Coronavirus unlikely to deter Arab American Christians from celebrating Easter

Coronavirus unlikely to deter Arab American Christians from celebrating Easter
A general view of the entrance of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Manhattan's Upper West Side York City, New York, US, April 7, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 10 April 2020

Coronavirus unlikely to deter Arab American Christians from celebrating Easter

Coronavirus unlikely to deter Arab American Christians from celebrating Easter
  • This Easter, many Arab Christian churches are relying on the social media platform Facebook to live-stream their services
  • Arab American Christian leaders say many of their parishioners will also stay at home and follow holy week services via the Internet

CHICAGO: Arab American Christians are preparing to celebrate Easter, one of their most important religious holidays, under a cloud of concern caused by a combination of the deadly coronavirus pandemic and Internet connectivity issues.
A study by personal finance website WalletHub found that only half of American Christians who went to church for Easter services last year intended to try to attend Easter services this year.
Arab American Christian leaders say many of their parishioners will also stay at home and follow holy week services via the Internet.
Restrictions required to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), notably social distancing and stopping at home, have placed huge constraints on the Arab Christian faithful, who unofficially number about 3 million.
Many churches have announced they would be closed for services on their premises.
“We are struggling like everyone in this pandemic,” said Pastor Hesham Shehab of Salam Christian Fellowship church, based in Lombard, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
“We have joined with another American Christian pastor and we do a bilingual service in English and Arabic for our three churches together.”
In common with people of other faiths, including Jews who are celebrating Passover this week, and Muslims who will soon mark the holy month of Ramadan, most of Easter religious services for Arab Christians are being conducted over the Internet with the help of the video and audio features of Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and Zoom.
“The weekly services are not working well online,” Shehab said. “But we do daily sharing using WhatsApp. We share prayers, sing Arabic hymns and we do Bible studies together.”
Pastor Fady Ghobrial of the Arabic Baptist Church of Boston said that one upside of the pandemic is that he has seen an increase in the number of people reaching out to the church.
“The pandemic has affected us, as it has many churches, in that we are unable to hold our regular in-person services. While that has been a challenge for all churches, we are blessed enough to have been ahead of the curve on the technology front, since we have been live-streaming and recording our worship services for years,” said Pastor Fady Ghobrial.
“We have seen, as a result of the pandemic and the inability to travel or congregate, that our viewership and online participation in our virtual services has grown. We have continued to host online services in the meantime, have done our best to continue to minister to people virtually through our weekly online services and online prayer meeting.”
Traditional Arab Christian denominations, such as Catholic, Lutheran and Baptists, will celebrate Easter on Sunday, April 12.
Orthodox Arab Christians – namely, Coptic Christians from Egypt and Orthodox Christians from Palestine, Jordan and Syria – will celebrate Easter one week later, according to the old Julian calendar, on Sunday, April 19.
Most services are bilingual – in English and Arabic.
This Easter, many Arab Christian churches are relying on the social media platform Facebook to live-stream their services.
These include the Christian Arabic church in Anaheim, California, which recently sent out a bulletin telling its parishioners: “As the county and state Safer-at-Home directives to help protect Californians and slow the spread of the virus require us to remain at home, all church activities and gatherings will remain suspended until further notice.
“We will continue to broadcast live on Facebook and hold prayer meetings by phone whenever possible.”
Although there is no official census count of Arab Americans, the US Census Bureau estimates there are about 2 million Arabs living in the US, with Christians forming 75 percent and Muslims 25 percent.
Arab Christian community activists believe the actual number of Arab Americans is closer to 4.5 million, of whom about 3 million are Christians.
That estimate does not include “Middle East Christians” with origins in Arab countries but who do not identify themselves as “Arab.”
Middle East Christians speak Arabic and embrace Arab culture, but consider themselves to be Phoenicians, or Maronite Catholics from Lebanon, or Assyrians.
The last group, who see themselves as connected to the Assyrian Empire of more than 4,000 years ago and include Chaldean Catholics, came to the US from Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
Among those who celebrate Easter in Arab churches in the US are also Armenian Americans, whose ancestors fled persecution in Turkey in the early 20th century and settled in Arab countries.
Despite differences in origin, Arab Christians and Middle East Christians often worship together in the same churches on the basis of their common Arabic language.
But this year, they are being told that they need not attend the physical mass that will be held at their local churches. Instead, they are being offered online options to pray, sing and watch religious ceremonies.
The Heart of Jesus Maronite Catholic Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is hosting Easter services online in English and Arabic. But the Palm Sunday online services held on April 5 did not go as well as had been planned.
“We had some technical issues live-streaming our Palm Sunday Mass. I am truly sorry for the inconvenience,” said Chorbishop Michael G. Thomas, the vicar general and chancellor.
“Our next live-stream is scheduled for holy Thursday at 7 p.m. God willing, all of our issues will be resolved by then. They didn’t teach us this stuff when we studied theology in the seminary.”
St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights has been using Zoom to live-stream not only church services but also programs such as Bible studies and other activities for young and old.
Church leaders have asked their congregations through their newsletters and emails to contact them for the links to the services.
“We have gone virtual with many, many things, including our upcoming Palm Sunday and holy week services next week,” said St. Mary’s Father Mousa Haddad.
He added that they were becoming ever more reliant at this time on Facebook to minister to their congregation, which consists mostly of immigrants from Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon.
Another church, St. Sharbel Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon, was streaming its services online on YouTube.
No matter how they celebrate, in their homes as a family, online or in person at their churches, Arab American Christians all follow basic traditions to mark the day when they believe Jesus was resurrected after being crucified by the Romans.
Like their brethren in the Holy Land, they recognize the two days before Easter as Al-Juma’ Al-Hazena (Sad Friday, the Friday Jesus was crucified) and Sabt Al-Noor (Bright Saturday). Easter Sunday is called Ahad Al-Suroor (Happy Sunday).
On Easter Sunday the traditional greeting for an Arab Christian is, “Christ has risen.”
The COVID-19 outbreak in the US has hampered many traditional Christian traditions besides Easter, including those involving funerals.
Several Arab Americans in the states of Illinois, Michigan, Texas, California, New York and Florida have been identified as victims of COVID-19.
Traditional burial services and wakes have been banned and restricted to in-car processions originating in funeral homes and ending in cemeteries.


Uncertainty looms over successor as head of ‘world’s largest family’ dies in India

Uncertainty looms over successor as head of ‘world’s largest family’ dies in India
Updated 16 June 2021

Uncertainty looms over successor as head of ‘world’s largest family’ dies in India

Uncertainty looms over successor as head of ‘world’s largest family’ dies in India
  • Chana, aged 76, is survived by 38 wives, 89 children, 36 grandchildren

NEW DELHI: A question mark was on Tuesday hanging over who would become the new head of reportedly the world’s largest family, two days after the death of 76-year-old Ziona Chana.

Chana, patriarch of a Christian religious sect of 2,000 people that practiced polygamy, died in Aizawl, capital of India’s Mizoram state, on Sunday, without naming a successor.

The cult leader, who was believed to have suffered from diabetes and hypertension, is survived by 38 wives, 89 children, and 36 grandchildren.

His eldest son, 60-year-old Para Nunparliana, told Arab News: “The successor will be decided by the church. First, the burial will take place, and then the church will decide.” He has two wives and 11 children and is widely tipped to be the next in line to head the 163-member family.

Meanwhile, Chana’s daughter Thartei Chhuanthar, 50, told Arab News: “A special burial chamber is being prepared for our father, and he will be laid to rest in the next two to three days.”

Mother-of-four Chhuanthar is Chana’s fifth child but does not know how many siblings she has. “It’s difficult to say,” she said.

She grew up in the remote village of Baktawng, more than 50 kilometers from her present home in Aizawl and spent a major part of her life with the extended family.

“My father was shy and a man of few words. He did not speak much, but he did love everyone equally. There was no favoritism. He was gifted, and he wrote songs for the children to learn on every Sunday school,” she added.

The Chana family lives in a four-storey building with 100 rooms in Baktawng, and a separate school and playground has been allotted to it in the village.

The family runs the Chana Pawl sect with most of its followers residing around Chana’s house in Baktawng.

Chhuanthar said that while the family was Christian, its members did “not follow normal practices of the church. Chhuanthar kohhran means church of the new generation. They believe that they are the selected ones, going through the great road toward heaven. And will reach their destination in the flesh.”

Claims that Chana headed the world’s largest family have been disputed, with media reports suggesting that Winston Blackmore, leader of a polygamous Mormon sect in Canada, has around 150 children from 27 wives, making a total family membership of 178 people.

However, in a condolence message to the Chana family, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga described it as “the world’s largest family,” and it has featured twice on TV show “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”

During the 1990s, Baktawng village became something of a global tourist attraction on the back of the family’s notoriety.

Founded by Pu Khuangtuaha in 1942, the polygamous sect was taken over by his brother, Pu Chana, after Khuangtuaha’s death and later by his son, Ziona Chana.

“I expect that after our father’s death, my elder brother Para will take over too,” Chhuanthar said.

Chana first married at the age of 17, with his last wedding taking place in his 50s. During a 2007 interview with Arab News, Chana said: “I want to expand the family as much as possible.”


Afghan translators of departing foreign forces face a mortal danger: Taliban retaliation

Afghan translators of departing foreign forces face a mortal danger: Taliban retaliation
Updated 16 June 2021

Afghan translators of departing foreign forces face a mortal danger: Taliban retaliation

Afghan translators of departing foreign forces face a mortal danger: Taliban retaliation
  • Planned withdrawal by US and NATO troops will leave thousands of interpreters and other assistants exposed
  • Process of resettlement in Western countries complicated by need for recommendation letters and other documents

KABUL: Back in the spring of 2013, Tajik Mohammed was enjoying his leave in the small garden of his family home in the lush village of Kapisa when he learnt that the Taliban had put him on a blacklist. His crime? He was working as a translator for the US military.

Under cover of night, the high-school graduate was forced to flee 110 kilometers south to Kabul, the Afghan capital, where he has remained ever since. His family followed after the Taliban “threw a hand grenade one day” at their house, thinking he was there.

Mohammed, 32, worked for American troops in restive Ghazni province, which lies on the main highway leading to the Taliban’s bastion of support in the south.

He subsequently lost his job for failing to return to duty on time because he could not travel by air from Kapisa to Ghazni. He pointed out that if he had taken the trip by road, the Taliban would have killed him.

He and thousands like him are living in fear. In April, US President Joe Biden announced that he would be withdrawing the estimated 3,500 American troops stationed in Afghanistan by September, 20 years after the Al-Qaeda attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

Officials at the US embassy said they could not provide data on the percentage of applicants who had been turned down for special immigration visas or the number of former translators and employees who had been killed over the years. (AFP)

The withdrawals started on May 1. Departing with the American forces are their NATO allies and thousands of foreign military contractors. They leave behind those Afghans who have worked as translators, cooks, cleaners, and guards. Many are fearful that the militants will seek retaliation.

US-led efforts to reconcile the Taliban with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul have not borne fruit since talks began in Qatar last year.

Last week the Taliban, a grouping of mainly Pashtun militants who harbored Osama bin Laden and ruled Afghanistan for five years until 2001, said that they no longer considered the former employees of foreign forces as “foes.” But the militants noted that the workers needed to show “remorse” and should not use “danger” as an excuse to bolster their push for a “fake asylum case.”

In the past, the Taliban openly preached that Afghan translators should be killed. “You are a legitimate target for the Taliban even if you have served for one day for the foreign forces. I have no faith in the Taliban’s promise,” Mohammed told Arab News.

“Who killed so many journalists and civil society activists? Of course, (it was) the Taliban. But they did not take responsibility for them. We risked our lives while working for the foreign forces and now that they are leaving, there is no guarantee at all for our future and we face risk again,” he said.

Mohammed is a member of the Afghans Left Behind Association (ALBA), a union of 2,000 former translators and workers. The group was recently formed with the purpose of highlighting the voices and concerns of those who say they will be targeted once NATO forces leave.

Last week, ALBA held its first large-scale gathering under tight security in Kabul. A number of the former translators wore masks to protect their identities. No One Left Behind, an American non-profit organization that advocates for the relocation of Afghan interpreters to the US, said that according to US media reports more than 300 translators or their relatives had been killed since 2014.

Omid Mahmoodi, an ALBA press officer, said the Taliban killed at least one member of the union, named as Sohail Pardis, as he was driving in Khost province in southeastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan.

In April, US President Joe Biden announced that he would be withdrawing the estimated 3,500 American troops stationed in Afghanistan by September. (AFP)

Another translator said he had moved to Kabul from his native Nangarhar province after receiving a threatening telephone call, naming him as an “apostate” who “deserved to be killed.”

Thousands have submitted applications for special immigration visas (SIVs) which allow them to emigrate to the US. Successful applicants need to prove that they served with US forces for at least two years and demonstrate that they provided “faithful and valuable service.”

This is usually attested by US military officers in the form of a letter of recommendation. Successful applicants typically also need to show that they have received evidence that they had been threatened. Those who are unsuccessful often lack documentation or are the subject of “derogatory information.”

The translators have been the eyes and ears for American troops and accompanied them during military campaigns against the Taliban and other militants. They have helped with the arrests of insurgents as well as the controversial searching of homes.

They have also acted as cultural advisers in what is a highly conservative society, helping foreign troops understand tribal, ethnic, and religious sensitivities, while in addition coordinating with Afghan forces.

Mohammed has recently applied for an SIV at the American embassy in Kabul. Thousands of translators from Afghanistan and Iraq have relocated to America using this mechanism as a reward for helping the US troops. “The answer I got through an embassy email asked me why I was terminated, where my recommendation letters were, etc,” he said.

“But the people we worked with in the US military have gone home, changed their addresses and even their profession, so it is tough for us to get hold of them, get the answers and pass them to the embassy here.”

Officials at the US embassy said they could not provide data on the percentage of applicants who had been turned down for an SIV or the number of former translators and employees who had been killed over the years.

Feraidoon, a 28-year-old former translator in Ghazni, told Arab News that he had had his SIV rejected in 2015 but had recently applied again. “The embassy says I do not have sufficient recommendation letters. We have no trust in the Taliban and see no commitment in them because they consider us as traitors, sell-outs and spies,” he said.

Mohammed Basir, 46, who worked for five years with French troops in Kapisa until 2013, said he had appeared in press conferences while translating on TV and had become a “known face” and feared reprisal. “The Taliban will spare no time to behead us if they capture people like me,” he added.

The Taliban said those who worked with foreign forces needed to show “remorse” and should not use “danger” as an excuse to bolster their push for a “fake asylum case.” (AN photo/Sayed Salahuddin)

A number of former translators whose cases were denied in the past have fled Afghanistan, according to ALBA. Akhtar Mohammed Shirzai escaped to India in 2013 with his family. He has been living there since in the hope that he will be able settle in a coalition country because he served with NATO’s media branch.

He applied for an SIV from India in 2016 but was rejected because he did not have a letter of recommendation from his superiors in Kabul. He applied again in May and is now waiting anxiously.

On the Taliban’s offer of an amnesty, Shrizai said: “I heard about it, but I personally do not believe in that because the Taliban are not monolithic. There are different groups with different ideologies and thinking among them.”

In Kabul, Ayazuddin Hilal, who worked for American forces in a number of regions, said the former translators “could not attend wedding ceremonies or funerals back in their villages and even in secure areas where they live. Residents of the area do not treat them well because of their service for the foreign forces.”

He noted that a friend and colleague had also wanted to move to Kabul because of security threats in Nangarhar but was killed by a bomb blast. “I hope the politicians in the US and other capitals take a wise decision on our fate,” he added.

Twitter: @sayedsalahuddin


Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours

Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours
Updated 15 June 2021

Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours

Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours
  • Eight boats carrying 634 people, including a five-month-old baby, have arrived at Lampedusa, south of Sicily, since early Tuesday
  • Lampedusa’s mayor, Salvatore Martello, said that almost 1,370 people are now staying at the Imbriacola migrant reception center, a facility designed for 250 occupants

ROME: The Italian island of Lampedusa is struggling to cope after more than 600 migrants landed on its shores in less than 24 hours.

Eight boats carrying 634 people, including a five-month-old baby, from North Africa have arrived at the Mediterranean island, south of Sicily, since early Tuesday, overwhelming migrant facilities and leaving services on the brink of collapse.

More than 380 migrants of various nationalities were crowded onto one fishing boat alone.

“We intercepted a boat at dawn with 85 people on board. A small boat carrying 13 Tunisians landed later, followed by another with 12 men from Morocco and Sudan,” Admiral Roberto Isidori, commander of the Sicilian Coast Guard, told Arab News.

“All those on board were in very bad condition.”

Four other boats carrying at least 100 people reached the island — viewed as a gateway to Europe by migrants — in quick succession.

These groups were in addition to the 442 people who landed on Monday.

Mayor of Lampedusa Salvatore Martello. (AFP)

Lampedusa’s mayor, Salvatore Martello, told Arab News that almost 1,370 people are now staying at the Imbriacola migrant reception center, a facility designed for 250 occupants.

“The conditions facing migrants are very hard as we are experiencing a heatwave,” he added.

Agrigento authorities have arranged for 100 migrants who have been identified and tested negative for COVID-19 to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle, an industrial port in the south of Sicily.

“From there we will try to send them to other reception centers, although all the facilities in Sicily and Calabria are already full beyond capacity,” Isidori said.

Other migrants could also be transferred on quarantine ships and patrol boats.

“In Lampedusa, the situation is unsustainable, both for the migrants and the local population, which is showing generosity to those people who endured a long, dangerous trip reach the island,” Urania Papatheu, a Forza Italia senator, told Arab News.

“What is happening is intolerable and unacceptable. It’s time for the EU to take action and hear to the calls for help from the Italian government. Enough with words from the EU. The time has come for facts and solidarity — Italy cannot be left alone.”

About 40 migrants from Algeria who landed on the southern coast of Sardinia also have been transferred to the migrant reception center in Monastir where they will be kept in quarantine.


Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus

Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus
Updated 15 June 2021

Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus

Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus
  • Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary appeared before a British Parliament committee to give evidence on the May 23 diversion
  • The pilot was put under “considerable pressure” to land in Belarus

LONDON: The pilot of a Ryanair flight that was diverted to Belarus last month, leading to the arrest of a dissident Belarusian journalist, had no alternative but to land in Minsk, the airline’s head said Tuesday.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary appeared before a British Parliament committee to give evidence on the May 23 diversion. The scheduled flight from Greece to Lithuania changed course and landed in Belarus’ capital.
Opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, who had been a passenger on the plane, was arrested.
O’Leary told British lawmakers that Minsk air traffic control warned the flight crew of a “credible threat” that if the plane entered Lithuanian airspace, “a bomb on board would be detonated.”
The captain repeatedly asked to communicate with Ryanair’s operations control center, but Minsk air traffic officials told him — falsely — that “Ryanair weren’t answering the phone,” O’Leary said.
“This was clearly a premeditated breach of all the international aviation rules, regulations, safety,” he said.
O’Leary said the pilot was put under “considerable pressure” to land in Belarus instead of the more standard options of Poland or other Baltic countries.
“He wasn’t instructed to do so, but he wasn’t left with any great alternatives,” he told members of the Parliament committee.
After the plane was on the ground, several “unidentified persons” boarded the aircraft with video cameras, according to O’Leary.
They “repeatedly attempted to get the crew to confirm on video that they had voluntarily diverted to Minsk,” the Ryanair executive said. The crew refused to provide such confirmation, he said.
Western countries have called the forced diversion a brazen “hijacking” by Belarus. Outraged European Union leaders swiftly slapped sanctions on the country, including banning Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc and telling European airlines to skirt Belarus. UK authorities took similar actions.
O’Leary said he did not support continuing such flight bans in the long term.
“We cannot have a situation whereby airlines, air travel, our customers and our citizens run the risk of being hijacked and diverted under false pretenses,” he said. “But equally, far more UK citizens will be disrupted as a result of long-haul flights between the UK and Asia, for example, now having to fly around Belarus or avoiding Belarusian airspace.”


Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 
Updated 15 June 2021

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 
  • Single Pfizer dose offers 94% protection against hospitalization
  • England’s chief medical officer hails study as ‘very encouraging indeed’

LONDON: Coronavirus vaccines are about as effective at preventing hospitalization in cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19 as they are for the earlier Alpha strain, a UK study has found.

The Public Health England (PHE) report found that a single dose of Pfizer’s vaccine results in 94 percent protection against people being admitted to hospital after becoming infected with the Delta variant.

It compares with the 85 percent protection that the same jab offers against the Alpha variant — results that bode well for worldwide vaccination efforts aimed at ending the pandemic. 

Other vaccines delivered similar results. A single dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine provides 71 percent protection against the Delta variant, compared to 76 percent against the Alpha strain, according to the 14,000-case analysis conducted by PHE. 

Following the delivery of a second dose, protection against the Delta variant offered by the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs climbs to 96 percent and 92 percent, respectively.

PHE concluded in its report that vaccination efforts could result in a sharp drop in hospitalization rates, including both Alpha and Delta variant cases.

Prof. Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, hailed the study as “very encouraging indeed.”

An earlier Scottish study found that people who had caught the Delta variant, which is thought to be about 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha strain, were about 85 percent more likely to be admitted to hospital than those who become infected with the earlier variant.