The calendars would write “Year 1900” when three French Catholic monks of the African Mission would arrive for the first time in Samos Island, a remoted island of the Eastern Aegean Sea, near Turkey. Shortly thereafter, the White Fathers, as they were called, would establish their monastic community and parish in the Vathy area of Samos.
The Catholic Parish Assumption of the Blessed Virgin or “Fragoklissia” would serve in the early 1900s a small community of Catholics, which would outnumber about 80 people. Over the years, the Catholic community would begin to flourish in favor of the commercial links and of the consulates of the Catholic doctrine that were being hosted by the island.
On March 19th, 1901, the French School of Saint Joseph would open its doors. Until the end of their presence on the island, on June 28th, 1971, St. Joseph’s nuns wouldl host and offer a high level of education to hundreds of children coming from the cities and villages of Samos, the rest of the Aegean Sea’s islands and of Athens. Famous for their charity work to all people without discrimination, they would offer a great relief to the children of the Armenian refugees in 1920 and to all the inhabitants of the island during the Second World War.
The life for the Catholic Parish would continue until the early 1970s. The monks would buy large areas of land to create the catholic cemetery, its chapel, but also to cultivate vines for the production of special wine for the celebration of Divine Liturgy and the Eucharist.
In 1970, the last French monk, Francis Gagiou, would return to France and shortly before leaving, he would sell the property of the monastic community to two families in Samos. Since then, the main building that houses the temple and an attic will belong to the Catholic parish. Gagiou would be honored by the Municipality of Samos island for his offer and services to the local community. The monk would be followed by the Saint Joseph nuns and everything showed that the end of the Catholic community had been reached.
The citizens of Samos would rejoice with great regret the monk and the nuns knowing that this meant the end of a rich cultural and tolerant society that brought great spiritual development to the place.
“Until today, older people are moved when they remember the farewell to the nuns, or when they remember their daily lives while passing by the Catholic Church,” says the current subdeacon of the Catholic parish of Samos, Mr Marios Foscolos who helped us during the research for the Catholic parish and the catholic community of Samos.
The revival and future of the community
The building of the parish was renovated in 2000, giving a new hope to the Catholic community and the island. In 2017, the Catholic community outnumbers about 200 people of all ages.
“We are constantly finding new people that we did not know that they existed and were not recorded anywhere,” says Marios Foskolos.
The main feature of the island’s catholic community is that it does not consist exclusively of Greeks but has also a huge percentage of Italians, Polish, Belgians, Albanians and other nationalities. Recently, Samos would welcome 45 Catholic French-speaking refugees from places such as Cameroon, Congo and North African states.
“With the refugee flows, our flock has Been increased and we are called upon to meet its needs and to stand next to it. Our goal is to embrace refugees and to integrate them into our community. The mass continues in the Greek language according to the regulations of the Second Vatican Council, where the Latin is abolished and the mass is done in the national language of each country. However, they are being offered the opportunity to chant some hymns in French and read some extracts from the New Testament in French in order to feel intimate and fully integrated.”
In Samos the Catholic families are scattered on the island. There are families in all places, in Vathi, in Karlovasi, in Platanos or in Marathokampos. Unlike other Catholic doctrines, Greek Catholics of Samos make mixed marriages with Orthodox Christians without any problem.
“The catholic community of Samos has the happiness of being composed of all ages and especially of new ages. May all of her members not be extremely active but that does not mean that its optimistic future will stop. Indeed, there is a young Samiot who is in the second year of the sanctuary, without of course knowing if he is going return. In any case, we believe that the future is hopeful.”
Opening its doors
“It has been the right time to change the mindset that the Catholic Church is closed and remote. It was supposed to be open to the world, fearless and with perspective to re-embrace the local community. Coming here from the island of Tinos I thought that the parish should become again an active part of the island’s life.”
The last years, the Catholic parish is open to the public almost all the day. The priest comes twice a month for the mass while some gatherings are being organized in order to empower and encourage the community. During the Holy Week, two concerts of church music were held with works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Easter sacred music and others.
“The church was full of people during those two days of concerts. If we had concerts for a a whole week, I’m sure it would be full of people for all these days. Thanks to the concerts, there was a raising of the awareness regarding the existence and the mission of the parish. However, there are still a lot of people who do not know about us and we are trying to communicate our work through the local media.”
The “difficult” charity work
“We are trying to find solutions and resources as people in need hut us the door every day. Our goal is to alleviate the pain of every person. Unfortunately, our capabilities are still too limited in relation to the number of people in need and we are constantly looking for solutions.”
With the aid of Caritas, the global philanthropic organization of the Catholic Church, the Catholic Parish of Samos is trying to increase the number of families (Greeks and refugees) that support financially. Our cooperation with the Catholic parishes of other Greek islands has helped to a great extent the charity work in Samos.
“There have been requests for help mainly on the refugee issue which unfortunately we have not been able to satisfy. This is why we have approached other parishes, such as the parish of Tinos, with whom we have co-operation on charity issues. Generally with all the Catholic parishes and dioceses of the other islands we have created very good relationships and excellent cooperation and mutual assistance.”
Closing the door to the history of the Catholic Parish of Samos at 09.30 in the evening, Mr. Foskolos asked us to remember just one thing:
“The Catholic Parish of Samos is a gem for the island. Many are being moved to the memory of a robust Catholic community and parish. Now the façade of the building is ready to collapse and nothing reminds us of the glory of the past. Unfortunately, the building does not belong to the Catholic parish after 1970 but only to individuals and we would like to emphasize the need to repair it so that Samos does not lose something so precious for its history.”
Hajj In The Age Of Coronavirus
The Hajj pilgrimage is one of the pillars of Islam, required of those who are able and have the financial capacity. Eid al Adha celebrations follow Hajj and this year Eid fell on July 31. It is the second of the two major holidays for Muslims and is often called the festival of sacrifice.
Families purchase an animal usually a goat or sheep for the ritual. The meat is shared with family and friends but mostly distributed to the poor. There is a strong undercurrent of social welfare in Islam placing a burden on the haves to look after the needs of the have-nots.
This year the coronavirus has caused havoc with the Hajj economy. It’s roots go deep. Mecca was always a city of pilgrimage possessing as it did the idols of pre-Islamic gods. Traders and merchants were wary of Islam which was notably severe on idolatry. Needless to say, the Hajj soon placated their fears.
Now for the first time in its history, the coronavirus has done what wars could not: it has restricted Hajj. Saudi Arabia has closed its borders to Hajj pilgrims. Even residents have had to fill application forms from which about 10,000 have been selected. Compare the figure to the two million usual Hajj pilgrims and one gets an extent of the loss for organizers, accommodation and transportation providers (for the Hajj is a peripatetic ritual), etc. The loss to Mecca and Medina is estimated at around $10 billion. A sizable hit and when added with other ravages of the coronavirus yields a rough estimate of a 4 percent contraction in the Saudi economy.
Among the worst hit are the travel firms in the pilgrims’ own countries. Many of these companies specialize in Hajj travel earning in a couple of months enough to sustain them and their workers for the year. For them, the future looks bleak. It’s tough also for the sheep and cattle farmers in surrounding countries as far away as Kenya. They raise livestock to export for sacrifice at Eid al Adha but absent demand prices have crashed.
If Eid prayers were a jam-packed, shoulder to shoulder event, no longer in the age of social distancing. And somehow the ritual of stoning the devil (the three pillars at Mina) seems to lose its impact under a greatly diminished quantity of stones from thinned out throwers.
Well, such has been this year’s pilgrimage. A socially distanced Hajj that included in addition to the stoning a socially distanced circuiting of the Kaaba in the Grand mosque — absent of course the energy and emotion crowds spontaneously generate.
Hajj and its Eid are over, sanitized and played safe by Saudi Arabia. And cold, scientific rationality ruled. Is there a lesson there somewhere?
Forced Conversions in Pakistan
Pakistan has failed to comply with its international obligations to protect non-Muslim girls from exploitation by powerful groups and criminal elements – forced conversions are a norm in the Islamic state. Even worse is the psychological impact on families of minorities who worry when their daughters venture out, and the culture of intolerance that is promoted when leaders like Mian Mithu celebrate another ‘forceful conversion’ and marriage as a victory for the Muslim faith in the local community. It sends an awful message to our most vulnerable people — that their girls are not safe.
Statistics in this regard are alarming. A 2014 report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP) says about 1,000 women in Pakistan are forcibly converted to Islam every year. According to Amarnath Motumal, the vice-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, every month, an estimated 20 or more Hindu girls are abducted and converted. However, exact figures are impossible to gather. In 2014 alone, 265 legal cases of forced conversion were reported mostly involving Hindu girls. According to the National Commission of Justice and Peace and the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC), around 1000 Christian and Hindu minority women are converted to Islam and then forcibly married off to their abductors or rapists. This practice is being reported increasingly in the districts of Tharparkar, Umerkot, and Mirpur Khas in Sindh.
To some of us these maybe just stories and incidents, however its disturbing that our country has failed to protect minorities. It’s the tragedy of our society that the media is not free. It is in the strong shackles of the influential people in our country, and when such incidents occur, media only highlight it for a few days and then it all goes in vain. To us, these are just statistics, but in reality, these are the number of families who faced these bummers.
From the distressing story of Reena and Raveena to the heart-rending story of 18-year-old Radha Hindu community was never granted justice, they are never satisfied with the rulings of the court. Forced conversions of young girls is an emotive issue in the Hindu community of Sindh. Those accused claim that young love is being misrepresented by the community, the media and activists. But those who know the whole truth often do not speak.
These are not just “forceful conversions” by the ordinary people, but it’s proper propaganda by the influential people of that region. Mian Mithu, a former PPP member of the National Assembly, is infamous for his involvement in cases of alleged forced conversions. In 2015, when Imran Khan asked MianMithu to join (PTI), the PTI chairman faced so much backlash from the Hindu community that he had to distance himself from the pir.
The PPP had earlier denied MianMithu a ticket when he first came under the spotlight in 2012 because of accusations of forcefully converting a Hindu girl, Rinkle Kumari. He is the pir of the shrine Bharchundi Sharif. However, Mianmitthu turned down all the allegations and said, “In the past 200 years, not a single Hindu has been converted to Islam forcibly,” he claimed. “All those men, women, girls and boys, whether they belong to the Hindu community or any other community, come to us to change their religion out of their own choice. They are not forced to convert.”
But if we notice the head of the communities who are facing these condemnable threats reject Mian’s statements, and they are convinced that everything they are facing is due to these influential people. Makheja mukhiya of Hindu community stated, “Once a girl is raped; she is blackmailed into giving whatever statement they want to be recorded in the court.” Supposedly speaking from his own experience of handling dozens of such cases. He questioned why it is Hindu girls alone who are so eager to change their religion and elope. Why aren’t Hindu boys, who enjoy more social independence than the girls, doing the same?
Makheja, who himself comes from a wealthy upper-caste Hindu family, says that the most unfortunate thing is that their community is being pushed around and cornered although they have lived in Sindh for generations.
The statement of Ameet Kumar who is a social rights activist and mukhiya (chief) of the local Hindu community in Daharki, aches one’s heart: “When a mother gives birth to a daughter in our community, we feel fear.”
The government took the steps, but no pragmatic change has come.
On October 10, 2019, Huma Masih, a 14-year-old girl, was forcibly abducted from her home by Abdul Jabbar, a Muslim man who then compelled her to convert to Islam under duress before marrying her. Either these steps were not concrete, or it lacked implementation or the steps were against the mafia, and influential people and the government failed to make them accountable.
Finally, it may be concluded that social and economic disparities are stark. It is a particularly inegalitarian society, where a few individuals enjoy a privileged status and the impunity that goes with it. In contrast, others have to struggle for even their fundamental rights to be recognized. There is an extreme proselytizing zeal among the local clergy to bring non-Muslims into the fold of the dominant faith. To convert someone is perceived as a pious deed that will bring rewards in the hereafter, no matter the method employed to execute the conversion. Clerics like MianMitho from Ghotki and Ayub Jan Sarhandi from Samaro, to name a few, have become veritable symbols of conversion in Sindh.
Relentless Debate on Forced Conversions
Forced conversion is the illegal conversion of a person from one religion to another religion in duress, force, threat and without free consent. The victims of the forced conversion, are mostly the low-caste Hindu girls, are abducted, then trapped in love and then got married with the Muslim men in the seminaries / Madrassas.
The relentless debate on the forced conversions has been in the limelight throughout the Country across the decades. The forced Conversion bill was placed in 2016 and sadly it was effectively blocked by the mobilization of the Islamist groups and parties. A group of Ulema, including the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) met with Dr. Abdul Qayyum Soomro, the chief minister’s special assistant on religious affairs, on December 5th 2016, and termed the bill against the basic principles of Islam. 7 Religious parties in Karachi launched a campaign against the bill in order to pressurize the Sindh government into repealing it. The JI argued that there could be no age limit on people converting to Islam. Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), opposed the idea of age limits on conversions. Religious Parties threatened to lay siege to the Sindh Assembly if the legislature did not repeal the bill. JI leader Advocate Asadullah Bhutto claimed that there had not been a single case of a forced conversion in Sindh. When the chief of JI, Sirajul Haq, called PPP co chairperson Asif Ali Zardari the PPP-led government quickly announced that it would make amendments to the law.
The case study of the two Hindu sisters Reena and ravina meghwar underage girls from Ghotki district of the Sindh were illegally converted and enticed by two Muslim men who were already married and had children. Those underage girls after their conversion into Islam, they are prevented to meet their families once they get married with the Muslim men.
This case has depicted the illegal conversions discriminate the laws protecting their rights like Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion and that no one shall be subject to coercion to change their religion. The Hindu Marriages Act was passed in 2017 to regulate their marriages but they could not avail benefit from that act and its implementation is zero. Many of the Hindu conversions violate Sections 3 and 4 of the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, which sets 18 years as the minimum marriage age.
Every year 1000 girls are converted into Islam forcibly as per the report of South-Asia Partnership, Aurat Foundation and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The hotspots for these conversions are Thar, Umarkot, Ghotki and Jacobabad where these so called conversions take place in large amount. People Convert due to their financial conditions It identified the landlords, extremists and weak local courts are working together to perpetuate this menace rather than defeating the discrimination against the minority groups.
Haris Khalique the writer and General Secretary of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan postulated the scenario these conversions transpire the economic deprivation and patriarchy. Most of these girls come from the scheduled caste and the men they marry are financially better off and that become power dynamic.
Ironically, Pakistan is signatory to the international covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has ratified the (CEDAW) convention on elimination of discrimination against women which clearly envisages that women can enter into marriage with their free consent, but the present scenario in Pakistan shows the ugly side of the picture.
On the whole, the Government has to lay an embargo on the proselytization by approving the bill and implement it widely across the country so that the individuals from the minority and scheduled castes feel secure at their places. Besides, the government has to end this limitless debate of forced conversions by ensuring the equal rights to the religious minorities according to Constitution of Pakistan 1973.
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