Drama at Notre-Dame: watch, pray, do not be discouraged

On Monday 15 April, the first day of Holy Week, the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was ravaged by a terrible fire. This was a drama which invited us to pray unceasingly, and without being discouraged.

Shortly before 8pm, the burning spire collapsed into the nave of the cathedral. The fire, which had broken out around 6.50pm in the timbers of the roof, was overcome by about 3.30am, according to the Paris firefighters. Two-thirds of the roof has been destroyed. Ravaged by flames in the night of 15-16 April, the building – the most visited in Europe, welcoming between 12 and 14 million visitors and pilgrims each year – had stood through history and survived countless events, from the French Revolution to the Second World War. An enquiry into ‘involuntary destruction by fire’ has been opened.

“The shocking sight of Notre-Dame in flames reminds us of the dramatic reality lived by too many Christians throughout the world”, stated Fr Yves Genouville, French ecclesial assistant to Aid to the Church in Need. “But at the end of a night of sorrow, a striking image: in the midst of smoke and ash, despite the chaos resulting from the flames, the Cross appears, intact. The glorious Cross of Christ, at the foot of which so many pilgrims have come to leave their prayers. The Cross of Christ, at the foot of which Mgr Fridolin Ambongo, Mgr Theodore Mascarenhas, Sr Mona Adhem, and so many others came, during the 2018 ‘Nuits de Temoins’, to leave the sorrows and hopes of a Church faced with the folly of Evil. The Cross of Christ, today weighed down, at the foot of which stood Mary, his Mother, Our Lady, to whom the cathedral of the Paris archdiocese is dedicated.

While this fire has joined the long list of the dramas undergone by the Church in France, ACN, an international pontifical foundation, has received messages of compassion from the whole world. The universal church is united by prayer to the diocese of Paris, and to the Church in France. “Our heart is weeping with all of France, and with the Christians of the world: we are praying for you”, wrote Sr Mona. “We are praying for you, we are praying for France’, Mgr Mascarenhas assured us. “We feel your sorrow. Your loss is our loss, your sorrow our sorrow.”

In a statement the French Bishops’ Conference invited “Catholics to always remain the living stones of the Church, by living the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, the source of our hope.”

Guided by this Hope, at the start of this Holy Week, as we approach the paschal solemnities, ACN invites all to watch and pray, for the Church in France and for the universal Church; to watch and pray at the foot of the cross, at the side of Our Lady, and without discouragement.

ACN International

SYRIA: The bleeding wound of emigration

The number of Christians in Aleppo fell dramatically during the war, from 180,000 before the war to 32,000 today. Joseph Tobji, Maronite Archbishop of Aleppo and shepherd of a small community of about 400 families, spoke with Pierre Macqueron of the pontifical foundation  Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

 

What is the situation in the city two years after the liberation of Aleppo by government forces?

In terms of safety, the situation has improved, even though bombs continue to fall. Several have been dropped on the fringes of Aleppo over the past few weeks. Therefore, the conflict has not actually ended yet.

However, what is raging now is more a war of economics. At the end of 2016, we thought that everyone would find work again and would be able to participate in rebuilding the city. We were surprised by the embargo and by the sanctions, which are hitting us even harder now. Every day, we are plagued by power failures [16 hours a day]. The economy is not working, inflation is soaring. In addition, corruption in the country has reached record highs. It is easy to imagine the situation of the inhabitants of Aleppo. Today, the people are demotivated.

 

Is that the reason why so many are leaving the country?

We have lost a lot of resources and a lot of qualified workers. Emigration has become our bleeding wound. Even those who are still here are somewhere else in their hearts. The people dream of the paradise of the Western world. However, when they arrive there, they find a different reality to what they expected. They are very surprised and very disappointed. They are disappointed here and disappointed there: that is the great tragedy. We still had hope in 2016, now many are succumbing to despair.

 

What is the church doing to help people in need?

Young people want to go to other countries to find work. This is why I calculated that 40 per cent of our Christian community is made up of older people, but there are only two or three homes for the elderly in Aleppo. We try to support them both socially and through pastoral care by making sure that they have access to medicine, psycho-social support, food, education and housing.

We have to strengthen the faith of the people, anchor them in this country, encourage them to be witnesses of Christ, the salt of the earth and light of the world: we cannot allow our presence here to become insignificant. We have lived through a particularly painful period of history: we are living in extraordinary circumstances. Now we need to deal with them appropriately. To this end, we organised the first Synod of Catholic bishops in Aleppo last week.

 

What would you like to say to our benefactors?

In the name of all the Christians in Aleppo, I would like to thank them for their assistance, which carries us and strengthens our hope. Thank you with all of my heart.

 

ACN International

 

Nicaragua: A Church on the side of its people

“We are carrying a small corner of the cross of Christ. We cannot carry it all. It is He who is helping us.”

Nicaragua today is a country trapped between two identities: on the one side it is a nation led by a government that in many respects continues a long history of dictatorship, as typified by the Somoza dynasty, which governed the country for almost 6 decades during the 20th century.

But on the other hand it is also a country whose people have said “enough”. A people who have woken up from their stupor and now wish to move forward, with a Catholic Church led by ten bishops who do not fear to shepherd their flock and be a Church that goes out to the margins, as Pope Francis keeps asking, and which opens the doors of its cathedrals in order to be, quite literally, a field hospital.

A Church without political banners and which makes no distinctions in caring for the wounded, supporting those who suffer and feeding their hunger, both physical and spiritual.

“They stepped up at a difficult moment… When the people were suffering greatly, because they were afraid to go out into the streets”, says one priest from the diocese of Matagalpa – who for reasons of security prefers to remain anonymous. He is speaking to a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International), which visited the country at the end of November 2018 to express its support and solidarity with the situation in which the country finds itself.

Despite the posters in the city, which boast of a Matagalpa that is “Christian, socialist, in solidarity”, the tension is palpable, with police and paramilitaries on the streets to dissuade the civil population from making any protests, although these, for the most part, have been peaceful. The protests began in April 2018, but in the case of Matagalpa, the government forces have even prohibited a group of women from honouring the memory of their children, who were murdered in the civil war, in a march that they have made regularly for almost 20 years.

“I am one of the lucky ones. Many priests have been forced to flee”, our friend tells us. “But we cannot remain unmoved when people burst in during Mass because they are killing them. Because the army and police aren’t throwing sweets at them. They are shooting to kill, aiming at people’s heads, their backs and their chests.”

“The Gospel teaches us that we must open our doors to those who are persecuted, and this is what we did. Our churches were turned into refuges, not into opposition planning centres, as the government claims to believe.”

And this is a priest who knows what he’s talking about. On May 15, 2018, in a car belonging to the diocese and known as “the ambulance”, he rescued 19 wounded demonstrators who had been hit by bullets from army AK-47s. By order of the government, the public hospitals were forbidden to help the wounded, the majority of whom were university students.

“During those days, the people on our church benches were not listening to the Gospel, they were living it”, he told us with emotion.

From September onwards, and with help from various international organisations, the diocesan church opened five pastoral “human rights” offices from which it provided support to families who had lost children during the demonstrations, and likewise to those who continue to be persecuted today for having protested. Around 50 of them are still imprisoned without trial, and hundreds have “disappeared”, while an estimated 30,000 or so have gone into exile in Costa Rica, and many more into other countries.

“They accuse us of hiding weapons, but we have never done so”, the priest tells us. “Our only weapon has been Jesus in the Eucharist.”

The number of people who today depend on the Church for their survival has trebled since the month of April.

“We are carrying a small corner of the cross of Christ”, he tells us. “We cannot carry it all. It is He who is helping us.”

The situation of the bishops and of many religious in Nicaragua is far from easy. Their action in opening the doors of the churches to care for the wounded, both students and police, and likewise their willingness to be involved in a failed process of national dialogue, has resulted in many of them being branded by official sources as “coup plotters” and “terrorists”.

One of these is Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua, the capital of the country. Despite the difficulties, he has lost neither his smile nor his faith.

But despite his smile, Brenes cannot hide his concern for the future of Nicaragua, a country that has lived through enough revolutions to know that many of the grandiloquent ideas that convince the masses, sooner or later end up being destroyed by the abuses of power of the few.

The last revolution began on 18 April, although many people in Nicaragua agree that in reality it was no more than the “matchstick that ignited the bonfire that had been building up a long time previously.”

“The Church is accompanying the process of dialogue that was initiated after the protests, but as a service to the country”, Brenes insists. “We are not interested in power, but in supporting the efforts for peace, without looking for any personal benefit other than the good of the country. When the clashes took place between the government forces and the demonstrators, we defended all sides.”

More than once, the Cardinal was forced to mediate between the government and the protesters, both in order to rescue police officers who had been captured in the crush, and to prevent the soldiers from shooting on the students.

“We never asked anyone what side they were on, we simply helped all those who asked our aid”, he told us, though he did acknowledge that they could have denounced the use of violence on the part of some of the demonstrators.

“Both sides were violent at times, but the government made disproportionate use of violence”, he said. “The riot police had rifles, whereas the young demonstrators had catapults and home-made petrol bombs.”

The challenge now is to work for national reconciliation; something he knows will take generations and cannot be achieved overnight. “But we have to lay the groundwork for this reconciliation.”

Despite the challenges, Brenes chooses to cling to his faith rather than lose hope, more than ever convinced of the prophetic words of Pope Pius XII, who said, “Give me an army of people who pray the Rosary every day, and we will change the world.”

“I pray the Rosary every day: the first mystery for Nicaragua, the second for the conversion of those in government, the third for the mothers who have lost their children, or have them in prison, the fourth for the political prisoners, and the fifth for the clergy.

We believe that faith can move mountains, and the prayer of the Rosary can convert hearts and move them to a true reconciliation that will care for the wounded hearts and seek the good of everyone”, the Cardinal concluded. “And you, will you pray for Nicaragua?”

 

ACN International

Burkina Faso: Trapped and forced to flee their convent

After their hasty departure from Kompienbiga, in the south-east of Burkina Faso, the sisters of the congregation, Sœurs des Campagnes took refuge with the brothers in the male branch of their same congregation, in Pama, back in January 2019 and just before the assassination of Father César Fernandez. Sister Thérèse, the Mother Superior, and Father Soubeiga, the parish priest  of Pama, spoke to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) about the increase in violence which has struck the country, despite the fact that it is generally considered more peaceful than its tumultuous neighbours Mali and Niger.

 

“Either you give us the medicines, or we blow your head off!” That was the order as reported by Father F. Soubeiga, the parish priest of Pama and missionary brother of the congregation Frères Missionnaires des Campagnes. He was describing the threats made back in January 2019 against Sister Victorine, a nurse at the health and social care centre in Kompienbiga and a member of the female branch of his own congregation. “She was working alone at the dispensary. At around four in the afternoon a group of some 8 to 10 individuals, armed and wearing balaclavas, burst in and demanded medical supplies for their wounded comrades. But Sister Victoria did not have access to the pharmacy. So instead they made violent threats against her and smashed up everything in order to help themselves.” The incident was the last straw for the sisters in Kompienbiga. Coming on top of a succession of other violent incidents, it forced them to finally withdraw and take shelter with the brothers of their congregation, just 10 miles (15 km) away, since they no longer felt safe on their own.

 

“The tension is growing, and the people are gripped by fear”

“During the night of 14 September 2018 two terrorist attacks took place in the villages of Diabiga and Kompienbiga, respectively 40 miles (60 km) and 10 miles (15 km) from Pama, in the east of the region”, according to the governorate of the region. According to Father Soubeiga, “the violence began in Pama back in March 2017, and there were a string of bomb explosions aimed at the police – at least three or four of them since August 2018.” Sister Therese, who is Mother Superior of the female branch of the congregation, the Soeurs des Campagnes in Kompienbiga, adds, “The tension is growing, especially since August 2018, in Kompienbiga. The attackers regularly come into the villages, round up the population, and shout orders at them. Fear is gripping them.” A little further north, Father Caesar Fernandez was assassinated in February 2019 and on 17 March 2019 Father Joël Yougbaré was “probably abducted by armed individuals”, according to the local Church. And so the sisters have taken refuge with the brothers in Pama, where it is just a little calmer.

 

The community has been scattered

“This is the first time we have had to leave everything in haste like this”, admits Sister Therese, who had been living in Kompienbiga since 2001. “Out of the seven sisters in the community, four have taken shelter in Pama, while three have left the country for Togo, where they are completing their formation. Nobody knows when they will be able to return. It is hard”, she continues. In fact their priory was established in Kompienbiga 25 years ago. They had established an infant school in which they were caring for around 40 young children aged between three and six, children who in many cases had been neglected or abandoned. And they had just opened a sewing and dress-making school, where they were planning to teach five young women. “All we want to do is to go back as soon as possible so that we can continue the work that we began”, insists Sister Therese. “Please pray for us!”

 

“The Catholics are the most vulnerable”

For now, even in Pama, “where things are calmer”, there is an obligatory curfew. “We are living in a deteriorating climate”, Father Soubeiga confirms. “As Catholics, we are the most vulnerable, because we represent a centralised institution, and thus an easy target. To attack a priest is to inflict harm on an entire territory. The consequences would not be the same for the Protestants or the Muslims, in their more fragmented communities, led by numerous different pastors and local imams.”

 

Unable to celebrate the Easter Vigil

As a result, the police  have imposed strict security  regulations. “Some areas are forbidden to me”, says the parish priest of Pama, sadly. “In January, in the space of two weeks, I had to evacuate all the catechists from Diabiga, Kompenbiga and another village, around 50 miles (78 km) from Pama. As for the immediate future, it’s looking very unlikely that we will even be able to celebrate the Easter Vigil.”

 

In response to the question as to who is responsible for the criminal armed attacks of recent months, Father Soubeiga is quite candid: “It’s impossible to say. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Some people refer to them as mercenaries, but some of the terrorists are quite clearly from Burkina itself, because they speak the local languages perfectly.”

 

ACN International

 

Central African Republic – Bishop denounces “predators” who seek to rob the riches of the country

The Central African Republic is not only the poorest country in the world, but at the same time one of the most dangerous. For five years now an on-going civil war has been ravaging the country, with fighting continuing between the Islamist “Seleka” rebels, the so-called “Anti-balaka” militias, drawn from the non-Muslim population, and soldiers of the regular armed forces.

The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) spoke recently with the Spanish-born Comboni missionary Juan José Aguirre Muñoz. Now aged 64, since the year 2000 he has been bishop of the Diocese of Bangassou, in the south-east of the Central African Republic

 

ACN: The Central African Republic rarely hits the headlines. Nevertheless, there is a humanitarian tragedy unfolding there. Islamist rebels, non-Muslim militias and regular troops are fighting one another. And in the midst of it all is the civilian population. Again and again there are brutal attacks and atrocities. And they are continuing in your diocese of Bangassou. A mission station was attacked there on 31 December 2018, was it not? What happened there, and who was responsible?

The town of Bakouma was attacked on 31 December 2018 by the armed rebels led by the warlord Nourredin Adam of the FPRC (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic, a Muslim Seleka faction). The town was destroyed, and the Catholic mission pillaged. A week later there were still unburied bodies lying in the streets of the town. 9,000 people from the town of Nzacko who were living in a refugee camp there, fled into the bush in conditions that were unspeakable – in their haste to escape the violence of these very violent mercenaries. The people of Bakouma also fled! Many of them eventually arrived in Bangassou, 85 miles (130 km) away, exhausted, their lives in ruins. Our truck made several trips to and fro to help the exhausted refugees.  In our “Mama Tongolo” orphanage there are still dozens of unaccompanied children who arrived in Bangassou in complete disarray, without even knowing where their parents are or whether they are still alive or not; whether they are still hiding in the bush, or whether they have stopped at some village or other on the way. A year ago the town of Nzacko, 50 miles (80 km) further north, was also attacked by these same mercenaries, most of whom are foreigners (from Chad, Sudan, Nigeria…). They drove every non-Muslim out of the town, so that the non-Muslim population have now lost everything, many of them even their lives. The Catholic mission was completely destroyed, razed to the ground – the presbytery, the operating theatre, fully equipped for major operations, the Catholic school, the old church and the new one as well… We feel especially persecuted by these radical Muslims. There are millions of ordinary Muslims in the world who love God and respect their neighbour. But these radical Muslims of the Seleka, who invaded Central Africa five years ago… they are bad people, they do not know Islam.

 

ACN: Again and again there are attacks on the refugee camps in the Church’s care. In November 2018 a refugee camp was attacked within the grounds of the Catholic cathedral in the town of Alindao. 2,300 people fled. How is their situation, and how do people cope with the ever present fear?

What happened in the non-Muslim refugee camp in Alindao on 15 November last year was a crime against 26,000 unarmed refugees. There were 80 people killed, including two priests, Abbé Blaise Mada and Abbé Célestin Ngoumbango. As of today there are 550,000 internally displaced Central Africans living in the refugee camps. Many of them have been victims of criminal attacks, and even crimes against humanity. Similarly, other refugee camps have sprung up close to the Catholic cathedrals, as in Kaga-Bandoro, and even in the Catholic missions, for example in Bria, Ippy, Zemio, etc.

 

ACN: In your diocese you are also sheltering many refugees. But the Muslim population was also attacked…

On 15 May 2018, 2000 Muslims from Bangassou were harassed and threatened by groups of Antibalaka (an incensed crowd of non-Muslim ‘self-defence’ groups and criminal elements) and were escorted to the mosque by soldiers of the UN Minusca forces. A few hours later the Minusca forces abandoned the area and 300 gunmen (irregular soldiers?) opened fire on the mosque, which was filled with women and children, attacking it pitilessly. I went there with three priests and stood in front of the mosque, trying to persuade the Antibalaka to stop the killing. Over the course of three days they killed around 30 Muslims, despite our presence, standing in front of their guns for those three days. Afterwards, with the help of the Portuguese Minusca contingent, the Muslim community in Bangassou asked to be taken to the Catholic cathedral to shelter there. This Muslim refugee camp outside the cathedral in Bangassou has now been there for a year-and-a-half. The attacks by the Antibalaka are becoming less and less frequent. However, those of the warlords Ali Darass, Abdoulai Hissein and Alkhatin, are aimed at expelling the non-Muslims from the areas they have conquered, and ultimately they are seeking the partition of the country into two.

ACN: On a superficial level one might think that what is happening in the Central African Republic is a religious conflict. Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of the capital Bangui, rejects this vehemently. He has written to ACN that “It is absurd to assume that religion is the sole reason responsible for the chaos.” How do you see the situation, and what are the real causes of the civil war?

The religious conflict is merely a smokescreen to hide the truth. Thousands of mercenaries –some of them Central Africans of the Rounga and Ngoula ethnic groups, but most of them foreigners – have invaded the country from the north, aided and armed by the Gulf states and by Chad, and with the complicity of other countries of the African Union, such as Sudan, Niger, etc. Their aim is to divide up the country, and they are helping themselves like pitiless predators to the mineral wealth of the country – the gold, diamonds, mercury, platinum, the livestock and so forth. Camouflaged beneath the appearance of a struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims (which is also a real one) or of cultural clashes, their underlying instinct is to loot  the riches of the Central African Republic.

 

ACN: The rebel factions seem to have an endless arsenal of weapons at their disposal. Do you know anything about those who are supplying them? Is there any way for the international community to help de-escalate the situation?

The rebels are very well armed, with weapons, munitions, vehicles, logistics… I believe that everything is coming from the Gulf nations, with the complicity of the government of Chad. The Central African Army (FACA) is hampered by an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations. It’s all very well to see Russian mercenaries arriving as instructors, but if the soldiers  of the FACA whom they are training don’t have any weapons, then what kind of an Army is that? The responsibility for ensuring a level playing field in the conflict depends on the five member states sitting on the permanent committee of the UN and who are currently imposing the arms embargo on the Central African Republic. Which of them wants to see the Central African Republic fall into a black hole? The United States and Saudi Arabia are involved in the business, and I think that France, as a former colonial power, is too…

Then again, for the past five years all the major decisions concerning the Central African Republic have been taken outside the country. There is a secret agenda to split the Central African Republic into two, driven by the Muslim countries and with the complicity of various other countries hiding in the shadows, such as Chad, Niger and Libya. But in the end, after all this politicking, it is always the poorest who pay the price, who have to pay the bills that they never signed. It is the women and the children, the lost young people who don’t know where to turn next, the girls and women who have been raped inside the refugee camps, the old people accused of sorcery, whom we are protecting in our Houses of Hope  in Bangassou, the damaged children and war orphans… We, as missionaries of the Gospel, are there beside them, trying to support these poor people and give them some hope for the future, telling them that God is still Lord of history. Even though the NGOs are leaving for the sake of their own safety, the Catholic Church will always remain on the spot, alongside the poorest and most deprived. So often it happens, in moments of extreme peril, that the people run to the Catholic mission to seek refuge there.

 

ACN: The spiral of violence is continuing, however. Christians are also taking up arms. What can you do as a bishop to prevent this escalation?

For the past five years we have organised encounters promoting social cohesion between Muslims and non-Muslims, in order to open up a dialogue. We have set up platforms such as the Women for Peace, and inter-community meetings, to promote social cohesion. All this worked well. The moderate Muslim communities were willing to engage in the dialogue – right up to the time when the new acts of aggression took place, and so now the meetings have lost their raison d’être, because the non-Muslims are accusing their Muslim neighbours of complicity in their hearts.

At the same time we have denounced all the crimes against humanity, both on the part of the Seleka and on the side of the Antibalakas, and even on the part of the soldiers of the Minusca forces, when some contingents failed to protect the civilian population and simply stood by while they were being massacred, as happened on 15 November in Alindao with the contingent from Mauritania.

In many high-risk areas we have set up Catholic schools, both in the zones under control of the Seleka and those controlled by the Antibalakas. Thousands of children, both Muslims and non-Muslims, attend them, spending the morning there and mixing together, dressed in the same uniform. They play together, study together, associate together… At school they create  a relaxed atmosphere that could serve as a model for the adults in the area. It is an investment for the future. Hats off to the teachers who are willing to go and work in such high-risk areas and support the priests, even at the risk of their own lives.

 

ACN:  How do you see the future of the Central African Republic, and what can organisations such as ACN do to contribute to its future development?

ACN is already helping us in an important way. Our priests, our seminarians, our catechists, who remain there resolutely, like pillars of bronze, in some of the most difficult regions, were in many cases trained with the help of the foundation; you also supported formation sessions for Christian families… There are places in the diocese where many Christians have died a martyr’s death. The fact that there is still a Catholic school that is still actually functioning is already a miracle. And ACN is also a part of this miracle, because you are helping us to encourage these exiled families to return and rebuild their homes, helping for school, orphaned and refugee children… The missions of Bema and Zemio in our diocese are able to keep their schools running thanks to ACN and its benefactors. ACN is encouraging our pastoral workers, our religious and priests, by enabling them to take part in retreats and recharge their batteries, and to obtain aid for those who have been traumatised and are suffering from post-traumatic stress. The missionary Church is more alive throughout the world thanks to the grace of God and the work of ACN. Through your publications and media work you are able to show people the trials and tribulations the missionary Church is actually undergoing, all over the world.

 

ACN International

 

 

 

 

MIRIAM, The voice of Aleppo

In Aleppo the number of Christians shrank fivefold during the war. Now the economic crisis and the lack of professional employment opportunities are a source of anguish, especially for the young.

The performers are a choir of 60 or so children and young people, supported by five musicians. It is Saturday 17 March in the late afternoon. The Orthodox Youth Movement is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its creation. In the packed hall, the audience applauds appreciatively. A simple concept, but something that has become rare in recent years in this city of Aleppo, which was once the economic capital of the country, before the war.

The anguish of the young

Among the young singers is Miriam Toubal, aged 23, a student in biotechnology, who conducts the children’s choir. For a year now, for one hour a week, she has rehearsed them in singing these songs. The rehearsals are at least less stressful than during the war, though even that didn’t prevent the choristers from attempting to gather and sing.

It’s not long before Miriam confides in us her anxiety as to her future. Finding a good job so as to be able to continue living decently is a major challenge in a city devastated by six years of war, and since then by the economic sanctions. In Syria the level of youth unemployment is an estimated 78%. And so many of these young people are deeply concerned for their own future and that of those they love.

All activity paralysed

Since the end of the fighting, the situation has not got better in this once prosperous city. Quite the contrary, in fact. So many of the citizens of this town will tell you about the difficulties of daily life. The economic recovery, so long-awaited, is still not happening, and the average job does not pay well enough to provide the basic daily needs, so rapidly have prices risen. The souk, whose 13 km of stores and boutiques were once the pride of the city and were classed as a world Heritage site by UNESCO, still lies in ruins and has not yet been restored. In front of what was once his own stall, Elias Farah, on returning there for the first time, cannot hide his emotions, noting anxiously that the whole place seems to be in imminent danger of collapse.

 

The former economic capital of the country is suffering terribly from the economic embargo. «It’s the poor and the ordinary people who are suffering above all from the situation» says Syrian Catholic Archbishop Antoine Chahda of Aleppo. The war is continuing and the lack of future prospects is only adding to the unhappiness of the families and the despair of so many Christians. In the suburbs of Aleppo, the industrial zone is a desolate sight: the bombed out factories have been looted, and there is no sign of any activity whatsoever.

Structured aid

In order to meet the daily needs of life, whether in Aleppo or in Homs, the Christian communities have organised themselves and are counting on the generosity of the universal Church. Once prosperous, they have become beggars, says Greek Orthodox Bishop George Abu Zakham of Homs, noting at the same time that the foreign aid is decreasing.

The support supplied by ACN, in the form of medical and food aid, help with rent and education, remains indispensable for many families. Lay committees have been set up, in order to be able to share out this aid fairly among the various different Christian communities. Their task is to identify the most urgent needs and closely monitor the use of the aid supplied. It is an effective system and one that enables  the different Christian Churches to work together. It is a vital form of aid, and one that is rekindling a new spark of life in the stale air and smouldering ashes of a city in ruins. For a brief moment, Miriam was the voice of that city.

 

From March 2011 up to the end of 2018, ACN provided 29.5 million Euros in aid for Syria, in the form of 738 different projects. 80% of these projects were in the form of emergency aid.

 

ACN International

Humanitarian crisis in Venezuela – “We are simply watching people die”

The heartrending testimony of a Venezuelan doctor which we give below is a reflection of the terrible problems people are still suffering from in this South American country, and of the humanitarian crisis resulting from the scarcity and high cost of medicines in particular. It comes on top of the failures in the national electricity supply system, which is affecting the hospitals and hampering the necessary treatment of patients.

In an audio message sent to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International), a young doctor, her voice trembling with emotion and close to tears, speaks of her sense of impotence at being unable to save lives, owing to the lack of medicines.

She describes how, during her shift at the Central Hospital, she attended a little girl suffering acute peritonitis, after having already arrived at the hospital with a ruptured appendix. As a result they had to apply the necessary treatment to extract the festering liquid, but they had no antibiotics for her subsequent post-operative treatment.

“Her Papa told me, with tears in his eyes, that he could not continue buying the medication, because each treatment cost 50,000 bolivars, and she needed three doses a day”, the doctor explains.

At present the minimum monthly salary in Venezuela is 20,000 bolivars, so that the father of this little girl would have had to work and save up almost 8 months salary in order to be able to purchase a single day’s treatment with the antibiotic.

In her moving account, the doctor describes how, after cleaning up the wound, she went looking for the little girl’s father to explain to him the gravity of his daughter’s condition, and found him kneeling on the floor, weeping.

“On emerging from the operating theatre, after completing the procedure, I went looking for her daddy, but couldn’t find him, because he was kneeling down, weeping in a corner, with his head against the wall.” She continues, with anguish in her voice, “I feel as though we are simply watching people die.” And she also berates the country’s political leaders for their inefficient work. “I don’t understand the politicians. This is affecting us all… We doctors can put up with being without light and without water, we can find a way of working around it, but I cannot bear to see our poorest people suffering and burying their children.”

On Tuesday, 2 April the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference published a message in which they reaffirm “the dignity of the human person and his inalienable rights” and in their turn denounce the lack of respect for human rights and the “crimes against humanity” to which the Venezuelan people are subjected, including “the deliberate imposition of (harmful) conditions of life, such as the depriving of access to food and medication”.

“Unfortunately this has been happening in our own country, beneath the complacent gaze of the authorities who have the responsibility of watching over the respect and defence of human rights”, the bishops state in their message.

The bishops urge a redoubling of prayers for Venezuela, in order to achieve “the necessary conversion”. And they appeal to the Virgin Mary to “accompany our people on the Way of the Cross they are now walking, in the hope of the Paschal liberation that was achieved by her Son Jesus Christ.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ACN’s 2019 Lenten and Easter Campaign for religious sisters: Extraordinary Women: Thanks to God. Thanks to you.

As part of its international Easter campaign in support of the work of religious sisters, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has collected testimonies from sisters from different countries. This article is the story of a religious sister from Kazakhstan.

Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sister Vera Zinkovska

 

Sister Vera Zinkovska, born in Shortandy, Kazakhstan – 43 years of age

Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Sister Vera’s father was a devout Catholic. During Soviet times, he refused to collaborate with the KGB. For this reason, one day he and two other men – a Lutheran and a Baptist – were summoned by the KGB. They were threatened with harm to their children. Soon thereafter, the daughter of the Lutheran was found dead near Moscow, where she was attending university. Something also happened to the child of the other man. Vera’s parents had just had their first child. It was a girl. One of the baby’s legs was broken at hospital. When the child was treated for pneumonia, she was transfused with the wrong type of blood. The little girl died. The parents wanted to have more children and they were blessed with twins: Vera and her brother, who was born 15 minutes after her. The father was afraid to tell the children about God because he feared that they would suffer the same fate as the first child. In spite of this, both children found the faith and both discovered a vocation: Vera became a religious sister and her brother a priest!

She explains, “A priest came to our city for the first time in 1990, after Perestroika. He invited us to Holy Mass and we heard the Polish language and helped him with Russian. We slowly found our way to God. I received Holy Communion for the first time when I was 15 years old. That was 28 years ago at Christmas.”

When religious sisters from the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary first came to Vera’s hometown for a two-week visit, she was impressed, “This was the first time I had met religious sisters and I really liked them. During Soviet times the teachers had told us that the devout were quite dense and uneducated, basically illiterates. They said that people of faith were the absolute worst. But I saw the joy of the sisters. It impressed me that they didn’t dress up and had no husbands and children and, in spite of this, seemed happy and joyful. From a purely human perspective, one would assume that anyone who doesn’t dress up and have a family would be unhappy. That was the moment when I first thought about becoming a religious sister and living as they do.” After Vera finished school, she went to Poland to learn the language and then joined the order.

“I liked that the charisma of the congregation included taking care of poor children. That drew me. And then I knew: if I join this convent, the sisters will come to Kazakhstan to work there. This pleased me and that is exactly what happened. My brother was also very supportive of me. At the time, he was already in Poland at seminary. Our parents were also happy, but our father was at first apprehensive that the KGB would again cause problems. But deep down in their souls our parents were happy. When I suffered a crisis at the beginning and did not know whether I wanted to stay or leave the order, my mother was very supportive of me staying. I am very grateful to my parents and my brother. Friends of mine who were not devout also respected my decision, but could not understand taking such a step. But they also supported me. I can therefore say that nobody was against it.”

Vera’s greatest wish was to work with children. “Before I started going to church and was only 12 years old, I thought that I would not marry, but devote my life to abandoned children. Later, after I had found Jesus and my vocation and was given the opportunity to go to Kapshagay to work with these kinds of children, I discovered what you could almost describe as a ‘calling within a calling’.”

However, at first it did not seem as though the religious sisters were even going to found a second convent in Kazakhstan or that Vera would even be assigned to the new convent. For a long time it was uncertain whether the convent superiors would agree to establish a second convent. And when it surprisingly did happen, two other sisters were initially chosen to go to Kapshagay. Sister Vera was deeply disappointed, but says, “In spirit I prayed, ‘Lord, what is most important is that the children receive quality care and that sisters are caring for them. I humbly accept that I will not be the one to go there and will not go with them. That is just how it is: other sisters will be the ones to go.’”

However, it just so happened that there were problems with the visa for Kazakhstan and Sister Vera was therefore asked to go to Kapshagay for one month. And then the plans were changed. Ten years have in the meantime gone by. “For me, this was a clear sign that God wants me and that he has accepted my sacrifice. I am happy that I am able to work here with the children.”

 


ACN has supported the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kapshagay many times in the past with funding for the remodelling, expansion, renovation and furnishing of their house and chapel. The organisation continues to help them arrange for visas and spiritual retreats.

 

ACN International

“The Catholic Church does exist in Morocco. And it is a Samaritan!” Bishop Cristóbal López of Rabat says.

Find out first-hand information about the country Pope Francis will visit at the end of March

The universality of the Catholic Church becomes palpable in many places where Christianity is in the minority, including Morocco, a country with 37 million inhabitants, 99.9% of whom are Muslim and only 0.08% are Catholics. A small, but great Church carries out its pastoral work among the Catholic faithful of the country. Primarily, however, the Church supports the most disadvantaged among the Moroccan population and the thousands of young people who cross the desert from sub-Saharan Africa looking for a future in the idealised Europe. Pope Francis is planning to travel to the region situated at the border between Africa and Europe on 30 and 31 March and, in response to an invitation issued by King Mohammed VI and the bishops in the country, visit the cities of Rabat and Casablanca.

María Lozano held an interview with Monsignor Cristóbal López Romero, the bishop of Rabat, for a television broadcast produced by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) . The Salesian of Don Bosco talked about what it means to live and work in this North African nation.

Mgr. Cristóbal López Romero (Archbishop of Rabat, Morocco).

 

“The Catholic Church does exist in Morocco,” the bishop proudly said at the beginning of the interview. “It is a vibrant and young church blessed with mercy and with a strong desire to bear witness.” The North African country has two cathedrals, one in Tangier and a second in Rabat. The first was built during the time of the Spanish protectorate, the second during the time of the French protectorate. Bishop López Romero continued, “More young than old people come to our churches, more men than women, more black than white people.” The members of the Church in Morocco are mostly foreigners, faithful from more than 100 different countries. They generally work in companies that operate subsidiaries in Morocco. In addition, many of them come from countries south of the Sahara, such as the Congo, Senegal or the Ivory Coast. They move to Morocco to pursue their studies and find the “feeling of security” they are looking for with the Catholic Church. The Catholic religious who work in the country hail from more than 40 different countries. Bishop López explains, “Being Catholic means being universal, global.” This universality requires people to put aside that which makes them distinct and concentrate on what is shared. “We look for what is important, at the essential. The differences enrich us, we are open with one another and see the differences as an opportunity, not a problem.”

 

Church as a Samaritan

The Moroccan Church and the charities it  works with take in and help  who are weakest, irrespective of their background. Primarily, they are active within Moroccan society and for the immigrants coming from countries south of the Sahara, who are trying to reach Europe or remain in North Africa. “The Church takes in and cares for those in need, that is, it is a Samaritan Church,” the interviewee said. Through its Caritas organisation, Morocco takes care of thousands of migrants who cross the Sahara and then, after having completed this difficult crossing, “remain stuck” in the country, without being able to continue on to Europe. “These people need care and a sympathetic ear. Most of them are sick when they arrive and many of the women are pregnant. The Church “takes them in. It protects, promotes and integrates them, just as Pope Francis has asked us to do.” The work of the Church in Morocco is so important that “even the Muslim authorities appreciate its efforts.”

When asked why young people are fleeing Africa, Bishop López explained that economic reasons are the key impetus for the majority of the young migrants. They are fleeing poverty and unemployment, but many of them are also fleeing war, hostilities, persecution or natural disasters. According to the bishop of Rabat, the migration problem in Africa will be impossible to solve as long as “30% of the food produced continues to be thrown out in Europe,” and people continue to live “in excess and grandeur” while at the same time expecting those “who live in wretched circumstances to passively accept their fate” and society remains unaware of its behaviour. “It is certainly not Christian and can even be called inhumane that Europe protects its borders so that it does not have to share what belongs to all and what Europe has appropriated,” the religious expressed his outrage. The bishop called to mind the words of Pope Francis: “Capitalism kills.” “Instead of providing aid, we should pay for the raw materials that we exploit. We should make sure that the multinational corporations pay the taxes that they owe.” He believes that Africa cannot be helped with “crumbs, but with justice and development plans. We are nothing without love, we are even less without justice.”

“The young Moroccan” – the bishop returned to the previous topic – “is imprisoned in his own country.” Morocco is suffering because of its geographical location, from the fact that there is no realistic way to leave the country. To the South lies the vast Saharan desert, to the West, the Atlantic, to the East, Algeria – and the border to this country is closed due to war – and to the North, Europe. “Many young people from Morocco point to Spain and ask, ‘Why are they able to come here, but I can’t go there?’”

 

Does religious freedom exist in Morocco?

An entirely different issue, which Pope Francis will surely be confronted with during his trip, is the status of religious freedom in the country. As the pontifical foundation ACN concluded in the Religious Freedom in the World Report 2018, according to its constitution, the Kingdom of Morocco is a sovereign Muslim state. Article 3 reads: “Islam is the religion of the state, which guarantees to all the free exercise of beliefs.” However, the constitution prohibits political parties, parliamentarians or constitutional amendments to infringe upon Islam. The European Parliament acknowledges that religious freedom is constitutionally enshrined in Morocco, but adds that “Christians and especially Muslims who converted to Christianity face numerous forms of discrimination and are not allowed to set foot in a church.” Under the Moroccan Penal Code, proselytism by non-Muslims, that is to “shake the faith” of the Muslim population, is illegal. The distribution of non-Islamic religious materials is also restricted by the government.

Further information: https://religious-freedom-report.org/report/?report=471

 

ACN International

Bishops speak out over electricity blackout in Venezuela

 “In this time of legal darkness, there has been added a literal darkness”

The political and economic crisis that is ravaging Venezuela has become even worse in recent days as a result of the electricity blackout that has affected the whole country, 23 different states, since March 7 this year. According to information provided by Caritas to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International), the electricity crisis has affected almost every other area of the supply chain, including water, gasoline, transport, communications and the hospitals.

“Sources tell us that the problem originated as a result of a breakdown in the central hydroelectric generating station which provides energy for 80% of the country”, the Caritas report explains. Nonetheless, the authorities of the government-controlled National Executive allege that the emergency was caused by “electronic warfare” as a result of a “terrorist cyber-attack” from abroad.

In different statements, gathered by ACN, most of the Venezuelan bishops have now spoken out in response to this grave crisis, which has left some communities without electricity for over 130 hours now, provoking chaos and consternation among the population, social tensions and looting, as well as shutting down schools and businesses.

Archbishop Ulises Gutiérrez of Ciudad Bolívar stated that “the country has been left in the dark, with blackouts throughout the country for over five days now. They have affected the hospitals and clinics, the public services, communications, banking activities, paralysing the country as never before in its history. A significant number of our fellow citizens have died through not getting the medical attention they needed, as a result of the lack of electric power.”

The Caritas report indicates that according to information from the organisation Médicos Unidos, some 20 individuals have died throughout the country, as a result of the electricity outage in the hospitals.

Bishop Mario Moronta of San Cristóbal stated that the authorities, “far from listening to the just complaints of the people, continue to harden the hearts of those who hold in their hands the solution to the difficulties, and above all to the central problem for which these same people are clamouring – namely a change of political direction and not the imposition of an unacceptable system that is not at the service of the men and women of Venezuela.”

For his part Bishop Ernesto Romero of the apostolic vicariate of Tucupita, declared that “the paralysis of the electricity supply throughout almost the whole of the country is nothing more than a demonstration of the indifference, laziness, lack of maintenance and incompetence of the national government.”

The emergency has led people to resort to desperate and unsafe measures, such as collecting water from unclean sources, eating partly rotten food and undergo risky mobilization.

Bishop Polito Rodríguez of the diocese of San Carlos announced that “Venezuela is today confronting the worst humanitarian crisis in its history as a republic; human rights are being violated with impunity. In essence, freedom and equality have been disregarded by those who are governing.”

Bishop José Manuel Romero Barrios of El Tigre has also spoken out, saying that the life of the Venezuelan people “has been subjected to a growing structural violence which, while not actually physically attacking the humanity of its people, is nonetheless expressed in the failure of those responsible for the management of society to attend to the most basic needs of the population.”

Speaking in similar terms, Archbishop Jesús González de Zárate of Cumaná called on people to raise their voices “to denounce the lies, the injustice, the use of violence, the fanatical desire to divide and control us, the repression and persecution of legitimate protest and all those things within our society that are contrary to the plan of God.”

Bishop Ángel Caraballo, the apostolic administrator of the diocese of Cabimas, added that “in this time of legal darkness, of darkness in relation to social security, darkness in relation to food, darkness in regard to civic peace, there has been added a literal darkness, an additional element which simply adds to the humiliation suffered by the Venezuelan people, through the fault of the regime, which has forgotten about people in order to sustain a dominant political system that has brought only tragedy, death, unrest and misery where ever it has been implemented.”

Bishop Oswaldo Azuaje of the diocese of Trujillo deplored the current situation and called on his people to continue “looking for the Lord in every brother who needs us. The days of the blackout were an opportunity to witness great examples of solidarity… in the sharing of food and drinking water, gasoline for the vehicles and many other examples of people sharing their sufferings and joys together.”

The message of the bishops has brought words of relief and hope to the Venezuelan people in the midst of the dark turbulence they are currently living through. Caritas announced that it will continue to actively pursue its service of “Ollas Comunitarias” (“community cooking pots”, i.e. shared meals service) in the various different dioceses, and also its programme of “medication banks”.

 

ACN International