Holy Land, Holy Headache

This past Saturday I had the chance to attend the first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery here in D.C.  In the hour and a half I was there, before I had to retreat into the coolness of the somewhat distant Basilica, I saw hundreds of people gathering to speak with the vendors and representatives of various organizations working in the Holy Land.  Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, it was great to note such a good turnout for a first event.

Ironically, while standing in line for food I overheard two old ladies behind me, complaining about the somewhat disorganized nature of the food area. “I don’t know why this is so haphazard,” said one to the other. “You’d think that after so many years, they would get this food line right by now.”  Unless she was a time traveler of course, this complaint seemed rather bizarre under the circumstances.  Perhaps the stifling summer heat had made these ladies testy, but the petulance seemed so out-of-place with the peaceful and pleasant gathering of many different types of people together, to learn and share their experiences and prayers for peace in the Holy Land with one another.

Of course the truth is that, given the peace and good will which one experienced at the Festival, it’s hard to reconcile that with what we read in the news of late.  Israel and Palestine’s ongoing attempts to try to obliterate each other through the application of their respective interpretations of lex talionis are, frankly, tiresome and headache-inducing.  And as a result, conflict fatigue may well lead those of us who are not directly involved, into the temptation of simply allowing the two sides to just tear each other to bits and be done with it.

Except that to do so would be a failure on two fronts.

First, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we have to look at all of those involved in the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land as our brothers and sisters, because that’s what Christians do.  Christians don’t get to play favorites with non-Christians when it comes to loving your brother, saying that you prefer Jews, or Muslims, or Zoroastrians, or secularists.  So yes, that means you have to love ALL of them, folks on the left and folks on the right, not just the ones whom you happen to agree with, or have fewer problems with, politically or theologically speaking.

Second, we have to remember that for whatever reason He chose it, God particularly loves this part of the universe He created.  God chose to become incarnate here, of all the places He could have picked from on the planet.  He grew up in a dusty little village, in a place which was considered so obscure a backwater as to be mocked even by one of Jesus’ later disciples (“But Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ” St. John 1:46)

He did not select somewhere more geographically grandiose, such as the epic vastness of the Russian steppe, or the verdant luxuriance of the Amazon rainforest.  He did not appear among a people who had been contentedly insular and stable for millennia, like the pre-Revolutionary Chinese, nor among a people known for habits of analytical detachment and personal reserve, like the Scandinavians.  No, he picked this place, and this great mixing bowl of hot-headed peoples and clashing cultures, which for thousands of years have been unable to get along with one another.

Tomorrow, July 16th, is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of the Carmelite Order.  Mount Carmel is of course in the Holy Land, and well-known as a sacred spot for communicating between Heaven and Earth long before the monks arrived, as evidenced by the Prophet Elijah’s frequent retreat there from the dangers of Jezebel and the priests of Baal.  The date itself has personal significance for me, individually speaking, but historically, July 16, 1944 was a date of great importance.  It’s the date of the first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.  Ultimately that discovery led to the end of World War II, but at a horrific cost, one which still haunts our planet as we worry about dirty bombs, rogue missiles, and mutually assured destruction.  It’s a concern that grows ever greater in this part of the world, among the known and emerging nuclear powers.

We have an opportunity here, on the eve of this Feast in honor of Christ’s Mother.  Christians should be reflecting on what each of us is doing individually, to pray for peace in the Holy Land, as well as in trying to defuse tensions among the groups involved in the fighting, which have only lead to a never-ending cycle of hatred.  Clearly finger-pointing, recriminations, and reprisals get the parties involved nowhere.  Perhaps it’s time for all of us to drop to our knees, instead of dropping bombs or, in the case of those of us outside the conflict zone, sweeping generalizations and condemnations, and turn this persistent headache over to God.

"View of Haifa and Mount Carmel" by I.C. Stadler (1801)

“View of Haifa and Mount Carmel” by I.C. Stadler (1801)

 

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Those Inconvenient Christians

An upcoming Holy Land festival this weekend, and a documentary on Iraqi Christians I caught on TV last night, have given rise to a somewhat chastising post this morning, for which I hope the reader will forgive me – even though, as we say on Twitter, I apologize for nothing.

The presence of Christians in the Middle East is a fact which much of the mainstream media in this country, and even certain supposedly humanitarian groups, often chooses to ignore.  Their mere existence muddles the narrative.  It is much easier to assume that everyone who speaks Arabic is a Muslim, and that all Muslims are potential terrorists, than it is to recognize that not only are people individuals, but that there are Catholics and other Christians in places like Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, many of whom have been suffering greatly in recent years.

This situation has so deteriorated, even at this moment with the recent actions of ISIS or whatever they decide to call themselves this week, that hundreds of thousands of Christians have left their homelands in the Middle East to seek safety in other countries.  Yet when they arrive at their destinations, they are often scorned and ostracized by the very people they were hoping would welcome them.  This is unworthy of the West, particularly among those of us who happen to call ourselves Christians.

When I was in college, one of my closest friends was a Kurdish-American, a young lady whose family had fled the regime of Saddam Hussein and immigrated to the U.S.  Back then the problem everyone was discussing with regard to Iraq was the fallout from what we refer to as “The” Gulf War in 1990, in which Iraq had invaded and occupied Kuwait.  Although the issues surrounding Iraq were certainly considered at the time, to a large extent they were overshadowed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ensuing aftermath. Thus the suffering of the Kurdish people under the rule of Saddam Hussein was not as widely covered in the press back then, so that much of what I learnt about them at the time came from what my Kurdish friend told me, and the people she brought to campus for discussions and debates.

So it was interesting, given the non-stop coverage of the rapid takeover of Iraq in recent weeks by the latest brand of radicalized Islamic militants, to come across a program last evening which highlighted not only the suffering of Christians in Iraq in recent years, but also how so many of them have found a new home in Kurdish territory.  Even as church bells fell silent in the city of Mosul for the first Sunday in over 1600 years, Christians in the Kurdish-controlled north of the country were comparatively free to go about their business, knowing that the Kurds would protect them.  This is no small development, in the history of the region.

The Catholic diocese in the largest Kurdish city of Erbil for example, has grown from around 1,500 families before the invasion of Iraq, or roughly the size of a suburban parish in many parts of the U.S., to over 25,000 families today.  More and more Christians have left Baghdad and other cities, moving north in search of a haven where they can practice their faith without emigrating to other countries.  I was stunned to see footage not only of brand-new Christian primary schools being built, and discussions about a new high school, but churches filled with worshippers.  There was even a sit-down reception and dinner between the local Catholic and Orthodox prelates and their Muslim and Yazidi counterparts, where everyone seemed to be getting along just fine, and enjoying one another’s company.

All that being said, I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by pretending to be an expert on the complexities of religion, history, and politics in the region.  For example, I’m sure that there are still many issues faced by Iraqi Christians even amidst the relative safety of the Kurdish people, which could be shared anecdotally; certainly that debate could be carried out in the comment section of this post.  And given my own limited grasp of the subject, if you are looking for more informed analysis about issues faced by Christians in the Middle East, you should be following people like my friends researcher Phillip Smyth, or filmmaker Jordan Allott over at In Altium Productions, who are far more knowledgeable about such things.

What the Christian crisis in Iraq and elsewhere in the region does however, is spotlight something rather ugly, and often ignored by the mainstream media.  Caught in the middle of much of the sectarian fighting in the region are Christian minorities who are too poor to get much press.  Our ignorance of them is particularly unworthy of Christians in this country, many of whom are the descendants of those who also had to flee their ancestral homes because of religious persecution.  Shouldn’t we be doing more to embrace and welcome our fellow Christians from the lands of Christ, the Apostles, and the Early Church, rather than just lumping them all into a politically convenient category of “other”?  If we (rightly) blame the mainstream media for a dearth of reporting on this issue, what are we doing to aid these people once they arrive on these shores?

One way those of you in the Washington area can learn more about Christianity in the Middle East is by attending this weekend’s first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, this Saturday from 11am to 5pm [Metro: Brookland].  It will highlight the Christian people, places, and customs of our brothers and sisters from this part of the world, something which too few of us are aware of, and too little is done to protect and preserve.  I will be there to enjoy the food, presentations, and finally getting to meet Diana von Glahn in person, and hope to see many of my readers, as well.

Yet even if you cannot make it, I encourage you to take this opportunity to start educating yourself about the issue.  The media will not educate you themselves, for it is not in their interest to do so.  As usual, the buck stops with those of us who claim to be Christians, keeping in mind Christ’s prayer that we might all be one, as He and the Father are one.

Iraqi Catholics outside of their destroyed parish church in Kirkuk

Iraqi Catholics mourn outside of their parish Church of the Holy Family in Kirkuk, bombed by ISIS

Premiering Tonight: The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land

Those who are regular perusers of these pages will remember my review of Diana von Glahn’s terrific series “The Faithful Traveler” on EWTN.  Well now, Diana is back with a new series, premiering tonight at 6:30 pm Eastern on EWTN, which she and her husband David talked about with us recently on the Catholic Weekend show.  In “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land”, the von Glahns take us on the pilgrimage of a lifetime, and you will most definitely want to come along for the trip.

Employing a mix of documentary-style footage, unscripted observations, and interesting interviews, with – I have to say – some beautifully photographed segments and well-designed, appropriately helpful graphics, this six-part series covers many of the places most of us only know from Bible stories.  From Mount Carmel, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, to Jericho, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, we are shown all over Israel and Palestine.  Along the way we see many amazing things, we meet interesting people, we laugh, and we may even shed a tear.

We also come to appreciate why seeing these places is such a wonderful opportunity for Christians to understand their faith on a new level.  As Diana takes great pains to point out, we cannot know for certain, in most cases, whether a particular contemporary structure does in fact stand on the site of the original one from Biblical times.  Yet without focusing so much on that issue, she helps the viewer to consider the broader historicity of the Bible.  For example, St. Luke in his Gospel describes the Virgin Mary as proceeding in haste to the Hill Country in Judea, to visit the now-pregnant St. Elizabeth.  Well and there it is, on screen: the Hill Country of Judea, which as Diana shows us, is very hilly indeed.

Throughout this well-produced series, it is difficult to imagine a more engaging on-screen travel companion in the land of the Bible than Diana.  She has done her homework, as any good guide should, mixing a careful balance of providing information of interest to all, with offering some clarification for those who might not have heard of a particular term or concept before.  She is a charming, natural tour guide, never saccharine, and clearly enjoyed the experience – that comes through in spades during the series.  At the same time, she is also realistic about things, such as how exhausting all of the walking is going to be if you do go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One technical aspect of the show I personally appreciated, and which a lesser producer would not have bothered to take the time to do, was the incorporation of subtitles when needed.  While someone on camera may well be speaking English, we have all been in a situation where we can understand what someone with a thick accent is saying when they are speaking *to* us, but not when they are recorded.  The show makes certain that if there is any question about whether the speaker can be understood, the subtitles go in to help the viewer.

I also appreciated the fact that Diana does not just visit the sites one would expect her to, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, although of course she does so and takes part in the pious devotions associated with them to show us how it’s done.  However she also takes the time to visit some lesser-known gems in the Holy Land, which I might not otherwise have seen or heard about.  The beautiful little Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation for example, is much smaller than the Basilica of the Annunciation nearby, and yet to my mind is a far more beautiful structure.  And I was surprised to learn about the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, with its beautiful blue and white azulejos and religious art from Spain, given that I have a particular devotion to his birthday and connection to that country.

The fact that there were these two beautiful churches, among many highlighted in the series, surprised me a great deal, as I have seen so many images of really hideous structures over there.  Of course, there is the sweep of history to consider, and Diana makes the point of explaining – and in some cases being able to show us – how layer upon layer of Christian buildings were built one atop the other, as styles changed and wars and time damaged older construction.  Moreover, when she likes something in a building, she likes it, and when she is not so fond of something, she is charitable about it, which is a virtue I could certainly get better at practicing.

Diana also takes time to draw attention to the fact that the native Christian populations in the Holy Land are declining, a phenomenon we are seeing throughout the Middle East.  One comes to understand and appreciate that in many cases, these pilgrimage shrines are not just historic sites, but people’s parish churches, and a part of their community fabric.  So often in these conflicts the plight of Christians caught in the middle are completely ignored by the outside world, while not-so-subtle threats are posted – as Diana shows us – against those who choose to practice Christianity.  The safety and well-being of these communities is something all of us ought to be keeping in our prayers.

You can watch a preview of “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land” below, and for air times for all six parts, as well as re-air dates, be sure to check the EWTN website.  You can also purchase copies of BOTH series from the von Glahns at their own site, and particularly for those of my readers who are homeschoolers, this might be something very much worth looking into.  It is a real pleasure to see my fellow Domer Diana back on television again with such a terrific series, one which I highly recommend to my readers.