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Seminarian who once saved the Eucharist from ISIS returns as a priest

May 23, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Karamlesh, Iraq, May 23, 2017 / 12:05 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Martin Baani was just 24 years old when he risked his life as a seminarian to rescue the Blessed Sacrament from the imminent invasion of Islamic State terrorists in his hometown.

Now, he is returning to his native village as a priest, ready to serve the people through the Eucharist.

On August 6, 2014, Baani received a call from a friend who warned that a nearby village had fallen into the hands of ISIS, and that his hometown of Karamlesh would be next.

Baani promptly headed to the San Addai church and took the Blessed Sacrament, to prevent the jihadists from desecrating it. That day, he fled in a car along with his pastor, Fr. Thabet and three other priests.

“I was the last one to leave Karamlesh, with the Blessed Sacrament in my hands,” he told the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need.

Despite threats from ISIS, Baani chose to stay in Iraq instead of fleeing with his family to the United States. He continued his studies at Saint Peter’s Seminary in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

In September 2016, Baani was ordained a priest along with six other men.

Around 500 people attended the ordination, which was presided over by the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Raphael Sako.

A few months before his ordination, Baani told Aid to the Church in Need: “Every day I go to the refugee camps to accompany the families. We are Christian refugees. ISIS wants to eliminate Christianity from Iraq but I have decided to stay. I love Jesus and I don’t want our history to disappear.”

Almost a year later, following the liberation of the villages of the Plain of Nineveh from ISIS control, Fr. Banni confirmed his decision to stay in Iraq in order to “serve my people and our Church.”

“Now I am happy to celebrate Holy Mass in Iraq,” he said.

Aid to the Church in Need has currently planned the reconstruction of about 13,000 Christian homes that were destroyed by ISIS.

Several weeks ago, the foundation held an “olive tree ceremony” where they delivered an olive plant to the homeowners of 105 Christian homes in the villages of Bartella, Karmalesh and Qaraqosh as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.

 

 

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Sign of hope in Syria – Aleppo consecrated to Our Lady of Fatima

May 17, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Aleppo, Syria, May 17, 2017 / 12:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Still reeling from the Syrian civil war, the city of Aleppo saw a ray of hope this weekend with a consecration to Our Lady of Fatima on May 13.

The Mass of Consecration took place in Saint Francis of Assisi Roman Rite Cathedral, which is also known as the Latin Church of the Franciscans. It was presided over by the pastor, Fr. Ibrahim Alsabagh, and concelebrated by the bishops and priests of the city.

The consecration of Aleppo took place on the 100th anniversary of the first Marian apparition at Fatima, the same day that Pope Francis celebrated the Mass of canonization of the shepherd children Francisco and Jacinta Marto at the Fatima Shrine in Portugal.

Present at the Mass of Consecration, according to the Facebook page for the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi, was a statue of Our Lady of Fatima that was sent directly from the shrine in Portugal.

After the Eucharist, the statue was carried in procession through the Christian al-Azizieh neighborhood, which has suffered numerous attacks in recent years.

On their Facebook account, SOS Christians in Syria said that the church was full of the faithful and that a number of them were joyful and were moved to tears because for many years, a procession with the statue of Our Lady of Fatima had not been held.

“Let us give thanks to God for this heavenly day that was ours to experience, and let us entrust the Christians of Aleppo to our Blessed Mother. May she, the Queen of Peace, since she gave to the world the Prince of Peace, grant to us the much longed for peace in the Middle East and the entire world,” they said.

The consecration of Aleppo was part of a program of activities organized by the Latin Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi on the occasion of the centenary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima.

The cathedral stated on its Facebook page that the celebrations began on May 11 with a community prayer and a procession with the statue of the Virgin sent from Fatima.

“Many of us cried because after six years we’re able to again organize the procession through the streets of Aleppo without the fear of missiles. With emotion we welcome the Virgin of Fatima to Aleppo and with the hope that the Virgin Mary will pray for peace for all of Syria,” they said.

On October 13, 2016, at the close of the last international pilgrimage of the year at the Fatima Shrine, the Bishop of Leiria-Fatima, Antonio Marto, blessed a statue that would be sent to the “martyr diocese” of Aleppo.

Currently living conditions in the city are still very hard because there is a shortage of food, medicine, and other supplies, and because electric and water services have not yet been restored.

 

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Blessing of cross begins rebuilding of Iraqi towns destroyed by Islamic State

May 10, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Mosul, Iraq, May 9, 2017 / 10:07 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- With the blessing of the cross raised up in the city of Bakhdida May 2, the reconstruction of the towns in the Plain of Nineveh in Iraq destroyed by the Islamic State officially began.

Syrian Catholic Archbishop Youhanna Boutros Moshe of Mosul blessed the cross on a joyous morning with emotive dances by Christians. There are 13,000 damaged houses – 669 of which were completely destroyed by the Islamists – which will be rebuilt in three towns on the Plain of Nineveh: Bartella, Karemlesh, and Bakhdida.

The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which is collaborating on the reconstruction, estimated the total cost of the program to be in excess of $250 million.

To date ACN has provided around $500,000 to the Nineveh Reconstruction Commission.

Work has already begun on the rebuilding of 100 Christian homes in the communities, and during a May 8 ceremony the owners of each of the homes were given olive trees to be planted as symbols of peace and reconciliation.

Speaking to CNA Fr. Luis Montes, a missionary priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word In Iraq, said that “Christians are very hopeful with the beginning of the reconstruction of the cities of the Plain of Nineveh.”

“Most of those who have remained in Iraq – some estimate that they are half of those that originally fled from ISIS more than two years ago, the other half have probably already left the country – want to stay and return to their cities,” he said.

However, he pointed out, “you can’t say the drama is over for several reasons, including the fact that the community has been greatly reduced and that is cause for sadness and for greater weakness both now and especially for the future.”

“In addition recovering all the territories that ISIS has taken doesn’t mean defeating them, because they will continue on as a clandestine group with attacks, just like the other terrorist groups,” he pointed out.

According to the research firm RAND, the Islamic State has lost about 60 percent of the territory it controlled at the height of its power in late 2014.

The largest offensive against the Islamist group conducted since in October 2016 by combined groups of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, recovered villages in the Plain of Nineveh. Currently, the combined groups are fighting for control of Mosul.

Fr. Montes noted that “Iraq has had dozens of attacks a month for more than ten years and that will continue. And you mustn’t forget that once the battle for Mosul is over tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan autonomous region will sharply pick up again.”

“Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that this reconstruction process and the soon return of Christians to their homes isn’t big news. Very big news! But we must keep praying because it’s still a very long road,” he urged.

Fr.  Andrzej Halemba, head of ACN’s Near East division, said that with the start of reconstruction work in Bartella, Karemlesh, and Bakhdida, “we want to send a clear signal to the thousands of Christian families driven from their homes in the Plain of Nineveh who now are living in an improvised and provisional way in Erbil, and other localities in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

“This is a decidedly historic moment. If we now miss the opportunity to help Christians return to their homes in the Plain of Nineveh, these families could make the decision to leave Iraq forever, and this would be a huge tragedy.”

For Fr. Halemba “the presence of Christians in this region is of vital importance, but not just from the historical point of view, but also from the political and cultural stance,” since “Christians represent a bridge of peace between the different Muslim groups at odds with each other; they make a crucial contribution to the education system and are respected by all the moderate Muslims.”

The priest appealed for both financial aid and prayers for the Christians in Iraq.

“From all our brothers and sisters in the West we are not just asking for financial aid, but also prayers with which to support the courage of thousands of Iraqi Christians who have made the decision to return to their towns and remain in Iraq.”

By the end of June 2017 ACN, which says it is the only international organization to consistently support the Christian exiles from the Nineveh plain since its capture by the Islamic State, will have spent more than $35 million in supporting the 12,000 Christian internally displaced persons in Kurdistan. Assistance has come in the form of monthly food aid, money for rent, medical help, the construction of schools, and the support of displaced clergy and women religious.

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Our martyrs’ blood unites us, Francis tells Coptic Orthodox patriarch

April 28, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Cairo, Egypt, Apr 28, 2017 / 11:39 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis closed his first day in Egypt with a visit to Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II, telling him their Churches are bonded by the blood of their martyrs, and are called to further cement this bond with acts of charity.

In his April 28 address to the patriarch, Francis said their ecumenical journey is sustained “in a mysterious and quite relevant way, by a genuine ecumenism of blood.”

Noting how Saint John the Evangelist wrote that Christ came “with water and blood,” Francis said this image serves as a symbol that “by living a new life in our common baptism, a life of love always and for all, even at the cost of the sacrifice of one’s life.”

“How many martyrs in this land, from the first centuries of Christianity, have lived their faith heroically to the end, shedding their blood rather than denying the Lord and yielding to the enticements of evil, or merely to the temptation of repaying evil with evil!”

The Pope noted that this has tragically been the case even in recent days, when “the innocent blood of defenseless Christians was cruelly shed.”

“Their innocent blood unites us,” Francis continued, telling the patriarch that just as the heavenly Jerusalem is one, “so too is our martyrology; your sufferings are also our sufferings.”

“Strengthened by this witness, let us strive to oppose violence by preaching and sowing goodness, fostering concord and preserving unity, praying that all these sacrifices may open the way to a future of full communion between us and of peace for all.”

Pope Francis spoke in an audience with Tawadros II, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, on his first day in Egypt. He is on an official April 28-29 visit to the country, aimed largely at interreligious and ecumenical dialogue.

After arriving at Cairo in the afternoon, Francis made his way to Egypt’s prestigious al-Azhar University and adjunct mosque, considered one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam, where he met with Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayyeb and addressed participants in the International Peace Conference.

He then met with the country’s authorities, including President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, before heading to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral for his meeting with Tawadros, the last official appointment of the day.

Tawadros is head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is an Oriental Orthodox Church, meaning it rejected the 451 Council of Chalcedon, and its followers had historically been considered monophysites – those who believe Christ has only one nature – by Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, though they are not considered so any longer.

Like the Bishop of Rome, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria is known as “Pope” to his followers.

Francis’ words to the patriarch bear special significance considering his visit comes against the backdrop of recent attacks against Christians in the area, which are part of a general increase in the persecution of Egypt’s 9 million strong Coptic community.

The Islamic State and other Islamists have carried out a series of attacks on Egypt’s Christians in recent years, including the beheading of 20 Coptic Orthodox faithful in Libya in 2015, and a series of church bombings.
 
However, in his speech Pope Francis noted that the “impressive history of holiness” in Egypt isn’t limited to the witness of the martyrs, because “no sooner had the ancient persecutions ended than a new and selfless form of life arose as a gift of the Lord: monasticism originated in the desert.”

“Thus, the great signs that God had once worked in Egypt and at the Red Sea were followed by the miracle of a new life that made the desert blossom with sanctity,” he said, explaining that given this shared patrimony, he comes to Egypt “as a pilgrim.”

Francis noted that while the two Churches haven’t always gotten along given both theological and non-theological differences, their 1973 joint declaration, signed by Blessed Paul VI and Patriarch Shenouda III, allowed them, “with God’s help, to acknowledge together that Christ is perfect God with respect to his divinity and perfect man with respect to his humanity.”

Equally important and timely, he said, “are the words that immediately precede this statement, in which we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and God and Savior and King.”

The strengthening of this bond between their Churches, Francis said, means they can no longer move forward with the idea that each can go their own way, because this would “betray” Christ’s prayer that his disciples “all be one.”

While the journey isn’t always easy, the Lord exhorts them to persevere, he said, explaining that “we are not alone. We are accompanied by a great host of saints and martyrs who, already fully one, impel us here below to be a living image of the Jerusalem above.”

Quoting the Gospel of St. Mark, founder of the See of Alexandria, Pope Francis pointed out Christ’s question to St. Peter: “who do you say that I am?”

Even today “many people cannot answer this question,” Francis said, noting that “there are even few people who can raise it, and above all few who can answer it with the joy of knowing Jesus, that same joy with which we have the grace of confessing him together.”

Because of this, Coptic Orthodox and Catholics are called to bear witness to Christ together and “to carry our faith to the world, especially in the way it is meant to be brought: by living it, so that Jesus’ presence can be communicated with life and speak the language of gratuitous and concrete love.”

As both Coptic Orthodox and Catholics, “we can always join in speaking this common language of charity,” he said, explaining that before completing some charitable task, “we would do well to ask if we can do it together with our brothers and sisters who share our faith in Jesus.”

“Thus, by building communion in the concreteness of a daily lived witness, the Spirit will surely open providential and unexpected paths to unity,” he said, praising the patriarch for his support of the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt, particularly through his establishment of the National Council of Christian Churches.

Francis closed his speech praying that the two of them would be able to “set out together as pilgrims of communion and messengers of peace,” under the special care and guidance of Mary, the Mother of God.

At their meeting, Francis and Tawadros signed a joint declaration indicating their gratitude for the chance “to exchange a fraternal embrace and to join again in common prayer.”

Notably, they declared that they “will seek sincerely not  to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other. This we confess in obedience to the Holy Scriptures and the faith of the three Ecumenical Councils assembled in Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus.”

“We ask God our Father to guide us, in the times and by the means that the Holy Spirit will choose, to full unity in the mystical Body of Christ.”

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Pope tells Egypt’s authorities they have key role in brokering peace

April 28, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Cairo, Egypt, Apr 28, 2017 / 10:14 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Shortly after landing in Egypt on Friday, Pope Francis denounced violent fundamentalism in his speech to civil authorities, telling them they have a special role in helping quell extremism.

“Thanks to its history and its particular geographical location, Egypt has a unique role to play in the Middle East and among those countries seeking solutions to pressing and complex problems that need to be faced now in order to avoid the spread of worse violence,” the Pope said April 28.

“I am speaking of the blind and brutal violence caused by different factors: sheer desire for power, the arms trade, grave social problems and that religious extremism which uses the Holy Name of God to carry out unprecedented atrocities and injustices.”

Pope Francis spoke to political and civil authorities, including Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, after landing in Cairo for his two-day trip to the country.

The visit will focus largely on interreligious and ecumenical dialogue in a bid to both strengthen Catholic-Muslim relations and support Egypt’s persecuted Coptic community.

After touching down around 2 p.m. local time, the Pope stopped by the prestigious al-Azhar University and adjunct mosque, considered one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam. There he addressed participants in the International Peace Conference before heading to his meeting with authorities.

In his speech to Egypt’s leaders, Francis voiced his gratitude for the invitation to come, saying that due to the country’s rich cultural and religious history Egypt is the misr um al-dunya, or “mother of the world,” a phrase commonly known by Egyptians.

He commented on how the Holy Family went to Egypt in order to find “refuge and hospitality” after fleeing Herod. This same hospitality, he said, can be felt by the millions of refugees from surrounding countries, including Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, and Iraq, who arrive and integrate into Egyptian society.

“This destiny and role of Egypt are also the reason that led the people to call for an Egypt where no one lacks bread, freedom and social justice,” the Pope said.

Because of this, Egypt has “a singular task, namely, to strengthen and consolidate regional peace even as it is assaulted on its own soil by senseless acts of violence.”

“Such acts of violence have caused unjust suffering to so many families – some of them are present among us – who mourn their sons and daughters,” he said, recalling the many youth, police, and Coptic citizens who have become “nameless victims of various forms of terrorist extremism.”

Among these victims, he said, are those affected by recent violence and threats that have prompted a Christian exodus from northern Sinai, and the death some 45 people killed by bombings in Tanta and Alexandria April 9.

“To the members of their families, and to all of Egypt, I offer my heartfelt condolences and my prayers that the Lord will grant speedy healing to the injured,” he said.

Pope Francis then offered his praise for various national projects aimed at building peace both within Egypt and beyond its borders, saying development, prosperity and peace “are essential goods that merit every sacrifice.”

He also spoke on the importance of keeping one’s focus on the human being above all else, because they are “the heart of all development.”

Pointing to the “fragile and complex” state of today’s world, which he has frequently dubbed a “third world war fought piecemeal,” Francis said a firm condemnation of violence is needed.

“It needs to be clearly stated that no civilized society can be built without repudiating every ideology of evil, violence and extremism that presumes to suppress others and to annihilate diversity by manipulating and profaning the Sacred Name of God,” he said, thanking el-Sisi for clearly speaking out on this.

“All of us have the duty to teach coming generations that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, does not need to be protected by men; indeed, it is he who protects them,” the Pope said, adding that God “never desires the death of his children, but rather their life and happiness.”

“He can neither demand nor justify violence; indeed, he detests and rejects violence.” The true God, he said, “calls to unconditional love, gratuitous pardon, mercy, absolute respect for every life, and fraternity among his children, believers and nonbelievers alike.”

The Pope said it is the duty of everyone, regardless of nation or religion, to unite in proclaiming that “history does not forgive” hypocrites who preach justice but practice injustice, or who talk about equality and then discard others.

“It is our duty to unmask the peddlers of illusions about the afterlife, those who preach hatred in order to rob the simple of their present life and their right to live with dignity, and who exploit others by taking away their ability to choose freely and to believe responsibly.”

Francis stressed that we are bound “to dismantle deadly ideas and extremist ideologies, while upholding the incompatibility of true faith and violence, of God and acts of murder.”

Egypt, which once saved other peoples from famine, is called “to save this beloved region from a famine of love and fraternity,” he said, explaining that this means issuing a harsh condemnation of all violence and terrorism.

By simultaneously building peace and fighting terrorism, Egypt will give proof that al-din lillah wal watan liljami (religion belongs to God and the nation to all), he said, referring to the motto of the nation’s 1952 revolution.

As the cradle of the three great monotheistic religions, the region, with the help of Egypt, the Pope said, “can and indeed will awake from the long night of tribulation, and once more radiate the supreme values of justice and fraternity that are the solid foundation and the necessary path to peace.”

“From great nations, one can expect no less!” he said, noting how this year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Egypt.

Pope Francis voiced his hope that these relations will continue to be strengthened, particularly through his visit.

He closed with an appeal for peace, which he said is “a gift of God, but also the work of man” which must be “built up and protected.”

Offering his greetings to the various Christian groups present in Egypt, including Coptic Orthodox, Greek Byzantines, Armenian Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics, the Pope prayed that St. Mark, who evangelized the region, would intercede for them in helping to establish unity.

“Your presence in this, your country, is not new or accidental, but ancient and an inseparable part of the history of Egypt,” he said. “You have shown, and continue to show, that it is possible to live together in mutual respect and fairness, finding in difference a source of richness and never a motive of conflict.”

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