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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emaus Center, Colombo – Aid to the Church in Need

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

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

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

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

Stephan Baier (ACN International)

“Religious fundamentalism places Christians on the fringes of society”

“Religious fundamentalism places Christians on the fringes of society”

Archbishop reports on the current situation in the Holy Land

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

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa – Aid to the Church in Need

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

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

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

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

ISRAEL / JERUSALEM – Aid to the Church in Need

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

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

Politics always plays a major role in the Holy Land.

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

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

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

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa – Aid to the Church in Need

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

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

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

Another problem is the growing emigration of Christians..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISRAEL / JERUSALEM – Aid to the Church In Need

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

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

Daniele Piccini & Tobias Lehner  (ACN International)

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

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

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

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

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

Summer camps in Syria – Aid to the Church in Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer camps in Syria – Aid to the Church in Need

Maria Lozano (ACN International)

Renewed by Faith: Jolo Cathedral Restored After Twin Bombing

Renewed By Faith: Jolo Cathedral Restored After Twin Bombing

“I can see their faces, I could remember everything.”

(Father Jeff Nadua to Rappler)

In an interview with Rappler, this was how Father Jeff Nadua, a priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral, described his reaction towards the deadly bombing incident which occurred during the Sunday Mass of January 27, 2019. Father Nadua, however, was not in the premises of the church. The mass was officiated by Father Ricky Bacolcol.

The Blast

The cathedral was simultaneously blasted with two improvised explosive devices (IED), with approximately 100 victims in the vicinity. It was at the Second Reading when the first IED was detonated inside. According to MindaNews, the bomb went off from the “right side fronting the altar, at the back portion”.  Police and military men stationed nearby hurried for rescue. Civilians, on the other hand, scrambled for safety. But then,  another unthinkable horror happened. 

A twin IED exploded outside. 

“Nakita ko may mga matatanda na nandoon sa lupa na humihingi ng tulong sa amin. Gusto ko sana kunin ‘yung isang matanda noon. Eh, pumutok na. Tumilapon na rin ako doon.” 

[The elderly were ducked down on the ground, asking for help. I wanted to save them, get one of them, but there was a sudden explosion. I was thrown back by the impact.]

(Corporal Ruel Diaz to GMA News)

Catching them off guard, 5 soldiers died in an instant. It was believed that the second IED was placed in a utility box of a parked motorcycle just beside the cathedral. Both bombs were confirmed to be electronically-controlled through a mobile device from a remote area. The official casualty count of the Armed Forces of the Philippines – Western Mindanao Command (AFP-WESTMINCOM) reached about 21 deaths and approximately 100 injured. 

History of Devastation

The twin blasts left the interior of the church in shambles. The pews were scattered and pieces of shrapnel flew everywhere. The once ocean-hued windows of the cathedral became broken glass. 

The Sunday explosion, however, wasn’t the first. Throughout the previous decade, the cathedral, and its surrounding area, has been the target of many extremist attacks. 

In 2000, a bomb was thrown outside the church. Six years later, a blast occurred in the ground floor of a two-storey commercial building near the cathedral. Investigations later revealed that the cathedral has been the original target of the explosion, with the culprits changing their plans at the last minute.

Three explosions rocked Jolo in 2009. In July, about 6 civilians were killed when an IED exploded a hundred meters away from the church. The October explosion involved a grenade blast which left damaged properties. A New Year’s Eve blast also occurred in the same year, killing one soldier. From 2010-2013, a series of four explosions were tallied. 

Considered the worst and the deadliest one yet, the 2019 twin blasts was the first to happen inside the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral. 

Fr. Jeff Nadua, in his interview with News5, stressed that the attack was directed to the community and is clearly an “attack against our faith”. However, he also emphasized with Zenit that “we need to help our Christians recover from this trauma and see all this in the eyes of faith. Then we can focus our energies on rebuilding the structure which is heavily damaged by the twin bombing.”

The Rebuild

And indeed, the rebuilding and the restoration of the church happened. On February 4 and 5, 2019, Jonathan Luciano, National Director of ACN Philippines, immediately paid a solidarity visit to the relatives of the victims and to the site. Aid efforts to rehabilitate the cathedral were on board and slowly developed. Together with the help of many organizations and benefactors led by Aid to the Church in Need, the cathedral was repaired. 

Six months after the deadly explosion, the renewed Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel once again held Mass on July 16, 2019. Together with retired Cardinal Orlando Quevedo and other bishops and priests, Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines Archbishop Gabrielle Caccia led the reconsecration. The day of celebration coincided with the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the church’s patroness. 

The process of the Cathedral’s rebuild is only the start of its restoration. Standing with faith and love, Aid to the Church in Need continues its Appeal for Prayer to the public – that the strength and the faith of the lay and of our fellowmen be renewed and strengthened. Moreover, that the souls of those who passed away find peace and justice.

Christians around the world are being targeted because of religious beliefs. Persecution and violence have been rampant and the number of cases continue to rise. Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity, is a pontifical organization with a mission to support the faithful whenever and wherever they face injustice and persecution. The persecuted will never be forgotten, and the suffering will be aided. 

As one, let us pray for the victims of the twin bombing on January 27, 2019:

(Source: AFP WESTMINCOM)

AFP

  1. Sergeant Mark Des P. Simbre (Inf) PA- from San Isidro, Isabela
  2. Corporal John B. Mangawit, Jr. (Inf) PA- from Kalinga
  3. Corporal Minard Jann P. Ocier (Inf) PA- from Malaybalay City, Bukidnon
  4. Private First Class Alizon L. Ayoman (Inf) PA- from Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte
  5. Private Hernan U. Bulaybulay (Inf) PA- from Pagadian City
  6. Private Leomar P. Degumbis(Inf) PA- from Iligan City

PCG

  1. SN2 Jaypee M. Galicha PCG

Civilians

  1. Mr. Leo Herbolario
  2. Ms. Bibing Perpetua
  3. Mr. Reynaldo Pescadera, Sr.
  4. Mr. Ridzmar Mukadil
  5. Mr. Romolo B. Reyes
  6. Ms. Albacora Perpetua
  7. Ms. Niseria Dela Cruz
  8. Ms. Cecilia Sanchez
  9. Ms. Daisy P. Delos Reyes
  10. Ms. Dolores S. Tan
  11. Ms. Fe Non
  12. Ms. Juliet Jaime
  13. Ms. Leah Angelica Reyes
  14. Ms. Chenly Rubio

“I shall free, so that I may lead them to the holy mountain of life everlasting.”

Donate and continue supporting the mission of Aid to the Church in Need for persecuted Christians around the world.

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

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

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

A radical conversion

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

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

“I will enter heaven dancing”

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

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

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

ACN International

Syria – a vocation marked by the resurrection

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

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

Chosen to go out and bear fruit

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

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

Military service unavoidable

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

Marked by the resurrection

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

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

The word of the Lord has remained alive in him

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

Protecting and nurturing vocations

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

ACN International

Nicaragua: A Church on the side of its people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ACN International

Burkina Faso: Trapped and forced to flee their convent

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

The community has been scattered

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

 

“The Catholics are the most vulnerable”

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

 

Unable to celebrate the Easter Vigil

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

 

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

 

ACN International

 

MIRIAM, The voice of Aleppo

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

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

The anguish of the young

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

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

All activity paralysed

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

 

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

Structured aid

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

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

 

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

 

ACN International

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

 

ACN International