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Working to end the madness, restore dignity in the Middle East

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

 

Catholic Near East Welfare Association works with churches to aid the poor, create dialogue, inspire peace

 

“The situation on the ground [in Gaza] is horrific. The attack on the Shajaia neighborhood yesterday [July 20] was very ugly and left 50 dead (including 17 children, 14 women and 4 senior citizens) as well as 210 wounded and 70,000 displaced. … “Those who visited the neighborhood during the two-hour humanitarian ceasefire yesterday reported bodies of women and children scattered in the narrow streets. …

“The Latin and Greek Orthodox parishes have opened facilities to receive those displaced mostly from Shajaia. There has not been any human loss affecting Christians, and property damage is limited to broken glass and minor damage. Let’s hope it remains this way. The most serious damage to the community is clearly psychological.

“We are continuously assessing the situation and continue to pray for an end to this madness.”

In just a few sentences, Sami El-Yousef, regional director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in Palestine and Israel, describes the madness engulfing much of the Middle East, and the role of its Christian community as menders of the body and soul — even as some of its own members flee their homes.

What accounts for this wave of violence? Is there any hope?

 

Arbitrary borders

The artificial geopolitical construct that is the Middle East, with its national borders drawn arbitrarily by the British and French after World War I, is collapsing. This is irrevocably and indiscriminately affecting the lives of millions of

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires toward the Gaza Strip July 18. Pope Francis telephoned Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas July 18, urging all sides to end hostilities and build peace. (CNS photo/Nir Elias, Reuters)
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires toward the Gaza Strip July 18. Pope Francis telephoned Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas July 18, urging all sides to end hostilities and build peace. (CNS photo/Nir Elias, Reuters)

people every day: Arab and Israeli, Jew and Christian, Muslim and Mandaean, young and old, male and female, urban dweller and shepherd, rich and poor.

In Iraq and Syria, the largest states created from the smoldering remains of the Ottoman Turkish Empire nearly a century ago, the powder kegs once controlled by strongmen have exploded, unleashing violent forces so extreme even Al Qaeda has repudiated the bloodletting.

Iraq, once awash in cash thanks to its oil reserves, is unraveling, its people exhausted by more than 30 years of constant war.

Syria, once the bedrock of regional stability, has disintegrated, its people maimed and displaced. Meanwhile, extremist Sunni Muslim militias have overrun vast swaths of territory and proclaimed a caliphate, an empire akin to those that once dominated the region for centuries. They have targeted minorities: As the extremists drive Christians from their homes and monasteries, they rob them of their few remaining possessions. If captured, members of the ancient Gnostic and synchretic sects of northern Iraq are executed.

 

Nothing left but faith

In reports that sound eerily similar to the death marches of Armenians and Assyro-Chaldeans by Turkish soldiers 100 years ago, residents in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul describe an exodus of Christians walking on foot in the summer heat, among them the elderly and the disabled.

“We’re providing people with shelter, food and water; people don’t have anything left and they can’t travel without the money to buy tickets,” Chorbishop Yosip Benjamin told the Telegraph as Mosul’s last remaining Christians gathered in the town of Tel Keif.

The prelate of the Church of the East feared his own community would suffer a similar fate: “We’re being threatened everyday,” he said. “Now, we don’t have anything left but our faith.

“It’s like life has stopped, and we are so tired.”

In Israel and Palestine, leaders on both sides remain unyielding. Hamas lobs rockets. Israel responds with precision missiles and a land invasion. The fire power traumatizes innocent civilians on both sides of the divide, although Gaza bears a significant share of the suffering: The United Nations has reported 75 percent of those Palestinians killed are civilian. Many of the dead are children, their deaths “a tragic outcome,” said the Israeli military, of the Israeli missiles that killed the four Bakr boys, all cousins, on a Gaza beach on July 15.

 

Wave of pessimism

In an article for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, a French seminarian working in the Holy Land observes that a number of factors have contributed to the latest conflict there:

“What is the origin of the current conflict?” asks Pierre Loup de Raucourt. “It is difficult to say precisely … the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the endless conflict in Syria, and instability in Egypt. … the failure of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine … which led to a new wave of pessimism and despair.

“The discovery of the three dead Israeli teenagers and the revenge that followed, leading to the horrific death of a young Palestinian, were sufficient to ignite a wick,” he continues. “And one does not know how big the powder keg is to which this wick is attached.”

That powder keg is huge. And as hopes for the success of the two-state solution dissolve, despair and despondency have settled in as the international community searches for a solution without success.

 

Pope Francis’ question

What is to be done? During his recent trip to the Holy Land, Pope Francis gave a pointed answer: Deny combatants their weapons.

“All of us want peace,” he said, “But as we observe this tragic conflict, seeing these wounds, seeing so many people who have left their homeland, forced to do so, I ask myself: Who is selling arms to these people to make war?

“Behold the root of evil! Hatred and financial greed in the manufacturing and sale of arms.

“This should make us think about who is responsible for this situation, for providing arms to those in conflict and thereby sustaining such conflict. Let us think about this and with sincere hearts let us call upon these poor criminals to change their ways.”

 

Cause for hope

All is not despair in the Middle East. Despite the deluge of violence, despite the flight, Middle East Christians continue to play a significant role in society. Through their emergency relief responses, social service initiatives, schools and hospitals, Christians restore self-respect, trust and even bring joy to persons robbed of these basic human values by the destructive ideologies plaguing the region.

These ministries — the work of thousands of priests, sisters and lay leaders of the church — reach people of all faiths and communities, and are recognized and held by them in great esteem.

Catholic Near East Welfare Association, an agency of the Holy See founded in 1926, works in the Middle East. And through its longstanding partnerships with the local church, CNEWA works to build up that church, even if under siege, affirm human dignity, alleviate poverty, encourage dialogue and inspire hope.

Observers describe the flight of the region’s moderates and minorities, especially its Christians, as an existential threat. Can the Middle East survive without them? Yes, but can families thrive overwhelmed by extremist and armed ideologies?

It is imperative Christianity survives and thrives in the Middle East. As children of the Resurrection, Christians at their best instill and inspire hope, which all of the peoples of the Middle East need in order to reclaim their inherent dignity, which is rightfully theirs.

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Michael La Civita is communications director for CNEWA and oversees the publication of its award-winning magazine, ONE. Go to www.CNEWA.org for more on how to help the association’s work in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.