Washington DC, November 30, 2013: The ancient Christian village of Maaloula has again become the site of fierce fighting in Syria. A coalition of rebel groups, including the extremist al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al-Qaeda, attacked forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After intense fighting over the weekend, they have taken control of the village. Twelve nuns and three other women from the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Takla were taken by rebel forces from Maaloula towards the border town of Yabroud, an International Christian Concern (ICC) contact in the region reported on Tuesday.
The monastery, which had previously housed 40 nuns and orphans, and at least one other church, were severely damaged in the fighting. After the rebels drove out the forces of the Assad regime, they attacked a number of Christian buildings and three young Catholic men were also killed by the rebel fighters, Asia News reported.
Church leaders have expressed serious concerns for the safety of the women who were taken. Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi called for the release of the Maaloula nuns. “We appeal to the seed of conscience that God planted in all humans, including the kidnappers, to release our sisters safely,” Yazigi said in a statement issued Tuesday.
While twelve of the nuns were taken from the monastery, many of the other nuns remain trapped inside.
“We call upon the international community and world governments to help secure the release the nuns of Mar Takla Convent and the orphans who are being held since yesterday,” Yazigi added.
Fighting Returns to Ancient Maaloula
In September, Maaloula had been the scene of heavy fighting, but was ultimately held by the government forces, until Friday, November 29. “Rebel forces, including the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, swept into Maaloula from the surrounding hills after rolling explosive-laden tires onto regime troops below,” The Daily Star reported.
The government has been making advances in the strategic Qalamoun region in an attempt to contain the rebel forces. Maaloula sits on the edge of that region, near a highway that provides a transit route from the capital Damascus to the city of Homs. The region is likely to remain a hotspot in the coming weeks.
Before fighting came to the village in September, it had a population of nearly 5,000. Located in the mountains northeast of Damascus, Maaloula is a symbol of Christianity’s ancient presence in Syria and one of the last remaining places speaking Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
Many of the residents had already fled to Damascus, a resident told Fox News. He was afraid “rebels would punish them for supporting Assad and because they are Christians.”
Gregory III, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, honored the three men killed by rebels after they had taken control of the city. Speaking of the dangers to Christians who remain in hostile areas in Syria he said, “We are determined to remain in this blessed land even at the cost of martyrdom and martyrdom of blood.”
“This [martyrdom] has already happened to some of our faithful, such as the three men from Maalula, Michael Taalab, Antonios Taalab and Sarkis Zakhem. They are true martyrs killed for refusing to renounce their faith,” the Patriarch said in a statement to Fides.
Most of the Christian community had left, and the majority of those who had stayed in Maaloula were Muslims, with the exception of those who had sought refuge at the monastery.
The reason why some of the women were taken from the monastery remains unclear. There are fears that the women were kidnapped and taken to be abused or held hostage, but others have indicated that they were removed for protection.
Mario Zenari, a spokesman for the Vatican, said the rebels “forced the sisters to evacuate and to follow them towards Yabroud. At this moment we cannot say if this is a kidnapping or an evacuation,” he told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.
Based on abuses women have suffered throughout the conflict there are serious reasons for concern. Also, a number of church leaders, including both a Greek Orthodox and a Syriac Orthodox archbishop, have been kidnapped and in some cases killed.
Late Monday night, Pelagia Sayaf, the Mother Superior from Mar Takla and one of those taken, was able to contact the head of a nearby convent and said all twelve women who were taken were “fine and safe,” AP reported.
For those still in the monastery sources for Albawaba said, “The rebels were still in the convent with the nuns and that the shelling and sniping by government troops had prevented their attempts to evacuate them,” leaving a number of nuns and others trapped inside the monastery.
Islamic Extremists Taking “Syria out of Syria”
Many Syrian Christians have either attempted to remain neutral in the conflict or they have supported the government, fearing the Islamic state many of the rebel groups want to create in Syria.
“They are trying to take the Syria out of Syria,” a 23-year-old whose family fled Syria after his father was killed by rebels told ICC. “These are games to destroy the people and culture. It is a war, but they are attacking us as Christians,” he continued.
Another Christian refugee described how the rebel groups in his village were “very angry towards the cross and the church.” After they had removed Assad’s forces, they kidnapped and beheaded Christians, he told ICC. “My daughters could never go outside. We were scared and stayed at home.” They were only able to escape out of Syria with an escort from government troops.
The growing strength of radical Islamic groups has most Syrians, including Christians, afraid of what would happen if Assad were to fall. While early on some of the opposition was fighting for greater rights and freedoms, the movement was hijacked by those pushing an extremist agenda.
Mousab Alhamadee is a Syrian journalist and activist who just recently decided to leave Syria. During the spring of 2013 he traveled to the United States for a few months and in June returned to continue working in the rebellion against the Assad dictatorship. “I knew the moment I arrived back in Syria, however, that things had changed – even though I had been gone just three months,” he wrote in McClatchy.
“The rising prominence of religious radicals augured poorly for a diverse and open society, and the prospects for women were deteriorating. Radicals even had invaded schools, forcing their type of dress and ways of thinking on teachers and pupils alike. No way would we allow our daughter to grow up in such an unhealthy environment,” Alhamadee continued.
Despite his desire to stay and work for a better Syria, the rise of al-Qaeda and other extremists groups forced him to choose exile. Many other Syrians have awoken to the same reality about many of the groups fighting against Assad.
War Crimes from Both Sides
Throughout the conflict, the rebel groups have repeatedly targeted civilians, and in many cases, specifically Christians and churches. Human Rights Watch has released a detailed report chronicling what amounts to war crimes during their October offensive in the Christian village of Sadad. They have called for the international community to become more directly engaged in finding a solution to the war in Syria and seeking justice for the victims of so many atrocities.
The United Nations Human Rights office has implicated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the commission of war crimes during the 33-month-old conflict. Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights said an investigation of “human rights offenses in Syria has produced “massive evidence” of the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the New York Times reported.
The twelve nuns taken from the Mar Takla monastery are the latest victims of the horrific violence that has engulfed Syria. ICC echoes the call of many church leaders for their release.
While neither side in the conflict appears to offer a bright future, we pray for an end to the violence that has already destroyed so much in Syria, and a negotiated political solution that will restore order to Syria.
Vatican City, December 02, 2013: But what is important is allowing ourselves to be open to an encounter with the Lord.” “When we go to meet the Lord, we are – let’s face it – the masters of this meeting , but when we let Him encounter us, it is He who enters us, it is He who makes us new again, because this is the coming, this is what the coming of Christ means”.
Christmas “is not only a temporal recurrence or a beautiful memory”, but a “journey” to “meet the Lord” and what’s more to “letting Him meet us” in which “he makes us new again”.Our preparation for Christmas was the topic of Pope Francis’ homily at Mass in Casa Santa Marta in this first Monday of Advent, as Vatican Radio reports.
Commenting on the passage from the Gospel of the day, where the Roman centurion with great faith asks Jesus to heal his servant, the Pope recalled that in these days, “we begin a new journey “, a “journey of the Church … towards Christmas”. We go to meet the Lord”, because Christmas – he explained – is not only a temporal recurrence or a memory of something beautiful”.
“Christmas is more: we travel this road to meet the Lord . Christmas is an encounter! And we walk to meet him: with our heart, with life ; to meet him alive, as He is ; meet Him with faith . It is not easy to live with faith. In the words we have just heard, the Lord was amazed at this centurion: he marveled at the faith that he had. He had made a journey to meet the Lord, but he did so with faith. For this reason, he not only met the Lord, but felt the joy of being met by the Lord. And this is precisely the encounter that we want: the encounter of faith”.
But what is important is allowing ourselves to be open to an encounter with the Lord. “When we go to meet the Lord, we are – let’s face it – the masters of this meeting , but when we let Him encounter us, it is He who enters us, it is He who makes us new again, because this is the coming, this is what the coming of Christ means: making all things new again – the heart, soul, hope and journey. We are on a journey with faith, the faith of this centurion, to meet the Lord and most importantly leaving ourselves open to an encounter with Him”.
But to do this we need an open heart. “An open heart, so that He will encounter me! And tell me what He wants to tell me, which is not always what I want Him to tell me ! He is the Lord and He will tell me what he has in store for me , because the Lord does not look at us all together, like one big mass of people. No, no ! He looks everyone in the face, into their eyes, because His love is not an abstract love: it is real love ! From person to person: the person of the Lord looks at me, a person. We must let ourselves be loved by the Lord”.
The Pope concluded, “some attitudes can help us on this journey towards Christmas: perseverance in prayer, praying more , the labor of fraternal charity, being a little closer to those in need , and joy in praise of the Lord”. Thus “prayer , charity and praise, with an open heart ” so the Lord can encounter us.”
Owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull had been successfully sued by gay couple Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy and were ordered to pay £3,600 (about $5,800) in damages.
The Bulls say their policy—which was applied to heterosexuals as well as homosexuals—is based on their sincere Christian belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.
Peter and Hazelmary Bull had appealed to the Supreme Court, asking for a “reasonable accommodation” of their religious beliefs.
But five judges all said the policy amounted to sexual orientation discrimination and dismissed the Bulls’ case.
Three judges said it amounted to direct discrimination, and two said it was indirect discrimination that, in this case, was not justified.
The lead decision was written by Deputy President of the Court Lady Hale, who in the past has argued that marriage serves no useful purposes.
Hazelmary Bull says she is “deeply disappointed and saddened” by the ruling, which is the first of its kind to be handed down by the U.K. Supreme Court.
She adds, “We are just ordinary Christians who believe in the importance of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
“Our B&B is not just our business, it’s our home. All we have ever tried to do is live according to our own values, under our own roof.
“These beliefs are not based on hostility to anyone—we certainly bear no ill will to Steven and Martyn. Our policy is based on our sincere beliefs about marriage.
“Britain ought to be a country of freedom and tolerance, but it seems religious beliefs must play second fiddle to the new orthodoxy of political correctness.
“We appealed to the Supreme Court to introduce a bit more balance when dealing with competing rights of sexual orientation and religious liberty.
“Somehow we have got to find a way of allowing different beliefs to coexist in our society.
“But the judges have sidestepped that big issue and reinforced the notion that gay rights must trump everything else.
“In particular, we are deeply troubled by the remarks of Lady Hale, who says rulings by European judges means gay rights are almost untouchable.
“What does this mean for other people in Britain who believe in traditional marriage—not just Christians, but Muslims, Jews, people of all faiths and none?
“We ask Parliament to take a serious look at how Christians with traditional beliefs are being left out in the cold.
“We have no regrets about contesting this case, nor will we ever be ashamed of our beliefs.
“We are not perfect people, but we are trying to do our best to live out our faith with honesty and consistency. And we will continue to do that, come what may.
“As Christmastime approaches, we are reminded that Jesus came into the world to save sinners—like me and Pete.
“We want to take this opportunity to wish everyone peace and goodwill, and a happy Christmas to you all.”
The Bulls’ legal appeal was paid for by the Christian Institute’s Legal Defence Fund.
Spokesman Mike Judge says, “What this case shows is that the powers of political correctness have reached all the way to the top of the judicial tree.
“So much so, that even the Supreme Court dares not say anything against gay rights.
“Writing the major opinion in the ruling, Lady Hale effectively said gay rights are almost untouchable because of the rulings by European judges.
“Combine that with gay marriage, and it’s a recipe for all sorts of threats to people who believe in traditional marriage.
“This ruling is another slap in the face to Christians and shows that the elite institutions are saturated with a liberal mindset which cares little about religious freedom.
“It should be noted that the one-sided laws which paved the way for this case, the Sexual Orientation Regulations 2007, were voted for by the now Prime Minister David Cameron.
“Parliament needs to reform the law to allow a more reasonable approach which balances competing rights. Otherwise Christianity will become the belief that dare not speak its name.”
- charisma news
Syria, November 27, 2013: Human Rights Watch (HRW) said opposition forces committed war crimes in a siege on the Christian village of Saddad, Syria, by killing civilians, preventing residents from escaping, and targeting churches.
The leading human rights organisation visited the village, which was occupied by rebel troops between 21 and 28 October, and interviewed residents and the mayor about their ordeal. Their findings confirm earlier reports by Barnabas Fund, which were based on information from our partners in Syria.
HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said:
Opposition fighters came into Saddad claiming they would not harm civilians, but they did just that. There is no excuse for indiscriminate or targeted attacks against civilians or civilian sites.
The group found that the rebels executed civilians and others in their custody, and that other civilians were also killed unlawfully by sniper fire, both of which actions are war crimes.
HRW identified the names of 46 people from Saddad, 41 of whom were civilians, who were killed during the week-long siege, in which opposition fighters battled against government troops.
In one particularly savage case, six members of one family were shot in the head and their bodies dumped in a well. They had been blindfolded, and their hands were tied. They were Najla Mtanes al-Sheikh (45); her sons, Ranim Sarkis Drouj (18) and Fadi Sarkis Drouj (16); her elderly father, Mtanes Sleiman al-Sheikh; Habsa Nassif al-Sheikh (75); and Maryam Nassif al-Sheikh (90).
A neighbour had tried to help them escape on 24 October, but Najla, whose family was one of the last to remain in the area, had said it would be impossible to leave because she had three elderly relatives with her. When he called the next morning, there was no answer.
In another incident, three people were killed by shelling while delivering food to besieged neighbours on 25 October.
Other Saddad residents lost their lives because the rebels refused to allow them to leave their homes to escape the fighting. In one case, four members of the same family died when an explosion caused the house they were sheltering in to collapse.
HRW spoke to one resident who was used as a human shield. They came to “Fouad’s” home and, in front of his three children, wife, mother and niece, told him to lie down and then hit him with their rifle butts. One said, “We kill Nasara [Christians]”.
Two of them took me with them to walk down the street, walking on either side of me until we passed the [government] sniper, so he wouldn’t shoot. And then they left me.
HRW said that the use of human shields was prohibited under international humanitarian law and that parties to a conflict must take all feasible precautions to minimise loss of civilian life.
Opposition fighters vandalised, looted and damaged property in at least three churches of local and historical significance and also stole residents’ property. Rebel groups graffitied the interior walls of one church with their name tags.
HRW said that pillaging and deliberate attacks on religious sites that are not military objectives are war crimes.
Various opposition groups were involved in the Saddad siege, which they referred to as part of the “Battle of God’s Doors Do Not Shut” operation. Among them were the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and also battalions from the so-called moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA).
HRW urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court to “strip all sides of their sense of impunity”.
- barnabas team
Christianity is dead in England – or at least it could be in a generation, says former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey.
“In many parts of Britain churches are struggling, some priests are diffident and lack confidence; a feeling of defeat is around… The burden seems heavy and joy in ministry has been replaced by a feeling of heaviness.”
His comments come in response to a report given at the Anglican Church’s recent General Synod which warned that shrinking congregations are an existential threat to the centuries-old national institution. According to the report, only 807,000 Englishmen attend Anglican services on a typical Sunday. That number represents just 1.5% of England’s population of 53 million.
In the land that built the beautiful Westminster Abbey, helpedevangelize Europe, and inspired the Inklings, what went wrong?
The Irrelevance of Relevance
“Church of England is dying because it has opted for the course taken by liberal Protestantism,” says Paul Gondreau, Professor of Theology at Providence College, “which is to say a course that conforms itself more and more to the modern secular world.”
“Rather than acting as an agent of evangelization, the Church of England, no doubt eager to demonstrate its modern ‘relevance’, has gone too far to the other extreme and has compromised its Christian identity (the ordination of openly homosexual ministers and the ordination of women provide two obvious examples). It is well known, for example, that the principle draw and defining element of Anglican liturgy is nothing at bottom theological, but aesthetic only.
“That the new Archbishop of Canterbury seems extremely favorably disposed to Catholicism, and even willing to take the Church of England in a more ‘Catholic’ direction, indicates that he sees the trend to secularism in the Church of England as spelling its doom.”
Academic Dean of Evangelization for the Diocese of Paterson Allan Wright also puts the blame for the decline of Christianity on Christians not staying true to the faith. “We can point to cultural changes and attitudes, an increased secular culture but more pointedly Christians themselves share in the downfall of Christianity through poor catechists, lack of family involvement in faith formation in the home and through Church leaders who seek the approval of the current social leadership rather than being disciples and witnesses to Christ.”
- aleteia org
Vatican City, November 21, 2013: Francis meets with the participants in the assembly of the Congregation of Eastern Catholic Churches . “We should never resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians.” The whole Church is called to prayer that “disarms foolishness and generates dialogue where there is open conflict. If it is sincere and persevering , it will make our voice gentle and firm, capable of being heard even by the leaders of nations .”
Concerned about the situation of Christians in the Middle East, ” the Bishop of Rome will not rest as long as there are men and women, of any religion , affected in their dignity , deprived of the necessary for survival , robbed of their future, forced into the status of refugees and displaced persons”.
This was the appeal launched by Pope Francis “together with the pastors of the Churches of the East”, that “everyone’s right to a dignified life and to freely profess their faith be respected. We should never resign ourselves to thinking of the Middle East without the Christians, who for two thousand years confess the name of Jesus, as full citizens in social, cultural and religious life of the nations to which they belong”.
Francis’ appeal follows his double appointment this morning: First with the patriarchs and major archbishops of the Eastern Catholic churches, received this morning in the Vatican Consistory Hall, followed by an audience with all the participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches , in the course of carrying on the theme “The Eastern Catholic Churches 50 years after the Second Vatican Council”.
“The pain of the smallest and the weakest – said Francis to the assembly participants – along with the silence of the victims, pose an insistent question: “How much is left of the night? “(Is 21:11) . Continue to be vigilant, to the biblical watchman certain that the Lord will not be lacking in coming to our aid. I turn , therefore, to the whole Church to urge prayer, which can evoke from the merciful heart of God, reconciliation and peace. Prayer disarms foolishness and generates dialogue where there is open conflict. If it is sincere and persevering , it will make our voice gentle and firm, capable of being heard even by the leaders of nations”.
In the previous meeting with the 11 patriarchs, the Pope indicated what characterizes the leaders of the Eastern Churches, “guardians” of unity. Pope Francis went on to say, “In order that our witness be credible, we are called ever to seek justice, mercy, faith, charity, patience and meekness” and with a ” sober lifestyle in the image of Christ , who stripped himself to enrich us with his poverty . “
“The union, which you are called to realize in your Churches, finds natural and full expression in the ‘indefectible union with the Bishop of Rome”(ibid.). “A union and fidelity, he added in his subsequent address to participants in the Assembly “that demands a high price , not infrequently even martyrdom . The whole Church is very grateful for this”.
The Pope also said that he “has been able to learn firsthand from the Patriarchs and Major Archbishops the situation of the various Eastern Churches: the flourishing vitality of those long oppressed under communist regimes , the missionary dynamism of those that refer to the preaching of the Apostle Thomas , and the perseverance of those who live in the Middle East , often in the position of ‘being a little flock ‘ in environments marked by hostility and conflict . “
“In order for our testimony to be credible, we are called to always seek ” justice, godliness, faith , love, patience and gentleness “(ibid. ; cf. 1 Tim 6:11 ), to a sober lifestyle in the image of Christ , who stripped himself to enrich us with his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9) ; untiring zeal and that charity , fraternal and paternal, that the bishops , priests and faithful , especially if they live alone and marginalized , expect from us. I think, above all, of our priests in need of understanding and support, even on a personal level. They are entitled to our good example in things pertaining to God, as in any other activity of the Church. They are asking us for transparency in management of assets and concern for every weakness and need. All of this while observing that authentic synodal praxis, which is distinctive of the Eastern Churches . “
A thought, finally, for “Jerusalem, where we are all spiritually born (cf. Ps 87.4 ) . I wish every consolation, so it can truly realize the prophecy of Gods final call, from east to west”.
Church leaders of independent Catholic communities from Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe have spent the last week in Rome with Pope Francis and Vatican officials discussing the lives of their Church including a subject of high importance to the Pope the operation of their self-governing synods.
The Vatican says this meeting is an “opportunity” for the patriarchs and archbishops of Eastern Rite communities to present to the pope the situation of their Churches.
However, the November 19-22 meeting may also be another step for Pope Francis in re-shaping the way the Roman Catholic Church operates and decentralizing the Church government, adopting synod-based administrative systems of these churches.
The gathering follows Pope Francis’ suggestion that the universal Church should learn from Eastern and Orthodox Churches’ synodal approach to governance and decision-making when he and the Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) Bartholomew met after he became Pope in March. The Patriarch was the first in 600 years to attend a Papal installation.
The formal purpose of the meeting in Rome this week is to consider “The Eastern Catholic Churches: Fifty years after Vatican II.” The meeting is not something Pope Francis inherited. It follows a similar event in 2009, when heads of the Eastern Churches met Pope Benedict for the first time.
Those meeting this week in Vatican include leaders of self-governing Catholic Churches 21 churches that are fully Catholic but operate independently of the Roman Curia in matters of their administration, including selection of their patriarchs, archbishops and bishops.
“Except in matters of faith and morals we are completely free from the Vatican,” said Bishop Bosco Puthur, known as the Curia bishop who overseas the Curia of Syro-Malabar Church based in Kerala in southern India.
This independence is restricted to a small population, as all the Oriental Churches together form only 17 million of the more than one billion Catholics globally. Most of these Churches are also numerically small with three major ones Ukrainian, Syro-Malabar and Maronite alone accounting for 12.5 million or 80 percent of the Catholic Orientals.
“Each of these Churches, including the Latin Church, has its own genius. The beauty is to learn from each other without destroying the uniqueness of each one,” said Bishop Puthur, emphasizing that the eastern syondal administrative system involves every section of the Church.
Bishop Puthur said religious, laity and clergy are directly or indirectly involved in “every decision” of their Church. “The head of the Church, the Major Archbishop, makes no decision on his own. He merely announces the decision of the synod.”
The synod of bishops has only bishops as members, “but our bishops have their ears to the ground, they know the pulse of their people and will not support decisions that will go against the interest of the people,” the Curia bishop said.
The synod, which came into effect in 1994, elected its Major Archbishop George Alencharry in 2011. “So the system is new. We earlier followed the system of the Latin Church,” he said. The election of the head of the Church now needs to be ratified only by the Vatican.
The elections of individual bishops are left to the synod, which periodically sends a list of people who could be elected bishops to synod members. When need arises, the synod elects one from the approved list.
Bishops prepare these lists and make other vital decisions in consultation with lay leaders, religious and laity, according to the Curia bishop. The Church also has Patriarchal Assembly, which has representatives from all sections of a diocese and meets once in five years to discuss issues affecting the community.
Rome, November 19, 2013: The meeting, which will run from today to Friday, is set to focus on the Eastern churches in the 50 years since Vatican II. Eastern patriarchs will talked to the Pope about the plight of Christians in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The prelates will also discuss the relationship with Orthodox Churches and the problem of the exodus of Christians from the region.
The pope and the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches are meeting on 19-22 November to discuss the future of Christians in the Middle East, the Catholic Church’s role in Arab countries affected by conflict, its relations with the Orthodox Church and the problems of stability in the region.
Maronite Patriarch Card Beshara al-Rai, Chaldean Patriarch and Archbishop of Baghdad Raphael Louis Sako, Melkite Patriarch of Antioch Mgr Gregorios III Laham, Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, and Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX are expected at the three-day meeting that will focus on the Eastern churches in the 50 years since Vatican II.
Led by Card Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Pontifical Council of the Eastern Churches, the conference comes at a critical moment for Christians in the Middle East, whose communities are under constant attacks from Islamic extremists, especially in Syria.
Vatican sources cited by the Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouria noted that the meeting will mark a change of direction in Vatican policy towards the Middle East. The final statement is expected to reflect the fears of Christians in the region.
Speaking a few days before leaving for the meeting, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), “We want to consult with the Holy Father on the situation in Syria and Iraq, but we also want to discuss fundamental issues regarding the role of Christians in the Middle East, interreligious dialogue and ecumenism with regard to Orthodoxy.”
For the Melkite patriarch, the leaders of the Eastern Churches will suggest setting up “a permanent consultative body with the Pope, which could perhaps meet every other year”.
For Gregorios III, Christians in the region are in a dire situation and the Vatican must undertake a concerted diplomatic campaign through its nuncios around the world and help Eastern Churches develop their relations with the Orthodox.
“We are very happy at our communion with the Holy See,” he said. “However, Rome should not forget that we have Orthodox roots. We are the Catholic branch of the Orthodox Church.”
For his part, Mgr Raphael Louis Sako recently spoke to ACN about the union of Catholic patriarchs and ecumenism with the Orthodox.
“We are hoping for greater closeness towards our Churches in these difficult times,” he said. “We need more support from the Holy See, more encouragement and more solidarity”.
For the patriarch of Baghdad, the crisis in the Middle East is forcing Christians to leave their lands and that this poses a serious threat to the Church’s survival.
“Emigration is threatening our present and our future. We fear for our survival,” he explained. “Muslims need our witness of human and Christian values”, he added.
Hong Kong, November 19, 2013: The new National Security Agency could spell disaster for many, Church included.
The Third Plenum of the 18th Party Central Committee, which ended on November 12, attracted international headlines for the relaxation of the country’s one-child policy.
But something that should have received more attention was a one-line announcement on the creation of a new National Security Council.
According to People’s Liberation Army Major General Luo Yuan in the People’s Daily, the Council will be led by the party leader and should be cross-departmental, including the military, security and police forces, as well as the departments in charge of foreign affairs and the economy.
This means that the party continues to control China and its people and is assigning all rights for the supervision of change, not to the government, but to the party’s ideological leaders.
In China, where the rule of law is incomplete, such a council could turn out to be a monstrous “Big Brother,” depending on who is in control of the party at the time.
It would be practically unaccountable and even more powerful than the feared and despised Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, which oversees all law enforcement authorities – the courts and the police force – and is routinely accused of abusing human rights.
But the creation of this National Security Council could perhaps have been foreseen. About two weeks before the party’s meeting a 92-minute documentary, produced by the National Defense University, leaked onto the internet.
It was later taken down. But in a country where everything is controlled – citizens need permission from their workplace for everything from marriage to childbirth – it could be assumed that this film, produced by a university closely linked to the Army and allegedly prepared for senior party officials, did not appear by accident.
The documentary, Silent Contest, expresses the views of some powerful groups and individuals in China. It describes the threats posed by “foreign powers” such as the United States, seeking to infiltrate China. It emphasizes the foreign powers’ strategy of “political genetic modification”.
Abandoning any reference to what used to be called “peaceful evolution,” the documentary focuses on the corruption of China’s culture and public processes by alien influences.
The film lists external infiltration in five categories: political, cultural, public opinion and ideology, organizational and social.
It also claims that the Western world has launched “secret missionary activities” in China, “introduced Western belief systems to Chinese society,” and there is a “clear objective of Western religious infiltration.”
Among the five recognized religions in China, party officials are more at ease with Chinese Buddhism and Taoism which are believed to be usually peaceful.
In late September, Reuters news agency quoted “sources close to President Xi Jinping” that he hoped traditional faiths would fill a moral void in China. The report added that President Xi was referring to Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
As for the other three religions, Tibetan Buddhism and Islam are linked to territorial interests in Tibet and Xinjiang. In the documentary, Christianity – Catholic and Protestant – is seen as a “foreign religion,” which arouses the suspicions of party officials.
Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping were elected less than 24 hours apart last March. Some Catholic observers and scholars expressed the belief that it was time for both sides to put aside historic conflicts and turn a new page.
Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Pietro Parolin as his Secretary of State in August. Some commentators believed the Holy See would revert to the China policy it had held before 2009 when Parolin was chief negotiator with the People’s Republic.
But now, after this Third Plenum, any optimism about a warming of relations between China and the Vatican – especially as there has been no noticeable improvement in the trust between the two sides – would seem to be premature.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the local Church have not improved. While there has not been a recurrence of ordinations of bishops without Vatican approval, the harassment of clergy continues. In August, four unregistered priests were detained in Hebei; their whereabouts remain unknown.
In October, in Handan, again in Hebei, government and Vatican approved priests were placed under house arrest and taken for ‘re-education’ after they participated in a private episcopal ordination to avoid having another bishop, not approved by the Vatican, attend the ceremony.
The stakes are high, yet the life of the Catholic Church in China will be a subset of developments on the larger canvas of China’s direction. The fear is that China could slip back into the paranoid “Middle Kingdom” politics that have been evident throughout Chinese history, most recently during the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s.
To avoid this, an approach other than that outlined at the Third Plenum is needed.
Joseph Wang is the pen name of a journalist based in Hong Kong.
Nigeria, November 18, 2013: The US State Department has finally designated Islamist militant group Boko Haram and its offshoot Ansaru as Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs) after a long campaign by Nigerian Christians.
The decision, which was announced on 13 November, means that the US can now deploy a host of measures to disrupt the groups’ activities: business and financial transactions with them can be blocked; and people suspected of association with them can be investigated and prosecuted.
Nigerian Christians in Nigeria and the US have been lobbying the State Department to take this step for some time. Barnabas Fund has helped them to drive forward their campaign.
Boko Haram is believed to be responsible for around 3,500 deaths in Nigeria since the launch in 2009 of its violent campaign to establish an Islamic state in the North. Christians have been one of their primary targets; last year, nearly 1,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria, making it the most lethal country for Christians. The security forces, government targets, education centres and Muslims who do not support their extremist views have also been attacked.
A Nigerian Christian who survived an assassination attempt by Boko Haram attack testified last week before a joint hearing of two US House Foreign Affairs’ subcommittees. Habila Adamu from Yobe state was shot in the face by masked gunmen who came to his home in November 2012. He had told them, “I’m ready to die as a Christian,” before they fired at him with an AK47.
After he fell to the ground, they stepped on him twice to check if he was dead and, assuming he was, shouted “Allahu Akhbar” (“Allah is great”) and left. Habila’s Christian neighbours were killed. He told the committees:
Do everything that you can to end this ruthless, religious persecution in NorthernNigeria.
In May, Nigerian forces launched their biggest-ever offensive against Boko Haram, imposing a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. But they have not been able to wholly to counter the group’s deadly menace.
The British government designated Boko Haram a terrorist organisation in July, but the US has been extremely slow to do likewise, for which it has been strongly criticised. The Department of Justice, the FBI and the Homeland Security Department as well as several legislators had recommended the move, but the State Department previously stopped short of action against the whole group, naming only three of the groups’ leaders as terrorists.
Announcing the FTO decision, the State Department said:
These designations are an important and appropriate step, but only one tool in what must be a comprehensive approach by the Nigerian government to counter these groups through a combination of law enforcement, political, and development efforts, as well as military engagement, to help root out violent extremism while also addressing the legitimate concerns of the people of Northern Nigeria.
CHRISTIAN MINISTER KIDNAPPED BY BOKO HARAM IN CAMEROON
Africa, November 18, 2013: A French church leader who had been ministering in a dangerous part of northern Cameroon has been abducted by Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
Georges Vandenbeusch (42) was seized in Ngutchewe in the Koza region near the border withNigeria on the night of 13 November.
A group of 10-20 armed men kidnapped the minister from his home, firing into the air as they fled the scene on motorbikes.
The militants also broke into and raided a Christian compound, taking a number of valuables.
Boko Haram, which is waging a brutal campaign to establish an Islamic state in neighbouring NorthernNigeria, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, saying that it was a protest against the detention of its fighters in Cameroon. The violence has been spilling over into northern Cameroon; Koza deputy prefect Ouhe Kolande said that Boko Haram has been attacking Christians in the area for some time.
Mr Vandenbeusch, who was described by a senior church leader as “a popular personality”, had been warned about the danger but had chosen to stay to continue his ministry.
An expatriate French family with four young children had been kidnapped at gunpoint in the area in February and held for two months.
Despite the climate of increasing volatility in northern Cameroon, Christians from NorthernNigeria have been fleeing there to escape even worse violence by Boko Haram in their homeland.
An attack on Sunday (17 November) in the Gwoza hills, Borno state, which borders Cameroon, prompted another exodus of Christian villagers. Four Christians were killed and two churches and several homes burnt down in Ngoshe Sama. This incident followed an attack on 14 November in which around 300 gunmen descended on Gava in the Gwoza region and torched churches and numerous Christian homes.
Over 2,000 Christians have fled Gwoza, which has been relentless targeted by Boko Haram.
Mr Vandenbeusch was ministering among Nigerians who had fled to northern Cameroon, which is mostly inhabited by Muslims.
Barnabas Fund is also helping the refugees there; our partner has requested prayer for church leaders in the area following the abduction of Mr Vandenbeusch.
Converts from Islam to Christianity are also especially vulnerable. Two were shot dead in a targeted attack earlier this year.
- barnabas team