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By Maria Lozano

 

ACN Interview – Archbishop Ilario Antoniazzi of Tunis, Tunisia

05.07.2019 in ACN Interview, ACN Intl, By Maria Lozano, Tunisia

ACN INTERVIEW – Tunisia

Our mission here is to bear witness

The ancient city of Carthage, in the era of the Phoenicians – where modern Tunis stands today – was the city that saw the greatest number of martyrs of the Church after Rome. Now, in the 21st century, it has become a “very fragile” Church, according to Archbishop Ilario Antoniazzi of Tunis. He was speaking in an interview with Maria Lozano, during a visit to the  headquarters of the international Catholic pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International).

* It should be noted that this interview was done prior to the suicide bombings of June 27 which claimed one life and injured eight in central Tunis.

 

by Maria Lozano , for ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Published on the website July 7, 2019

 

ACN: What is the situation in Tunisia today, eight years after the so-called “Arab Spring”?

P: The “Arab Spring” raised high hopes of greater freedom and prosperity, but it lacked a leader who could tell the people how to achieve this. That is why many people have become disillusioned. People today want jobs and security to give them a sense of greater peace and serenity, since for many people the future seems uncertain. As far as the situation of the Church is concerned, the truth is that we cannot complain. We can do what we want within the Church and go wherever we wish without asking permission. We are free, and that is a good thing.

 

ACN: What you mean when you say that you are free? What aspects are you referring to, given that the field of action for the Church is very limited?

We are governed by a modus vivendi, the accord signed in 1964 between the Holy See and Tunisia during the presidency of Habib Bourguiba. Prior to that the French army had been expelled from Tunisia. The Church was viewed as the “long arm” of France, the colonial power. It was for this reason that almost all the property of the Church was confiscated in Tunisia. We had 125 churches, and today we have just four. That left the Church in a fragile state, but at the same time it did do one thing for us: our faith became stronger. Being unable to count on the support of men and having nothing, we are compelled to turn to God and to call on him for everything we need and ask him to give the strength to work in the situation in which we currently find ourselves, in Tunisia. Our modus vivendi does have certain negative aspects as far as the Church is concerned, but at the same time it has forced her to concentrate on the essential, on the spiritual.

 

We had 125 churches, and today we have just four.

ACN: Given that 99% of the population is Muslim, the Church is in a very delicate situation. What does the Church do in your country?

P: We are simply missionaries. The missionary is someone who witnesses to the presence of Christ where He is not known. In Tunisia Christ is not known. All the Christians are foreigners – either students coming for the most part from sub-Saharan Africa or else entrepreneurs who have come to work in Tunisia. We have to support them and welcome them to the best of our ability, something that is not easy, because there are no church bells to hear. All the Church activities have to take place inside the churches; there is nothing to see from the outside. It is not easy to make contact with them, but once we do manage to do so they play an active part in the Church in Tunisia. As a result we number between 15,000 and 20,000 Christians. It is not easy to obtain statistics because, for example, the students leave once they have finished their studies and other students arrive. According to our own calculations we lose around one quarter of our faithful each year, but at the same time another quarter arrives. This means in effect that every four years the Catholic community we serve is a completely new one. As a result it is not easy to establish long-term projects within the Church, or with the Church, because those who begin such a project almost never complete it, while those who are newly arrived do not know what it’s all about. Hence there is no stability, and this is another additional difficulty for our Church.

I am the only bishop in Tunisia, because, little by little, Tunisia abandoned the Christian faith and today the population is entirely Muslim.

 

ACN: But Tunisia has Christian roots! Should that not be something seen and felt?

P: In Tunisia they were saying Mass in Latin even before they were doing so in Rome. Christianity arrived in Tunisia in the earliest centuries of the Church. We need only think of Saint Cyprian, Saint Augustine or all the martyrs we have had in Tunisia. After Rome, the city that gave the highest number of martyrs to the Church was Carthage, in other words Tunis. The country had some 120 bishops, and the bishop of Carthage was regarded as the Primate of Africa, with authority over all the bishops of Africa. Of course we no longer have 120 bishops today. I am the only bishop in Tunisia, because, little by little, Tunisia abandoned the Christian faith and today the population is entirely Muslim.

 

ACN: We cannot see the future of course, but some people think that in a hundred or two hundred years Europe itself may have lost the Faith and be living in a situation like that in North Africa. What do you think we can do to avoid such a situation happening?

P: It is true that Europe is in danger. However, not because the Muslims have invaded, but because we no longer attach sufficient importance to the faith that we do have. If we look at the Muslims and the way they live, on the other hand, on the day of prayer everybody goes to the mosque. In our countries the churches are empty. The Muslims have children, but the Christians have fewer and fewer. Little by little, we are committing suicide for lack of believers, for lack of children. You only have to look at our churches in Europe; the majority of those praying there are aged 60 or over. Where are the young people?

 

ACN: Another factor is the shortage of priests. In Europe the average age of priests is also increasing. What is the situation like in your country?

P: I am quite possibly the only bishop in the world who is complaining that his priests are too young. Currently, among my priests there are two or three who are aged around 90. But of all the rest the oldest priest is 45 years old. We don’t have enough older priests who have a historical knowledge of Tunisia, of its society, of the Church and everything else. That is something we lack. The same is true of their work in supporting the religious sisters, and other priests… There is a need for a priest to have a degree of religious and pastoral experience.

There are no Tunisian priests.

 

ACN: Is it true that in Tunisia all the religious sisters and all the priests are missionaries who have come here from outside?

P: Yes. There are no Tunisian priests. The religious sisters and the priests belong to various different congregations, and most of them come here for a missionary stay of 5 to 10 years and then return to their home countries. We lack a permanent presence of our priests.

 

ACN: Caritas plays an important role here, and not only for the Christians…

P: Caritas is not simply a “movement” within the Church, something that is a part of the Church. For us Caritas is the Church. This represents a great responsibility. With its help, everything we do can actually reach the families, reach society, where no priest or religious can go. Hence Caritas is seen as the “missionary” of the Church. It witnesses to Christ, to a Christ who loves, who helps people, through all the individuals working with Caritas. When someone comes to us, we never ask him about his religion but only about his troubles. Whether the person is a Christian or not is something of no importance to Caritas. We do have Christians; those who come to us are above all Africans, but there are also many Tunisians. We work in areas of Tunis that are 100% Muslim, and we are there to help the women to learn a trade, such as making sweets and pastries for example, so that they can lead an independent life. Once they have been trained in this way they can earn a living and live a more dignified life.

 

ACN: What would you like to say to the Aid to the Church in Need benefactors? What can we do for Tunisia, to help you in your work as a bishop?

P: We have a Church that is fragile, because its activities are very limited, fragile, too, on account of our lack of means of subsistence, since everything we once had has been taken from us. And equally because for everything we need, we have to ask help from abroad. ACN is extremely important for us in enabling us to continue our work and our apostolate, above all among this people, who need our witness. Simply being there is to bear witness for Christ, through our own lives and not simply by words. It means showing by our conduct who Christ is, a Christ who loves, a Christ who forgives. The Tunisians will never have a Bible in their homes, but we are the Gospel that they can read, through the way we behave. And all the aid we get from ACN enables us to bear witness, by our lives, to who Christ is. In the end it is He who gives the grace that touches hearts, not us. I want to thank ACN for all the aid you are giving us. Because this is helping us to stay on our feet, helping us to continue our mission.

 

 

ACN Interview – ACN Head of section sheds light on the DRC, Africa

06.06.2019 in ACN PRESS, ACN PROJECTS, Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, Africa, By Maria Lozano, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Religious freedom

DRC: “What ACN offers, no other organization does”

On her return from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she visited the Catholic dioceses of the Kasai region, Christine du Coudray, ACN’s section head for this country, reported on the situation in the region and gave her impressions.

 Interview conducted by Maria Lozano, ACN International

Published to web – June 6, 2019

 

Can you give us a description of the overall situation in the country?

This was the first time I had visited the Kasai region of this immense country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, four times the size of France in area. You’re walking on land rich in mineral wealth of every kind – diamonds, gold, minerals of all kinds, petroleum and so forth, yet the infrastructure is wrecked. This particular region, which I spent two weeks travelling, is particularly isolated, and some areas are isolated enclaves. In the country as a whole, the state of the roads, where they exist at all, is catastrophic, but I really found this particular region to be in a state of complete desolation. Historically, this was a privileged region during the time of King Leopold II, the King of the Belgians, who founded the Congo Free State in 1885. He made it his shop window and gave hundreds of hectares of land to the Catholic Church, which he wanted to see established in the country. The Scheutist Fathers (Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) in particular were there in numbers, and in every diocese one can still see today the remains of the buildings built by these missionaries. Later the tables were turned, and the region was punished after independence, under the regime of Mobutu and afterwards, suffering from under-investment and generally abandoned to its fate. The structures are falling apart. The Kivu region, on the frontier with Rwanda, which I know better, is suffering from still worse conflicts, but benefits from having more and better structures.

The situation you describe sounds pretty desperate. How were the people you met on the spot living?

What struck me was the situation of complete abandonment on the one hand, yet on the other hand the local people displayed incredible energy in coping with the situation. I’m thinking of the young people who set out, sometimes from Lake Tanganyika, in the extreme east of the DRC, pushing their bicycles with loads of up to 500 kg of goods piled on them which they plan to sell on the other side of the country. They walk for days and nights like this on the potholed roads, helping each other as they go. I met with one of these young men, who explained to me that he had managed to save up enough for a brand-new bicycle, so that he could also become a “bayanda” – that’s the name they give to these young human beasts of burden – and that he was going to have to make still more savings in order to be able to change his wheels, so that he could carry still heavier loads.

After years as leader of the country, Joseph Kabila finally decided not to stand for the presidential elections last December, partly under pressure from the strong opposition, particularly on the part of the Church. How was this change of decision received by the Catholic leadership in the DRC?

Within the Catholic Bishops’ Conference there was some fairly lively discussion, and this body, which had deployed thousands of observers in the polling stations around the country, finally published a communique stating that in its view the election of the new president, Felix Tshisekedi, had not been in accordance with the “truth of the ballot.” They made it clear that they were pleased to see the political transition, but at the same time considered that the candidate declared as the victor was not necessarily the person who had received the most votes according to their own observations. But the most important thing to be borne in mind was that this change in the head of state is a historical one and that the transition took place almost without any violence. In January everyone had expected that the announcement of the results by the electoral commission would trigger an explosion of violence, and observers continue to be surprised that there has not been. That said, Joseph Kabila is still very much a part of the political scene and the present “truce” is a fragile one.

What is the situation of the Catholic Church, both in the country and within this particular region?

In the Kasai region there are eight dioceses, but for the moment there are only seven bishops, because the diocese of Kabinda is in a state of transition. Of these eight dioceses three, in my view, are in a particularly bad way, namely Kabinda, Mweka and Kole. In addition to its own internal problems, the Church here has to make up for the deficiencies of the state and is at the forefront of all the civic activities – social, political, development and so forth. For example, the town of Kabinda suffers from a terrible problem of soil erosion – it is literally in danger of collapsing – and it is the diocese that is leading the efforts to try and resolve this problem.

What particularly impressed you during this trip?

On the one hand it was the fact that a region so rich in diamonds could be suffering such poverty, yet on the other hand it was the commitment of many of the priests, who are doing exceptional work. I’m thinking of Father Apollinaire Cibaka and his association, which he founded and which is doing wonderful work. They have built 62 schools, four orphanages and four health centres, one of which has its own operating theatre and the regular support of Spanish doctors; then the pastoral work with albino children, helping them to be recognized in their own right, the work with abandoned children or street children, with teenage mothers and the programs for the advancement of women. The construction of an enclosure wall around the local prison, so that the prisoners do not have to be locked up 24 hours a day in a dark, unlit building, the work for the protection of the environment, including the planting of 30,000 trees… We helped Abbé Apollinaire to complete his studies for a doctorate in Spain, and on his return we helped him to set up a radio station, which is an authoritative voice in the local society. So despite the isolation, despite the difficulties, the courage and energy of the people are impressive and admirable. That is why a visit like this one is so very important.

And what would you say was the most difficult moment?

I was horrified to learn that, just a few hours after our visit there, the philosophy seminary in Kabwe had been attacked and vandalized. This is an indication of the fragile situation of the local Church.

What kind of aid is ACN supplying to the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Given the many issues requiring assistance, we are liaising closely with the bishops in order to decide with them on their various projects and assess their priorities in light of our resources. The important thing is that, following our visit, we can provide our aid rapidly. We are concentrating our support on the spiritual formation of the priests and on their living conditions, and likewise on the formation of religious sisters and catechists and the implementation of the teachings of Pope St John Paul II in regard to the family.

What kind of aid is ACN giving to the priests and seminarians?

We want to do all we can so that the Church here can have holy priests. A bishop once said to me, “What ACN offers, is something no other organization offers.” The structures vary greatly from one seminary to another. For example, in the philosophy college in Kabwe there are no toilets, no showers, and the septic tank is blocked up. It is hard to leave them in conditions like that. The seminarians only eat meat once a term.

As to the formation of the future priests, which is truly one of the priorities of ACN, we think that this depends on the formation of the teaching staff in the seminaries. And so we are sending entire teams of trainers for a five-week training course in Rome each summer. Quite apart from the fact that they can in this way live the experience of the universal Church, together with other trainers from all over the world, they learn to live, work and pray together there. Their testimonies of the sense of satisfaction and spiritual renewal there make for moving reading.

As far as their living conditions are concerned, we are providing vehicles to enable the local Church to reach the furthest corners of their dioceses. And sometimes even just a moped will help priests to travel much further than they can ever do on foot. We are also helping the priests with Mass stipends and contributing to the renovation and improvement of their presbyteries, which are frequently in a shocking state and which they scarcely dare to show us.

But you have also mentioned the support for religious brothers and sisters. What form does this aid actually take?

We are also very responsive to the needs of the religious, and especially the contemplative religious, who play a major role in the growth of the Church, thanks to their presence and their prayer. I visited the communities of the contemplative Poor Clare sisters in Mbuji-Mayi and Kabinda. They are a French foundation, formerly supported by their mother house, but today totally dependent on their own resources. It is not easy to provide the daily necessities for 40 religious sisters, including the novices and the postulants. They have a vegetable garden, they rear pigs and poultry, they have a host baking workshop. And they also have a guest house, offering a place of silence and prayer that is open to all. Their convent is some way from the town of Mbujimayi, and sometimes the sisters need hospital care. And there is also necessary shopping to be done, for which they need a robust 4×4 vehicle which we are hoping to be able to help them with.

Does ACN have any projects linked to the various internal wars and conflicts within the country?

Ever since 2016 the Kasaï region has been the theatre of tribal violence of exceptional cruelty; even the ethnologists are puzzled by these outbreaks of brutality, which mingle political issues with fetishist pagan beliefs. It is thought that the Kamwina Nsapu movement alone may have claimed between 4,000 and 23,000 victims, leaving some 1.4 million people uprooted and homeless as a result. The conflict suddenly came to an end with the election of the new president in January 2019, who is a son of the region. But the consequences are enormous, whether visible or invisible.

The visible scars can be seen because, for example, the diocesan structures in Luebo became the target – with the Bishop’s house set on fire, the convent of the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the cathedral both burnt out after first being looted, the presbytery destroyed, the novice house and the propaedeutic seminary both burnt to ashes, official buildings ransacked and looted, many people with their throats cut… Since June 2017 the Bishop has had to take refuge in the parish of Ndeseka. We have promised to help rebuild his diocesan chancery and the convent of the sisters, whose role is so important in helping the traumatized population.

The invisible wounds are in people’s hearts, but they are going to need a long-term program of re-integration for people of all ages – some of the killers were children of seven years old, who after just having served Mass beheaded as the people coming out of the church, they were under the effect of drugs! In light of these events of such enormous and still “unexplained” violence, the Catholic Church now needs to reconsider its pastoral approach and work for an in-depth evangelization, so that Christ may truly reign in people’s hearts through the grace of a profound and personal encounter. ACN’s mission is to accompany the local Church in this new evangelization.

ACN INTERVIEW – A ray of hope in the midst of the Venezuelan crisis

03.06.2019 in ACN BENEFACTORS, ACN Canada, By Maria Lozano, Venezuela

ACN INTERVIEW – A ray of hope in the midst of the Venezuelan crisis

Interview and text by Maria Lozano, ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Published on-line, June 3, 2019

Crisis in Venezuela: “A small ray of hope”

Following initial talks in Oslo (Norway), Venezuela seems to be moving towards change. These meetings represent an attempt to solve the crisis in Venezuela together with the government of a neutral European country. According to José Virtuoso, rector of Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas (Venezuela), these are “exploratory talks” between the representatives of the government of Nicolás Maduro on the one hand and the opposition on the other as the Jesuit priest explained in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)  representing a “small ray of hope.”

 


How confident are you about the talks being held in Oslo?

We know that informal meetings between the opposition and Maduro’s government have already taken place. If anything, these were exploratory talks – no commitments were made. However, the talks in Oslo imply the “official” commitment of a government, specifically, that of the government of Norway. This can be considered positive.

Secondly, it also shows that both President Maduro’s government and President Guaidó are open to exploring possibilities for reaching an understanding. Anything that has even the slightest chance of resolving the Venezuelan crisis needs to be considered.

 

However, these talks are currently at a very early stage. Have any concrete measures been proposed?

Nothing definite has been suggested. A decision has not even been made on how to proceed. Steps have only been taken towards holding exploratory talks. All involved – both the Norwegian government as well as Maduro’s government and President Guaidó – have talked about an exploratory process. We are still far away from a process of dialogue or negotiation.

 

Does the progress that has been made towards rapprochement have anything to do with the step taken by Juan Guaidó on 30 April, when he called on the army to support him?

In my opinion, what has become clear since 30 April is that we are at an impasse: neither Maduro’s government nor Interim President Guaidó have made any progress. We now have to look for other ways out of this deadlock, we have to find other possibilities.

 

What is the standpoint of the Church? Almost two years ago, the Church was involved in the attempts to start a dialogue. However, the Church later withdrew because it felt that it was being exploited…

Past attempts – the talks in which the Vatican initially took part and later the talks between the government and the opposition in Santo Domingo – all failed. I don’t believe that these meetings were properly prepared for and developed.

For example, if we take a look at Columbia: there, the talks and agreements between the Columbian government and the FARC were the culmination of a very long and meticulously prepared process. These talks only took place when all parties were genuinely interested in negotiating. The same cannot be said about Venezuela at the moment. This willingness first has to be developed and strengthened.

The process should not be pushed forward too quickly, because that makes it too easy to abandon. We have to try to build a solid foundation to enable an agreement. That is why I say that it will be a slow, a difficult process. But I believe that the Venezuelans finally want it to happen.

 

Based on past experiences, do you believe that things will be different this time because Nicolás Maduro has realised that things cannot continue as they are at the moment?

I believe that not only the opposition, but the Venezuelans as a whole are watching the progress of these processes very closely and with a great deal of skepticism. The government is still adamantly refusing to recognize both the opposition and the possibility of a deal. This is why we continue to view the situation with skepticism. However, this is the route we seem to be taking. As a small ray of hope has appeared, I believe that we now have to keep it from being extinguished and instead keep it shining brightly.

I believe that the international community and also the United States, which have taken a tougher stance, agree that a peaceful solution is much better than a violent one. That is also the standpoint of the Church: relief, assistance and the establishment of the conditions necessary to resolve the Venezuelan conflict peacefully.

 

Let’s talk about the situation of the general population. The international press reported on the nationwide blackouts that persisted for days. What is the current situation in the country in terms of energy and food?

In the large cities, in particular those located in the centre of the country such as Caracas and other important cities, the power supply is back to normal. However, the situation is more dramatic in the border regions. At the border with Columbia, in Zulia state, the power supply is deplorable. Although it is the country’s most densely populated state with the second most important city, the power supply remains erratic. A similar situation can be found in the two western states Táchira and Mérida, where a large part of the population lives.

 

Maduro has now given the Red Cross permission to enter the country to provide humanitarian aid. Is this a solution?

In practice, the humanitarian aid is greatly curtailed; that is, a number of medical goods and generators were brought into the country for hospitals, which is good. However, I have the feeling that many countries would like to get a lot more involved by sending medical supplies, medicines and food to the people, but they do not have the possibility to do so.

As rector of the university you are very concerned about education: what is happening in this area?

I am very concerned about the deteriorating educational system in Venezuela. Children and adolescents cannot attend classes regularly, either because of problems with transportation or food. Our schools, secondary schools and universities are suffering terrible consequences from the emigration of teachers and professors. Getting a degree in Venezuela is practically a heroic feat.

 

We have been talking about the situation in Venezuela for almost two years now. People may one day say, “Well, nothing can be done.” How do you avoid becoming discouraged?

Venezuela urgently needs the world’s support. Many Europeans came to Venezuela after World War II and during the terrible 1950s, the years of reconstruction. I myself am the son of a European immigrant, an Italian from Sicily. Many Venezuelans are the children or grandchildren of immigrants who did a great deal for the country. It is now time for Europe to repay the support that it got from Venezuela in the past. I am talking about solidarity and economic support, which can be offered in many areas. I would like to encourage people to continue with it because it gives rise to a feeling of solidarity.

 

ACN News – Electoral results in India, worrying

30.05.2019 in ACN International, By Maria Lozano, India, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need

ACN News – Electoral results in India, worrying

Elections in India

The recent victory of Narendra Modi is worrying to religious minorities

The parliamentary elections in India ended a few days ago. The nationalist ruling party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprisingly won the world’s largest democratic election – with nearly 900 million voters. According to a source close to the Church, “the victory of Modi is a source of frustration and fear to the minorities in India.”

 

“The five years with Narendra Modi in power have brought many concerns and been extremely difficult for us. We are fearful that the next five years to come will be even worse.” This was the reaction of one source who spoke to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN, but who prefers to remain anonymous for reasons of security.

 

“The fact that the Hindu nationalist BJP party has won so overwhelmingly is a warning signal for us, since it shows that Hindu nationalism is growing and the minorities – both Christian and Muslim – often find ourselves abandoned in the face of social injustice and discriminated against even quite openly for religious reasons. But also because the Indian economy has been going downhill in recent years and the poor are now even poorer than before. The poorest classes are being overlooked and the rich are the only ones who have benefited,” the same source explained.

Manipulation of the vote

“Hindu nationalism does not want to see any changes in the social structures,” the source told the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), “and many people in India are currently living in a state of semi-slavery. Those belonging to the lowest classes are used and exploited like slave labour.” One of the few institutions striving to change this situation is the Catholic Church, “and this why we are the target of discrimination and oppression.”

 

According to the same source, many people in India are in a state of shock. “We cannot quite believe what has happened. Even in those states and districts where surveys suggested the outlook was less favourable for Modi, in the end his party gained many more seats than had been predicted.” In addition to reports in some of the media which have spoken of manipulation of the electronic voting system, there have also been allegations of vote buying. This was also confirmed by the contact who spoke to ACN. “I also saw how hundreds of destitute day labourers were called together just a few days before the elections and how they were each given 3,000 Rupees (close to $60) on behalf of the Nationalist People’s Party.”

 

ACN’s contact concluded with an appeal for prayers for his country and added, “It is very dangerous to speak against the government; almost nobody dares to do so nowadays, since they have converted themselves into an authoritarian party. But I want people to know what things are like for us, since the world needs to know that the situation is a bad one and that we are afraid. These have already been five years filled with fear, and now we are asking ourselves what the future is going to hold for us?”

 

We would like to invite you to pray for the peoples of India, for the religious minorities threatened by discrimination and persecution in certain States, and to pray for our sisters and brothers in the faith.  Amen.

 

by Maria Lozano, ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Published on the web: Thursday May 30, 2019

ACN Feature Story: The Pope visits Bulgaria

17.05.2019 in ACN Feature, ACN International, Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, By Maria Lozano, Eastern Europe

Bulgaria

A heartfelt meeting in faith

One early Sunday morning in May, His Holiness, Pope Francis arrived in Bulgaria for his 29th trip abroad. During his two-day stay in Bulgaria, the Pope visited Sofia and Rakovski. The media was primarily interested in political and social issues such as migration or poverty; these were addressed. However, the leader of the Catholic Church is also a shepherd and travelled to Bulgaria to visit the people and to strengthen the minority group of Catholics.


By Maria Lozano, ACN International

Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin for ACN Canada

“In my opinion, our Catholics need to become more confident. It was a heartfelt meeting of the religions. I believe that it was also important for the Pope to see how strong our faith is,” explained Salesian Father Martin Jílek. The project partner of the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) had travelled the 230 kilometres from Stara Zagora to the capital city of Sofia.

Bulgaria’s population strongly identifies itself with the Christian faith, with 80 percent belonging to the Orthodox Church. Muslims make up the second largest group with about ten percent of the population. Catholics are a small minority. “In spite of this, there is a strong feeling of euphoria. A survey taken before the visit found that 54 percent of the population supports the Pope and his mission,” the missionary said.

Pope John XXIII: “The Bulgarian Pope”

For many, the joy of anticipation was dampened by the attitude taken by the Orthodox Church, which made a statement that it would not join the Holy Father in prayer. However, Father Jílek is certain “that this opinion is not shared by all Orthodox. The Bulgarians are open and tolerant people.” However, he did point out that patience would be necessary because ecumenism has yet to take root. “On a personal level, we have established a good relationship with Orthodox priests. Moreover, almost two million Bulgarians live in other countries and are well acquainted with the Catholic Church, especially that in western Europe. Our experiences have been very positive.”

The motto chosen for the trip, “Peace on Earth”, came somewhat as a surprise for those living in other countries; after all, Bulgaria has not drawn the attention of the West because of violence, as other Balkan states have, or because of war, as is the case for Ukraine. Father Jílek explained the background: “The motto ‘Peace on Earth’ was derived from the papal encyclical Pacem in terris, which was written by Pope John XXIII. He was the Apostolic Nuncio in Bulgaria from 1925 to 1935. This is why we call him the ‘Bulgarian’ Pope.”

According to Father Jílek, the motto shows that Bulgaria can be an example to others, because all the different religions and cultures have lived together in peace for many years. A number of minorities still live here in Bulgaria today.

Where God Speaks

One hundred people from Father Martin’s parish travelled to Sofia and 40 to Rakovski. Among them were about 20 boys from the Romani settlement. “This was, of course, a great opportunity for evangelization.” According to Father Jílek, almost all Bulgarians –can be said to be devout.

Unfortunately, none of the children from Stara Zagora took part in the First Communion Mass held at the Sacred Heart Church in Rakovski. “We have a group of ten young people and young families who are preparing themselves, but they are not ready and we don’t just want it to be a festive day with pretty pictures,” explained the priest. However, there was still cause for great joy because in Sofia, “our young people were able to assist during Holy Mass as volunteers.”

All of the participants were very enthusiastic upon their return. “The Pope also had a surprise for us. After Holy Mass, he unexpectedly went up to the young people to say a few words. The young people called out to the Pope very loudly and so he went to them, saying that in order for them to be able to hear, they needed to achieve silence in their own hearts. After all, that is where God speaks. Then he told them to go back to making a lot of noise.”

PopeSpeakingtotheYoung-Impromptu

Father Martin would like to thank the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need for their support for a large project: the construction of a new church and training centre. “In particular for the Romani children, but of course for all Bulgarians.” He would like to open a primary school in two years. “We are very thankful that we can feel the Church as a world Church. It is not only a source of financial aid for us, but also spiritual support. Who knows, one fine day we may be sending new priests and sisters from Bulgaria out into the world as missionaries. That is the dynamic of the Holy Spirit.”

  * Roma or Romanis, also called gypsies. It is estimated that they number approximately 14 million people worldwide, including eight to ten million in Europe.

ACN Interview: Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, auxiliary bishop of Ranchi and Secretary General of the Indian Bishops’ Conference

18.04.2019 in ACN International, ACN PRESS, By Maria Lozano, Dalits, India, Peace, Persecution of Christians

INDIA

Rise in violent attacks against Christian minorities

 

India has just begun its electoral process, which will take place in seven separate stages between April 11 and 19 May this year. Fears that this, the most populous democracy in the world, might end up becoming a theocratic Hindu nation have strengthened recently, in light of the fact that the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata (BJP) and its president Narendra Modi are seeking a second mandate. During its present term in office there has been an increase in interreligious violence, according to the report on Religious Freedom Worldwide by the international Catholic Pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). The figures speak for themselves: in 2016 a total of 86 people were killed and 2371 injured in 703 separate incidents of sectarian (Hindu fundamentalist) violence; in 2017 the figures were 111 killed and 2384 wounded in 822 separate reported incidents.

 

The most recent attack –  March 26 – took place in Tamil Nadu against a Catholic school, the Little Flower Higher Secondary School in Chinnasalem, when a crowd of Hindu fundamentalists smashed up the school and even attempted to strangle the religious sisters who were running the school. ACN journalist Maria Lozano interviewed Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, auxiliary bishop of Ranchi and Secretary General of the Indian Bishops’ Conference and asked him about the elections and the gravity of this recent incident.

 

Interview with Msgr. Theodore Mascarenhas, 12.04.2019
by Maria Lozano
Published by ACN Canada April 18, 2019

ACN: We have heard of the increase in attacks by Hindu fundamentalists against religious minorities in other parts of India, especially in the north of the country, but the brutal violence of this recent incident has shocked us. Was there any particular reason for the attack?

Over the last year or so there has been a rise in fundamentalism in Tamil Nadu. Above all it has been the evangelical or Protestant so-called “house churches” that have complained of these attacks. There is an activist, who publishes on the web stories of groups of Christians being beaten up while praying in their house churches or some little church structure destroyed. But as the Catholic Church we have not had this type of open attack until this time, at least not such a big one, we have had small, small things. Two years ago there was a Good Friday incident; a mob did not allow us to worship in one place.  So we have had incidents here and there. But the Protestant churches or Protestant groups or these smaller denominations have had a lot of problems over the last two years. So it did not come to me as a surprise that eventually we would be attacked. But that it took place on such a large scale is really frightening.

 

ACN: It must also have been an enormous shock for the sisters of the Franciscan Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who have been running the school for 74 years now. What is the present situation in Chinnasalem? And how are the sisters faring?

 

It is a small town. And the sisters have been doing a lot of this work for very, very poor children. And in fact the hostel, the boarding school can take girls who come from very poor areas and poor families.

 

I spoke to the Sisters a few days ago and I spoke to the Archbishop also, and they say for the moment that some people have been arrested and we are waiting for some more people to be arrested. But for me it is not what happens after the incident. For me the whole thing we have to question is how such incidents can even come about in a civilized society.

 

ACN: But apart from the incident itself and notwithstanding the gravity of it, are you concerned about the social dimension that this kind of attack implies?

How is so much hatred being spread in society and how can we stop this hatred being propagated – that is exactly the question. There are groups that are promoting hatred and these groups are not being stopped, neither in social media nor in actual life, and they seem to be getting political privilege, patronage, and that is my worry, even political authorization, and that is my problem. It is not that these small groups make demands against us or make charges against us or accuse us. The problem is that political leaders are actually encouraging them.

 

ACN: Do you think this increase in incidents in the last year is also related to the elections?

It might be related to the elections but I think it is going long-term now. I have a very simple philosophy on this. Once you plant the seed of hatred, once you bring the beast, the animal of anger, hatred, violence, that animal cannot be controlled. And this is my worry. All those who are spreading this hatred must know what harm they are doing to society and that it will become difficult to bring back things under control; and if it cannot be brought back under control we will have a problem.

 

ACN: But this problem is already damaging especially to the minorities in India…

Yes, it is the minorities, but today I was just thinking of that beautiful poem attributed to a German Lutheran pastor: ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.’ So we use this now today because first you start with one minority and then the second. the Muslims are under attack, the dalits are under attack and we are under attack, we don’t know who next.

 

ACN: Does that mean then that in the end this nationalist fundamentalism which the political leaders are promoting will actually damage the whole country?

We must say one thing in all fairness. A large Hindu majority, and a large Indian majority of whatever religion we belong to, we are tolerant, we accept each other, and we live with each other, we have been living for thousands of years together, this is a multi-cultural, multi-religious diverse society, and we’ve been living with each other and enriching each other. Now we suddenly come to a situation where certain groups are getting strong and spreading this hatred around and that is not acceptable, because eventually it is the nation that is going to suffer from this. Not just the minorities.

 

ACN: Is India heading towards becoming a theocratic nation like Pakistan?

In 1947 two countries were born, Pakistan and India. Pakistan decided that it would be a country founded on a religion, Islam; our founding fathers in India decided we would not be based on any religion or any one culture but we would be multi-cultural, pluri-religious and with diverse languages and regions. And the country has lived peacefully after that.

 

ACN: But who are these new people who want to change what the founding fathers decided, and why? 

These are certain fundamentalist groups which come up in every society and fundamentalist groups always damage society. But when they start getting overt or covert support from the others then they become dangerous.

ACN: What has been the reaction of the Christian community on hearing this news? Surely these incidents must make them feel very frightened?

We as Christians, we trust in the Lord, we are not afraid. When I asked the Sisters ‘Are you afraid?’ they said ‘No, we shall continue our work.’ I think that is our spirit, we shall continue our work, we will not be afraid of anyone. We think of Jesus who told us ‘Be afraid of the one who can take care of your soul rather than those who can destroy your body.’ So that is our basic principle. I don’t think anyone is frightened and we will go ahead with our work, we will continue serving the poorest of the poor. We know that this will bring us difficulties, this will bring us persecution, and this will bring us even hardships, but we will continue doing our work for the poor, for God and for Jesus.

 

ACN: One last question: do you believe that it is precisely the fact that you are working with the poorest and most socially discriminated against is one of the reason why some people don’t seem to like the work of the Church?

We have a saying in my own local language Konkani: ‘Stones are thrown only at a tree that bears fruit’. You don’t throw stones at a useless tree, only at a tree that bears fruit. So I think that one of the reasons we are under attack is that we are serving the poor, somebody does not like that we are serving the poor and this I believe is the real reason why the fundamentalists do not like us.

 

 

 

 

ACN News: The Pope confirms trip to Mozambique!

03.04.2019 in ACN International, Africa, By Maria Lozano, Mozambique

ACN News – Mozambique

Awaiting the Holy Father in September

On Wednesday March 27, the Holy See press office announced Pope Francis is to visit Mozambique from September 4 to 10, 2019. In addition to visiting the country, which was savagely struck by Cyclone Idai recently, the Holy Father will also visit the neighbouring countries of Madagascar and Mauritius.

The Church in Mozambique is awaiting the papal visit with great expectations. Bishop Adriano Langa of the Inhambane diocese in the south of Mozambique, explained to the international Catholic pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) that back in September 2018 the President of the Republic of Mozambique had paid a visit to the Vatican inviting Pope Francis to visit his country and thereby reaffirming the invitation that the bishops had already previously extended. The Pope had replied “yes,” if “I am in good health.”

This will be the second papal visit to Mozambique, following the historic visit by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1988. “We are all ready to organise the visit and also to prepare the faithful for it. It is something we greatly wish for. Who would not want the Pope to come to visit his country?” Bishop Langa asked.

For his part, Archbishop Claudio Dalla Zuanna of Beira, the coastal city in central eastern Mozambique which suffered so terribly from the consequences of the national disaster of cyclone Idai, quickly transmitted on the news to his faithful in a communique that was also sent to ACN: “Today, March 27th, we received the happy news that Pope Francis will be visiting our country in the coming month of September. Although the visit was already planned before the passage of the cyclone, many people are now asking themselves if the Pope has decided to come to Beira in order to visit and console us. We are hoping that this will happen.”

The martyrs of Guiúa

Many Mozambicans dream that the papal agenda will include a trip to the catechetical centre in Guiúa. Although this seems rather unlikely given that it is in the diocese of Inhambane, a long way from the capital Maputo, the central focus of the visit by Pope Francis. This catechetical centre records the history of the martyrdom of over 20 Mozambican catechists here who were victims of one of the most violent incidents in the long civil war.

 

“The diocesan phase of the beatification process has just concluded, this year in March,” explains Bishop Langa, emphasizing that Guiúa is now a noted landmark in the Christian life in the country. “Guiúa has a shrine dedicated to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, as a memorial of this dramatic event involving the massacre of the catechists, so that it is now a place of pilgrimage,” he continues. Thousands of people come to this spot every year, demonstrating the enormous devotion of the Mozambican people to the Virgin Mary. “We ask Mary to carry her sons in her arms to the altar,” the bishop adds. It is expected that the Holy See will soon recognize the catechists of Guiúa as martyrs. “The expectations are very high,” Bishop Langa says.

 “Heartfelt thanks to ACN”

Despite the aftermath of the war, the violence and the natural disaster that has recently devastated the country, Mozambique and the Church here continue to demonstrate great vitality, and the diocese of Inhambane is a good example of this. “Vocations are blossoming at our seminary. For the first time since it opened, it has 30 future priests; we have never had so many before. Sadly, though, the house they are lodging in was previously a parish house and has very few rooms,” the bishop explains. The desire to improve the physical structure of the seminary in Inhambane is one of the reasons that have led him to visit the international headquarters of ACN. This is a concrete project, which could now become reality, thanks to the generosity of ACN’s benefactors, a generosity that Bishop Adriano has already experienced in the past with a number of other different aid projects. “I have come to say ‘many thanks’ to all the benefactors who breathe life into this foundation and who also give life to us. For in fact there are many projects we have carried out and many means of transport we have been able to make use of, such as the vehicles we are using in the diocese, which have come from here, from ACN. All of this has been possible thanks to ACN, which is thereby helping us to proclaim the Gospel. Your foundation has given us legs, it has given us arms, it has given us eyes and it has given us a mouth to proclaim the Gospel. For all of this, our heartfelt thanks!”

by Paulo Aido & Maria Lozano ACN International

Burkina Faso – Alarming situation for Christians – ACN-News

22.02.2019 in Africa, AFRIQUE, By Maria Lozano

Burkina Faso
Alarming situation for Christians in Burkina Faso

The murder of a missionary in Burkina Faso reflects the alarming situation into which the country is sliding

“Their vehicle was returning from a meeting in Togo when, just a few kilometres after the frontier, they were ambushed by terrorists who had just murdered four policemen and burned down a customs post. The armed men stopped the vehicle and forced passengers to disembark. Then they took the priest to one side and shot him in the head.” This was the account of Father Jacob Lompo, the bursar for the diocese of Fada N’Gourma, who was speaking to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the murder of the Spanish missionary Father Antonio Cesar Fernández.

By Maria Lozano, ACN-International

The attack took place on Friday 15 February when this 72-year-old Spanish priest was returning to Burkina Faso together with two other Salesian religious – both of whom escaped unharmed from the attack.

“It is the first time that something like this has happened in this area. They have never experienced anything of the kind before. But it is undoubtedly true that we have recently seen worrying activities by gangs of bandits and terrorists,” said a source close to ACN, which prefers to remain anonymous. “There are areas bordering on the diocese of Tenkodogo and Fada N’Gourma where it is no longer possible to celebrate Holy Mass, because in some of the villages there have been abductions and hostage-taking.”

The murder of this priest is just one more misfortune in the tragic chain of events that is afflicting the country. According to Father Lompo, in the diocese of Fada N’Gourma “a number of communities and churches have been forced to close down because jihadist groups have been going through the villages threatening the inhabitants and demanding that they convert to Islam.”

600 State Schools Have Had to Close Down On

“Many of the Christians are terrified and have fled. The parish priest has had to go looking for his catechists, who have been intimidated, and relocate them to other, safer places. A congregation of religious sisters has also had to move because of the danger,” he told ACN.

This climate of fear is affecting above all the north, the east and the Sahel zone where, according to Father Lompo, “600 state schools have had to close down on account of the terrorist threats.”

“The most alarming reports in recent months have come to us from the diocese of Fada N’Gourma and above all from the frontier region with Niger, where the insecurity is acute, especially in the forest region. So this recent attack and the murder of Father Antonio Cesar in the south of the country, closer to the border with Ghana and Togo, is really worrying”, says Rafael D’Aqui, ACN’s section head with responsibility for the projects in Burkina Faso.

“From a geographical point of view, the problem of insecurity and radicalization that initially existed on the border with Mali has then extended towards the east, to the border with Niger, and in the last year also to the southeast of the country – for example in the areas close to Pama, where we had already had reports in the past of radicalization, and of insecurity among the Christian community. But the murder of this Salesian priest on Friday the 15th took place some 130 km from there. It seems as though the terrorists and guerrilla fighters are trying to encircle the frontiers of Burkina Faso. This is something new and it is really alarming,” Mr D’Aqui explained.

“What is especially shocking is the fact that they should murder in this way a priest and religious who has given his life to bring about development and worked with the young people, a man who loved this country where the social work of the Catholic Church in education and healthcare has brought major benefits to everyone, and not just to the Christians. It saddens me greatly, for this attack is not simply on the life of a single person but in all the country,” added D’Aqui, who recently travelled to Burkina Faso to visit some of the projects supported by ACN. And concludes: “We have to pray for peace and for an end to this situation, which is creating a psychosis that is harmful to the country.”

Pakistan – The “Asia Bibi” the world knows nothing about – ACN-News

16.02.2019 in ACN International, ACN Interview, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, Asia, Asia Bibi, Blasphemy Law, By Maria Lozano, By Marta Petrosillo, Journey with ACN, Mario Bard, Pakistan

Pakistan: “My husband is innocent!” –

The “Asia Bibi” the world knows nothing about

 

In Pakistan, 224 Christians have been victims of the blasphemy law since the law’s passage in 1986, Cecil Shane Chaudhry, Executive Director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of Pakistan, told a delegation from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) during a visit to the Asian country.

The Colony Joseph. In March 2013, almost 300 houses and 2 churches were destroyed after the Christian Sawan Masih was accused of blasphemy.

 

By Marta Petrosillo and Maria Lozano

 

Although the legal case against Asia Bibi finally came to a positive resolution on January 29th, 23 Christians were killed for blasphemy accusations between 1990 and 2017 and the Commission has documented a further 25 cases of Christians under trial, according to a study presented to ACN.

 

Specifically, there are two paragraphs of Section 295 of the Pakistani Penal Code (paragraphs B and C) that can be understood as the “anti-blasphemy law”. Section 295B stipulates a life sentence for anyone who desecrates the Quran, while insulting the Prophet Muhammed carries the death sentence under Section 295C.

 

“The anti-blasphemy law is a powerful tool that fundamentalists can wield to the detriment of minorities and is often misused as a means of personal revenge,” Chaudhry said. “And when charges are brought against Christians, the entire community suffers the consequences.”

 

This is exactly what happened in March 2013 in Joseph Colony, a Christian district in Lahore, after the young Christian Sawan Masih was accused of having insulted Muhammad. “On 9 March, after Friday prayers, a mob of 3000 Muslims burnt down the entire district, destroying almost 300 houses and two churches,” Father Emmanuel Yousaf, NCJP President, explained to the delegation from ACN during a visit to the residential area. In the meantime, the district been rebuilt, thanks to funding from the government and returned to the Christians.

 

Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of Pakistan.

While the 83 instigators of the arson attack have all been released, Sawan Masih was sentenced to death in 2014 and is still waiting for the appeal proceedings to be held. “The hearings are constantly being postponed,” attorney Tahir Bashir explained. “The last hearing was scheduled for 28 January, but the judge did not appear. A new court date has now been set for 27 February.”

National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) was formed in 1985 by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan. It provides services in the field of human rights advocacy. Since 1990 the Commission has defended cases of blasphemy against Muslims, Christians and Hindus, and has campaigned for abolition of the blasphemy laws. The team of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP).

Just as in the case of Asia Bibi, there are a lot of irregularities in Sawan’s case. The charges against him were brought by one of his Muslim friends, Shahid Imran, following an argument between the two men. Only two days later, two witnesses appeared who in reality had not even been present at the time Muhammed was allegedly insulted. “The charges against Sawan are being exploited,” Father Yousaf told ACN. “The true motivation behind this is an attempt to drive Christians out of this city district. It has become very popular because it lies very close to the steel factories.”

 

In the meantime, Sawan’s wife Sobia is raising their three children all by herself. “I don’t know why they have accused my husband,” she said to ACN. “I just know that the man who brought charges against him was a friend of his with whom he had quarrelled. Sawan is innocent!”

 


 

On Sunday, February 10th, pray for Venezuela!

08.02.2019 in ACN Feature, ACN International, ACN PRESS, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, By Maria Lozano, By Mario Bard, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Venezuela

Venezuela

Call to pray for the country on Sunday, February 10

 

United in their concern to “avoid still greater suffering and pain for the people” and in their hope for a change in the course of the political and democratic situation that Venezuela is currently going through, the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference has launched a joint communiqué, together with the Conference of Male and Female Religious and the National Council of the Laity in Venezuela, published on Monday, February 4th in Caracas.

Photo : María Alejandra Mora (SoyMAM)

The statement expresses the “determination and hope,” with which the signatories urge the search, “for a political transformation via a process of transparent and peaceful transition that will lead to free and legitimate elections, and the resumption of a democratic course, the restoration of the rule of law, the rebuilding of the social fabric, the revival of economic production, the restoration of the morale of the country and the coming together of all the Venezuelan people.”

They speak of the difficult situation that is currently being written in the annals of Venezuelan history and one that both the Venezuelan people and clergy and also the international community are witnessing with great hope, and yet at the same time with great concern.

In their communiqué, the presidents of the three bodies, which most fully represent the Catholic Church of the country, denounce “the growing, politically motivated repression, the violation of human rights and the selective and arbitrary detentions,” of individuals and they stress that this path of democratic change to be allowed to unfold peacefully and with the National Constitution in hand.

They express their appreciation of the work of the activists who are defending and promoting human rights at a time of crisis and despite the risks, and they urge them to continue in their concern for “the victims who are suffering injustices.” They state: “We call for personal and legal respect and safety for those who are exercising this worthy service in Venezuela.” In this way, they remind people that the Catholic Church is committed to helping those most in need, “acting in accordance with the principles of independence, impartiality and humanity” and at the same time they request, “the necessary permission to have access to humanitarian aid as a means of mitigating the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable of the people. Caritas Venezuela and the various other social support institutions of the Church which have a wider outreach throughout the national territory commit themselves to continuing the service we have been providing, with equity, inclusivity, transparency and effectiveness.”

The communiqué ends with a call for prayer on Sunday, February 10th in “every church, every home and every community, calling on the Lord to grant us peace, reconciliation, liberty and health of body and spirit.”

An unprecedented situation

The current political situation in Venezuela is the result of the presidential elections held in May 2018 which, according to the official government version, were won by the current President Nicolas Maduro, but which were widely qualified as “illegitimate” by the majority of countries in the international community. It includes other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Santa Lucia, as well as Canada, Spain and the United States. They base their decision on accounts of numerous irregularities in the way in which elections were held.

Hence, given the illegitimate nature of the elections, President Maduro would thereby cease to be the legitimate president as at the conclusion of his previous mandate, on 10 January, and therefore no longer be recognized as President of the Republic.

Instead, and in accordance with the Venezuelan Constitution, the acting president of Venezuela would be the president of the National Assembly of the country, who in this case is Juan Gerardo Guaidó. And so, on 11 January 2019, Guaidó announced that he would be invoking article 233 of the Constitution and calling new national elections, and on 23 January he was sworn in as acting president of Venezuela.

 

PLEASE, on Sunday, February 10th, please pray for the People of Venezuela!