteering at the House for Hope. His dedication and spirit, as with all Caritas staff and volunteers, are as boundless as they are admirable. For instance, in spring 2020, when Georgia went into full lockdown because of the pandemic, the shelter’s staff chose to lock down together with the beneficiaries for the entire two-month period, rather than close the project temporarily. Mr. Mghebrishvili is proud the shelter has not had a single case of COVID-19, including last autumn when the second wave brought hundreds of cases a day to Batumi. Unlike state shelters in Batumi, which only admit local residents, Caritas’s doors are open to everyone, regardless of their sex, religion or place of origin. Those who come seeking help may be socially excluded because they are all alone or have no means to find mental health care. They may be substance abusers or gamblers. They may have defaulted on bank loans, been victims of real estate scams or, like 32-year-old Vitaly Lazavoy, simply been unable to find work. An only child, he was 10 when his parents died in Batumi. The state sent him to an orphanage across the country in Eastern Georgia. He returned to his hometown at 18, picking up odd jobs, mostly in construction. At the time, Batumi

was experiencing a massive building boom, one that began to slow down somewhat before the pandemic, which is now at a near halt. Unable to pay his rent, Mr. Lazavoy was sleeping on the streets when he heard about Caritas two years ago. He has since been coming off and on, whenever a lack of work makes it impossible for him to live independently. “I am all alone,” Mr. Lazavoy says gently. “I don’t know where I would be without this place.” CNEWA supports these centers of Caritas Georgia — the charitable arm of Georgia’s Armenian, Chaldean and Roman Catholic communities — which has been serving the country’s vulnerable populations since 1994. While Catholics represent only 2 percent of the population in the predominately Orthodox country, Catholic social services and charities are extensive. Anahit Mkhoyan, executive director of Caritas Georgia, believes more than a century of Catholic social teaching has led to the institutionalized tradition of Catholic “faith-in-action” social programs that have positioned the church well in Georgia, despite its small size. “Catholic social teaching is in reality the basis of Caritas’s work, because it is rooted in God’s special love for the poor and we, as Caritas, serve that special love,” she says. “Our commitment to the poor is built on this fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching. “At Caritas, we work to build a more humane community that exercises greater social responsibility toward those in need.” Paul Rimple is a freelance print and radio journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His current bylines include Foreign Policy, BBC, CNN and The Guardian.

Your gift can feed the hungry and change lives cnewa.org I cnewa.ca

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To learn more about how CNEWA is helping those in need in Georgia, and to see an exclusive video of charity in action, visit

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THE ENCOUNTER OF by Bishop Nicholas J. Samra

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PEOPLE, LOOK EAST

‘LIVING CHURCHES’

Members of the Greek Orthodox community in Astoria, New York, gather for their church festival in 2007.

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T

he Eastern churches within the Catholic communion of churches initially spread through the Middle East, Asia, India, Eastern Europe and Africa and a great evangelization took place. Western Europe was evangelized by the Roman Church, and both East and West flourished, as they spread the Gospel throughout the world. The Western Hemisphere was evangelized mainly by the Roman Church, until the mid-to-late 1800s, when major emigrations occurred from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and more recently from India.

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The Christians from these societies took with them their spiritual heritage. They enculturated into their new Western societies and retained their precious Eastern Christian traditions and spirituality. It was common for the first generation of immigrants to mingle with each other, feeling comfortable among family and friends of the same cultural and religious background. The Eastern Christian spiritual heritage — Catholic and non-Catholic — was seen by many as an ethnic issue. This issue manifested in the Orthodox

Denise Seeger prays with an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church, in Whiting, Indiana. At right, a display window of a shop, owned by a Chaldean Catholic family in El Cajon, California, includes statues of Eastern and Roman Catholic saints.

churches in North America. There was an attempt, around the beginning of the 1900s, to gather all the Orthodox communities of the Byzantine tradition in one jurisdiction, but it failed and gave way to a multitude of ethnic jurisdictions, such as the Antiochene, Greek, Russian and Serbian churches. The Russian churches in the West fractured further after the Bolsheviks consolidated their power. Second and third generations witnessed intermarriage, and many families were lost from our Eastern churches as ethnic bonds diminished. So many Eastern Christian parishes dwindled to a few families as ethnic priorities overtook spiritual heritage. Many immigrants came to Canada and the United States with the intention of building wealth and hopefully returning to their “motherland.” Certainly, this did not happen. The Eastern churches became rooted in North American society, just as the Roman Church did. If home is where the heart is, Canada and the United States became their homes. North American Catholicism, especially in the United States, became a mosaic of many churches in communion with each other and here to stay. The Eastern churches — having preserved many traditions from the early church when the churches of the East and West were united fully — are complementary to the Roman Church. And, with the Second Vatican Council, some of these early church traditions were reinstituted in the Roman tradition, which had lost them over a long


“There would never be a reason to close a parish if we were really living the Lord’s command to make disciples of all nations.” period of time. I give as examples: Communion under both species for the laity as well as the clergy; use of the language of the people in worship; the development of synods of bishops in guiding and growing the church; as well as diocesan synods involving clergy and laity; and concelebration of the liturgy with more than one priest. The rites of initiation — baptism, chrismation (confirmation) and Eucharist — remained integral in the Eastern churches. Now, the Roman Church is reconsidering uniting them again in its practice. Again, these traditions and customs existed throughout the church, including the Roman, in the first centuries of

Christianity. Now they are being revived as West encounters East. In this encounter, Catholics in North America can now also witness the church as one body, as St. John Paul II stressed: “The church [Body of Christ] must breathe with her two lungs” (“Ut Unum Sint,” 54). Despite this complementarity, Eastern churches in the United States especially suffered the loss of their faithful to what was considered the more “American” church — the Roman Church — which still holds the majority of the Catholic faithful. When speaking about the patrimony of the Eastern treasures of liturgy and spirituality, among other aspects, the late Archbishop

Joseph Tawil, who served the Melkite Greek Catholic eparchy in the United States from 1970 to 1989, reminded his faithful that the Second Vatican Council put an end to a provincial view of the church. The Catholic Church was not solely Roman. Rather, the Roman Church was one church family among 21 others at the time — now 23 — which were formed and developed in the East. In his pastoral letter for Christmas 1970, titled “The Courage to Be Ourselves,” he stated clearly that Melkite Greek Catholics cannot live with a ghetto mentality, dealing only with people of the same ethnic heritage.

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Members of the Desna Ukrainian Dance Company in Toronto rehearse for an upcoming performance. On Page 31, parishioners of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon, California, prepare for a procession in 2015.

“If the parish lives upon the ethnic character of the community ... when that character disappears, the community dies and the parish dies with it,” he wrote. “Our churches are not only for our own people but are also for any of our fellow Americans who are attracted to our traditions, which show forth the beauty of the universal church and the variety of its riches.” It is clear we Eastern Catholics must take seriously the command of Christ: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). We, too, are called to be an evangelizing church. The simple core message of the Gospel, the mission of Jesus Christ, is the proclamation of the Good News: Christ’s vision is our vision. Yes, my Melkite Church has to minister and care for its native-born Melkites and teach them that the Gospel message goes beyond just “our people.” Our Eastern traditions kept us alive under great persecution and oppression in the Middle East under Islamic governments, just as the Slavic churches were severely oppressed by Communist, atheistic rulers. These “living” churches now reach the Western Hemisphere and have the right and duty to share and evangelize the Catholic faith. There would never be a reason to close a parish if we were really living the Lord’s command to make disciples of all nations. My own Melkite Greek Catholic Church is not just for native-born Melkites. It is for anyone who chooses to practice their Catholic faith according to the Melkite tradition. Many people are finding a home in our church. Some are “unchurched” people who

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“Our Eastern churches fit well in North America, especially within the diversity of its many peoples and traditions.” happen to visit, possibly during a parish festival when church tours are given, receiving “welcome” brochures introducing our Eastern traditions. Some are Roman Catholics looking for smaller and more intimate communities. They are attracted by Eastern spirituality, liturgical practices and prayer life. They feel a real sense of belonging. Since the time of Archbishop Tawil, who witnessed the universality of our Melkite Church, many of our vocations to the priesthood and

diaconate have come from nonnative-born Melkites. Steeped in our tradition, they found a spiritual home and accepted the call of God to minister to his people. We are a Catholic church in America, of America and for America, regardless of our ethnic origins. Evangelizing opportunities are all around us. We need to revitalize ourselves and be converted to Christ. If we know and love Jesus Christ better, we can serve him better and then, and only


then, bring to him those who have strayed, as well as those who have never known him. In my own eparchy, I have witnessed parishes open their doors to diverse people and grow. Where Melkite parishes focused just on their native Middle Eastern culture, we have seen decline and recently a more rapid decline of third- and fourth-generation Melkites. Some move out of their hometowns for work and new living opportunities; most times, they do not relocate close to a Melkite parish. Others find a home in the Roman Church, especially if they were educated in Roman Catholic schools or have married non-Melkite spouses. Our Eastern churches fit well in North America, especially within the diversity of its many peoples and traditions. Our nearly 200-year encounter with the Roman Church in the West, however, entails more than just a meeting of some kind.

When Christ was 40 days old, he was taken by his parents to the temple and offered to the Lord. The feast commemorating this event is called “Hypapanty” or Encounter in the East. There, in the temple, Jesus encountered his people in the persons of the elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Simeon met Jesus and recognized him as Redeemer and Savior and proclaimed: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people of Israel” (Lk 2:29-32). When our Eastern churches came to the West, they encountered the Roman Church already present in America. Meeting each other, they came to know each other better and respect the diverse traditions within the Catholic communion of churches.

As with the aged Simeon, we, too, proclaim Christ as our salvation and with boldness accept the Lord’s command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). Bishop Nicholas J. Samra is the eparchial bishop of Newton, the eparchy of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the United States.

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The Eastern churches have a rich history. Learn more about these churches and their witness to the Gospel at

cnewa.org/spotlight

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E

aster came early to Iraq this year. Over three days in March, a country for decades synonymous with sectarian strife and war bore a message of hope to the world. “Many Christians tell us, ‘We felt the celebration of Easter when the Holy Father was here,’” said Sister Caroline Saeed Jarjis, a member of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Erbil, referring to Pope Francis’ apostolic visit. “He offered a vision for another Iraq,” she said. During the historic papal trip to the country from 5 to 8 March — the first visit of a pope to Mesopotamia, ever — Pope Francis mourned with Iraqi Christians in their sorrow and encouraged them in their new life in Christ, pointing all Iraqis toward a future of hope with his message of peace and fraternity. The pope’s whirlwind schedule had him traveling to four governorates, five cities and five prayer sites within 72 hours and included visits with political and religious leaders, Christian and nonChristian. Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis, O.P., of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah said Iraq has been transformed profoundly by the pope’s visit, leaving an indelible mark on the nation. “We don’t look to the catastrophe of Iraq, to the wounds of Iraq like before, because the pope came and he put his hand, like the good Samaritan, on this wound, on this wounded man, Iraq,” he said from his chancery in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. “Now, the wounds of this man will become a sign, will become something beautiful, because the Christ, the Samaritan pope, touched him,” he said. “Now, Iraq is not the same as before. This is a new Iraq.” “I cannot speak in the name of everybody,” he continued, “but the seed of hope is stronger than before.”

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The Rev. Ammar Yako echoed the sense of hope and healing the pope brought to Iraq. As rector of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, located in the city of Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plain and razed and burned by ISIS in 2014, Father Yako led the church’s reconstruction that was completed just days before the pope’s 7 March visit. The pope’s prayers were the first in the rebuilt church — now famous for its iconic Marian statue atop the bell tower. Praying with the pope dispelled “the pain we had during the time of ISIS,” said Father Yako. “We left it with the Holy Father.” “Before coming to Iraq, the pope said he wanted to be close to the Christians who are suffering,” said the priest. “But when we realized he was really here with us, that he was here for us, praying with us, we could feel the entire church in the Lord with us. “This is the real meaning of the visit of the Holy Father: Christians feel they are not alone,” he added. “We Christians can continue to live our faith in this land because we know the church and the world give us the heart to go on.” Christians were prepared to experience the joy, hope and healing the pope’s visit could offer, in part, because of their spiritual preparation beforehand, said Sister Luma Khudher, a biblical scholar and member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena. In her hometown of Qaraqosh, fellow Dominican sisters worked with clergy and a committee of lay volunteers to organize a fiveday mission, held the week before the pope’s arrival. The program included prayer vigils, processions, a concert of sacred music and short talks about the meaning of the pope’s visit, as well as age-specific activities for children, youth, adults and the elderly. Similar programs


ACCOMPANYING THE CHURCH

The Samaritan Pope Iraqis choose healing and a new vision after pope’s visit by Laura Ieraci

Pope Francis leads a prayer service at Hosh al Bieaa, or Church Square, in Mosul, amid the ruins of four churches destroyed by ISIS.

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were held in the towns of Bachiqa and Karamlech. “It was very beautiful, because it was a time for people to pray, to prepare spiritually to welcome this figure, who was like Jesus, visiting his people,” she said from Erbil, where she teaches at the Catholic University of Erbil and at Babel College for Philosophy and Theology. And, during the visit, she said, “there was a lot of joy — joy in the air! Everyone was so happy. It was so good to see in the eyes of the people.”

Sister Luma said what most people worldwide likely know about Iraqi Christians is how their communities were destroyed by ISIS. “But the pope’s visit to Iraq showed that what was destroyed in the Nineveh Plain was rebuilt,” she said. “And it was rebuilt because Christians around the world wanted it rebuilt.” Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch said the rebuilding on the Nineveh Plain also included the collaboration of

Muslims in a practical approach to interreligious relations. He said the reconstruction of the Syriac Catholic parish of Al Bichara (Annunciation), pastored by the Rev. Emmanuel Kallo, involved Christians and Muslims. Al Bichara is the only church — Catholic or Orthodox — open in Mosul since the city was liberated from ISIS in 2016, he said. The patriarch said improving interreligious relations through relationship-building in a community context is not only a pastoral priority in the follow-up

“The pope’s visit to Iraq showed that what was destroyed in the Nineveh Plain was rebuilt. And it was rebuilt because Christians around the world wanted it rebuilt.”

AGitis et am nihiliqui id quide pa aut as pra volores es maximil intiur am eturerectur

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The

CNEWA Connection

Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani meet at Sistani’s residence. Opposite, children in Mosul welcome Pope Francis.

to the pope’s apostolic visit, but necessary to rebuild Iraq. “I don’t believe in dialogue among religions. Religions cannot dialogue,” said the patriarch, explaining his approach. “There are people who dialogue and it’s mostly a life dialogue. This means we have to speak about our common togetherness in one country.” Sister Caroline is engaged in interreligious dialogue as a member of a Committee for Tolerance and Peace Among Religions in Erbil. The committee met daily for two weeks after the pope’s visit, and continues to meet regularly, to lay out a plan to improve relations among people of different faiths in Kurdistan. However, she was skeptical of the process at first because her congregation’s generalate in Mosul had been seized and destroyed by ISIS in 2014. “It’s normal to have negative emotions after we lost our motherhouse in Mosul,” Sister Caroline said, referring to the first committee meeting she attended and her exchange with an imam. “But when he began speaking with me, I felt like I was speaking with a brother,” she said. “He respects me and my words, and I respect his words. It was something new for me. It opened a new door for me, a new dialogue, a new fraternity. “We had interreligious dialogue before 2014, but it was just words,” she continued. “This time, it’s different, and we’re returning to it with greater ease, as brothers.” Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, who leads the Chaldean Catholic Church as patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, said he believes the pope “changed the mentality and the culture of the people” in saying all Iraqis are brothers during his

For many years, Iraq has been in the eye of a storm in the Middle East, battered by war, persecution, hardship and violence. The assault of ISIS in 2014 made matters more severe and deadly. Pope Francis visited Iraq to assure the small but determined flock of Christians that they are valued and not forgotten. CNEWA has stood with Iraqi Christians through all of this, rushing emergency relief during the siege by ISIS and working closely with religious congregations — most notably, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena — to support health care, education and the formation of novices. Today, we work with Iraqis as they heroically rebuild their country. You can be a part of this great work by calling 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada). meeting with interreligious leaders in Ur on 6 March. “The pope’s trip was a big blessing for all Iraqis, but for Christians, he confirmed us in our faith, and he renewed our trust in the future and in our fellow citizens,” said the cardinal. “He asked all Iraqis to do that — to build peace, stability, respect and harmonious coexistence.” “What we [Christians] lived years ago, that was wrong,” he continued. “But we have really to turn the page, turn to a new page, and peace and stability will come.” Fadi Saqat, a parishioner at the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, said turning the page

and answering the pope’s call to be peacemakers in Iraq is doable. “I think for Christians, it is very easy to forget and forgive, and the more Iraq is safe and stable, the easier it is to forgive,” he said. Mr. Saqat, 27, who returned to Qaraqosh with his family in 2017 to rebuild their burnt-out home, said he believes the pope’s visit may have encouraged some Iraqis to remain in their homeland, although he never had any intention to leave and neither did his friends. “If I leave, I will encourage others to leave,” he said. “I know the situation is not so safe, but it’s okay for me. I have goals to change it and I think I can do it here.”

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In view of building on the momentum of the pope’s visit, Cardinal Sako has called for greater freedom of conscience and a spirit of coexistence in Iraq. He proposed public school textbooks be edited to eliminate references to Christians as infidels. He also spoke against sectarian politics and called for the formation of a secular state that would respect religious freedom — the idea, he said, has been gaining ground. Several years ago, the cardinal began an interreligious committee in Baghdad that has developed educational materials on Iraq’s various religions, most recently a reference book for use in schools and libraries. However, he also has plans to found a center for interreligious dialogue that will offer conferences and workshops to the public. Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, C.Ss.R., of the Chaldean Catholic Archeparchy of Erbil, expressed

appreciation for Pope Francis’ “powerful model for interreligious dialogue,” which forgoes the “safe environment” of conferences, workshops and sit-down discussions in Rome and benefits from “his willingness to leave the Vatican and go to the other and meet them where they are.” Discussions are “good, but not as courageous as leaving the Vatican” and going to Cairo, Abu Dhabi or Najaf, Iraq, said the archbishop. “It’s a very good model for dialogue, for encounter, where I leave my safe space that I know and control very well and go to the other’s space just to be together,” he continued. “This model is Christ’s model. He left heaven to come to us, offering us God’s mercy, walking with us.” This “being together” shows “the world that religion is not a problem,” he said. The pope’s visit with the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims,

Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, in Najaf on 6 March exemplified this model. The visit was also a gesture of the pope’s “great respect” for the ayatollah as a religious authority and for Iraq’s Muslim Shiite majority, said Cardinal Sako. The cardinal said the conversation between the two leaders during their 50-minute private visit was “very spontaneous, from heart to heart.” The ayatollah’s office issued a statement, saying he “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights.” Cardinal Sako, who was present for the meeting, said the two men Below, parishioners of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh welcome the pope for the first prayer service in the church since its reconstruction.


also spoke of the importance of working for peace, stability and human dignity and deepening interreligious dialogue; each recognized the other’s role in service to humanity. Prior to the pope’s departure, Sistani also noted the fraternal spirit between the two leaders, he said. During his three-day visit, Pope Francis issued several messages as well, calling for an end to terrorism and fundamentalism and for a commitment to peace, fraternity, coexistence and religious freedom. However, both Cardinal Sako and Archbishop Warda agreed the most significant words the pope spoke to Iraqi Christians were at the closing Mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil on 7 March: “The church in Iraq is alive.” “It’s a call to responsibility at the same time,” said Archbishop Warda. “We have to keep the faith flame shining.” The Latin-rite Mass, celebrated by Pope Francis in Italian, with Syriac and Chaldean hymns, was attended by 10,000 faithful and was profoundly prayerful, he said. However, the “most important part of it was the preparation,” which helped to build up the local Catholic community, said the archbishop. The faithful and clergy of his small archeparchy and of the equally small Syriac Catholic Archeparchy of Adiabene, led by Archbishop Nathanael Nizar Wadih Semaan, worked together to organize the Mass. About 300 students from the Catholic university also helped. “It’s just inconceivable to organize a papal Mass with this small group of people in the West — in the middle of COVID and rocket attacks — and they just did it,” said American layman Steve Rasche, who was among the organizers. Mr. Rasche, vice chancellor of the Catholic University of Erbil, said the

pope’s consistently encouraging and meaningful messages throughout his visit snowballed into a surge of energy and appreciation among Iraqi Catholics, evident at the closing Mass. “They were proud of their pope,” he said. “It all just kind of built, so that by the time he arrived at the Mass in Erbil, the people were loving him. … I mean, the people went crazy.” And, despite the fatigue from a grueling trip, the pope was “very gracious” and continued to extend himself, going “out of his way, behind the scenes, to take time with the young priests who had worked on the Mass,” as well as the other volunteers, he said. Archbishop Mirkis expressed his relief and gratitude, shared by many others, that the apostolic visit went smoothly and without any violence. However, he said, Pope Francis dropped a few “bombs” of his own. “He changed how we look at ourselves,” said Archbishop Mirkis. In saying in Ur that Christians, Muslims and Jews are brothers who share the same father, Abraham, the archbishop said the pope “wiped out” Iraqis’ “obsession with identity” based on religious affiliation and replaced it with a sense of “belonging.” “He unified Iraq by his way of speaking to us,” he said. “This is the bomb of the visit,” he continued. “Now, no one can say, ‘We, Christians,’ ‘We, Jews,’ ‘We, Muslims...’ No. We have the truth. The truth is God only, who was loved by Abraham our father. “Abraham is not our identity. God is our identity. We belong to God.” Laura Ieraci is the assistant editor of ONE. Previously, she worked for the Archdiocese of Montreal, Vatican Radio, the Eparchy of Parma, and the Rome bureau of Catholic News Service.

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Perspectives

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write this piece for our summer issue at the beginning of June. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the month of June is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We know that the language of the heart is found in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. The language of the heart is popular in secular verse and as the quintessential symbol of affection between people, in a family, among friends. I invite all to reflect on the heart of Jesus. Recall the words of Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:28-29). Jesus makes no demands on us, only that we approach him. Go to him! In personal relationship with him, he will refresh us. He will gift us with his “yoke.” In firstcentury Palestine, the yoke was measured and always shared. Jesus knows us and loves us. The yoke we will be asked to carry is according to how he knows our strength. We will not carry it alone. He will carry it with us! Yoked to Jesus, we will find rest for our many sufferings and burdens. I invite and urge everyone to read and to pray with the pastoral letter on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, “Heart Speaks to Heart,” by Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto (28 April 2021). He reflects on how “devotion to the Sacred Heart leads us to ponder the sacred humanity of Jesus, God with us.” It is a devotion that highlights “Jesus as the man for others,” who shows us how God wants us to act. It is an invitation to develop a compassionate heart.

by Msgr. Peter I.Vaccari

story of St. Rita’s in Zahleh, Immaculate Conception in Beirut, and Our Lady of Lebanon in the south. Read and reflect on the moving stories shared by Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees. •R ead the letter by a Besançon Sister of Charity who continues to work near Damascus in Syria. CNEWA continues to support their work through 10 years of war. • I n Georgia, CNEWA partners with the Caritas family. Please pray for the work we do together on behalf of single and abused mothers, children, the elderly and the abandoned. Are these not expressions of the compassionate heart of Christ? • L aura Ieraci’s feature offers poignant insights into the “back story” of the recent visit of Pope Francis to Iraq. The compassionate heart of the successor of St. Peter continues to strive to build cultures of understanding and the importance of a culture of forgiveness! Are our hearts inclined to forgive the other in imitation of the compassionate and merciful heart of our God? •F inally, read the updates from our leaders with courageous hearts on the ground in India and Ethiopia, including updates on the violence in Tigray. Yes, this summer edition of ONE captures and shares stories of courageous, loving and compassionate hearts. Devotion to the Sacred Heart should not be limited to the month of June. Please pray for a docile, humble and compassionate heart like the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Finally, I thank you from the depth of my own heart for your ongoing willingness to give generously to the mission of CNEWA!

How we need compassionate hearts at this time! With my prayers and gratitude, Our June issue highlights the real-life stories of those places where CNEWA, on the ground, with our valuable partners, exercises genuine and compassionate hearts! •O ur commitment to Catholic education in Lebanon and our funding of schools there is recounted in the

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Peter I. Vaccari President, CNEWA


Following the lead of our “Samaritan pope,” the mission of CNEWA is to bring compassion to a suffering world and hope to situations of war, poverty and injustice, building up the church and our one human family.


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