Conversations by e-mail 2004

Letter from Beit Jala

My thanks to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship for spreading news about Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land to people around the world. So far we received about 50 letters of support. Also we have received, via OPF, a number of donations to help local people suffering from the occupation. Thank you most of all for your prayers. I believe that our Lord Jesus Christ will listen to these prayers.

Please allow me to introduce myself and share with you my personal experience for the last eighteen months.

I am a professor of engineering at Birzeit University, about 36 km from Bethlehem north of Ramallah. I have three daughters, Dina (9), Mira (8), Lina (7) and a son, Rami (2).

I am also chairman of the Arab Orthodox Benevolent Society of Beit Jala, the largest and oldest Orthodox Society in Palestine. Using donations we receive, we are giving cash to the most needy families (in which no one can work) and initiating employment projects for some of those who can work.

Beit Jala (the town of St. Nicolas, who lived in one of its caves when he came as a pilgrim to Palestine) is next to two other Christian towns, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. Most of the population of Beit Jala -- about 12,000 -- belong to the Orthodox Church. There used to be more but many people immigrated due to the Israeli occupation. Since the current round of conflict began, Beit Jala has suffered heavily from bombardment, siege, and reoccupation.

Our house has been shelled several times. Once I was wounded. Three days later one of our neighbors, a doctor, was killed. A seven-year-old child in the neighborhood, Nicolas, was hit by a rocket from a tank and lost his arm. During that period we had to leave our house for two months because of the danger. Now we sleep with my parents in one room. Imagine my daughters seeing their grandfather shaking. My daughter Lina wakes every night crying from nightmares. She see Israeli solders breaking into our house, destroying everything, and kicking us out of our house to live in a tent. A friend of mine advised me to read her a story when putting her in bed, but so far this has made no difference. I don't know what to do.

Travel on the West Bank is impossible. All the main towns are under continuous curfew, lifted only once or twice a week for a few hours in order to buy food.

Birzeit University is to the north of Ramallah in a small town (Bir Zeit). The curfew does not include small towns, but no one can get here without Israeli army permission. The University administration decided to finish the second semester, which began in February. First they advised us to communicate with students via the Internet. Then we were advised to stay in Bir Zeit so that we can finish this semester. Most of the faculty, staff and students moved here. Six of us from Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour are now staying in a small apartment with one bath. We have to sleep on the floor and couches. We left our families in unsafe conditions, and are staying in unsafe conditions, trying our best to finish the semester and get home safe.

I continue to put much of my time in work for the Arab Benevolent Society. I try to raise funds to be used in labor-intensive projects, since so many people in our community are jobless. Funds are used for medical care, food parcels, school fees, all for needy people, and also Scout activities.

I am not involved in politics but, like most of my fellow Palestinian, a patriot who believes in coexistence between Christians, Jews and Muslims. I want to live in a free and independent state. I want to remain in this land were Jesus was born so that when you visit you will still find Christians in this land.

Please pray for a just peace, for all the people under siege, for all the people who are suffering, for an end to the occupation.

God Bless you for your support.

Dr. Simon Araj, Chairman

Arab Orthodox Benevolent Society, Beit Jala

Could your parish help? Donations for the Arab Orthodox Benevolent Society of Beit Jala can be sent via the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Simply mark your donation "for Beit Jala." For more about Beit Jala, see: and .

Refugees from Afghanistan

After the Liturgy yesterday Nancy and I visited a family of Afghan refugees living in another part of North Holland. These are people we have come in contact with through a mutual friend who is teaching them Dutch. It was a great experience of eastern hospitality.

More than three years ago the family fled from Afghanistan after their home-based school in Kabul was discovered by the Taliban, escaping with their three children (one of them not yet two years old) through the mountains to Pakistan. They managed to cross the border into Kazakhstan, went on to Moscow by train, paying small bribes in dollars to border guards, entered west Europe via Prague, finally getting to Holland where they have a cousin who helped them. Next they spent a year in refugee camps, then were given a small house in the town of Hoorn.

The family is Muslim, but their experience of the Taliban seems to have dampened whatever enthusiasm for Islam they may have had earlier in their lives. It was painful to listen to the punishments the Taliban ordered for anyone who failed to toe the line.

We tried to answer their questions about Easter -- they knew nothing about it.

Jim Forest

Thinking about evil

This letter was published in the April 3rd edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

We deplore the constant, yet selective sense in which President George Bush utilizes the word "evil." Since the tragedy of September 11, he has called the terrorists and Osama bin Laden evil many times. More recently he has begun to call Iran, Iraq and North Korea an "axis of evil." At a recent address to those gathered to hear him at Eden Prairie High School, he also managed to make references to "evil people," referring again to those whom he considers America's enemies.

Interestingly, in doing this, President Bush is looking at the world in the same way Osama bin Laden and his followers do. It is because they see the United States as the "Great Satan" that they consider the attack on the World Trade Center to be justified. They see us as the "evil people."

Are there acts of evil in the world? Yes, and they should be deplored and those responsible held accountable for their actions as far as possible --- without destroying innocent people. Evil, however, is not in the exclusive ownership of one group of people, one nation, one little enclave that can be destroyed from the earth so the rest of us who are not "evil" can go about our lives freely.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church we say a prayer in which we admit that we ourselves are the "chief of sinners." We look to the evil inside ourselves and try to correct it. We try to learn to quit calling others the "Great Satan" and instead focus on rooting out our own capacity to do evil.

When America as a nation considers this to be our first and most necessary activity, we may find that we have fewer enemies and are able to truly work for peace in the world.

Renée Zitzloff and Emily White

Minnesota Chapter of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship

St. Silouan's advice

Here's my understanding of St Silouan's words "keep your mind in hell and do not despair."

This means we are to strive to contain the awareness of evil beheld around us and in ourselves, in its infinite and monstrous variations, without allowing it to touch the sacred image, the altar of God's presence in our spirit. To steel ourselves to look it in the face (or in the mirror) with empathy, believing with all our heart it has no power to obliterate us. To battle to keep a discrete boundary, a circumscribed separateness, between the breath of death constantly assaulting us, inside and out, and the voice/wind of the Spirit enlivening us. To take the Sword of the Spirit, the indwelling Living Word, crucified with our death and pouring His resurrection into us, and keep at bay the illusions of darkness and the false chasm gaping in the heart. To stay aware of the place beyond all pain, the hearth of the soul, that no one but God-Love enters and in-censes. Most of all, to behold "hell," the abyss of suffering and fragmentation, with more compassion than fear.

In a sermon, Bishop Basil of Sergievo speaks of those who avoided the wounded man on the roadside before the Good Samaritan got to him. He discerns a universal difficulty with tolerating the sight and the intensity of extreme suffering. I think of how we all defend ourselves against co-suffering, empathy, by "de-sensitizing" ourselves in varying degrees to references to war, death, destruction. Holding "hell" in our awareness is to bear the crosses of the world (including our own) with Christ.

Ioana Novac

A new school in Albania

I'm writing to give you an update on my plans to go to Albania as a member of the OCMC mission team where I will be director of a new elementary school that Archbishop Anastasios will open this fall.

I was in Tirana from May 17th to May 24th in order to learn about Albanian education and meet with those who will be involved in this project.

The school is on a hill in the middle of a Tirana city park adjacent to St. Procopius Church, as is the radio station run by the Orthodox Church. The school --- sparkling new --- has four classrooms and a small gymnasium as well as offices and a kitchen. There are beautiful tile floors and large windows that look out over the picturesque park. It was exciting to imagine the halls and rooms filled with kids.

We will start with two first-grade classes: two so that there is a sense of community and first grade only so that kids will begin their school experience there and not come with expectations and habits from other schools. Each year a new first-grade class will come, expanding the school by one grade level.

The school will be open to all regardless of faith. There will be a tuition fee, but also scholarships and grants to assist families who cannot afford it.

I learned a little about the Albanian system of education through visiting existing schools. The government maintains pretty tight control, requiring the use of standardized text books in core subjects. Our school will be a bilingual school, offering English and (hopefully) computer technology as additional components of the curriculum. This will be the draw for many of the families: American educational influence and English language instruction. All of the classrooms were fairly crowded with rows of double desks, with a lot of "seat work" going on.

I hope over time to introduce some activity centers and cooperative learning, but I know that this will be completely new and "experimental" for them. I believe this is important to do, though, because some of the problems in their education come from a lack of critical thinking and problem-solving skills and poor conflict resolution.

The government limits religious freedoms even in private schools. Religious instruction is not allowed, except in kindergartens and high schools, and there only because these are not mandatory years of study. We do plan to have a large icon of Jesus with children. Everyone will know this is a school sponsored by the Orthodox Church. I imagine that we'll also be able to say prayers and read Bible stories (reading instruction), but we can't specifically include this in the curriculum

We plan to offer a program either after school or on Saturdays for games, songs, and teaching about the faith. This will be optional, but I plan to make it so much fun that kids will want to be there.

Part of the ministry of this school will be to teach kids values and integrity in the way they think about themselves and about others. We hope to nurture a generation of young people who are honest and moral and who can positively contribute to the Albanian society. I also hope to draw families and parents into this school community, encouraging them toward faith and hope and love.

I leave for Albania in mid-August. School opens September 16th. It seems daunting! When I was returning from Albania, I stayed a night in Zurich. Lying in bed, I found myself worrying about all the things I need to do and all that could go wrong. It seemed overwhelming. Then I thought of the last liturgy in Albania. At the dismissal, Archbishop Anastasios did what all Orthodox priests do during in the Paschal season, He proclaimed, "Christ is risen!" And we responded, "Truly, He is risen!" This calmed my doubts and worries. The miracle has already occurred! We have a living Lord! Given that, I trust that He will provide for me and the school and for all of our lives.

Shannon Robinson

Back from Albania

I'm home after eight months in the Balkans. It was a life changing event. I learned so much about myself, missions, and the world. I finished up in May and am still soaking in all I learned. I want to thank you all one last time for your love, prayers, financial support and for your interest during the time I was there. If you have any questions or want more stories, let me know and I'll be willing to share!

Now I'm working with my fiancé at an Orthodox Youth Camp in Central New York camp. Once again, God has opened the doors to ministry with youth! It is a challenge, but a blessing.

Yes, you did see "fiancé" in the last paragraph. The joy of my life is that I've found someone to do this mission focused life with. I will be getting married next spring to Alexander Cadman. As you've prayed for me up until this point, please continue to as I begin the next adventure which defines the rest of my life.

Jennifer Maple

Truthful reporting?

I'm writing as a former reporter for a small-town paper. The question I think we need to ask is: is news reporting as currently practiced compatible with Christianity? Many in the news media are aggressively secular; they also like to think of themselves as defenders of democracy. But the bottom line is the bottom line --- news does much to deliver profits to corporations, and does much to manipulate people, but what else does it do?

Many of the best reports on Serbia and Israel/Palestine come not from "objective" reporters but rather from involved people on the ground who are not profiting from their reports. When I was a reporter I got in trouble because I would not go to accident scenes or other troubles, because I did not want to be complicit in profiting from the misery of others. There are many famous photos of misery from the past few decades, but the one that sticks with me the most is found in Time or Newsweek and comes from the early 90s, not long before South Africans ended apartheid. The camera records the execution of a burly Afrikaner militia man who begs for his life as he crawls from his car in one of the sham African "homelands" where there was trouble. The photojournalist gives us pictures of the man being shot point-blank. I could not then, nor now, believe that the "journalist" could record such a callous action and not try to help in some way. "Who is my neighbor?" I ask myself from time to time, am I being complicit in this vast profit-making exercise, or am I using the news for a good purpose? If I am honest, the answer is often the former, not the latter.

Gregory Cook

Overcoming bitterness

I heard a quote I liked yesterday: "Bitterness is like taking poison and then waiting for the other person to die."

The seed of bitterness is unforgiveness. Unforgiveness is like anticipating someone's intention to slap you, and fulfilling it yourself over and over again. It is a form of self-abuse and, it seems to me, is also the origin of all kinds of deception.

Forgiveness, of the other hand, strengthens the soul and leads to the freedom to love, which is also the capacity to see others as they really are and have compassion for them.

It's always seemed to me forgiveness is one of the easiest things in the world to do because it is contingent upon nothing but one's willingness to forgive; it is never dependent on how other people behave.

It can also be the most difficult thing to do if I am forgetful of how I have been and am in desperate need of forgiveness myself, and am unwilling to forgive, unwilling to love, and too clouded and disordered interiorly to know or care about the clarity or curing of my soul.

Forgiveness, however, liberates me as much as it does the person who is forgiven. I heard a woman on the radio this week tell the convicted murderer of her son, "I can never forgive you for what you have done." So the initial death expands into the mother's heart.

I can easily imagine being influenced by such strong emotion myself, but the truth is that unforgiveness is as destructive to one's own soul as any murder weapon. The murderer therefore indirectly destroys more people than her intended victim; she also destroys those who will not forgive her, and they aid her in the self-destruction! Forgiveness cuts off the path of destruction, and overcomes it.

Saint Kosmas Aitolos writes: "If a man insults me, kills my father, my mother, my brother, and then gouges out my eye, as a Christian it is my duty to forgive him. We who are pious Christians ought to love our enemies and forgive them. We ought to offer them food and drink, and entreat God for their souls. And then we should say: 'My God, I beseech Thee to forgive me, as I have forgiven my enemies.'"

Eric Simpson

Beatitudes and anti-beatitudes

When I was about 13, a Catholic priest taught my religious education class the Beatitudes and the "anti-Beatitudes" --- that is, "what most people think" contrasted to Christ's teachings. The Beatitudes were written on one page of an exercise book, the "anti-Beatitudes" on the one opposite. I've lost that exercise book but this is roughly what is was like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What most people think: Blessed are the rich, for they know their way about the world.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.

What most people think: Blessed are the powerful and arrogant, for they get their own way.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

What most people think: Blessed are the hard-boiled, for they never let the suffering of others affect them.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.

What most people think: Blessed are they that demand their rights, for they shall always win their lawsuits.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

What most people think: Blessed are those who trample others underfoot, for they get their own way.

Blessed are the clean of heart: they shall see God.

What most people think: Blessed are those who love to exploit others, for the world will admire them greatly.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

What most people think: Blessed are those who love to quarrel, for others are afraid of them.

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What most people think: Blessed are those who strike back hard when they are brought to account, for in that way no-one will dare challenge them.

Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake.

What most people think: Blessed are you when you are the hero of the media, the gang, the club, the sports field or whatever...

Be glad and rejoice for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you.

What most people think: Because your reward is great on earth --- until you are forgotten.

I still remember all this from a religious education lesson 40 years ago. It is good to challenge young people to realize that there is another Way --- that of the Gospel.

Seraphim Honeywell

The Sacrament of Hospitality

I have been coming to a new understanding of Christian marriage, which I would call the Sacrament of Hospitality. It seems to me that we are called to hospitality, and that is the vehicle for our salvation. In Matthew 25 Christ explains that whatever you do to the least you do to Him, which is essentially a definition of the hospitality I'm talking about. Marriage is a sacrament because it is the core, the engine, if you like, of that hospitality. We must open ourselves to the Other. If we fail to do that, our failure is profound. We open ourselves first of all to our marriage partner, a radically opposite individual (radically because he is of the opposite sex). Then the couple open themselves to children. I think Christianity condemns abortion not because it holds one life above another, but because it halts the operation of hospitality. If hospitality is our salvation, abortion throws an obstacle in front of it. This doesn't mean that the mother's life is "less valuable" than that of the fetus, but that the mother, as a mature adult, is now practicing this most intimate form of hospitality, which she as a Christian is called to do, and on which her salvation depends.

The hospitality in the Sacrament of Marriage opens out in concentric circles, from the couple itself to children, then to neighbors and friends and finally to total strangers.

On the issue of abortion, once we compare the lives of mother and unborn child in order to decide which is more valuable, we find ourselves on thin ice. Fr. Alexander Schmemann regarded a way of thinking that centers on comparison as the basis of the demonic in our culture. Who is more valuable? Who has more rights? This is a distorted way of thinking. We cannot think this way when we talk about the act of Christian love, or of hospitality. But people who are accustomed to a secular, rights-based way of thinking that is Western culture have a hard time with this. Sometimes I do myself...

Nancy Forest