ROME — As part of an increasing global effort to communicate the message of the Catholic faith to the Arabic-speaking world, the Rome-based Catholic news agency Zenit is launching a free Arabic edition on the Internet.

Since the start of December, Zenit has been posting Arabic-language Vatican and Church stories on the Internet at Vatican Radio’s Arabic site, oecumene.radiovaticana.org/ara/index.asp.

Readers can subscribe directly to Zenit’s Arabic news service for free by e-mailing infoarabic@zenit.org. Zenit is not yet able to post its news articles in Arabic on its own site, but hopes to be able to do that within the next few months.

So far, the response has been very positive.

“We received 250-300 subscriptions a day during the first week,” said the edition’s editor, Tony Assaf. “The impact has been really great.”

In collaboration with Vatican Radio, the service will provide Arabic speakers with comprehensive news coverage of the Church by translating papal addresses, Vatican news, documents, analyses, interviews and events. The service will complement Zenit’s existing English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Italian editions.

The idea for an Arabic edition began two years ago after Zenit was swamped with requests. Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, Capuchin Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Church Custos (custodian) of the Holy Land, and three Iraqi bishops were among those requesting such a service.

Ministries of education and school directors in the Middle East also campaigned for the resource.

“Up until now there has not been the possibility for many Arabic speakers to read documents — even the events — of the Church, so there was this great need for direct information,” said Zenit’s director, Jesus Colina; “It’s primarily aimed at Christians who speak Arabic and who, until now, have only been able to access such information through Islamic sources. For them it’s been really difficult sometimes to know what the Pope is saying.”

As an example, Colina cited Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 12 Regensburg speech, which Colina said has still not been completely translated into Arabic.

Reaching Out

Along with communicating with Arabic-speaking Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere, Zenit also hopes to reach out to Muslims around the world.

“We’ve been getting lots of enquiries from the United States, Lebanon, Iraq, Tahiti, Burundi — it’s been really amazing,” said Assaf, a Maronite Catholic from Lebanon. “We have had many Muslims thanking us for the service, which is really great as it gives us further encouragement and will help us to grow.”

The edition was launched to coincide with an event of great significance to Arabic speakers — the Pope’s recent visit to Turkey.

Colina has three goals for the service: to deliver a genuine source of highly professional information on the Church and the Catholic faith, accessible to other media networks; to build bridges and stable contacts with Arabic media and institutions including governments (the Jordanian government has already expressed a strong interest); and to reach the grassroots of society, especially young people, as the majority of the population in the Middle East are under 30 years old and regularly access the Internet.

In addition, Zenit hopes to communicate the Church’s good will toward the Arabic world, correct misconceptions of the Church in the Middle East, improve Church communications between Christians there and promote interreligious dialogue.

“I see it first and foremost as a service to dialogue between civilizations and religions,” said Colina. “For me, it’s interesting to look at Al-Jazeera (an Arabic television channel that recently launched an English edition), which is proof that exchange of information is the way to understand others. But we currently have no Catholic equivalent.”

Fund-raising will be crucial to the success of Zenit’s Arabic service. Although it will receive some support during its first year through the charity Aid to the Church in Need, in order to cope with its demanding workload the service will require additional staff and technical improvements that must be funded through donations. Those wishing to donate to the Arabic service can contact Tony Assaf at infoarabic@zenit.org or tony@zenit.org.

Other Efforts

Zenit’s new venture is the latest in a growing number of initiatives seeking to improve communications with the Arab and Muslim world. Father Luciano Cicciarelli, a diocesan priest from Rome who works with the Consecratio Mundi apostolate, is currently translating St. Louis Marie de Montfort’s classic True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary into Arabic. He expects the work to be completed early next year.

Meanwhile, a Paris-based group of journalists and experts on the Middle East have created the website Middle East Transparent (metransparent.com), a portal in Arabic, English and French that aims to promote a more informed dialogue on all issues affecting the region.

Zenit plans to work directly with another agency that reaches out to Arabic-speakers, the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

“It will be a good source of information,” said Colina, who noted that Benedict recently manifested his support for the institute’s work by helping resolve some financial difficulties it was experiencing.

Zenit is also collaborating with Oasis, a biannual magazine published by the Patriarchate of Venice that promotes cultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

The magazine, launched in 2001 by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, publishes academic analyses and recently began posting online the Pope’s weekly catechesis in Arabic. Oasis is currently developing a “cultural website” directed at non-Arabic Muslim regions, such as Indonesia and Pakistan.

“I am very positive about Zenit’s venture,” said the editor-in-chief of Oasis, Roberto Fontolan. “In the past, we European Catholics have not done enough in this area, so all that we can do to talk directly to Arab culture — its people and countries — is very important.”

       

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.