In Allentown, outcry over removed Syriac Catholic priest
By Dan Sheehan
March 07, 2016
|Event organizer George Makhoul (C) address the crowd as Syriac Catholics protest outside Immaculate Conception church in Allentown on Sunday, which also is home to Our Lady of Mercy Syrian Catholic Church who were evicted.|
|Claudia Karam of Allentown joins fellow Syriac Catholics protesting outside Immaculate Conception church in Allentown on Sunday, which also is home to Our Lady of Mercy Syrian Catholic Church who were evicted.|
|Syriac Catholics protest outside Immaculate Conception church in Allentown on Sunday, which also is home to Our Lady of Mercy Syrian Catholic Church who were evicted.|
ALLENTOWN — In a little more than 15 years, Our Lady of Mercy Syriac Catholic parish in Allentown has grown from a small mission outpost to a thriving community of 500 families.
Now, the mysterious suspension of the parish's longtime priest — and the appointment of a priest from a different rite to offer the sacraments — has many of the faithful in the Eastern rite church convinced they are being abandoned by their diocese.
"That's the million-dollar question," said George Makhoul of Neffs, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mercy and one of the leaders of a campaign to restore the suspended priest, the Rev. Bassim Shoni, to ministry. "They're not giving us answers."
Syriac Catholics — there are about 40,000 in the U.S. and Canada — are in communion with Rome but retain the liturgies and other rites of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Our Lady of Mercy, founded in 2000, holds its services at the Catholic Diocese of Allentown's Immaculate Conception Church on Ridge Avenue.
On Sunday, parishioners held a rally outside the church, toting signs supporting Shoni and criticizing their bishop, the Rev. Yousif Habash, who suspended the priest.
Shoni did not return a phone message Monday. A spokesman for Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Diocese in Bayonne, N.J., which administers the Allentown parish, says the protests are based on misinformation.
The Rev. Luke Edelen said there are no plans to close Our Lady of Mercy or to hand it over to a different rite, as parishioners fear. He said Shoni was suspended Feb. 29 by Habash and ordered to return to Bayonne.
Edelen, chancellor of the Syriac diocese, would not disclose the reason for the suspension.
Shoni could not be reached for comment. It is unclear where he is.
Though the members of Our Lady of Mercy worship within the Catholic Diocese of Allentown, the parish is administered by Habash, not by Allentown Bishop John O. Barres.
"[Bishop Barres] has no jurisdiction in this matter," Allentown Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said in an email. "He was informed about the change in priests. …The Diocese of Allentown's support is to welcome whatever priest is assigned here [by other rites] to minister to those communities."
Shoni, named pastor in 2005, oversaw the growth of Our Lady of Mercy from a Syriac mission to a full-fledged parish.
His suspension, which precludes him from all priestly functions, "is the result of a long and difficult relationship," Edelen said.
Edelen said Habash arranged for another Eastern rite church — the Melkite Catholic Church, headquartered in Newton, Mass. — to care for the parish until another Syriac priest can be appointed.
In a letter to parishioners, Habash stressed that the appointment of the Melkite priest, the Rev. Victor Hanna, is temporary.
"I am confident that the people of Our Lady of Mercy will find [Hanna] most attentive to their concerns and eager to promote the continuing growth and progress of the community," Habash wrote.
The bishop did not discuss Shoni's suspension, beyond saying it involved a "matter concerning the relationship of priest and bishop."
Makhoul said parishioners believe the turmoil is rooted in long-simmering personal tensions between the priest and bishop, and that, despite assurances to the contrary, Habash is handing Our Lady of Mercy to the Melkites for good.
They have been collecting signatures on a petition as they prepare to appeal Shoni's suspension to the Vatican.
"We want Father Bassim back, but the other issue is the fact that our entire parish was turned over to the Melkites without asking us, without telling us," Makhoul said.
The Syriac faithful fear the church may lose its distinctive identity under Melkite administration, Makhoul said.
"Right now, 90 percent of the people won't go to the Melkites," he said. "[Our Lady of Mercy] has been our home for 15 years as Syriacs. And now it's 'become Melkites or go elsewhere.'"