Iraqi refugees [in Syria] cry out to Christians around the world for solidarity

Iraq and its Christians are a very near and dear subject to me. Every time I come across something about the Christians of Iraq, I’m sure to post it, and I will continue to do so in the future. It was through them that I rediscovered my own Christian heritage and first discovered the Orthodox Church. Please pray for the Christians of Iraq!

“Although I had been threatened many times in Iraq, I did not want to leave,” says the Armenian Orthodox hairdresser Cayran. “But then my shop was burnt and the car of my husband, who used to work as a driver, was robbed. So we left everything behind and fled to Syria.”

“Stories of lost loved ones, the sudden need to flee home and community and the hardship of life as refugees need to be told. And those who have the power to help end the tragedy of being a refugee need to listen.

At an April meeting of Iraqi Christian refugees and church representatives from around the world at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East in Damascus, Iraqi Christians who are now refugees in Syria spoke as church members from the U.S., Germany, Lebanon, Pakistan and Sweden, along with the general secretaries of the World Council of Churches and Middle East Council of Churches listened.

What the church representatives heard were stories of incredible suffering in Iraq and overflowing hospitality in Syria. They heard about the pain of living in Iraq and eventually leaving. They heard of the strain the influx of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees have placed on the economy of Syria creating the need for jobs, safety and security despite the unanswered questions of what next for the Iraqis.

The prices for food and housing are skyrocketing, and it is extremely hard to find a well-paid job. “Even if there were no refugees, the economy would have to create thousands of job opportunities a year in order to integrate our young people who join the labour market,” Samer Laham, director of ecumenical relations at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, explained to the
visitors from abroad.

“Animals live better lives than human beings”

That evening many spoke of the trauma suffered by their children and the insecurity of their future. Cayran said her son cannot speak normally since he closely escaped a kidnapping.

“Animals live better lives than human beings in Iraq,” said Samira, a Syrian Orthodox refugee. “At least they have the freedom to move. We were even too afraid to go to church because people were kidnapped from church.”

One day, when she was still living in Iraq, Samira went shopping with her daughter. “Three gunmen stopped us. They pushed my daughter around and asked her why she was in the street without a veil. Since then, she did not want to leave home and she dropped out of university.”

Aram, who had been a member of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Baghdad, said: “My wife and I knew some Christians who were killed. As our numbers were on their mobile phones, their murderers used them to call and threaten us.”

Aram also told about the mistrust that is poisoning communities in Iraq: “We had some friends, who turned out to work for the Mahdi Army. We thought they were friends, but they took our pictures in order to have us killed.”

Incidents such as the publishing of the prophet Muhammad cartoons in Denmark in 2005 benefit the extremists, who use them to justify their hidden agenda to kick “non-believers” out of the country, Munir from the Calvinist community in Baghdad is convinced.

“My family was threatened: either you leave within 15 minutes or we will kill you,” Munir described his own experience. He added that they did not know how serious the threat was, so they went to his sister’s apartment next door and waited. Really an armed gang arrived. “They raped our wives, and even my eighty-year- old mother was beaten.” After Munir’s brother-in-law, who had been kidnapped, was freed, the family left “immediately, without even taking any clothes with us,” selling the apartment for a fourth of its value.

In exile, Christians turn to churches for help

But life in Syria is not easy, either, as the resources which refugees managed to bring with them are soon used up, and jobs are hard to find.

“I have a brother and a sister outside the region,” Munir said. “We depend on them and are a burden on them. But they cannot afford to send us money all the time.”

A psychological burden for many families is the knowledge that any emergency or illness will find them without protection. Kwarin, a father of four, left his job with a security company in Baghdad to join his family in exile and take care of his children. “My wife urgently needs an operation,” he said, “but I have no money to pay for it.”

While the refugees are grateful to Syria and the churches there for welcoming them, many feel let down by the international community. Frustration prevails with regard to the Western embassies who have rejected visa applications again and again. “Do they want that parents go back to Iraq and get killed before they allow the children to get out? Must our young women go back and be raped before they are allowed out?” one man asked angrily.

Cries of “No!” or even “Never!”, both in English and Arabic, filled the room, as the question of whether they want to return to Iraq was put to the refugees. “Of course I want to go back to my country,” a young woman from Basra explained. “But can you guarantee that I will not be killed? My relatives went back and were killed in one night.”

Rev. Dr Volker Faigle of the Evangelical Church in Germany thanked the men and women who gave their testimonies to the WCC delegation for this clear message. “We cannot bring airtickets or visas along,” he acknowledged. “But my church and the Roman Catholic Church in Germany will join hands and approach the government, the parliament and the European institutions to tell them what we have seen and heard. (…) When we return to our countries, we will think of you, we will pray for you and we will act for you.”

The concern felt by Syria’s Christian communities for their sisters and brothers in and from Iraq was tangible in all the encounters the WCC delegation had with church leaders.

Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who was himself born in Iraq, told the ecumenical visitors about a priest of his church who had been killed just one week earlier, after he conducted the Holy Mass. “We do not want Iraq to be emptied of Christians but if they are in danger there, how could we tell them to stay?” asked the patriarch.

Many Christian refugees experienced that in Iraq belonging to a religious minority is dangerous. “Christians and other minorities are paying the price of the Iraq war,” said Samer Laham, “because they are suspected of being traitors and of helping the allied forces – as if they were not an original part of the social fabric and had not shared the bread with their Muslim brothers since centuries. “

So when they arrive in the host country, Christians put most trust and expectations for help on the churches. Denominational boundaries, on the other hand, are easily overcome. “Our church is an open house for Iraqi either to hold their own services or to join ours, said the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III. He added that his patriarchate works hand in hand with an Islamic centre to care for Iraqi refugees, whether they be Christian or Muslim.

Pastor Boutros Zaour, of the Evangelical National Church, said “it is Syria’s destiny to be hospitable to refugees, ever since the Armenians fled here from the persecutions they suffered in the Ottoman Empire.”

“The personal stories the delegation heard were heartwrenching, ” said Clare Chapman, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, at the end of the visit. “We must pray for the Iraqi refugees and work together as member churches of the WCC and as citizens of our home countries, to address the conditions they daily endure. We must take our responsibility seriously, as people of faith, to do whatever we can to support them as they try to rebuild the lives they lost through no fault of their own.”

Also see:

Ancient Christianity & Afro-America

Listen to Father Moses Berry talk about the upcoming (May 30 – June 1) Ancient Christianity Conference put on by the Brotherhood of Saint Moses the Black.

Also, take a look at the Brotherhood’s website. The page on African saints, which includes a large icon showing them all as well as links to information about each of them, is great.

For the Orthodox Church to plant roots and grow in America, things like this are exactly what it needs.

Thanks to Father Joseph at Orthodixie for bringing this to my attention!

Chinese Orthodox Celebrate Pascha in Beijing

A little late with this one, but great news:

originally published in Russian by RIA Novosti
April 27, 2008
English Translation by Igor Radev

Orthodox Chinese Celebrated Pascha in Beijing

Beijing, April 27th — RIA Novosti, Kira Pozdnyaeva. Around 30 Orthodox Chinese from Beijing, Harbin and Shanghai celebrated Pascha with a lay service (without participation of priests) at the Roman Catholic cathedral of St Archangel Michael in the capital of the People’s Republic of China, as reported by the correspondent of RIA Novosti.

The Autonomous Orthodox Church of China, formed in 1957, at the present moment does not have serving clerics. Approximately 13,000 citizens of China consider themselves Orthodox, mainly members of the Russian ethnic minority living in PRC, as well as Chinese.

In accordance with the laws of PRC, foreign clerics are limited in the possibilities of performing services for the citizens of China on her territory. That’s why this service was celebrated by a special rite for laymen with no participation of a priest.

Since the Orthodox faithful in Beijing lacked their own prayer house, the church for the service was provided by the Catholics.

In the service, the 81 year old deacon of the Chinese Autonomous Church — Evangel Lu, who was born and baptized on the territory of the Russian Spiritual Mission in Beijing, specially came from Shanghai for the occasion to take part in the service.

Larger part of the people gathered on the Paschal Service were descendents of Cossacks — Albazinians, who carried Orthodoxy onto the territory in China at the end of XVII Century, when a group of captured Cossacks, defenders of Albazin Fort were brought in Beijing.

The Chinese Emperor, admiring the courage of these warriors, allotted dwellings for them, married them with Chinese wives and provided for a church to be opened.

This became the motive for Peter I to establish the Russian Spiritual Mission in Beijing, which for a long time took on itself the role of a diplomatic mission of Russia in China and existed till the 50s of XX Century, when it was finally closed. On the extensive grounds of the Russian Spiritual Mission is now situated the Embassy of Russia in PRC.

In 1918 there were around 10,000 Orthodox Chinese.

The Revolution of 1917 in Russia, had ousted hundreds of thousands Russian speaking refugees in China. The émigrés built hundreds of churches in Beijing, Harbin, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Hankou, Tianjin. In 1957, the Orthodox Church in China received its autonomy.

The “Cultural Revolution”, which was marked by mass demolition of churches and cemeteries, desecration of Holy Relics and icons, persecution of the faithful, jeopardized the existence of Orthodoxy in China. Divine Services stopped to be celebrated for more than 20 years.

A Revival of Orthodoxy in China has begun in the 80s, when one church in Harbin was opened and a church was built in Urumqi.

Antiochian Orthodox church preserves age-old faith

Having been chrismated on Holy Saturday myself, this is something I can identify with. The people in this article steal the words from my mouth. From MLive.com, a Michigan news blog:

Posted by Aaron Ogg | The Grand Rapids Press April 26, 2008 05:14AM

DORR — In her candy cane-striped dress, Grace Phillips walks up to an icon stand bearing Jesus’ image. Still too short to reach on her own, she climbs a stool and gives it a big smooch.

“We didn’t have to force her to do that,” said her mother, Karen Phillips, of Hamilton. “Even if we’ve done it already, she wants to do it again.

“She knows who’s in that picture — who it represents.”

The kiss-happy 3-year-old fits right in. She wanders freely about the worship space, air thickened with incense from a fresh shake of the censer by Father Gregory Hogg. The aroma, along with the glowing candles, represents the presence and prayers of saints.

Amid this smell and sight, about 50 souls delight, finding one voice and filling Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, 1928 142nd Ave. in Dorr, with time-tested praise. Music with heart and no hymnals, sung with power but no amplifiers. A bright-eyed band of worshippers working from a 2,000-year-old set list.

This is now. This was then. This is forever.

Holy day
Today is Holy Saturday — the day before Pascha, the Hebrew-derived name for Easter in Orthodox churches, which celebrates the holy day according to the Julian calendar. Most Western churches follow the newer Gregorian calendar.

On this day, Grace and her parents are to be chrismated. The senses, heart, hands and feet are anointed with oils representing the Holy Spirit. It is the way orthodoxy receives Christians of other traditions into the church.

The journey — or as Gary Phillips calls it, “the pilgrimage” — has been a hike for Mom and Dad and a short skip for their adopted daughter. Yet each path has led them to this place, this never-ending song, this unchanging truth.

“I’m done looking,” Gary said. “I don’t have to look anymore.”

Gary Phillips described his Protestant experience as a “jigsaw puzzle,” but more befuddling.

All the pieces were in the box, he said, but there was no illustration showing how to put them together.

“I’d always sensed that there was something missing and I haven’t found it,” said Phillips, 49. “All these little pieces have begun to fall into place for me.”

He attended a Presbyterian church with his wife for about four years. She said she grew weary of changes. Familiar songs and traditions taken away. Diminished importance of ordinances — what orthodoxy calls the mysteries, or sacraments — such as communion and baptism.

More meaningful
They longed for more permanence, less conflict.

“The biggest part was the frustration doctrinally, ” she said. “Everybody was right, but everybody was different in their teachings.

“Things were looking more like entertainment and performance rather than worship. I think we came away oftentimes feeling really frustrated and not feeling like we’d worshipped in a meaningful way.”

The Phillipses have attended Holy Cross for about a year and a half. Karen’s first service gave her a unique feeling, she said. Fulfillment.

“Everything was very different from what I’d ever experienced, ” she said. “But I think the one thing that hit me more than anything else was I really had a sense that we worshipped God, even though I didn’t understand everything.”

Hogg, who opened the church in 2005 with six families, said it’s a feeling shared by many newcomers.

“A refrain you often hear from new converts is, ‘I have come home,'” Hogg said. “People have been in a number of different places, but they all find one in the same home and that’s been quite a joy.”

Of the parish’s 45 members, only one grew up Orthodox, and two have been baptized at the church, he said. The rest are converts, including Hogg.

He was ordained into the Lutheran Missouri Synod in 1983. Soon, he became aware of “very troubling issues.”

“Things that I thought were fixed were being called into question,” Hogg said. “For me, religious faith has to be an anchor; the anchor is important to keep you grounded

“If you’re not grounded, you drift.”

About 20 years ago, he visited a small Orthodox mission church on Good Friday and was in awe.

“When I listened to the words of the liturgy, I thought, ‘My God, they know the gospel,’ and it was in its beauty and its truth. There is a place that has it.

“For the next 18 years, I kind of puzzled out how you sort out all of those things.”

Now Karen Phillips, 49, approaches the threshold. She looks toward her chrismation with reverence and fear.

“It’s a happy time, yet there’s that little bit of fear aspect because it’s not something to take lightly.

“This isn’t funny stuff.”

Meanwhile, Grace isn’t missing a beat, and can’t wait to receive her first Eucharist, Karen said. She happily sings liturgical prayers as Dad tucks her in at night.

“It’s very much a little kids’ religion,” Hogg said. “The kids get it right away.”

Prayers sung in triplicate. Parishioners crossing themselves in triplicate. Baptism, Easter and marriage processions in triplicate.

Brevity is not a trait highly regarded by Eastern Orthodoxy.

Sunday morning gatherings begin with “matins,” or morning prayers, followed by another hour and a half of divine liturgy. Holy Cross’ matins ran about an hour on Palm Sunday, but there is no prescribed time limit. Worshippers approach and revere icons, and sing a set series of established prayers.

“Have mercy on us, O God, according to thy great goodness, we pray thee: hearken and have mercy,” sang Hogg.

“Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy,” the congregation responded.

Singing service
The repetition invokes the holy trinity, Hogg said. The chant itself, like so many Orthodox practices, also bears historical significance.

That was the prayer early Roman citizens would chant “when the emperor came to town,” he said.

Singing makes up most of a service. When asked why, Hogg answered with another question.

“Why not sing? Music is the language of love.”

Peter Marth, 31, of Georgetown Township, chimed in: “All of this is Old Testament heritage. If you entered the temple, you would not hear speaking.”

Kids dig the a cappella, the golden censer, and the colorful vestments worn by priests, Marth said. And seating arrangements are perfect for the fidgety: There are none.

Chairs are available for those who need them, and no one is discouraged from sitting, but most stand for roughly three hours.

“Not having pews is a great thing for kids,” Marth said. He and his wife, Laura, have three children, age 8 months to 5. “If they have ants in their pants they can move around a little bit without disrupting everyone.

“It’s just kind of a natural organism that’s moving all the time.”

Many rituals are holy as well as pragmatic. The golden fan used throughout the centuries that trails large processions was meant to keep flies away from Eucharistic elements, Hogg said. Also, 12 holes are poked into the consecrated bread. This not only signifies the 12 apostles, but it also “prevents bubbles in the bread,” he said.

The faith is the same wherever you go, “from Damascus, to Dorr, to Santa Cruz, California,” Hogg said. While Eastern Orthodox churches bear different names — Greek, Russian, Antiochian and so on — they denote ethnicity, not sect.

The difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity compares to that between a hospital and a courtroom, Hogg said.

“We’re here because we’re sinners and we’re sick, and Christ heals us with his life-giving body and blood,” he said.

“We’re a family.”

Great advice from Basil the Great

Honestly, the hardest thing in the world for me…

“The Christian ought in all things to become superior to the righteousness existing under the law, and neither swear nor lie. He ought not to speak evil; to do violence; to fight, to avenge himself; to return evil for evil; to be angry. The Christian ought to be patient, whatever he have to suffer, and to convict the wrong-doer in season, not with the desire of his own vindication, but of his brother’s reformation, according to the commandment of the Lord.” – St. Basil the Great.