Maronite Catholics in U.S. assist those abroad

Like many Catholics, Anthony and Pierrette Hazkial were shocked by news reports about the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians. From their families in Lebanon, they learned more about the estimated 1.5 million refugees who have fled to that country to escape war and persecution in Syria and Iraq.  

The 20-something couple who live in Milwaukee and belong to the Maronite Church wanted to help but didn’t know how. “We don’t have pull in Washington, and we don’t have enough money to donate ourselves to make a difference,” Pierrette said. “A lot of people feel that way. They are aware but didn’t know where or how to donate.”

The Hazkials did think of something they could do. On Jan. 31, they held a banquet fundraiser near Chicago, and with the proceeds donated $40,000 to Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency that was founded in 1926 by Pope Pius XI and “works for, through and with the Eastern Catholic churches to identify needs and implement solutions,” according to its website.

The couple’s faith led them to support fellow Christians with similar ancestral roots. As Jesus was persecuted 2,000 years ago, his body, the Church, is suffering today, Anthony said.

“One thing that helped Jesus endure was acts of love along the way of the cross,” he said. “Our effort, together with all those who donated, was an act of love toward Middle Eastern Christians, and we hope it helps them persevere in their faith until the end.”

‘Part of the Church’

The current crisis in the Middle East is especially real for the Hazkials and members of their Eastern Catholic church based in Lebanon. Many members are sympathetic toward refugees entering that country and concerned for family members living there. At the same time, they’re making room for Middle Eastern Christian refugees entering the United States who often join their congregations from other Eastern churches.

Pierrette and Anthony Hazkial Courtesy photo

The Maronite liturgy, which includes prayers in the language spoken by Christ, is distinct from that of the Roman Catholic Church, but Maronite leaders point out that the two rites — along with the other Eastern rites of the Catholic Church — have much in common. (Many of the estimated 220 Assyrian Christians recently held hostage by the self-proclaimed Islamic State belong to another Eastern Catholic rite — the Chaldean Church. See sidebar.)

“We are part of the Catholic Church,” said Bishop A. Elias Zaidan of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles eparchy (similar to a diocese), one of two U.S. Maronite eparchies. “We were not something added later on. This is our heritage. This is our life. We don’t want to forget our brothers and sisters in the Middle East — all the Christians in the Middle East.”

With nearly 160,000 members in North America, the Maronite rite possesses a rich history, according to clergy members. Founded in Syria in the fifth century by followers of St. Maron, the church has been based in Lebanon since the seventh century.

The Maronite and all Catholic churches share a common creed, sacraments and allegiance to the pope, said Chorbishop Sharbel Maroun, pastor of St. Maron Catholic Church in Minneapolis. In January, he was elevated to the position of chorbishop, similar to an auxiliary bishop in the Latin rite. He is one of five chorbishops serving in the Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles eparchy covering 34 western states.

Aiding refugees

As refugees, especially from neighboring Syria, have swelled Lebanon’s population in recent years, Maronite and other Eastern churches are helping them, said Father Tony Massad, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in Livonia, Michigan.

Still, many Christians have left the Middle East, Bishop Zaidan said. “We [must] create some kind of awareness of the importance of the Christians in the Middle East,” he said. “We want them to stay there. We want to do whatever we can to help them in any way.”

Because the majority of American Maronites are of Lebanese descent, and many send financial support to family members in Lebanon, they are aware of what’s happening there and want to do more, Father Massad said.

Around the country, efforts to provide aid have included a blanket drive and donations to orphanages, he said. Like the Hazkials, people in the pews are doing what they can to help their brothers and sisters in the Middle East. Parish collections for the Middle East also have raised much more than normal collections, according to Chorbishop Michael Thomas, who is also vicar general for the St. Maron of Brooklyn eparchy covering the eastern United States, as well as pastor of Heart of Jesus Catholic Church Maronite Rite in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Along with helping refugees in the Middle East, Maronite congregations are also assisting those coming to the United States and welcoming them into their parishes. Churches in cities seeing the largest influx of Middle Eastern refugees, including Detroit, Houston and Los Angeles, try to help them settle and find jobs, Bishop Zaidan said.

Each week new families come to Our Lady of the Cedars Maronite Catholic Church in Houston, which has grown from 20 families in 1990 to 700, said pastor Father Milad Yaghi. According to the Houston Chronicle, U.S. State Department officials expect about 2,000 Syrian refugees to arrive in Houston this year with as many as 10,000 by the end of 2016.

‘What are we doing?’

The secular media and governmental bodies are not focusing enough on the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, Chorbishop Thomas said.

While aid is available for members of other religions displaced by the Islamic State, Christians aren’t receiving as much assistance, he said. U.S. Catholics need to pray but also go a step beyond to help. “There are over 1 billion Catholics in the world,” Chorbishop Thomas said. “Have we raised our voices? What are we doing to help Christians?”

He urged Catholics to give financial support and ask their elected officials to take action to end the conflict. Chorbishop Thomas recommended donating to Catholic Near East Welfare Association or to Caritas Lebanon, part of the Caritas International humanitarian organization.

The Hazkials donated the money they raised to CNEWA because they wanted to help Middle Eastern Christians, but the event was also held because they wanted to encourage people in the United States to continue talking about the crisis. Planning the event while working full-time and without a lot of help was challenging, said the couple, who promoted the event at seven parishes during the month before the fundraiser.

Islamic State militants have “already set their sights on Lebanon; they have stated that’s where they’re going to go next,” Pierrette Hazkial said. “It keeps getting worse, and it’s so shocking to us that there’s nothing being done by the international community to really stop them, other than airstrikes.”

The Hazkials plan to visit their families in Lebanon next month. It will be their first trip there together, but they fear it also could be their last if ISIS moves into the country, Anthony said. “We hope that it’s not, but we think that there’s a very real possibility that this could be the last trip that we could make safely.”

Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.

Christians in Danger; Pope seeks Prayers
On March 1, the day Pope Francis again spoke out against the violence facing Christians in the Middle East, the region celebrated the release of nearly 20 Assyrian Christians abducted by Islamic State militants in northeastern Syria, but expressed concern that more than 200 others remained in captivity after they were captured during Feb. 23 attacks.

CNS photo