Bosnia and Herzegovina: “Open war against the Catholic church”

The guns have been silent in Bosnia and Herzegovina for 23 years. However, according to Bishop Franjo Komarica, the country is like a powder keg. Head of the diocese of Banja Luka in the northern part of the country, the 72-year-old does not believe in beating about the bush, particularly when the discussion turns to the Catholic Croat minority. He believes that Catholic Croats are still being kept from returning and that they are disadvantaged economically, socially and religiously. He is making serious charges against the governments of Europe: they are turning a blind eye to the religious discrimination.

In an interview with Tobias Lehner during a visit to the headquarters of the pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Germany, Bishop Komarica discusses why a growing number of Catholics are leaving the country, but how, in spite of everything, the church is living reconciliation.

 

Tobias Lehner: Bishop Komarica, the Bosnian War officially came to an end in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords. But how are things really?

Bishop Franjo Komarica: The guns may be silent, but the war continues in other arenas. “Controlled chaos” reigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is my impression that neither the government nor the international community is interested in building up a constitutional state that guarantees equal rights to all ethnic groups and human rights also for minorities. Bosnia and Herzegovina are effectively still a semi-protectorate of the United Nations. A part of the state authority is exercised by a “High Commissioner” (since 2009, Austrian native Valentin Inzko; editor’s note). But he claims that his hands are tied in terms of the political developments in the country. The country remains divided into three ethnic groups: Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. The smallest of the ethnic groups, the vast majority of Croats are Catholic. They lean more towards Europe. The Serbs, most of them Orthodox, are very much under the influence of Russia. And the Muslim Bosnians are turning more and more towards Turkey and the Islamic world. This gives rise to dangerous centrifugal forces. And that is not only damaging to the country, but also to Europe!

What do you mean by this?

The hostilities between the Serbian and Bosnian people are purposefully being kept alive by forces outside of the country. The country continues to be a powder keg! And the Croats are caught in between. Hundreds of thousands of them were displaced during the war, and today, more than twenty years after the fact, they still cannot return, even though the Dayton Accords guarantees them the right to return. The opposite has happened: many are still leaving for other countries. The Conference of Bishops has repeatedly asked for the Dayton Accords to be amended to give the Croat minority more security. They have yet to be accorded equality.

Why is the Catholic minority receiving unequal treatment?

The Croats are not being treated as a constitutive ethnic group in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many foreign governments also recognise only two ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Serbs and the Bosnians. This has grave consequences, as is shown by the example of the Republika Srbska (the Republika Srbska was established by the Dayton Accords as the “second entity” of the federal state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and is made up of extensive areas of land in the northern and eastern parts of the country; editor’s note). Only about five per cent of the Catholics who once lived in the 69 parishes that existed in this region before the war have returned. In other parts of the country, Catholics are still leaving. The Croats receive neither political, nor legal, nor financial support. It is almost impossible for them to rebuild their homes or find work. They are the subjects of systemic discrimination. This is badly damaging the entire country. The other religions agree, by the way. I recently talked with the Grand Mufti of Bosnia. He also says: “It is imperative that the Croats remain here!”

The highest-ranking Muslim in the country thus recognises the problem. Do his brothers and sisters in faith do so as well? It is currently being reported that the Muslims are becoming radicalised in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well …

Yes, this development does exist. But the threat to our very existence is even worse than the religious discrimination. To be explicit: we can maintain our faith even during persecution – and we have done so. But when the Catholics have no right to their homeland and to their property, this is even more destructive. One example: the mayor of one town in my diocese said to me, “You may not build a church here.” Even though a Catholic parish had been located there before the war! He did not have the right to do so, because religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And so I lodged a protest. But it was turned down by the next highest authority as well. Finally, I went to the representative of OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, responsible for coordinating the reconstruction process; editor’s note). He said to me, “Bishop, I forbid you to build a church!” I showed him pictures of the old parish church as well as a picture of its priest who was murdered during the war. He neither apologized, nor approved the church building project. This is an open war against the Catholic Church. I was repeatedly told, “You Catholics need to get out of this country!”

Outside of the country, little is known about the dire circumstances of the Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What are they asking the international community to do?

Politicians need to finally acknowledge what is happening and condemn the severe discrimination that is taking place right in the middle of Europe. This is particularly true for the Christians. I expect anyone who is serious about their faith to support the disenfranchised people of my homeland – in word and deed. Our appeals have not been heard up until this point. And there have been so many of them! Quo vadis, Europe? Quo vadis, Christianity in Europe? If we just look the other way and tolerate this kind of development on our own doorstep, how do we want to help other people understand our Christian values?

So much hate and discord has been sown in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In spite all of this, what can the Catholic church do to reunite the society?

We Catholics are the oldest community of faith in the country. We feel it is our duty to help our homeland restore a just and permanent peace! Most of our reconciliation work is carried out through our social services and education, particularly our Catholic schools. And that despite politically being punished for our commitment! That is why I am so grateful to Catholic charities such as Aid to the Church in Need because they draw attention to our circumstances and support us. I will continue to give voice to the truth, even though I have already been physically assaulted because of it. Our opponents will win if we remain silent!

The worldwide pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has been helping Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina for more than three decades. Most of the aid it has provided has been used to rebuild churches, convents and monasteries that were destroyed during the war and renovate a seminary. ACN also provides funding for the acquisition of vehicles for pastoral care, the development of pastoral centres, the training of priests and religious and for subsistence aid for contemplative orders. Church youth and press work are also among the projects it supports.

 

ACN International

 

Bishop of Congo-Brazzaville: “I go seven days a week to the market”

Despite the disastrous Marxist influence up until 1992 and the recent proliferation of Protestant sects, the Catholic Church in Congo-Brazzaville is recovering some lost ground. During the visit of an ACN delegation to the diocese of Dolisie, established in 2013, Msgr. Bienvenu Manamika Bafouakouahou assessed the current situation in the country, and his way of bringing the Gospel message to the faithful in spite of Islam’s seduction. Msgr. Bafouakouahou, bishop of the youngest diocese in the country, was once a scholarship holder of ACN, and he is now in charge of the seminarians’ formation.

ACN: How are things in your diocese, the youngest in the country?

We have learned to walk, but we still don’t know our right hand from our left! We still face many challenges – syncretism, the Protestant sects, even Islam… But above all sickness and ill-health. There is no safe drinking water here; many adults die drinking contaminated water, and even the children that you can see here in our Catholic school of Saint Paul.

With the fall in the price of crude oil, poverty is also growing. Hundreds of people are buried, almost every day, since the situation has deteriorated greatly. The average Congolese is a poor man living in a rich country, with oil reserves welling up beneath the ground – yet the wealth is shared among a handful of the rich and powerful. The social crisis further complicates the situation. The state hospitals are on strike and have been for months, because the state is no longer providing any money to fund basic medicines.

If a priest falls gravely ill, will he not receive any care?

Only the dioceses of Brazzaville Pointe-Noire can afford to pay healthcare insurance for their priests. The rest have to get by as best they can. In my diocese my priests’ first concern is to get enough to eat. If one of them were to have serious health problems, I don’t know what we’d do.

One of them was actually attacked, just a few months ago…?

Yes, because of the syncretism. At the time of the municipal elections in 2017, one of the candidates brought out a fetish onto the streets at night time, in order to gain the good graces of an animist god and so secure a victory. Two weeks later, on the feast of Corpus Christi, the priest organised a procession with the Blessed Sacrament in the same part of town. Since the candidate had lost the election, he accused the priest’s God of having overpowered his own fetishist god, and the priest was violently beaten.

What happened to this priest?

He is now in France, in the diocese of Nice.

So one priest fewer for you … How are vocations holding up?

They have never been lacking. And it’s wonderful to see today that they no longer come only from the south – where the missionaries mainly worked – but also from the north.

A plentiful supply of vocations is generally a sign of vitality in the Church, but are there some vocations less soundly based, motivated perhaps only by the economic crisis?

Discernment plays a crucial role here. As one form of screening, we do not recruit anyone aged over 22 in my diocese. I have found that after that age, a young person not having found a satisfactory professional solution, can sometimes « fall back » on the priesthood. And before entry into the seminary, we also organise retreats with the candidates and observe them closely… But even then some of them play the game very well throughout the course. So what we need to do above all is to deeply root the faith of the ordinary people.

How do you manage to evangelise in depth?

By getting out of my Bishop’s house! At first, even the other bishops wondered what I was about. I go out onto the market square and, for seven days, together with a lay helper and a religious sister, we preach, explain the sacraments, and so forth. We also make good use of our local Catholic radio station, which is widely listened to, and in May we organise a large Marian procession, which drew 300 people in 2015 and 8,100 in 2017!

So do you harangue them… like the Pentecostalist churches, the evangelical sects that seem to be everywhere?
We have a popular approach, certainly, but we also focus on Adoration. During our evangelisation campaign, on the first day I dance with the people, and then from the second day onwards, I quote them Matthew 6:6:

When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you .

Is that enough to gain the respect of these fundamentalist churches?

No. Besides, the Catholic Church, although still widely listened to, is no longer the Church of reference. Between 1995 and 2005 we shrank from 60% of Catholics to 40%. We felt as if we had been wrung dry. It was something like a haemorrhage.

Why this haemorrhage?

The politicians identified the Catholic Church as the sole institution capable of overshadowing them. They wanted to weaken her by financially strengthening the Pentecostalist churches and creating them into a federation. They pilloried the Catholic Church. It was high time for me to go out into the streets!

Are things going better now?

Yes, a number of people are returning to the Catholic Church, but there are new threats on the horizon, including Freemasonry – a real calamity – and also Islam. Given the poverty in the country, Islam and its money are seducing the young people – even including some of my altar servers!

Can you give us an example?

Alain. He was one of our choirboys; then he disappeared from one day to the next, and there was no sign of life from him for two years – when one of our parishioners found him performing his ablutions in a shop. I asked him since when he had become a Muslim. He replied: « Father, when I was your altar server, did you give me a penny? With Islam I was given a scholarship, a wife and my shop. » They had sent him abroad to study the Koran. In return he was given work, and today he is in charge of recruiting other young men! That story really shook me up.

How has Islam managed to gain this visibility?

Before, when Muslims were generally regarded as strangers from West Africa, they married Congolese women, who became Muslims by marriage, while still remaining Congolese. And in addition some Muslims arrived in the area from nowhere and built an empty mosque… in readiness for the return of their young scholarship holders who had been sent to study in Saudi Arabia, for example.

And in your own diocese?

There are at least three newly built mosques … And a number of future jihadists.

Over the past 10 years the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has funded almost 250 projects in the Republic of Congo (also known as Congo Brazzaville). Thanks to the generosity of its benefactors, the charity has given around 2.5 million Euros in aid during this time, above all for religious formation projects and the support of priests via the provision of Mass Stipends, and it has also helped fund construction projects and essential means of transport for pastoral work.

 

ACN International

 

 

“In India, the Church serves all, fighting discrimination on all fronts”

Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur was recently appointed by the Catholic Conference of Bishops of India (CBCI) as the Chairman of the Commission for Scheduled Castes (SCs)/ other Backward Castes (BCs). An important part of the Commission’s task is to shape the Church’s policies with regard to the country’s dalits—the lowest caste in the Hindu hierarchy, formerly known as ‘untouchables’—who suffer severe discrimination in Indian society. Dalits comprise 65 percent of India’s Catholic population of close to 20 million. A native of Kandhamal, Odisha State, where some 100 Christians were murdered by a Hindu mob in 2008, Bishop Nayak is one of only 12 dalit bishops, out of a total 224.

Why are Christian (and Muslim) dalits still denied affirmative action, even though the Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens?

After independence from England in 1947, the Indian Constitution went into effect in January 1950. It guaranteed equal fundamental rights for all its citizens, irrespective of castes and creed. On Aug. 10, 1950, a Presidential Order went into effect to grant Hindu tribal people and dalits affirmative action benefits to compensate for their low socio-economic status after centuries of neglect and discrimination. Dalits belonging to other religions, however, were not included. Eventually, Buddhist and Sikh dalits were granted the so-called ‘Scheduled Castes’ status along with the benefits. However, Muslim and Christian dalits remain deprived of these rights to this day, despite continuous protests and appeals to the government for the past 60 years.

Previous Governments, mostly run by the Congress Party, did not have the political will to amend the Constitution, even when it had the absolute majority in Parliament. The present BJP government, with its Hindu nationalist ideology, is openly against extending the Constitution’s affirmative action provision to Muslim and Christian dalits.

Is the Church in a position to change the situation? What is the Church’s strategy on this front?

Christians comprise only 2.5 percent of the total population, so, politically, the Church has not been able to do much to challenge the constitutional validity of the 1950 Presidential Order. It must be challenged, as it discriminates purely on the basis of religion, which runs against the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution that hold that all citizens must be treated equally—irrespective of caste, creed, gender or religion. The Church’s sustained peaceful protests have not succeeded thus far, though news coverage has brought the issue to the attention of the general public.

As a strategy, the Church is trying to fight it out alongside Muslims and people of goodwill from other faiths and various political ideologies. The Church is also trying to unite all dalits on this issue; unfortunately, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh dalits are concerned that the extension of benefits to Muslims and Christians might reduce their benefits. Finally, the Church approaches the issue from a human rights perspective. The deprivation of dalit Christians is a violation of human rights, a violation by international standards.

Some believe that if Christian dalits were granted government benefits many Hindu dalits would convert to Christianity. What are the aspects of the Christian life that are attractive to lower-caste Hindus?

The fear of mass conversions to Christianity seems unfounded; it is also another form of degrading dalits to presume they would change their religion to gain material benefits. This has been the strategy of the Hindu mind-set, irrespective of political ideologies: to instil fear in the Hindu majority of a mass exodus. Facts prove that the opposite is true: even though dalit Christians are deprived of government benefits, and even, in some states, suffer discrimination. They still remain faithful in their faith—even to the point of suffering martyrdom. What’s more, when the affirmative action provisions were extended to Buddhists and Sikhs, Muslim and Christian dalits or the Hindu dalits did not join those faiths.

It’s true, however, that Christians are known for their peace-loving, service-minded way of life that respects all people and that is dedicated to the work of mission. Hindu fundamentalists try to prevent or put obstacles in the way of Christian services such as those in the field of education, health care or social services, lest people get attracted and embrace Christianity. Six states have anti-conversion laws in place to prevent any conversions. It is often said and accepted as fact that, though they only account for 2.5 percent of the population, Christians provide 20 percent of national service in various fields—yet, the size of the Christian community has not grown much in India.

Can you explain why Hindu nationalists are so hostile to Christianity?

First of all, they associate colonial British rule with Christianity. Relatively few British came to India and yet they ruled it for more than 200 years; the Hindu nationalists fear that if there are more Christians in India, they will rule India again. Christianity is seen as a foreign religion. Secondly, Christianity challenges various tenets and practices of the Hindu religion and Hindus fear of losing their influence.

For example, the Christian faith challenged the age-old practice of sati pratha, by which a widow was burned alive together with the dead body of the husband; Hindu religion held that women have no independent existence apart from men—that widows have no right to exist, to own property or to remarry. That practice is almost fully eradicated today. Secondly, there is the jati pratha (the Castes System), which classifies people according to their birth and treats them as low or high. There are no social relationships allowed among the various castes.

Dalits are considered outcasts or untouchables—even coming under their shadow is considered to make someone impure. The caste system does not allow a person to take up a profession other than the job of the caste or family one is born in. The Church strives to eradicate caste-ism.  It promotes and upholds the equal dignity and rights of every citizen.

The hindutwa ideology espoused by Hindu nationalists is trying to impose cultural nationalism, which calls for one culture, one language and one religion. While faithful to the teachings of Christ, the Church recognizes, respects and promotes the pluralism of cultures and language.

Finally, Hinduism is steeped in many dark beliefs, including the practice of black magic, sorcery, etc., which are used to exploit, torture and blackmail people. The Church, through education and awareness-raising, especially among dalits and tribal people, liberates people from these evil forces.

What are the bishops doing to combat discrimination of Catholic dalits within the Church itself?

At many national meetings, the bishops of India have issued statements calling for the end of the discrimination of dalits and of caste-ism, not only in the Church but also in society at large. However, caste-ism appears to be deeply rooted in the psyche of many Indians, including Christians. The “tail” of caste-ism survives even after Baptism. Now, by formally adopting the dalit policy in the Church, the Indian bishops have committed to a campaign to empower the dalits and educate all the faithful, reaffirming the equality of all people, and stressing the fact that dalits must be given equal opportunity in various professional and social fields.

How does the tension play out between deep-rooted Hindu notions of purity and the Gospel’s message that all men and women are equally worthy in the eyes of God?

Caste-ism in India is not only part of the Hindu religion—it is part of the Indian culture. Even though the Constitution of India forbids the practice of caste-ism, it still exists; and, sadly,it still exists even among Christians. In the past, as part of a missionary strategy for evangelization, caste-ism was tolerated by some missionaries, and some of that attitude persists today. Christianity is believed to first have been brought by St. Thomas to Kerala and some parts of Tamilnadu; local higher-caste Christians for centuries claimed a direct bloodline to the apostle; because of this caste mentality, the faith remained confined to that region and did not spread to other parts of the country for more than 1500 years. It is only when St. Francis Xavier came to India that Christianity spread.

You are a dalit yourself; what has been your experience pursuing your vocation in the Church?

I personally did not experience any discrimination in my childhood and even during my seminary formation. Discriminating people according to caste is not only un-Christian; it is also inhuman.  I am happy to be a priest and consider my priesthood to be the greatest gift God has given me for the good of His people. The episcopacy is an added responsibility and I try “to be a happy servant,” which is the motto of my episcopate. Being a dalit, it may be easier for me than for others to understand the concept of a being servant; and as a first generation Christian in my family, my faith in Christ brings me great happiness—as it is still new and still uncontaminated.

 

ACN International

 

 

Philippines: “The reconstruction of the city of Marawi will take years”

Reinhard Backes travelled to the Philippine city of Marawi for the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need. The Christian minority in the city was suppressed for months by Islamists. An interview about relations between Christians and Muslims in the region and how the aftermath of the conflict is being dealt with.

 

1. What has been happening in Marawi over the last few months?

The city is a centre of the Muslim faith on Mindanao, even though the island itself, the second largest of the Philippines, has a Christian majority. And of all places, this was the place that was targeted by Islamist extremists. It all started on 23 May 2017. The Philippine military had planned an operation to arrest the leader of the so-called “Islamic State” of the region. However, extremists beat them to it and occupied the historic city centre of Marawi until well into October. In the end, the conflict was resolved through violence. The army massively bombed the city centre. According to official sources, 920 extremists, 165 soldiers and 45 civilians were killed.

 

2. Was this more of a spontaneous attack or had the occupation been planned for a long time?

Apparently, the attackers were well prepared and well informed about the planned military operation. They may even have been warned by informants within the military. However, like so many other things, this is a matter of speculation because detailed information about what happened during the attack on Marawi is still not available. When I visited the city in early March, it was explained to me that the majority of extremists were Indonesians. Mindanao is easy to reach from Indonesia by ocean. It apparently was and still is difficult for the military to control the ocean route. Observers believe that the army was not prepared for such a threat.

 

3. Were the Islamists helped by members of the general population?

It has to be assumed that they did receive some sort of “backing” from the general population. After all, the extremists apparently used a tunnel system to move about underground. And something like that certainly does not happen overnight.

 

4. According to media reports, Christians were taken hostage, among them a priest.

Many hostages were taken, the majority of which were Christians. Apparently, the Catholic Saint Mary’s Cathedral was one of the first sites targeted by the extremists in the city. It is to be assumed that they wanted to take the bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña, hostage, but he was not in the city centre at the time. And so they took the vicar general, Teresito Suganob, and other believers instead. However, the Islamists also took hostages from among the Muslims whom they accused of collaborating with the Christians.

 

5. Was Saint Mary’s Cathedral defiled or desecrated in any way?

Yes. The church is pretty much completely destroyed, including all sculptures, statues of Our Lady and crucifixes. I saw a statue of the Virgin Mary that had been beheaded. They probably burned the head. All that was left was the clothed corpus. From an architectural standpoint, the cathedral is a rather simple, hall-like structure. Marawi is majority Muslim and so it was not acceptable to build an overly conspicuous Christian church. The Catholic community there has only a few thousand members, who are scattered for the time being.

 

6. What was the relationship between Christians and Muslims before the Islamists invaded?

Just as in other countries, such as Pakistan, where Christians are only a small minority among Muslims, they try to establish a good relationship with their Muslim neighbours. At least this is what I have noticed on the Catholic side. This is also the reason why Christians usually maintain close ties to the Muslim authorities, and Marawi was no exception. The same is probably also true for the Muslims, because the vast majority just wanted to coexist peacefully with their neighbours. This is why relations were mostly friendly. Now, however, a certain degree of distrust pervades.

 

7. How is the bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña, dealing with the situation?

Bishop de la Peña is very keen on reconciling the two sides. That is why he has not made rebuilding the cathedral a top priority. He is focusing on strengthening the feeling of community and rebuilding relations between peoples and religions.

 

8. Have specific projects been developed to work towards these goals?

The diocese has started a number of initiatives. One of these is a rehabilitation centre, which offers assistance to over 200 people who were held captive for months and suffered physical and emotional torment. The centre is open to both Christians and Muslims. The counselling services include group and individual therapy sessions for women, girls and teenagers who have been raped, for men who have fallen victim to violence or were beaten, and for children who need to be reintegrated into daily life following the terrible experiences they have suffered.

 

9. And you mentioned another project…

It is called “Youth for Peace” and is also an initiative of the local Church. As part of this project, 184 predominately Muslim students attending Mindanao State University visit refugee camps. Thousands upon thousands of people fled the city centre during the conflict and are now living in camps that were set up outside of the city. The objective of “Youth for Peace” is to help these refugees, showing them “we are here for you, we want to recreate that, which we once had, namely, a peaceful coexistence”: this is what the students want to achieve. In doing so, it does not matter whether the refugees are Christian or Muslim.

 

10. How is Aid to the Church in Need supporting these projects?

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) first provided emergency relief for the refugees during the conflict. Now we would like to help make sure that the rehabilitation centre can continue its work. We are also supporting the “Duyog Marawi” Peace Corridor Programme of the local Church. “Youth for Peace” is one of the projects started by this programme. So far, two vehicles have been donated, a van and a transporter. Further aid is planned. We are also talking about helping to set up shelters for the refugees who have been living for months in tents. With tropical temperatures far exceeding 30 degrees, conditions inside the tents are almost impossible to endure. And then it also starts raining, at times heavily. Tents are therefore not a long-term solution. Instead, small, temporary houses are being discussed, which should meet the needs of the refugees for the time being. ACN may get involved in this.

 

11. Is there a realistic chance that the city can be rebuilt in the next few years?

Reconstruction will certainly take many years. I have never seen a city centre destroyed to the degree that Marawi has been. And not much has happened since the fighting ended in October last year. The military says that all the unexploded bombs, ammunition and booby traps left behind by the extremists first need to be removed.

 

12. What are your thoughts now after your trip?

On the one hand, it is quite dramatic to see how Islamists have used and destroyed an entire city, an established culture, and to what extremes ideological delusion can lead. On the other hand, I was very surprised by the people of Marawi. Their situation may be catastrophic, but they have hope, they are taking action. I learned how important their Catholic faith is to them, the selfless concept of charity, which can be seen in the concrete aid being offered to the victims. And it was very encouraging to see how openly the young volunteers, both Muslims and Christians, interacted with each other. Almost in unison they said that by working together, they came to understand the beliefs of the others better, but at the same time, were strengthened in their own sense of identity.

 

 

ACN International

 

“It is anything but easy to be a Christian in India today”

Dimensions of the community of faith: sources of friction and inspiration from India

Interview with Veronique Vogel, head of the Indian section of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), on the situation of Christians in India. The interview was held by Karla Sponar.

 

What is the situation of Christians in India today?

Alarming. Anti-Christian attacks almost doubled in 2017, with 740 more incidents than in the previous year. Most of them occurred in North India. It is important to know that the nationalist party that is currently ruling India at the federal level is also governing 19 of the 29 federal states of India. Not only the number of attacks has grown, but what is striking is the kind of attacks: they are characterised by even more hate. The consequences for Catholics are more severe. The attacks used to be more verbal in nature, such as against the directors of Catholic schools. Now – as for example in Madhya Pradesh – groups of extremists enter schools, they disrupt classes, they try to impose an extreme nationalism in schools – that is new. Priests were attacked and detained by police, even though they were only heading out to visit a village community to sing Advent carols. There is also a tendency to accuse Christians of blasphemy – as has happened in Pakistan. Christians are portrayed as a danger to national unity. This trend has developed since the last elections in 2014.

 

What is the press reporting about this?

We read – in particular in the Catholic media, but also in other reliable sources – that the number of attacks and their severity has risen.

 

Who is responding critically to this?

At the close of their meeting at the end of February, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India reinforced that Christians are to be treated as one hundred per cent Indian and at the same time considered to be one hundred per cent Catholic. The false argument of having an anti-national stance has no place in Christian thought.

 

What message does Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) have for the Christians in India?

In this atmosphere of persecution, in which Christians are pressured by harassment on a daily basis and also made to fear for their lives, ACN is first of all helping bishops in their pastoral work so that they can in turn support their brothers and sisters in faith and encourage them to grow in their Christian faith. In concrete terms, ACN is supporting the Indian church, for example in its work with adolescents, with women, families. We are in close contact with them, we show our solidarity with them in prayer, demonstrate our understanding of their situation, and report on it.

Because it is anything but easy to be a Christian in India today. The bishops are maintaining interdenominational connections. We support Catholics in India so that they can continue to be an example of Christian coexistence in love and compassion for everyone.

Of the total of 5,384 projects that were approved by ACN in 2017, the greatest share, i.e. 584 projects, involved aid for India. Besides the fact that its approx. 1.3 billion inhabitants make India the second most populous country in the world after China – is there another reason for this?

Pope Francis correctly said: the church of the future will be the church in Asia. India has an important Christian community of faith. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that Indians generally have a deep and strong spirituality no matter what religion they belong to. Eighty-four per cent of the population is Hindu. Apart from the extremists, who want to foment unrest among people with different religious affiliations, Hindus are very hospitable, very pacifistic, and consider cultural and religious diversity to be a gift from God and allow every religion to have a place in society. This special way of greeting each day and each moment of each day in community with God is one way of remaining connected to the divine. To pray. Accepting one’s own inferiority to the magnificence of God. I frequently come across this humility and simultaneous joy in Hindus.

However, it is an individual religion. This is why Hindus are interested in how Christians are organised, with their priests, religious, communities that all come together to pray. They consider this dimension of community to hold new meaning for their Hindu spirituality. This is why Hindus generally view Christianity favourably and are willing to give it a place in their society.

 

ACN International

KOREA: What will happen to the inter-Korean Olympic romance after the Olympic fire has gone out?

Rarely have current politics played such a key role in the Olympic Winter Games as they did in PyeongChang. Maria Lozano spoke with the director of the South Korean office of Aid to the Church in Need in Seoul, Johannes Klausa, about the fragile step the North and South have taken towards one another and the situation of Christians.

The Olympic Winter Games have just drawn to a close. Some have called PyeongChang a historic show of unity. What is your opinion?

In spite of all the tensions and unsolved problems, the Olympic Spirit briefly brought divided Korea one step closer together. Athletes from the south and the north marched under a united flag at the opening ceremony. A unified women’s Korean ice hockey team was even set up on short notice, which may not have exactly shone on the ice, with 28 goals scored against them in five games, but still captured headlines all over the world. The actual achievement lies in the fact that it was even possible to set up a team. Just a few months earlier, no one would have been surprised if Pyongyang had sent missiles over to the Olympics instead of athletes and cheerleaders.

Do you believe that the progress that was made will last?

It remains to be seen whether the step the two Koreas took towards one another on the sidelines of the Games will last beyond the Olympics and Paralympics. After all, during the opening ceremony, a lot of people were not only watching the handshake of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the sister of the North Korean dictator, Kim Yo-jong, but also the just as noteworthy handclasp of the South Korean president with the titular North Korean head of state, Kim Young Nam. All this, of course, unfolded under the sceptical gaze of US Vice President Mike Pence, who did everything in his power to avoid any such reconciliatory gestures. This is also noteworthy and a cause for concern, because it could certainly mean that the “delicate flower of inter-Korean dialogue”, as Korean expert Hartmut Koschyk recently called this careful step towards one another, may be “Trumpled” before a true Korean Spring can even begin.

What do you mean by this? Do you believe that this will be followed by military manoeuvres and missile tests in the near future?

Unfortunately, it is certainly possible that this public intermezzo of inter-Korean Olympic romance could end just as quickly as it began. It is questionable whether a serious dialogue or even direct talks between the US and North Korea are possible in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the arguments of those who support taking a hard line against the North cannot be dismissed that easily. If there is serious interest in a lasting solution and real change to the situation on the Korean peninsula, I believe that there is no way to avoid starting a dialogue, building up mutual trust and signing a peace treaty. This would also finally bring the Korean War officially to an end; to this day, there is only an armistice. A military solution should not even be on the table because of the number of casualties this would bring to both North and South Korea. For this reason alone, it should not be considered a serious option. I also hope that the resurrected inter-Korean channels of communication will at least remain open after the Olympic fire has gone out and that the course may even have already been set for a better future behind the scenes. Then, the Olympic Games will really have provided an urgently needed way out of a formerly gridlocked situation.

In your opinion, how much was the northern Korean population aware of the events that took place in PyeongChang during the past weeks?

It is impossible to say from here if they were aware of anything, and if so, just how much. The same can in general be said about any statements that are made about the current situation in North Korea; these can only be considered with caution.

Even though the information we receive is scant, we know that terrible things have happened in the past, not only to those of a different political persuasion, but also to Christians. What can you tell us about the situation of Christians there?

There is sufficient evidence that horrible crimes were committed against Christians by the North Korean regime in the early 1950s, one example being the martyrs of Tokwon. And I think that we all have heard the heartbreaking stories about North Korean refugees as well as the reports and rankings released by prominent NGOs on states that persecute Christians. I do not dare judge what is going on in North Korea right at this moment. However, I very much assume that three generations of prescribed state ideology and propaganda have largely succeeded in driving out and replacing the Christian faith in the country. Moreover, I fear that the Christian doctrine as well as its symbolism have in the meantime become completely foreign to the majority of North Koreans. It may be that, within the very immediate family, a small flicker of faith has been passed down and survived in secret. Pyongyang was once called the Jerusalem of the East. Today, only four official churches are left, whose leaders and parishioners first and foremost have to prove on a daily basis that they are loyal citizens and patriots. It would otherwise be impossible for them to live in the capital city. However, we cannot look into their hearts. After all, who are we to pass judgment on their faith? I believe that several members of Pyongyang’s parishes were already baptised before the division of Korea.

You and various delegations from your organization Aid to the Church in Need went to the inter-Korean border and the blue barracks of the “Panmunjeom” within the so-called demilitarised zone (DMZ). This is the place where North and South meet for negotiations and where the border line between the two countries is. How did this make you feel?

Every time I go there, it is a very emotional experience for me. I have had the opportunity to visit the same place from both sides. Both sides are operated by friendly Korean men who, although they are wearing different uniforms, are very similar to each other in many essential areas. The young soldiers who stand eye to eye with each other day after day are brothers who no longer know each other and have been trained to hate one another. This becomes painfully obvious to me every time I visit the border region.

 

ACN International