Philippines: Destruction is everywhere in Marawi

“The general population is not sympathetic to ISIS elements

Interview by Jonathan Luciano, ACN Philippines National Director, with Bishop Prelate of Marawi Edwin dela Peña (MSP) about the situation in the Prelature of Marawi in the Southern Philippines, where the terrorist Maute group attacked the city, killing Christians and burning down buildings including the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians. As of press time, 104 people have been killed and more than 12,500 families have been displaced. Fr. Chito Suganob, the Vicar General was abducted together with other Cathedral Staff. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) confirmed the authenticity of the video circulating on Facebook surfaced Fr. Chito Suganob on Tuesday (30 May). 

 How is the present situation now in the Prelature of Marawi?

We are still right in the midst of it, I don’t know how to describe it, our people are not there anymore, they have been evacuated, those who have been left behind, I don’t know what their situation is because there is a continuing operation to clean up the city, to wash out the terrorists and there is aerial bombing, so forth and so on. I don’t know how they are surviving it.

Was the Cathedral totally destroyed?

Yes, I was told that the cathedral and the bishop’s house have been totally destroyed, first by the torching, it was put on fire, and then also by the bombing because we are right there at the center of the fighting. I’m not so sure how soon we will be able to recover but it is going to be very difficult for all of us, not only for Christians but for the Muslims as well.

How was the Muslim-Christian relations in Marawi before the incident happened?

Marawi is about 95% Muslims. We are a very tiny minority, we are a very small church in Marawi and the greater bulk of the Catholic population in the city is in the university where we have students coming from other provinces in Mindanao.

It was beautiful. We were engaged in interfaith dialogue and we have many partners. And in fact, Fr. Cito was in the thick of it because he was, his primary focus really is to connect, to link up with all the Muslim NGOs who have partnered with us in community development and educating for interfaith dialogue. It was beautiful until this extremism emerged, the fighting, the presence of these extremist elements from the Middle East, and the radicalization of young people, unwittingly, unknowingly, some of our people were not oriented towards the current situation in the Middle East and the radicalization that is coming into the country today, especially here in Mindanao. And so, the situation got a little radicalized since then. But generally, our relations with our partners has always been very positive and in fact, we learned from them that they are also against this influx of ISIS elements coming into Marawi because they knew exactly what consequences would be to the culture of people, to the way of life. The people of Marawi have always been very peaceful.

Is it correct to say that the general population is not sympathetic to ISIS elements.

Yes, yes, yes, that is correct. In fact, what is happening today, especially that we are on Ramadan, it is a very holy month for them, they are not able to celebrate it the way they would have wanted to. They feel a certain kind of anger against these terrorist groups coming in to disturb this very holy remembrance of Ramadan. So if these extremist groups wanted to get the support of the people, they are not getting it now.

Based on your knowledge of how ISIS operates in the Middle East, do you see any difference with what is happening in Syria and Iraq versus what is happening now in Marawi?

It is something like that. It may not be another Syria or Iraq but the way the city looks now after the bombing and all, it doesn’t look like Marawi anymore. The remnants of the old city, everything that we see on the news feed about Marawi is all ruined, there is destruction everywhere. That is the image we have in mind of Syria and Iraq.

Who are the Maute group who led this terrorist attacks in Marawi?

Maute is Maranaw and from my own discussion with some religious figures here in Marawi, this group who constituted (inaudible) previous heir of Marawi, now that he’s no longer the mayor, now that the drug peddlers has been controlled, these people were used to an easy life before with all the money that is pouring in to drug trade, they’re used to a life of comfort. Now that they are out in power, the mayor can no longer support them, he has no resources to support them so they are left on their own. That was probably one factor that led them towards radicalization because they have to fend themselves. We were also told and informed that money was coming from the outside, some people are also part of some training, some foreign elements are training them in the lairs of Lanao Sur. These are what probably have driven them from this kind of life.

The government has kept denying that there is ISIS presence in the Philippines. What can you say about that?

I’m not so sure about it. They can deny it for as long as they can but some people, you know what, I’m not the right person to speak about it, I’m just echoing what I know that some of them have even been trained outside, the Maute brothers studied in the Middle East. They come from very rich families so they have the means to send their children to school in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. I heard about it.

Is there a relationship between Maute and the infamous terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf? 

I think so, the fact that Hapilon is in Lanao, in fact they were about to serve him the warrant of arrest before all this happened. That was the trigger. Hapilon is Abu Sayyaf, so they have a tactical alliance with the Maute brothers in Lanao Sur aside from the fact that both are also sympathetic to ISIS, so they have this tactical alliance and they probably are joining forces.

Do you have any updates about Fr. Chito and other kidnapped Christians?

I am aware of the video of Fr. Chito since yesterday. He is alive! I am happy about that but sad also about the reactions of the DDS netizens (DDS stands for Digong Duterte Supporters- the supporters of the president), who castigated him for his message without any regard for his present situation as a hostage deprived of his freedom. We have lost our sense of humanity! How sad! I grieve for this country and I am so sorry for the situation of Fr. Chito and company.

We did not have any contacts with the military until a few days ago when I was able to link up with the chief of a commanding officer of the Marines division who are now doing up the clean-up and the mopping up operations in Marawi right now, and he promised to do their best to locate Fr. Chito and company. They are about 12-15 people. Some of them were teachers from nearby Dansalan college and they just happened to meet together in one place where they are being held but many of them were at the Cathedral at the time because they were preparing for the feast of Mary, help of Christians the following day. So we had many people in the house and in the Church doing all sorts of things.

Do you consider this incident as an escalation of the various anti-Christian events that have happened in Mindanao?

Yes, I suppose it is.

Do you know of any personal stories of solidarity between Muslims and Christians these past few days?

Yes, personal knowledge about the family of my driver who were holed up in one of the rice mills in Marawi city and accompanying them was their barangay chairman who is Maranaw and he was the one who organized the group and gave them orientation as to how they should respond if the Maute group intercepts them along the way. So they went out of the house together towards the bridge out where the buses were waiting to take them out of Marawi. I would consider them a hero for leading these group of Christians and Muslims together, trying to flee from the danger that was awaiting them.

But there were some people in the group who were trying to catch up, and they were the same group of crowd traveling, trying to cross the bridge, they were accosted by this Maute group, this terrorist group. They were asked if they were Christians. Unfortunately, they responded yes because they were not there when the orientation was given. The other fellow, the husband of one of our adopted families living in the cathedral compound in Marawi, he was pulled out of the group because he was just wearing sleeveless clothing and he had a cross tattoo on his shoulder. So he was identified as a Christian, he was pulled out. Then, lately we heard reports of some men getting killed and dropped into a ravine. And so, they say they were the ones who were trying to catch up with them, trying to join the convoy of evacuees. You can read in the papers too about so many stories of Muslims trying to protect Christians.

How would this incident affect Christian-Muslim relations in Marawi?

We cannot help it that some people who now familiar with what we have been doing here in Marawi and the kind of relationship that we have built up through the years, some of the natural biases that Christians have against Muslims will be stirred up again. This is a very kind of frustrating work that we are doing. Interfaith dialogue is a very fragile process and these incidents can destroy the foundation that we have made. Some people are fueling these anti-Muslim kind of sentiments. We don’t like that to happen because it is so sad, we’ve made a very good headway in the improvement of relationship between Muslims and Christians in Marawi. In fact, comparing our relationship with other places, I can safely say that ours is the best. The Muslim-Christian relations among the Maranaos is the best compared to others considering that we have done so much in 41 years, the Prelature is almost 41 years. We also have schools, and the schools have been there even before the prelature was established. And these school of ours have always been dear to our Muslim brothers and Christians because many of their parents studied there and their professionals in the town have gone to our schools and they would always send their children to our schools because they have developed that kind of patronage and loyalty to our schools.

What is your message to the ACN community worldwide?

It is very unfortunate that our small prelature which is the smallest and poorest local church in the Philippines had to undergo this very difficult crisis. Our Cathedral has been destroyed, the parish, the Bishop’s house has been destroyed and we have to start from scratch trying to build, to re-establish Christian presence in this predominantly Muslim area of Central Mindanao. We have to continue with our mission of offering the hand of reconciliation and friendship with our Muslim brothers and sisters because this was the legacy of Pope Paul VI when he re-established the prelature of Marawi, at the height of the crisis in the early 70s, and the Pope said, quoting Bishop Tutu, “We Christians should be the first to offer the hand of reconciliation and brotherhood to our Muslim brothers and sisters. That is the way to establish peace that had been broken because of the war.” I think that the same holds true for our present situation today. We cannot turn our backs away from what we have started, what the Prelature had begun in the middle 70s, to continue the work of dialogue, continue working with our Muslim brothers and sisters, to establish, to rebuild the broken relationships, the broken dreams and hopes of so many people to live in peace. We just want to live in peace and we would like to ask you to help us to rebuild that peace to the kind of work that we do: working with and being in dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Which are your urgent needs at the moment?

We are not so much concerned about our needs in the moment, our focus is more trying to do what we can to respond to the humanitarian crisis that has turned up in Iligan right now, we have so many evacuees from Marawi and they need all the support that we can get that is why some of our dioceses and even Caritas Filipinas in Manila and Archdiocese of Manila through Cardinal Chito Tagle and all the other dioceses in the Philippines have signified, have asked us how they can be of help, where they can send all their donations. So we have tied up with the Diocese of Iligan to put up these command centers at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Iligan City to receive donations, to organize volunteers to do the repacking and the distribution. We are also working with our Muslim brothers and sisters who are with us in dialogue, it is one great opportunity for us to show our solidarity and try to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters especially in the evacuation centers. So this is what we are doing and if there is anything you can do to help us, to bring the attention of the world to what is happening in Marawi right now, or in the relief operations, we would welcome it very much.



Iraq: We thank our brothers in ACN

In Iraq, many of the internally displaced Christian refugee families are now returning to their home villages in the Plains of Niniveh. But they still need help for food and daily living. Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil explains how “for them the benefactors of ACN are true good Samaritans.”

The 12,000 or so “internally displaced” refugee families who fled Mosul and the surrounding towns and villages of the Niniveh plains in 2014 for the relative security of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, in order to escape the advancing forces of the so-called Islamic State (IS), are still heavily dependent on the support of Aid to the Church in Need.

Most of these families will continue to need food and shelter for some time to come, as the programme continues to rebuild the up to 13,000 houses and homes in the region that were damaged or destroyed by IS.

There are around 110 Chaldean Christian families still living in the “Erbil eyes“ centre in Ankawa, in the northern suburbs of Erbil, and waiting to be able to return to their ransacked and ruined home villages of Karamles, Qaraqosh and Mosul. They were forced to abandon these villages in just two or three hours in order not to be overrun by the fury of IS. On August 6th, 2014 they arrived in Erbil and for 40 days they were given shelter in an unfinished building next to the church of Saint Joseph, before finally arriving at the centre.

“The families are living in 46 apartments of two or three rooms each”, explains Father Thabet Habib Yousif, the coordinator of the centre. “There is one family living in each room. They share the kitchen and bathroom. In such a situation of enforced proximity it is very difficult to have any family privacy.

Many families, as soon as they are able, leave the centre and move to rented accommodation. Like the majority of these families, I too am from Karamles and am a “displaced priest”. I was the last person to leave, accompanying the last family. Here I do everything – I direct, I coordinate, I teach patristics at the “Babyl” College for Philosophy and Theology. I want to return to Karamles and go back to being just a priest.” He continues, “ACN is funding the “Erbil eyes” centre, and paying the monthly rent on these apartments. Moreover, this pontifical foundation is also distributing food parcels to around 1300 families who are registered here.”

Although the efforts of ACN will henceforward be concentrated increasingly on the rebuilding of the villages in the Niniveh plains, these and thousands of other families will continue to need a fitting place to stay for the period from July to September 2017. The cost of this aid operation alone comes to €1,345,000. Just recently around a thousand additional refugee families have been transferred from the camps where they were living – the “Ankawa Brazilian Centre”, the “Ashti”, “Mar Eliya”, “Al-Amal” and “Al-Karma” camps – to Ankawa, where they are now living in communal centres, adding to the many thousands already needing financial support.

“For the most part these refugee families are unemployed, or at least without any regular or significant income”, explains Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil. “Generally, they consist of parents with young children and in many cases with elderly grandparents to support as well. There has also been an increase in the number of displaced elderly people who find themselves without any family support. The refugees are living either in the “Ashti 2” camp or else in communal dwellings. In general there are 2 to 4 families living in each residential unit.”

Up to June 2017, in the seventh cycle of food aid provided by ACN, around 2 million Euros will be needed to provide for these 12,000 families. The transport and distribution of the monthly food parcels, each costing 60 US dollars, is undertaken by local priests and with the help of teams of volunteers, at no extra cost.

“The situation of these internal refugees is continually changing”, continues Archbishop Warda. “Our latest estimates suggest that there are at least 10,000 such families still living in Erbil province and still in need of food aid. Moreover, half of these people are women, children or elderly people. We don’t have any precise statistics as to the number of those who are sick, but from the experience of the clinics being run by the Erbil archdiocese we can say that there is an increase in chronic illnesses, especially among the elderly, and that most of these are due to stress and physical conditions linked to their refugee situation. As I have said, the overwhelming majority of these families are unemployed. Not only that, but, three years on from the initial crisis their financial reserves are now exhausted. Hence the number of people in need of our aid is increasing, and there is no expectation that this number will decrease in the coming summer months. Up till now the benefactors of ACN have been real and true “good Samaritans” to these people. They have provided them with food, medicine, housing and schooling. The Iraqi Christians have decided to return to their home villages, but they will still need help of their benefactors.”

Since March 2016 ACN has been the only organisation regularly providing help for these internal refugees.

Since the beginning of the crisis in 2014, ACN has provided €14,000,000 in food aid for these refugees and additionally funded accommodation at a cost of €10,000,000.


Philippines: Christians used as Bargaining Chips

“I hope the government will act wisely and prudently in order to avoid a bloodbath.” The words are those of PIME missionary Father Sebastiano D’Ambra and he is referring in particular to the abduction of Father Teresito Soganub, together with 15 other Christians, in the last few days in the city of Marawi, on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Just a week ago Islamic jihadist extremists of the so-called Maute group seized control of the town. The dramatic clashes between Islamist rebels and the Filipino army have so far claimed around a hundred lives and local sources speak of barbarous killings and beheadings by the Islamist group.

Speaking on the telephone to representatives of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) from Zamboanga, another city in Mindanao, Father D’Ambra explained how the Islamist terrorists had abducted the Christians and set fire to the cathedral. “Probably, their intention is to use the captives as bargaining chips in order to persuade the army to withdraw”, he said.

The Maute group is affiliated to so-called Islamic State (IS), to which it declared allegiance some time ago, and this is the reason why it is now flying the black flags of IS in the overwhelmingly Muslim city of Marawi (98% Muslim and just 2% Christian). It is now becoming clear that members of the Islamist terror group Abu Sayyaf were also involved in this most recent attack.

As the Italian missionary went on to explain, in recent years more and more international Islamist influences have infiltrated into the Philippines. They have succeeded in attracting new blood, partly through ideology but also thanks to the lavish rewards offered by the terrorists to the young recruits. “Not to mention the international interests that are seeking to destabilise this region. There appears to be a plan, which will continue in the same direction. The situation in Marawi will calm down before too long, but the terrorism will not stop”, he told ACN.

Radical Islamic terrorism has a long history on the island of Mindanao. Already back in the 1990s the Abu Sayyaf group was widely in action. The radicalisation has continued since then with the proliferation of Islamist movements of Wahhabi inspiration, supported by Saudi Arabia, while for a decade or so there has been a strong presence of the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiah, which originated in Indonesia. And in the last three years so-called Islamic State has found increasing support on Mindanao.

Likewise in Zamboanga City, on the western tip of Mindanao – where in 2013 the terrorist Islamist paramilitary group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) destroyed half the city – the government has declared marshall law. “The authorities are calling on us to remain vigilant. Among other things the city lies on the coast, with kilometres of coastline and numerous islands where the extremists can easily hide”, said Father D’Ambra.

Father D’Ambra himself has been living in the Philippines for 40 years and is the founder of the Silsilah movement, which has been striving since 1984 to promote interfaith dialogue. It also involves part of the local Muslim community. “Incidents like what has happened in Marawi can only further aggravate a situation that is already complicated enough and make still more difficult the promotion of interreligious dialogue”, he told ACN.


Iraq: Many still hope to return home

Christian IDPs in the Erbil region depend on assistance while hoping to return to their villages in the next months. 

Interview with Mons. Bashar Matti WARDA CSsR, Chaldean Archbishop of ERBIL to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need regarding the current living situation of the Christian families in Erbil, expelled from IS in Summer 2014 from Mosul and the Nineveh Plane. By Maria Lozano

Aid to the Church in Need: Could you please describe the context and the general situation of the Christian IDPs in Erbil now.

Archbishop Bashar Matti WARDA: At present there are still over 10,000 Christian IDP families in the greater Erbil region.  While many still hold a hope to return to their homes in Nineveh, for the majority of them this remains a very uncertain time due to the continuing conflict in the region and lack of any stable security plan from the central government in Baghdad or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).  There is at present no meaningful plan or support for reconstruction in these towns from either the KRG or the Central Government in Baghdad. As such the IDPs currently in the greater Erbil region face the two main obstacles of lack of security and lack of civil infrastructure.  In this environment, the majority of the IDPs are not willing to return yet to their former homes, especially in the Iraqi controlled sector of Nineveh, which includes Qaraqosh.

The situation in the Kurdish controlled sector, which includes the towns of Teleskof, Batnaya and Baqofa, is somewhat clearer as it pertains to security, and returns to those towns are beginning.  However, these returns are completely dependent on private efforts for reconstruction, and the paces of returns there have been affected accordingly.

ACN: Regarding the economical situations of the families, how are their living conditions? What do people lack most?

Archbishop Warda: The IDP families are nearly all unemployed, or employed on the books of the government but without any meaningful pay being received.  Such employment as does exist is largely in the form of self-employment, selling various items on the street, in most cases without proper permits.  Those with savings at the outset of the crisis have in most cases had these funds greatly depleted over the past three years.  As such we expect to see a rise over the coming months in terms of the need for financial and humanitarian assistance.  The three most critical areas of need continue to be housing, food and medicine.

Why they are jobless? If they find a job: What kind of living people can afford from their salary, if they have one?

The majority the IDPs are without official work due to both the economic crisis brought on by the war, and the discrimination against hiring IDPs.  While some IDPs have retained their government employment from their former locations, this is largely on paper only and without any meaningful compensation due to the ongoing economic crisis and dysfunction in the central government in Baghdad.  Such people as are able to secure employment generally receive salaries of less than USD $1,000 per month, which is well below the level required by a family to rent homes and pay for food and medicine and other necessities.

Could you please describe the situation of the children and of the youngsters?

Because of the heavy involvement of church related support, schools have been built to handle the needs of the IDP children at the early ages and elementary school.  Greater assistance in terms of both teachers and facilities still exist at the High School level.  College level access for the IDPs remains a crisis and many students have been forced to delay their college years.  This problem is a specific issue for the IDPs as the universities in the KRG are generally using the Kurdish language for instruction, a language in which very few of the IDP students are fluent.  The recently established Catholic University in Erbil, which has English as its language of instruction, has sought to address this issue by focusing on IDP student scholarships, but additional funding is still needed to support this effort.

What is the situation of the elderly people?

The situation for elderly people is a true crisis.  In many cases elderly IDPs have been left behind by their children who have sought to leave the country.  In nearly all these cases the only support group for the elderly is the church.  The Archdiocese of Erbil has made repeated efforts to established basic living facilities and proper care for the elderly, but meaningful support has not been found due to the emphasis being placed on the basic needs of the broader population.  As many of these elderly individuals are now without family to support them, this crisis is expected to continue even after any return to Nineveh by the general population.

How many persons/families will benefit from the food aid? Among these, how many are children, elderly/sick?

The situation regarding IDPs remains fluid, but current estimates are that at least 10,000 IDP families remain in the greater Erbil region that are in need of food assistance, with well over half of these individuals being women, children, and the elderly.  Reliable statistics are not available regarding the numbers of sick due to lack of coordination between medical facilities, but anecdotal evidence from the clinics run by the Archdiocese of Erbil indicates high levels of chronic diseases being encountered, especially among the elderly, which are in most cases related to the stress and physical conditions surrounding their IDP status.

How would you describe the typical situation of a family, who need this kind of help?

In general, the IDP families are unemployed or without meaningful regular income.  They are typically parents with children and in many cases with grandparents living with them as well.  As noted above, there are an increasing number of elderly IDPs who have found themselves without family members to support them.  In general, IDPs are living either in the one remaining IDP camp (Ashti 2) or in group homes, typically 2-4 families in one residential unit, with rental assistance being provided through the Archdiocese rental assistance program.

How are the IDPs in Erbil feeling at the moment, after the villages in the Nineveh-plains have been liberated. What is their mood and their feelings, what are their hopes and questions?

The feelings and disposition of the IDPs varies according to the town they are from and their economic condition.  Those IDPs from the towns in the Kurdish sector have greater optimism due to the progress being made for their return and the clarity of church leadership and security structure that exists there.  Those IDPs whose homes are in the Iraqi sector, which represents 70% of the total Christian IDP population, are generally in a very uncertain and fearful state of mind.  While their towns have technically been “liberated”, the political and security situations remain very dangerous and unclear.   They have real concerns regarding the long-term viability of returning to these towns and reclaiming their former lives.  At the same time, they do not see any help coming to help, they fully restart a new life anywhere else, whether inside the KRG or abroad.

It should be understood here that the church, especially the Archdiocese of Erbil, is very close to these IDPs, regardless of which particular church they belong to.  This is because the Archdiocese has managed all the housing, food and medical programs since the outset of the crisis.  These IDPs are at the doorstep of the Archdiocese every day.  Overall, there is an abiding sense of fear regarding the uncertainty that still surrounds everything in the entire region.  They know that the church is there for them in this uncertainty, but they also know that there are limits to what the church is able to do.  As it pertains to their faith, this is strong in the midst of the persecution that surrounds them, but other than the aid provided to them through the church organizations, the Christian IDPs continue to feel abandoned by governments (both within Iraq and abroad) and major international aid organizations.

How do you see the general mental condition of the IDPs? Are there many people traumatized? What does it mean for the families?

The mental condition and traumatization of the IDPs is a crisis of its own.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is clearly evident in those that faced violence first hand.  Depression and anxiety are at extremely high levels among adults.  Treatment for those suffering in this regard faces not only the obstacle of lack of suitable capability for medical and psychological treatment, but also from the cultural hesitancy to admit to any sort of mental weakness.  The ongoing nature of the crisis has only made this situation worse, and we have great concern of the long term harm being done to the IDPs.

On the other side, their Faith remained very strong in the hard despite of the suffering, right? What about their hopes and dreams in this situation? 

Regarding their Christian faith, without question the persecution which the IDPs have faced has made their faith stronger.  We see this every day.  Having had the very existence of their faith threatened with extinction, the people have come to value its importance in their lives in a much deeper way.  As such their Faith remains strong, and even strengthened.

Regarding their hopes, they are mainly for the welfare of their children, and are the same as any people anywhere in the world.  Will they be safe?  Will they have a good education?  Can they find work?  Will they have a community they can be a part of?  For most of the remaining IDPs they hope that this will still be a possibility in Iraq, but for the present their concerns are on staying safe and surviving until the situation becomes clear.


Egypt: We will never leave our country

Interview with Bishop William Kyrillos of Assiut on the occasion of his visit to the national office of Aid to the Church in Need in Brazil.

by Rodrigo Arantes (ACN Brazil)

Aid to the Church in Need – What is the significance of being a Christian in Egypt today?

BISHOP KYRILLOS – The significance of being a Christian in Egypt can be found in the joy of being salt, salt that is the giver of life, that gives life flavour. It is the sourdough that leavens a handful of flour – in the sense that it changes society and makes a difference. The gospel does not deceive us when Christ says, “If they have persecuted me, then they will also persecute you. But have no fear, for I will be with you, and no one will take your joy from you.” This is a joy that we experience even in times of persecution and sorrow.

What dangers does a Christian in Egypt face?

The challenge lies in the fact that just being a Christian already presents an obstacle. This is because an extremist group believes that redemption is only possible through one religion, through Islam. This minority has a negative impact on the lives of Christians. Because it pursues the goal of destroying them. However, we are confident in the words of Jesus, “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

How do Egyptian Christians feel about being the target of persecution in the same country that offered Jesus and his parents refuge when they fled from Herod?

Egypt has always been a welcoming country. However, when the extremists – the Muslim Brotherhood – took power and the presidency, they openly said, “We want to cast out the Christians. They all have passports, we will send them to the United States and to Canada. We want to transform Egypt into a caliphate, into a Muslim republic.” We Christians answered, “This is our country. We will never leave it. You will not live in Egypt without us and we will not live in Egypt without you. Following the synod of the Eastern churches, Pope Benedict XVI said that a Middle East without its Christian minorities would no longer be the Middle East. The Christians had already established their civilization before the Arab onslaught. Afterwards, they adapted to living together with the Muslims. They could all continue to live side by side until the end.

What expectations do the Christians in Egypt have now after the recent trip of Pope Francis?

Doubtlessly, the Holy Father’s trip to Egypt strengthens the position of the Christians. It shows that the small flock of Catholics – with its less than 92 000 believers – is not completely isolated. Catholics from all over the world stand by us. From an ecumenical standpoint, this trip represents the seeds for a better harvest for Christians in general, but especially for relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, after the pope met with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II and they signed documents agreeing to take steps towards each other. They found that “there is more that unites us than that separates us.” The trip also shows the willingness of the current patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox church to move towards the Catholic church – to a greater extent than his deceased predecessor. This will strengthen the connection between the Eastern Catholic, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. As regards the Muslims, this trip tore down the wall that went up after a statement of Pope Benedict XVI was misunderstood. Another outcome of the visit was that the Muslims are now more open to a dialogue with Christians, especially after the embrace “between brothers” exchanged by the Holy Father and the Grand Imam of al Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University. The photo of this gesture, which is now being spread all over the world, is reminiscent of the embrace that St. Francis of Assisi exchanged with the Sultan of Egypt 800 years ago. The pope also reaffirmed his respect for Muslims. He said that violence and terror committed in the name of God or Allah or in the name of religion is an aberration and a sacrilege. These are not religious acts. The pope praised the efforts of the current Egyptian president, who has changed the image of the country in just a short time – he is transforming it into a modern country, he is taking care of the country and its citizens.

What has the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Needachieved in Egypt?

Aid to the Church in Need has provided much support in Egypt. Once when I met the executive president of Aid to the Church in Need in Germany, he showed me a list of the aid that the foundation has granted my diocese over the last ten years. It equalled a large sum of money. Thanks to this aid, churches have been built, future priests have been able to finish their training, convents have been built for religious sisters, vehicles have been bought, etc. All of this is part of pastoral care. I was also very surprised how many dioceses and local churches from all over the world have contributed to our maintenance. Because we have no other sources of funding. The priests live off of the annual Mass stipends – however, these are small sums. More important than the financial support is the fact that Aid to the Church in Needgives a voice to those Christians who do not have a voice in their own countries, so that they can make themselves heard all over the world. This is greatly appreciated. It is very important for all those who feel excluded and discriminated. I thank Aid to the Church in Need for the fact that, as a well organised aid organisation, it gives voice to Christians all over the world. Furthermore, Aid to the Church in Need sends out worldwide calls for prayer for a people, for a country. This is an important gesture, because joint prayer can move mountains. I myself have visited several offices of Aid to the Church in Need worldwide. It was quite remarkable that the same spirit was palpable everywhere. Both the full-time staff as well as the volunteers share the same deep spirituality. That is fantastic!

Behind the aid that is sent to Egypt are thousands of benefactors who can often only donate small sums, but still contribute to these efforts. What would you say to them?

You are the saints of the modern era. You are emulating the widow who could only give two small coins to those who were most needy. We can learn what Pentecost is all about from these kind of people.

 How do you manage to appear so calm despite having so many worries?

Pope John XXIII, who had to deal with many problems during his papacy, always took his worries to the tabernacle. There he laid them down and said to God, “These problems are not mine. They are yours. Take care of them!” On his desk, Pope Francis has a statue of St. Joseph sleeping. Every time he encounters a problem, he writes a note, “You are sleeping, but dream of my problem and offer me a solution.”


China: The Communists fear Our Lady of Fatima

Retired Bishop of Hong Kong on the situation of the church in China.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun was a guest of Aid to the Church in Need Germany at the Day of Encounters that was held at the german pilgrimage site at Kevelaer on 13 May. He talked with Berthold Pelster (ACN Germany) about the role of the Catholic church in rebuilding Chinese society and why the communists are afraid of the Madonna of Fatima.

Aid to the Church in Need: Over the last four decades, the People’s Republic of China has undergone enormous social change: reforms, especially economic ones, have enabled its advancement to a major economic and technological power. What role does Communist ideology still play in this process today?

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun: Actually, the leadership in China never really took Communist ideology very seriously. Instead, Chinese communism is a form of unbridled imperialism. Rampant corruption, also within the party, attests to this. Everything is about power. Absolute obedience to state leadership is the only thing that counts. And through the opening of the economic sector and growing affluence, this is all just getting worse. Wealth fuels corruption to ever greater levels.

Political observers say that the human rights situation has actually deteriorated under the current president, Xi Jinping. What observations have you made?

In the beginning, I had high hopes because the president took action against corruption in the government and society. But it very quickly became evident that he was also only interested in power. People who are fighting for human rights are suppressed, persecuted, humiliated and convicted in propaganda trials in the name of his government.

Can you tell us something about the current status of the negotiations between the Chinese leadership and the Holy See?

Unfortunately, little is known about these talks. There are still a lot of other problems. I expect that the talks will still take a long time. In my opinion, the state leadership will not accept any other outcome than the subjugation of the church to the leadership of the Communist party. Bishops of the underground church, for example, were forced to attend political training courses during Holy Week and could therefore not celebrate the liturgy with believers. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of reconciliation in his letter to the Catholics in China in 2007 and for him, this largely meant spiritual reconciliation. But much still needs to be done!

 That sounds very pessimistic. What do you expect will happen to Christianity in China?

Everything depends on whether we manage to live our faith authentically – without making a lot of compromises. There are Christians in China who bravely advocate a better society. However, many of them are in prison! Should communism fall one day, then the Catholics should be among those who build up a new China. However, that only works if the Catholics did not already squander their credibility beforehand by making lazy compromises with the Communist leadership.

These days, we Catholics are remembering the appearances of Our Lady of Fatima that take place exactly 100 years ago. The messages of Our Lady of Fatima warn us of the godless ideology of communism. Are the Catholics in China aware of these messages?

Of course! All of us have heard of the messages of Fatima. Even the communists! They make them very anxious. The communists are actually afraid of Our Lady of Fatima! The whole situation is becoming ludicrous: for example, the communists have nothing against you bringing pictures of “Maria Immaculata” or depictions of the miraculous image “Mary, Help of Christians” into China from another country. Pictures of “Our Lady of Fatima”, on the other hand, are not allowed. They consider the events in Fatima to be “anti-communist”. Which is of course nothing but the truth!

So the leadership makes distinctions. And yet, the veneration of Mary under the title “Help of Christians” also holds special meaning for China: on its feast day, 24 May, the Catholic church holds a worldwide prayer day for the church in China. Pope Benedict XVI introduced this day in 2007. What is the significance of this prayer day?

The veneration of Our Lady under the title “Help of Christians” is deeply rooted all over China and has been so for a long time. This title not only refers to help for individual believers, but also to help for the church as a whole. The chief danger in China today is materialistic atheism. Unfortunately, this prayer day, which is valid for the Catholic church all over the world, is far too little known. It is not taken seriously enough.


Central Africa: Catholic Bishop shelters Muslims

Effects of the violence are also being felt in other dioceses, says Bishop Cyr-Nestor of Alindao.

Spanish missionary Bishop Juan José Aguirre of Bangassou in the Central African Republic, has denounced the outbreak of revenge violence against Muslims in his city by the Anti-balaka, a group of mainly animist and anti-Muslim guerrillas. He was speaking to the Spanish office of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)

“They attacked Bangassou and the Moroccan soldiers of the UN forces called on all the Muslims to leave their quarters and go to the mosque. As a result, the mosque was packed full. They started to attack them and shoot at them; they were three days without eating or washing”, Bishop Aguirre told ACN. “I myself went there to stand in front of the mosque and persuade them to stop shooting. But they killed the Imam. We organised lorries so that we could carry them to the buildings of the Catholic Church.”

The bishop confirmed that the Catholic Church is at present sheltering some 2,000 Muslim refugees in its centres in Bangassou, in the southeast of the country. “We are sheltering them in my own house, and we have reorganised the minor seminary, the cathedral and some other churches. The UN forces are taking steps to organise food deliveries and to set up tents for the refugees.”

Also present at the time in Bangassou, together with Bishop José Aguirre, is Cardinal Nzapalainga of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. “Together with him we are engaged in dialogue with the local chieftains to stop the people looting in the Muslim suburbs, which have been systematically attacked. And we are also negotiating with the Anti-balaka to persuade them to leave Bangassou. This is what we were negotiating about this afternoon”, Bishop Aguirre added.

“In the 35 years I have lived here I have never seen this inter-communitarian violence before. Ever since Chad sent in fighters of the Islamist Seleka alliance into Central Africa, we have been witnessing violence”, the bishop explained. “Now we have 2,000 people here who have no idea what has happened to their property, their homes; everything has been stolen from them. We have buried over 50 bodies, together with the Red Cross. We helped them with the vehicles of the Catholic mission.”

“Now we have to set up refugee camps for these homeless people, and on top of this the rainy season is just starting and we have to provide shelter for the people. But we hope and believe that one day they will be able to return to their homes and that there will be peace here once more”, Bishop Aguirre concluded.

Another Bishop, Mgr. Cyr-Nestor of the diocese of Alindao, which is also in the south of the Central African Republic, has likewise addressed a message to ACN, denouncing the new clashes between factions of the Seleka and the Anti-balaka, who are still present in the region.

The violence erupted on 8 May in response to the abduction and murder of several young people in Datoko by the Seleka. Following the intervention of UN troops, the situation appears to have calmed down for the moment. Nevertheless there are still around 5,000 refugees, who are currently being cared for in various centres of the Catholic Church, including the bishop’s house, the catechetical centre, a school and a convent. The diocese is beginning to have difficulties providing food and water for everyone and the priests are seeking help from the local population, given the lack of NGOs in the region.

ACN has offered help to the diocese of Alindao, where for the moment the local diocesan Caritas is addressing the most urgent needs.


Syria: Priests must also be builders in Nineveh

Father Georges Jahola of the Syriac Catholic Church and Father Salar Boudagh of the Chaldean Catholic Church are in charge of the reconstruction work in some of the Christian villages on the plains of Niniveh.

Sometimes it happens that Catholic priests have to suddenly improvise in other roles – as educationalists, parents, advisers, teachers, sometimes even as technical instructors. In Iraq, where so-called Islamic State has damaged or destroyed almost 13,000 homes belonging to Christian families on the Niniveh plains, they have even been required to assume the role of engineers and master builders, in the interests of seeing their Catholic faithful return one day to their home towns and villages.

So it is that the study of building plans sometimes takes the place of other more priestly duties and the priests, after having celebrated Holy Mass, are soon on the telephone, ordering electrical equipment, window fittings, sanitary ware and other building materials. “Here in Iraq, if the Church does not tackle these things, who else will do it? We have the skills, the ability to engage in dialogue and the necessary contacts”, explains Father Georges Jahola, a priest of the Syriac Catholic rite who hails originally from the town/village of Baghdeda (Qaraqosh) and is a member of the “Nineveh Reconstruction Commitee” (NRC), a body set up by the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and tasked with planning and supervising the rebuilding of thousands of Christian homes destroyed by IS.

In Baghdeda no fewer than 6,327 homes belonging to the Syriac Catholic Christians are in need of rebuilding (at least 108 of them totally destroyed), while those of the Syriac Orthodox Christians number 400 (only seven of which have been totally destroyed). But there is no lack of enthusiasm or ability. “After the liberation of the town, between 11 November and 3 December 2016, we spent 15 working days photographing 6,000 houses in Baghdeda”, explains Father Jahola, “we divided them up and mapped them sector by sector, assessing the degree of damage in each case. There are houses that have been very badly damaged or even destroyed, which need completely rebuilding, houses that have been burned or struck by missiles, which can still be rebuilt. And then there are houses that have been only partially damaged and can be repaired without much difficulty. We began work with a team of 20 volunteer engineers. Today I have 40 of them helping me and almost 2000 able-bodied workers ready to start work. We are optimistic about it. The reconnection of the electricity supply is slowly being extended throughout the town.”

The first rebuilding projects are focusing on those villages where IS only stayed for a short time, without doing too much damage. “We have begun rebuilding work in Telleskof and Bakofa, because the damage to the houses is not too serious, unlike in Badnaya, where 80% of the houses have been destroyed”, explains Father Salar Boudagh, 35, vicar general of the Chaldean diocese of Alqosh and a member of the NRC, who is responsible for the rebuilding work of five Chaldean Catholic villages in  the Niniveh plains, – Telleskof, Bakofa, Badnaya, Telkef, which are in the eastern part, and Karamless, which is in the western part of the Niniveh plains.

“Before the arrival of IS”, continues Father Salar, “there were 1,450 families living in Telleskof, 110 in Bakofa, 950 in Badnaya, over 700 in Telkef and 875 in Karamless. For these families the first precondition for returning to their villages is security. Our area, the eastern part of the Niniveh plains, is patrolled by a Christian security force, the Zeravani, who can give us a 100% guarantee of security. They are an official militia who are paid a salary by Kurdistan.”

The second condition is the financial resources. The almost 13,000 houses that now need rebuilding, following the ravages of IS, have been divided according to the “coefficient of damage”. “It costs 7000 dollars to refurbish a home that has been lightly damaged”, Father Salar explains, reading the figures from his smartphone. “To repair a house that has been burned out costs 25,000; to rebuild a house that has been totally destroyed costs 65,000 dollars. I pray to God”, he concludes, “that the benefactors of ACN, who have helped us so much up till now, will continue to help us in every way possible – to rebuild our homes and our villages, to encourage the families to return and re-establish Christianity in the land of the prophets.”