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ACN International

 

Syria – young volunteers coordinate aid for 2000 displaced families

02.05.2018 in ACN Canada, ACN International, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, By Josué Villalón, Feature Story, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Julie Bourdeau, Middle East, Syria, Urgent need

Syria

Young volunteers coordinate aid for 2000 diplaced families

Several of the volunteers are themselves displaced persons, but do not hesitate to help others: “What motivates us is Jesus”

ACN (Josué Villalón, Marmarita). Eleven young people make up the team of volunteers of the parish centre of St. Peter, the Greek Catholic Church in Marmarita, which is located in the heart of the Valley of Christians, a region in Syria close to the Lebanese border. Many of the people in this region were displaced by the war and came here from all over Syria: Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, etc. This team of volunteer workers coordinates the distribution of the aid that is donated to about 2,000 families each month by the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). They are the messengers, but also the message.

“What motivates us is Jesus. It moves us deeply to be able to help people in need. For me personally, it is also the reason to remain in Syria,” comments Elías Jahloum, coordinator of the parish centre, whom everyone calls “Ili.” His mobile never stops ringing the entire time he is speaking with a delegation from ACN. “The families trust me implicitly; many of them see me as part of the family. I take them to the hospital when they are sick and later visit them at home.”

The financial aid that the pastoral charity, ACN, provides through the local Church is primarily intended for two purposes: the first involves rent payments. “The displaced families have long since used up all of their savings to pay for a place to stay. The few who were able to find work can hardly survive on what they earn,” comments Majd Jallhoum, Ili’s sister and secretary of the parish centre. “The second big project focuses on paying for health care and medicine. There isn’t even one public hospital in the entire Valley of Christians. Treatment is very expensive, as are medicines.”

ACN donates 422,800 dollars for these two projects every six months. “We are supporting 340 families with rent subsidies. Each family unit receives a monthly subsidy of about 25,000 Syrian pounds (75,50 dollars). You have to realize that the median income in Syria is currently just under 96,60 dollars.” The average rent in the Valley of Christians is 226,50 dollars a month. The rents increase in the summer months because the region is considered a “tourist” area due to its cooler climate.

Syria March 2018: From right to left, Raja Mallouhi and Issam Ahwesh, volunteers in Marmarita, Valley of the Christians.

None of the young volunteers is paid for the work they do. However, several of them are themselves displaced persons and receive aid to meet their own needs. “I, for example, receive financial aid to travel to the university and back. The university is in Homs, which is about an hour away by car. Thanks to the help I receive from ACN, I did not have to give up my studies because of the war,” explains Issam Ahwesh, who is 22 years old and is studying computer engineering. He will finish his degree this year. “My mother would be very happy if she could see how I am helping here and that I will finally be able to complete my degree. Unfortunately, she died several years before the war started.”

 

An ecumenical team

The eleven young volunteers at the parish centre of Marmarita are members of various Churches that celebrate different rites. “Some of us are Greek Catholic, others Syriac Catholic and still others, Orthodox. We do not discriminate; all of us help wherever we can and assist Father Walid.” Walid Iskandafy is a Greek Catholic priest and currently the parish priest of the church of Saint Peter.

After finishing their work, the volunteers stay to play football. Raja Mallouhi, who is studying economics in Homs, talks about how he used to play on a football team in his city. “My favourite club here is Al-Karama, the best football club in the country before the war. Outside of Syria, I am a fan of Atlético Madrid.”

They laugh when Father Iskandafy compares the eleven of them with the team of Real Madrid. “They are the players and I am their coach, Zinedine Zidane.” They are a very good team. The priest is proud of how they always discuss any new request for help or problems with one of the families with each other and try to find a solution together.

 

Inspired by the Pope

Lama Jomia has just completed his degree in tourism and currently spends his time visiting displaced families. “Several years ago, Pope Francis told us young people to have the courage to swim against the tide and be faithful to Jesus. These words encouraged us to continue our work, even though war and hate prevail in our country.”

For the volunteers, faith is the most important reason to stay in Marmarita and help those who are most in need. Another young volunteer of the group, Rafic Assi, says at the end, “I would like to tell young people in Europe and all over the world that material things are not what is most important, that they should do something with their lives and be grateful that they are able to live in peace. We also did not imagine that our lives would turn out like this, but we have not completely given up hope!”

Syria March 2018: Majd, left, with a family in need in Marmarita, Valley of the Christians.                                         


 

ACN-News – Pakistan – Archbishop appeals for prayers after attacks on Christians

26.04.2018 in ACN International, ACN Interview, Asia, By John Pontifex, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Pakistan, Persecution of Christians, Prayer

Picture: In 2017, interreligious prayer in Lahore with the Mufti of Lahore and Archbishop Shaw. 

Pakistan

Archbishop appeals for prayers after attacks on Christians

A leading Pakistani bishop has appealed for prayer after Christians in Quetta suffered their third attack in five months.

Two Christian men – identified as Rashid Khalid and Azhar Iqbal – and three others were injured after four attackers on motorbikes started shooting at people near a church in Quetta’s Essa Nagri Christian neighbourhood.

The attack, Sunday April 15th, came nearly two weeks after a family of four Catholics from Lahore was gunned down outside a relative’s house during an Easter visit to the city.

The dead – identified as Parvaiz, Kamran, Tariq and Fordous – had reportedly just stepped outside to buy ice cream when they were targeted.

According to a missionary group in Pakistan, the attackers left a pamphlet at the scene of the crime describing the killing as “the first episode of genocide against Christians”.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw: “When we are tempted to lose hope, we are reminded that, through your compassion and prayers, you are with us, by our side.”

 

Daesh (ISIS) claimed responsibility for both attacks.

 

In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore said, “The faithful in Quetta are deeply concerned and worried.

“All these sufferings and pain can be overcome by faith, so through ACN I call on everyone to pray for peace and harmony so that people of all religions may live in Pakistan in peace and harmony.”

The Archbishop, who gave the interview during a visit to ACN’s international headquarters in Königstein, Germany, said: “When we see these atrocities happening one after another, we very much depend on the spiritual communion that we have with friends and benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need.”

He added: “When we are tempted to lose hope, we are reminded that, through your compassion and prayers, you are with us, by our side.”

The Archbishop called for increased police protection. He said: “The government should provide better security so that all the people can live side by side, safe and secure.”

Quetta’s Christians were targeted again in December when two suicide bombers stormed a packed nativity service held in the city’s Bethel Methodist Church, leaving 11 dead and injuring more than 50 others.

Last October, militants hurled a grenade at a Protestant church in Quetta’s Arbab Karam Khan Road area, but nobody was hurt as worshippers had already left the building.

That same month, Pakistan was identified as a country with worsening persecution in ACN’s Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith, a report produced every two years by the charity, examining parts of the world of particular concern for the faithful under threat from religious freedom violations.

 

Pakistan is a priority country for ACN,
which works in more than 140 countries around the world.
You can give for projects in Pakistan via our website:

THANK YOU 


 

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.

 

 

 


 

ACN’s project of the week – Cuba: a Catholic calendar to accompany the faithful

25.04.2018 in ACN International, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, Cuba, Faith, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN

Success Story: Cuba

a Catholic calendar to accompany the faithful through the year

 

Each year, thanks to the help of ACN, the Cuban bishops’ conference is able to publish a Catholic liturgical and catechetical calendar, which has now become an indispensable companion through the year for many Catholics in every diocese of the country.

 

In Cuba the Church still has only very limited access to the media; consequently this calendar is a vitally important means of evangelizing, or re-evangelizing people in the country. It is very much in demand, and not only among Catholics, but even among people who otherwise have very little contact with the Church.

Cuba: Printing of the liturgical calender for 2018.

 

Each year, this colourfully illustrated calendar is devoted to a different topic, and each year it also includes many prayers, and also important messages from the Pope and the bishops. It contains many pictures, and of course, marks all the Catholic feasts and saints‘’days. So in this way it represents a companion for the Catholic faithful throughout the Church’s year.

 

The great advantage of this calendar lies in the fact that it can also be used by people who cannot afford books or who only read a little, or cannot even read at all. And the beautiful illustrations of the saints are perfect for cutting out and hanging on the wall, even after the calendar has run its course. This year the calendar had a special extra in the form of a poster-sized picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ideal for hanging or pinning up in people’s homes.

 

For the Cuban bishops this colourful calendar is an extremely important means of keeping the Faith alive and present in the family home – since every such calendar reaches an average of five people in every family. And of course, it is not only hung up in private homes or Church premises but is also seen in clinics, hospitals and other public buildings, Cuban priests report. A few years ago, in fact, it was even seen on the set of a national soap opera, screened on TV.

 

Thanks to the generosity of our benefactors, ACN was able to contribute 45,300 dollars,
so enabling some 441,400 copies to be printed.
Thousands of Cuban people are happy to know that this calendar will be available,
this year as well, to support them in their faith.
Thank you!


 

ACN Interview – “In India, the Church serves all, fighting discrimination on all fronts”

20.04.2018 in ACN Interview, ACN USA, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, By Joop Koopman, Dalits, India, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau

India

“The Church serves all, fighting discrimination on all fronts”

 

Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur was recently appointed Chairman of the Commission for Scheduled Castes (SCs)/other Backward Castes (BCs) by the Catholic Conference of Bishops of India (CBCI). An important part of the Commission’s task is to shape the Church’s policies with regard to the country’s dalits—the lowest caste in the Hindu hierarchy, formerly known as ‘untouchables’—who suffer severe discrimination in Indian society. Dalits comprise 65 percent of India’s Catholic population of close to 20 million. A native of Kandhamal, Odisha State, where some 100 Christians were murdered by a Hindu mob in 2008, Bishop Nayak is one of only 12 dalit bishops, out of a total 224. Aid to the Church in Need met him. 

 

Why are Christian (and Muslim) dalits still denied affirmative action, even though the Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens?

After independence from England in 1947, the Indian Constitution went into effect in January 1950. It guaranteed equal fundamental rights for all of its citizens, irrespective of caste and creed. On Aug. 10, 1950, a Presidential Order went into effect to grant Hindu tribal people and dalits affirmative action benefits to compensate for their low socio-economic status after centuries of neglect and discrimination. Dalits belonging to other religions, however, were not included. Eventually, Buddhist and Sikh dalits were granted the so-called ‘Scheduled Castes’ status along with the benefits. However, Muslim and Christian dalits remain deprived of these rights to this day, despite continuous protests and appeals to the government for the past 60 years.

Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur diocese in India. The motto’s Bishop is “to be a happy servant”. 

Previous governments, mostly run by the Congress Party, did not have the political will to amend the Constitution, even when they had the absolute majority in Parliament. The present BJP government, with its Hindu nationalist ideology, is openly against extending the Constitution’s affirmative action provision to Muslim and Christian dalits.

 

Is the Church in a position to change the situation? What is the Church’s strategy on this front?

Christians comprise only 2.5 percent of the total population, so politically, the Church has not been able to do much to challenge the constitutional validity of the 1950 Presidential Order. It must be challenged, as it discriminates purely on the basis of religion, which runs against the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution that hold that all citizens must be treated equally—irrespective of caste, creed, gender or religion. The Church’s sustained peaceful protests have not succeeded thus far, though news coverage has brought the issue to the attention of the general public.

As a strategy, the Church is trying to fight it out alongside Muslims and people of goodwill from other faiths and various political ideologies. The Church is also trying to unite all dalits on this issue; unfortunately, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh dalits are concerned that the extension of benefits to Muslims and Christians might reduce their benefits. Finally, the Church approaches the issue from a human rights perspective. The deprivation of dalit Christians is a violation of human rights, a violation by international standards.

 

Some believe that if Christian dalits were granted government benefits many Hindu dalits would convert to Christianity. What are the aspects of the Christian life that are attractive to lower-caste Hindus?

The fear of mass conversions to Christianity seems unfounded; it is also another form of degrading dalits to presume they would change their religion to gain material benefits. This has been the strategy of the Hindu mind-set, irrespective of political ideologies: to instil fear of a mass exodus in the Hindu majority. Facts prove that the opposite is true: even though dalit Christians are deprived of government benefits, and even, in some states, suffer discrimination, they still remain faithful to their faith—even to the point of suffering martyrdom. What’s more, when the affirmative action provisions were extended to Buddhists and Sikhs, Muslim and Christian dalits or Hindu dalits did not join those faiths.

 

It is true, however, that Christians are known for their peace-loving, service-minded way of life that respects all people and that is dedicated to mission work. Hindu fundamentalists try to prevent or put obstacles in the way of Christian services such as those in the fields of education, health care or social services, lest people become attracted and embrace Christianity. Six states have anti-conversion laws in place to prevent any conversions. It is often said and accepted as fact that, though they only account for 2.5 percent of the population, Christians provide 20 percent of national services in various fields—yet, the size of the Christian community has not grown much in India.

 

Can you explain why Hindu nationalists are so hostile to Christianity?

In February 2016: Visit to a Hindu Temple.

First of all, they associate colonial British rule with Christianity. Relatively few British came to India, and yet they ruled it for more than 200 years; the Hindu nationalists fear that if there are more Christians in India, they will rule India again. Christianity is seen as a foreign religion. Secondly, Christianity challenges various tenets and practices of the Hindu religion and Hindus fear losing their influence.

For example, the Christian faith challenged the age-old practice of sati pratha, by which a widow was burned alive together with the dead body of the husband; the Hindu religion held that women have no independent existence apart from men—that widows have no right to exist, to own property or to remarry. That practice is almost fully eradicated today. Secondly, there is the jati pratha (the Caste System), which classifies people according to their birth and treats them as low or high. There are no social relationships allowed among the various castes.

Dalits are considered outcasts or untouchables—even coming under their shadow is considered to make someone impure. The caste system does not allow a person to take up a profession other than the job of the caste or family one is born into. The Church strives to eradicate casteism. It promotes and upholds the equal dignity and rights of every citizen.

The hindutwa ideology espoused by Hindu nationalists is trying to impose cultural nationalism, which calls for one culture, one language and one religion. While faithful to the teachings of Christ, the Church recognizes, respects and promotes the pluralism of cultures and language.

Finally, Hinduism is steeped in many dark beliefs, including the practice of black magic, sorcery, etc., which are used to exploit, torture and blackmail people. The Church, through education and awareness-raising, especially among dalits and tribal people, liberates people from these evil forces.

 

What are the bishops doing to combat discrimination against Catholic dalits within the Church itself?

At many national meetings, the bishops of India have issued statements calling for the end of the discrimination against dalits and of casteism, not only in the Church but also in society at large. However, casteism appears to be deeply rooted in the psyche of many Indians, including Christians. The “tail” of casteism survives even after Baptism. Now, by formally adopting the dalit policy in the Church, the Indian bishops have committed to a campaign to empower the dalits and educate all the faithful, reaffirming the equality of all people, and stressing the fact that dalits must be given equal opportunity in various professional and social fields.

 

How does the tension play out between deep-rooted Hindu notions of purity and the Gospel’s message that all men and women are equally worthy in the eyes of God?

Casteism in India is not only part of the Hindu religion—it is part of the Indian culture. Even though the Constitution of India forbids the practice of casteism, it still exists; and, sadly, it still exists even among Christians. In the past, as part of a missionary strategy for evangelization, casteism was tolerated by some missionaries, and some of that attitude persists today. Christianity is believed to first have been brought to Kerala and some parts of Tamilnadu by St. Thomas; local higher-caste Christians for centuries claimed a direct bloodline to the apostle; because of this caste mentality, the faith remained confined to that region and did not spread to other parts of the country for more than 1,500 years. It is only when St. Francis Xavier came to India that Christianity spread.

India, February 2018:  Holy Eucharist in a village – dalit community

 

You are a dalit yourself; what has been your experience pursuing your vocation in the Church?

I personally did not experience any discrimination in my childhood and even during my seminary formation. Discriminating against people according to caste is not only un-Christian; it is also inhuman. I am happy to be a priest and consider my priesthood to be the greatest gift God has given me for the good of His people. The episcopacy is an added responsibility and I try “to be a happy servant,” which is the motto of my episcopate. Being a dalit, it may be easier for me than for others to understand the concept of a being servant; and as a first generation Christian in my family, my faith in Christ brings me great happiness—as it is still new and still uncontaminated.

 


 

ACN Feature Syria: The 300 Christians of Krak des Chevaliers, a World Heritage Site

19.04.2018 in ACN Feature, ACN International, Construction, Feature Story, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Syria

Syria

The 300 Christians of Krak des Chevaliers, a World Heritage Site

Father George Maamary, parish priest of the Church of the Assumption, which is close to the fortress, is asking our help to rebuild their church so that the families can return there soon

ACN (Josué Villalón, Qalat’al Hosn).- Qalat’al Hosn is a village in western Syria in a region known as the Valley of the Christians, best known for the imposing fortress, Krak des Chevaliers, which dominates the area. The castle is a World Heritage Site, one of the historic jewels of Syria and a place which, before the war, attracted tourists from all over the world.

 

“A group of Salafists and Muslim extremists arrived here, many of them from Lebanon, crossing over the border which is only about 30 km (20 miles) away. They seized control of the fortress and the village,” explains Father George Maamary, parish priest of the local Catholic community. “As soon as they arrived, they came to the church where I was living, forced their way in and abducted me. They beat me, so that afterwards I had to have an operation on my shoulder. Thanks be to God, my imprisonment did not last long; they exchanged me for a jihadist fighter who had been captured by the government.”

Syria: Father George Maamary, Parish priest of Al Hosn, town next to the fort. The Church was destroyed by jihadists who took the town and the fort. It was released in 2014. 

At that time the village had around 25,000 inhabitants of various religions, most of them Sunni and Shia Muslims. There were also around 300 Christians, living around the only Christian church, Our Lady of the Assumption, which belongs to the Greek Catholic Church.

As soon as news of the abduction of Father Maamary came to the ears of his Christian neighbours, they all abandoned their homes for fear of suffering the same fate. “It was a warning. Since then, not one Christian family has returned to live here.” That was six years ago.

The rebel groups had wanted to turn the fortress into a second Palmyra – a world-renowned historic site, and also one of great strategic and sentimental importance for the Syrian people. The fortress was damaged by the rebel groups and by the fighting to recover it, along with a considerable part of the village itself. In 2014, the castle and the village were reconquered by the Syrian army. This was the only place in the Valley of the Christians where there was fighting. As for the rest, this region has become a place where many refugees now live, since it is one of the more peaceful parts of the country.

But before this there was looting, and among the places that were looted were the church and the homes of the Christians. “The life of the community used to revolve around the church,” Father George explains to a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “We had a basketball pitch and rooms for catechesis and other gatherings. You can see how everything is now,” he adds. The church is also linked to various other buildings, and there was formerly a hotel named after John Paul II, which welcomed tourists who had come to visit the fortress. They also had other centres, with up to 17 shops, a restaurant, a café, and various souvenir and gift shops.

The war has left a terrible wound

After the fighting, the conflict continued. The vengeance against the Sunnis was terrible on the part of the government troops, linked to the Assad government and pro-Shiite. Father George had to hasten back and mark the houses of the Christians with black crosses, so that the soldiers did not burn them down also.

“Before the fighting, life between Christians and Muslims was good,” said Father George. Now the war has left a terrible wound that will take years to heal. “It is safe again now in this region, but there is still no electricity or water,” he adds. As a result, the Christians have been unable to return despite the fact that the village was liberated all of four years ago. “The sense of helplessness of these families is very great; they are still uprooted and living in other villages of the Valley of the Christians, such as Marmarita and Kafra, only 10 km away from here, and yet they still cannot return.”

Syria, March 2018: Fr. George Maamary, Samir Bashur (christian neighbor), and Fr. Bassam Maamary, cousin of Father George who is reapering his family house.

Around the Church of the Assumption, there are a few houses that people have begun to rebuild. One of them belongs to the family of Bassam Maamary, a cousin of Father George and himself a priest. “I have begun to rebuild the house with my own money, in order to show my neighbours that it is possible to return, that there is still hope,” he says.

He is being helped with the electric wiring by a young man named Wagdi Yazzi. He too is from the village of Al Hosn. “It won’t take much for us to return; but first we need the government to reconnect the water and electricity,” he says, adding, “Life here was very pleasant and peaceful. We had contact with people from all over the world and we were a very open village.”

Another neighbour appears, walking up an alleyway. He is Samir Bashur and he explains that he is also working on his house and that he comes here from time to time, little by little repairing the damage. He thinks that if people are to return here permanently, they will first have to rebuild the church. “It is a place that is very important to us, where we celebrate the most important feasts together, where we meet and pray together, along with our parish priest.”

Father George assures that he has not lost contact with the other families. “We are doing the impossible to help them on a daily basis, and so that they will be able to return to their homes.” He thanks ACN for the aid provided for the care of these refugees, and he is also hoping to be able to begin soon on the rebuilding of their church.

Father George Maamary, Parish priest of Al Hosn, town next to the fort shows the destruction made by djihadits.

“We are praying for peace in our country. And also for all the people who are helping us from other countries. You are all very welcome to come here. We need the people and the tourists to return.”

 

And finally, Father Maamary expresses his gratitude for the support of Pope Francis, who has sent aid directly each year for the families and the priests. “He is a humble man, he is doing great things for Syria, including through his prayer and his messages of peace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Philippines: “The reconstruction of the city of Marawi will take years”

13.04.2018 in ACN Feature, Asia, By Reinhard Backes, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Marawi, Philippines

Philippines:

“The reconstruction of the city of Marawi will take years”

 

Reinhard Backes travelled to the Philippine city of Marawi for the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need. The Christian minority in the city was suppressed for months by Islamists. An interview about relations between Christians and Muslims in the region and how the aftermath of the conflict is being dealt with.

 What has been happening in Marawi over the last few months?

The city is a centre of the Muslim faith on Mindanao, even though the island itself, the second largest of the Philippines, has a Christian majority. And of all places, this was the place that was targeted by Islamist extremists. It all started on May 23, 2017. The Philippine military had planned an operation to arrest the leader of the so-called “Islamic State” of the region. However, extremists beat them to it and occupied the historic city centre of Marawi until well into October. In the end, the conflict was resolved through violence. The army heavily bombed the city centre. According to official sources, 920 extremists, 165 soldiers and 45 civilians were killed.

 

Was this more of a spontaneous attack, or had the occupation been planned for a long time?

Apparently the attackers were well prepared and well informed about the planned military operation. They may even have been warned by informants within the military. However, like so many other things, this is a matter of speculation because detailed information about what happened during the attack on Marawi is still not available. When I visited the city in early March, it was explained to me that the majority of extremists were Indonesians. Mindanao is easy to reach from Indonesia by sea. It apparently was, and still is, difficult for the military to control the ocean route. Observers believe that the army was not prepared for such a threat.

March 2018: visit to the historic centre of Marawi city, now called Ground Zero. During the Marawi siege, which lasted from May to October 2017, military airstrikes have transformed what was once the pride of Muslim Mindanao into rubble.

Were the Islamists helped by members of the general population?

It has to be assumed that they did receive some sort of “backing” from the general population. After all, the extremists apparently used a tunnel system to move about underground. And something like that certainly does not happen overnight.

 

According to media reports, Christians were taken hostage, among them a priest.

Many hostages were taken, the majority of which were Christians. Apparently the Catholic Saint Mary’s Cathedral was one of the first sites targeted by the extremists in the city. It is to be assumed that they wanted to take the bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña, hostage, but he was not in the city centre at the time. And so they took the vicar general, Teresito Suganob, and other believers instead. However, the Islamists also took hostages from among the Muslims whom they accused of collaborating with the Christians.

 

Was Saint Mary’s Cathedral defiled or desecrated in any way?

March 2018: image of paradise, but this is just an illusion. These two men were abducted by the islamists, for weeks. They keep psychological wounds. ACN will support program that will help them to recover.  

Yes. The church is pretty much completely destroyed, including all sculptures, statues of Our Lady and crucifixes. I saw a statue of the Virgin Mary that had been beheaded. They probably burned the head. All that was left was the clothed corpus. From an architectural standpoint, the cathedral is a rather simple, hall-like structure. Marawi is majority Muslim and so it was not acceptable to build an overly conspicuous Christian church. The Catholic community there has only a few thousand members, who are scattered for the time being.

 What was the relationship between Christians and Muslims before the Islamists invaded?

Just as in other countries such as Pakistan, where Christians are only a small minority among Muslims, they try to establish a good relationship with their Muslim neighbours. At least this is what I have noticed on the Catholic side. This is also the reason why Christians usually maintain close ties to the Muslim authorities, and Marawi was no exception. The same is probably also true for the Muslims, because the vast majority just wanted to coexist peacefully with their neighbours. This is why relations were mostly friendly. Now, however, a certain degree of distrust pervades.

 

How is the bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña, dealing with the situation?

Bishop de la Peña is very keen on reconciling the two sides. That is why he has not made rebuilding the cathedral a top priority. He is focusing on strengthening the feeling of community and rebuilding relations between people and religions.

 

Have specific projects been developed to work towards these goals?

The diocese has started a number of initiatives. One of these is a rehabilitation centre, which offers assistance to over 200 people who were held captive for months and suffered physical and emotional torment. The centre is open to both Christians and Muslims. The counselling services include group and individual therapy sessions for women, girls and teenagers who have been raped, for men who have fallen victim to violence or were beaten, and for children who need to be reintegrated into daily life following the terrible experiences they have suffered.

 

And you mentioned another project…

It is called “Youth for Peace” and is also an initiative of the local Church. As part of this project, 184 predominately Muslim students attending Mindanao State University visit refugee camps. Thousands upon thousands of people fled the city centre during the conflict and are now living in camps that were set up outside of the city. The objective of “Youth for Peace” is to help these refugees, showing them “we are here for you, we want to recreate that which we once had, namely, a peaceful coexistence”: this is what the students want to achieve. In doing so, it does not matter whether the refugees are Christian or Muslim.

Inside the markedly destroyed St. Mary’s Cathedral of Marawi.

How is Aid to the Church in Need supporting these projects?

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) first provided emergency relief for the refugees during the conflict. Now we would like to help make sure that the rehabilitation centre can continue its work. We are also supporting the “Duyog Marawi” Peace Corridor Program of the local Church. “Youth for Peace” is one of the projects started by this program. So far, two vehicles have been donated, a van and a transporter. Further aid is planned. We are also talking about helping to set up shelters for the refugees who have been living for months in tents. With tropical temperatures far exceeding 30 degrees, conditions inside the tents are almost impossible to endure. And then it also starts raining, at times heavily. Tents are therefore not a long-term solution. Instead, small temporary houses are being discussed, which should meet the needs of the refugees for the time being. ACN may become involved in this.

 

Is there a realistic chance that the city can be rebuilt in the next few years?

Reconstruction will certainly take many years. I have never seen a city centre destroyed to the degree that Marawi has been. And not much has happened since the fighting ended in October last year. The military says that all the unexploded bombs, ammunition and booby traps left behind by the extremists first need to be removed.

 

What are your thoughts now after your trip?

On the one hand, it is quite dramatic to see how Islamists have used and destroyed an entire city, an established culture, and to what extremes ideological delusion can lead. On the other hand, I was very surprised by the people of Marawi. Their situation may be catastrophic, but they have hope, they are taking action. I learned how important their Catholic faith is to them, the selfless concept of charity, which can be seen in the concrete aid being offered to the victims. And it was very encouraging to see how openly the young volunteers, both Muslims and Christians, interacted with each other. Almost in unison they said that by working together, they came to understand the beliefs of the others better, but at the same time, were strengthened in their own sense of identity.

During the Marawi siege, which lasted from May to October 2017, military airstrikes have transformed what was once the pride of Muslim Mindanao into rubble. On the picture: View of the destroyed historic Centre of Marawi city.                                                                   


 

 

 

ACN’s Project of the Week – Lebanon – To help more than the body

11.04.2018 in ACN International, ACN PROJECTS, Aid to refugees, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, Emergency Aid, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Lebanon, Middle East, Refugees, Syria

ACN’s Project of the Week – Lebanon

To help more than the body

For many people in Lebanon one hot meal a day is by no means something to be taken for granted. In the town of Zaleh the poverty is particularly acute. The town is not far from the Syrian border, and as a result many refugees have ended up here, having left all their possessions behind in Syria. And even among the local Lebanese population there are many needy people, especially among the elderly and the children whom nobody seems to be caring for.

 

This was the reason why the Melkite Greek Catholic Church decided to set up the St. John the Merciful Table in 2015 to help these people, among other things by providing a regular hot meal, or “food table”. It is named after the seventh century Saint John the Merciful – and not by chance, since St. John was renowned for his exceptional love for the poor. Wherever he saw need, he worked with all his energies and all his resources to alleviate it. When he finally became Patriarch of Alexandria he was feeding some 7,900 poor people on a daily basis. He died around the year 619 and is revered as a saint both by Catholics and by Orthodox Christians.

Zahle, Lebanon, Syrian refugees: “All of us feel the love of Jesus, our Saviour in this way. It is a sign of his love for us all, one that helps to heal every wound”, says one of the women helpers.

Today the outreach ministry provides around a thousand people with a hot meal each day, an increase of 400 people compared to the previous year. Many Syrian refugees are also involved, helping in the kitchens, so that they can also have the opportunity to earn a living. There is a dietary assistant from a Catholic hospital in the town who helps to ensure that the food is nutritionally well-balanced and healthy.

 

But of course, it is not merely about food for the body but also about communicating the love of God and human warmth and affection to those in need. Many are quite alone. The St. John the Merciful table has become a place for them to gather, not only to eat, but also to talk with other people, share their warmth and a smile and a sympathetic ear to listen to their concerns. Prayers are said before every meal and a hymn is sung, underlining the fact that this is above all about the care of souls. It is important for everyone to experience this spiritual dimension. “All of us feel the love of Jesus, our Saviour in this way. It is a sign of his love for us all, one that helps to heal every wound”, says one of the women helpers.

For the elderly and sick, who cannot get out of their homes, the food is brought to them by volunteers.


Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting this project ever since it began. This year we will be giving 1,178,000 for the coming year.

 

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St. John the Merciful Table: more than food, but a place where spiritual life can also be feed.                                                                                                                                                                


 

India: A Church that goes to the poorest of the poor

06.04.2018 in ACN International, Asia, Feature Story, India, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Karla Sponar

India

A Church that goes to the poorest of the poor

Bita lives in a mud-walled hut with an earthen floor. Actually, it is only a few mud walls covered by a plastic sheet. Her old house burned down a year ago. “That was a great misfortune.” One of the children saw the fire start just in time and was able to pull the younger sister out of the house, the mother of three says. The church community then helped her obtain a small loan. This allowed her to temporarily move into a nearby dwelling, although it is not much more than a makeshift shelter of mud and straw: one room to sleep in, one to cook and live in, both of them only about three by three metres.

Most of the Dalits live in extremely close quarters, and their space is even further restricted. “There are a lot of things that Dalits are not permitted to touch; they may not be touched and may not set down their things everywhere,” Father John explains. His name has been changed for his safety. For decades, he has been working with Dalits, the members of the lowest caste in India. “The cooking area, for example, is a holy place. Once, I put down a drinking glass in the wrong place. It was a huge drama,” the priest recalls. For the host he was visiting, it was an affront that made it “unholy.” For the Dalits it is like a ban. They believe that disaster will befall anyone who doesn’t respect it.

India, February 2017: Bita (name changed for security reasons) with one of her sons at home in Bihar State. Faith in the Gospel and joy of Christ changed her life and the future with hope in Bihar State.

 

 

 

 

Plagued by a spirit world
Bita once believed this as well. “I was very scared and afraid of bad spirits.” It was an imaginary world that began to plague her more and more. “I was even afraid to get out of bed and walk. I became ill.”

 

Then she met a Christian woman who told her about the Bible. The message that there is a God who is a champion of the poor and the lowest in society, who invites them to join His community, goes beyond anything that the Dalits can imagine. This Christian invitation also began to exert its influence on Bita. Today, she is being pressured by her neighbours. Most people in the village are members of other religions and distrust how Bita is growing closer and closer to the Catholic community. “I fear that they are also a little envious because I am now part of a community that supports me. That I am feeling better again, since I started going to church.”

 

Strengthened, yet under new threat as a minority
Anyone who visits Bita can feel some of the anxiety that hangs in the air. Bita and a small handful of other people have now converted to Christianity. They are a minority among neighbours who are trying to get Bita to leave the church. However, she remains true to her faith. “I have also convinced my husband. He stands by me now. We have more joy in our lives and also earn a little more. We have hope again. We have put our faith in God and the church.”
When asked which passage from the Bible she likes best, she takes a moment to reflect. “Jesus says, love thy neighbour. That gives me strength.”

 

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) support Christians in India, especially in the North-East of the country, for many years now. Nationalist groups have branded them the enemy of Indian society. ACN is presenting projects that support the poorest of the poor so that they can live their faith and develop as individuals in dignity: www.india.acninternational.org

 

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ACN’s Project of the week – Guatemala – a car for a very large parish

05.04.2018 in ACN BENEFACTORS, ACN International, ACN PROJECTS, Central America, Guatemala, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, MOTORIZATION

Guatemala

A car for pastoral work in a very large parish

The parish of El Calvario in  Cobàn is under the care of three priests belonging to the congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Although the parish church is close to the city centre, the parish itself covers a vast and mountainous area of 2,000 square kilometres, with 117 outlying communities to care for, and there is only three priests! In comparaison, the Megacity and capital of Japan, Tokyo, is a little bigger.

 

The challenges are enormous , and the distances considerable, and often on poor roads. The northern part of the region is unsafe on account of the drug traffickers, organized crime, and three quarters of the population live in poverty, often extreme poverty. Most of the population belong to the indigenous Kekchi (or Q’eqchi) tribe. The first roads into the region were only built in the 1960s and 1970s, and to this day the Kekchi still live on the margins of society.

In the mountain of Guatemala, in a territory a little bit less larger than Japan’s capital and megacity Tokyo, the three religious of the congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary wants to improve the time they passed with their parishioners. A new car will be of great help! 

 

 

During the civil war that lasted from 1968 until 1996 many people were abducted and tortured or lost close family members, and many children were orphaned. “The wounds from this time have still not healed,” says Father Charitable Derisseau, who in fact comes from Haiti himself. “The widows, orphans and other survivors of this conflict are still living here in our parish”, he adds. Father Derisseau has left his own country, the poorest in the Western hemisphere, to devote his life to the poor in Guatemala.

 

The Catholic Church here is devoting itself particularly to the Kekchi people. “They are the majority in our parish, and they are particularly poor and marginalized”, their parish priest tells us. Many of their villages can only be reached on foot, which means that the priests sometimes have to wade through the mud to get to their destination. “Generally, we aim to visit 10 communities in five days. Sometimes we have to walk for hours to get from one village to another. But although walking through the mud is extremely hard work and makes us sweat and struggle, we are welcomed with such warmth and celebration”, he tells us. The Catholic faithful are overjoyed when the priest comes, bringing them the Sacraments and helping them with wise spiritual and practical counsel. Many of the villages can, however, be reached along very poor, muddy and deeply potholed tracks – but these can only be managed in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

 

At present the priests do have an old car, which is causing them more and more problems, however, and so they have asked our help for a new vehicle that can cope with the difficult conditions. We have promised them 22 650 dollars.

Guatemala: Father Charitable Derisseau presiding the Eucharist with his parishioners. 

 

 

 

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