by Tobias Lehner


ACN Interview – The Christian minority is under new pressure in Turkey

10.02.2020 in by Tobias Lehner, Turkey
Abbot Aho Bilecen from monastery Mor Yakub d’Karno, Tur Abdin/Turkey


“Christians are losing everything they own”

by Tobias Lehner, ACN International
Adapted by ACN Canada
Published on the web February 10, 2020


The Christian minority is once again being put under pressure in Turkey. During the first half of January, the Syriac Orthodox Abbot Aho Bilecen and two parishioners were arrested in Tur Abdin, a mountain range in southeastern Turkey. They were released from police custody a few days later, but other Christians were arrested. Tur Abdin is considered a former Christian stronghold. Volker Niggewöhner of the international pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) talked with the priest Dr Slavomir Dadas, chair of the “Initiative Christlicher Orient” (Initiative for the Christian Orient) in Linz, Austria, about how the current situation developed.


Dr. Slawomir Dadas, priest and chairman of “Initiative Christlicher Orient” (“Initiative for Christian Orient”), Austria

ACN: You have excellent contacts in Tur Abdin. How are the three Christians doing who were arrested and then released?

Slavomir Dadas: They are doing as well as can be expected – in spite of the uncertainty, which of course still prevails. The people arrested were the Abbot of the Syriac Orthodox monastery Mor Yakub d’Karno and two mayors. The Abbot was in police custody for four days, one of the mayors was released after two days, the other after one day.


Why were the three men taken into custody?
It has been reported that a Kurdish PKK fighter defected to the Turkish army. He allegedly informed them that the Abbot and the two others had handed out food to a number of PKK fighters a few years ago. This is automatically interpreted as providing support for terrorism and led to their arrest. However, no one actually saw the official transcript of the statements made by the former fighter.


This shows a deep unease on the part of the security authorities…
The people living in Tur Abdin told me that, unfortunately, this happens regularly every few years. The Christians do not feel welcome in their own homeland and have to endure frequent harassment. Placing the Abbot in police custody for four days is really an extreme measure. We have also been informed that a Christian couple has now been arrested, apparently because of a disagreement over property rights.


Tur Abdin is located near the borders with Syria and Iraq. To what degree is, and was, the region affected by the armed conflicts going on in these countries?
Many refugees came to Tur Abdin during the war in Iraq. However, the refugee camps there are mostly empty now. The refugees have moved on or were simply relocated.


Close to disappeared in 50 years

You mentioned that Christians were being harassed. In general, has their situation in Turkey changed at all over the last few years?

The biggest problem, particularly in Tur Abdin, is that the people can no longer envisage a future for themselves in the region. It is said that almost 50,000 Christians were living there about 50 years ago. When I recently visited the area, they were talking about only 2,500 Christians.


Turkey is a large country. Does a Christian lead a better life in Istanbul than in Tur Abdin?
Yes. I believe that Christians in Istanbul enjoy more freedom. In Tur Abdin, they seem to be regarded as a problem because the area itself is considered a Christian region. This is not acceptable in a Muslim country. However, I have also seen it happen that, when tourists visit the monastic centres in Tur Abdin, this also awakens the interest of the Muslims. They admire the culture and the history of the monasteries and convents. At least in terms of culture, this has set a few things in motion on the part of the Muslims. But nothing has happened from a socio-political perspective.


A large exodus from Tur Abdin already took place in the 1980s. At the time, this was because of the fighting between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish government. Are you concerned that this will happen again should there be further military escalation?
The people living in Tur Abdin say that they are less concerned about the military situation than what is happening economically. The government has basically always left this area to its own devices. The only help it receives comes in the form of donations from organizations or from emigrants; the people living there would not be able to survive without this aid. We visited many villages during my trip to the region. The villages were once inhabited by 200 to 300 families, most of them Christians. Today, two or three families live there, mostly people who once lived in Germany or other western European countries who have now moved back to spend their retirement there. They are something like guardians of the cultural heritage and the faith there.


In your opinion, do you believe that the return to Islam in a country that has known secularism such as established by  Atatürk in November 1922,  will progress further in Turkey? And was this caused by the alienation between the EU and Turkey?

I believe that this alienation was not always intentional. However, there are a number of Muslims who have been greatly strengthened by this development. For example, several Christian villages have been occupied by Muslims and they have appropriated the houses of Christians living abroad. It is very difficult to get them back. This reflects the current situation in Tur Abdin: the people feel as though they are being “dispossessed” because there is no legal basis for this. They are losing everything they own without an actual legal basis. They are losing everything they have worked for over the course of history.

ACN Interview – Archbishop reports on the current situation in the Holy Land

11.09.2019 in ACN International, ACN Interview, Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, by Tobias Lehner, Holy Land, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need

ACN Iview – Holy Land

“Religious fundamentalism places Christians on the fringes of society”

by Daniele Piccini & Tobias Lehner, ACN International

Pierbattista Pizzaballa has already spent more than three decades of his life in the Holy Land. In 2016, the Franciscan was made Archbishop and Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. In an interview with Daniele Piccini while visiting ACN Germany, the archbishop recently explained why current international political decisions exacerbate the conflict in the Holy Land and why the Church is relying on the power of small steps.


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

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



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

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


“The majority of Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinians.”


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

The old City of Jerusalem

The latest escalations have led to the radicalization of a growing number of young people, particularly among the Palestinians. Does this also have repercussions for the Christians?
There are Palestinians who belong to fundamentalist movements. But there are also many who oppose violence. The majority of Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinians. Therefore, they live under the same conditions as the Palestinian Muslims. Religious fundamentalism places Christians clearly on the fringes of society. We experience both cooperation and solidarity, but also exclusion and discrimination.


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

Holy Land, May 2011: The wall separating Palestine and Israel


Is there something the Church can do in this dead-end political situation?
Christians make up about one per cent of the population. We therefore cannot expect to carry the same political weight as other groups. But of course the Church has strong connections worldwide. And then there are the millions of Christian pilgrims from all over the world. It is our job to communicate to the people: there is a Christian way of living in this country. There is a Christian way of living with this conflict. This is not the time for big gestures. The Church has to try to establish small connections, to build small bridges.


Holy Land/Jerusalem, January 19, 2016. The Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem was targeted by vandals for a second time.

Pope Francis visited the country in 2014. Did this have an effect on the political situation, but also on the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians?
The visits of the Pope are important stepping stones on the way to peace, even though they will not bring about a major change. However, the opposite is true when it comes to ecumenism: with his visit, Pope Francis built on the historic meeting that took place between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964. Keeping this in mind, the visit of Pope Francis, in particular the ecumenical prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was a decisive and perceptible turning point in the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.


Financial aid for the implementation of the course “Healing Hatred: Spiritual Counseling in Situation of Conflict” (Sept. 2018 – Aug. 2019)

Aid to the Church in Need has been close to the Christians in the Holy Land for many years. In Jerusalem, for example, the pastoral charity funds an interreligious seminar entitled “Develop Forgiveness, Overcome Hatred” which is attended by hundreds of Christians, Jews and Muslims. Could you tell us  something about this initiative?
First and foremost, I would like to thank ACN because the pastoral charity does a great deal in the Holy Land. It supports many projects, including this seminar, which is organised by the Rossing Center. Daniel Rossing was a Jew who felt that Jerusalem in particular needed to be a place where all religions felt at home. Many young people who participate in these classes apply what they learn in their professional lives. Which makes religion, which is often an element of division in the Holy Land, an element of unity.

ACN’s Interview – Sever discrimination in the heart of Europe

26.04.2018 in ACN International, ACN Interview, Bosnia Herzegovina, by Tobias Lehner, Discrimination, EU, Europe, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Violence against Christians

Bosnia and Herzegovina

“Open war against the Catholic Church”


The guns have been silent in Bosnia and Herzegovina for 23 years. However, according to Bishop Franjo Komarica, the country is like a powder keg. Head of the diocese of Banja Luka in the northern part of the country, the 72-year-old does not believe in beating about the bush, particularly when the discussion turns to the Catholic Croat minority. He believes that Catholic Croats are still being kept from returning and that they are disadvantaged economically, socially and religiously. He is making serious charges against the governments of Europe: they are turning a blind eye to the religious discrimination.


In an interview with Tobias Lehner during a visit to the headquarters of the pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Germany, Bishop Komarica discusses why a growing number of Catholics are leaving the country, but how, in spite of everything, the church is living reconciliation.

Bishop Franjo Komarica, bishop of the diocese of Banja Luka (Bosnia and Herzegovina), in visit the Headquarter of Aid to the Church in Need, Germany. 








Tobias Lehner: Bishop Komarica, the Bosnian War officially came to an end in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords. But how are things really?

Bishop Franjo Komarica: The guns may be silent, but the war continues in other arenas. “Controlled chaos” reigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is my impression that neither the government nor the international community is interested in building up a constitutional state that guarantees equal rights to all ethnic groups and human rights also for minorities. Bosnia and Herzegovina are effectively still a semi-protectorate of the United Nations. A part of the state authority is exercised by a “High Commissioner” (since 2009, Austrian native Valentin Inzko; editor’s note). But he claims that his hands are tied in terms of the political developments in the country. The country remains divided into three ethnic groups: Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. The smallest of the ethnic groups, the vast majority of Croats are Catholic. They lean more towards Europe. The Serbs, most of them Orthodox, are very much under the influence of Russia. And the Muslim Bosnians are turning more and more towards Turkey and the Islamic world. This gives rise to dangerous centrifugal forces. And that is not only damaging to the country, but also to Europe!


What do you mean by this?

The hostilities between the Serbian and Bosnian people are purposefully being kept alive by forces outside of the country. The country continues to be a powder keg! And the Croats are caught in between. Hundreds of thousands of them were displaced during the war, and today, more than twenty years after the fact, they still cannot return, even though the Dayton Accords guarantee them the right to return. The opposite has happened: many are still leaving for other countries. The Conference of Bishops has repeatedly asked for the Dayton Accords to be amended to give the Croat minority more security. They have yet to be accorded equality.


Why is the Catholic minority receiving unequal treatment?

The Croats are not being treated as a constitutive ethnic group in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many foreign governments also recognize only two ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Serbs and the Bosnians. This has grave consequences, as is shown by the example of the Republika Srbska (the Republika Srbska was established by the Dayton Accords as the “second entity” of the federal state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and is made up of extensive areas of land in the northern and eastern parts of the country; editor’s note). Only about five per cent of the Catholics who once lived in the 69 parishes that existed in this region before the war have returned. In other parts of the country, Catholics are still leaving. The Croats receive neither political, nor legal, nor financial support. It is almost impossible for them to rebuild their homes or find work. They are the subjects of systemic discrimination. This is badly damaging the entire country. The other religions agree, by the way. I recently talked with the Grand Mufti of Bosnia. He also says: “It is imperative that the Croats remain here!”

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Financial support for pastoral activities of the archiepiscopal youth ministry Ivan Pavao II in Sarajevo.


The highest-ranking Muslim in the country thus recognizes the problem. Do his brothers and sisters in faith do so as well? It is currently being reported that the Muslims are becoming radicalized in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well…

Yes, this development does exist. But the threat to our very existence is even worse than the religious discrimination. To be explicit: we can maintain our faith even during persecution – and we have done so. But when the Catholics have no right to their homeland and to their property, this is even more destructive. One example: the mayor of one town in my diocese said to me, “You may not build a church here.” Even though a Catholic parish had been located there before the war! He did not have the right to do so, because religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And so I lodged a protest. But it was turned down by the next highest authority as well. Finally, I went to the representative of OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, responsible for coordinating the reconstruction process; editor’s note). He said to me, “Bishop, I forbid you to build a church!” I showed him pictures of the old parish church as well as a picture of its priest who was murdered during the war. He neither apologized, nor approved the church-building project. This is an open war against the Catholic Church. I was repeatedly told, “You Catholics need to get out of this country!”


Outside of the country, little is known about the dire circumstances of the Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What are they asking the international community to do?

Politicians need to finally acknowledge what is happening and condemn the severe discrimination that is taking place right in the middle of Europe. This is particularly true for the Christians. I expect anyone who is serious about their faith to support the disenfranchised people of my homeland – in word and deed. Our appeals have not been heard up until this point. And there have been so many of them! Quo vadis, Europe? Quo vadis, Christianity in Europe? If we just look the other way and tolerate this kind of development on our own doorstep, how do we want to help other people understand our Christian values?


So much hate and discord has been sown in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In spite of all of this, what can the Catholic Church do to reunite the society?

We Catholics are the oldest community of faith in the country. We feel it is our duty to help our homeland restore a just and permanent peace! Most of our reconciliation work is carried out through our social services and education, particularly our Catholic schools. And that despite being punished politically for our commitment! That is why I am so grateful to Catholic charities such as Aid to the Church in Need, because they draw attention to our circumstances and support us. I will continue to give voice to the truth, even though I have already been physically assaulted because of it. Our opponents will win if we remain silent!

Bosnia and Herzegovina: diocese of Banja Luka. ACN supported this activity for young people in the diocese.


The worldwide pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has been helping Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina for more than three decades. Most of the aid it has provided has been used to rebuild churches, convents and monasteries that were destroyed during the war and renovate a seminary. ACN also provides funding for the acquisition of vehicles for pastoral care, the development of pastoral centres, the training of priests and religious and for subsistence aid for contemplative orders. Church youth and press work are also among the projects it supports.





Syria – “The Christians are scared to death and fear for their lives”

16.03.2018 in ACN International, ACN Interview, by Tobias Lehner, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Middle East, Syria, War

“The Christians are scared to death and fear for their lives”

 The current military offensive in Syria not only affects the inhabitants of the Eastern Ghouta region, but also those of neighbouring Damascus. The shelling of the capital city continues. The Christian district at the eastern edge of the old city has also been under fire. In an interview with Father Andrzej Halemba, the head of the Middle East section of the worldwide pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Tobias Lehner discusses why the warring parties are condoning the death of civilians, why Islamist terror is on the rise again and what kind of aid the civilian population needs at this moment.


Tobias Lehner: What do you know about the situation in Eastern Ghouta?

Father Andrzej Halemba: We from ACN maintain very good and close contact with a large number of bishops in Damascus. One of them is the head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Patriarch Joseph Absi. Caritas Syria is on site and keeping us informed.

The people in Eastern Ghouta are trapped. Several thousand people! They have practically no access to food. They have no medical care. Many residents have been wounded and are in need of an operation. There are no humanitarian corridors allowing them to escape. This may be because the rebels consider the civilian population “human shields.” And the government fears that not only civilian refugees will flee to Damascus, but also suicide bombers, who would bring the terror even further into the city. Fear and terror reigns everywhere.

And all that practically before the gates of the capital city of Syria with its more than one million inhabitants…

Eastern Ghouta is only about four kilometres from the city centre. From here, rebel troops can look out over the city of Damascus over there. Among them are also troops that are close to al-Qaeda. Several units of the “Islamic State” still remain in the southern districts of Damascus. Therefore, it is important not only to talk about the actions of the government troops, but also about the fact that the Islamists have set their sights on the capital city: with terrorist attacks on the inside, mortar attacks from the outside. The Christian district of Bab Tuma, which is located on the eastern edge of the old city, has also been severely hit. The warring parties know that the moment children die, young people are killed, families are destroyed and houses are demolished, it draws the attention of the world to them. It is part of their strategy. This is why the Christian district is also one of the areas under attack.

Father Andrzej Halemba: “Both sides are in the wrong. Both sides commit crimes. Both sides are guilty. Both sides have caused countless casualties. In the now seven years of war in Syria, more than one million people have been killed or wounded.”

Can you describe the situation there in more detail?

The situation is dire. The mortar attacks continue unabated. The Christians are scared to death. I recently spoke with a religious sister. She told me that she and her fellow sisters are not even able to leave the city centre anymore to go to the districts in which many Christians and refugees from Eastern Ghouta have found shelter. It is too dangerous. Convoys that were supposed to carry humanitarian aid into Damascus have been stopped. It is a terrible situation!

You said that there were also Islamist units among the rebel groups. The European media is focusing primarily on the brutal tactics of the government troops. Is this then not the whole truth?

Truth is always the first casualty in times of war. Both sides are in the wrong. Both sides commit crimes. Both sides are guilty. Both sides have caused countless casualties. In the now seven years of war in Syria, more than one million people have been killed or wounded. And these are wounds not only of the body, but also of the soul. So many people are traumatized. It will take decades to heal these wounds. And all warring parties bear responsibility for this!

Let us talk about the supply situation. The negotiated ceasefire was so fragile that it was at first impossible to get relief supplies to the besieged inhabitants. This was finally possible early this week. What do you know about this?

It was imperative to get food and medical aid to the inhabitants of Eastern Ghouta immediately. However, it is also important to remember the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who have sought refuge in Damascus. Many have lost family members, many were severely wounded during the attacks. All of them have lost their future. This is why it is important for ACN to help these internally displaced persons. We want to offer them pastoral as well as financial aid, so that they can be cared for in a hospital setting, for example. We have to show these sorely afflicted people our love!

What kind of aid is ACN planning to offer Damascus?

We have been working in this region for a long time. Since war broke out, we have donated over 31 million dollars in emergency aid. We are currently helping Christian families with food donations, clothing and medicine. We are also trying to set up pastoral and therapeutic care for those who are traumatized. This is very important. We are supporting the work of the religious orders – because they are vital relief workers. We are looking for places where refugee families can stay. A top priority in Damascus is helping people who have lost a family member or who have been wounded and are in need of an operation. Even in a city like Damascus there are areas that are difficult to gain access to or that have been neglected. We have to take care of the people there. We encourage our project partners to help all people who come to them.

In many ways, the current situation in Eastern Ghouta and Damascus resembles the battles for control over Aleppo in 2016. From Aleppo we heard that the churches were often the only place those in need could turn to – for Christians, but also for large numbers of Muslims. Is this also the case in Damascus?

As a Christian pastoral charity, ACN takes care of anyone who has fallen victim to this war and who is in need. To achieve this, we are also working closely together with other organizations in Damascus. This means that we can start with existing networks and build from there. The aid we provide is for everyone, no one is excluded. This, of course, also includes individual Muslims; after all, they are suffering just as much from the war as the Christians. Christian charity knows no borders and is not interested in religious affiliation. The image of Jesus Christ is reflected in the face of each and every suffering person. And this maltreated face is looking back at us from the people in Eastern Ghouta and Damascus – and is asking for our response to this unspeakable suffering!


Iraq – Visit of Mossul – Second and last part

21.02.2018 in ACN International, ACN PRESS, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, by Tobias Lehner, Feature Story, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Iraq, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau

Visit of Mossul, Iraq – Second and last part

A glimpse of hope for Christans 

This week, continue your visit wuith Nadia, inhabitan of Mossul who comebacks after more than three years in her city, Mossul. A mix of emotion, balancing between happiness and sadness, discouragement and hope. 

Nadia and Yohanna drive through the devastated Mosul to Nadia’s house. They pass a UN storage unit, of which only the building structure is still standing. “Until 1996, I worked for the UN, for the WFP, in Mosul,” says Nadia. “The world had sanctioned Iraq, but we were allowed to trade oil for food and medicine. In those days, I was responsible for Mosul’s food supply.”


Nadia has to swallow as she enters her house’s garden. In 48 degrees Celsius, the fig tree is begging for water, and the rose bushes have obviously lacked her loving care. “You would take care of the garden,” she snaps at Mothes, the temporary inhabitant of her house. “You promised.”

Damaged cross on St. George’s Monastery (Mar Gurguis) in Mossul.


With Mothes, Nadia assesses the damage: a couple of the rose bushes have not survived her absence. She tells us how she didn’t recognise the house when she and her mother first saw it back after the city’s liberation of ISIS. “Our home was damaged and dirty: all of our belongings had been thrown around. A beautiful painting of Josef, Maria and Jesus had been broken. We didn’t want to stay in Mosul for long and agreed with our neighbours that they would clean the house. I will sell the house as soon as I have the opportunity, in December me and my mother will decide what to do with it.”


Nadia is temporarily subletting the place to a Muslim family from Mosul: the forty-year-old Mothes and the thirty-three year old Zahra with their children Ufram, who is eighteen, Razak, who is fifteen, and the ten-year-old Ibrahim. During the occupation of ISIS, the family had fled to Basra, and they cannot return to their own home, because that has been destroyed.


Mothes was an officer in the Iraqi army. He tells us how he deserted after an attack from Al-Qaida. “I left Iraq and, after a journey through Samos, Greece, Germany and Denmark, I ended up in Sweden. My wife had stayed behind in Iraq and I did not receive permission to bring her to Sweden. After living in Sweden for one year, I returned to Iraq. My wish is to live in Mosul, but I will go abroad as soon as things are getting restless here again.”


Noah’s Ark


Nadia and Yohanna also enter the impressive church of the Holy Spirit. It appears that the church, built in the shape of Noah’s ark, has since the liberation in April been a shelter for four families from Zummar, which lies in the north of Iraq. Each family inhabits a separate room of the church, which was in the news in 2010 when the bishop was abducted and two priests and their guards were murdered. A third priest escaped, visited and took care of his colleagues’, his father’s and his brothers’ graves for years, and moved to Australia. “Long lives the caliphate!” The walls clad by ISIS seem to shout.

Holy Spirit Church in Mossul (built on the shape of a huge ark symbolizing Noah’s Ark) is shelter for 4 refugee families from Zummar. 


The new inhabitants of the church fled their houses from the increase in violence from ISIS three years ago. Abdullah, Mohammed, Mohammed, Muntaha, Nawaf, Raha, Raeid, Saher Yassur and Wassif are running excitedly through the large, empty hall of the church. “Due to the war, our children haven’t been able to go to school for three years,” sighs Khalil Hassan Mahammed (36). “We don’t know when this situation without a future will change.”


While his 35-year-old wife Helala Ali Saleh puts the finishing touch to the meal, Khalil tells us that they are Muslims and had to survive under ISIS’s reign for a long time. “We could not live in our own house anymore and had to stay in a refugee camp for one and a half years. Since January, the distribution of food has stopped: in the past months we received a food supply only once.”


Now the men try to provide for their families. “Sometimes I sell bottles of water, but it is hard for me to work because my leg is paralysed,” says Khalil. “Sometimes I can help restore houses that have been destroyed. That way, I can earn some money for my family.”


Khalil and Helala have no idea when they will be able to leave the church and return to their own village. “The Kurds have conquered our territory, but we heard that they have robbed our houses and destroyed them with bulldozers. The war with ISIS is over, but we still haven’t received permission from our liberators to return to our area. We don’t even know whether we’ll ever live in Zummar again.”


“Pay ransom or pay with your life”


“I can’t believe my eyes when I see what ISIS has done to my church,” whispers Nadia, while fighting tears, as she enters the Syrian Orthodox Church Mor Afraïm. “I remember sitting here, in the midst of my friends when the Mass was served very well. I remember being on the square outside with all the church members and using the rooms for meetings: the women in the rooms on the left, the men on the right. Thinking about that time saddens me deeply.”


“After the turn of the century, it was already getting worse for Christians in Mosul,” she recalls. “In 2008 and 2009, Christians were threatened, abducted and killed for their faith. I received a letter once that said I had to pay, or I would pay with my life. A well-known priest was abducted and slaughtered. His body was found back in pieces.”


“Now, the IS warriors have robbed every church, demolished them and covered them with texts: the marble plates are off the floors, the walls and arches have been broken and taken. Even the different floors have been damaged, to retrieve the threads of steel. I’m not sure my church will ever be fully restored,” Nadia sighs, as she walks past the church’s sanitary facilities that have been set outside to be sold. “The reconstruction of this church will cost a lot of money and energy, and for whom are we rebuilding it? All the Christians have left Mosul.”


“When I just looked up, I suddenly felt intense happiness. I saw that the blue dome with Jesus’ image had survived the occupation of ISIS reasonably well.  And, although not much of its beauty has remained, this image shows how beautiful my church was. The jihadists have only been able to destroy the edges of the picture. Seeing Jesus above me, in this destroyed church, gave me great joy.”

The international Catholic pastoral charity  Aid to the Church in Need is currently working to encourage the return of the Christians to their former homes in Iraq. With its Campaign “Return to the roots”, ACN is closely involved in an extensive program to rebuild the homes and churches of the uprooted Christians from the Nineveh plains region, not far from the city of Mosul. And indeed with some success – for already around a third of the Christian exiles have now returned to their homes on the Nineveh plains.

If you want to contribute to this collective effort for Christians in Iraq,
donate here. Thank you! 



ACN News – Nigeria: In spite of attacks and radicalization – the faith is growing

16.02.2018 in ACN International, Africa, Boko Haram, by Tobias Lehner, Faith, Fulani, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Karla Sponar, Nigeria, Nigeria

Nigeria: In spite of attacks and radicalization – the faith is growing

The Archbishop of Kaduna, on the situation of Christianity in his homeland


Even though the government has initiated efforts to regain control over the areas occupied by Boko Haram, attacks on Christians and their communities take place regularly, particularly in the northeastern parts of the country. Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso most recently visited his former diocese in Maiduguri on November 2nd of last year. Two days later, another attack was carried out. The present archbishop of Kaduna escaped with his life, “but once again, there were many fatalities – attacks such as these make our day-to-day lives very uncertain,” Ndagoso said.


According to international statistics, there are currently almost 1.8 million displaced persons in Nigeria; this number grew by at least 140,000 people last year alone because of ongoing attacks. The focus of the attacks is primarily markets and churches; however, Ndagoso said that mosques have also been targeted lately. “Terrorist groups pretend that they would like to pray. They mingle among those gathered in places where one would normally not suspect bomb attacks.” This spreads confusion. A

ccording to the archbishop, some of the greatest problems today are abductions and demands for ransom payments.


More groups have radicalized in the meantime, including members of the Fulani, a nomadic, pastoral people. It is conspicuous that they are outfitted with modern weapons – a circumstance that indicates that “powerful forces with connections to terrorist organizations such as IS and al-Qaeda are behind groups such as these,” Ndagoso explained. However, no matter how hard Christians are hit by the attacks, “they just grow stronger in their faith.” Not only has the number of students enrolled at the seminaries in Nigeria grown, but also the number of Christians overall. “Over the past four years, I have opened at least three new parishes per year,” reported the archbishop of Kaduna. And that although his diocese in northern Nigeria is located in what is anything but an easy environment for Christians. They are a minority living among a Muslim majority, in areas governed in part by Islamic Sharia law. Attacks on churches are a regular occurrence. Building projects for new churches are not approved. The house in Maiduguri in which Ndagoso once lived as bishop was destroyed by Boko Haram. The terrorist group was formed in a mosque in the neighbourhood of the bishop’s house.


The activities of Boko Haram are like “a wake-up call” for the Christians in his diocese, Ndagoso said. He gave the example of a church in the city of Kaduna that became the target of an attack in 2012 that killed several and wounded over a hundred. Three services a week were held there before the attack, now Holy Mass is celebrated almost every day. The number of faithful has tripled since the attack. Funding from

Archbishop Matthew Ndangoso of Kaduna

Aid to the Church in Need has made it possible to rebuild the once destroyed pastoral centre nearby.



With regard to the role of Christians in his country, Ndagoso emphasized, “We have to be as patient as God has been with all people for millennia – time and again we must take the initiative ourselves, we must take a stand for truth – because our God is a God of peace and not of violence.”


Government agencies have now allocated relief goods to the church for further distribution among displaced persons because of the transparency of the aid work carried out by Christians in the northeastern part of Nigeria.


In over ten years, Aid to the Church in Need has granted more than 14.4 million Dollars in aid to Nigeria, about 2.7 million Dollars of this in the past year alone. In addition to rebuilding church buildings destroyed by violence, the international Catholic pastoral charity, Aid to the Church in Need, has set up a special program in Maiduguri to help the widows and orphans of the victims of Boko Haram.


Nigeria: Destruction of churches and houses at Gogogodo in Jemaa local Goverment Area in Kafanchan Diocese (Kaduna State) by the Fulani Herdsmen terrorists. These are just a tip of iceberg.


“If it weren‘t for the Church, we‘d be dead by now.”

02.02.2018 in ACN International, Africa, Bishops, by Tobias Lehner, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Julie Bourdeau, Nigeria, Syria

A Syrian and a Nigerian archbishop talk about the situation of Christians in their countries

If it weren‘t for the Church, we‘d be dead by now.


At a press conference held in Cologne, Germany last weekend by the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), two archbishops from Nigeria and Syria spoke about the difficult and dramatic situation facing Christians in their respective countries. Archbishop Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso of the diocese of Kaduna, in northern Nigeria and Maronite Archbishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo, in Syria, warned about the continuing perils and threats of violence, the many uprooted people and refugees, and even the danger of the extinction of Christianity in their respective regions.


In the case of Syria, even though the so-called “Islamic State” appears almost finished, there are many other like-minded groups still active, Archbishop Tobji warned. While emphasizing that in Syria, and in Aleppo, life was indeed slowly beginning to return to normal and people were beginning to recover new hope, the consequences of the war were still being very strongly felt, he said.


“It is the entire Syrian people who have lost,” the Archbishop observed. “Everywhere, there is poverty, unemployment, unimaginable devastation of people’s homes and of the social and moral fabric of society, together with a sense of hopelessness and mistrust with regard to the future.” In this situation, the support of the Church is particularly important, he insisted, adding his particular thanks for the commitment and generosity of ACN. “Many people in Syria openly acknowledge that if it weren’t for the Church, we’d be dead by now,” he confessed.

Syria :  Sr. Marie-Claire Zacar and Sr. Pascale, in Alep. ACN helped them to renovate the nursery. (Sisters of Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours).

Archbishop Tobji also criticized the role of the international community. “It is absolutely clear to everyone,” he insisted, “that the reasons for such a disastrous war as we have endured for seven years now have nothing to do with the demand for democracy or freedom. They have much more to do with a dirty game of world economics.” He maintained that the principal factors were, above all, the arms trade, natural resources such as oil and gas, the importance of the geographical and economic position of the country and opposing world political attitudes. For the world powers, Syria was like a cake to be divided up, with each party wanting the biggest slice, he said.


The dire consequences of emigration


It is above all the younger and better-educated people who have left Syria on account of the war and the lack of future prospects, the Archbishop pointed out, adding that the consequences of this emigration are very dire. The number of Christians in Syria had now fallen to one third, he said, and while the internal refugees were now slowly returning

home, those who have moved abroad were staying put.


Similarly, in northern Nigeria, thousands of people have now fled the violence, intimidation and oppression. The Christians here are exposed not only to the attacks by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, but also to a systematic discrimination by the regional state, according to Archbishop Matthew Mano-Oso Ndagoso of Kaduna.


Nigeria is the only country in the world in which the population is more or less evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, with Christians the majority in the south and Muslims the majority in the north, Archbishop Matthew explained, adding that his own diocesan city of Kaduna is a particularly important centre of Islam in Nigeria.

Nigeria, March 2017
Stations of the cross at St. Murumba Parish


Nigeria – where Christian religious education is banned in some places


In some of the federal states of northern Nigeria, moreover, Islamic sharia law has now been introduced, and in some of the northern Nigerian provinces, Christian religious education is no longer allowed in the schools, whereas Islamic religious education is supported and Islamic teachers of religion officially employed by the state are paid out of public funds. Even mosques are being funded with public monies, whereas Christians are being refused plots of land on which to build churches, the Archbishop complained.


Archbishop Ndagoso is therefore calling for the Christian minority in the north to be given “fair treatment, based on justice and an honest approach towards one another, regardless of religious confession, tribal identity, political affiliation and social status. The Christians of Nigeria are calling for their fundamental human rights and freedoms to be honoured and respected throughout the country,” he added.


Archbishop Ndagoso also praised the support and solidarity offered by the international Catholic pastoral charity ACN, which “has always been there for our people in times of need.” Owing to the insecurity of the situation, even some of the bishops had not dared to venture into the north of Nigeria, he said. ACN was a “voice,” he added, that was giving audible expression on the international stage to the fears, anxieties and needs of the persecuted Christian minority in Nigeria.


This is why it is urgently necessary to show our solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world, said Berthold Pelster, ACN’s human rights expert, summarizing the situation at the press conference which was organized by the German branch of ACN. “In the past 30 or 40 years or so, we have seen the advance of intolerant religious ideologies, above all in parts of the Islamic world,” he said. “Following the upheavals in the Arab world since 2011, we have seen the growth of extreme forms, and meanwhile radical Islamist ideas have also been spreading increasingly on the African continent,” he added.


It is therefore crucial, he believes, to draw the attention of world public opinion again and again to the abuses against the basic right to religious freedom. For the persecuted and oppressed Christians, it is a source of a special strength in their faith to know they have not been abandoned in their need by the universal Church.


For many years now, ACN has been documenting the persecution of Christians worldwide and monitoring the situation of religious freedom in 196 countries around the world. The charity and pontifical foundation publishes its findings in a global report every other year, the only NGO to regularly do so (religious-freedom-report.org). The next global report on religious freedom will be published in the autumn of this year. In 2017, a Report dedicated to the situation of the persecuted Christians was released. Persecuted and Forgotten highlights the challenges endure by Christians in 13 countries.