“An important step, but one that needs to be followed by action”

"An important step, but one that needs to be followed by action"

UN International Day Victims of Acts of Religious Violence – August 22

A woman praying solemnly at the candles – Aid to the Church in Need

“The new day to commemorate the victims of religious violence is an important step to ensuring that more attention is paid to persecuted Christians in the future,” explained Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern.

The executive president of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is pleased that for the first time this year, 22 August can be celebrated as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The respective resolution was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in May.

Following an international conference held by ACN in Rome in September 2017, the lawyer and author Ewelina Ochab took the initiative to draw attention to infringements of religious freedom and in particular to the persecution of Christians and to appeal to the international community to act. Since then, she has spoken at many conferences to build up a network of supporters.

The proposed resolution was ultimately introduced to the United Nations General Assembly by Poland. The proposal was supported by the United States, Canada, Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria and Pakistan. “It was a long process and involved many people, but ACN was the inspiration,” Ms Ochab said.

“As an organisation that has been dedicated to helping suffering Christians for over 70 years, we at ACN are very excited that the United Nations has proclaimed this day. A step that has long been overdue,” Dr. Heine-Geldern said. “All religious communities regularly fall victim to violence, but as international reports on religious freedom confirm time and again, Christians are unfortunately the group that is most persecuted.”

During the last five years alone, there have been two cases of genocide of religious minorities: the first of Christians and other religious groups by the troops of the “Islamic State” in Iraq and in Syria, and the second of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

Inauguration of Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern as new executive president of ACN at the Haus der Begegnung – Aid to the Church in Need

Dr Heine-Geldern also referred to systematically-organised atrocities which are increasingly being committed in particular against Christians in Africa. The ACN president considers the new day of commemoration to be an important milestone, which, however, should be seen only as a first step.

“It is important that 22 August does not become an end in itself, but triggers a process that motivates the international community to implement a coordinated plan of action to end religious persecution and prevent it in the future.”

A man amid the ruins of the Armenian Catholic cathedral in the Al-Telal district of Aleppo – Aid to the Church in Need

“It is really the duty of the United Nations, governments and political actors to enforce the human right of freedom of religion. This symbolic day must be followed by action.”

The president then said that one of the necessary instruments would be a UN platform for the promotion of an exchange with representatives of the persecuted religious groups. In addition, the United Nations need to work towards establishing an international tribunal dedicated to the issue of the impunity of groups ranging from Boko Haram to Al-Shabaab and IS from prosecution for acts of religious violence.

Last year alone, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need granted more than 100 million euros to over 5,000 projects in 139 countries worldwide to help Christians in need.

Matthias Böhnke (ACN International)

Pope Francis blesses 6,000 rosaries for Syria

Pope Francis blesses 6,000 rosaries for Syria - © Servizio Fotografico - Vatican Media

As part of a spiritual initiative by ACN to comfort the grieving

Pope Francis blesses 6,000 rosaries for Syria
Pope Francis blesses 6,000 rosaries for Syria – © Servizio Fotografico – Vatican Media

On 15 August, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Francis, during the Angelus prayer in St Peter’s Square, blessed 6,000 rosaries destined for Syria. They will be given to people in Syria who have had relatives or family members abducted or murdered during the civil war. This is part of an ecumenical initiative of the international Catholic charity and pontifical foundation “Aid to the Church in Need” (ACN) together with Catholic and Orthodox churches in the country.

“The rosaries, made on the initiative of ACN, are a sign of my closeness to our brothers and sisters in Syria,” Pope Francis said. “We continue to pray the Rosary for peace in the Middle East and around the world.”

The plan is to distribute the rosaries among a number of different Christian communities in Syria on 15 September, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The motto of the ecumenical initiative is “Comfort my people”, and aims to commemorate the victims of the recent civil war and offer spiritual support and comfort to the bereaved.

An earlier meeting with the Pope at the Vatican guesthouse Santa Marta, was attended by the Executive President of ACN, Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern, as well as several directors of European ACN-national office. At the audience, Pope Francis praised the work of the charity and this ecumenical initiative: “I thank ACN for everything you do. When we pray with the people in Syria, we come close to them. “

Pope Francis blesses 6,000 rosaries for Syria
Pope Francis blesses 6,000 rosaries for Syria – Aid to the Church in Need

ACN President Thomas Heine Geldern said he was deeply moved by the Pope’s support for this prayer campaign. “The Holy Father has on several occasions expressed his support and approval for our commitment in Syria and the Middle East”, he said. “And he has done so again today. For the families of the war victims, these blessed rosaries are a sign that the Pope and the entire Church are with them, praying for them and standing beside them. This is a great source of comfort.”

Ever since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the support for the suffering people of Syria has been a priority for ACN, as President Heine-Geldern emphasised.

Thanks to the generosity of ACN’s benefactors, the charity has been able during this time to support a total of 850 separate projects for the Syrian people, at a total cost of 35 million Euros, thereby enabling many Christian families to remain in Syria, rather than emigrating.

From the outset, this help has been offered in close ecumenical collaboration with Catholic and Orthodox Church leaders – and the same is true of the present, most recent initiative, the ACN president explained. “Money is not enough”, he said. “Alongside  material aid, the people in Syria need spiritual and moral support, for they are living through a desperate situation. Together with our benefactors around the world, ACN is committed to helping them.”

The “Comfort my People” initiative will take place in a number of different towns in Syria on 15 September this year.

There will be commemorative prayers and processions, the Christian faithful will pray for the dead and for the consolation and support of their families. Those who have lost family members who were abducted or killed during the war will be given the rosaries, which were made in Bethlehem and Damascus and blessed by Pope Francis as a special sign of spiritual support. And on 15 September Pope Francis will again associate himself with the initiative, by blessing an icon of Our Lady of Sorrows, Comforter of the Syrians.

Tobias Lehner (ACN International)

Sri Lanka: The terror attacks have hurt people of all faiths

Sri Lanka: The terror attacks have hurt people of all faiths
Cemetery in Negombo – tombs of the martyrs (the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks from April 23 2019) – Aid to the Church in Need

Many Buddhists on the island also admire the Catholics for their peaceful, non-violent reaction  

“The people here are good, but the government is bad”. This was the opinion expressed by one Buddhist taxi driver. And his view is one widely held in Sri Lanka today. Ever since it became public knowledge that the political authorities had already been warned, on 4 April, by India’s Secret Service about the planned terrorist attacks – which three weeks later, on Easter Sunday, claimed the lives of almost 300 people – the sense of outrage and indignation against the government has been intense.

And not only among the Catholic victims and their loved ones. Among the Buddhists there has even been a suggestion that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the head of the Catholics on the island, should be elected as president, some priests tell us, with a wry smile.

The feared revenge attacks did not materialise – not least because Cardinal Ranjith hastened to the scene of the terror bombings and urged his shaken and traumatised Catholics to renounce any form of reprisal.

Altogether around 300 people died. Not even the body parts have all been accurately identified, or all the victims buried, nor are all the critically injured even out of danger yet.

The stories of the survivors are harrowing: Priyantha Jayakody, for example, lives in the mainly Catholic fishing village of Negombo. His wife was murdered by the Islamist suicide bomber on the morning of Easter Sunday, while his 17-year-old son only just survived. In all, the Muslim terrorist who struck in St Sebastian’s church in Negombo took the lives of 115 people.

Cemetery in Negombo – tombs of the martyrs (the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks from April 23 2019) – Aid to the Church in Need

Yet although the carefully planned bombing campaign by the terrorists was clearly targeted against Christians, the terror killings in fact claimed the lives of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims as well. For the church of St Anthony, in the capital city Colombo, is a national shrine that is visited by members of all faiths. And St Anthony’s shrine is particularly attractive to families of mixed religion and to those contemplating baptism. For example, people like 38-year-old Sayana, a Buddhist, who has been interested in Christianity ever since she attended a Catholic school.

After a long fast – a practice also very common among Catholics during Holy Week – she had come to St Anthony’s shrine early in the morning of Easter Sunday. She was just lighting a candle when the suicide bomber detonated his bomb. Fortunately, there was a massive column between her and the terrorist, and she survived with no more than damage to her hearing. But 54 people died in that moment.

Maiar Mar also had a terrifying experience. Heavily pregnant, she was trampled on by people fleeing in their panic. For many hours afterwards she lived in fear for the life of the child within her. Fortunately, her baby survived, but her sister-in-law did not. Velu Ranjithkumar, a Hindu, lost his Catholic wife in the attack, while a young Hindu family lost their 28-year-old father who, after a long fast, had gone to visit St Anthony’s shrine. Another young woman, a former Hindu who had converted two years earlier, lost her Catholic husband and is now alone with her little baby.

Rizwan Manju and Mohamed Yaseen lost their 15-year-old son in the attack on the church. “Our Imam came to the funeral”, explains the Muslim father, who frequently accompanies his Catholic wife to the church, though he himself has no intention of converting.

Fr. Jude Raj with victims of the Easter Sunday attacks from April 23 2019, Colombo, St. Anthony´s Shrine – Aid to the Church in Need

Sister Remoshini visits them all, translating from Sinhalese or Tamil as the occasion requires and bringing little sweets and treats for the children. Like many other religious sisters and priests, she acts as a bridge, enabling people to access the material, pastoral and psychological support offered by the Church and at the same time – as is immediately evident during her visits to the homes of the victims and victims’ families – offering a strong shoulder on which many weep .

22-year-old Medha and her 19-year-old brother Imash also died in St Anthony’s church on Easter Sunday. Their father is Buddhist, their mother Catholic.

Tearfully, she shows us two handcrafted crosses that were made by her children. She no longer has any trust in the politicians. But she tells us that she has had frequent visits from the priests and religious sisters to comfort her in her grief.

Like so many other victims and relatives, she has heard many promises from the government, but received no practical, financial support except from the Catholic Church.

Caritas is providing immediate emergency aid and paying for medical treatment and for the care of the newly orphaned – regardless of religious belief. And teams of priests are also offering spiritual and psychological support to the victims, listening to them in their pain and helping them to overcome their trauma. Many of these victims in fact find it easier to open up to others, outside their own homes.

Emaus Center, Colombo – Aid to the Church in Need

This is one of the reasons for the existence of the Church-run Emmaus Centre in Negombo. Here, married couple Kamilla and Thomas de Silva can put them in touch with qualified  therapists and offer spiritual counselling sessions, and they also spend many hours with them, sitting silently and praying in the adoration chapel.

But these are not the only reasons why respect for the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has risen so greatly among the majority Buddhist population since Easter.

What these Buddhists admire above all is the fact that there were no reprisals or revenge attacks but that instead the Catholics have responded peacefully, despite the terrible trauma they have suffered.

“Let us bring our sufferings to the foot of the Cross, to the Eucharist. We have to forgive!” So says Father Claude Nonis, who is there to support all the traumatised victims, along with 80 trained psychological counsellors. And Jude Raj Fernando, the administrator of St Anthony’s shrine, adds: “Our God is not a God of revenge, but of love and mercy.”

Stephan Baier (ACN International)

“Religious fundamentalism places Christians on the fringes of society”

“Religious fundamentalism places Christians on the fringes of society”

Archbishop reports on the current situation in the Holy Land

Pierbattista Pizzaballa has already spent more than three decades of his life in the Holy Land. In 2016, the Franciscan was made Archbishop and Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa – Aid to the Church in Need

In an interview with Daniele Piccini while visiting ACN Germany, the archbishop recently explained why current international political decisions exacerbate the conflict in the Holy Land and why the Church is relying on the power of small steps.

ACN: Your Grace, what is the current situation of the Christians in the Holy Land?

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa: It is often said that three groups of people live in the region that is considered the Holy Land proper: Israelis, Palestinians and Christians. But the Christians are not a “third people”. The Christians belong to the people among whom they live. As Christians we don’t have any territorial claims. Meeting a Christian does not represent a danger to Jews or Muslims.

However, life is not easy for the Christians: it is more difficult for Christians to find work or a flat. The living conditions are much more difficult.

ISRAEL / JERUSALEM – Aid to the Church in Need

Does this mean that the religious freedom of the Christians is very restricted in the Holy Land?

It is necessary to make distinctions here. The freedom to practice religion is one thing, the freedom of conscience is another. The freedom to practice religion exists: the Christians can celebrate their divine services and develop their community life. Freedom of conscience means that all church members can express themselves freely and should members of other religions wish to become Christians, they have the right to do so. That is a lot more complicated.

Politics always plays a major role in the Holy Land.

Even wanting to visit a certain place can quickly evolve into a political issue. For example: Christians from Bethlehem would like to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to pray. However, this is often not possible because they need a permit to do so. Therefore, is this an issue of religious freedom or is it just politics and they are not being granted permission to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because they are Palestinians? It is all interconnected.

The U.S. government recently moved its Embassy to Jerusalem. How perceptible are the effects of political measures of this kind?

For the time being, this has not had much of an effect on everyday life. However, politically, relocating the U.S. Embassy is a dead end. All issues relating to Jerusalem that do not take account of both sides – Israelis and Palestinians – lead to a deep fracture on a political level. And that is exactly what happened. After the relocation of the U.S. Embassy, the Palestinians broke off all relations with the U.S. government, bringing the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian regions, which were moving sluggishly anyway, to a complete standstill.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa – Aid to the Church in Need

The latest escalations have led to the radicalization of a growing number of young people, particularly among the Palestinians. Does this also have repercussions for the Christians?

There are Palestinians who belong to fundamentalist movements. But there are also many who oppose violence. The majority of Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinians. Therefore, they live under the same conditions as the Palestinian Muslims. Religious fundamentalism places Christians clearly on the fringes of society.

We experience both cooperation and solidarity, but also exclusion and discrimination.

Another problem is the growing emigration of Christians..

Emigration is not a mass phenomenon, or the Christians would have long since disappeared from the Holy Land. It is a constant trickle. Each year when I visit the parishes, the priests tell me, “This year we lost two, three families.”

Is there something the Church can do in this dead-end political situation?

Christians make up about one per cent of the population. We therefore cannot expect to carry the same political weight as other groups. But of course the Church has strong connections worldwide. And then there are the millions of Christian pilgrims from all over the world.

It is our job to communicate to the people: there is a Christian way of living in this country.

There is a Christian way of living with this conflict. This is not the time for big gestures. The Church has to try to establish small connections, to build small bridges.

Pope Francis visited the country in 2014. Did this have an effect on the political situation, but also on the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians?

The visits of the Pope are important stepping stones on the way to peace, even though they will not bring about a major change. However, the opposite is true when it comes to ecumenism: with his visit, Pope Francis built on the historic meeting that took place between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964. Keeping this in mind, the visit of Pope Francis, in particular the ecumenical prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was a decisive and perceptible turning point in the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

ISRAEL / JERUSALEM – Aid to the Church In Need

Aid to the Church in Need has been close to the Christians in the Holy Land for many years. In Jerusalem, for example, the pastoral charity funds an interreligious seminar entitled “Develop forgiveness, overcome  hatred”, which is attended by hundreds of Christians, Jews and Muslims. Could you tell us  something about this initiative?

First and foremost, I would like to thank ACN because the pastoral charity does a great deal in the Holy Land. It supports many projects, including this seminar, which is organised by the Rossing Center. Daniel Rossing was a Jew who felt that Jerusalem in particular needed to be a place where all religions felt at home. Many young people who participate in these classes apply what they learn in their professional lives. Which makes religion, which is often an element of division in the Holy Land, an element of unity./

Daniele Piccini & Tobias Lehner  (ACN International)

Boko Haram strikes back in Cameroon – Amputee women, the new tactic of terror

Boko Haram strikes back in Cameroon - Amputee women, the new tactic of terror

On the night of July 29, members of the terrorist group Boko Haram attacked the town of Gagalari [not Kalagari as it puts in some media] in the diocese of Yagoua in the Far North region of Cameroon.

According to information received today from local sources by the ACN Foundation, the terrorists seem to have changed their strategy but not in any way diminished their violence. “They arrived during the night, entered the houses one by one and kidnapped the women. Only the women. They took them to the outskirts and amputated one ear of each of the victims. Then they released them threatening them and telling them that they would return, that this is the first touch intervention, but others will follow. It is terrifying. “

The victims were found and picked up by the army and then transferred 260 kilometers away where they could be medically assisted.

The amputation of an ear is a way of pressurizing and terrifying the inhabitants of the area who, according to the terrorists, “listen to the government and the voices of those who do not follow the extremist ideology of Boko Haram.”

For security reasons the men do not sleep inside the houses and there is even a Vigilance Committee, “but it was no use in this repulsive surprise attack. The women were dragged out of their homes before the eyes of their children.”

The population, especially children and women, is very traumatized and terrified. “But what are they going to do? They are simple and very poor people who live from agriculture and right now in the rainy season they are waiting for the harvest. Where are they going to go? “The town is 120 kilometers from the nearest parish.

/ Maria Lozano – ACN International

Summer camps in Syria – “She felt her heart had begun to beat again”

Summer camps in Syria – “She felt her heart had begun to beat again”
Summer camps in Syria – Aid to the Church in Need

In the course of 2019 the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) is supporting over 40 different projects for summer activities on behalf of the Christian communities in countries where they are a minority, experience discrimination or suffering as a result of wars or other conflicts.

Almost half these projects are for the Christian communities in the Middle East, above all in Syria, where a total of 28 such summer courses will be held for young people and families.

After a bloody and fratricidal war, which has resulted today in a critical economic and social situation, Christians of various different faith communities from the dioceses of Homs, Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus have been or will be gathering together between June and September to recuperate, gain new strength and find healing for past trauma.

Summer camps in Syria – Aid to the Church in Need

Father Antoine Mukhallala, of the Greek Melkite diocese of Aleppo, has just returned from one of the eight summer courses that are being organised by the Faith and Life Community for handicapped people and their families. It can sometimes be difficult to comprehend what these people suffered during the war.

Terrorised by the bombings and by the snipers, who killed civilians for no reason whatsoever, they scarcely dared emerge from their homes. Today these people have great need of psychological support and a need to encounter God to find peace through prayer amid nature. Hence the summer camps are a ray of light for them in this situation.

Among the many things Father Antoine has encountered, there is one story in particular he wants to tell ACN about.

It concerns a widow, the mother of two little girls, one of whom is autistic.

This mother was suffering terribly, because she had lost her husband when he attempted to emigrate in one of the “ships of death” to Europe.

Not because he drowned, however, but because he was murdered, and she had to witness his body being returned to her with his throat cut.

This woman was suffering greatly, yet living imprisoned in her solitude. Although physically present among the rest of the group, she barely spoke, either about her dead husband or her daughter. She rejected every kind of happiness, even though the others tried to reach her in her pain.

Little by little, however, during the summer camp week, a sense of love began to return to this woman’s heart; the darkness began to lift from it and it began to beat again with love. She began to realise once more that life is beautiful – partly thanks to the dramatic change in the behaviour of her autistic daughter, who even invited me to dance with her!

At the end of the week, this mother said to us, “If only the camp had lasted another week, I’m quite sure that my Jenny would even have begun to speak!”

I have been involved in many summer camps during my six years as a priest, but this most recent one in Kfarsetta with the “Family of Hope” was one of the most beautiful of all, in which I experienced the joy of Love and of which I can say that I received more than I gave”, Father Antoine continues. 

“I give thanks to God for what this woman experienced and for having been given the opportunity to live many such spiritual experiences. And I also want to thank you all, the representatives and benefactors of ACN, for having supported these camps, for without your support we could never have had this experience, which has brought us so much closer to the advertised theme of the summer camp, which was “Building community, with God”.

I pray to Almighty God that he may bless you all so that you can continue helping all those who call upon you and that you may continue being an instrument of God in spreading his Love throughout the world”, he concludes.

This summer many other groups of children, young people and families, like the “Family Hope”, will be taking part in similar summer camps, not only in other parts of Syria but also in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Crimea and the Republic of Congo, so that they can relax, recuperate and find new strength, not merely physically and psychologically, but also spiritually.

Summer camps in Syria – Aid to the Church in Need

Maria Lozano (ACN International)

Christians in Pakistan living between hope and fear

Christians in Pakistan living between hope and fear

The Catholic Church in Pakistan is important for the country, says Reinhard Backes. He recently visited Pakistan for the fourth time as permanent section leader of the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), in order to inform himself about the situation of the Christians and the projects that ACN supports. “With more than 200 million inhabitants, Pakistan is in sixth place on the list of the most populous countries,” he explained on his return.

“Although the overwhelming majority of the population are Muslims and only some two per cent are Christians, they still amount to at least three million people in the country.”

According to Reinhard Backes’ account, the Church in Pakistan is a young church. “The majority of all worshippers at divine services in Pakistan are children, youths and young adults. But the Catholic Church in the country is a young church, not only in terms of its members, but also when viewed historically.” Unfortunately, due to the difficult social and economic situation, young people in the country hardly have any perspective, he says.

Further, not only for Christians and other religious minorities, but also for Muslims, the controversial blasphemy law represents a major problem because it is sometimes misused in order to pursue and oppress dissenters, says Backes. Although, some weeks ago, Asia Bibi – one of the best-known victims of the blasphemy law – was able to escape the death penalty and depart for Canada after nearly nine years of uncertainty, Christians are still in prison on account of this law.

More than 224 Christians have suffered from the arbitrariness of this law since its introduction in 1986, he confirms. “Even though there are signs of hope, the Christians in the country are constantly living with a degree of insecurity.”

The mood in the country, where Islam is the state religion, is marked by religious intolerance. Over again, there are dead and injured in attacks and assaults, says Backes. He was particularly impressed by his meeting with young people who had experienced a serious attack on two Christian churches in Lahore four years ago. “Sakinder was at prayer in one of the churches and lost an eye in the explosions. Antashia had been singing in the choir at the service.

When she went outside, body parts were scattered in the street. Qandeel told me that, despite the severe attacks, the congregation has grown closer together and that many subsequently joined the security service. They all do it on a voluntary basis and are proud to be able to serve the Church.”

During his journeys through the country, Reinhard Backes visited numerous projects that ACN has funded in recent years. These include the Joti Pastoral Centre in Mirpur Khas in Hyderabad Diocese, as well as the parish of St. Peter in Jhugian Jhuhid (Lahore Archdiocese) where Catholics live today who were violently driven out of the so-called Joseph Colony in 2013. ACN is helping them to develop the new parish there.

In the words of Reinhard Backes, an indispensable source of hope and confidence in Pakistan’s patriarchal society is the involvement of Christian women. “In many places, nuns perform enormously important pastoral and social work.” He mentions as examples the Mother Teresa Sisters in Faisalabad, or the Franciscan nuns in Dar-ul-Sukun, a social facility whose name means “House of Peace and Love”.

There, with great devotion, a nun from Karachi has been caring for neglected children for the last 50 years. “They care for the weakest in society, orphans and persons with physical or mental disabilities. These initiatives, which are being driven forward by Christians in all dioceses, are mainly carried out by women,” reports Reinhard Backes, for whom Pakistan is not only a country of fear and violence, but also of hope and charity.

In the last two years alone, the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need has funded nearly 100 projects in Pakistan to the tune of more than 1.5 million euros, in particular giving aid for the construction of churches and other ecclesiastical facilities, support for priests, seminarians and nuns, as well as the acquisition of Christian literature.

/ Matthias Böhnke (ACN International)

“Do not be afraid, little flock”

On 7 May, immediately following his stay in Bulgaria, where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the cities of Sofia and Rakovski on 5 and 6 May, the leader of the Catholic Church will travel to neighbouring North Macedonia. North Macedonia became the official name of the former Republic of Macedonia in February.

During his 10-hour sojourn in the capital of Skopje, Pope Francis will first have a meeting with the president, prime minister and other representatives of the government and nation and then visit a memorial site for Mother Teresa, a native of Skopje, to meet with people living in poverty. At midday he will celebrate Holy Mass on Makedonija Square. Pope Francis will then meet with young people as well as priests and religious in the afternoon before flying back to Rome in the evening.

“Do not be afraid, little flock” – the motto chosen for the papal visit reflects the situation of the Catholics living in the country that was once part of Yugoslavia: only about two per cent of the country’s approximately two million inhabitants are Catholic. When compared to the 1.2 million Orthodox and more than half a million Muslims, it is truly only a little flock that feels “like a family”, according to the head of the North Macedonian section of ACN International, Magda Kaczmarek. As Kiro Stojanov, bishop of the only bishopric in North Macedonia, stressed, this makes the visit of their pope all the more important for the small number of faithful. “We have 15 parishes and several succursal churches with a total of 22 priests,” the bishop explained the current situation of the country. “Our faithful come from different ethnic groups, most of them Macedonians, Croats or Albanians.”

“The religions coexist peacefully for the most part and the religious sisters do wonderful work in the children’s and youth ministry,” Magda Kaczmarek reported. She is more concerned about the widespread poverty and weak economic performance of the country; for many of its inhabitants, farming is the only source of income. She then mentioned the emigration of large numbers of young and educated people, those who could help the country grow economically, to other countries. She pointed out the country’s low birth rate with 1.5 children per woman and, at about 30 per cent, its extremely high unemployment rate. “If politics cannot create better living conditions and ensure that the youth have prospects, then the country is heading into dark times,” Magda Kaczmarek gave voice to her concerns.

She therefore believes that North Macedonia is looking forward to the papal visit not only as a source of religious impetus to stabilise the faith. Rather, the country is hoping that Pope Francis will appeal to the political and economic policymakers during his visit to help create a more stable future for North Macedonia.

Background:

Last year, ACN International granted a total of 76 400 euros for projects in North Macedonia (which was still the Republic of Macedonia then), in particular for the construction and renovation of churches. A top priority at the moment is the construction of a new church in Kumanovo, the country’s second largest city. In addition, ACN provides subsistence aid for religious.

ACN International

RWANDA: The Christian couple, among the first victims of the genocide in 1994

25 years ago, on 7 April 1994, Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba were cut down by the bullets of the Hutu militias. Cyprien was already a celebrated poet and choreographer who had undergone a radical conversion and was working actively for the reconciliation of the different tribal groups within his country. Their killers murdered them on the first night of the genocide, while they were praying before the Blessed Sacrament in their home. They desecrated the Tabernacle and scattered the consecrated hosts over the floor.

Everybody, or at least nearly everybody, in Rwanda already knew the name of Cyprien Rugamba, a recognised poet, dancer and choreographer who was now working tirelessly for reconciliation within Rwanda. Together with his wife, Daphrose, he had introduced the Emmanuel community into their country and was working to support street children and making no distinction between the three main ethnic groups in the country, the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Shortly before he was murdered, Cyprien had appealed to the authorities to remove the designation of tribal identity from people’s identity cards. It was an initiative that provoked deep hostility from the agitators who were seeking to foment civil war and which probably earned him his place among the very first victims of the massacre.

A radical conversion

Although he was raised as a Christian, Cyprien Rugamba had subsequently become very hostile towards Christianity, according to Laurent Landete, member of the Emmanuel community. For example, when his wife was in hospital on one occasion, Cyprien demanded that all the crucifixes be removed from her room, and he was also unfaithful to her and willing to listen to all kinds of calumnies against her, even to the point of being about to repudiate her. But then he fell gravely ill, and he, who was an artist, an intellectual and a dancer, found he could no longer speak, think or even move. “My pride was annihilated by this trial”, he recalled subsequently. Meanwhile, his wife faithfully continued to stay by him, remaining by his bedside throughout his illness, praying for him and watching over this husband whom she loved without apparently receiving any love in return.

Cyprien made a complete recovery – “miraculously”, he subsequently maintained. And following this “desert experience” he underwent a radical conversion of heart. Together with his wife, he set out to devote himself to works of charity. She had a little shop in the capital, Kigali, but the street children kept stealing potatoes from her stall. Realising their terrible poverty, she decided to do something to help them. And the charity she set up then – and which is named after them – CECYDAR (Centre Cyprien et Daphrose Rugamba) – is still bearing fruit today. For 20 years the Centre has been welcoming children from the streets of Kigali and transforming their lives.”

“I will enter heaven dancing”

Cyprien Rugamba’s conversion also marked a profound change in his artistic career. “From now on, his centre of gravity was in heaven”, says Father Guy-Emmanuel Cariot, Rector of the Basilica in the French city of Argentueil, who organised an evening during which the Rugamba couple would be especially honoured on the 25th anniversary of their death. In fact the cause for their beatification had already been launched by the Archdiocese of Kigali in 2015.

One of their children, who was actually present with them but survived the massacre, reported that when the killers entered, their first question to Cyprien was, “Are you a Christian?”, to which his father had replied, “Yes, very Christian! And I will enter heaven dancing!” He was in fact repeating the words of a song he had written and which had become very popular in Rwanda. Daphrose then asked permission to pray one last time before the Tabernacle, which the family kept in their home. Her only answer was to be clubbed over the head with a rifle butt, then the soldiers turned their machine guns on the Tabernacle and then scattered the hosts over the floor, as though it was necessary for them to kill God first before they could kill men. They were roughly manhandled, then the whole family, including both parents, six children, one niece and a household employee, were herded together and machine-gunned to death.

The evening before they were executed, several friends had telephoned them in anguish. They later recalled being impressed by their quiet serenity. They had made no attempt to flee, preferring instead to believe right to the end in a Rwanda that was still united and capable of making peace.

ACN International

Syria – a vocation marked by the resurrection

I’m born anew after eight years! The story of Fadi

Almost 8 years after the outbreak of a devastating civil war, Fadi, a young Syrian man, relates to ACN how he heard the call to service. It was the call of God to become his priest. However, his response to this call to serve God in his people was held up for a time by another call to a different kind of service, one that seized him and would not let him go… For the state had conscripted him into military service for eight long years – was that in order to serve his people? Fortunately, however, his vocation did not wither away during that time; quite the contrary, in fact, for he declares, “Now I am absolutely determined to start my training for the priesthood.”

Chosen to go out and bear fruit

It was towards the end of his studies in tourism at the Institute of Saint Basil in Aleppo that Fadi for the first time heard the call of God in his heart. It was an important stage in his life. He had also been fortunate enough by then to gain the basics of the French language. Perhaps not enough to be able to study in this language, and in any case he would later forget a great deal of it during his time in the army. And yet, clearly, God was already at work preparing him for his entry into the seminary, because the training for the priesthood is given in French in this part of the world. At the present time, in fact, there are no seminaries in Syria and all the Syrian seminarians have to travel to Lebanon to study theology.

On completing his studies, Fadi Joseph Mora applied to study for the priesthood. He could not resist the appeal he had heard in his heart. The son of a Catholic Maronite family, he had already received a solid Christian education at home, his character shaped in a family which is the first and fundamental place of human formation. His parents, who had emigrated to Venezuela for economic reasons, had returned to Syria in order to bring up their children in their own country.

Military service unavoidable

The Bishop advised the young man to come back again after completing his military service, since conscription was inevitable for everyone who wasn’t rich enough to buy their way out of it. Before the war, young Syrian men were expected to do military service for a period of 18 months to 2 years, after which they were still reservists. But everything changed with the war. The length of service became open-ended, and the Syrian authorities imposed penalties on those who sought to escape it. Anyone wanting to return to Syria had to pay at least 8,000 US dollars.

Marked by the resurrection

Fadi began his military service just four months before the war broke out. When he enrolled, he was hoping that it would end quickly. He was among the cohort that had been called up in 2010, and he wasn’t demobilised until last year, 2018, after spending eight years serving in the army. Today he recalls that moment with joy: “31 December 2018 was the date when my military service ended, the day I was born again after those eight long years! I will remember that date for ever!” So it was that in a sense his own vocation was marked by a resurrection of sorts, which has left him with a deep sense of serenity. Death does not have the last word.

Immediately after returning, he approached the Bishop again to renew his application. This time he was received by the new Bishop, Joseph Tobji, who welcomed him with open arms. Bishop Tobji explained that ever since his appointment as bishop he has prayed for vocations, along with the entire diocese, celebrating Holy Mass each day for this intention. “It is a great joy for me and for everyone to welcome a new vocation”, he says. “Our prayers have been heard!”

The word of the Lord has remained alive in him

“The word of the Lord that was addressed to me never died, but has remained alive within me”, says Fadi. And Bishop Tobji confirms: “The seed that was sown by the Lord did not die, it merely awaited the opportune moment to germinate. Now we intend to create the best possible conditions so that it may grow within the bosom of the Catholic Church and bear fruit.” The Bishop, who himself is from Aleppo and who founded a humanitarian aid centre to help the victims of war and the ensuing poverty, emphasises, “Our country and our people are suffering. But it is a mistake to think that there is nothing but bad news. I have just founded a new parish, and on top of this we are blessed with this new vocation. So there are also many positive things happening, and we need to talk about them in order to encourage people’s hopes.”

Protecting and nurturing vocations

“God never ceases to call chosen individuals to follow him and serve him in the ordained ministry, despite everything”, confirms Father Andrzej Halemba, the head of ACN’s projects section for the Middle East, Africa and Asia. And he adds, “Jesus tells us, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ (Cf. Jn 15:15-16). But at the same time we ourselves must also play our part by supporting the training of candidates for the priesthood who present themselves and are accepted. As the Church, we are obliged to respond to God’s gift with the gifts within the capacity of each one of us – namely prayer, service or material support. Without our aid, vocations like Fadi’s cannot be fulfilled. So first of all we must pray for the seminarians in Syria, for they are living in particularly difficult conditions. The country is still at war and the people are suffering deep poverty. And moreover, they are surrounded by a majority Muslim society that does not understand the choice they have made. And so we must protect and nurture these vocations, so that they will bear rich fruit.”

ACN International