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Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service has a rich history of journalistic professionalism and is a leader in the world of Catholic and religious media. With headquarters in Washington, offices in New York and Rome, and correspondents around the world, CNS provides the most comprehensive coverage of the church today. Website URL: http://www.catholicnews.com/

Refugees place importance on keeping in touch with displaced families at Christmastime

ISTANBUL (CNS) -- Sami Dankha, his three brothers and their families used to kick off Christmas celebrations by attending a packed Christmas Eve Mass at St. Thomas Church in Baghdad. Wearing brand new clothes and sporting fresh haircuts, they would spend the night chatting, singing and eating pacha, a dish made from sheep's head that Iraqis consider a delicacy and a staple of Christmas.
But that was 20 years ago. Today, Dankha, 51, his wife, Faten, and their five children live in Turkey as refugees, far away from the rest of their families. They are waiting for an answer to their resettlement application to Australia.
"If you count Christmas and Easter, it has been about 40 times we haven't gathered," said Dankha, whose brothers now live in New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands.
Years of instability, violence and discrimination have forced Iraqi Christian families to leave their homes. Christmas, traditionally celebrated with loved ones, is a reminder of the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the Middle East to countries throughout the word. Despite the distance and across different time zones, families keep the spirit of the holiday alive.
"The last time we were all together was 2005. Maybe 2006. I am not sure," Habiba Taufiq, 69, told Catholic News Service.
Taufiq was born in Aqrah but has lived most of her life in Ankawa, a Christian enclave in northern Iraq. She is now a refugee in Turkey, where she lives with one of her 10 children. The other nine are split among Australia, France, Sweden and Iraq.
"We danced and celebrated because of Jesus. Not only us but also with other families," Taufiq said, remembering Christmas back home. "Now there is a big difference because we are in different countries and that affects the occasion."
To stay connected, families rely on messaging and calling apps. "I call them on Viber video," said Dankha, mentioning one the most popular apps among the Iraqi community in Turkey.
Last year, Dankha spent at least four hours glued to his phone as he virtually celebrated Christmas with family and friends in 10 different countries. At some point he had to connect his phone to a power adapter after running out of charge. But seeing and hearing what is happening on the other side of the call is no replacement for being face to face.
"I see them celebrating in parties, and I feel sorrowful because I am here and we are separated, in different countries," Dankha said.
Nearly halfway around the world, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Nesrin Arteen, 42, also uses a messaging app to keep in touch with her family. "I talk to them often; with the internet, it is easy. But back when I arrived, it was very different," she told CNS.
Arteen is from Zakho, Iraq, and moved to Canada in 1994 before smartphones became ubiquitous. At the time she had to use a call center and wait in line before she could speak with her family. And when it was her turn, the quality of the connection was not good, and the calls frequently disconnected.
For Arteen, Christmas meant attending the Christmas Eve Mass and staying up all night with her family. She fondly remembered klecha -- a traditional cookie usually filled with nuts, coconuts or dates -- which she could not have when she first arrived in Canada. Back then Saskatoon did not even have a Chaldean Catholic church, which made her feel removed from her Christmas traditions.
"It was a different feel, different from home. I didn't feel the spirit of Christmas," Arteen said, remembering the first Christmas she spent in Canada.
Over time things changed. Today there is a Chaldean church in her city, and Arteen has started to create her own Christmas traditions. "I feel that the spirit of Christmas is here," she said. "My children go to a Christian school and are also part of the choir. There are places where they sing Christmas carols."
Taufiq hopes to reunite soon with some of her family in Australia. As she navigates visa procedures, she said she feels at peace that her children continue the traditions she started. "The circumstances separated us and now we are in different countries. But we still continue living with love," she said.
Dankha told CNS this Christmas will be special. His younger brother, Yalda, will visit him in Turkey from the Netherlands. They haven't seen each other since 2000.
That makes one less person on his list of people to call on Christmas.
"There are so many friends I don't know if I will ever see. Maybe one day when my country's situation is OK, maybe then we will get together. But I don't know if that will happen," he said.
  • Published in World

Some fleeing scene of wildfires describe it as escaping 'gates of hell'

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (CNS) -- St. Mary Catholic Church was at ground zero in the wildfires that devastated parts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge Nov. 28, and while flames reached to within yards of the tourist city church, it appears to have been spared.
Some parishioners weren't as fortunate.
Its pastor, Carmelite Father Antony Punnackal, was forced to evacuate St. Mary's as intense fires came within 300 yards of the church that sits in the heart of Gatlinburg.
The church and rectory have been closed since then, but the priest has received reports that the buildings were spared from the blaze but sustained smoke damage and possible damage from high winds that fueled the flames.
The wildfires left a swath of destruction in and around the city of Gatlinburg, causing at least 13 deaths, more than 50 injuries and tens of millions of dollars in property damage. Dozens of residents and visitors to the tourist destination still are missing. Three people who suffered serious burns were transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
As of midday Dec. 2, the city of 5,000 residents still was closed down, with only emergency personnel allowed to enter as well as residents and property owners on a limited basis.
"I know of seven families in our parish that lost everything," Father Punnackal told The East Tennessee Catholic, the magazine of the Diocese of Knoxville. "Five of them lived in apartments that burned to the ground. They lost their housing and all their belongings. They're also jobless because the businesses where they worked burned."
Many evacuees reported fleeing through horrific infernos with intense flames licking at their vehicles as they fled down narrow mountain roads to safety. But a number of residents and tourists perished in the flames, and rescue workers still were trying to account for everyone.
Some members of Holy Cross Parish in Pigeon Forge also lost their homes, belongings and businesses. The fires burned nearly 16,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Father Punnackal was told he could re-enter Gatlinburg Dec. 2 to assess the church and rectory. But he could only stay for a few hours.
He said that as he monitored the spreading fires Nov. 28, smoke was entering the church and rectory to the point it became unsafe to breathe. Shortly thereafter, he was forced to evacuate with just an overnight bag as fire threatened the property.
Father Punnackal has been staying at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Newport while his parishioners were spread out in shelters and hotels or with family or friends.
"I'm now far away, and I can't get to my parishioners. I have tried to go back, but I've been unsuccessful," the priest said. "I greatly appreciate everyone offering help. I'm doing what I can, but we have a long way to go."
While a severe drought over several months prompted many of the recent eastern Tennessee woodland blazes, officials are investigating whether some of the wind-whipped fires above Gatlinburg were caused by individuals, either accidentally or intentionally.
The wildfires raced down the mountains, eviscerating everything in their path: homes, condominiums, chalets, cabins, apartments, businesses, automobiles.
As a stream of vehicles exited Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, shelters were set up to accommodate those displaced, which numbered as many as 2,000 at one point. Evacuees were receiving food, clothing and other help in shelters set up by the American Red Cross, said Father Andres Cano, pastor of Holy Cross.
"Many people are showing solidarity and generosity toward the people affected by the fires," he said, adding that "there is a longtime recovery ahead for the people and the local community."
Father Cano was assessing the impact of the wildfires on his parish. As of Dec. 1, the parish knew of one family that lost their home to fire, but more could be affected. He also said parishioners' employers in and around Gatlinburg were affected, and those parishioners are now out of work.
Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika has been working with volunteers from around the diocese to get assistance to the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge communities.
On Dec. 1, the bishop announced a $25,000 grant for fire victims through the Diocese of Knoxville's St. Mary's Legacy Foundation. The $25,000 grant is in addition to $735,000 that the St. Mary's Legacy Foundation will be distributing to charities and nonprofit groups throughout eastern Tennessee in 2017.
"What happened in the Gatlinburg area was unexpected, and each day we're hearing about more lives lost, more property destroyed, and more heartache for many, many people. The St. Mary's Legacy Foundation has a very precise way of evaluating grant distributions before they're announced. In this case, the foundation felt it was best to react to this tragedy immediately," Bishop Stika said.
  • Published in Nation

Dec. 12 Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe to be day of prayer with focus on migrants, refugees

Prayer services and special Masses will be held in many dioceses across the country as the U.S. Catholic Church has asked that the Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe be a day of prayer with a focus on migrants and refugees.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas.
"As Christmas approaches and especially on this feast of Our Lady, we are reminded of how our savior Jesus Christ was not born in the comfort of his own home, but rather in an unfamiliar manger," said a Dec. 1 statement from Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The day of prayer is intended to be a time to place before a merciful God the hopes, fears and needs of all those families who have come to the United States seeking a better life.
"So many families are wondering how changes to immigration policy might impact them," Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president, said in a Dec. 1 statement. "We want them to know the church is with them, offers prayers on their behalf, and is actively monitoring developments at the diocesan, state, and national levels to be an effective advocate on their behalf."
The USCCB suggested that Catholics unable to attend such a service or Mass Dec. 12 or who live in an area where one is not being held should "offer prayers wherever they may be." The USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services office has developed a scriptural rosary called "Unity in Diversity" that includes prayers for migrants and refugees. It can be accessed at the Justice for Immigrants website at tinyurl.com/hldg3o9.
Another resource suggested by the USCCB is "Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope," the 2003 pastoral letter issued jointly by the bishops of the United States and Mexico. Summary versions of the pastoral are available online in English at tinyurl.com/zpd4tex and in Spanish at tinyurl.com/hy2e69m.
"To all those families separated and far from home in uncertain times, we join with you in a prayer for comfort and joy this Advent season," Cardinal DiNardo added.
  • Published in Nation

This year marks 75th anniversary of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"Our beloved country is at war. Our peaceful shores have been ruthlessly attacked, and all citizens are called upon to unite their efforts toward that peace for which we have all prayed, that peace which the world cannot give, and that peace which God will surely bring about when mankind has seen its folly and conforms its ways to his."
Those are the opening words of the front-page editorial of The Catholic Herald, the publication of the Diocese of Honolulu, published Dec. 11, 1941, four days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The smallest of editions, a single tabloid sheet printed front and back, the newspaper was a somber reassurance of the faith, resolve and patriotism of Hawaii's Catholics.
"Our duty is clearly marked out," the editorial continued, "and will be faithfully executed. The pages of history proclaim the love and loyalty of Catholics for their fatherland in time of war as well as in time of peace. Catholics have been in the front lines at every battle in the history of our nation. And every wartime president from Washington down to our own beloved President (Franklin) Roosevelt has sung their praises.
"Difficult times may be ahead. But we are ready to face them. There may be many things which others would call sacrifices. But our leader has reminded us that for us they are not sacrifices, but rather privileges. We shall consider them as such, and take them in our stride."
At the time of the attack, the diocese was only three months old. The newly installed Bishop James J. Sweeney was in California at the time, stranded with all commercial travel on hold, following his attendance at the annual U.S. bishops' meeting in Washington. He was able to find a berth on the first troop transport ship to the islands and immediately took a role as chaplain, counselor and confessor for men headed for the battlefield.
It may have been providence that Bishop Sweeney was away because the one news story in that post-attack edition reported that his home on the slopes of Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, about eight miles from Pearl Harbor, had been "bombed."
"The home of His Excellency Bishop Sweeney on Thurston Street was considerably damaged when bombs struck the Spencer Street entrance and destroyed the stairway leading to the second floor," the story said. "The house was unoccupied at the time."
Later, it was speculated that the "bombs" were probably American anti-aircraft fire.
The story further reported that "several narrow escapes were reported by various pastors, but no serious losses."
It also said that "St. Stephen's Seminary in upper Kalihi Valley suffered some damage as a result of a bomb which fell quite close to the building, shattering windows and breaking a water pipe. No one was injured, and the students have returned to their families until the government order affecting schools is lifted. The seminary building will probably be taken over by army authorities temporarily."
Oddly -- or perhaps not, considering the large number of Hawaii residents of Japanese ancestry -- the Catholic Herald never named the attacking country.
The unsigned front-page editorial, framed by a drawing of a man and woman gazing upward at a flying American flag, pledged prayers and the resolute cooperation of the Church for the still unknown sacrifices ahead.
"Already our Catholic institutions are bee hives of activity. Our hospital is equipped. Our schools and halls are at the disposition of those who need them. Our sisters are ready, as ever, to lend the helping hand, to suffering wherever it may be. Our priests are striving to assist their confreres the noble chaplains of our armed forces. Everyone is anxious to render as much assistance as is humanly possible.
"Thank God for our good Catholic people also who realize that we must not only work for peace, but must continue, nay redouble our prayers and self-denials. The kingdom of Heaven is said in holy Scripture to suffer violence, and we are reminded that it is the violent who bear it away. So we shall storm the heavens with our prayers while we do everything possible in the realm of material things to bring about what we all desire: Peace on earth to men of good will.
"God grant that the trying times through which we are passing may be shortened. May the Lord hear our prayers and hasten to our aid. And meanwhile, let us carry on courageously, united for God and country."
  • Published in World
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