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Advocacy: It’s More than Social Media

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, joins our host Chris Orme for the first episode of Season 3. Mae and Chris discuss different forms of advocacy, as well the spiritual formation that takes place through advocacy. 

The following is a transcript of Season 3 Episode 1 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

A few weeks ago, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that at least six families must vacate their homes in Sheik Jarrah by Sunday, May 1, 2021. In total, 58 Palestinians living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, including 17 children, are being displaced so that Jewish settlers may take possession of their homes. The ruling of the court was the culmination of the decades-long struggle for Palestinians to stay in their homes that I witnessed on that tour bus back in 2009. 

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Commemorating Martyrs in the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East in Iraq

Assyrian refugees in 1915.

Meet Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana, archimandrite and priest of the Assyrian Church of the East in Iraq. Many Western Christians may be surprised to hear about the Christian presence in Iraq, but Iraqi Christians have had a continual presence since the first century after Jesus’ life and death.

Archimandrite Emanuel does not have formal seminary training because under Saddam Hussein’s rule from 1979-2003, there was no seminary education in Iraq. Instead, Emanuel studied electrical engineering at the University of Baghdad. After informal training through the Assyrian Church, he was ordained in 1987. He is married and has four adult children, most of whom went on to study politics and now live in Iraq and Germany.

The Assyrian church is an Eastern-tradition of the church, claiming theological and ecclesiastical continuity back to the first century after Jesus’ life. According to the Seyfo Center, “Assyrian” refers to “indigenous Christian peoples living in” Kurdistan, northern Mesopotamia, Northern Iran, South Anatolia and Syria“who speak (or once spoke) an Aramaic Semitic language.”

Assyrians have endured so many persecutions that they dedicate three days a year specifically to the commemoration of martyrs. April 24 commemorates the Turkish genocide of Assyrians during World War I, concurrently with the Armenian genocide, known as the Seyfo (Aramaic word for “sword”). Between 1914 and 1920, and especially between June and October 1915, the Ottoman Empire murdered more than 250,000 of the 600,000 Assyrians living in present-day southeastern Turky and Western Iran. Nearly all of the rest were forced to migrate to Syria and northern Iraq.

Second, The first Friday after Easter commemorates the faithful who were martyred specifically for their Christian faith, known as the Confessors. Friday of Confessors is known as a joyful feast

Third, August 7 commemorates all Assyrian martyrs, but specifically remembers the massacre of several thousand Christians in 1933. Iraqi general Bakr Sidqi systematically targeted Assyrians in the town of Simele in Iraqi Kurdistan.

While extra attention is paid to martyrs on August 7 and April 24, most of the church’s liturgies commemorate martyrs to some degree. The Church holds daily evening and morning prayers, each of which have hymns dedicated to martyrs. The Church remembers martyrs everyday except for Sundays, when they instead commemorate resurrection, during Lent, when a separate liturgy is observed.

Many martyrs are remembered personally, and continue to be a source of spiritual strength for the Church today: “Peace to thee, Mar Pithiun the martyr. Spiritual treasurer. Supply wealth to the needy. Who take refuge in thy prayers.” “Let us take refuge in St. George. That by the strength of his prayers. Our Lord may make straight our ways. And lighten the weight of our limbs” (PS Cxv 13, page 23-24, First Tuesday evening).

Martyrs are often compared to jewels, and the liturgy contains many metaphors describing the martyrs’ beauty:

“The martyrs are like pearls. For their images are fixed in the King’s crown” (Monday evening, 13).

“Fairer to look on than the children of men. The rose in the gardens is beautiful to behold. But more beautiful were the martyrs when they were killed” (Monday evening, page 14).

Archimandrite Emanuel held the first Christian worship service in Simele since the 1933 massacre. Freshly ordained, Archimandrite Emanuel was invited to start a parish and begin regular church services in 1987, where he has been serving since.

But persecution of Christians in Iraq does not remain in history past, rather it continues today. When asked to describe Iraqi Christians’ persecution today, Archimandrite Emanuel told this story:

Persecution here is more than personal; it’s also communal. In 2014, the city of Qaraqosh in Nineveh Plain had more than 50,000 Christians, with a large building and comfortable staff. They had schools, multiple clergy, even libraries and a seminary. Then on August 6—the anniversary of the 1933 massacre— everything was destroyed at the hands of ISIL, known in Arabic as Daesh. Churches were targeted specifically because they are Christian. Only recently have the small number of Christians remaining begun to rebuild the city.

In 1993, Archimandrite Emanuel was part of a team founding CAPNI (Christian Aid Program in Nohadra Iraq), an NGO in Dohuk, Iraq (Nohadra is the historical Assyrian name of the Duhok region. CAPNI’s goal is to “materialize hope” for Christians in Iraq. Abuna Emanuel explains, “Sermons mean little when a father asks for his livelihood, a mother for her medicine, children for their schools. Offering services and bringing people together materializes hope.” Learn more about CAPNI’s many services here.

Archimandrite Emanuel hopes that Western Christians would learn from the Assyrian church what it is like to live under persecution. Something unique about the Assyrian church, A. Emanuel explains, is that despite having a continual Christian presence since the first century after Jesus’ life, they have never lived under Christian rulers.

When asked how Western Christians can support the Assyrian Church, Archimandrite Emanuel explained that “God chose us to be his witnesses in these lands, and we accept this mission. We will carry his cross. We don’t ask for light burdens, we ask for strong shoulders. Our shoulders can be strengthened through your prayers as well. So keep us in prayer.”

When asked how he finds hope despite such discouraging circumstances, Abuna Emanuel explained he looks to the next generation: “When you visit a family, and the kids are smiling. We have five kids’ centers at CAPNI. And we have nice flowers in the gardens. Then, I feel and see hope in the children’s smiles and hugs and playfulness.”

The following prayer is another way Western Christians can express solidarity with these Christians:

Merciful God, we ask you to strengthen the shoulders of the Assyrian Church. Before you, we thank our Assyrian siblings for carrying the burden of remembering martyrs and facing daily persecution. As Assyrian martyrs instruct and encourage Assyrians alive today, may Assyrian Christians also instruct and encourage us Western Christians in the faith.

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KEVIN VOLLRATH is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion & Society at Princeton Theological Seminary. He produced this series of columns as the Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). His home base is in Lambertville, NJ, but he currently is conducting fieldwork in Israel-Palestine and is the Manager of Middle East Partnerships for CMEP.


This article was originally published on the Read the Spirit blog.

From Child Displaced to International Activist

Mohammad El Kurd and the Settler Takeover in the East Jerusalem Neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon

The first time I ever travelled through the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem I was on a tour bus. More than a decade ago, it was a Friday afternoon and I witnessed firsthand Jews, Palestinians, and internationals standing in solidarity — holding signs and calling out for “Freedom for Palestine” and an end to the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes by Israeli settlers. More than a decade later, the situation has only worsened and in fact, the current protests look eerily similar as solidarity demonstrations continue on behalf of the dozens of Palestinians facing eviction from their homes. 

A few weeks ago, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that at least six families must vacate their homes in Sheik Jarrah by Sunday, May 1, 2021. In total, 58 Palestinians living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, including 17 children, are being displaced so that Jewish settlers may take possession of their homes. The ruling of the court was the culmination of the decades-long struggle for Palestinians to stay in their homes that I witnessed on that tour bus back in 2009. 

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The Checkpoint: Part 2

Although I’ve crossed through Checkpoint 300 many times by now, this is my first time doing it alone. It’s easier, still, to travel in groups. Friends provide emotional support amid the stress of a military checkpoint. At least this time I’m crossing into the West Bank; I shouldn’t have to interact with any Israeli soldiers on my way, since entry into the West Bank is not strictly controlled as entry into Israel is. All I have to do is navigate the winding path through the cement and metal halls.

As I turn the first corner into the checkpoint, following behind a young woman carrying her sleeping toddler in her arms, I’m briefly startled to see a man kneeling face down on the ground. He’s facing away from me, towards the thick metal fencing that encloses us. As he sits back on his heels, I hear him murmur in Arabic, and I realize he is praying. Praying, here, of all places. Read more

The Checkpoint: Part 1

A series of vignettes on my experiences at Israeli checkpoints.

Genna and I sit next to each other on the bus. It’s a Friday morning, meaning many Palestinians will be traveling into Jerusalem to pray. Genna and I opted to take the bus through the Tunnels Checkpoint today rather than walking through Checkpoint 300 because of this. We know Checkpoint 300 will be busy, and because of our blue passports we are able to choose the easier route into Israel proper from the West Bank. My host family and hers both are supportive of this choice, although they were not shy about reminding us that this is not a choice they have.

The weight of my privilege, which allows me to travel into and out of Jerusalem whenever I choose, only grows as the bus approaches the checkpoint and pulls up onto the sidewalk. Wordlessly, the younger Palestinians on the bus (those under 60 or so,) stand and exit the bus. Rain or shine, they stand in a line outside the bus to have their papers checked by Israeli soldiers who are likely no more than 19. Genna and I, with our foreign passports, are allowed to stay on the bus with the elderly. Read more

Eastertide Meditation with Fr. Ramzi Sidawi

In this session, Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, CMEP’s executive director, speaks with Fr. Ramzi Sidawi OFM. He was born in Jerusalem in 1972. At the conclusion of his maturity studies he entered the Order of Friars Minor where he took his first vows in the year 1996 and the Solemn ones in the year 2000. After completing his formation and studies in Theology, he received Priestly Ordination in 2002, he spent a short period of service in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Transferred to Rome to complete his studies in Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical University Antonianum, he graduated in 2006 and defended the doctoral thesis in 2010. While preparing to defend the thesis, he was appointed parish priest of the Parish of Saint Anthony of Padua in Jaffa – Tel Aviv, Israel. Along with this assignment, he also began teaching Dogmatic Theology in the Studium Theologicum Jerosolymitanum in Jerusalem. From 2013 to 2016 he was director of the Terra Santa Boys School in Jerusalem and from 2016 he is the General Administrator of the Custody of the Holy Land.

Merciful God, Grant us grace in abundance. The land of our Lord’s life and ministry is filled with violence, fear, and want. As followers of Jesus Christ, we wish to come together for good and for your glory. Grant us mercy as we share our pains, fears, and aspirations, that we may listen and better understand our brothers and sisters in Christ, while we pursue peace, justice, and restoration. May the walls that divide be turned, becoming a table by which we seek communion with one another, and with you. In this spirit of unity, we pray together the prayer of humble access: We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant mercy. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose eternal nature is to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, that we may eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may continually dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Eastertide Meditations with Dean Hosam

In this session, recorded on April 14, Bishop Elect Hosam Naoum joins Rev. Dr. Cannon. On January 30th, the previous dean of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, Rev. Hosam Naoum, was elected Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East. As Coadjutor, Pastor Hosam will now be introduced to all the ministries of a bishop for about a year and a half, and will subsequently take over this office from the current incumbent, Archbishop Suheil Dawani. Hosam Naoum has been dean of Jerusalem Cathedral since 2012. Previously, he had studied theology in South Africa and the United States, and had long served as parish pastor in Nablus and Zababdeh (West Bank) and Jerusalem. He is particularly concerned about ecumenism and the inter-religious relations of his church. He has always maintained good relations with the German-speaking Protestant community in Jerusalem.

Passover Reflections

Alison Glick

In the Passover Haggadah — a kind of “roadmap” through the Passover story recited at the Seder meal — there is a handwashing ritual at the beginning before the eating of the saltwater-laden greens and the matzah, often referred to as the “bread of affliction.”

At this year’s Seder table, that ritual hand washing will certainly take on new meaning: In this time of pandemic, the entire world now sees such a quotidian act as one that can literally save lives. But even before this year, the act of pouring water over your neighbor’s hands has always been very meaningful to me. Like many of the small acts and Haggadah recitations performed during the Seder, the handwashing ritual reminds me of why this Jewish tradition is the one I find most meaningful. Whether it’s the caring intimacy of washing another’s hands or the reminder that — as the water trickles into the bowl on our bountifully-laden table — limited access to clean water has lead to death in places like Gaza or Flint, on this one night I will be ritually connected with a community that shares my values and vision of the future. Read more

Maundy Thursday: Love One Another

A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. John 13:34

I did not know Maundy Thursday existed until 2015. I was raised in a Christian home, went to church all my life, and never knew that the Thursday before Easter meant anything particular to my faith tradition.

Now I realize Jesus’ “last supper” and the events of that night have a meaning of their own as they led up to his ultimate sacrifice on the cross and subsequent resurrection.

Maundy Thursday celebrates the very nature of God: love. Read more

Third Sunday of Lent: Love Your Marginalized Neighbor As Yourself

J. Nicole Morgan

“. . . his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman. . . . The woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ . . . .Many Samaritans from the town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” John 4: 27-29, 39

When I’m not thinking about peace in the Middle East, I’m thinking about peace with our bodies. I’m an embodiment theologian – someone who thinks about how our bodies relate to God and also our neighbors. We are all familiar with the idea of fighting our bodies and seeking to control them into submission in search of some spiritual or soul-purity. Think about how we often equate whether or not our bodies are healthy, or a certain size, with whether or not they are holy and pleasing to God – when there is no correlation between those two things. A well-documented tragedy of history (that many still ascribe to) is the belief that having a body of a certain race or ethnicity made one further from God. When we degrade the bodies of others, or we attempt to minimize the importance of bodies, we become disembodied. We lose the connection between the fact that God created our bodies in God’s image and that our presence walking around on this earth is an extension of being God’s presence on this earth. We’re supposed to show people who God is with the entirety of who we are. We are supposed to remember that we are looking at the image of God when we look at other people. Read more

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