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Caracas is touched by faith and devotion to a leader that requires no election bar love and unity
As a part of the Christian celebrations that take place in Venezuela during Holy Week, there’s one in Caracas called “El Nazareno de San Pablo” (The Nazarene of Saint Paul), the most popular of the processions made in honor of the image of Christ bearing the cross. The celebration took place in downtown Caracas on 1 April 2015 and attracted thousands of people.
Whatever the political storms to hit Venezuela since 1998, this procession has consistently drawn some of the country’s largest numbers of participants. In spite of the socio-economic crisis now plaguing Venezuelans, both their devotion to this tradition and their religious identity in general remain strong. Whatever the effects of Chavismo, these traditions have overcome the many other transformations their lives have undergone in this era.
This festival’s popularity dates to an old legend that a miracle saved thousands of people from a terrible disease. As the plague carried off thousands of lives, Holy Week arrived, and with it, several processions of different “Nazarenos” carrying the cross through various cities around the country. In the church of San Pablo in downtown Caracas, a wooden Christ was taken to the streets as it did each year. Suddenly, he got tangled in a lemon tree. When the lemons fell, people started eating them, and those who were sick began to heal. Word quickly spread, and more people came to eat the lemons from the miraculous lemon tree. Since then, thousands of people all over the country come to the procession that occurs every Wednesday of Holy Week. Most of the parishioners go dressed in purple, carrying crosses and a crown of thorns. Some choose to express their devotion by walking barefoot down the path as an offer or payment for a promise.
Downtown Caracas celebrates in many ways and is flooded with colors portraying the different aspects of Venezuelans’ religious idiosyncrasy. Peddlers, among others, take advantage of the festivity to do a bustling business selling candles, incense, purple robes and other religious items. Everyone participates in a different way, from those who join the procession to kids and elders selling merchandise used by the parishioners involved in the ceremony.
The experience embraces a symphony of colors, scents, and sounds. The melody of a church organ meets the crying of the youngsters; the murmur of the prayers meets the discourse of the priest; purple robes, wooden crosses and yellow palm leafs dance to the scent of orchids and incense. From early morning to late at night, the “normal routine” of the booming capital pauses before these outpourings of Christian faith and devotion. Indeed, Caracas is a city of multiple faces. Amidst their convoluted lives, Caraqueños (people from Caracas) still seek the love and unity that these days are harder to come by. Indeed, the Wednesday of the Holy Week is hardly the only time that Caraqueños take to the streets from dawn ‘til dusk.
The Basilica of Santa Teresa, house of the Nazarene after the San Pablo church was demolished years ago, remains full all day with parishioners that come and go from all over the country to see the wooden Christ that waits for the procession behind the altar
Milagros (right) 19 years old sells candles each year since she was 5. She can make 400 BsF (2$) for each box of candles.
Figures of the Nazarene are part of the merchandise displayed near the church along with the robes, crosses, rosaries, etc.
Vicente Escobar, 58. Comes with his family each year to sell purple robes, he consider this as a tradition. He says this year has been hard for the business because “people don’t have money anymore”
Junior, 13 (right) helps his mother with the selling; they come from Tachira, a state located on the western border of Venezuela.
Genesis Rivas, 6. She and her mother pay a promise each year for health. She was diagnosed with an intestinal disease during pregnancy; she has survived this long and has a great perspective on her future.
A peddler selling candles watches amazed as the Saint passes in front of him
This man comes each year in bare feet, with a croen of thorns and a cross to pay a promise he made in exchange for health
Part of the crowd at half way of the procession
The silver cross is carried by the kids in front of the Nazareno during the procession. As a background, the full moon shines in the sky.
The wooden cross leads the procession followed by the incense and a silver cross
Elders and kids are the most common visitors of the procession, this woman watches with deep emotion as the Nazareno passes in front of her
After 17 continuous ceremonies from 12 am to 5 pm every Wednesday from Holy Week the procession starts taking the Christ out the Church around the block and back.
Carrying the Nazareno is a great honor and it’s done every year by the same group of man
Gabriela Desire, 4. She was born dead, revived two seconds after the birth. It’s a miracle she is alive and for that, she and her mother come every year to pay the promise her mother did in exchange of her daughter’s life
Angela, 4. She has Cancer; her father brings her every year to pray for her health.
Alberto, 58. Comes from Peru where he learned to knit with palm leafs. Since he came to Venezuela in the 70s he sells his work during Holy Week
The faith on the saint of the Nazarene for some is so strong that the fact of having it near is strongly emotional and overwhelming
Merchandise with the image of Christ comes in lots of different forms sizes and prices, these paper fans are more than useful inside the church were the heat due to the amount of people causes that more than one passes out.
Thousands of cellphones went on at the last ceremony right before the procession to take pictures of the wooden Christ displayed on the church
The "Nazareno" with a decoration of orchids, the national flower.
A kid awaiting not so patiently while the procession starts
National police, paramedics and guards worked in the procession containing the multitude and caring for those who were affected by the heat and the great amount of people
Aldo Giordano, the representative of the Pope in Venezuela, as being interviewed by the press said they wanted to contribute to the miracle of peace in Venezuela.
Yellow Palm Leafs made in form of crosses, are sold in the street next to the church. Palms shouldnât be sold as they are usually gotten for free to be blessed in the Easter ceremonies, but they are, with the purple robes, the most popular item sold by peddlers to the parishioners.
March 23, 2015
Al-Samaniya is one of the most prevalent Sufi orders in Sudan. Followers of this Tariqa, young and old alike, attempt to reach God by reiterating "There is no God but Allah" while bowing repetitively.
Video shows Samaniya members performing a ceremonial prayer at a mosque in Khartoum. It also includes an interview with a clerical member of the order, Sheikh Jaafar Mohammed, who explains the devotional practices and beliefs of the Samaniya order.
Young woman holding incense prays at the Hindu Erawan Shrine, Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok, Thailand.
The largest community of the smallest Christian minority in Turkey has felt neglected for decades and is now facing an uncertain future. The recent visit of Pope Francis to Turkey reinforced anxieties within Izmir's catholic community as he was the first Pope not to visit the tiny but important diocese. Although he had announced his wish to visit the House of Mary in Ephesus, like his predecessors, security problems at the remote shrine made it impossible. Catholics in Izmir are well aware of security problems, but nonetheless they bitterly feel that they are the collateral victims of sectarian tensions in the region.
The history of Christianity in Turkey is almost as old as the Church itself. St. Paul was a native of Anatolia and preached in Ephesus and Miletus. Jesus’ favorite apostle, St. John, the Evangelist who wrote the Apocalypse, is said to have moved to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary. The Apostle’s tomb is near the Ephesus archaeological site and an enormous basilica was built on it. It is ironic that the most vocal opponents of Turkey’s accession to European Union used the “Christian roots” of Europe as an argument against it; the roots of christianity are all in Turkey. It was in Ephesus that the Third Ecumenical Council, the famous “Theotokos Council”, confirmed the Nicene Creed on which the Roman Catholic doctrine is still based, and which declared the Virgin Mary “Mother of God”. Despite this rich history, it is ironic that such Christian roots are usually overlooked in Turkey.
It is commonly said that Turks are 99% Sunni Muslim, and it is true that Turkey’s religious policy take it as a fact. While Orthodox, Armenian and Chaldean Christians are recognized as indigenous religious minorities, the Latin Catholic Christians are not. There are about 35,000 Catholics in Turkey. Most of them are so-called “Levantines”, or descendants of French or Italian expatriates who settled in Ottoman Empire. Izmir, the ancient Smyrna, was their most important city, and it was the most cosmopolitan city in Turkey.
Izmir’s most popular Catholic Church is the Dominican Church of the Holy Rosary, in the traditionally Levantine district of Alsancak. Every Thursday Father Stefano Negro, the parish priest, holds mass for a meager audience of elders.
“It was very different, when the Church was built in 1904,” tells the Dominican friar, a keen historian of his adopted city. “The Church was crowded and rich, because the parishioners considered it a symbol of their identity.
The Great Fire of Smyrna, in 1922, changed everything, along with the birth of the Turkish Republic. However, the turning point was in 1934, when foreigners were not allowed to work anymore in Turkey.” The skilled workers and entrepreneurs who had helped to make Izmir the economic capital of the Ottoman Empire emigrated, and the Catholic flock of Izmir began to dwindle.
The remaining Levantines are descendants of Italian or French families, and all of them feel uncomfortable in the “New Turkey” of President Erdogan. In the traditionally secular republic there was room for many minorities, but the Islamist rhetoric of the current ruling party is underscoring more and more the Sunni Muslim character of the Turkish State.
“This is not my church,” a lady in her 60's whispers before Father Stefano’s mass. “I was born in Karsiyaka, and I went to St. Helen’s Church. It was always open, and on St. Helen’s Day we could bring our cross in procession in the streets and everybody in the neighborhood celebrated with us. Now it’s impossible [and] we keep a low profile, should we irk religious zealots that are increasingly sensitive...”
Another lady, also in her 60s, comments bitterly that “Turkey is going back in time”. However, the others disagree staunchly. “It’s not true, it was never like this! This is something new, especially in Izmir, and it’s not, like some say, because of immigration from the East”.”Truth is,” the first woman comments “that Turks are angry at Europe. They are angry because they feel rejected. They see Islamophobia rising in the same Europe that keeps closing its doors as a Christian club. So they [Turks turn to their religious identity and don’t like us anymore.” The lady, who asks not to be mentioned by name, was born in Izmir, in the elegant Karsiyaka district. When she got married she move to Italy, where she lives with her children and grandchildren. Despite this, she keeps coming to her “hometown”, as she calls it, for several months a year. “But every time it’s more difficult” she laments.
Father Stefano, who came to Turkey in 1976, mostly agrees with the lady. When the military junta ruling the country after the 1980 coup started a fiercely nationalistic policy, the Catholic clergy was seriously worried they would be expelled. To be able to stay, Father Stefano managed to acquire the Turkish citizenship. “But I often have problems," he explains. "Now, every time the police check my ID, they argue about my religion indicated on it. ‘If you are really a Turk, how come that you are not a Sunni Muslim?’”
Things have worsened under Erdogan, with his religious and nationalist rhetoric centered on the Sunni identity of the country. Father Stefano, a witty friar with a sharp humor, turns sad when he talks about the size of his flock. “I can see them dwindle from the number of funerals I celebrate. It’s clear in the mass, where worshipers are all with white hair. There are weddings, sure, but most of them are mixed ones, and children have to be educated in public schools, where religion classes are mandatory, and of course we talk of Sunni religion [in the religious classes].” There are some newcomers to the church, most of whom are Catholic families of NATO military base personnel or technicians working in Izmir.
If the mass is attended by white haired, depressed worshipers, the atmosphere is completely different at the Italian school of Alsancak. Alsancak is an international elementary school and Turkish private kindergarten, managed by Italian nuns and secular teachers, both Italian and Turkish. Sister Roberta also has grey hair, well visible since religious dress is banned in schools, but she has the energy and high spirit of an elite soldier. “We don’t care of habits, we don’t need habits. We are the habits, we are nuns, even when we don’t dress as such” she proudly declares.
The kindergarten children are a merry mixed bunch, from Turkish, Italian, Spanish or American families. They are taught Italian language, but the education is strictly secular. However, Turkish citizens, even those with dual citizenship, cannot attend the elementary school. Only foreign children can continue their education in the nuns’ school and many families resent this. Sister Roberta shows a gift from a local tycoon, a container shipping business magnate, who says to own his success to the education he got at the Catholic nuns’ school.
Sister Roberta cameto Turkey in 1976, like Father Stefano, and she has seen hard times too. Despite various hardships she claims that nuns are highly respected for the education they give in the school, which in better times also hosted orphans and poor children. “We have always been here, since 1887, and we will stay.” After the 1922 fire, when all the foreign nationals had been evacuated on western warships, the youngest nun of the school volunteered to go back, soon followed by others, who kept the catholic presence in Izmir alive. However, Sister Roberta is bitterly disappointed that the Pope didn't come. “Of course we understand the security reasons, and God knows these are hard times. But it’s a bad omen, when it is too dangerous for the Catholic Pope to visit Izmir and the House of Mary in Ephesus.”
Many share her disappointment, and some are in disbelief. On the hill near Ephesus, where the House of Mary attracts pilgrims and tourists, a little crowd are waiting, in vain, for a surprise. “We hoped to see Pope Francis. He’s famous to change program at the last moment, maybe he will come here too. Why he didn't come? We don’t understand!” says the mother of a young boy who is busy lighting candles for the Virgin. They are from Izmir, but they are not Catholic: “We are Turks, we are Muslims and we are proud to be both.” she smiles “But of course we love Meryem Ana, Mother Mary!”
Maybe the dwindling Catholic community in Izmir and the cherished “Christian roots” of Europe could be the key to unlock both Turkey’s accession to Europe and the future of all its minorities.
Religious tourists among the ruins of the Saint Mary Church, in the archaeological site of Ephesus. This church was the place where the Third Ecumenical Council proclaimed the Virgin Mary “Mother of God”, in AD 431. The Virgin Mary is said to have moved to Ephesus with John the Evangelist, after her son’s crucifixion.
The “Meryem Ana Evi”, “House of Mother Mary”, on a hill near the ancient city of Ephesus. The place was visited by Pope Paul VI in 1967, by Pope John Paul II in 1979 and by Pope Benedict XVI, but security concerns forced Pope Francis to break the tradition, for the Izmir Catholics’ dismay.
A silver statuette of the Virgin near the “Meryem Ana Evi”, the “House of Mother Mary”, with the prayer to the Virgin by Saint Francis of Assisi. Respected in all theIslamic world for being the mother of Prophet Isa (known as Jesus to Christians), “Mother Mary” is especially revered in Turkey, where motherhood is highly respected.
A Turkish Muslim family lights candles outside of the “Meryem Ana Evi”, the “House of the Virgin Mary” in Ephesus. Like many others, they had come to the holy site hoping to see the Pope, despite the fact he had cancelled his trip to Izmir. Pope Francis is known to randomly change plans and this family was hoping for a surprise change of program.
A pilgrim prays on the tomb of the Apostle John, the Evangelist who wrote the Book of Revelation, also known as Apocalypse. The tomb was at the center of the enormous basilica dedicated to St. John. The Church of Ephesus was one of the “Seven Churches of Asia” mentioned in the Apocalypse. However, after the city was destroyed by an earthquake, it declined in favor of the Church of Izmir, the last survivor of the Seven.
A group of religious tourists observes an inscription in memory of the visit of Pope Paul VI, in 1967, among the ruins of St. John’s Basilica in Ephesus, about 100 km from Izmir. Though Izmir Catholics are well aware of security problems, especially with the current turmoil on Turkish borders, they show bitter disappointment for the cancellation of the Papal visit, feeling once more neglected by the rest of the Christian world.
The Saint Helen Church lies in the Karsiyaka neighborhood of Izmir.
A Levantine lady, who moved to Italy, but spends several months every year in her father's house in Karsiyaka, remembers that when she was a kid, the cross was carried in a public procession in the neighborhood and it was celebrated and respected by everybody, regardless of their religion. "But today it would be impossible," she laments. "Turks are angry at Europe, because they feel rejected and betrayed. And we, as Levantine citizens of European countries, do not feel supported by our governments."
A flight of starlings over the St. John’s Cathedral in Izmir. The Church was built in 1863, thanks to a donation of 11,000 gold Turkish lira by then Sultan Abdulaziz. However, nowadays’s Turkish politicians have sent contradictory signals: while the government has promised that Christian students would have their own religion classes, a Minister claimed that “Christianity is no longer a religion, but a culture.”
Two Catholic women pray at the Virgin Mary altar in Izmir’s St. John’s Cathedral. The women have their head covered while in the Church, as per the Levantine tradition. Though the Cathedral is dedicated to the Apostle St. John the Evangelist, buried in nearby Ephesus, devotion for the Virgin Mary is very popular, even among Muslims.
The words “God loved the World so much to give his only son so that none who believes in him would come to any harm” are inscribed, in Turkish, on the left side in the interior of the Izmir Cathedral.
Dedication of a stained glass window in Izmir Cathedral, offered by a French parishioner. Izmir Catholic community is the largest in Turkey, and the Cathedral is the seat of the only archdiocese of Turkey, covering all the south western Anatolian provinces. The current Archbishop, Ruggero Franceschini, was previously Vicar in Antakya. His successor, Msgr. Luigi Padovese, was slain and beheaded by his Turkish driver, apparently a deranged man, who some said was a religious fanatic.