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U.N. officials, church leaders decry escalating situation in Syria

February 13th, 2018 Posted in International News Tags:

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Catholic News Service

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — As Syria’s war soon enters its eighth year, many decry the recent dangerous escalation in the conflict, whether in the country’s north, between Turkey and the Kurds, or in the south, between Iran and Israel.

Speaking from the sprawling Zaatari Refugee Camp housing 80,000 Syrians near Jordan’s border with Syria, the head of the U.N. refugee agency condemned the recent Israeli-Iranian confrontation over Syria, which threatens to open a new and unpredictable front in the war.

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U.S. doctors, nurses treat Syrian refugees for free in Jordan

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Catholic News Service

MAFRAQ, Jordan — American doctors and nurses on a medical mission to Jordan are performing badly needed surgeries and other medical treatment free of charge to thousands of Syrian refugees who can no longer afford basic health care.

Dr. Bassel Atassi of the Little Company of Mary Hospital, a not-for-profit Catholic community hospital on Chicago’s South Side, led the 80-member mission.

Dr. Anas Safadi, a cardiologist with the Syrian American Medical Society, checks his Syrian refugee patient Jan. 11 at Gardens Hospital in Amman, Jordan, after performing free heart catheter surgery the previous day. (CNS/Scott R. Carey)

Dr. Anas Safadi, a cardiologist with the Syrian American Medical Society, checks his Syrian refugee patient Jan. 11 at Gardens Hospital in Amman, Jordan, after performing free heart catheter surgery the previous day. (CNS/Scott R. Carey)

Fanning out across Jordan, under the auspices of the Syrian American Medical Society, teams provided cardiac, eye and orthopedic surgeries; others offered care in pediatrics, obstetrics, dentistry, pain management and nephrology for refugees, inside camps and in the community. They also aided poor Jordanians.

Atassi, originally from Homs and Aleppo, Syria, said the brutal, nearly six-year Syrian conflict has scattered his immediate family around the globe.

One of the two main oncologists at Little Company, Atassi praised the hospital for its support.

“The hospital donated medications and other supplies to the mission. The last time I was here in the fall, the hospital asked me to speak at a big meeting about the mission, showing my documentary video. They are very appreciative of this effort,” Atassi said.

Compassion for the sick and cancer treatment are deep-rooted at Little Company. Its founder, Venerable Mary Potter, fought a personal battle with cancer. The hospital has a state-of-the art cancer center affiliated with the University of Chicago Hospital. While the latest technology is key to treatment, so too, Little Company says, is the “spiritual connection of prayer to the healing process.”

“The hospital has a real humanitarian ethos,” said Dr. Junaid Makda, an orthopedic surgeon who also works at Little Company and joined Atassi on the mission.

“This trip really ties into the hospital’s mission statement of giving back and across all religions. That is something that is fundamental to everyone,” Makda told CNS during a clinic held in Mafraq, a northern Jordanian town hosting thousands of Syrian refugees near the Syrian border.

Aminah, a former teacher who fled the Syrian conflict three years ago with her tiny daughters, waited for treatment at the clinic in Mafraq.

“Life in Jordan is very difficult for us,” said Aminah, who asked to be identified by her first name only for fear of reprisals against family members still inside Syria.

“It’s difficult to find work, our funds are finished, and so I’m grateful that these doctors have come here to help us and provide medicines free of charge. This is a great blessing,” the petite woman, sporting a leopard-print headscarf, said as refugee children raced around the packed waiting room.

Atassi said the Syrian American Medical Society does most of its work in Syria, while carrying out missions in neighboring countries that host the refugees.

“SAMS used to be a small organization with few members. Now in 2017, we have thousands of members and hundreds of people employed both inside and outside Syria,” said the doctor, citing the crisis in Syria as a real turning point for the nonprofit medical relief organization with offices in Washington, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

“SAMS has been one of the first responders and biggest nongovernmental organizations bringing medical relief inside Syria, often through its field hospitals, including in Aleppo,” Atassi said. As of September, the group said it had treated more than 2.7 million Syrians.

Atassi said that during the recent battle for control of Aleppo, SAMS operated the largest field hospital in the eastern part of the city. It had been hit several times before, but the recent attacks left it completely destroyed.

“Some doctors lost their lives, others were injured. The majority evacuated to safe zones. They demonstrated a lot of dedication. After the evacuation, SAMS has opened new facilities for these doctors,” Atassi said.

Lona Gabree’s eyes welled up with tears when she explained why she traveled to Jordan for the first time to aid Syrian refugees.

The nurse for the past 27 years from Claverack, New York, said, “There is a crying need for help here and, because I can do it and my heart is here, why not rise up and grab the chance.”

Gabree anticipated having to deal with a lot of post-traumatic stress suffered by the refugees.

“I helped people dealing with PTSD right after Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “I was very humbled to work there and am now humbled to be here.”

Dr. Soroosh Behshad, a cornea specialist and ophthalmologist at Atlanta’s Emory University, told CNS he wanted to participate in the mission because, as a child, he was a refugee, and he knows what that experience means for the many displaced Syrians.

“My parents fled first to Pakistan after the Iranian Revolution, when my mother was pregnant. Later they made it to Austria and finally to the United States, where our family settled, I was schooled and am now a doctor,” he said.

Atassi said he experienced one of his toughest days as a cancer doctor at one of Jordan’s camps for Syrian refugees.

“I’m an oncologist and used to delivering bad news. But today I was almost going to cry,” he said.

“I saw the tears of the young woman and the faces of some family members. It was bad. My hands are tied here. If I am back at my clinic in Chicago, I can do tons of stuff for her. I can cure her. But today, I can’t do anything. You try to refer her to agencies that can help and you just hope for the best,” Atassi said.

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Memorial marking where Moses saw Promised Land reopens in Jordan

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Catholic News Service

 

MOUNT NEBO, Jordan — The Memorial of Moses on Mount Nebo has reopened its doors to the public amid festivities, after nearly a decade of restoration.

Believed by ancient tradition to be the site where Moses saw the Promised Land and died, a church and monastery are perched atop this 3,300-foot rugged mountain facing the northern end of the Dead Sea. It has drawn Christian pilgrims throughout the centuries and is considered one of the most important pilgrimage, tourist, and archaeological sites in Jordan and the Holy Land. Read more »

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Displaced Iraqi Christians are weary of waiting to go home

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Catholic News Service
AINKAWA, Iraq (CNS) — Abu and Um Sabah had to trade a tent anchored in a soft, grassy patch in a park for a roughly hewn, five-story unfinished cement building as they sat out their forced displacement by Islamic State militants for a second year.
A colorful rug tapestry of the Last Supper dominated the bare concrete room they called home, with a small picture of the Mary on another wall to keep their spirits lifted. A son, his wife and three young children shared another room close by in the complex located in this Christian enclave on the edge of Irbil. Read more »

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Syrian refugees, all Muslims, graduate from Caritas-run schools in Jordan

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Catholic News Service

NAOUR, Jordan — Exuberant Syrian refugee children sang, danced and played with colorful clowns as they celebrated graduation at their Caritas-sponsored school in this sleepy suburb of the Jordanian capital, Amman. Read more »

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U.S. priest laments destruction of Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — Catholic clergy lamented the destruction of Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery, St. Elijah, and urged the international community to do more to stop such assaults.

“I had the same emotional and perhaps spiritual experience as I did when I was standing over the bodies of fallen soldiers,” Father Jeffrey Whorton told Catholic News Service after seeing pictures of the monastery’s destruction.

This 2009 photo shows the remains of St. Elijah Monastery in Mosul, Iraq. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the recent destruction of Iraq's oldest Christian monastery after a preservation effort was mounted to save the 1,400-year-old site. (CNS photo/courtesy Father Jeffrey Whorton)

This 2009 photo shows the remains of St. Elijah Monastery in Mosul, Iraq. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the recent destruction of Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery after a preservation effort was mounted to save the 1,400-year-old site. (CNS photo/courtesy Father Jeffrey Whorton)

Father Whorton served as a Catholic chaplain for the U.S. military in Iraq and holds the rank of major, was instrumental along with others in seeing a preservation initiative mounted on the 1,400-old structure. Father Whorton said he believed he was the last priest in 2009 to “offer Mass on that altar before it was destroyed.”

The last recorded church service in recent years to take place inside the monastery’s walls was the Easter Vigil in 2010, but that was held in the courtyard rather than the altar area.

Reading of the destruction “was that profound and surprisingly strong emotion because of my connection with the monastery,” Father Whorton, who now works at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, told CNS. “It was a kind of a grief that was like a loss of life almost.”

The Associated Press confirmed the news that the ancient monastery on the outskirts of Mosul had been turned into a field of rubble, with exclusive satellite images published early Jan. 20. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility.

Father Whorton said the chance to both worship and give informal tours of the monastery during his tour of duty in Iraq “was probably the highlight of my entire priesthood.”

“I was able to offer Mass there three or four times on that altar. I was made very aware of the great cloud of witnesses,” said Father Whorton, explaining his sense of those ancient Christians who had worshipped over the centuries at St. Elijah.

“In the forefront of my mind was the reality that in 1700s, 150 or so (monks) had been martyred there,” the American priest said. “So I knew I was in a sacred place offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass. I felt extremely unworthy standing at the venerable altar. That, along with celebrating with the Holy Father, was the highlight of my entire priesthood.”

People were forced to bend down physically to enter the monastery. It was a “humble acquiescence of bending low for this great space that you are entering,” the priest said.

Father Whorton said another unusual feature was a piece of wood shaped like a yoke that stood above the entrance to the nave.

“For me, there was a kind of putting on the yoke of Christ and to bend low into that space where my fallen brothers and sisters had died (centuries ago). It was extremely emotional and a spiritually palpable event for me,” he said of his experience ministering in the ancient monastery.

“God became present once again on that ancient altar as he has done thousands and thousands of time throughout the 1,400 years of its existence. That’s the weight of glory,” Father Whorton said.

Many had voiced concern about the fate of the monastery after Islamic State militants swept into the area in June 2014 and had cut off most communication there. Hundreds of thousands of Christians were forced to flee rather than convert to Islam, pay a protection tax or be killed.

Father Whorton said the finality of ancient monastery’s fate has weighed heavy on him.

“I did not realize until I saw the pictures of the destruction that I would be one of the ones to literally close the door on this ancient church,” he said.

“I hope that I closed it with all the necessary decorum that is due to such a venerable place,” he added.

Assyrian Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI, denounced the attack as yet another assault once again on Christians and their heritage in their ancient homeland.

“Dozens and dozens of scientific, philosophic, historical and other books were written or translated in such monasteries. This is a memory of Iraq which has been cut off,” he said.

“When they damage my 2,000 years of Christianity and 5,000 years of Assyrian heritage as the indigenous people of this country, my question is this: If my history is being damaged, my present is being threatened, is there any future?” the cleric asked.

He cited examples of the Islamic State’s bulldozing the Assyrian city of Nimrod, where the Tower of Babel is believed to have existed. The United Nations called its destruction cultural cleansing and a war crime.

Father Youkhana also drew attention to the destruction of archaeological sites in Ninevah along with the forced displacement of Christians and other religious minorities long present in Iraq from their historic area.

He renewed a call for the international community to do more to preserve the Christian presence in their ancient homeland, saying it pained him to see many Christians escaping for safety to the West.

“What will be the future of Oriental Christianity if we don’t protect or give future chances for Christians to survive and to build a future,” he said. “We have to keep this mosaic and diversity, not give up.”

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Bishops visiting Holy Land urge peace efforts to help ‘forgotten’ Christians

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — With crises in Syria and Iraq deepening, Catholic bishops on a solidarity visit with the “forgotten” Christians of the Middle East are urging stepped-up peace efforts to resolve conflicts tearing apart the troubled region.

Highlighting the ongoing plight of Iraqi Christian refugees who face another winter of displacement, 18 months after fleeing persecution by Islamic State militants, is also their top concern.

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

“They want a future which is full of peace,” Bishop Declan Lang of Bristol, England, said of the Iraqi Christians who attended a packed, solemn Mass at Our Lady of Peace Center on the hilly, tree-lined outskirts of the Jordanian capital.

“These people are of tremendous faith, and that’s where they find their identity. What we are trying to say to them is that you are not forgotten,” Bishop Lang told Catholic News Service.

Bishop Lang has been leading 12 bishops from Europe, South Africa and North America on the third and final leg of a pilgrimage to encourage Christians in the Holy Land. Known as the Holy Land Coordination, the annual event was set up at the invitation of the Holy See at the end of the last century to offer support to local Christian communities of the Holy Land.

The bishops earlier traveled to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to encourage a Palestinian Christian population increasingly dwindling in the land of Jesus’ birth.

But the bishops told Catholic News Service that it also was important to hear from Iraqi Christians and other refugees, so the wider Christian community can effectively help them.

“It’s important that we remind our governments and the general population of the situation of Iraqi Christians,” Bishop Lang said of the some 8,000 Iraqi Christians currently sheltering in neighboring Jordan.

They fled their ancient homeland of more than 14 centuries after Islamic State militants told them to convert to Islam, be killed or leave. Tens of thousands are internally displaced in northern Iraq.

“So one of the responsibilities and obligations that we have is to keep reminding people of the stress and distress of the Iraqi refugees,” Bishop Lang said.

One Iraqi Christian, identified only as Bashar, said after the Mass, “My family and I sadly feel that we can never go back to our home in Mosul.” A mechanical engineer, the man had once owned his own telecom company in Iraq’s second-biggest city, which is now in the hands of Islamic State.

“The military didn’t protect us, and our Muslim neighbors betrayed us, even robbing us of our personal possessions. So we believe that the only future for us is somewhere in the West,” said the man, who now shelters with his family of four at the center’s compound because he has lost his savings.

Bishop Lionel Gendron of St. Jean-Longueuil, Quebec, told CNS that one of the first things he plans to do is talk to the new Canadian government about the issue of opening more resettlement opportunities to Iraqi Christians.

“I will insist on the fact. Iraqis are practically not allowed to go back to their country,” the Canadian bishop said. “Many Syrians left (their country) because of the war and the political situation, while the Iraqis left mainly because of their faith.”

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told CNS that “the time for peace is now.”

While praising the work of the international Catholic charity, Caritas, which aids more than 1 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the other humanitarian efforts in Jordan, he called them “a band-aid.”

“It’s not sustainable in the long run,” said Bishop Cantu, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “We have to look at the root causes of these issues. It’s in everyone’s interest to build peace, so we will certainly be advocating for that as we return.”

“It’s also important that the U.S. take in its fair share of refugees,” Bishop Cantu said of the increasingly divisive issue in the United States.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, accompanied Bishop Cantu on the visit. He said the office’s work on behalf of “all the peoples of the Middle East” has involved supporting a resolution in Congress declaring that Iraqi Christians and Yezidis have suffered genocide at the hands of Islamic State militants. He said his office also has worked to encourage the U.S. to accept its “fair share of refugees” and “invest in more resources for countries, like Jordan, to cope with the refugee influx, so they are not destabilized.”

Colecchi emphasized the need for active international peace efforts that recognize the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East.

“We’ve got to work for peace and ultimately stop the atrocities of Islamic State and the flow of refugees,” he said.

“A more united and effective response is needed to that kind of extremism from which Muslims are suffering and particularly, Christians and Yezidis, are targeted by,” Colecchi added.

Among the other bishops who took part in the Holy Land Coordination were Bishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, South Africa; Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England; Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, Ireland; and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway, Scotland.

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Church leaders lodge complaint to Israelis about rabbi’s arson remarks

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Catholic News Service

 

AMMAN, Jordan — The Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land filed an official complaint to Israeli police against the leader of a radical Israeli movement over his remarks supporting and encouraging the burning of churches.

Father Pietro Felet, the assembly’s secretary-general, filed the complaint Aug. 7 against Israeli Rabbi Bentzi Gopstein and the Lehava movement on behalf of more than 20 patriarchs and bishops. Read more »

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Dozens of Christians feared to be among 230 kidnapped in Syria

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Catholic News Service

 

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Dozens of Christians are feared to be among the 230 people abducted by Islamic State after the extremist group’s militants captured a central Syrian town in early August.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syria-based activist Bebars al-Talawy said they have no information where militants took their captives after overrunning the heavily populated town of Qaryatain. Al-Talawy put the number of Christians abducted at 60.

It is believed that many of the Christians had previously fled from Aleppo province in Syria’s north to seek refuge in Qaryatain. Read more »

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European practice on migrants is contradictory, Vatican official says

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Catholic News Service

GENEVA (CNS) — Europe is practicing a policy of contradictions in addressing an influx of migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, said the archbishop who heads the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the U.N. in Geneva.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi called on European leaders to consider a more farsighted approach to the growing challenge migrants pose to the continent. Read more »

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