Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Arleen Spenceley on Chastity

I'm very glad to have heard from Arleen Spenceley about her blog and especially her postings on chastity.  It takes courage, discipline, and great faith to live out historic Christian teaching on these matters in our culture. Check out her article, "Why I'm still a virgin at age 26" By Arleen Spenceley, Times Staff Writer

In Print: Sunday, June 24, 2012, as well as the blog itself:  http://www.arleenspenceley.com/p/my-work.html.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Homily for the Translation of the Relics of St. John Chrysostom

          On all but a few Sundays of the year, we celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  This coming Wednesday, we will celebrate his memory as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs together with Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian.  And today we remember the return of his relics to Constantinople in 438, thirty years after his death in exile due to his prophetic criticism of the abuses of the Empress Eudoxia.
            St. John plays such a prominent role in the history of the Church because his ministry combined bold preaching, faithful biblical interpretation and doctrinal teaching, asceticism, rigorous oversight of the clergy, liturgical reform, love for the poor, and fearless opposition to evil in high places.  A very popular preacher in Antioch where he was not afraid to make clear the tension between God’s requirements and popular forms of behavior, he was essentially forced to become the Archbishop of Constantinople, the capital city.  St. John tightened discipline in the church there and continued to speak the word of the Lord without compromise, which is a dangerous thing to do around powerful people.  He was first deposed and banished for offending the empress and certain church leaders, but was then allowed to return after she took an earthquake to be a sign from God.  Nonetheless, St. John denounced the celebrations surrounding the dedication of a silver statue of the empress near his cathedral.  She exiled him again, and he died as a result of the very rough treatment he received.
            During the reign of the empress’ son Theodosius the Younger, St. John’s relics were returned to Constantinople.  St Proclus had preached a sermon praising St John in which he said, "O John, your life was filled with sorrow, but your death was glorious. Your grave is blessed and reward is great, by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, O graced one, having conquered the bounds of time and place!" At the request of the people, St. Proclus got the approval of Emperor Theodosius to bring St. John’s relics back to Constantinople.  But those sent to carry the coffin literally could not move it until a letter of apology from the emperor was placed on it. 
            When the coffin was opened, his remains were incorrupt, which in the experience of the Church is a sign of holiness, for the bodies of the saints share already in Christ’s victory over death and decay.  (Recall that in the Old Testament a dead man came back to life after contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha.)  The emperor spoke as though he were his mother, begging St. John’s forgiveness and asking for his intercessions for her soul.  When St. John’s body was placed on his episcopal throne, the people heard him say, “Peace be with you all as he blessed them.”
            It may be hard for us to process such an astounding account, but we must remember that those who have died in Christ are alive in Him.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Though it is completely beyond our rational understanding, we encounter in these miraculous events a sign of our salvation, a foreshadowing of the resurrection of the body, and a reminder that there is one Church in heaven and on earth.
            Think for a moment about what kind of person God has magnified in these ways in the memory and experience of the Church.  St. John Chrysostom is not someone who made it easy on himself or on others.  He did not water down the faith so that it would fit easily with a conventional life. He did not seek power, fame, or wealth.  He was not afraid to give his own life for the sake of God’s kingdom or to go against the dominant trends of his society.  His homilies still speak to us with clarity and challenge us to live a holy life in a world that really has not changed that much morally and spiritually since his day. 
            Too often, we remember saints only with a few minutes of chanting and reading or with a good meal.  There’s nothing wrong with those sorts of commemorations, but they should be just the beginning.  For the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us is not simply an interesting part of our religious calendar, but a vital dimension of our life in Christ.  We are members of the same Body with them.  We benefit not only from the fine example that they set and their contributions in theology, liturgy, and hymns, but also from their ongoing prayers on our behalf.  If you doubt that, read the book of Revelation with its portraits of so many martyrs around the throne of God who beseech Him on behalf of those suffering persecution.
            Those whose lives have so clearly manifested the holiness of God are not simply dead and gone, but alive in Christ, worshiping Him constantly and praying that we will join them.  Of course, we do not join them only after our own death, but already now in the worship of the Church.  The Divine Liturgy is our collective participation in the Heavenly Banquet together with all the saints and the heavenly host, but the Christian life does not end there.  As those who have entered into the worship of heaven and been nourished by the Body and Blood of our Savior, every dimension of our lives should manifest the holiness of God seven days a week.   No, we cannot all do everything and no two people are totally identical.  But the even as St. John displayed faithfulness in so many ways, we too are called to offer every bit of who we are to the Lord.  In other words, we cannot pretend that holiness is for this part of our lives, but not for that part.  We cannot compartmentalize who we are, for Christ came to bring us—body, soul, and spirit-- into His.  The Lord wants us all to become incorrupt, to be healed from the decay of sin and evil in all its forms.
            When we proclaim belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, we surely want the Lord to remember us as whole persons in His Kingdom, and that includes every dimension of who we are.  We cannot understand it rationally, but eternal life encompasses the whole person and even the whole creation.  If we want an example of how to participate already in that all-encompassing blessedness, we should look to St. John Chrysostom.  He did not keep true Christianity confined to services, sermons, or what was socially acceptable; instead, he lived out what he taught and believed with integrity.  He staked his life on faithfulness to Jesus Christ, Who has magnified him in the memory of the Church.  Let us all follow his example of obedience to the Savior in thought, word, and deed, for that is how we too may become living icons of His salvation together with all the saints who have gone before us.                                    

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Different Kinds of Occupation: Palestine and American Materialism

What Occupation  is Better for the Soul?
Maria C. Khoury, Ed. D.
Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.  1 Timothy 6:11

It is a new year so it is always good to have a new beginning.  A new hope for the struggles I have so that I may overcome them with the strength Christ offers me. The good fight in keeping the faith gets challenged every day.
I am still trying to figure out which side of the concrete “Wall” is the wrong side since most of the time I am feeling locked up behind an official  26 feet high “Separation Barrier” on Palestinian land  but when I am  in my husband’s village of Taybeh,  I end up speaking to God more. Thus,  I have always felt living in the Holy Land  under military occupation with no basic human freedoms  is surely the wrong side of the wall.   Having escaped  to America for a couple of months, I noticed I am talking to God less since there so much here to keep me busy from shopping, sports and entertainment.  It is really a struggle to squeeze God in on Sundays. I am sadly coming to the conclusion that living under oppression might be better for my soul because prayer was the answer to everything out of my control.
I have been feeling that there is no perfect place on earth especially  because some people in free countries sometimes abuse their freedoms and commit acts of violence in schools and shopping malls.  I make every effort to always keep my focus on God’s Heavenly Kingdom  no matter what news I hear.  Surely military occupation  is not a good thing and for sure until the day I die, I will be promoting a free Palestine. However,  I am feeling a different type of occupation in the USA.  My challenges on the other side of the wall are  so evident and physically easy to spot with guns and military uniforms but I think the evils that exist in free society are subtle. They are unnoticed occupations.
Have you ever been bothered by materialism or is just my imagination that the majority of Americans want too much..  I am always overwhelmed by all the luxuries and wonderful things America provides because materialistic things are so easily accessible.  It seems one credit card is the answer to everything.  And, I guess it is ok if you spend the rest of your life paying for it.
My family gatherings have completely been transformed because before or after dinner every single family member sits around without any eye contact but with their iphone, Ipad or some computer devise.  Maybe this is not a technological occupation but I feel strange that my children prefer to send me emails while I am sitting in the same room.  There is a type of pre-occupation that I noticed many friends have because there is so much media pressure from the TV ads, the magazine ads, the radio ads to have ; to buy; to spend; to go;  How is it possible that your neighbor will go to Aruba; so you need to be thinking of going to Bermuda or something. This social competition  is nerve wrecking.   Maybe I am wrong but all of the materialism, consumerism and the luxury made me so dizzy I continue to see the world only as the ones that have and  the ones that have not.  The Gospel constantly challenges our lifestyle.  I am always wondering what God wants me to have.
 I am very ashamed of  myself because I don’t always see Christ in the other, especially when the other is a beggar in the middle of New York City.  I use the excuse that I am too freezing cold to open my pursue and give an offering or I am too scared  someone will rob me if I stop to pay attention  to the one  in need.  So this world is getting very complicated for me because I see the person  who pays $75 to have tea at the Plaza but who is un-willing to give a dollar to have a crown in God’s Heavenly Kingdom.  We really need to reevaluate  our treasures. “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28).    

In this new year can we re-new our hope of finding our space where God can be first in our life.  Can we get to a comfortable point of focusing on Christ since the end goal is truly to be in God’s Heavenly Kingdom no matter what color pursue or brand name boots we buy.  Let us open a new page  of seeing Christ in the other no matter how difficult it may seem.  Let us try as hard as possible to make every effort to understand God’s will in our life. Are we able to make our decisions according to God’s understanding of what is holy?  In this way we help our soul be occupied with the focus on eternal life.   It can only  lead one little step closer to God’s Heavenly Kingdom.  

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”  (Matthew 25:23)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Healing of the Samaritan Leper: Homily for the 12th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

            The gospels of the New Testament give us many accounts of Jesus Christ doing and saying things that shocked and challenged people who thought that they were better than others, who thought that they were holy and blessed and that others were evil and condemned. And today’s gospel reading is no exception. We read that the Lord healed ten lepers, but the only one who came back to thank Him for the life-changing miracle was a Samaritan.  Samaritans were hated by the Jews as religious and ethnic half-breeds who had mixed the worship of the true God with paganism.  And since lepers were also outcasts and considered unclean, this Samaritan leper surely had no standing at all in that time and place.  So imagine how shocking it was that he alone returned to Christ to thank Him for this miracle and to give glory to God.
            Perhaps this man was so thankful precisely because he knew who he was and how others viewed him.  He would never have thought that a Jewish messiah would help him in any way.  He had probably learned the hard way to expect little compassion from anyone and that he could take nothing for granted in any area of life.  He likely felt out of place walking with Jewish lepers to Jerusalem to show themselves to a priest at the temple.  But as he went along, he was healed.  And he alone gave the sacrifice of praise by taking the time to return to thank the One who changed his life.   And then Christ said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”
            This man’s healing is a sign, a glimpse, of the fulfillment of the good news that we celebrated at Christmas and Theophany (Epiphany) and that is at the very heart of our faith.  The healing of the Samaritan leper from a terrible disease is an icon, an image, of our salvation, of our fulfillment and transformation in the God-Man Jesus Christ.  And of course, this great blessing extends to all who have put on the New Man in baptism, regardless of their nation, race, sickness,or health. 
            As the healing of the Samaritan leper shows, God’s mercy extends to everyone who receives Jesus Christ with faith, repentance, and gratitude.  We want to be like that leper, receiving the blessing in humility and responding with true thanks—regardless of what anyone else does.  We want our lives to be signs, glimpses, icons, of the eternal life that Christ has brought into our world of death.  But in order to do that, we have to put to death the sins, the corruptions and diseases of soul, that have taken root in us.  These are the ways of the old man, the ways of corruption that lead only to despair and death.  They are like spiritual leprosy which distort and disfigure us, that destroy marriages, families, and friendships, that lead us to worship only ourselves, and make it impossible for us to become icons of the glory of the Lord.
            The leper in the gospel is a model for all of us who struggle to embrace Christ’s healing, for all of us who wrestle with the ways of the old man.  The Samaritan joined with the other lepers in calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  In other words, he began with humility, openly acknowledging that he was sick, needed to be healed, and could not work his own cure.   We should do the same thing in our prayers every day, confessing our sins and asking for the Lord’s forgiveness.  We should also acknowledge our weaknesses daily and pray for His strength to resist temptation, to overcome our bad habits, to calm our passions, and to help us grow in holiness.  And the more we say the Jesus Prayer, the better.
            The struggle to live faithfully can certainly feel pretty lonely at times.  There is nothing like sin to isolate us from one another and even from ourselves.  Even if it’s something that we somehow keep secret from others, the burdens of guilt and shame are profound and can separate us at a deep level even from those closest to us.  They can become unhealthy obsessions that make us feel as unclean as a leper.  That’s one of the reasons why the sacrament of Confession is such a blessing, such a source of strength in our journey to live the new life in Christ.  In Confession we are reminded that we are not left alone to struggle with our sins, for the priest is an icon of the Lord, conveying His mercy and providing guidance for the healing of our souls.  If we want to be healed like the Samaritan leper, we will come to confession regularly, naming our sins, especially those of which we are most ashamed and which threaten to destroy our relationships with the Lord and our neighbors.  We will kneel before Christ in humility, bare our souls, and be assured of His forgiveness, if we are truly honest and repentant.   Confession is a therapy for our healing, and a reminder that we are members of a Body united together in love and mercy. As we all know, there is great power in hearing a human voice say that we should give no further care to the sins we have confessed, for they are forgiven.  Christ says to each of us in Confession through the voice of a priest, “Arise, go your way.  Your faith has made you well.”
            The Samaritan is also an example for us in his obedience because he did what Christ told him to do, to head toward Jerusalem to show himself to the priests.   One would imagine that Samaritan lepers were surely not welcome there, but he went nonetheless.  And as he was going, he was healed.  Here we have another powerful image of the Christian life, for we open our lives to the Lord’s healing by obeying Him, by keeping His commandments. 
            A thief does not become an icon of Christ’s salvation by continuing to steal.  An alcoholic does not become sober by continuing to drink.  And we will not experience victory over any sin in our lives if we simply give into it or make up excuses to justify ourselves.  In other words, we have actually to repent, to reject actions, thoughts, words, and habits that we know are wrong.  Of, we will not find perfect spiritually health instantly; we may fail a thousand times, but we must be headed in the right direction.  The Samaritan was going toward Jerusalem in obedience to Christ’s command and we also must be on the path to a holier life through obedience, doing what we know we must do in order to live as those who have put on the New Man Jesus Christ in baptism.
            It’s a hard truth: We can’t expect to find healing for the corruptions of our souls if we do not obey the Lord.  If we do not pray, fast, give to the poor, forgive those who have offended us, keep a close watch on our thoughts and actions, and struggle mightily against our besetting sins, we really cannot expect growth in the Christian life.   If we are not actively seeking to become living icons of Christ’s salvation, we won’t grow in holiness.  Of course, we will not heal ourselves any more than the leper did.  But we must cooperate with the Lord, we must do our part in order to open ourselves to the mercy of Christ, to put ourselves in the place where His new life shines in ours.  And that is the place of humble obedience.
            Finally, we learn from the Samaritan leper to be grateful for every bit of progress that we make in the Christian life, for every step of progress in the healing of our souls.  It was not walking toward Jerusalem that healed him; it was the mercy of Christ for which he could take no credit at all.  The leper certainly knew that, which is why he returned to the Lord to thank Him. 
            And what thanks should we offer God for our blessings, for our healing, for our salvation?  Well, we should offer our lives to Him and thus become epiphanies of His salvation in every word, thought, and deed.  For He is the Alpha and Omega Who created all reality out of nothing and on Whom our life is entirely dependent.  We have nothing and we are nothing apart from His mercy, love, and grace.  And nothing fits in its proper place in our lives until it is offered to Him for blessing and fulfillment.
            So just as we offer bread and wine in the Liturgy, let us offer thanks to the Lord by living lives that are pleasing to Him, by living according to the New Man Jesus Christ, and killing the habits of death and darkness that can so easily destroy us and harm others.  For Christ was born and baptized in order to heal us and to bring us into the new life of His Kingdom.  He made a wretched Samaritan leper an icon of His salvation and He will do the same with us, if we follow that man’s example of humility, obedience, and gratitude. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Homily for the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

          You can learn a lot about the Orthodox faith by looking at icons.  For example, their gold backgrounds are signs of the glory of God.  Whenever we see an icon, an image of our salvation, we see an image of the brilliant light of the Kingdom and of what it means for a human being to be illumined by the divine glory.
            We need and welcome that light, for like the people of Galilee, we often find ourselves in darkness and shadows.  We usually do not have to look far at all in our own lives or the world in which we live for discouraging, painful, and fearful realities that can take the joy out of life and make us miserable.  That kind of existence can seem as black as midnight and as pointless as wandering around with our eyes closed. 
            The good news during this season of Epiphany is that the Son of God has brought the brilliant light of heaven into our darkened world.  His divinity is revealed, is made clear, immediately after His baptism when the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased” and the Holy
Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove.   The light of His divinity shines clearly from the dark waters of the Jordan.  He was lowered into the waters of baptism.  He was symbolically buried under them.  Thus, He entered into the corruption of His fallen creation.
And He did so in order to raise us from darkness to light, to illuminate us—and the entire universe—as an icon of His salvation.  Even as He rose up out of the waters, He raises us up from the futility and pain of spiritual blindness and death.   For we were not created for misery and despair, but in the image of God and with the calling to grow in His likeness.  But we follow in the way of Adam and Eve, choosing to live according to our own will, not God’s.  And as such we bring the entire creation down with us.  Instead of being priests who offer the world and ourselves to God for blessing, we have become self-centered consumers.  We devour ourselves and one another with our own addiction to our passions.  We do the same thing to our physical environment, obscuring the beauty of the world our Lord spoke into existence.
Had not the Son of God entered into our darkened world and corrupt life, had not His light dawned upon us and the entire creation through the waters of the Jordan, there would be no hope for us.  For by entering into our life and world, He makes it possible for us to share in His.  He descended into the lower parts of the earth to raise us up to the divine life.  As St. Paul writes, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  He brings a new heaven and a new earth, the fulfillment of the entire universe in the Kingdom of God.
This is all tremendously good news, but we must not fall prey to the temptation to make general statements that miss the practical, daily challenges of our life in the world.  For if Epiphany is merely a collection of religious services and pious statements, we will the point completely.  We are not called in this season simply to remember Christ’s baptism, but to participate personally in the salvation that He has brought to the world.  And that means, in St. Paul’s words, that we “all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” 
You see, our Lord’s divinity was revealed at His baptism and must also be revealed through us.  His divine glory has dawned upon a darkened world and must continue to shine brightly through our lives.  That’s what it means to grow into the stature of the fullness of Christ, to become perfect in Him, truly to know the Son of God.  Like an iron left in a fire glows red hot, we are to become living, breathing manifestations of the holiness, love, and mercy of our Lord.
But since we have been in darkness and shadow for so long, as has the rest of the creation, we should not be surprised that our fulfillment in Christ is a process, an infinite journey of creatures sharing in the life of the Creator.  That journey begins with our baptism, in which we put on Christ, but we err to think of baptism merely as one religious service that was completed long ago.  For the entire Christian life is a process of entering more fully into the death of Christ, of dying to our sins and passions so that we may rise and ascend with Him into the new life of the Kingdom.  This season of Epiphany, we should all examine our lives for areas where we have not yet put on Christ, for sinful habits or attitudes or actions which have not yet died.  Yes, we all still need to grow into our baptism.
We all still have dark shadows within us.  We should not be surprised or shocked by that.  Neither should we wallow in paralyzing guilt.  The light of Christ’s divinity does not shine brightly in order to kill us, but to bring us more fully into His life.  The point is not obsessive self-judgment, but to offer the weak, distorted dimensions of our lives to the Lord for healing, blessing, and transformation.
We are baptized into the Body of Christ, for He was baptized and later died, rose again, and ascended into Heaven as a whole, complete human being who is also God.  He did all these things with a body just like ours so that He could bring people—just like you and me—into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.
The Body of Christ also refers, of course, to the Church; and it is through baptism that we become members of His Body.  Not only was the Lord raised in the Body, He makes us part of His Body, He shares Himself and His life with us fully.  One of the symptoms of our sinfulness is our belief that we are isolated individuals, that true life and freedom are found on our own terms with us calling all the shots and letting no one constrain our freedom.  We pity people who are so self-centered that they cannot maintain meaningful relationships with others.  Human community takes many forms, but no one finds fulfillment in complete isolation.  That’s a recipe for misery.   
All the more is the truth about the Christian life.  If we want to grow into the full stature of Christ, if we want our lives to become epiphanies of the glory of God, we cannot do it by ourselves.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church embodies various ministries for the equipping of the saints, for the edifying of the body of Christ.  No one person possesses all those gifts, graces, and ministries.  If we want to die with Christ to our sins and ascend with Him into the new life of the Kingdom, we will do that in His Body, the Church, where we pray, repent, work, and serve together--and also learn to put up with one another’s weaknesses with patience, humility, and love.
So let us celebrate Epiphany this year by becoming more like the saints whose images we see in the icons.  They are illumined by the divine glory, for they have put on Christ without reservation.  They have left behind the dark shadows of sin and now radiate the brilliant light of the Kingdom.  And in doing so, they have become more fully and beautifully themselves, and found eternal life, peace, strength, and blessing.  We may do the same by joining our Lord in the Jordan, by dying to sin and death and corruption so that we may ascend with Him into brilliant light and unending joy of the Kingdom.
Let us live out our baptism, then, together as members of one another in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ as we become epiphanies of His salvation.  For that is really the only way to celebrate this feast.    

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Eastern Orthodox and Catholics Trapped in Syrian Village

Greek-Orthodox and Roman Catholic Community Trapped in Small Syrian Village

Franciscan Friar Fr. Fran├žois Kouseiffi Explains Plight of Refugees

Close to 1,000 Christians, both Greek-Orthodox and Roman Catholic, are trapped in the small village of Yaakoubieh, located in the north of Aleppo. In a report by Fides News Agency, refugees are completely worn out and lack basic necessities, such as food and electricity while dealing with heavy fighting between loyalist forces and opposition groups.

They are unable to leave the village and are in terrible condition, where they risk extinction, said Fr. Fran├žois Kouseiffi OFM, a Franciscan friar and pastor of the church of San Francesco in Hamra (Beirut) to Fides. Fr. Kouseiffi deals with the care and assistance of about 500 Syrian refugees.

The refugees have reported to Fr. Kouseiffi the plight of the village of Yaakoubieh, and where many of their relatives are. Before the war there were about 3,000 Christians in the village between Armenians, Orthodox and Catholics, and now almost all have fled. In the village there are Franciscan nuns who, says the friar, share the fate of civilians.

The situation is very serious. The faithful are trapped. We are trying in every way to help them to come to Lebanon. In past days, some of our emissaries left to go there, but the journey is dangerous and, after more than a day's journey by land, they reached Aleppo. The contacts with the remaining Christians are sporadic. They launched the alarm for their survival. They risk of dying in the general silence, Fr. Kouseiffi said.

The Syrian Christians are paying the price of the destabilization of the country and suffer like other Syrian citizens but, like other minorities, they are the most vulnerable groups. Out of the approximately four million Syrian refugees, the Syrian Christians are about 500 thousand, 25 thousand of which are in Lebanon. In past days, recalls Fr. Kouseiffi, the wave of frost has made their condition even more difficult: we are in the middle of a humanitarian emergency. They talk about their drama, their hopes, and dreams of a better future for their country.

This article is from the ZENIT news agency.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

100 Million Christians Persecuted Around the World

[The New York Times]<http://www.nytimes.com/>

January 8, 2013
About 100 Million Christians Persecuted Around the World: Report By REUTERS

PARIS (Reuters) - About 100 million Christians are persecuted around the world, with conditions worsening for them most rapidly in Syria and Ethiopia, according to an annual report by a group supporting oppressed Christians worldwide.

Open Doors, a non-denominational Christian group, listed North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan as the three toughest countries for Christians last year. They topped the 50-country ranking for 2011 as well.

Syria jumped from 36th to 11th place on the list as its Christian minority, first suspected by rebels of close ties to the Assad government, has increasingly become a target for radical Islamist fighters, the report said.

Ethiopia, which is two-thirds Christian, shot up from 38th to 15th place in the ranking due to a "complex mix of persecution dynamics" including attacks by radical Islamists and reprisals by traditional Christians against new Protestant movements.

Mali came from no listing for 2011 to 7th place because the sharia<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/s/sharia_islamic_law/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> rule the Islamist Ansar Dine group imposed on the north of the country not only brought harsh punishments for the Muslim majority but also drove the tiny Christian minority, it said.

"There are over 65 countries where Christians are persecuted," said the report released on Tuesday by Open Doors, which began in the 1950s smuggling Bibles into communist states and now works in more than 60 countries.

"An estimated 100 million Christians worldwide are persecuted," the United States-based group said in the report. All but one of the 50 countries in the list - Colombia, which ranked 46th - were in Africa, Asia or the Middle East.

Christianity is the largest and most widely spread faith in the world, with 2.2 billion followers or 32 percent of the world population, according to a report by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

It faces restrictions and hostility in 111 countries around the world, ahead of the 90 countries limiting or harassing the second-largest faith, Islam, another Pew report said.

"In recent years, we've been hearing that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world - that sounds right to us," said Open Doors France director Michel Varton at a presentation of the report in Strasbourg.


Leaders of various denominations - including Pope Benedict, whose Roman Catholic followers account for more than half of all Christians - increasingly make this accusation.

It may well be the case given Christianity's size and global spread, but it is hard to produce enough reliable comparative statistics to give it a solid empirical basis.

Some German politicians and human rights groups criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel last November for saying this at a Protestant Church conference there, saying it was pointless to try to rank religions according to how persecuted they were.

Open Doors, which documents cases of persecution of Christians, said its report was based on official studies, news reports and field reports and questionnaires filled out by its staff workers around the world.

Of the top 10 countries on the list - North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen and Eritrea - eight are majority Muslim states threatened by what Open Doors called "Islamic extremism".

North Korea has kept its number one ranking for the past 11 years because it is illegal simply to be a Christian there, it said. Open Doors estimates that up to 70,000 North Koreans have been sent to labor camps for their faith.

The report said second-placed Saudi Arabia, which bans public practice of any faith but Islam, has a growing Christian population because of its migrant workers and some converts it says converted after watching Christian satellite television.

"Christians risk further persecution and oppression in the future due to the rising number of converts and their boldness in sharing their faith," it said.

(Additional reporting by Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg; Editing by Alison Williams)

Reports on the Persecuted Coptic Christians of Egypt During the Christmas Season

Egypt’s Christians worried by Islamists’ rise By Abigail Hauslohner<http://www.washingtonpost.com/abigail-hauslohner/2012/09/14/c36345f4-fe80-11e1-a31e-804fccb658f9_page.html>, Published: January 7

GIZA, Egypt — Egypt’s Christians were worried about their safety on Monday as they marked the first Christmas under Islamist rule, with Coptic Pope Tawadros II urging worshipers “not to be afraid” and some complaining that their lives had gone from bad to worse in the nearly two years since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

At St. Mary’s Church in the dense and religiously mixed neighborhood of Imbaba, where sectarian clashes have flared before, midnight Mass on Christmas Eve started early because of safety concerns. The church, which was torched by an Islamist mob in 2011, was protected Sunday by a larger police presence than in past years, a si! gnal to some that the Islamist government wanted to avoid trouble after political clashes flared last month on Egypt’s streets.

Many Christians, who make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, have joined with liberals in complaining that the country’s new constitution<http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/egypt-ratifies-islamist-backed-constitution/2012/12/25/06625aa4-4ec0-11e2-950a-7863a013264b_story.html>, ratified last month, sets the stage for a broader implementation of Islamic law. Although Copts had complained of marginalization and discrimination under Mubarak, many accuse President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies of hijacking the country and seeking to exclude Christians entirely.

But some Christians said Egypt’s tumultuous transition also has rendered a long-silent community more politicized. With parliamentary elections expected in a few months, they say they are ! going to keep pushing for their rights to counter the Islamist! s’ ris e.

The confrontation last month between Islamists and Egypt’s fractured liberal opposition over the character of the new constitution drew scores of Christian protesters.

It wasn’t the first time that the Copts had demonstrated against Egypt’s emerging status quo. Hundreds of protesters camped in downtown Cairo after a wave of sectarian clashes<http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15235212> in 2011, but now many say they have felt emboldened by the vastness of the emerging opposition.

“The Muslim Brotherhood may have forced the constitution on the people, but they will not be able to force Egypt to stay silent,” said Mena Girgis, a 22-year-old university student and activist. “I don’t think they can come close to the Christians at the moment. They’re worried about their reputation to the world — that it will be even shakier than it was before.”

Morsi and Mohammed Badie, the leader of ! the Muslim Brotherhood, issued separate statements Sunday to wish Egyptian Christians a merry holiday. Many Eastern Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.

In his Mass, Tawadros appealed for unity but also told congregants, “Even if humans feel lots of fear, remember, God will take care of you. This is a collective message because fear is contagious. . . . This is a message of reassurance.”

Egypt’s military claimed on its Facebook page Monday that its troops had foiled an attempted church bombing<http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/egyptian-military-says-it-foiled-car-bombing-near-church-and-military-camp-close-to-gaza/2013/01/07/014e9ebc-58b9-11e2-b8b2-0d18a64c8dfa_story.html> near the country’s border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday night. But it was not clear from local media reports whether a car found laden with guns and ammu! nition in the restive border town of Rafah had meant to target! an unus ed church or whether it may have been directed at a military base, both located nearby.

At St. Mary’s, where memories of mob violence are still fresh, Christmas Eve Mass ended early “to ensure that people get home safely,” said Youssef al-Qumos, a pathologist and churchgoer.

The most violent sectarian clashes of the past two years occurred during the period of military rule after Mubarak’s ouster — and, in one instance, at the hands of the armed forces. But for many, Islamist rule spells far deeper conflicts on the horizon.

Rising Islamism has spurred tense exchanges and sporadic violence in mixed communities across Egypt in recent months. “Even those who have nothing to do with anything are growing beards now,” said Magdy, a Christian bureaucrat in the village of Sanhour in rural Fayoum province.

The residents of Sanhour have been luckier than those of some other towns south of Cairo, Magdy added, because they have yet to see an attack ! on Christians. But he declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal. “Any word spoken by a Christian is judged,” he said. “It’s calm here. But it’s the future that we worry about.”

Last week, fundamentalist Islamists known as Salafists re-published old fatwas warning Muslims against fraternizing with Christians on their holiday. A shadowy Salafist group in the city of Suez vowed to shut down any New Year celebrations. And rumors of a grass-roots Salafist morality force that is planning to mob churches and force conversions have put many Christians on edge.

“They repeated that on a lot of satellite channels, and we don’t know if it’s true or false,” Nahed Adly, a dentist in Cairo who attended Mass at St. Mary’s, said of the rumors.

“My reading is that they’re waiting till the election, till they get everything. And when they’re done taking over all the seats of power, then they can focus on us,” she said.

Ingy Hassieb and Sharaf al-Hourani in Cairo contributed to this report.

January 7th, 2013
04:00 PM ET
Amid Orthodox Christmas, Egypt's Christians fear for their rights under Islamist government<http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/07/amid-orthodox-christmas-egypts-christians-fear-for-their-rights-under-islamist-government/>

By Shahira Amin, Special to CNN

(CNN)– It's Orthodox Christmas, but the mood in Cairo's working-class Shobra district this year is somber. There aren't many colorful festivities and decorations that traditionally mar! k Easter n Christmas celebrations in this predominantly Christian neighborhood, and Shobra's Coptic Christian residents say they are in no mood to celebrate.

Growing concerns about the rights of Egypt's Copts, who make up an estimated 12% of the population, have dampened the mood of Christians, overshadowing this year's celebrations.

"Many of my friends and relatives have left the country," said 27-year-old Beshoy Ragheb. "I would leave, too, if I had a place to go."

Threats by Muslim extremists against Coptic Christians in the past year have forced scores of Christian families to flee their homes in Dahshur and the Egyptian border town of Rafah. Meanwhile, extremist attacks on Christian churches and brutal attacks by security and military forces on Christian protesters demanding the protection of their churches in October 2011 remain vivid in the memories of many of Egypt's Christians.

Military sources, meanwhile, said Monday that Egyptian security forces had thwarted a militant attack on a church in Rafah the previous nig! ht. The would-be assailants fled after a military patrol spott! ed their unlicensed vehicles parked outside the town's Orthodox Christian church, which militants torched weeks after the January 2011 uprising. Soldiers found weapons in one of the vehicles and presume the escaped militants were planning to use them in their attack.

Egypt's Christians are also concerned about the country's newly drafted constitution, which was written by an Islamist-dominated assembly. Liberal opposition political forces say the charter, which passed last month after being put to a popular vote, undermines religious freedoms and does not guarantee equal rights for Copts, despite an article in the constitution that says Muslims, Christians and Jews have a right to practice their religions freely. Church members on the constituent assembly, which was elected by parliamen! t to draft the constitution, walked out weeks before the completion of the draft document, citing concerns about articles they said "contradict the principles of citizenship."

In a recent interview with the Turkish news agency Anadolu, the newly elected Orthodox Christian patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, said that while Christians accept Article 2 of the constitution, which says the principles of Islamic Sharia law are the main source of legislation, they are worried about an article that spells out what those principles are in Islamic terms. "This new provision makes the constitution unrepresentative of the whole society," he said.

Despite the C! opts' in creasing fears, it's not all doom and gloom for Egypt's Christians. A new law on houses of worship is under discussion in the Shura Council - the upper house of parliament, which recently has taken over legislation until the new People's Assembly, or lower house, is elected next month. Once passed, the new legislation will allow Christians to build and renovate their churches as stipulated by the constitution, a far cry from the days of toppled President Hosni Mubarak, when building and restoring churches required a presidential decree.

Moreover, in a recent meeting with Coptic clerics, President Mohamed Morsy promised to approve a unified law on personal affairs of non-Muslims. The law, which was drafted by the late Pope Shenouda III and is now under study, would allow Egyptian! Christians to refer to their own religious edicts in matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, and would allow them to choose their religious clerics.

Copts however, complain of continued discrimination. "Copts were grossly underrepresented in parliament and in government under Mubarak. They continue to be discriminated against under Islamist President Mohamed Morsy, despite promises that he would be the president for all Egyptians," Coptic lawyer Nabil Ghabriel said.

The Islamist-dominated Cabinet has just one Christian woman - Nadia Zachary, who was appointed as ministe! r of state for scientific research - and Copts continue to hav! e little more than a token presence in the government. Moreover, Samir Morcos, the sole Coptic presidential aide, resigned in November to protest the sweeping powers that Morsy gave himself in a controversial constitutional declaration. Morcos said he was not consulted about the widely criticized declaration.

Pope Tawadros has urged political parties to place Copts, women and youth revolutionaries at the top of their electoral lists in upcoming elections in a bid to give them adequate representation in parliament. He has also proposed allocating specific constituencies for Christians - a suggestion that Islamists are likely to reject.

Addressing the Christian faithful at the traditional Christmas Eve Mass on Sunday, Tawadros asked the congregation "to pray for Egypt." But he denied that Egyptian Copts are facing a crisis, reminding Christians that sectarian incidents had sporadically occurred in the country during the three decades of Mubarak's rule.

While the pope sounded an optimistic note, saying he anticipates a better future for Egypt, many Christians attending the prayers said they did not share his optimism. "The fact that President Morsy did not attend the Mass himself, but sent a government official to represent him, is a sign that little will change," Hani Tadros, 43, said as he left the cathedral in Abbasiya after attending the prayers.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Homily for the Feast of Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to St. Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7
Gospel According to St. Matthew 3:13-17
            Today is the Feast of Epiphany, when we celebrate our Lord’s baptism in the river Jordan by St. John the Forerunner.  Another name for the feast is Theophany, for it is shown—it is revealed at Jesus Christ’s baptism—that He is the Son of God.  Indeed, the Holy Trinity is revealed at His baptism, for the Father says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove. 
            The meaning of the Feast of Christmas is fulfilled at Theophany, for now it is made clear that the One born in Bethlehem is truly God, come to restore our fallen nature and to renew the entire creation by uniting humanity with divinity in Himself.  And even as the Son of God entered our world at His birth, He now enters the flowing water of a river in order to make it holy, in order to bring His blessing and fulfillment upon the world that He created.  For the entire creation was subjected to futility because of the rebellion of our first parents.  As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” for it also “will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. “
            The good news of the gospel is that the Creator has become part of the creation in order to make it a new heaven and a new earth.   We see at Theophany that nothing is intrinsically profane or cut off from the blessing and holiness of God.  All things, physical and spiritual, visible and invisible, are called to participate in the divine glory that our Lord has brought to the world, to become part of the new heaven and earth of God’s kingdom.   Christ’s baptism demonstrates that we, too, are saved along with the rest of the creation, for it is through the water that we share in His life.  “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.”  In baptism, we receive the garment of light that Adam and Eve lost when they distorted themselves and the entire creation with sin and death.  The incarnate Son of God sanctified our flesh and blood at His birth, and at His baptism He sanctifies the water through which our vocation as those created in the divine image and likeness is fulfilled.
             I know that sometimes we are tempted to forget that human beings are also part of the creation, that we also are dependent upon the light of the sun, the fruits of the earth, and the air that we breathe.  God created Adam from the dust of the earth; yes, our bodies are made of the same stuff as all life forms on our planet.  That’s a humbling reminder that God sustains our life together with that of all His other creatures, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Have you ever noticed how God uses the basic physical substances life, such as water, wine, bread, and oil to bring us into His life?  Whether it’s the smell of incense, the beauty of icons, or the very existence of a church building, we are surrounded by created blessings that enable us to worship the Lord.  That shouldn’t be surprising, for He is the source of all things, including our hearts, souls, and minds.  If we forget that we are His creatures in the midst of His good creation, we won’t be able to worship or serve Him at all.
            Unfortunately, it’s a common human temptation to forget what it means to worship God.  It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that the world revolves around us and that the limitations and problems experienced by others somehow do not—or at least, should not-- apply to us.  But then reality slaps us in the face:  the loss of a loved one, sickness, unemployment, a broken relationship, or even bad weather remind us quickly that we are subject to the difficulties that inevitably accompany life in our corrupt world. 
            At the Feast of Epiphany, we are reminded, however, that these challenges do not separate us from God, for they do not remove us from His blessed creation or destroy our ability to share in His life.  Jesus Christ entered fully into the world as know it.  He made holy every dimension of our life, including suffering and pain, from the womb to the tomb.   No part of the creation, and no dimension of our existence, can separate us from His presence, from His blessing, from His steadfast love.  He has conquered even death on our behalf.
            But for us to receive this good news requires a kind of death on our part also.  For we must die to the illusion that we are somehow not part of the creation—in other words, to the illusion that we are God.   We must die to the idolatry of self that leads us to worship false idols such as pride, greed, and lust.  That’s the same selfish idolatry that leads us to pollute and destroy natural resources as though they belonged to us and not ultimately to the Lord.  We must die to our tendency to be a curse, not a blessing, to the rest of God’s good creation, including our fellow humans and the natural world.           Unfortunately, we rarely recognize the sacredness of the creation, of other people, or even of ourselves.  Instead of offering our blessings to the Lord, we often just want to be left alone to go on with life on our terms. So we don’t want to be inconvenienced by meeting the needs of the poor and lonely, or forgiving those who have offended us, or even taking the time to reduce the amount of pollution that we produce by simple steps like recycling or composting.
            But we are reminded at Theophany that life on our own terms isn’t really life at all.  For when we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into His death.  We die with Christ to sin and all its corruptions so that we will rise with Him in newness of life, so that we will be clothed in a garment of light and participate fully in His victory over sin and death.  For the blessed life that our Lord has brought to the world is not just the continuation of what’s become comfortable and familiar to us.  Instead, it’s a life that requires a decisive break from the corruption that has become a second nature to us.
            Perhaps that’s why St. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus Christ and then baptized Him.  St. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets and a fiery preacher who boldly called people to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord in their lives by making His paths straight.  He lived in the desert, ate bugs and honey, and looked like a wild man.  Like the other true prophets, he wasn’t concerned with pleasing people, but with telling them the truth in no uncertain terms.  If they were to be ready for the Messiah, they had to stop sinning and start living lives pleasing to God.  
            I hope that you get the point.  To be baptized into Christ is to die from all that separates us from God.  It is to share in the blessing that our Lord has brought to the entire world; it is to see all of the creation as holy, as participating in the transformation and healing of the Kingdom.  Every dimension of our lives must become an epiphany, a showing or manifestation, of God’s salvation.  We are to offer every aspect of our life, and every bit of the world with which we come in contact, to the Lord as a sacrament, as a participation in the Holy Mystery of God.  For nothing is outside the scope of His love; nothing is separate from His will for a new heaven and new earth.  He wants the entire creation—yes, the whole universe-- to shine brightly with the glory of the His divinity, and that includes us.
            Today is the Feast of Theophany.  It’s time to prepare the way of the Lord and make His paths straight.  For He comes to renew all creation and to bring us into the glory of His kingdom.  He comes to make all reality an icon of His holiness.   Let’s not stand in the way; let’s not refuse His blessing, but instead live as those who, having died to sin, truly wear a garment of light.