Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from an Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal

Great Lent Week 4, Faith

Volume 4 No. 203 March 20, 2014

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Winter Landscape - Hudson, OH 2014 by Dr. Jacob Mathew
In North America, spring "officially" begins on Thursday, March 20. Does that mean winter is over? In this year's crazy weather with North America and Europe having arctic cold and Russia and Kerala experiencing unusually warm weather, we will never know!
[ Photo: Our Backyard by Dr. Jacob Mathew]
TABLE OF CONTENTS
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I. THIS SUNDAY IN CHURCH

1. Bible Readings for This Sunday (March 23)

Bible Readings For Fourth Sunday of Great Lent (Canaanite Woman)
http://www.Malankaraworld.com/Library/Lectionary/Lec_4th_sunday_of_Great-Lent.htm

2. Sermons for This Sunday (March 23)

Sermons for Fourth Sunday of Great Lent
http://www.Malankaraworld.com/Sermons/Sermon-of-the-week_4th-sunday-in-lent.htm

3. Malankara World Great Lent Supplement

Great Lent is the time for personal reflection, meditation, reconciliation, and prayer. Malankara World has a great resource that helps you accomplish that. We provide you daily reflections, meditations, prayer, bible readings etc. Read the articles about how to practice lent. Then do the reading for the day specified. We will guide you week by week. You can find the resources here:

Malankara World Great Lent Supplement
http://www.Malankaraworld.com/Library/Lent/Default.htm

Week 4 of Great Lent
http://www.Malankaraworld.com/Library/Lent/Lent_week4.htm

II. THIS WEEK'S FEATURES

4. Inspiration for Today: Do you believe?

The world has some "issues" right now. Only God knows what the future holds. Our belief in Him and His truth is the key to entering the future with peace and power. ...

5. God Is Patient and Waiting to Welcome Us by Pope Francis

This is God’s way of doing things: he is not impatient like us, who often want everything all at once, even in our dealings with other people. God is patient with us because he loves us, and those who love are able to understand, to hope, to inspire confidence; they do not give up, they do not burn bridges, they are able to forgive. Let us remember this in our lives as Christians: God always waits for us, even when we have left him behind! He is never far from us, and if we return to him, he is ready to embrace us. ...

6. Text and Commentary on the Canaanite Woman - Matthew 15:21-28

This dialogue between Jesus and the woman is especially beautiful. By appearing to be harsh, He so strengthens the woman's faith that she deserves exceptional praise: "Great is your faith!" Our own conversation with Christ should be like that: "Persevere in prayer. Persevere, even when your efforts seem barren. Prayer is always fruitful" ([St] J. Escriva, "The Way", 101). ...

7. Canaanite Woman: A Gentile Woman Persists in Faith

Jesus commended the Gentile woman for her great faith, proven by her persistence, and then immediately announced that her daughter was healed. No one can rightfully say that her faith wasn't severely tested, as it seems that even Jesus tried to discourage her. But her persistent faith paid off. ...

8. Canaanite Woman: Daring Doggedness

How much happier we are when we acknowledge our littleness and unworthiness, when we recognize our status as creatures of God who gives us life, breath and every beat of our heart. All we possess is a gift of his creative love. How happy we are when we are grateful and let him know this a thousand times a day. ...

9. Meditation: Canaanite Woman - Matthew 15:21-28

Despite being ignored and rebuffed, the Canaanite woman persisted. Please, please, please! If you've ever dealt with a child who desperately wanted something, you can imagine the feeling Jesus must have had. He could heal her daughter. He knew it. She knew it. Although she was not Jewish, she had some understanding of who he was - something more than just a holy man, a gifted rabbi, or a prophet. And she would not be dissuaded from her quest to find healing for her daughter. ...

III. FAITH

10. The Two Kinds of Faith

There are two kinds of faith, and that they are really very different...

Our natural faith is necessary and sufficiently effective to enable us to operate successfully in this natural world, but it will not qualify us for heaven. It takes a special gift of God - supernatural faith - to do that...

11. Why Believe? An Apologetic of Faith

In the New Testament, the Greek words for "faith" and "belief" occur nearly 500 times, compared to less than 100 for "hope" and about 250 for "charity" or "love." Which is not to say, of course, that faith is more important than love, since Paul makes it clear that love is the greatest of the three theological virtues: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13)...

IV. REGULAR FEATURES

12. Recipe: Cucumber Dill Salad

13. Family Special: Communicating With Your Spouse Through Tough Times

It's been just over two years since we first heard Xylon has cancer. We've "celebrated" both our anniversaries in hospital. My husband has had 18 chemo treatments, radiation and a stem cell transplant. We've celebrated being cancer free and twice we have heard the crushing words, "There are still active cancer spots." The reality is that we live from test-to-test grateful for even a few weeks of treatment free time together.

Through all of this we have had to learn how to keep communicating with each other. We often fail. ...

V. CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION IN MIDDLE EAST

14. After Three Years, Who Is Standing With Syria?

The jihadists groups now comprise the largest segment of the opposition to Assad. They have sought to establish - and in some places have set up - an Islamic state that has no place for anyone - Christian, Muslim, or otherwise - who does not abide by their extreme interpretation of Islamic law....

15. Release of Syrian Nuns Belies Persecution of Christians in Rebel Areas

Overall the situation for Syria's Christians has deteriorated, particularly in the northern city of Raqqa, where a jihadist group recently forced local Christians to choose between converting to Islam, paying a protection tax, or being killed...

16. About Malankara World

This Sunday in Church
Bible Readings for This Sunday (March 23)

Bible Readings For Fourth Sunday of Great Lent (Canaanite Woman)

Sermons for This Sunday (March 23)

Malankara World Great Lent Supplement

Great Lent is the time for personal reflection, meditation, reconciliation, and prayer. Malankara World has a great resource that helps you accomplish that. We provide you daily reflections, meditations, prayer, bible readings etc.

If you only have a few minutes to spend a day, you can read short reflective articles and meditations. If you have more time, there is bible readings, and others to enrich your day.

Read the articles about how to practice lent. Then do the reading for the day specified. We will guide you week by week. You can find the resources here:

Malankara World Great Lent Supplement http://www.Malankaraworld.com/Library/Lent/Default.htm

Week 4 of Great Lent
http://www.Malankaraworld.com/Library/Lent/Lent_week4.htm
This Week's Features

Inspiration for Today: Do you believe?
"I want to know God's thoughts..." - Albert Einstein

God has built into your soul the capacity to ponder ideas and concepts - and I'm not just talking about simple things that you can see or touch. You have the ability to contemplate things like love, truth, injustice, success... the most phenomenal issues of our existence having to do with purpose, meaning, direction, and vision for life.

In short, God has given us an amazing gift that no other creature has: the capacity to believe.

Let's look at one of Jesus' last commands:

"Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me."
- John 14:1 (NASB)

The world has some "issues" right now. Only God knows what the future holds. Our belief in Him and His truth is the key to entering the future with peace and power.

Father, thank You for the gift of belief. Today, I give You my troubled heart. Replace my worries with a vibrant trust in You and Jesus. In the months ahead, shape my beliefs. Correct them. Develop them. Conform them to the truth You have revealed in Your Word. Amen

Source: Experiencing LIFE Today by Pete Briscoe

God Is Patient and Waiting to Welcome Us

by Pope Francis

"Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us" - Matthew 15:23

Brothers and sisters, let us never lose trust in the patience and mercy of God! Let us think too of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus: their sad faces, their barren journey, their despair. But Jesus does not abandon them: he walks beside them, and not only that! Patiently he explains the Scriptures which spoke of him, and he stays to share a meal with them (Lk 24,13f.). This is God’s way of doing things: he is not impatient like us, who often want everything all at once, even in our dealings with other people. God is patient with us because he loves us, and those who love are able to understand, to hope, to inspire confidence; they do not give up, they do not burn bridges, they are able to forgive. Let us remember this in our lives as Christians: God always waits for us, even when we have left him behind! He is never far from us, and if we return to him, he is ready to embrace us.

I am always struck when I reread the parable of the merciful Father (Lk 15,11f.); it impresses me because it always gives me great hope. Think of that younger son who was in the Father’s house, who was loved; and yet... he goes off,... And the Father? Had he forgotten the son? No, never... He was waiting for him every hour of every day, the son was always in his father’s heart, even though he had left him... And as soon as he sees him still far off, he runs out to meet him and embraces him with tenderness, the tenderness of God, without a word of reproach: he has returned! And that is the joy of the Father... God is always waiting for us, he never grows tired. Jesus shows us this merciful patience of God so that we can regain confidence, hope - always!

Source: Adapted from the Homily of Pope Francis on July 04, 2013
© copyright Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Text and Commentary on the Canaanite Woman - Matthew 15:21-28
Text: The Canaanite Woman

[21] And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
[22] And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon."
[23] But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us."
[24] He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
[25] But she came and knelt before Him, saying, "Lord, help me."
[26] And He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
[27] She said, "Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table."
[28] Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.
Mark 15:21-28

Commentary:

Mark 15

21-22. Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician cities on the Mediterranean coast, in present-day Lebanon. They were never part of Galilee but they were near its northeastern border. In Jesus' time they were outside the territory of Herod Antipas. Jesus withdrew to this area to escape persecution from Herod and from the Jewish authorities and to concentrate on training His Apostles.

Most of the inhabitants of the district of Tyre and Sidon were pagans. St. Matthew calls this woman a "Canaanite"; according to Genesis (10:15), this district was one of the first to be settled by the Canaanites; St. Mark describes the woman as a "Syrophoenician" (Mark 7:26). Both Gospels point out that she is a pagan, which means that her faith in our Lord is more remarkable; the same applies in the case of the centurion (Matthew 8:5-13).

The Canaanite woman's prayer is quite perfect: she recognizes Jesus as the Messiah (the Son of David) - which contrasts with the unbelief of the Jews; she expresses her need in clear, simple words; she persists, undismayed by obstacles; and she expresses her request in all humility: "Have mercy on me." Our prayer should have the same qualities of faith, trust, perseverance and humility.

24. What Jesus says here does not take from the universal reference of His teaching (cf. Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16). Our Lord came to bring His Gospel to the whole world, but He Himself addressed only the Jews; later on He will charge His Apostles to preach the Gospel to pagans. St. Paul, in his missionary journeys, also adopted the policy of preaching in the first instance to the Jews (Acts 13:46).

25-28. This dialogue between Jesus and the woman is especially beautiful. By appearing to be harsh He so strengthens the woman's faith that she deserves exceptional praise: "Great is your faith!" Our own conversation with Christ should be like that: "Persevere in prayer. Persevere, even when your efforts seem barren. Prayer is always fruitful" ([St] J. Escriva, "The Way", 101).

Source: "The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries". Biblical text from the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate. Commentaries by members of the Faculty of Theology, University of Navarre, Spain. Published by Four Courts Press, Kill Lane, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland, and by Scepter Publishers in the United States.

Canaanite Woman: A Gentile Woman Persists in Faith
Gospel: Matthew 15:21-31

This story has always been a difficult one to fully understand, because Jesus doesn't act like we'd expect Him to act. We view Him as always kind, compassionate and impartial, but He seems to be uncaring and prejudiced as He relates to this Gentile woman. So how are we to interpret this story?

Some believe that Jesus, in order to teach His disciples a lesson, was at first pretending to act like the average prejudiced Jew. That may well be the correct interpretation, because Jesus did ultimately grant the woman her request, revealing His true compassion for her and her daughter.

Others have suggested that Jesus was simply testing her faith, again by acting as if He didn't want to heal her daughter. Would she persist in believing or would she give up? Was her faith genuine?

And others think that Jesus was being honest in everything He said to her. That is, He was truly sent by His Father to help only the lost people of Israel, and not Gentiles.

This third interpretation is difficult for me to accept for several reasons. First, because if Jesus was sent by His Father to help only the lost people of Israel and not the Gentiles, why then did He apparently disobey His Father by ultimately healing the woman's daughter? Second, why did He help other Gentiles, such as the Roman centurion? Third, why did He die for the sins of every Gentile in the entire world?

Beyond that, Jesus apparently referred to the woman as a dog, a common, derogatory term that prideful Jews used to describe Gentiles. It's difficult for me to believe that Jesus really felt this woman was worthy of such a demeaning title and more undeserving than Jews of receiving God's help. I can't believe that Jesus didn't feel as much compassion for her plight as He did for anyone else's plight, just because she was a Gentile. Chances are that practically every family reading this devotional is a Gentile family. Is this how Jesus feels about us?

For these reasons, I prefer a combination of the first two possible interpretations. Jesus' own disciples expressed no concern for this poor woman, and requested that Jesus send her away, complaining that her begging was bothering them. This could hardly be considered a commendable action on their part. Christian virtue requires a higher standard than that. So perhaps Jesus wanted to teach them a lesson about God's love of non-Jewish people. I wonder if Jesus was looking right at them when He pronounced the woman's daughter healed. I wonder what they were thinking when He did!

Also, we note that Jesus commended the Gentile woman for her great faith, proven by her persistence, and then immediately announced that her daughter was healed. No one can rightfully say that her faith wasn't severely tested, as it seems that even Jesus tried to discourage her. But her persistent faith paid off.

Finally, perhaps there was more to this story than what we realize. Possibly Jesus knew something about this Gentile woman's private life that truly disqualified her from having any right to approach Him. She may have been a devoted idol-worshipper. Perhaps it was some very perverted and sinful thing she did that provided an avenue for her daughter to become demon-possessed. By ignoring her, Jesus may have been initially sending her a message of her need of repentance.

Regardless of what we don't understand about this incident, the ending makes perfect sense. Jesus, the compassionate Son of God, healed the woman's daughter instantly! God's love is so great!

Q. What do you think would have happened if the Gentile woman had not persisted in faith?

A. Her daughter would not have been healed, even though her healing was obviously God's will. As I've said previously, proud people don't like to hear such things, because they don't want to take responsibility for their unbelief and would rather blame God for their prayers that have gone unanswered. Most of us, like Jesus' twelve disciples, have doubted and failed in our faith. Let's be humble enough to accept responsibility, and wise enough to continue building our faith by feeding it with God's Word and exercising it. Our faith can grow! And praise God that, although He may be disappointed in our lack of faith, He never condemns us for it.

Q. When Jesus returned to Galilee, "a vast crowd brought him the lame, blind, crippled, mute, and many others with physical difficulties, and they laid them before Jesus" (Matthew 15:30). Matthew wrote that Jesus "healed them all" (Matthew 15:30). What does this teach us about God's will for healing?

A. It teaches us that God loves every sick person and it is His will to heal them all. If you had been lame, blind, crippled or mute and had been brought to Jesus that day, you would have been healed. Jesus didn't say to anyone, "I'm sorry, but it is not God's will for everyone to be healed, so I have to turn you away." No, everyone who came requesting healing was healed. Thus, it is certainly safe to assume that seriously ill people who didn't come that day could have been healed if they would have come. But because they didn't believe, they didn't come, and they weren't healed, even though it was God's will for them to be healed.

Application: There is no doubt that our faith is sometimes tested. What we are believing for often doesn't seem as if it's going to come to pass. But we should be encouraged by the Gentile woman we read about today. Her persistence paid off, and so will ours.

Source: Heaven's Family Devotions

Canaanite Woman: Daring Doggedness

At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us." He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But the woman came and did him homage, saying, "Lord, help me." He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed from that hour.
Matthew 15: 21-28

Introductory Prayer:

Lord Jesus, I believe you want me to have faith in you, faith that hearkens to your words without any second guessing. I hope in your words, not relying solely on my own strength or reasoning. I love you. You continue to astonish me by showing me that your ways are not my ways.

Petition:

Lord, fill my heart with gratitude and trust even when those I love suffer.

1. My daughter…

"My daughter is tormented by a demon." Sufferings of strangers stir our compassion. But when a son or daughter suffers, anguish can reach fever pitch. Imagine the agony of the mother in this Gospel passage. Imagine the near-physical pain she felt in the depths of her heart. However, her love nourished her hope and propelled her to seek out Christ. When those we love suffer, we need the same wisdom to seek the Lord.

2. Unfathomed Dimensions:

Only a mother or father knows the depths of his or her love for a child: "Words cannot express.…" We truly understand love when it involves people we know and love. Contemplate the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Imagine the false accusations, scourging, humiliations and the crucifixion. Now imagine your own son or daughter, or mom or dad or loved one, suffering the same fate. Christ's passion takes on a new dimension.

3. Our Title to God's Grace:

"Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." Faith and humility move Christ's heart. How easily we adopt a spoiled-child mentality, believing that we deserve more. "The earth doesn't owe you a living," a sage once said. "It was here before you." How much happier we are when we acknowledge our littleness and unworthiness, when we recognize our status as creatures of God who gives us life, breath and every beat of our heart. All we possess is a gift of his creative love. How happy we are when we are grateful and let him know this a thousand times a day.

Conversation with Christ:

Lord, I will praise and thank you a thousand times and in a thousand ways for all you do for me. Even sufferings, I know, come from your hand for my greater good, although I may not always perceive the good at that moment. Give me the gratitude, faith and trust to accept my cross and rejoice in your creative love for me.

Resolution:

I will thank the Lord repeatedly throughout the day.

Source: Regnum Christi

Meditation: Canaanite Woman - Matthew 15:21-28
"Have pity on me, Lord, son of David!" (Matthew 15:22)

Despite being ignored and rebuffed, the Canaanite woman persisted. Please, please, please! If you've ever dealt with a child who desperately wanted something, you can imagine the feeling Jesus must have had. He could heal her daughter. He knew it. She knew it. Although she was not Jewish, she had some understanding of who he was - something more than just a holy man, a gifted rabbi, or a prophet. And she would not be dissuaded from her quest to find healing for her daughter.

Most of us would give up if we were denied and slighted as this woman was. But not her. She approached Jesus and "did him homage" (Matthew 15:25). She worshipped him. With her final plea, she reminded him exactly who he is. She reminded herself, too, and believed. She confessed what she knew about Jesus, what he said about himself, and what he said about her. Instead of taking offense at his words, she shaped her will and her feelings to these truths and persisted.

This is what we do when we worship God. We declare, "This is who you are. This is who I know you to be. And I believe these truths about you." Worship like this has the power to strengthen our relationship with God. It can remind us of the reasons why we can hope and trust in the Lord. It can comfort us when we don't immediately find the answer we seek. It can even give us reason and courage to continue asking in the face of silence, rebuff, or apparent denial.

Often, as we lose ourselves in worship, amazing things happen! Perhaps you will hear the Spirit speaking words of wisdom, comfort, or encouragement. You may even receive immediate, miraculous answers to your pleas. Whatever happens, you can be sure that your abandonment and persistence will bear fruit. Because when you worship, God sees your faith, and his heart is moved.

So if you want to see great things from God, worship him for who he is. Keep on declaring his truths, and he will answer.

"Jesus, you are God, all-good and all-powerful.
You love all whom you have made, including me, and are merciful to all.
I trust you today with the deepest desires of my heart.
"

Numbers 13:1-2, 25–14:1, 26-29, 34-35;
Psalm 106:6-7, 13-14, 21-23

Source: The Word Among Us

The Two Kinds of Faith

by Prof. James R. Aist

Introduction

Several years ago I heard someone make the statement that "To help someone accept Christ, just show them that they already use faith in their everyday life, and explain to them that all they have to do is use the same faith to believe in Jesus." Well, I didn't know why at first, but that statement just didn't seem to ring true, especially in light of what the Bible actually says about faith. So, I began to search it out more carefully, and that's how I came to realize that there are actually two kinds of faith, and that they are really very different.

Natural Faith

(Matthew 16:2-3a) "He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky...'" Jesus is speaking here of a kind of faith that I call "natural faith." Based on the appearance of the sky, we believe that the weather will be fair or stormy. And so, we plan and proceed with our day accordingly, using our natural faith.

What I mean by "natural faith" is the faith that we are born with, the kind of faith that we come by naturally. This kind of faith is in our "nature" from birth. Everyone, even atheists and scientists, has natural faith and uses it every day.

Here are some additional illustrations of the daily working of natural faith, to help you see more clearly what I mean by "natural faith." By our natural faith, we believe that if we turn the ignition key, the car will start, and so we do it "on faith." By our natural faith, we believe that the chair we are about to sit on will be strong enough to support our weight, and so, by faith, we "take a seat." By our natural faith, we believe that if we put a dollar bill into a change machine, it will return four quarters, and in it goes. And by our natural faith we believe that the peaches we see at the supermarket will be juicy, sweet and tasty, and so into the cart ("buggy" in the South) they go. We are all very familiar with this natural faith.

So we see that natural faith enables us to operate successfully and productively in this natural, material world in which we live. It helps us to overcome daily uncertainties that would otherwise paralyze us with fear and render us helpless.

While natural faith is a necessary part of successful and productive living in this natural world, it is not perfect, as witnessed by the fact that the car doesn't always start, the chair doesn't always hold, the change machine doesn't always return four quarters and the peaches are not always juicy, sweet and tasty. And still, we continue to use it. What choice do we have, really?

Supernatural Faith

But there is another kind of faith. This kind of faith is sometimes referred to as "saving faith": (Ephesians 2:8) - "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God..."

Now let's briefly focus on two contrasting points that Paul makes here about faith:

This faith is "not from ourselves"; i.e., it is not something that we were born with and possess naturally;

and

This faith is "the gift of God"; i.e., it is a present that is given, or added, to us by God (hence, "supernatural")...that's how we get it.

So, here we have the two kinds of faith juxtaposed and contrasted in one Bible verse. And Paul spoke again of this gift of supernatural faith in Romans 12:3 - "For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you."

Furthermore, we know that most people, sadly enough, will never have supernatural faith, because most people will not be saved (Matthew 7:13).

So, what does supernatural faith do for us? Well, among many other things,

It qualifies us for heaven

(John 6:27-29) "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval." Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent";

It enables us to understand spiritual things

(1 Corinthians 2:14) "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned"; and

It extends the "resources" that we can call upon, as we are no longer limited to what we can do for ourselves, but we can now appeal to God for His help and provision

(Psalms 46:1) "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."

Will this supernatural faith ever fail us? No, contrary to natural faith, supernatural faith will never fail us: (2 Corinthians 1:20) "For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us." And, God is faithful, even when we are not (Romans 3:3-4).

Conclusion

We see, then, that our natural faith is necessary and sufficiently effective to enable us to operate successfully in this natural world, but it will not qualify us for heaven. It takes a special gift of God - supernatural faith - to do that.

Source: rethinkingtheology.com

Why Believe? An Apologetic of Faith

By Carl Olson

"Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all of its conquerors." - G. K. Chesterton

Faith is the Christian word. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., in his masterful theology of faith, 'The Assurance of Things Hoped For', writes, "More than any other religion, Christianity deserves to be called a faith" (3). He points out that in the New Testament the Greek words for "faith" and "belief" occur nearly 500 times, compared to less than 100 for "hope" and about 250 for "charity" or "love." Which is not to say, of course, that faith is more important than love, since Paul makes it clear that love is the greatest of the three theological virtues: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13).

But there is no doubt - pun intended - that faith is essential to being a Christian and to having a right relationship with God, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews states, emphatically and succinctly: "And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Heb. 11:6).

The daunting work of defining and analyzing faith has been described, with perhaps a dose of knowing humor, as the "cross of theologians." As with hope and love, the virtue of faith can appear initially rather simple to define, often as "belief in God." But some digging beneath the surface suggests a far more complicated task, as some basic questions suggest: What is belief? How is faith obtained? Is it human or divine in origin? How should man demonstrate his faith? What is the relationship of faith to the will, to the intellect, and to the emotions?

The apologist, meanwhile, must respond to charges against faith: that it is "irrational" or that it is the cause of conflict and violence. In recent years a number of popular, best-selling books written by atheists have called into question not only tenets of Christianity - the historical reliability of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection, and so forth - but the viability and rational soundness of faith itself.

One such book is 'The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason' by Sam Harris, which repeatedly - mantra-like - uses words such as "ignorant" and "irrational" in making the case that religious faith is not only outdated, but overtly evil. Every religion, Harris muses, "preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This puts the ‘leap' in Kierkegaard's leap of faith" (Harris, The End of Faith, 23). He adds: "Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity - a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible" (Harris, The End of Faith, 25).

Calling Christians and other religious believers stupid and unreasonable is often the default argument for Harris; it is also an approach, crude yet often effective, embraced by many who believe that religious faith is an offense to enlightened, modern man. With that basic opposition in mind, let us take up two basic tasks: defining what faith is and answering some of the charges against belief.

Do I Trust the Chair?

A witticism goes: "Everybody should believe in something; I believe I'll have another drink." It is more accurate to say that everybody does believe in something, even if it is belief in the ability to live without belief. Of course, even the skeptic understands that life in the material world requires certain types of belief or faith, using those terms broadly and non-theologically: the belief that stop lights will work correctly, faith that I will be given a paycheck at the end of the month, the trust that my grasp of basic math will keep me on the good side of the IRS.

One argument posits that sitting upon a chair is an act of faith, so even atheists have faith when they sit on a chair in, say, a home they are visiting for the first time. If for some reason I doubted the chair in question would hold my weight, I could ascertain its load-bearing capabilities by asking my host to sit in it first, thereby ridding myself of concern (and likely puzzling or offending my host). The argument only goes so far when it comes to faith in what cannot be seen, touched, or proven by scientific means. It does, however, suggest what many people are reluctant to admit: that all of us have beliefs and we live our lives based on those beliefs, even if we never articulate or define them. As Joseph Ratzinger observes in Introduction to Christianity, "Every man must adopt some kind of attitude to the basic questions, and no man can do this in any other way but that of entertaining belief." (Introduction to Christianity [2nd ed.], 71)

We, as creatures, have limited, finite knowledge, and so must make decisions - practical, relational, philosophical - without the luxury of proof. We use common sense and rely on our experience and, significantly, on the experience and testimony of others. I may not know for certain that the chair will hold me, but I conclude it is rational to think it will, based on certain observations: The chair looks well-constructed; it appears to be used on a regular basis; and it is in the home of someone who isn't the sort of person to ask guests to sit on a chair that might fall apart upon human contact. Sitting on the chair is a reasonable thing to do. Implicit here is the matter of trust. Do I trust the chair? Do I trust my host? And, more importantly, do I trust my perception and assessment of the chair?

Consider another example. You receive a phone call at work from your best friend, who is also your neighbor. He exclaims, with obvious distress, "Your house is on fire! Come home quickly!" What is your reaction? You believe your friend's statement - not because you've seen a live shot of your house in flames on a Channel 12 "news flash" but because of your faith in the truthfulness of the witness. You accept his word because he has proven himself worthy of faith in various ways. Trust in testimony and witness is an essential part of a theological understanding of faith.

God's Gift and Our Response

The Old Testament emphasizes trusting in God and obeying his utterances, which were often (although not exclusively) entrusted (there's that word again!) to patriarchs and prophets: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Jeremiah, and others. But while there are many men and women of faith in the Old Testament, trustworthiness and faithfulness are most clearly ascribed to God: "Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments …" (Deut. 7:9). The well-known narratives of the Old Testament are accounts of faith and faithfulness (and much faithlessness), all deeply rooted in a covenantal understanding of God's revelation of himself to man. It is God who initiates and it is God who gives wisdom, understanding, and faith.

The New Testament places more emphasis on the doctrinal content of faith, focusing upon man's response to the message and person of Jesus Christ. Again, faith is a gift that comes from God, accompanied by God's promises of life.

"No one can come to me," Jesus declares, "unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:44).

Paul repeatedly states that faith is intimately linked with trust and obedience, referring to the "obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5), exhorting the Christians at Philippi to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12), and telling the Galatians that circumcision is not the issue of concern, "but faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6).

Faith is portrayed as a living, vital movement that brings man into a grace-filled union with the Father, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. According to James and John, while faith is distinct from good works, it is never separate from them, for they display the reality of faith:

"Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith" (Jas. 2:18),

and

"this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us" (1 John 3:23).

Needless to say, the Old and New Testaments together present a complex and rich tapestry of understandings of faith, including elements, Cardinal Dulles writes in his study, "such as personal trust, assent to divinely revealed truth, fidelity, and obedience" (Assurance, 17).

At the Threshold of Belief

Augustine and Aquinas stressed that the object of belief cannot be seen or directly perceived, nor proven by mere logic. If you can prove it, you don't need to believe in it. And yet, as Josef Pieper explained in his essay, "On Faith," the believer must know enough about the matter to understand "what it is all about." An altogether incomprehensible communication is no communication at all. There is no way either to believe or not to believe it or its author. For belief to be possible at all, it is assumed that the communication has in some way been understood. (Faith Hope Love, 24)

God has revealed himself in a way that is comprehensible to man (in an act theologians call "divine condescension"), even if man cannot fully comprehend, for example, the Incarnation or the Trinity. Reason and logic can take man to the door of faith, but cannot carry man across the threshold.

"What moves us to believe," explains the Catechism, "is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: We believe because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived" (CCC 156).

Belief can also rest upon the testimony of someone else, as Paul states: "But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14)

Aquinas succinctly remarks: "Now, whoever believes, assents to someone's words…" (Summa Theologiae II:2:11). Pieper points out, however, that this leads to a significant problem: that no man is superior enough spiritually to serve as "an absolutely valid authority" for another man. This problem is only solved when the One who is above all men communicates with man. This communication, of course, reaches perfection in the Incarnation, when God becomes man - that is, when the Word, God's perfect communication, becomes flesh. And this is why, to put it simply, the historicity of Jesus Christ and the witness of those who knew him is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Faith is ultimately an act of will, not of emotion or deduction. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Aquinas, teaches, "In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace" (CCC 155). This submission is called "the obedience of faith" (CCC 143). Logic, reason, and recognition of authority go only so far; an act of will, dependent upon God's grace, is required for faith to be realized.

Yet this response of the will is not an impersonal act, like selecting numbers for the lottery, but an intensely personal response. "We believe, because we love," wrote John Henry Newman in a sermon titled, "Love the Safeguard of Faith against Superstition." "The divinely enlightened mind," he continued, "sees in Christ the very Object whom it desires to love and worship, - the Object correlative of its own affections; and it trusts him, or believes, from loving him."

So much for understanding what faith is. What are some of the popular, common criticisms of faith that need answering?

Faith is contrary to reason. Harris puts it in this provocative form: "And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths" (The End of Faith, 72). Yet the claim, "I don't need faith!" is ultimately a statement of faith. If reason is the ultimate criteria of all things, can the skeptic prove, using reason, that reason explains everything about reality? To say "I will only trust that which I can logically prove" begs the question: "How do you know you can trust your mind and your logic? Aren't you placing your faith in your reason?"

Thus atheism requires belief, including faith in (choose one) the perfectibility of human nature, the omniscience of science, the equality of socialism, or the steady conquest of political, technological, and social progress. But reasoned observation shows that the "truths" produced by these philosophies and systems of thought are lacking and incomplete; they cannot provide a satisfactory answer to the big questions about life, reality, and existence. The belief in science is a good example. The Catholic Church recognizes that science, the study of physical realities through experimentation and observation, is a valid source of truth. But this is quite different from believing that science can and will provide the answers to every question put forth by man. That is a belief - commonly called scientism - that cannot be proven but rests upon the unstable premise of materialism, which is a philosophical belief, not a matter of proven scientific study. For example, Harris writes that there "is no reason that our ability to sustain ourselves emotionally and spiritually cannot evolve with technology, politics, and the rest of culture. Indeed, it must evolve, if we are to have any future at all" (The End of Faith, 40). If that isn't an overt statement of dogmatic faith, what is?

Put simply, the Church believes that reason is limited and not contrary to faith. True faith is not irrational, but supra-rational. In the words of Blaise Pascal, author of Pensées, whose rational genius is difficult to deny (unless one wishes to be unreasonable about it): "Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them" (Pensées, 68). So faith does not contradict the facts of the material world, but goes beyond them.

Faith is a crutch for those who can't handle the difficulties of life. I once worked for a delightful Jewish lady who was married to a self-described atheist. She once told me, with obvious frustration, that he would often tell her that faith in God was simply "a crutch." This is not an argument at all; it is simply of way of saying, "I'd rather trust in myself than in God." But belief in self only goes so far; it obviously does not save us from death, or even suffering, disease, tragedy, heartache, depression, and difficulties. Everyone has a "crutch," that is, a means of support we turn to in the darkest moments. These can include power, money, drugs, sex, fame, and adulation, all of which are, by any reasonable account, limited and unsatisfying when it comes to the ultimate questions: What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? Who am I? Harris, for his part, spends a considerable portion of the final chapter of his book arguing that Eastern mysticism is a thoroughly rational and legitimate means for living a full life. In the end, his book says, "Religion is evil. Spirituality is good." But spirituality does not provide answers; religion does.

Faith is the source of superstition, bigotry, and violence. We've all heard variations on this theme, mouthed by the increasing number of people indoctrinated to believe that nothing good ever came from Christianity and that every advance in human history has been due to the diminishing influence of Christian thought, practice, and presence. Never mind that the bloodiest and most savage century in human history was dominated by forms of atheistic Marxism (e.g., the Soviet Union) and neo-pagan Fascism (e.g., Nazi Germany), accounting for the deaths of tens of millions. Harris insists that Communism and Nazism were so bad because they were religious in nature:

Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: Although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion. … Even though their beliefs did not reach beyond this world, they were both cultic and irrational. (Harris, The End of Faith, 79)

This is actually quite true, and provides further evidence that every "ism" - even atheism, materialism, and the "pragmatism" endorsed by Harris - is religious in nature. History readily shows that man is a religious animal who thinks religious thoughts and has religious impulses. As Chesterton wrote in Heretics:

Every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly. The possibility is that he may have held it so firmly and so long as to have forgotten all about its existence. This latter situation is certainly possible; in fact, it is the situation of the whole modern world. The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. ("Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy")

Chesterton suggests elsewhere that if you wish to be free from contact with superstition, bigotry, and violence, you'll need to separate yourself from all human contact. The choice is not between religion and non-religion, but between true religion and false religion.

Christian faith, then, is not contrary to reason. Nor is it merely a phantasmal crutch built on pious fantasies. Neither is faith the source of evil. Faith is a supernatural virtue, a gift, and a grace. Faith is focused on God and truth; it is the friend of wisdom. "Simple secularists still talk as if the Church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion," wrote Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, "The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and faith" ("Man and Mythologies"). The challenge for every Catholic is to give assent and to have faith, while the Catholic apologist must strive to show that such assent is not only reasonable, but brings us into saving contact with the only reason for living.

SIDEBARS

If You Understood Him, It Would Not Be God

A key Christian thinker regarding faith is Augustine, especially noteworthy here because he often wrote in a controversial context, providing a wealth of theological and philosophical insights into the nature of belief. As he acknowledged in his Confessions and elsewhere, faith is only as worthwhile and strong as its object and its source. For Augustine, of course, both the object and source of faith is God. There should not be any tension or conflict between reason and faith, especially since they both flow from the same source. Therefore, reason should and must play a central role in the spiritual life; it is by reason that we come to know and understand what faith and belief are.

In Augustine's intense quest for God he asked: Can the Triune God be understood by reason alone? The answer is a firm "No." "If you understood him," he insisted, "it would not be God" (Sermo 52, 6, 16: PL 38, 360; Sermo 117, 3, 5: PL 38, 663). The insufficiency of reason in the face of God and true doctrine is also addressed in the Confessions. Regarding an immature Christian who is ill-informed about doctrine, the Bishop of Hippo notes:

When I hear of a Christian brother, ignorant of these things, or in error concerning them, I can tolerate his uninformed opinion; and I do not see that any lack of knowledge as to the form or nature of this material creation can do him much harm, as long as he does not hold a belief in anything which is unworthy of thee, O Lord, the Creator of all. But if he thinks that his secular knowledge pertains to the essence of the doctrine of piety, or ventures to assert dogmatic opinions in matters in which he is ignorant - there lies the injury. (Confessions V:5)

Another example of Augustine's high regard for reason and for its central place in his religious commitments can be seen in his experience with the teachings of Mani. As Augustine learned about the Manichaean view of the physical world, he became increasingly exasperated with the lack of logic and rational evidence in it. The breaking point came when he was ordered to believe teachings about the heavenly bodies which were in clear contradiction to logic and mathematics: "But still I was ordered to believe, even where the ideas did not correspond with - even when they contradicted - the rational theories established by mathematics and my own eyes, but were very different" (Confessions V:3). And so Augustine left Manichaeanism in search of a reasonable faith.

About The Author:

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report (www.CatholicWorldReport.com) and Ignatius Insight (http://www.ignatiusinsight.com) and moderator of the Insight Scoop blog (http://insightscoop.typepad.com/), all operated by Ignatius Press. He is the author/co-author of two books (and contributor to several others) and of hundreds of articles, essays, columns, and reviews published in a wide range of magazines, newspapers, and websites.

Source: Catholic Answers; Copyright © 1996-2014 Catholic Answers

Recipe: Cucumber Dill Salad

by Dr. Shila Mathew, MD., Food and Living Editor, Malankara World

Cucumber Dill Salad

by Jane Armstrong, Oak Brook, IL

Ingredients:

1 cucumber (about 1 pound)
Chopped fresh dill
2 kiwifruit, peeled
1 /2 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
1 /2 cup granulated sugar
1 /8 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions:

In small saucepan, combine vinegar, water, sugar, salt and white pepper. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 1 minute, stirring to dissolve sugar.

Using thin slicing blade of food processor, slice cucumber (or, with sharp knife, cut cucumber into thin slices). Place cucumber slices in a bowl; pour vinegar mixture over cucumbers. Mix well. Add a generous sprinkling of dill. Refrigerate at least 3 hours before serving.

When ready to serve, cut kiwi-fruit into wedges and stir gently into cucumber mixture. Drain cucumber mixture. Serve in a glass bowl.

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Family Special: Communicating With Your Spouse Through Tough Times

by Wendy van Eyck

The morning my husband woke up with a mysterious head-to-toe rash, our heads were filled with the ideas, dreams and hopes of newlyweds. A week later, we sat before a surgeon as he explained that my husband had cancer.

There is so much that needs to be discussed in a situation like that but so few words to describe how one feels. We were unsure how to communicate this news to others, and even more so how to speak about it with each other. Was it okay to speak our biggest fears aloud? Just a week before our thoughts had been on the future, now we spoke about the worry, heartbreak and disappointment we felt.

It's been just over two years since we first heard Xylon has cancer. We've "celebrated" both our anniversaries in hospital. My husband has had 18 chemo treatments, radiation and a stem cell transplant. We've celebrated being cancer free and twice we have heard the crushing words, "There are still active cancer spots." The reality is that we live from test-to-test grateful for even a few weeks of treatment free time together.

Through all of this we have had to learn how to keep communicating with each other. We often fail. There have been many times when I have snapped at him out of tiredness or kept quiet when speaking up would have been better. Sometimes I don't want to talk about the realities our future might hold; but I've learnt that when either of us stays silent about our thoughts and feelings it actually adds stress to our relationship.

Here are few things we've tried that have made communicating in tough times easier.

Make Space

Engage all five senses when you communicate. I often find that my mind wanders when Xylon speaks, or that I continue watching TV with one ear. I've been consciously choosing to tune out of everything else (switch it off, put it down, close it) and look at him and listen to what he has to say. If bringing up the topic of putting down electronics might be a touchy subject create opportunities to talk when this isn't an issue. Some of our best conversations happen in the car when we are free of all distractions.

Find Time

Before bringing up a difficult topic ask yourself, "Is this the best time to discuss this?" Often there will never be a perfect time but there are usually times that are better than others. I needed to learn that talking about the broken washing machine when my husband was still tired from chemo was more likely to lead to an argument, than if I had waited a day or two. Be sensitive to the struggles your partner is going through and choose a time when you can both engage with situation.

Be Open about Fears

One lunch time we sat down and asked each other two questions. First, "What is your greatest fear?" Once we had both answered we asked, "What is your greatest opportunity?" I have found this exercise helpful for us a number of times because often I discover that the thing I fear the most is also where our greatest opportunity for the future lies. It is also a simple way to start conversations where you can both be vulnerable about future worries.

Seek God Together

We have been making a lot of decisions over the last few months. We have prayed together about the future. Not long drawn out prayer sessions just short prayers before we fall asleep. Often after a difficult conversation we'll pray or sentence or two asking God to help us through the situation. Just being able to pray about a situation can often lead to clearer communication.

Talk about the Future

It is easy to get bogged down in the present problems. I find when that happens that refocusing on the future can help move communication on. Shifting focus from what is wrong right now to how we want the future to look can mean we find an unlikely solution. It's amazing how often when you're doing life with someone day-to-day you can forget to dream with them. Talking about individual dreams, and finding common dreams, can help get past momentary problems that don't hinder the future you dream of together.

Speak to Others

Realize that the two of you don't always have all the answers. My husband and I have both seen psychologists at different times over the past two years to deal with his diagnosis. We have also spoken openly with friends about what we are going through and accepted help when it is offered. Often an outside point of view can change how we see a situation or help us talk about an issue we're struggling with from a new perspective.

Having hard conversations isn't easy and it's not something that anyone wants to do but I've found that by speaking tough words it brings my husband and I closer when circumstances could push us apart. Tough times don't last forever and neither do hard conversations. Speak through the awkward stuff and then go do something fun.

If you've had to learn to communicate through tough times I'd love you to share some of things that have worked for you in the comments.

About The Author:

Wendy van Eyck writes for anyone who has ever held a loved one's hand through illness, ever believed in God despite hard circumstances or ever left on a spontaneous 2-week holiday through a foreign land with just a backpack. You can follow Wendy's story and subscribe to receive her free ebook, "Life, life and more life" at ilovedevotionals.com.

Source: Live It Devotional

After Three Years, Who Is Standing With Syria?
International Christian Concern (ICC) joins with millions around the world in calling for an end to the hostility that has torn apart the country of Syria over the past three years. The protests following the detention of 15 children for writing pro-democracy graffiti have descended into one of the most brutal conflicts in recent history. In the three years since the conflict began, militant Islamic jihadists have streamed into the country fighting not just against the brutality of Bashar al-Assad, but also to establish an Islamic state. The Christian community, in 2010 estimated as 10 percent of the population, and other ethnic or religious minorities are being explicitly targeted and killed or driven out of the country.

These jihadists groups now comprise the largest segment of the opposition to Assad. They have sought to establish - and in some places have set up - an Islamic state that has no place for anyone - Christian, Muslim, or otherwise - who does not abide by their extreme interpretation of Islamic law. These fighters have been met by forces loyal to the Assad regime and have shown their own brutality against the Syrian people. The result has been the death of more than 140,000 and one of the largest humanitarian crises in recent history. Nearly half the country, more than nine million people, is either internally or externally displaced.

The impact of the conflict is rapidly escalating. On March 12, 2013, 894,289 people were registered refugees, according to the UNHCR. On March 12, 2014, just one year later, that figure has nearly tripled to 2,513,541. The number of those displaced and not officially registered is estimated at an additional seven million. Both the short and long term impacts of the conflict for Syria and the surrounding region are staggering. The international community must act to bring about an end to this conflict and in doing so must engage those groups who are committed to a Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their religious or ethnic identity.

For the United States and other governments to continue to offer either material or military support to Islamist fighters only serves to deepen the crises and supports those who have driven more than 450,000 Christians out of the country. "We can't go back to Syria, there is no future for us there," Safer, who was forced to abandon his seminary studies and flee with his mom and two brothers after his dad was executed, told ICC. This is the message being received by a Christian community who have been the targets of religious motivated attacks, including beheadings, executions, rape, kidnapping, and destruction or seizure of homes and churches. These atrocities have been committed by many of the groups that have benefited from support of the "opposition groups."

As the United States engages with other governments in trying to bring an end to the conflict in Syria, it must ensure that the Christian community and those who are committed to peace have both a seat at the negotiating table and a future in the country. In the negotiations so far, the fate of Christians has not been a central point of discussion. As Congressman Frank Wolf and eight others highlighted in a recent letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, "We have also been troubled by the lack of focused attention during current negotiations on the perilous plight of Syria's religious minorities, including the ancient Christian population which fears that their fate could parallel that of Iraq's Christian population - which is a fraction of what it was just ten years ago."

As the world prepares to mark the March 15 anniversary of the conflict through the #WithSyria campaign, we must consider what kind of Syria is being created. The Syria we support must be a Syria for all Syrians, including the Christian community and we must ensure the voice of Syria's Christians is clearly herd.

Todd Daniels, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, "We continue to be heart-broken over the intense suffering taking place in Syria. We strongly support the call for an end to the hostilities in such a way that creates a Syria where all of its citizens - including Christians - are able to freely live and carry out their faith. In order for this to happen, these faith communities must be a part of the process. To exclude Christians from the negotiating table is to exclude one of the greatest forces for good that exists in Syria."

Source: International Christian Concern, www.persecution.org

Release of Syrian Nuns Belies Persecution of Christians in Rebel Areas

by Christa Case Bryant, Staff writer, Christian Science Monitor

Syrian nuns kidnapped by Islamist rebels were released overnight. Extremist groups in northern Syria have forced Christians to pay a fee for being non-Muslim.

The overnight release of 13 Syrian nuns in a prisoner exchange provides a rare bright spot for the country's beleaguered Christians, who have faced increasing persecution lately.

The nuns, kidnapped by Al Qaeda-linked rebels late last year, were reportedly freed in exchange for the release of regime prisoners, although the details remain unclear.

Qatari officials as well as the Assad regime reportedly helped broker the agreement that allowed the nuns to return home to Syria early today after being kidnapped from their monastery in Maaloula, north of Damascus, in December.

But overall the situation for Syria's Christians has deteriorated, particularly in the northern city of Raqqa, where a jihadist group recently forced local Christians to choose between converting to Islam, paying a protection tax, or being killed.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq now independent of the global terror network, presented Christians with an ultimatum in late February that included at least a dozen conditions. Among them were refraining from renovating churches, many of which have been damaged in the war, or wearing or displaying crosses and other religious symbols in public.

Some 20 Christian leaders reportedly agreed to the conditions, including payment of a twice-yearly protection tax, ranging from about $125 to $500, depending on personal income levels.

Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, expanded on the restrictions in the National Review late last month. "They are forbidden from reading scripture indoors loud enough for Muslims outside to hear, and the practice of their faith must be confined within the walls of their remaining churches, not exercised publicly (at, for example, funeral or wedding processions)," wrote Ms. Shea, who characterized the requirements as returning to rules attributed to the seventh-century caliphate.

The US State Department has strongly condemned such steps.

"The United States deplores continued threats against Christians and other minorities in Syria, who are increasingly targeted by extremists," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki in a March 3 press statement which specifically criticized the jihadists' demands in Raqqa. "These outrageous conditions violate universal human rights. [ISIS] has demonstrated time and again its disregard for Syrian lives, and it continues to commit atrocities against the Syrian people. Although [ISIS] claims it is fighting the regime, its oppression of and senseless violence against Syrians ... demonstrates that it is fighting for nothing except the imposition of its own brand of tyranny."

Some have criticized the US for not taking stronger action to try to prevent such atrocities, saying the ultimatum given to Raqaa's Christians is but the most recent casualty of the West's inaction.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote that Christians have become "the latest symbol of the West's resounding failure to stop the slaughter in Syria."

Christian exodus from Iraq

Syria's Christians, one of numerous minorities that had enjoyed relative protection under the Assad regime, are increasingly concerned that they could face persecution on the scale of Christians in Iraq. While Iraqi Christians constituted approximately 5 percent of the pre-war population, they accounted for 15 to 18 percent of registered Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, signaling a disproportionate exodus that left the country devoid of at least half its Christian population.

Syria's Christians represented an estimated 5 to 8 percent of the country's 22 million people before the war broke out, and the Syrian patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church recently suggested that as many as 450,000 of the 2 million Syrian refugees today are Christians. Such figures vary widely and are difficult to confirm given the volatility of the situation, but those who have fled tell of kidnappings, murders, vandalism to their shops, and pressure to convert.

"We are expecting what has happened in Iraq to happen in Syria as well," a young Syrian mother named Athraa told the Monitor last year, a few weeks after fleeing her village on the Syria-Iraq border.

Given that overall climate, it is noteworthy that the Syrian nuns, members of the Greek Orthodox denomination, reported that they were treated well by their rebel captors, and have been released unharmed.

Source: Christian Science Monitor, csmonitor.com

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