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

 

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

 

 

 

 

“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

Mons. Kaigama: “If the elections are marred by violence many innocent Nigerians will pay the prize”

“ACN can mobilize their world net-work of friends, benefactors and supporters to commit Nigeria to special prayers at this critical time of elections.”

Nigerians will be going to the polls on 16th February and 2nd March 2019 to elect a President, Federal Parliament and other representatives. Parts of the Country have continued to experience violence from the Muslim extremist groups such as Boko Haram. 

Aid to the Church in Need spoke with Mgr Ignatius Ayau Kaigama, Catholic Archbishop of Jos regarding the current situation, the forthcoming general elections in Nigeria and his hopes for the country. 

Mgr.Ignatius Kaigama – Archbishop from Jos – Nigeria and President of Conference Episcopal from Nigeria in
Basilica of Aparecida – Sao Paulo – Brazil

As the Country’s General Elections approach next weekend, what is the situation across the Country?

Mgr Kaigama:  Like every pre-election period everywhere in the world, political emotions here are high. Many politicians and their allies are politically paranoid. One hears of how easily some politicians switch from one political party to another which shows that their reason for being in politics is not motivated by good political principles or ideology or  people-friendly political manifestos, but mainly for personal interests. Most of them are hardly concerned about good governance and improving the lot of the common person, especially the poor, marginalized, unemployed, victims of religious extremism and the millions who are also victims of the poisonous by-products of pandemic corruption.

Compared to previous pre-election campaigns,  the present campaigns even though have recorded some casualties are fairly moderate, but what stands out is the sometimes wild and unsubstantiated statements made by some politicians that could be regarded as hate speeches or incitements to violence.

While a few political rallies have already recorded a few accidental deaths and the disruption of peace, we must commend the campaigns of most of the parties that have carried out their activities peacefully. There is however a general tension and apprehension as to what may be the likely reactions of those who already feel that there might be manipulations of the elections.

Attacks by Boko Haram have intensified lately. Do you think this is connected to the elections?

Mgr Kaigama:  Even before now, Boko Haram has intensified its attacks by killing a number of military personnel. The insurgents have become so daring as to take on armed personnel and to inflict heavy casualties on them and not even sparing International Aid workers. They boldly warn the international community to stay off their track. They are doing their best to take over certain parts of Nigeria and neighbouring countries to consolidate their quest for the Islamic State of West Africa.

Attacks by Boko Haram have surprisingly intensified in the last couple of days in areas like Michika, Shuwa, Madagali, Mubi, – in Borno and Adamawa States. Some people say that the renewed attacks are politically motivated or sponsored to score political points or may be an attempt to disenfranchise some of the electorate during the elections. It is clear however that Boko Haram wants to make a statement that it has not been defeated. The threat by Boko Haram is still real. They are far from being defeated.

Do you have any concerns?

Mgr Kaigama: I should be concerned. When peace is disrupted, Catholic religious leaders like me suffer more than those elected into government because people flock to our houses and offices knowing that there are no gun-wielding police or soldiers to scare them off or police dogs to sniff and bark at them when they come to ask for help for the basic things of life.  We have to manage to assist those who are displaced and without means of livelihood. Because of how overstressed and overwhelmed we religious leaders become when there are crises, we pray  and work very hard to proactively promote the culture of peace and we are making concerted efforts to ensure that we have free and fair elections which will culminate in peace for all.

If the elections are marred by violence many innocent Nigerians will pay the prize.  I hope for fair, peaceful and credible elections; for good, patriotic, selfless and God-fearing leaders to emerge, who will be more concerned about the masses rather than their personal ambition and luxury of office.  Well-formed and qualified youths are on the streets in huge numbers without jobs. We hope that those aspiring to offices at all levels will consider the plight of the youth as a priority.

What role is the Church playing to contribute to the proper conduct of elections?

Mgr Kaigama: As the Catholic Church in Nigeria does during every election, our Justice Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) is proactive and highly sensitive to the need for peaceful and fair elections. The JDPC has served creditably as election monitors/observers in the past, pointing out flaws, weaknesses and strengths witnessed. A statement has recently been issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria encouraging prayers, proper conduct of elections and correct attitudinal approach by citizens to the elections.

The Church in the Archdiocese of Jos has been frantically multi-tasking as a way of contributing to the peaceful elections. We have cautioned our members to be law abiding, to go on peacefully and not to allow themselves to be used by selfish politicians. They must ensure that they possess their voters’ card and go out to vote. As priests, we encourage our people to be prayerful and alert during this season; we caution ourselves the clergy to remain non-partisan. Our Justice, Peace and Development Commission has in the past two years been running projects in target communities for peaceful elections. They have taught different communities what to ask for by training them on the ‘Charter of Demands’ when the politicians come looking for their votes. Our JDPC has organized trainings on peace-building and Alternatives to Violence Programmes (PB/AVP) in schools and communities. As part of the activities leading to the elections, our Dialogue Reconciliation and Peace (DREP) Centre recently organized a peace accord signing ceremony for all the governorship candidates in Plateau State, which was witnessed by traditional/religious heads, civil society groups, senior security personnel and various community stakeholders. Also, going into the elections, as a Church our JDPC is officially accredited as election observers. We are equally prepared to intervene and manage post-election violence should it occur. We pray it doesn’t.

What are your hopes for Nigeria?

Mgr Kaigama: I am a strong optimist. I believe strongly that the best for Nigeria lies somewhere close by. I am deeply patriotic about my country Nigeria. There are so many negative things said about Nigeria but I believe that Nigeria with all her defects and imperfections will surprise the world one day, leaving those who ridicule and write her off spell-bound and flabbergasted. Nigerians are a peaceful, joyful, hardworking, religious and resilient people who are only unfortunate not to have selfless leaders with vision but leaders who take joy in pilfering the enormous wealth God has blessed us with. This, they do with the collaboration of some foreign countries, companies, organizations and individuals.

Many like me believe that Nigeria will survive as one nation and one people. The time is coming nearer when a moral revolution by the youths, transcending tribe and religion will bring into leadership only serious persons who are prepared to suffer and even lay down their lives for Nigeria and Nigerians rather than asking the poor people to die for them (political leaders). Those who manipulate elections, buy votes, use government structures to win elections, announce losers as winners and winners as losers will sooner than later have nowhere to hide.

How can ACN and her benefactors help Nigeria at this time?

Mgr Kaigama: ACN can mobilize their world net-work of friends, benefactors and supporters to commit Nigeria to special prayers at this critical time of elections. We need support our various peace-building, awareness raising initiatives and various proactive programmes of peace education organized before, during and after elections. Furthermore support for training/empowerment programmes for our youth, teenage girls and widows is needed, to give them hope and to keep them out of trouble.

Above all, let us be in communion of prayers for peaceful elections and general stability, hoping that by God’s grace the forthcoming elections will produce visionary leaders who will lift this promising country from grass to grace.

 

ACN International

 

 

CAMEROON: “The truth we speak is not welcome in this fratricidal conflict.”

At present the Anglophone areas of Cameroon are being constantly shaken by a conflict between Anglophone separatist groups and the Francophone central government. In this context of fratricidal conflict, the Church is attempting to rekindle dialogue between the two parties. Bishop Emmanuel Abbo of Ngaoundéré, in the Francophone area, who is 49, and Auxiliary Bishop Michael Bibi of Bamenda, in the Anglophone area, talk about the situation in their country.
 

ACN: “Are we talking about ‘civil war’ in the Anglophone areas?

Bishop Michael Bibi: The elections in October 2018 should have enabled the people of this region to express themselves democratically via the ballot box. But in reality the situation is more complicated than that, since there are a great many internally displaced people and very few Cameronian’s were able to vote in practice. Unfortunately, the conditions for a peaceful exercise in democracy are not established. And yet it is only through a candid and inclusive dialogue that we will be able to emerge from this crisis. But for the time being, the only voices urging this are the religious leaders!

Bishop Emmanuel Abbo: I am not on the spot, but the news that reaches us is not reassuring. We receive widely differing information, so it is difficult to speak objectively.
 

ACN: On several occasions the Church in Cameroon has sounded the alarm, alerting us to the situation of the priests and religious living in the Anglophone areas. What kind of role is the Church able to play?

Bishop Michael Bibi: The Church is on the front line. A priest and a seminarian have both been murdered in the Anglophone region. In the case of the latter it was a deliberate execution, staged in front of his church in the presence of the parishioners. And sadly, these two are not simply isolated cases. I receive alarming news from many priests and religious who have been shot at, or kidnapped and ransomed. I myself have been arrested, but they let me go again after a few hours.

I can bear witness to the fact that the clergy who stay on in the Anglophone area are particularly under threat. We speak the truth. We tell the young people to stay in school and not join the militias, that it will lead to nothing – and so the militias accuse us of playing the government’s game for them. But we also denounce the actions of the government army and call for the region to be demilitarised – and so all of a sudden we are accused by the authorities of siding with the rebels! The truth we speak is not welcome in the midst of this fratricidal conflict. The truth is that both sides are involved in the killing and are only adding violence to violence.

Bishop Emmanuel Abbo: The Church is playing her part in resolving conflicts and upholding the peace. The bishops’ conference is taking initiatives, but we prefer the path of quiet diplomacy, talking directly to the parties in the conflict, since too much media attention risks undermining the success of these initiatives.

 

ACN: How is the Church faring in your country?

Bishop Michael Bibi: Thanks be to God, the Cameroonian people have a strong faith. They attend Sunday Mass with real fervour, and we have a number of priestly vocations. What is needed now is for our political leaders to be likewise illuminated by this faith.

Bishop Emmanuel Abbo: My diocese was evangelised barely 60 years ago. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a congregation of French origin, arrived here in the 1950s. There are three factors that give me hope: I have a cohort of priests in my diocese who are very young, very dynamic and with whom I enjoy an excellent collaboration; then we have the presence of the religious congregations, who share our pastoral concerns; and finally, despite the widespread poverty, we have the Catholic faithful who are willing to do whatever they can to help our Church move forward.

We are facing enormous challenges. On the pastoral level, the diocese does not have enough priests – that is why I have appealed for fidei donum priests to come – nor does it have enough human and material resources. In the social sphere, we would like to be able to rebuild our schools and health centres in solid materials. And in the development field we would like to be able to support our people, who are extremely poor, in organising associations or cooperatives. And one of our priorities in the pastoral field is the construction of a diocesan pastoral centre where we can hold our formation sessions which we would like to organise for our 343 catechists and 57 priests.

 

ACN: Would you like to say something to our benefactors?

Bishop Michael Bibi: We need the prayers of ACN. And we also need practical help for the victims of the conflict in the Anglophone region, in line with the words of Jesus: “I was hungry, and you fed me, naked, and you clothed me.”

Bishop Emmanuel Abbo: I would like to thank them all for their generosity. They have been a huge support for us in our dioceses, and especially here in Cameroon, because ACN helps us greatly with our pastoral projects. And please redouble your generosity, because our problems and our concerns are continuing to grow.

—-

Just now arrived an email from Kumbo. After they got a message announcing grants to various projects for the diocese. Please find the thank you message of Bishop George Nkuo:

“You have allotted grants for our 110 major seminarians, for the NFP in our family life office, for the novices of the Tertiary Sisters, and for the Brothers of St Martin de Porres.  I wish to sincerely thank you for your very kind consideration.

These grants come at a time when the church in our Ecclesiastical Province is going through a very difficult time and our local income has been seriously affected because of the war going on in our regions so you can imagine the relief it has brought to our various communities. I hasten to write on their behalf to say Thank You. Once more thank you and may God continue to bless you and our benefactors. +George”

 

ACN International

The Pope starts on Sunday a historic journey to the United Arab Emirates

“I have never experienced animosity”

Bishop Paul Hinder is Apostolic Vicar for southern Arabia. As such, the Swiss Capuchin monk will host the pope when he sets out for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates this Sunday. Aid to the Church in Need spoke with him about tolerance in everyday life, a lack of religious freedom and the expectations for the papal visit.

Your Excellency, Pope Francis will soon be visiting Abu Dhabi. Would it be an exaggeration to speak of a historic visit?

No. The visit can be called historic for two reasons in particular: first of all, this will be the first time in church history that a pope will visit the Arab Peninsula. Second of all, it will be the first time that the Eucharist will be celebrated on public property that the government has placed at our disposal for this purpose.

You are expecting over 130 000 faithful, who will openly come together for the Papal Mass. That would be inconceivable in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Churches do not even exist there. Why are things different in the United Arab Emirates?

How much freedom of worship is granted, that is, the possibility of celebrating divine services as a congregation, varies in each of the countries of the Arab world. While in Saudi Arabia divine services are only tolerated when held in private in relatively small groups, in other countries, particularly here in the United Arab Emirates, churches have been built and are visited by thousands of worshipers each week, even daily, to celebrate mass. This freedom to celebrate divine services usually depends upon the openness and tolerance of the respective rulers. Over the last few decades, this could be found particularly in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates as well as Oman.

So the rulers of the United Arab Emirates have a relatively open attitude towards Christians. Is this shared by the general population?

I have been living in Abu Dhabi for the last 15 years and have never experienced any animosity. Of course we know that in all Islamic countries, non-Muslims – not only Christians – have to comply with the social laws of Islam. On the other hand, I see a deep respect for Christians, also among the local population. This is even more apparent now in the run-up to the papal visit.

How?

A number of Muslims have contacted me to ask how they can help prepare for the visit. Many have expressed an interest in attending the Mass. The government is also doing everything in its power to ensure that as many of our faithful as possible will be able to see the pope.

Does this willingness to help also have something to do with the popularity of Pope Francis?

The reactions of the Muslim population to the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis were only positive. This is also evident right now. Since the announcement of his visit was made, I have only noticed signs of joy and pride that the pope is coming to the Emirates.

What made this visit possible?

There are various reasons for this visit. Over the past few years, a number of different invitations were sent to the pope from all over the region, including the UAE. The local church also communicated its desire to have the pope stop over here.

The church in the Emirates is made up of only foreigners, in particular foreign workers. What kind of problems do you face as bishop because of this?

One of the critical pastoral problems lies in strengthening our people in their faith and encouraging them to bravely retain their Christian and Catholic identity and profess to the faith even in an environment that does not always make this easy. I am thinking about the domestic workers and construction workers who not only have to work hard each day, but sometimes also have to deal with the missionary zeal of Muslim employers or colleagues.

What happens when a local Muslim wants to convert to Christianity?

I am not aware of any Muslim country that allows full religious freedom. Even in those where converting a Muslim to another religion is not punishable by law, at the very least the person’s social circle, in particular his or her family, will react with ostracism or even physical violence. As I said already, freedom of religion is greater or lesser depending upon the country.

Do you have enough churches and priests?

More churches would be desirable, as the number of our parishes is still not commensurate with the number of believers. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, we have nine parishes, which is definitely not enough for the almost one million Catholics living in the country. Furthermore, it also needs to be taken into consideration that, in contrast to the other churches, our members are international, speak different languages and follow different Catholic rites. A further pastoral challenge arises from the fact that, due to their situations as migrants, many of our faithful are facing moral issues that they would never have believed they would have to deal with. This is particularly common among those men and women who live apart from their spouses because of work, often for periods longer than a year. It is not uncommon for marriages to break up when they begin new, “temporary” relationships.

How can the papal visit help to improve the situation of Christians in the Islamic world?

I hope that the visit of the pope will be able to change the overall mood for the better. However, it would be a mistake to expect too many miracles from this kind of visit. The decisive thing is that we Christians are credible witnesses of the message of Christ. And that also means accepting with humility that we will never play first fiddle in this society. It is sometimes enough to be able to play a simple recorder with sufficient proficiency to delight others!

Therefore, it may very well be that the papal visit will result in little more than a shared cup of coffee and pretty pictures?

It remains to be seen if the visit will leave any kind of lasting impression. In English we say that one swallow does not make a summer. A dialogue with another religion and its representatives takes time and patience and setbacks are unavoidable. This is also true for ecumenism within Christianity. Even if all that is achieved is greater mutual respect and this makes it possible to work together in problem areas that affect all the religions, then progress has been made. You only need to think about the challenges in the commitment to peace or in the care for our common home of creation.

 

ACN International

Pakistan: “The blasphemy law destroys lives”

Dominican Father James Channan has been working to establish a dialogue between Christians and Muslims for years – in a country in which acts of violence against the infinitesimally small minority of Christians are a regular occurrence and any perceived criticism of Islam is subject to draconian punishments under the blasphemy law; Asia Bibi was not an isolated case. Father Channan is head of the Peace Center located in the city of Lahore in Pakistan.

During a visit to the headquarters of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Channan talked about the impact of the blasphemy laws, propitious developments in the Islamic world, and the future prospects of Asia Bibi in an interview with Tobias Lehner.

Tobias Lehner: The fate of Asia Bibi has given the world a face to associate with the perilous situation of many Christians in Pakistan. After years on death row, she was acquitted of blasphemy charges in late October 2018 and released from prison. What can you tell us about the current situation?

Father James Channan: The situation of the Christians in Pakistan is alarming. They live in fear and uncertainty. This situation has not changed since the 1970s, when legislation in Pakistan began to be based on Islamic Sharia law. Radical Muslims are misusing the controversial blasphemy law in particular to settle personal scores. Anytime Christians are accused of supposed blasphemy, all Christians in the region are indicted with them. This often leads to acts of violence against Christians.

And that is exactly what happened in the case of Asia Bibi. She was on death row for nine years on charges of blasphemy. Even now, after her acquittal, she is anything but safe. Radical Islamists are trying to find her so that they can kill her. That is why she is currently under state protection. We hope that the supreme court will soon confirm her acquittal and refuse to grant permission to appeal. Then she will hopefully be able to leave the country and live in freedom.

Asia Bibi is not an isolated case. What can you tell us about the fate of Christians who are also facing charges of blasphemy?

According to a report of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, there are 187 other cases of Christians facing charges of blasphemy. One of these is the case of the married couple Shafqat Masih and Shagufta Bibi. I visited them on death row. They have been accused of sending blasphemous text messages, which the couple denies. Their prospects are very bleak. Even should they be acquitted, they and their children will no longer be able to live in Pakistan. Fanatic Muslims will try to kill them. The blasphemy law destroys the lives of those who have been accused, even if they avoid being executed.

Following the acquittal of Asia Bibi we saw pictures of an angry mob that continued to call for her execution. In view of this, is there even a chance of religious freedom for Christians living in Pakistan?

It seemed as though at any moment, a group of militant Muslims would bring the entire country to a standstill. However, militant Islam does not hold the majority in Pakistan. The country has a fraction of about 10 to 15 per cent of radical Islamists who are provoking people to violence. The majority of Muslims do not follow these agitators. They are advocates for religious freedom, also for Christians. Both Christians and Muslims were greatly relieved when Pakistani security forces recently arrested more than 1000 Islamists. Cracking down on extremism was the right thing for the government to do. And I hope that this will continue.

Aid to the Church in Need has been working with you for many years. From a European standpoint, there is little one can do to change the situation. Does the aid actually make a difference for the Christians in Pakistan?

The support provided by ACN plays a crucial role in ensuring that the church in Pakistan can continue to proclaim the faith and promote a dialogue. The assistance has allowed us to build many bridges between Christians and Muslims. We want to demonstrate that the different religions have nothing to fear from one another. A large number of Muslim clerics, including the Grand Imam of the second largest mosque in Pakistan, are a fixed part of our programme at the Peace Center in Lahore and close friends. I am convinced that the foundation for a good and peaceful future can only be built by establishing a dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

 

ACN International

 

IRAN : «A Church without martyrs would be like a tree without fruit »

Shortly after the United States had imposed new economic sanctions on Iran, Archbishop Ramzi Garmou of Teheran, who is also president of the Iranian bishops’ conference, spoke with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Born in the territory now known as Iraqi Kurdistan, he has been living in Iran since 1976 and is head of the numerically small but very ancient Iranian Chaldean Church.

Beginning November the United States imposed new economic sanctions on your adopted country, Iran. What is the situation like on the spot?

It is nothing new for Iran to be hit by economic sanctions. I am an Iraqi Christian by origin, even though I have been living in Iran since 1976, and, believe me, those who come from this region know that America will defend her own interests, cost what it may. In 2003 they ravaged my home country on futile pretexts and opened wide the door to the arrival of Daesh (IS). The Iranians already face major difficulties in finding work, and making ends meet, because the cost of living is very expensive. They are not demanding any major political changes; they just want a job and food to eat.

The Church is supporting those in most need with her own resources, notably by helping with the cost of schooling and/or medical expenses, but her power is above all a spiritual one and she is close to the poor.

Are Christians in Iran particularly discriminated against?

They are forbidden to occupy certain posts, such as school directors for example, but the historical Christian communities are generally well integrated within Iranian society. Our roots go down a long way! The Chaldean community, which is at present reduced to a tiny flock of some 4000 souls, dates back to apostolic times. It was Saint Thomas the Apostle who brought the Gospel to Persia and established our Church. This history has to some extent been forgotten, but we actually sent missionaries as far afield as China, long before the Western missionaries. Currently we are going through a new period of crisis, which began with the revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. All the Catholic schools and hospitals, which were part of our outreach, were closed, thereby considerably diminishing our presence in society.

But just look back at our history! Christians have known persecution ever since the earliest times, under the Persian Sassanid empire, right up to the seventh century. Even at that time Christians were already suspected of being traitors, linked to the West. Then there were the Mongol invasions, for example. But in any case there is no reason to be surprised at this. Jesus himself warned the disciples in the Gospel that they would be persecuted on account of his name. The Gospel corresponds to the deepest aspirations of man, but its proclamation is accompanied by persecutions, and indeed ever since the time of Pentecost and until the end of the Church’s pilgrimage on earth. A Church without martyrs would be like a tree without fruit!

But do you not fear quite simply the disappearance of the Christians of Iran?

Of course, it goes without saying that the mass exodus of Christians, and in particular of our young people and our most active members, is a cause of concern for us. Nonetheless, we should not look at the situation from a too human perspective. The strength and dynamism of a Christian community does not depend on its numbers. Besides, I believe that our situation is less serious than that of the Christian communities in the West. They are swamped in an environment where the majority of Europeans have no faith or are indifferent, whereas our Muslim neighbours are a constant reminder for us of God.

The only thing that matters is to know if we can bear witness to our faith. And this we can do – without publicity or self-promotion, but simply by living as Christians. And we are seeing the fruits of this, because Muslims come to see us and want to learn the Gospel message. When you ask them what led them to this, they often reply that it was because they have known a Christian neighbour whose example they wish to follow.

Can you observe an interest for Christianity in Iran?

This is an extremely delicate question for us. And we should point out at the outset that conversions to Christianity are largely the work of evangelical Protestants. As for us, we are under close surveillance. It sometimes happens that a Muslim wishes to join us, but they face serious harassment, first of all from their own families, and then from the regime. To give you an example, we have two seminarians who have both spent time in prison, precisely because they are both converts.

In particular, we are forbidden to celebrate Holy Mass in Persian. We love our own Aramaic language, the language of Jesus himself, and we speak it in our own homes. But the Iranians do not understand it. So we remain ghettoised within this language, and we cannot communicate our faith. For the same reason we are not supposed to have Bibles or spiritual books in Persian.

So how are we to explain the translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church by the Iranian Shiite ayatollahs?

Yes, this was a very encouraging sign of openness on the part of those ayatollahs who were interested in the message of the Catholic Church. This story illustrates the questions being asked by Iranian religious leaders themselves. The Shiite clergy respect the international moral authority of the Vatican. And moreover, there is an Iranian ambassador at the Vatican and students who travel in both directions. Iran is very isolated; living under permanent pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States. Our country can well see that it has an interest in maintaining relations with the West.

How do you explain the fact that some young people are turning away from Islam in a country that is still dominated by this religion?

By imposing Islam by force, they are provoking a reaction of rejection among young people, who refuse to be dictated to about how to live. This reaction partly explains the interest in Christianity, Zoroastrianism and even to Hinduism. And then there are others who reject all forms of religion. And sadly, a great many among them are losing their way in drugs, for lack of an ideal. It is an easy escape, within easy reach, and many young people are sinking irrevocably into it.

Would you like to say a few words to the benefactors of ACN?

We would like to thank ACN for your solidarity with our remote Christian community. You are providing us with precious material support. And still more than this, by keeping us informed about the situation of the Church in need elsewhere in the world, you are helping to foster communion among Christians, including even those who are the most remote geographically.

 

Photot credit: Jaques Berset/ACN

 

ACN International

“Whatever may happen, the Church in Cuba will not give up in the face of the difficulties”

Both the Cuban people and the Catholic Church in the country are living through a time of change, and yet the lack of true reforms and the lack of resources together constitute one of the greatest challenges facing society. Such is the situation, as explained to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International by Father Rolando Montes de Oca, a Cuban priest of the Archdiocese of Camaguey, who is currently living and studying in Rome. Aged 37, and belonging to the “Schönstatt” movement, he expresses his concern at the lack of a genuine religious opening in Cuba – consisting not merely of words but of deeds as well – in which families can freely choose the education of their children and the Church is allowed more places or centres in which it can demonstrate that “we are not a danger to Cuban society” but in fact quite the contrary.

Father Rolando Montes de Oca, from Camaguey, Cuba. Photo credit: Bruno Bara

The Castro era finally and definitively ended in April 2018. Fidel and Raul Castro have now been succeeded by Miguel Díaz-Canel as the country’s new president. How do the people see the new government?

I would say that it continues to be exactly the same as before. President Díaz-Canel himself has repeated on a number of occasions that his mission is to assure the continuity of the so-called “historical process”, or in other words the socialism initiated by Fidel Castro as the political, economic and social path to follow. Moreover, on his very first address as president, he stated that this continuity is the absolute priority of his government and insisted that it would still be Raul Castro who will take every fundamental decision for the country.

One of the first administrative actions of the new government was the promulgation of the new Constitution, which was endorsed by the Cuban parliament in July. The stated intention of the government was not only to open up to the market economy, but also to strengthen civil rights. How is the question of freedom of religion dealt with in the new Constitution?

There is freedom of worship, in the sense that people can meet together in churches to celebrate their faith. The articles already existing in the former constitution, which stipulate that the Cuban State “recognises, respects and guarantees religious freedom” and that “all individuals have the right to profess, or not profess, a religious creed”, have remained unchanged. However, it is important to understand what is meant by “religious freedom”. In my view it should not refer simply to freedom of worship. Nonetheless, these declarations regarding religious freedom might be seen as a point of reference, an ideal towards which we can advance through dialogue.

The tourists who come to Cuba see among other things churches full of people and an impressive participation in worship by the Catholic faithful. Is it possible to say that Christians can now freely live their faith? Would you say that the era of discrimination has come to an end?

Of course, things are not as they were in the time of the old Soviet Union. And even though the Internet is still not available to all the Cuban people, there are more and more people able to connect to the network, so that the modus operandi of the government is becoming more and more publicly visible, in the sense that it can cross national frontiers and is increasingly liable to generate notice in the international sphere. For its part, the Cuban system is very much concerned to project an image of democracy, of a Cuba that is fully free.

Nonetheless, although there is freedom of worship, I believe there is still a long way to go before we can arrive at true religious freedom. For example, Cuban families do not have the right to choose what kind of education they will give to their children, but are still forced to educate them under a Marxist atheist ideology. Despite claiming to offer a secular education, the philosophy that underlies it in regard to its analysis of history and reality is still very much an atheist and materialist one.

Does the Church also face restrictions in religious matters?

The pilgrim Church in Cuba is denied the right to its own space in the mass media. Except during papal visits and for an additional few minutes a year granted to the bishops on the local radio stations, there is no access to the media for the Church. Another major obstacle has been the ban on building churches and places of worship, despite the fact they allowed two or three churches to be built recently, after almost 60 years of petitions and dialogue.

There are also some very commonly occurring incidents that happen in the villages and towns, such as bans imposed on practical pastoral activities and sometimes against certain individual priests or certain specific works of charity on the part of the Church and so forth. These are disagreeable incidents, the origin of which is not clear – whether they are by order of government officials or by the independent decision of minor regional authorities.

And although, after so many years of religious repression, there is now some progress to be seen in regard to freedom of worship, the idea that seems to prevail in many people’s minds is that if they overstep their authority in acting against the Church, it will not cause them any problems, but if on the other hand they go too far in favouring religion, they may well have to face problems as a result.

And how is the Church to overcome these restrictions?

Although the Church in Cuba faces many difficulties, she will never yield. We are denied regular access to the mass media, yet we do not cease to convey the Gospel message. In the dioceses the bishops are producing magazines and newsletters which, in addition to speaking about faith, aim to enlighten the ordinary lives of the Cuban people. Although we don’t have access to education, because as I have already mentioned, it is practically entirely atheist, we do have our own formation centres where we can convey true Christian and civic values. It is extremely difficult to build churches, but in many small towns and villages that do not have them, there is still the Christian community, living, celebrating and bearing witness to faith in the private homes of those who open their doors to us so that we can celebrate the Eucharist and offer a Christian formation.

What is the role of the Church in Cuba?

We strive as a Church to engage in dialogue and show that we are not a danger to Cuban society. And still more than this, the Church has a great deal to offer and has the right to be allowed to have certain spaces in which it can better carry out this service. The aim is not to oppose each other but to help become united, by respecting the diversity of ideas, and so that one day it may be possible to arrive at a Cuba “of all and for the good of all”, without excluding anyone.

And what is the biggest challenge facing you?

In my view, the problem that most affects the Cuban Church at the present time has to do with her mission as a mediator in the process of national reconciliation, which is something we regard as necessary today. The Cuban people are divided, and the Church in Cuba is striving to find space for everyone and constantly calling on people to dialogue. Tragically, ever since the beginning of the “conflict”, there has not been any openness to dialogue, either on the part of the official government positions or on the part of the most radical opposition. As a result the Church is sometimes accused of being “communist” and at other times accused of allowing herself to be manipulated by the opposition or by US political interests. Both charges are false; the Church in Cuba is simply not being properly listened to. While the Communist Party demands our silence in the face of the grave and continuing social problems, as the price of good relations between the Church and the state, the other side often interprets the mission of the Church as a militant political posture, which excludes and condemns any relationship with the government, in absolute terms. Whereas the position of the Church in Cuba is not as an absolute belligerent in either sense. The Church is a mother, she is not the enemy of anyone. The Church is the Spouse of Christ, and she will not become wedded to any earthly powers, however difficult this may be for many to understand.

How do you see the future of the Church in Cuba, and how can the charitable agencies such as the foundation ACN International help her in her needs?

It is very hard to imagine the future of Cuba. We dream of a future of peace, built through dialogue, justice and forgiveness. But whatever may happen, the Church in Cuba will not give up in the face of the difficulties. She has learnt to open windows when the doors were closed. The Church in Cuba is a community of hope which strives to transmit this hope to a society that is very much in need.

The problems facing the Church in Cuba are the problems faced by all the Cuban people. One of the most serious among them is the lack of financial resources. ACN has been very much involved in the evangelising activity of the parishes and has supported the formation of new priests in so many different ways, while also helping our mission through the publication of Bibles, catechisms, prayer books and teaching materials and funding the purchase of vehicles to enable the missionaries to travel and reach their communities. You have helped us to rebuild our churches when they were damaged by natural disasters, and in so many other ways besides. The enormous aid given by ACN to the Cuban Church has borne, continues to bear and will bear fruit in the future as well. Many of these fruits can indeed already be seen on a simple visit to the country. It is as though God is acting through the action of ACN, sometimes in ways that are unseen but which continue in the background and exercise their influence through conversions, the diffusion of Christian values and more humane attitudes, etc.

You yourself have known the work of ACN ever since your childhood, have you not?

I remember with great gratitude that day when I was still little boy and when our parish priest and catechist arrived, overjoyed, and bringing with them the Child’s Bible produced by ACN. I was only little then and I wanted to have good book about the faith, explained in the language of children. I read the whole book and I fell in love with God through the pages of this Bible. I still keep it in my home to this day. And since then I have used it many times for the religious instruction of children. Yes, the ACN Child’s Bible is something closely linked to the roots of my personal experience of God.

 

Photo credit: Bruno Bara

ACN International

“The daily search for food has become a Via Dolorosa”

According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and other international organisations, more than two million people have left Venezuela in the last few years. This forced displacement reflects the severe economic, political and social crisis that has befallen the country. The church in Venezuela is dealing with this situation together with the people by initiating social projects to relieve shortages in food and medicines. But the Church’s own situation can only be described as precarious – the bishops and priests themselves have next to nothing at the moment.

 

Bishop Oswaldo Azuaje of Trujillo, which is located in the eastern part of Venezuela, responded to the questions of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The charity has been supporting the Venezuelan church in its pastoral and social work. The interview focused on the recent ad limina visit of the Venezuelan episcopate to the pope in Rome as well as the church’s efforts to help those who have left the country and those in need who have remained.

 

In Venezuela, the diocese of Trujillo is one of the poorest regions in the country. How would you describe the situation at the moment?

Economically, Trujillo is one of the country’s poorest regions. It is located in the Andes, in a mountainous region that is predominantly rural. However, I would not describe the region as poor because it possesses great riches both in terms of culture and of the people living there. Daily life there is very similar to that in the rest of the country. We are suffering from shortages in food and medicines, many people have moved to other countries, the economy is stagnating. It could be that, when compared with the capital and a number of other larger cities in the country, the food shortage is more noticeable in the villages.

 

What message did Pope Francis give to the bishops and the Venezuelan people during the ad limina visit at the Vatican?

The pope was very open and friendly. We are quite fortunate that he comes from the same continent and we speak the same language. Pope Francis sat down right in our midst. We formed a circle around him and he said to us, “Tell me how you are doing.” We noticed that he knows a great deal about the church in Venezuela, what life is like in the country and the difficulties society is currently facing. He pointed out that we should be very close to the people, that we need to find answers to their needs. He reminded us, “Remain strong and close to the people. I know that you are already doing this, but I invite you to continue to do so.” He also invited us to offer resistance. This was the first time I have heard the term used in this context. Because it had nothing to do with politics, populism or with a military language. We are to offer resistance by remaining constant in our faith, in our hope and in our love.

 

How does the Church assist those people who are leaving the country?

I was able to visit the Columbian border in Táchira state. The diocese of San Cristóbal on the Venezuelan side and the diocese of Cúcuta on the Columbian side are making large-scale efforts. I mingled with the people who were crossing the border to Columbia. It is impressive: each day, thousands of people leave. Each day, the church feeds between 5,000 and 8,000 people, although these are just estimates of the numbers of people who are being taken care of by the church alone. Some do return, but not many. Those that return are people who, due to the shortages in Venezuela; were merely looking for something available only in Columbia. Once they have acquired it, they return home. Furthermore, the Church is also taking care of Venezuelan refugees in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.

 

What are the consequences of this displacement?

In the parishes, there is a noticeable absence of young and middle-aged people. There is a growing incidence of Church attendance by older people accompanying their grandchildren. The parents have left in search of work. Several priests have told me that they no longer have a church choir because the young people have all left. They now have to find new choir members who can sing or play an instrument and train them. The people are being forced into leaving because of the extreme shortages in food and medicines. The people need them. However, they cannot find them in the country or buy them because money has devalued.

 

How is the Church responding to the needs of those people who have remained in the country?

In response to the food shortages, the parishes are preparing so-called “community stews” each day to ensure that those in need have something to eat. Signs of malnutrition are found among children, and also the elderly. My sister called me a few days ago. She is taking care of my mother and wanted to let me know that she could not find any chicken, eggs or meat. She did not know where else to go because she could not buy them in any store. Finding groceries is a very time-consuming process – if it is even possible at all. The daily search for food has become a Via Dolorosa.

 

How would you assess the aid that ACN is giving to the priests in your diocese?

I would first like to thank the Venezuelan people; all of those who have shared and continue to share the little that they have with us. Lately, however, we have become dependent upon help from outside. Life would be impossible without it. I would like to thank the church in Europe, particularly in Germany, Italy and Spain. It supports us so that we in turn can help our priests: Mass stipends allow them to live in a manner that is worthy of human beings. Moreover, this aid keeps us connected through prayer, and ensures that we do not lose hope. I pray to God for saintly priests, but also that these priests are able to support themselves in a worthy manner, so that they can serve the people of God and can live more in conformity with their calling.

 

A last message to the benefactors of ACN

Thanks to all of you, our parishes will be able to continue to offer consolation and shed light into the darkness that casts such a pall over Venezuela. The shortages in food and medicines, in water and electricity are a major source of stress, one that we need to fight against. Please pray for the bishops so that we do not succumb to temptation and throw in the towel. It is our responsibility to help the people by supporting the priests. Please continue to help us so that we in turn can ensure that our priests have a worthy means of subsistence, and thus be able to continue offering the community stews as well as medicines and other forms of aid.

 

ACN International