Journalist raised in Jerusalem says refugees take forgiveness to heart

| Melenie Soucheray | March 30, 2018 | 0 Comments

Presentation part of St. Peter’s 130th anniversary — “Duc in Altum” — in North St. Paul

During the Lenten season especially, Christians around the world contemplate their place in the body of Christ. Parishioners of St. Peter in North St. Paul began on Palm Sunday by focusing on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the power of forgiveness, and the preeminence of faith in God and Christ.

Marta Zaknoun

Following Mass March 24, Marta Zaknoun, a 33-year-old Eastern Lebanese Maronite journalist who was born and raised in Jerusalem, presented “Christians in the Middle East: A People, A Face, A Newness in Everyday Rubble.” She showed a video and spoke about the complex, historic, sometimes peaceful relationships among Christians, Muslims and Jews in her homeland, and the painful, disruptive impact of war on the thousands of displaced people in the region.

“Coming from a very hard-core Christian family, I was raised with the notion of forgiveness and hope,” Zaknoun said. “Even though we were refugees, [that] was not the last word of our lives. It didn’t condition our way of relating to the people who supposedly took away our lands.”

Zaknoun now lives in Canada with her husband and three children. She works in her parish and writes for Catholic publications. She and some friends created a video and a set of 21 wall panels for the 2016 New York Encounter, an annual three-day cultural event. The exhibit features stories told by Iraqi and Syrian Christian refugees in Amman, Jordan.

When Islamic State militants swept into the void created by war in their home countries, the extremists told Christians they either had to convert to Islam, pay a high tax or leave.

“It’s my community,” Zaknoun said. “I know that living in the Middle East was never easy for my minority, but I also treasure, very much, the land and the holy sites. The presence of Christians in those places is important to me as a Christian. I felt very moved by the fact that these refugees gave up everything — their jobs, their stability, the future, everything they had — for Christ.”

Zaknoun added, “They left Iraq and Syria because their lives, and the lives of their children, were in danger. They were forced to leave. But, the fact that they cling to their faith, that they don’t fall into despair, and their faith doesn’t weaken, is also something that fascinated me. One of them said to me, ‘We lost everything, but we gained and kept the only thing that matters.’”

The people Zaknoun interviewed for the exhibit said they have taken Christ’s revolutionary example of forgiveness to heart. In turn, Zaknoun exhorted the people of St. Peter not to put the refugees on a pedestal and call them “super Christians.” Instead, she asked attendees to remember the struggles and big questions in their own lives, and to think how they and the refugees are united.

“We should enjoy our lives. We should enjoy our faith,” said Father Ettore Ferrario, St. Peter’s pastor. He told parishioners, “Don’t go out [tonight] with the emotion of pity, but keep this message with you: Am I shaped by physical things or desires, or am I more struck by the mother who discovered, again, her faith in God and his love, because of her physically painful situation?”

That introspection is a theme of St. Peter’s yearlong celebration of 130 years as a Catholic community in North St. Paul. “Duc in Altum” (Into the Deep) includes a series of educational programs, of which Zaknoun’s was one. The series is inspired by Jesus ordering St. Peter to “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).

Father Pietro Rossotti, the parish’s parochial vicar, is leading the “Duc in Altum” planning process.

“We strongly believe that we are educated in faith to make it part of our culture,” he said. “If Jesus is not part of our culture, if Jesus is not attractive in that part of my life, it’s not enough to praise him on Sunday. If Jesus has a real presence, we will wish that he can enter our life, day in and day out.”

Meri Jo Tepe is a lifelong North St. Paulite, a member of the parish council and part of the “Duc in Altum” committee. Zaknoun’s presentation fulfilled her expectations.

“I can’t imagine the life that [the refugees] are living, being so deep in their faith and forgiving of a group of people who basically said, ‘You’re out.’

“I am dwarfed by that,” she continued. “I am not anywhere near where they are. If I can take one step closer and have one more opportunity to really think through what I believe in and how I can share my faith with others, that’s tremendous — to be merciful.”

Zaknoun concluded that not even the biggest evil can silence refugees’ desire to live a “beautiful, full life, which, to me,” she said, “is possible only because Christ helps them live that way.

“This is the connection that I really see with Holy Week,” she added. “I see people that are not stuck in the tomb. They live the resurrection. They live with pain and with tears, and they suffer, and it’s difficult, but death doesn’t have the last word.”

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