Enough indifference toward those suffering...

Enough indifference toward those suffering for their Faith!

Colosseum Bathed in Red Light to Remember World’s Persecuted Christians, Initiative of Aid to the Church in Need.

“There are millions of people in the world who are suffering for their faith, and we pretend as though it were nothing,” the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, denounced to Zenit on Saturday, February 24, in front of the Colosseum illuminated in red.

Even if historians cannot definitively say whether the most famous monument had Christians martyred there, the effect of those mighty walls all dyed red, the color of the blood of the martyrs, yesterday and today, was evocative.

“A very touching event, because it moved us with situations of great pain, great suffering and also great faith, with the intent to shake us out of indifference,” was how Cardinal Parolin described it to Zenit.

Among the hundreds of millions of people who still suffer discrimination or, worse, persecution because of their religious faith, the most numerous are undoubtedly Christians. To them, the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need has dedicated the gesture of illuminating with red light simultaneously, three symbolic places of ancient and modern Christian martyrdom, connected to each other via Skype: the Colosseum in Rome; the Maronite cathedral of St. Elias, in Aleppo, Syria, whose roof was destroyed by bombings; the Chaldean church of St. Paul in Mosul, Iraq, where on December 24, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldean Catholics, Louis Raphael I Sako, celebrated the first Mass after liberation from the Isis.

But the catalog of countries hostile to religious freedom and in particular to Christians, drafted each year by “Aid to the Church in Need”, goes far beyond Syria and Iraq. There is Pakistan, from where Ashiq and Eisham, arrived in Rome. They are respectively the husband and fifth and last daughter of Asia Bibi, sentenced to death in 2009 for alleged offenses to the prophet Muhammad. Asia’s only ‘crime’ was that she drank water from the same glass as some Muslim women.

Now she is in prison, in isolation. Only a 15-minute meeting is allowed each month for Ashiq and his five children. The last time her children saw her outside the prison she had tied to her neck a belt, ‘like a dog,’ stripped and bleeding, Eisham said, bursting into tears.

Another of the testimonies offered to the public while the Colosseum lit up red is that of Rebecca Bitros, 28, a Nigerian, kidnapped by the Islamic terrorists of Boko Haram, who raped and tortured her only because she is Christian, before she managed to free herself, two years later. Then she gave birth to the son of one of her jailers.

When the militia of Boko Haram assaulted her village, she preferred to surrender herself to them along with her two children, allowing her husband to escape, otherwise he certainly would have been killed. From the years passed in prison, she remembers the rosary she had with her that she recited, the constant threats of the terrorists, the continuous beatings, the killing of one of her two sons thrown into a river, trying to force her to deny her faith and embrace Islam.

Both Rebecca and the relatives of Asia Bibi had been received on Saturday morning by Pope Francis at the Vatican.

“I think of your mother very often and I pray for her,” the Pope told Eisham. For Pope Francis, Asia Bibi and Rebecca are two “martyrs,” he said during the meeting which lasted 40 minutes, compared to the 15 initially planned in the dense agenda of the Pope, as reported by the director of Aid to the Church in Need, Alessandro Monteduro.

Today’s Christian martyrs are “victims of the propagation of a mentality that does not make room for others, which prefers to suppress rather than integrate them, in order to not put in question their own convictions,” said Cardinal Parolin in his speech: “Only by returning to God, the source of the dignity of every human being, can we become peacemakers and reunite societies broken up by hatred and violence.”

At the event under the Colosseum was also the president of the European Parliament, Italian Antonio Tajani, to affirm that “Europe must continue to make its voice heard. We must not lower our guard because the less we talk, the more the freedom of Christians in the world is trampled. It is a question of freedom, of defending the values ​​of our identity as Europeans. We must neither be resigned in the face of these acts, but neither must we renounce acting against them.”

For the general secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, “The blood of the new martyrs is a condemnation of the superficiality with which we live the faith, too often reduced to appearance, to ceremonies that are not binding, containing pious but irrelevant words. It is sad to see the intermittent compassion of some humanitarian agencies, according to whom, there is violence to condemn, while others can be ignored.”

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary and international president of ‘Aid to the Church in Need’, gave the last address, in which he urged for an overthrowing of “the walls of death, starting with that of our indifference; we cannot fail to hear the cry of all the ‘Abels’ of the world ascending to God.”

‘Aid to the Church in Need’ has already promoted other similar events by illuminating in red, famous monuments such as the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the Parliament and the Cathedral of Westminster in London, Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre in Paris and finally the Cathedral of Manila.

According to a report by this Pontifical Foundation on “Persecuted and Forgotten?” Christians between 2015 and 2017, the persecution of Christians today is more serious than in any other historical period. The report speaks of persecution in Egypt, Iran and India and of the extreme degree of persecution in Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Sudan.

DR Congo: Suffering for other nations interests

The international community is profiting from a humanitarian crisis sweeping the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a senior cleric, who accuses the West of deliberate inaction in the face of extreme violence in the country.

Father Apollinaire Cikongo, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Kananga, which covers part of the DRC, told Aid to the Church in Need about widespread exploitation in the country and that Western powers are guilty of “a conspiracy of silence that is very profitable economically”. Describing the violence in the DRC as having domestic and global causes, he said: “[We] are still living through a silent war, the most murderous war since the Second World War. But, instead of bombing campaigns, we have to face the bombs and bullets of the army and the police, of the rebel militias and foreign troops.”

Saying that the DRC was still suffering from the West’s “legacy of disdain and indifference”, Father Cikongo said: “And to this we have to add economic interests of Western powers and their regional representatives which have for decades been playing a pernicious role in the conflict.” He added: “But we will be praying… for the conversion of those responsible – both within and outside the country – for these misfortunes.”

In previous ACN interviews, Father Cikongo and fellow DRC priest Father Richard Muembo have described corruption in the mining of coltan, a so-called ‘blood ore’, used in smartphone batteries and computers. Father Cikongo said Pope Francis and others in the Church had raised awareness of DRC’s plight but that most of the world’s media were silent.

He said: The world knows well what is going on here but, since our sufferings are serving the material interests of other nations, there is a deliberate intellectual and media silence on the part of the major powers.” The priest added: “But in this world dominated by the mass media [Pope Francis’] voice is not enough to wake up a world faced with a conspiracy of silence that is very profitable economically.” He said that political instability had resulted from the DRC’s President Joseph Kabila ignoring the legal expiry of his term of office – the end of 2017.

The Kasayi region in the south of the country is among the areas worst affected by increased clashes over the past year between armed militias and the army. Father Cikongo said: “There is a crisis in the government of the country and the various resulting outbreaks of violence with their dire impact on the economy.” He added: “There is no security, and people’s fundamental civil and political rights are simply being trampled underfoot.”

The UN World Food Programme last month described the situation in the DRC as a developing humanitarian catastrophe – with ACN noting a refugee crisis that is numerically worse there than in Iraq.

Saying that DRC people lacked basic services, Father Cikongo said: “The situation in Congo is deeply worrying. The conditions regarding food supplies and healthcare are alarming, and access to basic services such as schooling, drinking water and electricity is worse. According to a study carried out by the bishops’ assembly of the Kasayi region, around 80 percent of the children there are suffering [from] chronic malnutrition.”

Father Cikongo is a professor at the major seminary in Malole, partially burnt by militia last February. In a message to ACN benefactors and others who helped repair it, he said: “Thanks to the generosity of so many Catholics, we were able to resume our courses on 16th June 2017, after being closed for four months.” Father Cikongo added: “Despite the deep night we have been going through for decades, with all its darkness, God is not like a distant and absent pharaoh. We are suffering but we are able to endure because God suffers in us and nobody can overcome Him.”

The DRC is a priority for ACN aid and last year the charity supported 1,229 seminarians spread across 41 seminaries in the country.

Iraq: A Muslim gesture of reconciliation

In Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city in the North, the Christmas bells rang out again this year for the first time in four years. During the preceding years this once so familiar sound had no longer been heard. Now, for the first time since the war, the Christians were able to celebrate Holy Mass at Christmas in the church of Mar Boulus (Saint Paul) in the Al-Mundshen suburb of Mosul. However, even as recently as just before Christmas it had been near impossible for the Christians to clean their church in Mosul. But then a group of young Muslims took the initiative, even re-erecting the Cross and, in a sign of reconciliation, inviting all Christians to celebrate Christmas in Mosul.

High-ranking representatives of the Christian Church in the region celebrated Christmas mass in Mosul especially for 400 displaced Christian families. The service was led by Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako and the Bishop of Babylon, Shlemun Warduni (both Chaldeans), the Syriac Catholic Archbishop Youhanna Moutros Moshe from Mosul, and the Syriac Orthodox Bishop Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf. Also among the guests of honor were the presidents of the universities of Mosul und Niniveh.

While most displaced Christians are still living in the Erbil refugee camp, the first 60 families have recently decided to return to Mosul, according to Patriarch Sako. “The efforts of the churches to recreate a stable and peaceful environment for the local population have borne further fruit,” stated Andrzej Halemba, desk officer for the Middle East at Aid to the Church in Need.

“Let us hope that the light of Jesus may shine in their hearts and bring light to our wounded world,” said the Dominican Father Najeeb Michaeel, who referred to this special Christmas service as one of the highlights in recent months.

In 2003 around 1.3 million Christians were living in Iraq, accounting for approximately 8% of the total population. Today their number has fallen to only around 250,000, representing less than 1% of the population, according to ACN. Until recently there were no Christians left in Mosul, since they were all forced to flee from the advancing terrorists of the so-called Islamic State and seek refuge in the town of Erbil in the autonomous Kurdish region of northeastern Iraq.

ACN is currently working to encourage the return of the Christians to their former homes in Iraq. With its appeal for a “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. ACN is continuing to call for donations to support the Iraqi Christians in returning to their homeland.


Uganda: A new place of grace comes into being

“Don’t go there, they worship the devil there,” the people warned Bishop Francis Aquirinius Kibira. The region located in the southwestern part of Uganda at the border to the Democratic Republic of the Congo was considered a gloomy and dangerous place. Violence and crime were a normal part of daily life, drug consumption and prostitution all-pervasive. However, more than anything, the area was known for its followers of witchcraft. A lot of damage was done by magic rituals and occult practices, with symptoms of obsession, suicides and destroyed families being just a few of the consequences.

However, the new bishop of Kasese did not let the warnings deter him: only two days after his ordination in July 2014, he drove out to this border region. He stopped at a chapel in the village of Kabuyiri. When he entered the chapel, he came upon twenty young women, 16 to 20 years of age, all of them paralysed. The catechist explained to the bishop that they had been “bewitched”. The bishop began to pray, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, You have sent me to this diocese, do good here. Heal these girls in Your Almighty Name.” According to Bishop Kibira, it was not long before the girls got up and were able to walk again.

The bishop was surprised to learn that the chapel had been built in 1982 by a police officer who, in response to the many problems afflicting the area, had understood that “Jesus was needed here”. “However, I did find it strange that there was no priest in the area,” Bishop Kibira commented in an interview Aid to the Church in Need. “Deep down inside, I heard a voice saying to me that a priest was needed there. I also suddenly realised that this would be a good place for a Shrine of The Divine Mercy.”

The bishop visited the priest who oversaw the parish in which the chapel is located. The priest could not believe that the bishop was in fact serious about his idea. He argued that up until that point, all priests had refused to visit and work in that place. Unperturbed, the bishop set a deadline for the foundation of a new Shrine of The Divine Mercy. He soon also found a priest who was willing to serve there.

The shrine was completed in 2016, the Holy Year of Mercy, and has in the meantime become a place of grace for countless people. Holy Mass is celebrated there every day, and at 3 pm, the hour of Jesus’ death, the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy is prayed. The Blessed Sacrament is also exposed for worship each day. Hundreds of believers gather even on workdays, on Sundays and holidays they number in the thousands. Every Monday, a large number of believers receives the Sacrament of Penitence. Many also use the opportunity to confide their personal problems to a priest and ask him for advice and help. Local priests have told the bishop that this has resulted in the reconciliation of many broken families.

Bishop Kibira himself is deeply moved, “I cannot believe it! Every seat is taken, thousands came on the Feast of Divine Mercy and knelt before the Blessed Sacrament. That evening, as I lay in bed, I shed tears of joy. Before, everyone was saying, ‘You can’t go there, you could be killed, that is a mistake.’ But I answered, ‘Do you not believe in the power of the Blessed Sacrament?’ Today, they all say, ‘It was a good decision.’” Believers often speak of prayers that were answered and healings that occurred.

According to Bishop Kibira, many people have changed their lives. “There was a family in the village that was rumoured to worship the devil, and so people warned the priest that he should not go visit them. In the end, this was the first family who had their child baptised in the shrine,” the bishop rejoiced. “Even the local police officers say to me, ‘Thank you, we are so glad that we have a priest here now. There used to be problems here every day, now things are no longer as bad. That is the power of Jesus!’” The police officers themselves come to Holy Mass and the adoration. Lorry drivers crossing the border also find strength and solace here “in the encounter with Jesus Christ.”

The changes are also evident in other areas. As an example, about 300 fathers who had fallen prey to drug addiction have in the meantime returned to their families. In contrast to the past, only few suicides are committed in the region and adolescents attend Holy Mass and the Eucharistic adoration instead of destroying their lives with alcohol, drugs, sexual adventures and crime. Even the number of traffic accidents has declined. Things have also changed for the prisoners in the two local prisons: they now receive pastoral care and a number of prisoners have started holding their own devotions. And so the grace that arises at the shrine even penetrates through the locked doors and walls of the prisons, Bishop Kibira commented.

Pilgrims make the long journey on foot to pray in the shrine, the bishop observed. “When we open our hearts, we act in the power of God. This place, once so terribly neglected, has become a portal of mercy for the diocese.”

Toni Zender, head of projects for the Ugandan section ACN who just recently paid a visit to the area, was also very impressed, “I was deeply moved by this experience. It is overwhelming to see over a thousand people kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. You can watch as many people open themselves up to the grace of Christ and are happy about the presence of the church in their area.”


Ukraine: Bringing God to people's lives

Many people in the Ukraine are destitute, especially older people and families. The armed conflict taking place in the eastern part of the country also continues to claim victims. The Catholic church helps those in need by providing them with both pastoral and material aid.

The church should not get so wrapped up in its charitable commitments that it forgets that its primary focus needs to be on the salvation of the soul, the Roman Catholic bishop of Kharkiv-Zaporyzhya, Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk, emphasised during an interview with Aid to the Church in Need. Although many church organisations and initiatives have been set up in his diocese to help those in need through concrete measures and material aid, it is also important “to pray with those who are suffering to keep them from losing their faith.”

The bishop, who was himself president of Caritas Spes for 20 years and thus oversaw the charitable activities of the church in the Ukraine, emphasised that people often expect the church to be able to provide them with all the material aid they need. He explained that even though the church is doing a great deal, it cannot assuage every material need. “More than anything, the mission of the church is to bring God to the people and proclaim the truth to them. We should not only give them bread and forget the soul. It is not enough to just do good deeds, we should not cheat the people of the grace necessary for their salvation.”

According to the bishop, it is also important to teach the people to thank God and the benefactors who made the help they received possible and explained, “We approach the distribution of material aid not as a kind of grab-and-go service, but make sure it is done in a beautiful and dignified manner. We hold a reading from the Gospels and the recipients of the aid pray the Lord’s Prayer together for those who donated the gifts. We tell them that God is the one who is giving them the bread, but that He is doing so through their benefactors.”

Bishop Shyrokoradiuk pointed out that the witnesses to the miraculous multiplication of the bread in the Gospels primarily came to Jesus to hear the word of God. Jesus then gave them the bread. He believes that the church needs to “maintain the balance” and place the emphasis on the spiritual. For this reason, it is important to not only engage in charitable work, but also build churches. For example, all the children’s homes in his diocese have a chapel. “The children go there to discuss their problems with God,” he reported, stressing just how important this is.

Last year, Aid to the Church in Need supported pastoral projects in the Ukraine with a total of €4.4 million. The aid was primarily used to build and renovate churches and monasteries, train priests and religious, secure the livelihood of religious sisters as well as acquire vehicles for pastoral care.


Philippines: To rebuild inter-faith relations

A Bishop in the Philippines, whose cathedral and home were destroyed by extremists, has stated that his top priority is to rebuild inter-faith relations and bring healing to his traumatised people. Bishop Edwin de la Peña said reconciliation is vital in Marawi, the city in southern Philippines which was devastated by a five-month siege mounted by Islamist extremists affiliated with Daesh (ISIS).

Speaking barely six weeks on from the Philippines government declaring victory over the terrorists, Bishop de la Peña of Marawi said his task now was to train teenage Muslims in the city to become “peace catalysts” by immunising them against what he called “the persuasive tentacles of extremism”. The bishop said that – rather than rebuilding his burnt-out cathedral and bishop’s house – his immediate priority is a series of initiatives including drama-based healing sessions for young children and a counselling centre for people traumatised by war.

In his interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop de la Peña said: “The raison d’etre of the prelature [area of episcopal oversight] has always been to establish dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Marawi has always been the showcase of inter-religious harmony here in the Philippines.”

Relations – strained by economic and political disputes – suddenly deteriorated last May when Daesh-affiliated jihadists attacked Marawi in what became the longest urban battle in the modern history of the Philippines. Up to 20 people were killed, including eight Christians who refused to convert to Islam and a further 240 were reportedly kidnapped, including Catholic priest Father Teresito Soganub, who was subsequently released. The jihadists filmed themselves bursting into Marawi’s St Mary’s Cathedral. They stamped on a picture of Pope Francis and smashed statues and crosses, before setting fire to the building.

Bishop de la Peña said the response of Muslims to the conflict was divided with some Muslims defying the extremists by sheltering Christians targeted by the militants. But he also said that the local Muslim community resented the Philippine forces which they said was responsible for doing the most damage to Marawi by carrying out airstrikes over the city.

He said terrorist groups which survived the war had realised that the best way to prolong any conflict with the government was to take as many hostages as possible – especially Catholic priests and nuns.

Asked about the implications of this threat, the bishop told ACN: “We cannot afford security escorts. We just have to be very careful.” ACN Secretary General Philipp Ozores, who visited Marawi this month, underlined the importance of Bishop de la Peña’s peace work, saying: The perception of young Muslims is changing through the bishop’s work. We would very much like to keep supporting the mission of the prelature.”

In September 2017, ACN gave an initial €20,000 for emergency supplies for displaced people in Marawi. In November, #RedWednesday, ACN’s international campaign promoting religious freedom, attracted huge support in the Philippines with more than 75 cathedrals and other major churches floodlighting red for the occasion.