A new life, with YOUCAT in Venezuela


“And the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). This truth is directly experienced by the young people visited by Father Gregorio, in prison – the inner freedom of the children of God.

For a year now Father Gregorio has been regularly visiting the youth prison in the diocese of Carupano in eastern Venezuela. “He was like an angel from heaven” says Alejandro. The 15-year-old is behind bars for aggravated theft. “It has completely changed us”, he says. The “it” is the word of God, which tells of the Lord’s love. Father Gregorio has brought it with him in the form of the Bible and YOUCAT, the youth catechism sponsored by ACN. His bishop requested these books from ACN for Father Gregorio. And many other dioceses are waiting for this kind of help.

“Father gave me this Bible and the catechism”, Alejandro recalls. “Before that I knew a few stories, but didn’t really want to know.” He takes a deep breath and looks at us with eyes full of hope. “Thanks to these visits, I have now made my first Holy Communion, and in a few days I will be confirmed.” Alejandro is one of 30 young inmates aged between 15 and 19. Before Father Gregorio, some of the Protestant sects came, but they only “preached and understood nothing”, their female warder tells us. “The sects could not supply the longing of these young people for understanding and love”, she adds. “And not being understood, they became still more aggressive.” But Father Gregorio speaks to them from the heart, she explains. “He brings them the love that they have never experienced in their lives.”

All the boys are from broken families. “At first I simply listened to them”, Father Gregorio tells us. “They were lonely, inwardly abandoned, but longing for meaning in their lives, for love, for friendship with God. So then they were able to read in the YOUCAT, and little by little we talked about it.” Alejandro confirms this: “We see life differently now. The words of Father Gregorio, the Bible and the YOUCAT, it all made us think a great deal. We’re going to live differently now.” His cellmate, who is also going to be confirmed soon, adds, “All this has shown us the way of truth, the way to goodness, to God. I’m so happy that Father Gregorio has shown us this path.” It is this joy in the truth that now liberates these lads and fills their hearts.

For Antonio José, the visits of the priest were a totally new experience. “I was only just baptised a few days ago, here behind bars. I didn’t know the Bible and knew nothing about Christ. Now it’s like I’m born anew; the past seems so far away. Father is helping me to look forward. I want to live with God.” Nor have these young inmates forgotten you, our benefactors. “We know where these good books have come from, which tell us about Christ and help us to overcome our bad habits and inclinations. We are very grateful to the people of ACN. Through the YOUCAT we feel we are united with them; it’s as though they themselves had come to visit us. Thank you.”

Success story: A moped for a priest in India

Success Story: A moped for a priest in a rural parish in India

Young Father Ravi Kumar Devarapalli of the diocese of Eluru is delighted at his new moped, which he has been able to purchase thanks to the help of ACN‘s benefactors, who gave him 1200 Euros. Now it is much easier for him to visit the Catholic faithful in the surrounding villages.

The parish mission where he works is situated in an underdeveloped, rural region. He has no presbytery of his own, so he has to live in the bishop‘s house. Until now he managed to visit his central parish by using public transport, but in order to reach the villages in the outlying hilly countryside, he had to use a bicycle and battle his way over rough and difficult tracks. This was both exhausting and time-consuming, and besides, some of the villages are a long way from the parish center. There are nine of these villages in which people have already been baptized, and some of them are up to 10 miles (15 km) away, while the other three villages – in which the people are still preparing for baptism – are even up to twice that distance – 20 miles (30 km) away. Almost all the people have to work hard all day, as landless agricultural workers, day laborers or household servants, so that the priest can only visit them in the evenings. As a result, Father Ravi often had to cycle late at night along these long and difficult tracks. And on Sundays and holy days, he would often arrive late for Holy Mass, having been unable to make it on time on his bicycle.

“The people here are very poor and simple, but they are very open to the message of Christ”, Father Ravi explains. But the sects are also beginning to arrive in the region, and if the Church fails, for lack of resources, to provide adequate pastoral care for the people, they may well fall an easy prey to the sects, who often have considerably more money and personnel and who often take people in with their easy and unrealistic promises. But now, thanks to his new moped, Father Ravi can visit the people much more frequently.

“I am very happy to be able to exercise my priestly ministry here” says Father Ravi, who was ordained to the priesthood only in 2016. And he asks us to convey his thanks to our benefactors and tell them this: “Many people make decisions that change people‘s lives. Thank you for being such people! Your generosity will help me and our diocese to do the same for others. Thanks to your generosity we can go on helping to improve the lives of the Catholic faithful, above all in a spiritual sense. Thank you again for your goodness and kindheartedness!”

Padre Pierluigi Maccalli abducted in Niger


Padre Pierluigi Maccalli abducted in Niger. Probably being held by Fulani Islamists

ACN News, 21.09.2018 / Niger / Pater Maccalli
by Marta Petrosillo  CONTACT: press@acn-intl.org

His confrere, Father Armanino told ACN: "If they reach Mali, the fear is that the abduction could be as long as that of Sister Gloria."

“It was a swift and coordinated attack. The abductors were familiar with the movements of Father Pierluigi and had chosen him as their victim.” This was the account given by Father Mauro Armanino of the Society of the African Missions (SMA) in Niger to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about his confrere, Italian Father Pierluigi Maccalli who was abducted last Monday, from the mission where he worked, some 125 km from the capital of Niger, Niamey.

It was a well-planned attack that took place in a matter of minutes, according to his Indian confrere, Father John, who lives and works in the same mission together with Father Maccalli. “Monday evening, Father John arrived here at our regional headquarters in Niamey, visibly traumatised”, Father Armanino told ACN. “He himself lives in another small room, just a few metres away from that of Father Pierluigi, and he told us how the abductors had simply knocked on the door, seized the priest and then left again firing shots into the air. From the way they went about it, it was clear that their target was the European priest, since otherwise they would not have left his Indian confrere behind”, he added. As a matter of fact, Father Pierluigi had only just returned from a rest period in Italy. “I myself went to meet him at the airport last Saturday. The kidnappers must have known this, which is why they acted when they did. Certainly it does not help that the government, although well aware of the presence of these armed gangs in the area, has done nothing about it.”

According to Father Armanino, one possible motive for the abduction, apart from the likelihood of a ransom demand – which has not yet become known – and the attempt to gain international media attention, is the desire to frighten the Christian community in one of the very small areas of Niger in which Christianity is the majority faith. “The fact that they have now attacked a Catholic priest for the first time, shows that there are no longer any limits to their violence”, he suggested.

Corroboration of the thesis of an anti-Christian attack has come with the fact that another small group of criminals shortly afterwards attacked the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. Fortunately, the sisters were able to elude them, some by escaping and others by hiding inside the house. “In fact it was they who were able to provide us with important information about the attackers, who were speaking in the language of the Peul ethnic group while they were ransacking the convent”, Father Armanino explained. Peul is the French name used to describe the Fulani tribesmen in Niger. Consequently, it is likely that Father Pierluigi is in the hands of the same Islamist pastoralists who have murdered thousands of people in nearby Nigeria, where they have launched numerous attacks against Christian villages and even murdered two priests in April this year.

Padre Armanino went on to explain that for the moment it is believed that the kidnappers have not yet succeeded in moving their hostage to Burkina Faso, given that the nearby frontier is very strictly patrolled. Hence it is thought that Father Pierluigi is still in Niger, but the fear is that his abductors may be able to reach Mali, where they have more support. “The group that abducted Pierluigi was a small group. But if they were to succeed in getting to Mali, the situation would be much worse for our confrere”, Father Armanino explained. For there are many other members of the Fulani community there, who would give support to his abductors. “It was in Mali of course that the Colombian religious Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti was abducted in February 2017, and she is still being held prisoner today. And so we are fearful that the abduction of Padre Pierluigi could likewise drag on for a long time.”

Hope for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda

Prospect of hope and a future for the South Sudanese refugees dispersed throughout many camps in Uganda

Christine du Coudray, the person responsible for the Africa Department at the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), returned from a journey to Uganda a few weeks ago. While there she visited the Bidibidi and Imvepi camps located in the north-west of the country. There are 1.2 million refugees, coming for the most part from South Sudan, dispersed throughout the camps in this region, which covers the dioceses of Arua, Nebbi and Gulu. On top of this there are also refugees to be found in the environs of Kampala, the capital located in the centre of the country. In an interview Robert Lalonde gathers some initial impressions of the trip.


What made you decide to visit this region?


I was invited by three Bishops: Mgr Eduardo Kussala, Bishop of Tombura Yambio and President of the Episcopal Conference, Mgr Roko Taban, the Apostolic Administrator of the diocese of Malakal  - both from South Sudan -, and Mgr Tombe Trille, Bishop of El Obeid in Sudan. They had come to see for the first time the situation of their compatriots who had fled to Uganda to escape the violence in South Sudan. I was also invited by the American foundation Sudan Relief Fund with which ACN is linked since we co-fund a number of projects. Mgr Sabino Odoki, the Bishop of Arua in Uganda, took us to get an overview of the situation in these camps. It was a highly enriching week and it left a strong impression.


How would you describe the situation there?


Since we're dealing with refugee camps you would think that the prevailing mood was one of distress. But it's important to know that these camps have been in existence since 2013. The residents have food, drinking water and medical care. They even have a plot of land that they can cultivate. All things considered, the living conditions are definitely better than in many African villages which do not receive any external aid. Even so the situation is difficult, which is why the refugees expect support from us. That's what we came to assess their needs on the spot.


What moment on the trip made the greatest impression?


We were all impressed by the welcome given to us by Mgr Odoki and by the leadership he has shown. Among other things, he has assigned two diocesan priests to carry out pastoral work in the camps. We were also highly impressed when we learned that the pieces of land on which the 9 camps of the dioceses in the north-west region have been constructed originally belonged to ordinary Ugandans who generously offered them to the refugees. This welcoming attitude shown by the brothers and sisters in the faith is also in Uganda's interest since Uganda hopes that its neighbouring country will one day live in peace. Does this not demonstrate a great spirit of hospitality and provide a lesson that should be remembered?

In what way is the Catholic Church involved in the camps?


The presence of the Bishops was a good opportunity for the Church to demonstrate its concern for all these people, who are not there by choice but who have been forced there by life's vicissitudes. Even so, this period of enforced exile can be used marvellously as a time for training with a view to building the society of tomorrow. When these individuals return home, the re-construction of their country will be in their hands. The Church is already involved and may possibly become further involved by giving other training sessions.

Last year ACN sent € 34 000 to the Emmaus community based near Kampala. This community has considerable expertise in different fields such as catechesis, pastoral care, social doctrine, the family apostolate and in providing emotional and sexual education to young people, which is so important in a country decimated by AIDS. 65 young people have been trained in the camps.


What is the situation of the young in the camps?


These young people have gone through major traumas. Some saw their parents killed before their very eyes, others suffered severe facial burns… they are now asking themselves how they shall ever be able to forgive. The Emmaus community has set up a programme to accompany them in the process of forgiving and invites young people to come and kneel before the Holy Sacrament to pray. The accounts of healing have multiplied, as though the Lord has intervened to soothe hearts and spirits.


Will other means be applied in future to help the refugees?


On the one hand the Bishops have committed themselves to return in September to celebrate Holy Mass in the camps and, on the other, to ask their priests who speak the various Ugandan dialects to come and conduct an apostolate.

What is more, Mgr Odoki, the Bishop of Arua, told us that he was part of a delegation that recently met Pope Francis. The delegation informe him about the situation in the diocese and mentioned the urgent need for the presence of religious sisters among the refugees. The Pope assured them that he would make a special appeal to convents, urging them to respond to this need.


And what kind of support can be given by Aid to the Church in Need in the spirit of these commitments?


To foster the presence of Church personnel we envisage building a house with a number of rooms to accommodate priests for a certain time. With the help of other organisations we could do the same for the nuns. Such a house could provide half a floor per congregation with a chapel and a communal dining room.

With regard to the training courses we intend to continue vigorously with our work in this domain. It is clear that the desire for such training, combined with the atmosphere of peace which prevails in the camps, is a factor which favours this kind of involvement. The Bishops were delighted with such a proposal from ACN. They know that, once trained, the leaders we address (catechists, the young people who study the Church's social doctrine and those who go more deeply into the family apostolate) will share their knowledge and experience with other refugees. In this way they will build the future together. One of them, Santos, also described his experience to us as having been "more than wonderful". The more we provide these training conditions, the more the country will rise again. Isn't that a glorious prospect of hope and for a future?

Summer camps with Christ in Eastern Europe

“The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church,” said Pope Francis on Twitter. We might also say that the welfare of the children is decisive for the welfare of the family.

It is not only parents who look after children’s welfare. It is true, of course, as Saint John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Families in 1994, that parents are “the first and principal educators” of their children. But he added that they can also share this responsibility “with other individuals and institutions, such as the Church”, who will fulfil this educational duty on their behalf. This is what is happening in the summer camps run by the Ordinaries for Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe. This year 800 children aged between 9 and 18 will be taking part in the summer camps. Their parents know that their children will be spending their time here in a Christian atmosphere and at the same time learning a great deal about their spiritual inheritance in the Armenian Catholic Church.

In addition to daily Mass and catechism classes, the programme includes a great deal of sport, hiking and group games, as well as Armenian dancing, folklore and learning about the history and culture of the country. The children and young people all come from poor families and would otherwise have no opportunity to have such a holiday. Quite a few of the young people are actually baptised during the summer camp; last year 25 of them received the sacrament. Others will prepare for their First Holy Communion with the help of the catechists and priests. It would be hard to do more for the welfare of these children. We are helping with €25,000.

Bolivia and Peru: Caring for the helpless & elderly

Help for the life and apostolate of 212 religious sisters engaged in caring for the poor, helpless and elderly


This year the „Little Sisters of the Helpless Elderly“ (Hermanitas de los Ancianos Desamparados) are celebrating the 145th anniversary of their foundation. Ever since 1873 they have been caring for the poor, the lonely and the helpless elderly. Their congregation, founded in Spain, can today be proud of the fact that they have over 200 houses spread across 20 countries and four continents. Most of their convents are in Central and South America, but the sisters also have homes in the Philippines, Mozambique and in Europe.

In Peru and Bolivia they currently have no fewer than 212 religious sisters caring for over 2,100 elderly people who would otherwise have no one to care for them. In Peru they have 11 convents and a retreat house; in Bolivia they have five houses. Above all in the big cities the traditional family structures tend to fall apart, with the result that many old people rapidly find themselves alone and helpless. They not only need help to wash and feed themselves, but they also need human affection and support in their spiritual and mental needs. The sisters seek to care for the whole person, to „care for the body in order to save the soul“, as their foundress, Saint Teresa Jornet used to say.

We have been helping the communities in Peru and Bolivia each year, ever since 1994, and we intend to continue helping them again this year – with a contribution of 4600 Euros for their basic support.

Mexico – one year after the earthquake


The month of September 2017 will not be easy to forget for the Mexican people. Two earthquakes which struck just 12 days apart, on the 7th and 19th of September, left thousands of families torn apart, 471 people dead and over 12 million otherwise affected. Most victims were in the city of Mexico itself, but there were also many in other states, such as Cuernavaca, Oaxaca and Puebla. We still retain vivid memories of buildings collapsing like a house of cards, of roads and bridges destroyed – and at the same time we recall the solidarity shown by this country in drawing on all its resources and tirelessly searching for survivors amid the ruins.

But now, in this country that has been struck once again by a natural disaster, “The aid measures for the reconstruction of Mexico have been confused and inadequate and the people affected are still registering their dissatisfaction at the fact that the administrative procedures for securing aid to rebuild their homes have been slow and far from clear”, explains Julieta Appendini, the director of the Mexican national office of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Mexico City.

For its part, the Mexican Bishops’ Conference has identified 1,850 Catholic churches that have suffered varying degrees of damage in 26 dioceses. 1,603 of these are officially the property of the state, which means that it is the government which is responsible for rebuilding and repairing them – and that it is therefore impossible for the Church authorities to intervene. These include 17 cathedrals, 4 basilicas, 44 shrines, 76 convents and monasteries, 226 smaller churches and chapels, 31 parish offices or presbyteries, 11 seminaries 1,411 parish buildings and 30 large buildings still in the process of being assessed. It is estimated that it will take between three and six years to repair them all.

Those churches and chapels that do not belong to the state are now in the process of being repaired or rebuilt under the responsibility of the Mexican Bishops’ Conference and with the help of international agencies such as ACN which – after providing initial emergency aid to 23 local communities in the municipal areas of San Mateo del Mar and Unión Hidalgo in Oaxaca (where communities of up to 10,000 people were forced to seek refuge in adjoining territories after their own homes had been totally destroyed) – is now continuing its aid with church rebuilding projects. Work is already in progress on repairing the convent of the Poor Clare Missionaries of the most Blessed Sacrament (Misioneras Clarisas del Santísimo Sacramento) in Cuernavaca, which had to be to largely demolished following the earthquake. And likewise on the convents of two other congregations of religious sisters – the church of the Bienaventuranzas in Puebla and the mother house and ancient chapel of the Disciples of Jesus the Good Shepherd (Discípulas de Jesús Buen Pastor).


“I was in Jojutla, one of the places most severely devastated in the country”, recalls Julieta Appendini. “I heard the story of Mario, a little boy who was left dumb for several days after the earthquake after living through the tragedy that struck his school. His mother took him to the church, which was still standing, to give thanks to God that they were still alive. And on seeing the statue of Jesus, the first words that Mario spoke were: ‘That is the man who saved our lives. He held up the building and told us to get out and waited until we were all outside, and after that the building collapsed.’ I believe that in such moments of great tragedy it is God who always accompanies us and gives us the strength to go on. That is why it is so important for them to rebuild their churches”, the national director of ACN Mexico reiterated.

In total, ACN has so far helped with five different projects in five dioceses, giving a total of 150,000 Euros. And it is currently evaluating another reconstruction project in the diocese of Cuernavaca, which was close to the epicentre of the second earthquake on 19 September 2017.

Central African Republic: Faith in the midst of Crisis

A Bishop speaks about the crisis in the Central African Republic: “The perils of life can never prevent the Church from prospering and growing.”

How is the situation generally in the country at the present time?

The Central African Republic is continuing to strive as best it can to emerge from the crisis that has affected it like a gangrene for the past five years and more. The new democratically elected authorities are struggling to assert their authority throughout the country and in fact over 80% of the territory is still under the control of rebel groups, who now number around 15 altogether. From the point of view of security we can differentiate between three different zones according to the level of insecurity – red, yellow and green. The major part of the country is firmly in the red zone of extreme insecurity, completely under the domination of the rebel groups. The yellow zone is one in which the rebel activity is somewhat mitigated, and the green zone is the area in which the authority of the state appears to be present.

Is there continuing confrontation between the different rebel groups?

The permeability of the frontiers provides an opportunity to the mercenaries and to all those seeking to take advantage of this war, enabling them to exploit the mineral resources of the country and above all permitting the free circulation of arms and munitions. The arms embargo placed on the Central African Republic has simply plunged the country into an impossible cycle of insecurity, since whereas the legitimate authorities are attempting to comply with the conditions of the embargo, the rebel groups can obtain all kinds of weapons at little cost.

The clashes between the various rebel groups, the threat of division of the country or destabilisation of the governing regime, and the upsurge of new rebel factions continue to be the outstanding features of the situation in the Central African Republic.

How is the situation in your own diocese? Alindao has been at the centre of some of these fratricidal struggles in recent years. What is happening at the present time?

The prefecture Basse-Kotto in the diocese of Alindao is held hostage on the one hand by the faction known as the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic – a group that has emerged from the Seleka and the Muslim militias – commonly known as the mujahedin, and on the other by the self defence groups also known as the Anti-balaka. Meanwhile the civilian population finds itself between a rock and a hard place. For some time now the two groups have switched to a new strategy: rather than confront each other directly they instead set up roadblocks and ambushes on the highways, choosing their victims arbitrarily and above all from among the civilian population, who are simply trying to get on with their lives as best they can. This new strategy is claiming more victims, and the majority of their bodies have not even been found as yet.

How is this affecting your work in your diocese?

On a daily basis it is difficult, if not impossible, to travel from one town or village to another, owing to the insecurity on the roads, with the result that these places are left isolated from one another. There are numerous reprisal killings directed against civilians, both by the Seleka and the anti-balaka.

The rule of the State has been replaced by that of the armed groups, and this despite the presence of the MINUSCA forces – the so-called “UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic” – in the prefecture and some of the sub-prefectures, whose role is basically limited to showing its face without doing anything. In the absence of an official judicial system, mob justice has taken over. The armed groups set themselves up as judges at every level and use torture, mutilation and execution with impunity as a means of repression and punishment against all who oppose them.

In a region like ours, plunged as it is into a situation of insecurity, peace and stability are a volatile and uncertain commodity, because the rebel leaders dictate their own laws of the jungle and act with total impunity, given the absence of any state authority and the lethargy and inaction of the UN forces.

The violence has caused thousands of people to flee. Where are these refugees?

So many families have been victims of the violence in Basse-Kotto that this has led to large movements of refugees. Some are living crowded together in their thousands in a few refugee camps, while others are scattered through the mountains. Then again there are those who have chosen exile in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For example, in the city of Alindao alone, there are over 30,000 refugees, gathered in four separate refugee camps.

Who is taking care of them?

In the town of Alindao at least, they are being cared for by various international and national NGOs, including the diocesan Caritas, who are providing health care, education, protection, water supplies, sanitation and hygiene. As for the other towns and villages, which cannot be reached owing to the savagery of the rebel groups, the people there are unfortunately deprived of any humanitarian support. These include such subprefectures as Mingala, Satéma, Mobaye and Zangba, whose populations are without any help at all.

According to what we have heard, in these areas the level of mortality is very high, both among pregnant women and among children of five years and under. Women are giving birth in the mountains without any help from nurses or midwives, since there are no functioning healthcare facilities available.

In addition, a great many religious houses and places of worship have been destroyed, and the prefecture of Basse-Kotto has been left with thousands of ghost villages. The refugee camps have now replaced the traditional towns and villages.

What about MINUSCA? Have there been any complaints about its role and effectiveness? What can you tell us about it?

MINUSCA is present in some of the larger towns of the diocese (Alindao, Mobaye, Dimbi and Pavica). It is doing what it can, but not enough to satisfy the expectations of the refugees nor of the existing population. In practice is presence is almost entirely symbolic, at least in the eyes of the ordinary people. And the fact is that, despite the deployment of the UN troops, the modus operandi of the rebel groups has not changed. They don’t seem to be in the least concerned or scared by the mobile weaponry of the international forces. The insecurity continues as before, as do the excesses against the ordinary population. The convoys of vehicles protected by the blue helmets are not an effective guarantee of the free circulation of goods and peoples. And the connivance between some of the UN contingents and certain of the rebel groups, along with their willingness to engage in racketeering, calls into question their lofty principles of supposed impartiality and neutrality, etc. The result is that the people become exasperated and see the UN forces as exploiters, as pernicious and useless, owing to their mediocre performance.

How is your pastoral work affected by the violence all around you?

Generally speaking, the pastoral life of the diocese is paralysed on account of the prevailing insecurity. A few of our priests and Catholic faithful are split between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic (this includes the people of Mobaye, Zangba and Kongbo), while others have joined the community in Alindao (notably the people of Pavica, Kembe, Mingala/Poudjo and Tagbale). The Christian population of these parishes and areas is scattered among the various refugee camps, while a few have taken refuge in the forest and others are still living in exile. Their chapels are in ruins, or have been burnt out and even profaned by the rebel groups. The priests can no longer organise pastoral visits to the rural communities or even to those on the outskirts of the towns. Some of the parish houses have been vandalised, some totally, others partially (Kembe, Mobaye and Zangba). Only the cathedral parish in Alindao and the one in Mobaye are still functioning, while those in Kongbo and  Zangba have now tentatively resumed their activities. As far as the parish of Kembé is concerned, access to the districts of Mingala/Poudjo and Tagbalé continues to be difficult because of the climate of insecurity. The catechists there are giving spiritual support to the people.

The last community of religious sisters, the Oblates of the Heart of Jesus, were forced to leave the diocese in 2014 owing to the constant threats to their safety. We are awaiting the arrival of a new community of sisters in the parish for the beginning of the 2018-2019 pastoral year, but we still have to repair the convent, which was ransacked and vandalised by the Seleka.

Given this situation, are you still able to respond to the spiritual needs of your flock?

Given the precarious security situation and the drastically dehumanising socio-economic conditions, which are plunging people into desolation, despair, fatalism and uncertainty, to the point of seeing a complete breakdown in their Christian faith, it is absolutely imperative for the diocese to give proof of its concern and solidarity and attend to the spiritual needs of the believers.

In the present context, the social and pastoral outreach and the mission of evangelization are proving difficult but not impossible. In this situation what is important is what one could call the “ministry of presence/proximity”. So even though in other parishes and areas the pastoral workers are absent out of fear for their security, there is nonetheless a small remnant of the clergy who are assuring a meaningful presence, together with the paternal support of the bishop in Kongbo and in the parish community of Mobaye.

Together with the clergy we daily confront the fear, the threats and the insecurity in order to demonstrate our presence actively and calm the fears of the refugees. Though it is not much more than a simple presence, we managed to foster a sense of closeness by meeting with people, listening to them, visiting, counselling, sharing moments of joy and pain… This pastoral of presence also includes administering the various sacraments and other forms of spiritual service in the refugee camps: the Sacrament of the sick, viaticum, baptism, confession, confirmation, lectio divina in the basic ecclesial communities, movements and fraternities… All of this is a way of bearing witness to the fact that the dangers of life can never prevent the Church from prospering and growing.

What are some of the other priorities in your diocese?

“Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” exclaims Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 9:16). Preaching the Gospel continues to be a must every Christian, in accordance with the missionary mandate we have received from Christ. Our Christian communities that are still functioning are assiduous in attending to the Word of God in our Eucharistic celebrations during these critical times. The Word of God continues to be the foundation of consolation and hope for our Catholic faithful.

And also, even in the midst of of this crisis, the formation of our laity is a top pastoral priority, a formation aimed especially at the catechists, community leaders, movements and fraternities, and with special attention to the work for children and young people, since many of our young people have dabbled in syncretist practices that are very harmful to their faith and their future.

Finally, we are also devoting time to ecumenical work. Twice a month the parish community meets together with members of other religious faiths to organise ecumenical prayer vigils and fasts.

In your view, are the priests and religious equipped to tackle these difficulties?

The magnitude of the crisis, especially at the end of the first semester in 2017, was a surprise to many because we were not prepared for it. Many priests are still traumatised because they were victims of looting and ransacking or forced, helpless, to witness the murder of their faithful, while others were attacked or even threatened with death. Sadly, up till now they have not received any psychological counselling or support, but they are still trying to maintain their morale so as to be able to comfort their despairing faithful, who have even greater need of being “de-traumatised”.

Who is helping them? Who is providing them with moral support while hoping that they will give this support to others?

The clergy find consolation in their faith in Christ and in the unshakeable solidarity that unites the priests around their life of prayer, the celebration of the Eucharist and the chance to share moments of joy and pain. I have realised that during this time of crisis the near permanent presence of the bishop in the diocese is helping to sustain the morale of the priests and the faithful. In the same way the paternal visits by Cardinal Nzapalainga to the diocese of Alindao and Mobaye were of great help in revitalising and comforting not only the Christians but the entire community of refugees, who have been languishing in these camps for over a year now.

How are relations between Christians and Muslims?

Relations between Christians and Muslims vary from one place to another. In some towns and villages coexistence is virtually impossible. There are some roads that people of one particular community or another simply cannot travel, for fear of the worst. However, in other towns and villages the Christians and Muslims are maintaining contact, even though this is no guarantee of peaceful coexistence. Despite this outward coexistence, an attitude is developing in each community of mistrust towards the other. The fear of the other has since developed into a new way of living which now characterises our interpersonal and intercommunity relations.

At all events, we are trusting that reconciliation is possible, because we are convinced that what is happening in the Central African Republic is not a religious war. We have been working ever since the beginning of the crisis to help the different faith communities to understand this fact, and equally we do not fail to remind people of this in order to encourage social cohesion. And while these initiatives appear to be bearing fruit, we continue to apply them patiently.

You speak of reconciliation. What, in your view would be the conditions for this to be possible?

We are convinced that reconciliation is possible, provided that the State can reassert its authority in Basse-Kotto, can guarantee the security of the civilian population, disarm the rebel groups and provide justice for the victims. In addition to this it will be necessary for all the religious and community leaders to engage, sincerely and courageously, in promoting peaceful coexistence.

One of the principal problems is the lack of spiritual and intellectual formation and the number of young people who have abandoned the Christian faith, seduced by animism and superstition. How is the Church responding?

It is undeniable that during this most recent crisis many Christians, above all young people, have abandoned their faith in favour of syncretist practices, such as witchcraft, fetishism and the occult.

That is why, in the midst of this crisis, we have made the establishment of children's and youth movements into a pastoral priority.

We have also developed a pastoral outreach of listening and catechetical accompaniment, so that we can investigate and discern together with these young people the deeper reasons behind their behaviour and help them to progressively rediscover their Christian faith. Some of them have already taken the step of conversion and returned – like the prodigal son – and been welcomed and helped to find their place within the Christian community, following a penitential path. But the real challenge for the diocese is to give these young people the opportunity to become reintegrated in the social and professional life of the community.

We have to admit in fact that these animist and superstitious practices are not an end in themselves. It is not necessarily animism or superstition that seduces young people, but rather the advantages they hope to gain by becoming involved in the rebel groups. Hence these outlandish practices are a means for young people living in idleness to furnish themselves with a new personality so that they can become part of the armed groups and pursue their own personal interests. Because in a country where a high rate of unemployment and idleness has become the norm, the armed groups sometimes appear to them like a “profession” to which these young people are blindly attracted. And so the response of the Church to the abandonment of the faith must inevitably also involve helping the young to become usefully involved by providing them with some form of vocational training and the establishment of micro-projects.

Is there a particular message you would like to convey to the benefactors of ACN?

We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all our benefactors for their generosity and solidarity, because it is thanks to you that the diocese has been able to respond to the dehumanising situation facing the people by providing healthcare education, Christian formation of the faithful and caring for the clergy. Many thanks for the help you are giving us! The presence of the priests and their missionary spirit of self-denial as they work among the displaced faithful who are living in poverty is a continuing and powerful testimony by our youthful diocese which, ever since its infancy, has known nothing but difficult times and which is now struggling to rise again from its ashes. We commend all our pastoral workers, who are working day and night to alleviate the suffering of the thousands of refugees and instil courage into their troubled hearts, to the prayers of our benefactors and to their generosity.

We plainly acknowledge that the diocese of Alindao is still a vast field of work where everything has to be rebuilt following the painful events which continue to destabilise the Central African Republic. Without doubt we still face a great many urgent challenges – the care of our pastoral workers, logistics, rebuilding of our infrastructure, the pastoral outreach to and vocational and professional formation of our young people, healthcare, education and the promotion of good intercommunity relations, etc. And we trust in you to be always at our side to help us to confront these long-term challenges. Because the situation is a grave one!

SYRIA: “We have to rebuild the country”

SYRIA: “We have to rebuild the country. Simply wanting to return is not enough.”

Interview, 28.08.2018 / Syria by By Maria Lozano & Pierre Macqueron

Under the leadership of Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus and with the support of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a delegation from the Family Commission of the Syrian Bishops’ Conference (1) was able to participate in the World Meeting of Families in Dublin from August 21 to 26. Taking advantage of this occasion, Maria Lozano and Pierre Macqueron interviewed members of the delegation about the situation in the country. Denouncing the war in their country as "the cruellest tragedy in history since World War II," the participants describe the difficulties faced by Syrian families, dispersed, traumatized and ruined after eight years of war.


What is the situation in Syria at the present time?

Archbishop Samir Nassar: What is happening in Syria is an international war, it is not merely a local conflict – in fact 85 countries are involved in this war! It is the most brutal crisis in history since the Second World War. Since April we have begun to witness something of a return to peace. Bombs are no longer falling in Damascus. The problem? Our young people have been fleeing the country ever since 2015, and now we are waiting and hoping for them to return. We are doing everything we can to help those who have stayed on, including helping the families, most of which have been split up. Our mission is to help the people to stay on and to help those who have left to return again, together with their families. A great deal remains to be done to rebuild the country after eight years of war.


Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah: We have come through some extremely difficult times. A few months ago, in my school in Damascus, a bomb fell, killing one of our female teachers. Another bomb fell in the grounds of the school, but fortunately it did not injure anyone. Later on a bomb killed one of the children and badly injured another, who had to have his leg amputated. The children were deeply traumatised and no longer wanted to go to school. For them, going to school meant going to their deaths. We had to go through a long process of reconciliation in order to overcome this psychological barrier. To do so we organised spiritual exercises in a remote and quiet place for those families who had been through really traumatic situations. A Jesuit priest spoke to them about the Christian life, about how to live through their fears together with the children. And we also studied the encyclical Laudato Si’. As a result, the families involved asked us to organise these meetings on a regular basis, and so we now have a meeting every month to pray, reflect and also eat and relax together.


Jean-Pierre Bingly: All the families, whether they are Muslims, Druze or Christians, have been similarly affected by the war and have to face the same problems. Their children have died in the war, or have emigrated… So now we have to rebuild our families and do whatever we can to make things better.


Father Raymond Girgis: I think we can say that the situation is now one of normality and peace in Damascus itself. The Church has recommenced its everyday pastoral work. In our own monastery we have 230 children receiving catechesis, and we also have the retirement home for the elderly… The Church is continuing to provide material and spiritual support. Throughout the whole of this time of war, in addition to helping the sick and the poor, we have continued to help through our work in the family apostolate and through providing spiritual support.


Is it possible for the Syrian refugees to return now?


Archbishop Samir Nassar: For years Syria has been a place of refuge – for the Armenians in the 1920s, for the Assyrians, the Kurds, the Lebanese, the Iraqis… However, the Syrian refugees themselves were not made altogether welcome in many parts of the world. They are so many, too many. Nobody wants to welcome them. But now, returning to Syria is also complicated, above all for economic reasons.


Father Raymond Girgis: Many families are thinking of returning, especially the Christian families. The way in which these families have been split up is a wound in the Church. To say nothing of all the psychological problems that the war has left behind and which we as the Church now have the task of healing.


Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah: Besides, with their houses demolished, where can they return to? How do you go back to a bombed-out house? On its own, the desire to return is not enough.


Marie Nasrallah: And even more so now that the devaluation of the currency makes is still harder to return to Syria. Daily life has become very expensive now.


Does the economic blockade on Syria pose problems for the return of the Syrian people?


Archbishop Samir Nassar: We are facing grave economic problems, because the value of our currency has fallen. Before the war, one US dollar was equal to 50 Syrian pounds, whereas now it is equivalent to 515! Yet meanwhile, people’s wages are the same as they were before. Syrians living abroad would be able to help us, but this is not possible owing to the Western sanctions. Those measures were taken against the Syrian government, but they only cause suffering to the poor, while the members of the government have other sources of income. Those who are really paying the consequences are the poor.


Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah: This situation only exacerbates the sufferings of the people, who have already been scattered and humiliated. Humiliated by having to ask for help, above all now that the sanctions have made it still harder to get help. For the families especially, the additional burden this places on them in bringing up their children is an enormous one.


Father Raymond Girgis: The sanctions are not bringing any positive results. There is a shortage of medicines in Syria; you cannot obtain them. These measures aren’t aimed at saving the people but are simply condemning them to go on living in a prison.


One last word?


Archbishop Samir Nassar: When Pope Francis speaks about our country, he speaks of “our beloved Syria”. He knows Syria, because there is a large community of Syrian emigres in Argentina. The Episcopal Family Commission would like to thank ACN, because you have helped us enormously in recent years – to support the families in need, to provide medicines for the sick, to continue with our pastoral work. But now we still need financial resources in order to rebuild our bombed out houses, in order to rebuild our country.

Since the beginning of the conflict, ACN has granted more than 25 million euros for emergency projects to Christian families in Syria, including almost 6 million in 2017. Currently the foundation is preparing a new campaign to help the reconstruction of the country and the return of the refugees in the coming months.

(1) Archbishop Samir Nassar, Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, was accompanied by Franciscan Father Raymond Girgis, Superior of the monastery of the Conversion of Saint Paul in Tabbaleh in Damascus, Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity, and a married couple, Jean-Pierre Bingly and Marie Nasrallah, who have been married for 24 years and are likewise members of the Family Commission.