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By Tobias Lehner

 

Pakistan – Interview – “The blasphemy law destroys lives”

01.02.2019 in ACN Canada, ACN International, ACN Interview, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, Aide à l’Église en détresse., Asia, By Mario Bard, By Tobias Lehner, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, liberté religieuse, Mario Bard, Pakistan, Religious freedom, Voyager avec l’AED

Pakistan

“The blasphemy law destroys lives”

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to a report of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, there are 224 other cases of Christians since 1984 facing charges of blasphemy, and currently 25. One of these is the case of the married couple Shafqat Masih and Shagufta Bibi. I visited them on death row. They have been accused of sending blasphemous text messages, which the couple denies. Their prospects are very bleak. Even should they be acquitted, they and their children will no longer be able to live in Pakistan. Fanatic Muslims will try to kill them. The blasphemy law destroys the lives of those who have been accused, even if they avoid being executed.

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

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

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

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

Amanda Griiffin and Mario Bard from ACN-Canada met Father James Channan last September.


 

Central African Republic – Massacre of Alindao – Emergency Help

01.02.2019 in ACN Canada, ACN International, ACN PRESS, Africa, By Mario Bard, By Tobias Lehner, Central African Republic (CAR), International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN

Central African Republic

Death toll from november massacre in Alindao is 80

ACN is funding two aid projects for the local Catholic community as they return to a scene of utter devastation

The number of people who have died as a result of the terrorist attacks, on November 15 last year – in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, diocese of Alindao and on the refugee camp right next to it –, continues to grow. Now, it is estimated that over 80, according to information given to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). What is the reason behind this sudden upsurge in violence against Christians in the south of the Central African Republic? In the report below, the local Church analyzes the situation and explains the consequences of these terrible events.

“The people, who almost all fled into the forest, are now returning, hoping to be able to find a few grains of rice that they can eat and foraging among the ashes for any beans that have been only partially burnt”, says Bishop Cyr-Nestor Yapaupa of Alindao, describing the dramatic scenes in his town. The number of those who have died since the attack has now increased to over 80, including two priests and two Protestant pastors, according to hospital sources.

Even if they live under constant threat of attacks and they are sometimes afraid, the Monks are there to help, and vocations are on the rise!

A local Church source reports that the refugee camp, which once sheltered over 26,000 people and was supervised by the priests of the diocese, has now been totally destroyed. “The old people and the handicapped were simply burned alive, if they were not already shot dead or beheaded”, Bishop Yapaupa added. “In their panic, many parents were forced to leave one or other of their children behind in order to save the others. The attackers simply fired indiscriminately on the people.” Quite apart from the loss of human life, “the fire tore through the reception centre and several of the Church buildings. The cathedral lost its roof. The terrorists stole cars, motorcycles, solar panels, food from the storeroom, money and fuel…”

 

A Country Torn Apart

At the present time, there are over 14 different armed groups scattered across the Central African Republic. The president of the country, Faustin Touadéra, does not have the resources to control the activities of these groups, the remnants of the civil war initiated in 2013. That was dissolved into clashes between the Seleka rebels – an almost entirely Muslim coalition – and the so-called “anti-balaka”, initially a self-defence militia (a contraction of the phrase “anti-balas AK-47”, or “anti-bullet AK-47”) which ultimately degenerated into gangs of animist or nominally ‘Christian’ youths.

The authors of this particular terrorist attack were a Muslim militia, an offshoot of the Seleka, ironically named “Unity and Peace in Central Africa” (UPC). So why have the tensions suddenly increased just here in Alindao?

 

Alindao, “a cow to be milked”

According to the UPC, this was a legitimate act of defence because the Anti-balaka in Alindao had killed two Muslims on 14 and 15 November. However, our source informed us that it was rather the desire to compensate for a lack of means on the part of the UPC, which saw Alindao as “a flourishing commercial centre, and a cow to be milked”. After being expelled from Bambari in October, the UPC was forced to abandon its local commercial support base and the gold and diamond mines it controlled. “The weekly collections extorted from local traders in order to feed their troops,” had led to big protests, and so they had had to go in search of another source of income, “Alindao and its war booty.”

 

The Church as a Target

“Organized and structured as she is, the Catholic Church plays a fundamental role in responding to the local humanitarian crisis”, this African bishop explains. The Church maintains relations with the humanitarian agencies, with the president and the UN mission MINUSCA. At the same time, however, she is an “object of covetousness” and an institution that the men of war would like to bring down. Was this the reason for the inaction of the Mauritanian UN forces during the terrorist attack on Alindao, who, “in this way smoothed the path for the attackers by not fulfilling their mission of protecting the refugee population”? Our source also provided a further piece of information, explaining that “two days before the tragedy, the leader of the UPC was received by the Mauritanian contingent.” The diocese sees this meeting as having been possibly one of “consensual planning”, or outright collusion. The leaders of the three main faith communities in the Central African Republic – Cardinal Nzapalainga, Pastor Guerekoyame Gbangou and Iman Omar Kobine Layama – have called for an investigation by the international community.

 

“We have lost everything, except our faith.”

“We have lost everything, except our faith”, Bishop Yapaupa concludes. “We can still look into the eyes of our enemy and offer him our sincere pardon, without giving way to a spirit of vengeance or fear.”

 

ACN is proposing an emergency aid for the diocese of 60 000 dollars, to help rebuild the community, and also Mass stipends to help the local clergy in this situation of total desolation. You can give on our secure web page.  


 

Ivory Coast : “Religion can bring about reconciliation”

31.07.2018 in ACN Canada, Africa, By Tobias Lehner, Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast

Bishop Ignace Bessi Dogbo, bishop of Katiola on Ivory Coast

“Religion can bring about reconciliation”

Ivory Coast, officially Republic of Côte d´Ivoire, is a country in transition: after years of civil war, the people that make up this multicultural society are trying to lead lives embodying unity and reconciliation. This is true in both politics and religion. The first successes have been achieved in contrast with other African countries – Christians and Muslims are managing to coexist largely without tension. The political situation is not as volatile and a growth in investments has ensured that the economy is slowly gathering momentum.

In an interview during his visit to the German office of the international pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Ignace Bessi Dogbo talks to Tobias Lehner about interfaith reconciliation, places of worship  that build cultural identity and what he thinks is the best refugee policy. Bishop Dogbo oversees the diocese of Katiola in the northern part of Ivory Coast and is president of the Episcopal Conference of Côte d’Ivoire.

 

ACN: Bishop Dogbo, civil war raged in your country from 2002 to 2007. Bloody conflicts broke out once more in 2010 during the presidential elections. During this period, churches and priests also came under attack. What is the situation today?

Bishop Ignace Bessi Dogbo: By and large, the situation is calm. Fighting broke out after the presidential elections in 2010 because each side claimed victory. The former president Laurent Gbagbo is now in prison and awaiting trial before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The most recent presidential elections took place in 2015 (Editor’s note: The winner of the elections was again Alassane Ouattara. He has been in office since 2011.). The elections were quiet and orderly. However, the Ivory Coast remains divided between the supporters of the government and those of the opposition. The latter often have trouble finding work. They have enormous disadvantages. Membership in the government or opposition is often dependent upon which ethnic group a person belongs to – there are over 60 ethnic groups living in the country. And, this of course stirs up new hostilities.

Msgr Dogbo out visiting Christian communities

How do the religions get along?

Christianity and Islam have about the same number of followers in this country. However, in the northern part of the country, where I am bishop, Catholics are a minority. There are also alot of followers of tribal religions. For the most part, the religions coexist peacefully. We are a big family.

 

Islamist tendencies from outside of the country

This is in big contrast to other African countries, where membership in Islamist groups is growing in leaps and bounds. What makes the Ivory Coast different from other countries?

I think that this can be considered a political achievement and is largely thanks to the first president Félix Houphouët-Boigny (Editor’s note: in office from 1960 to 1993 following the country’s independence from France). He did a great deal to establish a dialogue between the religions. He made sure that if a mosque was built, then a church was built in the same place. This promoted peaceful coexistence. However, the truth is that Islamist tendencies have recently begun to appear. This is happening because of immigrants from other countries, such as Mali and Nigeria.

Celebration of the Eucharist in Ivory Coast

How do these tendencies manifest themselves?

For example, efforts are being made to ensure that there are more marriages between Muslim men and Christian women. The women then have to convert and the children from these unions are raised in the Muslim faith. Recently, a large number of affluent business people from Morocco began investing in our country. Their fellow Muslims are given preference over others. Or, they try to lure our Christian youth with money: “We will give you work, but in return, you will have to become Muslim.” We bishops are trying to work against these kinds of campaigns. For example, we support measures that allow young people to build networks and take charge of their own education.

 

Msgr Dogbo blessing a village woman.

Reconciliation begins with unity

The war years affected all religions and ethnicities equally. In your opinion, how can reconciliation be achieved for the inhabitants of Ivory Coast?

After the civil war, the politicians set up two reconciliation commissions and also appointed bishops to important positions. The commissions, made up of members of the various warring parties, ethnicities and religions, worked hard and made a lot of suggestions. These were ignored. And so the Church had to step in. We cannot manage reconciliation by ourselves, but we might be able to get the process started in society. This is why the Bishops’ Conference developed a new pastoral plan, which is intended for implementation between 2019 and 2023 and includes proposals for several concrete steps.

Msgr Dogbo surrounded by many priests from his diocese. The religious traditions play a role of reconciliation in Ivory Coast, and the priests play a role.

 

Which steps, for example?

The first step to reconciliation is unity. Unity both within and without – that is the path that Ivorians must follow now. We want 30 priests in the country to complete mediation training so that they can assist when conflicts break out in the regions or parishes. A further step is to intensify contact with other Christian denominations and Muslims.

 

For several years now, a highly controversial discussion on refugees has taken place in the West. Many young people no longer believe that they have a future in Africa and so they undertake the dangerous journey. In your opinion, what should the international community do?

The West should start at the source and not at the end. What I mean by this is: the people need help while they are still in Africa and not only after they have arrived in Europe as migrants. Young people from Ivory Coast are also undertaking the dangerous journey to Libya and then across the Mediterranean Sea. But, why are they leaving? Some of them are small farmers who cannot get fair prices for their products such as cacao. Some are being treated like slaves. The West could make a difference by paying fair prices so that these people can live from their earnings. This would stop them from emigrating. A fair trade policy is the best form of aid for developing countries!

An adult baptism in Ivory Coast

What are the most urgent needs of the church on Ivory Coast?

I believe that two things in particular are necessary: good churches and good priests. When I travel through the country, I see alot of newly built mosques on the sides of the roads, while our churches and chapels are often in a desolate condition. However, if nothing is coming forth from the church, it also cannot reach the hearts of the people. The same is true for the priests. I have 54 priests in my diocese of Katiola and only 16 in the diocese of Korhogo, which is also under my direction. We need priests! Many candidates for the priesthood come from poor families and often cannot afford the materials necessary for a course of study. Material aid and solid spiritual training are essential. I know that I can depend on Aid to the Church in Need! I have often received funding to build churches and parish houses and for the seminary. Mass stipends are also very important, because they ensure that at least the basic needs of our priests are met.

 

In addition to building and renovating churches and parish centres, providing funding for the training of seminarians and subsistence aid for priests, the international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need supports the printing and distribution of children’s Bibles and catechisms, the work of religious orders and the peace-building efforts of the local churches.