The new “Nazarenes” of the Valley of the Christians

Working through the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre in Marmarita, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is helping thousands of displaced Syrians each month


Nasra is one of the 20 or more villages belonging to the region known as the Valley of the Christians (Wadi Al-Nasara, in Arabic). The word Nasra literally means “Nazarene”, the word used throughout the Arab and Muslim world to refer to Christians. For several years now around a hundred refugee families have been living in this little village, having fled here from other parts of Syria to escape the war. The Mussa family is just one of these families, the new “Nazarenes” of the Valley of the Christians.


Marwan Mussa is the father of the family. “We were forced to flee from Homs, where we were living, because the bombing was getting closer and closer to our quarter of the city. The noise of the bombing and the shelling was shattering. We did not know whether from one day to the next we would die in these attacks, as had already happened to some of our neighbours”, he explains. And so they decided to leave for the Valley of the Christians which was just an hour’s drive away and where things were safer. They managed to find a small apartment where they could live for the time being until the fighting ended.


However, the war continued and the Mussa family have now been living in Nasra for over five years. “I used to work as a bricklayer, but now I am helping in a bakery, although I do not earn enough to support us all”, Marwan adds. His family is one of the more than 350 receiving support from the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre in the Melkite Catholic parish of Saint Peter’s in the nearby village of Marmarita. “The Church has literally saved our lives, if it were not for the Church we wouldn’t be here”.


One day, nine months earlier, Marwan was working in an orchard near his house when he suddenly collapsed, unconscious. His son Gabi managed to pick him up and take him to the health centre in the village. From there they took him to the hospital in Tartus, on the coast, more than an hour away by car. “I felt an intense pain in my chest”, Marwan explains to a visiting group from ACN. The diagnosis was a serious one: he had had a severe heart attack. However, they were unable to treat him in the hospital in Tartus, so they sent him to a hospital in Homs, another two hours round trip.


“The doctors told me it was a miracle I had survived the operation, since my arteries were 90% obstructed. They inserted stents, and now I feel quite well, although I have to be careful not to over exert myself”. Marwan is continuing his treatment and regularly goes for checkups to Mzeina Hospital, also located in the Valley of the Christians.


“My wife, Nahila, is also undergoing treatment there for cancer”, says Marwan. All the medication and the medical care she receives are being supplied by ACN, via the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre in Marmarita. “We are extremely grateful for this help. We knew that many people from different countries were sending help for the centre here. We also want to thank the team of volunteers at Saint Peter’s for accompanying and helping us in our most urgent need”, he adds.


Nahila Murad, his wife and the mother of their family, has a gaze of crystalline clarity. She nods in agreement with every word spoken by her husband. “I have bowel cancer. They are helping us to pay for my treatment. When the doctors discovered my tumour they didn’t hold out much hope for me. But I am a woman of strong faith and so I told them to go ahead and operate on me , and now I am feeling better.” They both assured us that they do not know how to thank ACN for the 130 dollars they receive each month to pay for their medication and consultations.


The faith of these true “Nazarenes” is apparent. Nahila tells us how the worst moment they experienced was when they told her that her other son Dani was missing. “We had to get through two years without hearing anything about him. We thought he must have been killed on the front. But then a month ago he came to see us and it was like a fresh miracle of God here in our house.” Dani told them that he had always kept a small Bible close by, from which he read a passage every day. “He never departed from the Word of God, and now we know that the Lord did not abandon him either”, she explains.


Through the intermediary of the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre in Marmarita, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) provides monthly help to hundreds of displaced Christian families throughout the region of the Valley of the Christians in western Syria, close to the Lebanese border. The monthly aid of 50,000 US dollars provided by the charity helps to cover the cost of surgical operations, medication and other forms of medical treatment and aid, including examinations, wheelchairs and spectacles.


SYRIA/NATIONAL 18/00390 Emergency Financial Support in the Valley of Christians: Health Care – July/December 2018 ID1803576 –  286.800 € (300.000 USA $)


Photo: Nahila, Gabi and Marwan Mussa

ACN International

In Pakistan, a Muslim convert confronts great risks in becoming a Christian

This is the story of Kainut, a brave 20-year-old girl who grew up a Muslim, with a Christian mother and a Muslim father, but she chose to become a Catholic. As a result, she and her family are suffering harassment, discrimination and worse. According to Islamic law, if someone leaves Islam, that person can be killed with impunity. Kainut, who is studying medicine, speaks to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need about her life and the momentous choice she made: 

“This is what happened to my mother: as a student, she kidnapped by Muslims who forced her to accept Islam and compelled her to my father. It is a very common practice in my province to forcefully convert Hindu and Christian girls to Islam. My mother admitted my father as her husband and started living a normal life with him. They had four children—there are two younger brothers and a sister. I am the eldest.

“However, my mother secretly went to church and I often went with her. She read the Bible in the home; it was clear that she didn’t embrace Islam; in her heart she was still a Christian. I also started reading the Bible and going to church regularly with my mother.  Once I was in church and people were standing in line for taking Holy Communion; I joined the line, but someone told me I was not allowed to take Communion because I was not a Christian. That incident made me cry.

I told my mother that I wanted to get Holy Communion—that the Lord Jesus Christ was also my savior. But somehow my father came to know about this and he forbade us to go to church; for a year we did not go. Then my father died. My grandparents forced my mother to marry a cousin of my father’s, which is also common practice, as Muslims say women need the protection of men. My mom resisted, but there was no way out and she married him. I was 14 at the time.

“This man was also very strict, but I started reading the Bible on daily basis in at home; though my stepfather often tried to stop me, my mother supported me. When I had finished reading the whole Bible, I told my mother that I wanted to become Christian. My mother was very worried that my grandparents or other relatives might kill us.

“Still, I went to church with my mother and asked a priest to baptize me; but he was not sure: ‘this is very risky; sorry, I am not in a position to baptize you.,’ he said; the priest was afraid that my relatives and other Muslim fanatics would kill us if they found out he baptized me; and he did not want to create a problem for his parishioners either. I told him: ‘Father, I am ready to die for Christ …

Photo: The Baptism of Kainut

“Then, came a summer vacation and we went to another province to visit my aunt, my mother’s sister; we went to church with her and, again, I met with a priest and told him of my wish to embrace Christianity. He was very nice and gave me some books for study. We spent three months at my aunt’s house, going to church every day. And, one Sunday, after Mass, the priest asked me: ‘child, are you ready for baptism?’ I was very happy and said yes. Finally, in 2013, my two brothers, my sister and I all received the Sacrament of Baptism. It was easier in that church as we were far from home.

“When we returned to our hometown, my stepfather somehow found out that we had converted and he offered my mom a divorce, which she accepted with an eager heart. My mother got a job and rented an apartment; everything was going fine, we attended church and my spiritual director contacted the priest who had baptized me so I was cleared to receive Holy Communion; everything was perfect!

“Then, one evening in 2016, my ex-stepfather and his relatives stormed into our home; he told my mother they came to take me, that they wouldn’t let me marry a Christian boy, and instead they wanted me to marry a 54-year-old Muslim man—I was just 18. My mother put up a fight, called our priest as well as the police; when police came they left us.

“I told my spiritual director about the incident; he then put me up in a hostel run by sisters, where I prepared for my entrance exams for medical school. I want to become a doctor and serve humanity.”

“Yet, our problems aren’t over yet. In October of 2017, my Muslim relatives shot one of my brothers; the bullet wounded his lungs and ribs and he is still in the hospital, struggling for life. My family is facing threats to our lives and I don’t know what is going to happen with us in future—but our hope is in our Lord Jesus Christ.



ACN International


Dublin, Ireland. A growing disillusionment among Catholics in Ireland due largely to decades of alleged child sex abuse scandals made Dublin an ideal venue of the World Meeting of Families 2018. Church leaders here confess to a crisis of faith.  “Families today face many challenges in their efforts to embody faithful love, to bring up children with sound values and to be a leaven of goodness, love and mutual concern in the larger community. I hope that this festival will be a source of renewed encouragement to families everywhere.” Pope Francis opened the gathering with this written statement.  But even the presence of the pontiff did not elevate the mixed feelings of joy, sadness, and confusion that pervaded WFM held in this city last August 22-26, 2018. But for one day, on August 24, Filipino families brought pure joy and hope to the gathering in what was called the Philippine Day of Witnessing.

Organized by the Aid to the Church in Need Ireland, the event was dubbed a Filipino Fiesta of Faith and Family, but instead of food, the ACN Philippines delegates offered a banquet of inspiring stories and joyful testimonies about the Gospel of the Family.

ACN Ireland National Director Dr. Michael Kinsella explained his reason for including the Philippines in the special programme, “The Philippines has always been an inspiration to the Irish people. We have heard stories of how they as a people have suffered through the years but remained a joyful nation because of their commitment to Christianity.”

“Europe gave us the faith centuries ago. Now, it is the Filipinos turn to give back, and share the joy of Christian faith to Europe,” was how ACN Philippines National Director Jonathan Luciano opened the event.

Among the witnesses were the San Juan family from Tagaytay who shared about the joy of family evangelization. Loreto and his children are pioneers in a ministry in which the whole family is engaged in facilitating retreats or recollections, even the little ones. “Constant communication, personal and communal prayer, and participation in the parish are the three factors that help us grow as a Christian family.”

The banquet of stories included moving testimonies of Fr. Roberto de la Cruz, a recovering drug addict,  Arnold and Clara Brit, a couple from Palo, Leyte who lost eleven members of their family to typhoon Yolanda,  mother and daughter Jeneta and Jongko Aguilar of Tacloban whose family was blessed by Pope Francis during his visit to Leyte in 2015, and the Francisco family from Marawi City, Arlene, Diovelene and Barbie, who narrated the joys and sufferings of a Christian family during the Marawi siege.

The venue was transformed into a typical Filipino Fiesta with images of festivals, buntings, and even an ice cream stand. The Filipino Chaplaincy in Dublin volunteered to take part in the activity through the leadership of Fr. Rene Esoy, SSS. They brought an image of the Our Lady of Penafrancia which was used in the caracol dance procession to open the event. Romy Buenaobra, a Filipino OFW husband gave a testimony on the joy of being a Christian family overseas, and a special song number was done by a young Filipino singer Shaniah Rollo, fresh from her participation in The Voice Ireland.

Bro. Reynaldo Barnido of Duyog Marawi encouraged the audience to hold on to the Christian faith. “Filipinos families have suffered a lot, but we are not a sad people. We find joy and hope in our families and in our faith. We don’t let go of our Christian faith. It doesn’t matter if we were persecuted by terrorists, or mocked by a President, we don’t let go.”

The Day of Witnessing ended with a commitment rite officiated by Most Rev. Gilbert Garcera, D.D., Archbishop of Lipa and Chairman of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on the Family Life.

A lady delegate from Peru offered a great compliment to the delegates, “For me, the two highlights of this gathering aside from the Pope is the talk of Cardinal Chito Tagle and this Philippine Day of Witnessing. It is always Filipinos to the rescue!”


RPBarnido, Philippines

Indonesia: the life of a Catholic teen in an ocean of Muslims

GANDHI AJENG ANAMPIANI Princess Elisabeth, Ajeng, is a 17-year-old Catholic teenager, who experiences in dramatic fashion on a daily basis what it’s like to be a Christian in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. She attends a public high school in her hometown of Bekasi, West Java, Indonesia: of the school’s 1200 students, only 24 are Catholic—and she is the only Catholic in her class of 40. However, in the country’s public school system there is religious education provided according to students’ particular faith; each Friday, Ajeng attends a class devoted to Catholicism. Ajeng believes friendship is key to interfaith harmony:

“Every day, I go through the routine like any other student. Class begins with a prayer in the Islamic way; I use that time to pray the Our Father silently; I also use the time to honor friends who belong to other religions—as they pray Islamic prayers, I say a Hail Mary. I keep praying and try to offer my daily life to God.

“In class, every teacher sees me like they see the other children. I never get unfair treatment. Last year, I was asked to represent the school to take part in an English competition at another school. As a Catholic, I felt particularly proud of this opportunity.

“Six friends who often run out together with me to go somewhere are all Muslims. I am the only one who is Catholic. But I do not feel any different. We are equal. Recently, I attended a birthday party for my Muslim friend Dara at her home. I met her parents and also some of her relatives. They welcomed me kindly. We talked freely even though they saw me not wearing the hijab like my other friends.

“Several times when I went to the mall with my six friends, I also was the only girl who did not wear the hijab. I do not feel strange; it has become common in our friendship. I respect the faith of my friends, as they have respect for my faith. When in the mall, they asked me to take care of their bags, while they went to pray in one of the small mosques.”

However, there are some clear challenges for Indonesian Catholics. For example, the neighborhood where Ajeng lives is part of the parish of Santa Clara, which belongs to the Archdiocese of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. It took local faithful a long time to get municipal authorities to grant a permit for the construction of a parish church; some local Muslim groups have demonstrated against it.

“Santa Clara Parish is renting three storefronts. We call it the Chapel of ‘Asri’, what means the Beautiful Chapel”. It is where Mass is celebrated and where we pray the Rosary. It is also the place of various activities for children and youth. This place isn’t ideal for prayer; there are also some other Christian denominations that every Sunday hold services at the same time in this shopping complex.”

“I am happy to live my life as a young Catholic. Although we are a minority—with people around us who are all Muslims—we can live together. I know that there are certain people who do not like the presence of us as Catholics, such as those who oppose the establishment of our church. However, I believe most people are prepared live side by side as brothers and sisters.”


More information on the current religious situation in the country can be found in the Religious Freedom Report published by the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN):


ACN International

Meditation Father Michael Shields in WMOF Dublin 2018

‘Praise to Jesus Christ – now and forever’. This is the English translation of the Catholic greeting in Russia. One more time: ‘Praise to Jesus Christ – now and forever’. Marvelous. Let’s be enthusiastic for Jesus.

My name is Fr. Michael Shields from Alaska. I have spent the last 25 years in Siberia Russia in a city called Magadan, a the former prison camp of Stalin. I felt called to live the spirituality of Blessed Charles De Foucauld there, after a 40 day retreat where I heard “go pray in the camps”. I knew it meant going there freely for the rest of my life.

I have been praying for the healing of families for these 25 years torn apart by atheistic communism that promoted abortion, denied the reality of God and attacked the Church. We need this prayer of healing today more than ever in our western culture that promotes abortion and has forgotten God.

I have preached the gospel of hope in this dark place of history that sent people to suffer and die because they believed in God. We are in a dark place and we need hope as we see attacks on the family, marriage, the sick, the elderly and on our religious freedom. We see culturally confusing teaching on human sexuality that denies the authority of God, His moral absolutes and the teaching of the Church. We need this gospel of hope more than ever today. What is the risk? Nothing less than the salvation of souls.

I have proclaimed the scandal of the cross in this place in Siberia Russia called the ‘Devils playground’. The scandal of the cross is God offering himself “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
1 Peter 2:24

We are in a time of scandals in the Church that need to be taken seriously to the scandal of the cross through deep prayer, repentance and asking and giving forgiveness. There is no way out of the scandal of sin other than through the Cross of Christ. ‘We adore you Christ and we praise you, because by your cross you have redeemed the world’.

Our world needs a humble Church, built on healing and hope with heads bowed and on our knees in repentance but our hearts soaring on eagles wings proclaiming Jesus Christ is Lord. It is amazing to me that so many have such a low expectation of their faith and their relationship with Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters, is this the best that the death of Jesus Christ the Son of God the savior of the world can do for us? That we should just live in mediocrity, boredom, worldliness, and struggling with sinful habits and patterns, but seeing very little progress. Really? “By his wounds you have been healed.”

It is in Jesus that sin is put to death, that you really com alive, that sorrow, anxieties and fears give way to joy. Brothers and sisters the world needs Jesus. We need Jesus. A story of hope.

Ilita was 5 years old when she came to our Sunday mass by herself in the middle of winter at 40 below zero. She was so small she could barely see over the pew when she knelt. She had no faith background. And no catechetical formation. Her family was not religious. Yet there she was concentrating every Sunday with an undivided attention watching me as I prayed at the altar. She would come up for a blessing at communion time. Then one Sunday after she had attended Mass for a few month she was blessed and she did not move. And I blessed her again and again she remained. She frowned when I asked her to go back to her seat. I knew after mass I was going to get balled-out by a 5 year old but I didn’t know why. After Mass Ilita with a hurtful look asked me a question that changed the definition of my priesthood and defined the mission of the church. She asked, “Fr. Michael why didn’t you give me Jesus. I wanted Jesus. Why didn’t you give me Jesus.” A 5 year old heart discerned what the world is blind too. Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and this 5 year old heart wanted him. And you know the world wants and needs him.

At that moment I envisioned men and women “from all nations, races and times huge crowds behind Ilita with desperate and painful looks crying out to me as a priest and to us His church. “Why don’t you give us Jesus? We want Jesus.” We are the broken body of Christ that needs healing and hope. We need Jesus. Why? Because we can only give away what we have. The world will judge us if we give away too little. We can give away our brokenness or give away the one who was broken for us. Jesus. The savior of the world. Who died for our selfishness and sinfulness so we could be set free to love like Jesus. What does it mean to love like Jesus? Look of the cross.

A young man came to me quite poor and broken. He was obnoxious and ungrateful and I didn’t feel like I wanted to help him let alone love him. The Lord spoke to me these simple words as I prayed before the Blessed Sacrament “I died for him. Will you?” Love is the cross of Christ. My life for yours.

I have been 25 years in a former prison camp of Stalin. I have more hope than I can express. I have more joy in my heart that I can proclaim. Why? Because as St Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Phil. 3:8

Yes, broken body of Christ, my dear brothers and sisters in faith, lets give the world what it seeks – Jesus. Mary, dear mother lead us to your Son Jesus, so that the world can be saved. Now and forever.


ACN International


ACN renovates the chapel at Bafoussam Prison.

Sr Orencya, a Pallottine sister, works for the Church in Cameroon. Since 2009, she has been working as a prison chaplain. She visits prisoners twice a week at Bafoussam Central Prison. The prison is comprised of a women’s ward, an adult men’s ward and a youth ward. There are about 1000 prisoners.

There has been a Christian community in the prison for 20 years. This community is looked after by a chaplain, volunteers from the Justice and Peace Association, novices from the Xaverian Fathers, Sr Orencya and catechists drawn from the prisoners. In addition to listening attentively to the prisoners and providing material help (medicines, clothing, food), they organize times of prayer, catechesis, mass… The community is under the patronage of Blessed Marcel Callo.

ACN financed the renovation of the chapel in 2017 (CAMEROON / BAFOUSSAM 16/00158). Several inmates wrote letters of thanks. Here are some excerpts:

“You have turned our chapel into paradise”

“Many of the faithful have converted and many who did not come to church are now the first to arrive in the chapel on the Lord’s Day. You have, through your actions, attracted souls who have made a firm resolve to change and to be baptized.”

“As God never abandons His children when they cry for help, He has sent an angel among us: Sister Orencya, to listen to our cries and transmit them to you. Thank you for everything you do for us inmates. Many prisoners have converted because of our improved life in the prison environment. Many follow catechesis classes and are part of prayer groups in our Marcel Callo community. By receiving much support from you, we have understood that we are not abandoned despite our faults and that the Lord is always with us. Thanks to God and thanks to you, I consider myself happy to live my detention in the peace, joy and love of Christ.”

“God allowed me to enter this prison to know him. Outside, I lived in debauchery. In this prison, I am on the path of conversion and have radically changed of my way of thinking. All this thanks to God and, through you, through the manifestation of His goodness in my life”.

In his letter of thanks, the chaplain explains the choice of Marcel Callo as their patron:

“Marcel Callo was deported by the German gestapo to the concentration camps in Germany. His crime was simply this: his detractors said that he was a Christian. He died there at the age of 23.  During his detention, he devoted his time to serving his brothers. Today, following Christ, through daily prayers, Eucharistic celebrations by the priests of the Sacred Heart and catechesis, the Marcel Callo community continues the work of evangelization within the prison. This environment makes everyone happy.”


ACN has promised to continue supporting the prison ministry in Cameroon and has just approved a 9,000 Euro project  for pastoral care of prisoners in the main prisons of Kumbo and Nkambe in the Anglophone area of the country. (CAMERUN / KUMBO 18/00101)


ACN International

For an Indian Catholic, bitter memories a decade after murderous Hindu violence

It is the tenth anniversary of an horrific outburst of anti-Christian violence that, in August 2008, killed more than 100 Christians in the Kandhamal district of India’s Odisha State; the violence damaged or destroyed 300 churches and 6,000 homes, with 50,000 people ending up displaced. A nun was gang raped.

Tarun Kumar Nayak, 19, is a native of Odisha state, who is pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science. He was both witness and victim of Hindu mob violence at age of nine. Here, Tarun describes the destruction of both his home in the town of Bamunigoan and his father’s tailoring shop—an incident that turned out to be a prelude to the murderous rampage in August 2008:

“Half of the people in my town are Christians, while the rest are Hindus. The residents of my town were peace-loving residents. People of both religions lived in great peace and harmony. They helped each other in celebrating the feast days of their respective religions. Life went smoothly until December 24, 2007, when an unexpected nightmare struck the village.

“We Christians had installed a Christmas arch across the road in the town. However, a group of 150 to 200 Hindus came to the town marketplace and demanded that the arch be removed. Then the protesters sought to close down the weekly market and all other shops in the area.

“When the Christian shopkeepers refused to comply with this, heated argument led to an outburst of violence. Some 20 Christian shops were looted and destroyed, and one Christian died.

“We had to flee from the town and find shelter in the thick forest. We had to walk miles in the dark to avoid being killed. We had to walk at least two days without food and water. Some of us even fell into pits and came across snakes. People of all ages, including newborn babies, had to face the winter chill.

“However, as the Bible asks, ‘If God is with us, who can prevail against us?’ None of us sustained even a major injury. We arrived in a village called Tamangi, where members of a tribal group gave us food and shelter.

“The fanatics were searching for my father, who was, until his death last year, the secretary of the Christian community. Even with his life at risk, he had remained in town, hoping to talk with the attackers. But he left town when conditions worsened. He walked through forests at least for 25 miles to get to a bus in order to reach a relative who lived in Berhampur, around 80 miles away. He had to hide himself for a week. We did not have any information on his whereabouts.

“We returned home after the local administration managed to restore peace. But my father did not return for five or six days. Believing that he was killed by the rebellion, we cried day and night, not because he was the only earning member of an eight-person household, but because he was my dear father, who never let us suffer.

“As a tailor, he was able to look after my mother, my siblings, and me. He sacrificed everything to provide us with a value-based education. And he played a vital role in the town and the Christian community. No meetings were held in his absence.”

“Usually, our Christmas celebration would begin around December 20 and conclude with a picnic the first week of January. But in 2007, due to the communal tension, we did not celebrate. Fearing conflict, the district administration deployed two platoons of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The security personnel used to conduct marches in the town at least twice a day to restore people’s sense of security in town. Gradually, normalcy returned, and businesses were reopened.

“But then, on August 24, 2008, there was a horrendous outburst of violence following the death of the Hindu monk Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. Along with four others, he was killed at his ashram in the district. Though Maoist guerillas claimed responsibility for the murders, Hindu fundamentalists assumed that Christians were responsible for his death and began attacking the local Christian community.

“Though so many died and despite all the destruction of property, no one betrayed Christ. We stood firm in our faith. We were able to face this terror only because God was with us.

“Then-Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar appealed to India’s Supreme Court seeking justice and compensation for Christians. The government gave some financial aid to those affected following the court’s order. Now things are under control in the district. Security personnel are being deployed during the celebration of any Christian festival to maintain law and order—but the memory and fear of violence still lives on.”

Since 2008 the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has helped towards the relief and rehabilitation of the victims as well with the reconstruction of some of the 300 churches destroyed during the riots.

Last year, Aid to the Church in Need spent close to $7M in support of projects benefitting Christians in India, in particular Dalits, the lowest caste in the Hindu hierarchy, and ‘tribals’, also very much discriminated against by fundamentalists.

ACN International

From Colombia, a story of forgiveness without limits

PASTORA MIRA GARCÍA, through acts of Christian love and forgiveness in the face of hatred and violence, has become one of Colombia’s best-known women of faith as her nation is still grappling with the aftermath of decades of unrelenting violence. The past 60 years saw an armed struggle involving Marxist guerillas, government troops and extreme right-wing militias. By the time a controversial peace deal was struck with the largest guerilla group in 2016, by some estimates as many as 900,000 people had died in the conflict and seven million Colombians were displaced. In September 2017, when Pope Francis visited the country, Pastora was chosen to address the Pope and the nation at large to give a testimony of her commitment to Christ’s commandment to “love one another”. She tells her story in an interview with the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need. From the beginning, it has been the charism of the charity to promote reconciliation and forgiveness.

Pastora Mira García from Colombia


“On April 4, 1960, my father, Francisco Mira, was killed by political rivals. I was 4-years-old when his nine children were forced to see his murder. Pushing my mother aside, they shot him and then beheaded him in front of us.

“In 1999, my mother suffered a heart attack and died when militants of one of the country’s warring factions knocked down the neighbors’ front door.

Pope Francis visit to Colombia in September 2017


“In 2001, my daughter Paola took her 5-year-old daughter along when she went to work at a rural school; they were captured by militants; two days later, they returned the girl, that is, my granddaughter. The family entered a very dark night, wondering what had become of Paola. We managed to recover her body after more than seven years of walking through fields and up and down mountains. I had insisted that de-mining equipment was brought in so that we could conduct our search safely.

“My younger brother was also seized on a highway and neither he nor the people who traveled with him have ever reappeared.  On May 4, 2005, an illegal armed group took my 18-year-old son into captivity for 15 days. Then they murdered him and left him lying in the road. At that time, I said: ‘Lord, I am giving him back to you.’ Although not everyone goes to college, we are all attending the ‘University of Life.’

“Before my mother’s death, I went to work in a village where I heard the name of my father’s murderer and asked my mother if he was the man who killed dad, and she replied: ‘Yes, my daughter, but we have no right to do anything about it, nor to hurt him.’ It took me some time to investigate and when at last I came to that house far away, I did not meet a man, but a wreck of a human being.


“It would have been very easy, given the circumstances in which he lived, to poison his food or use some other method to end his life—but fortunately I had received that message from my mother. I sat crying on the way back and made the decision to frequently visit him, along with some people who visited the sick; to help him heal, to bring him food and clothes. We did so for a long time.

“I had learned a very important lesson; when the mother of my father’s murderer asked her son one day, ‘Do you know who that person is who has been taking care of you? She is one of the many orphans you have left behind. She is the daughter of Pacho Mira.’ He never looked me in the eye again. I understood that guilt is worse than pain.

“On May 19, 2005, attending to my son’s vault in a mausoleum I felt a need to look up, and I saw a sculpture depicting of the Pietà. I said to the Virgin: ‘Madrecita (dear Mother), forgive me for crying for my son, when I should stay calm because I had the blessing of being a mother.’

‘Three days later, on my way home, I saw a young man who belonged to one of the illegal armed groups. He was hurt and crying out in pain. We brought him home. He was hungry; I gave him some food and coffee, plus a pair of shorts and a shirt that had belonged to my son. A friend who was a nurse came and we washed his wound.

“This young man lay down on my son’s bed and, seeing his pictures on the wall, asked: ‘Why are there photos of that dude we killed few days ago?’ We were all shocked, my daughters and I, and the boy started crying and talking. I begged my dear God that it not be with a mother’s heart that I would be feeling, nor be listening to the boy with a mother’s ears—that He help me.

“In the end, I told the young man: ‘This is your bed and this is your bedroom.’ The boy cried and talked— it was as if we were giving him a beating. I passed him the phone and told him: ‘There is a mom worried about you somewhere, please call her.’

I went to talk to my daughters, who said: ‘Mom he cannot get out of here alive!’ I answered them: ‘Tell me what you want me to do, but the only thing I ask of you in return is that, when I finish being a murderer like him, you guarantee that my child is going to be sitting here with us.’ They understood that it should not be an eye for an eye, nor a tooth for a tooth.

“I went back to the boy: ‘Look, you cannot stay here anymore, go to a hospital.’ He left and returned that same year in August, now demobilized and disarmed. When he used to meet me, he greeted me saying, ‘Mom.’ That December he died in a drug-related incident.

“His mother came to collect the body and I had the opportunity of helping her take the body back to her municipality. There is a fundamental principle: ‘Love one another.’ Lord, to the one who has hurt me, forgive him; heal me and make it so that, through your forgiveness, I can look him in the eye as a human being with the right to make mistakes—and to know that in his mistakes it was he who has failed.’”

Today, Pastora is dedicated to CARE, the Spanish acronym loosely translated as the ‘Center for Getting Close to Reconciliation.’ She founded it 13 years ago to discover different ways to promote the reconciliation of victims and perpetrators. Pastora is convinced that the way to bring reintegration is to fully understand what has happened; that is the foundation for genuine emotional and spiritual healing.

ACN supports reconciliation projects in different parts of the world. In Colombia, ACN has just approved a project to rebuild a church in Aquitania. In this village, both the church and the rectory were destroyed by the guerrillas. Because of the location and the surrounding forests, the fighting had been very intense there. Many people died in the fighting or by stepping on mines left by the insurgents. Finally the village was abandoned. People gradually returned after the government regained control and the area was de-mined. The people found only ruins and a church in very bad condition. In order for Aquitania to come to life again, the parish priest has asked for help to rebuild the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. ACN is providing € 20,000 for this project.


ACN International

“I want my child to grow up in Iraq”

How young Christian parents found a house for themselves and their newborn child thanks to Aid to the Church in Need.

For some Christians in Iraq, the future is just a few weeks old. Baby Timotheus was born in mid-May. “It is my heartfelt wish that my son will be able to grow up in Iraq. God will find a way,” his father Samir hopes. He and his wife Siba are proud parents – and devout Christians. Their baby will be baptised in just a few weeks. The young people – he is 30, she 25 – live in Bartella, a Christian town on the Nineveh plains near Mosul. The majority of its inhabitants are Syriac Orthodox.

Their small son lies quietly in the arms of his mother. His parents will later tell him about the difficult times the family went through in the years leading up to his birth. The Islamic State arrived in Bartella in August of 2014. All of the Christians living in the town fled in panic from the Islamic extremists. Their churches and houses were destroyed, damaged, and almost all of them were looted. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is making it possible for Christians to return to the places they call home. A large project has been called into being to restore the houses made uninhabitable by IS. This has paved the way for more than 45 per cent of families displaced in 2014 to return to their homes, a total of more than 8700 families as at June 2018.

The house Timotheus is spending the first year of his life in is not owned by his family. “The house does not belong to us. The owner lives in Sweden. However, thanks to ACN, we are living in this house for one year for free,” Samir explains. This has been a big help to the young family. “May God bless the benefactors and support them in every stage of their lives. They live by the words of Jesus: I was homeless and you welcomed me.” This is possible because the reconstruction committee, which is sponsored by ACN, has stipulated that assistance will only be granted for the renovation of houses destroyed or damaged by IS if owners who do not live in their houses themselves allow a needy family to live in them for one year for free. Samir and his family are the beneficiaries of this requirement. However, in November it will have been a year since Timotheus’ parents returned to Bartella and they will have to start paying rent as of then. But Samir is still looking towards the future optimistically. “I live from day to day, just as Jesus taught us. May God give us our daily bread.” Samir earns his family’s daily bread as an English teacher. “I prepare students for university.” He primarily teaches non-Christian children of the Shabak peoples, an ethnic group that follows Shia Islam. Muslims are a growing part of the population of Bartella because many Christians are selling their land to them before leaving for other countries. This worries Samir. Samir also earned his living as an English teacher when he lived in Iraqi Kurdistan as a refugee. Most of the Christians had fled to safety there. “The years as a refugee were of course difficult. We hardly had any money. We would not have made it without the support of the Church.” Despite everything, though, leaving Iraq has never been an option for Samir. “Without a doubt: we live in an unstable country. However, it is still our homeland. As long as nothing absolutely terrible happens, I want to remain here.” His wife Siba agrees with him. “I love my homeland. The support of my Lord and my husband give me the strength to endure all hardships.”

Samir is happy that things are improving again in the town. “Most people have gone back to their normal lives. Things have returned to the way they used to be.” In fact, the sound of hammering and renovations can be heard all over town, as people repair the damage left behind by IS. However, in the Syriac Orthodox parish church in Bartella, not all traces have been removed. Father Jacob, the priest, leads the way through the church. It has been renovated using monies granted by ACN. The walls are radiantly white. The painted wooden altar gleams in vibrant colours. The anti-Christian graffiti and the Islamic creed that the IS terrorists wrote on the walls have been whitewashed. Only a charred chapel has been left as a reminder of IS. “We left the chapel like this on purpose. It is supposed to act as a reminder of the awful things that happened to us. However, thanks to God’s help and the generosity of the benefactors of ACN, we have come back.”

From 2014 to June 2018 and ACN has provided nearly 39,7  million Euros for projects in Iraq.

Northern Luzon Dioceses hold Clergy Retreat

In celebration of the 2018 Year of the Clergy and Consecrated Persons in the Philippines, an estimated 770 priests and 15 bishops from the 16 dioceses in Northern Luzon Philippines converged in Baguio City at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Atonement for the Northern Luzon Clergy Retreat from July 16-20, 2018. “To Be One With the Lord” is the invitation of the homilist during the Opening Mass, Bishop Valentin Dimoc of the Apostolic Vicariate of Bontoc-Lagawe.

Reflecting on the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Bishop Dimoc pointed out that we usually encounter God on the mountain: (God tested the faith of Abraham on Mt. Moriah; God gave the 10 commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai; Jesus was transfigured on Mt Tabor; the prophet Elijah defended Israel’s faith in God on Mt Carmel, and the Northern Luzon Clergy are called by God to this Cathedral of Our Lady of the Atonement to be one with Him.

The main presider of the Opening Mass, Archbishop Marlo Peralta, is the Archbishop of Nueva Segovia, Ilocos Sur, the first diocese created in Northern Luzon, and may rightly be called the mother archdiocese of all the dioceses in this part of the country. Archbishop Peralta reminded all priests-concelebrants to offer all their Masses throughout the 5-day retreat for the intentions of the donors offered through the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Since the retreat covers the 3-day invitation of the CBCP (July 17-19) to all the faithful to prayer, penance and almsgiving to invoke God’s mercy and justice on those who have blasphemed God’s Holy Name, who slander and bear false witness, and who commit murder or justify murder as a means for fighting crimes in the country, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan and ACN Philippines President, elaborated that the 3 days of prayer, penance and almsgiving were imposed by the bishops on themselves, but inviting all the faithful to do the same. Archbishop Villegas encouraged all the priests present to give alms for the persecuted Christians particularly in Nigeria, Egypt and Syria.

Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, is the main facilitator of the retreat. He will give a series of talks on the theme: Renewed Servant-Leaders of the New Evangelization. In his opening conference, he led the Clergy to reflect on “Now Is The Time Of Mercy” by quoting Romans 5:20: My grace is sufficient for you. Following the advice of St. John Paul II and Pope Francis, Fr. Gaitley encouraged the Clergy to overcome cynicism by trusting in Divine Mercy.

All throughout the retreat, the Clergy together will pray their morning and evening praise, say the Rosary, and spend Holy Hour in silence. The highlight of the retreat will be the Forum and the Solemn Mass of the Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, DD on July 19.


– Fr. Reynaldo Romero
ACN Philippines Ecclesiastical Assistant