Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Christians

Obama Appointee Talks About the Genocide

This article was originally published by The Chaldean News  http://www.chaldeannews.com/obama-appointee-talks-about-the-genocide/

Chaldean FoundationOn Monday, March 14, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution labeling the ISIS atrocities against Christian groups in Syria and Iraq “genocide.” Just a few days later, Congressman Dave Trott of Michigan and Knox Thames, appointed by President Obama as the first special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, flew in from Washington to meet with members of the Chaldean Community Foundation.

The next steps for Iraqi Christians were addressed at the March 18 meeting in Sterling Heights.

“Chaldeans are like the Native American people of Iraq and Syria,” said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce. “ISIS is not their biggest enemy. The Iraqi government is no better than ISIS and factors like property confiscation and intimidation have made us come to the reality that our people can’t live a peaceful existence with their Arab neighbors.”

Manna listed the many problems that Christians face inside and outside of Iraq, and asked, “What is the long-term solution?”

“There is a crisis for religious minorities in the Middle East, even for Muslims who want to challenge the status quo,” said Thames. “The U.S. has done a lot, is doing more than anyone else, but we need to do more. We can’t do it alone and we shouldn’t do it alone.”

Thames noted that the United States has been providing humanitarian assistance to Syrians and Iraqis, including to refugees and displaced populations, since the start of the crisis. The U.S. is also supporting resettlement as an important tool of protection for those who cannot return home or locally integrate, he said. Many of the refugees who have been resettled, or who are currently under consideration, are Christians, Yazidis and other minorities.

“But the policies have not worked so far,” said Manna. “We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in 2016 with the number of Christians coming here.”

Ismat Karmo, chairman of Nineveh Council of America, and Eman Jajonie-Daman, magistrate at the 46th District Court, said many refugees have complained that during their interviews, Muslim UN employees wrote incorrect answers that conflicted with their statements, or interpreters from Somalia or Sudan twisted or misinterpreted their words. As a result, they were denied refugee status based on misrepresentation. Many want to appeal, but in Muslim countries, how can Christians who claim that they’re discriminated against by Muslims win?

“People say, ‘Well, Iraq is a sovereign country,’” said Manna. “But we helped destroy it so we have to help fix it. Either help the Christians stay in Iraq or please help them get out.”

“We’re working on both,” said Thames and explained the ways the U.S. is doing so:

By pressuring governments to reform, so that restrictive law and policies are changed and members of religious minorities are able to practice their faith freely and peacefully.
By working to create and sustain the conditions under which religious minorities can remain in their ancestral homeland. For example, through coordinated airstrikes by the Counter-ISIL Coalition, the United States has acted to protect minority groups in imminent danger in Iraq and Syria.

By protecting everything from old manuscripts to churches.

“When cultural and religious heritages are removed to erase any history that they were there, people don’t want to stay in that land anymore,” he said. “In October, I visited with refugees in Lebanon and asked them, ‘Why did you come here?’ They told me that they have given up on Iraq.”

Salam, a 33-year-old man who has been in the U.S. for a year, was brought into the meeting to share his story of being detained for seven days by the mujahedeen and held for $15,000 ransom. As he waited for his family to raise the money, he, along with other hostages, was tortured until his wife and brother came up with $10,000. Because it was not the full amount requested, he had to endure further punishment. He sat on a chair while a religious man with a machete came next to him, prayed, read a verse from the Quran, and said that by Sharia Law, they had the right to cut off his left ear. He then cut his ear.

Salam lost consciousness and later woke up in the hospital. The mujahedeen had thrown him in the garbage and called his family to pick him up from there.

“This is heart wrenching,” said Thames. “I’m happy we’ve given him refuge here.”

“This is not a unique story,” said Jajonie-Daman. “It’s the norm. I once represented a kid whose face and body is so cut up, he looks like a map.”

“Under UN convention, these cases are hearsay until the person journeys to another country and registers his refugee status with the field office,” said Wendy Acho, director of Strategic Initiatives at the CCF. “But you should be able to get into the system from credible fear. The person shouldn’t have to illegally transport themselves to another country and endure all sorts of hardships.”

A suggestion was made to create a UN office in Iraq so that, at the least, people would not have to leave the country to come to the U.S., but could come directly from Iraq. Another idea was to hold a conference in Washington, where all political party representatives and religious leaders from Iraq could come to the table and discuss these issues.

“Seeing the U.S. government is serious about helping them would boost their morale,” said Karmo.

Thames took notes of all the recommendations and said he was looking forward to working with his new colleagues to address these challenges. But he reminded everyone that there’s no magic or silver bullet.

“Changes happen through small steps,” he said, “and through the works of such organizations as CCF and others.”

ISIS Continues Targeting Christians

Assyrians

My friend Nahren sent me the following report:

It is being reported by my journalist friends in Khabour that ISIS has started using the Assyrian Christian hostages as human shields including the children against the Syrian Military. It is confirmed that the amount of hostages right now are 217 and the difference from the original amount were hiding in red zone areas until they made their way back to their families and were identified. However, ISIS is requesting a ransom of $100,000 per Assyrian Christian hostage. The Sheikhs are trying to demand for their release through consistent communication and the sheiks claim that the 217 are still alive. Many Americans and non-Assyrians have attempted to drive into the Northern Part of Khabour which is under the Kurdish occupation. They were turned away even with permits from the KRG.

It is also reported by numerous sources that as some of the civilians made their ways back to their homes, they found that the Kurds completely have taken over their homes and properties. They were told that their homes did not belong to them anymore. Journalists and media are not permitted in the area anymore and witnesses have confirmed that they were allowing only Kurdish civilians to enter through the border. Furthermore, it is reported that the Kurds are already attempting to convert the Assyrian Christian village names into Kurdish names (it’s confirmed that 2 to 3 villages have already been changed).

I asked Nahren, who with other activists demands international protection, why the Iraqi minorities have not yet been helped. She explained part of the problem.

“Our own people are so divided in organizations, political parties, churches and so forth,” she said. “The day our people (Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs) will unite like we used to be, I promise that Nineveh will rise with an amazing power that will be distinguishable in the world.”

Which reminded me of the famous Pogo quote, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

Iraqi Children Receive Christmas Gifts

This morning I received an email from Shlama Foundation telling me what my and others’ contributions were spent on. With a combined $680 donation, the foundation was able to deliver 550 Christmas gifts to displaced children on December 29th.

On one hand, that brought a smile to my face. On the other hand, I thought, “I should have donated more than a hundred dollars.” My children received a number of unnecessary gifts for Christmas, many of which they used for only a day or two.  We should have used that money to give to the Iraqi children. Such an act would have been more rewarding and my children would have learned a valuable lesson about the job of giving.

Shlama Foundation was founded in August 2014, after tens of thousands of Christian Iraqis fled ISIS and were forced to live in refugee camps in the Kurdistan region. One of the founders, Noor Matti, lives in Iraq. He had come to Michigan when he was six years old. As an adult, he applied to pharmacy school and was accepted, but decided instead to return to Iraq.

Shlama means “peace” and the foundation has established a secure system that not only shows where the money went, but creates a relationship between donor and recipient. On their website, a spreadsheet shows the name of the donor, the amount given, and a link to a YouTube video that portrays how and for whom the money was used, with photos of the receipts. In each video, the recipients express their situation, thank the donor by name and address how the money has touched them.

I interviewed the members of this organization last year, during which time Matti told me his feelings about the situation in Iraq. “Better days are ahead,” he said. “As a nation, we hit rock bottom. So, there’s nowhere to go but up.”

Learn more at Shlama.org

Shlama Foundation

The Tomb of Prophet Jonah and Prophet Daniel Blown to Pieces

Prophet Jonah

The Radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) destroyed Shrines belonging to two biblical prophets – high revered by both Christians and Muslims – Prophet Jonah, dating back to the 8th Century B.C. and Prophet  Daniel.They’ve also destroyed 11 churches.

ISIS has, in one month, destroyed or damaged 30 shrines, ordered female genital mutilations in Iraq and told Iraqi shops to veil mannequins.

This proves that I was right when in 2008, I wrote the article “Operation Iraqi Freedom Enslaved Iraqi Women” where First Lady Laura Bush raves about how this war is going to liberate Iraqi women. I should write another article entitled “Operation Iraqi Freedom Enslaved the Iraqi People.” But by now, hopefully everyone knows this, I would think, so there’s no need.

You can read Operation Iraqi Freedom Enslaved Iraqi Women: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/the_iraqi/conversations/topics/4358

A Perfect Example of Diversity in a Little Town in Jordan

Once upon a time, it was not uncommon for Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together in peace and harmony. These days, such togetherness is rare – but maybe not. Maybe we don’t look for it long or hard enough to find it.

Evidently the filmmakers of “At the Intersection of Faith and Culture” knew where to look. This is part of a short documentary video series that reveals Arab communities where love is what drives peoples’ relationships. For instance, in the small town of Al Huson, Jordan, where there are 7 churches and 6 mosques, lives two lifelong friends of different religions who brought their town together by forming a cultural museum.

“I am a Christian and he is a Muslim, but you can’t tell the difference,” Mazin, who teaches at a university, says of his friend Samih, a local expert in tradition and culture. “By the end of the day, we make one person.”

“Traditionally, when a Muslim bride left her house, one of our Christian brothers would give her hand away, and vice versa,” said Samih. “We are following in our parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps.”

“Our message of love unites us,” said Mazin. “Honestly, we can’t live without each other.”

He is absolutely correct. We cannot live without each other.

Different Religions

Visiting the Holy Land

The Holy Land

My husband recently had the chance to visit the Holy Land, arriving to the Church of Holy Sepulcher just in time to begin the procession, with a candle in his hand. The daily procession passes through the places of the passion-death-resurrection of Christ, in a way of recalling to pilgrims the need to constantly meditate on the humanity of Jesus.

I visited this church many years ago. It’s an indescribable experience that leaves you in tears, regardless of whether you are a man or woman. One thing I did not get to do which my husband did is visit the famous Al Aqsa mosque and the Jewish temple that neighbor the church. Israel is a place of great diversity; Christians, Jews, and Muslims all consider it to be one of the holiest places in the world. To the Christians, this is where Jesus and His followers walked and where the great Biblical events were enacted. To Muslims, the Prophet Mohammad entered heaven from where the Dome of the Rock now stands in Jerusalem. For Jews, Jerusalem has always been a sacred city, gateway to the land of their ancestors.

Here’s my question: If these religions live so close together, where for centuries a Muslim family has held the key to the Church of Sepulcher, shouldn’t they act like family rather than rivals?

What a Pro-Saddamist once said to me

SONY DSC

Maaloula, an ancient Syrian village with Christian inhabitants was attacked by rebels today. These rebels shot and killed people, and forced residents to convert to Islam.

Yesterday my cousin told me that he was nearly killed in a Baghdad bombing where 8 men died and 20 were injured.

“Since Saddam’s fall, you tell me where in the Middle East and Arab world has there been peace?” a famous local radio announce once asked me.

I did not have an answer for this man, who is known to be pro-Saddam and was once investigated just because, he said, “I did not have a dislike for Saddam.”

“I mean, isn’t this why we went into Iraq to begin with?” he continued. “So the world would be a more peaceful place?”

I still had no answer for this man. But these questions blink in my head each time I watch the Arab news channels and see violence tread the streets of the Middle East and Arab world, like a loose madman in search of blood.

If only men would stop trying to be heroes through war, and emulate Gandhi’s type of heroism.

The Women of Telkaif

IMG_0927

Telkaif like most of the villages in the north is in the city of Mosul, Iraq. Mosul is where Agatha Christie once lived with her husband, an archaeologist who was involved in the excavation in Nimrud in the north of Iraq and he explored the ancient city of Ur in the south.

“I fell in love with Ur,” Agatha Christie wrote in her autobiography.

I fell in love with Telkaif, where my parents and their parents and their grandparents are from.
Yesterday I invited over some cousins who I stayed with in Telkaif in 2000. Telkaif is in the province of Mosul, and there, I got to visit the various churches and monasteries that date back to the early Christians in the place, from the 6th Century. I got to sleep on the rooftop and watch the stars shine brightly over the maze of streets and exquisite 19th century houses. I got to observe the fresh meat and dairy market when around six o’clock in the morning, my cousin and I walked to a place where cattle was slaughtered and where countrywomen sat beside a curb, selling homemade dairy products like yogurt and clotted cream. For a dollar, I also bought an abaya, a type of veil, from Mosul’s market.

Things are no longer the same in the northern part of Iraq. According to the Bishop of Mosul, of a 32,000 plus population of Christians, there are now less than 2,500. So I may soon have no relatives left in Iraq to visit.

Prophet Muhammed’s Promise to St. Catherine

Peace

I had a meeting Saturday afternoon with a friend producer about a film project we’re currently working on. I told him about my experience at the masjid and he said that people have created so many divisions when really we are all cousins who stem from Prophet Abraham and today. He said that, if Prophet Muhammad or Jesus saw what we were doing to each other, they would turn around and go back into their graves.

“All this fighting is not about religion,” he said. “It’s about real estate.”

He said quite a few interesting things, some of which I knew, that Jesus and all the prophets are revered in the Quran and Mary is the only woman’s name mentioned. Surah 19, one of the longest chapters in the Quran, carries the title “Maryam: Mary.” One thing I never heard is the story of the document that Prophet Muhammed wrote to St. Catherine’s Monastery, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited monastery which is located at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Egypt. The document that Prophet Muhammed wrote is hung inside the monastery along with its other manuscripts, which are outnumbered only by the Vatican library.

The Promise to St. Catherine:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.

The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

Well, off to church I go now.

Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Mosque

Today I feel as if I visited South Asia for two hours. Last night I received an email from CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) mentioning that its Executive Director-MI, Dawud Walid, was going to give a lecture at the AMDA Masjid about the importance of recognizing and properly addressing extreme religious rhetoric in Islam. I met Mr. Walid a few years ago. He and I have spoken at some of the same conferences and he is part of a documentary that I’ve been working on. We once talked about the possibility of doing a type of forum to open up dialogue between Muslims and Christians here in Michigan. Noticing today’s lecture was going to be only minutes away from home and liking the subject matter, I decided to go. Well, I was in for a big, but pleasant, surprise.

As soon as I entered the masjid, I saw people taking off their shoes at the door, women wearing head scarfs and kurtis, and a gold-colored silk curtain partially separating the men from the women and children. I have been in a mosque, which is similar to a masjid, once before when I was in London, so it was not a real shock. However, given the announcement of the “lecture” I was expecting a different setup. I asked the women who were warmly greeting me whether it was okay for me, as a Christian, to be here. They said, “Yes, definitely. Please feel at home.”

I took off my shoes, wishing I had worn my better socks, and although no one batted an eye, I respectfully put my long hair in a bun. I joined the ladies on the beautiful burgundy rug with beige and light green decorations. A number of the women approached me to introduce themselves and answer questions I had. From them, I learned that many of the attendees were Bengali, but there were others from countries in South Asia. This masjid has been around for approximately three years, but it’s temporary. A larger one is being built a few miles further north. It’s always available for prayer but on the first Friday of every month, there’s a community gathering where everyone brings food and eats together, then prays, then listens to the speaker of the month give a lecture.

The conversations around me were similar to all women topics – nails, weddings, etc. All the young ladies were university students. The food was heavenly, the call to prayer reminded me of my childhood days in Baghdad, and the lecture was something we don’t hear about in non-Islamic media outlets. Mr. Walid talked about the importance for American Muslims having good manners towards differences of opinion.

“In other Muslim communities around the world, each town and village may follow one school of thought,” he said. “But there’s a diverse pluralistic community called America where many different ethnicities live. So we have to open our minds and be flexible to others’ opinions. Just because we don’t understand something does not make it wrong or un-Islamic.”

He encouraged for people to instead give advice, if they’re qualified to do so (he noticed the worst debates on Islam are those who know nothing about it) in the manner the Quran asks for – with tenderness and gentleness so that they do not commit verbal aggression on each other and so no one feels slighted or embarrassed.

“In Islam there are some things that are non-negotiable, but most are flexible. We shouldn’t let our small differences disunite us as a community. Scholars debated centuries ago about such matters as whether the Quran is a word of God or if it the creation of God, and about other matters. They never sorted out those questions so we don’t have to get bogged down about it.”
Another quote he used from the Quran was “Let there be no compulsion in religion because right action is clear from error” – meaning, anytime we use pressure to make someone do something against their will, they will naturally hate it.

I have so much more to say about this experience, but I have already gone over the limit of how long I want my posts to be. So I may just have to pay the masjid another visit in the near future.