Father Simeon Yampa funeral

Jihadists in Burkina Faso murder Catholic priest in a parish built with the help of ACN

Staff at the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) were deeply shocked and saddened to hear the news of the murder of Father Simeon Yampa, parish priest of the parish of Dablo, in central northern Burkina Faso.

 

Father Simeon Yampa's church was attacked on Sunday 12 May, just after the celebration of Holy Mass had begun, by a group of 20 or so armed men, who murdered the priest and five of his faithful.

According to local sources with whom ACN was able to speak, the attackers burst into the church, shooting, just as the congregation was singing the Gloria. Five members of the congregation were shot and killed. The chapel is small, but, including those standing outside, there were around a hundred worshippers at the time. Three bullets struck the Tabernacle. Father Simeon tried to rescue the altar servers, by ushering them into the sacristy, but the terrorists went through the church and discovered him, shooting him dead on the spot.

“There was a general panic, and people were terrified. The killers forced the faithful to remove the crucifixes and religious items they were wearing and put them down in front of the altar. They threatened the entire congregation before leaving, warning them that they would return and that if the women were not all covered in veils, they would kill them all. Then they set fire to the sacristy, the crucifixes and all the liturgical objects, and also to a vehicle standing outside the church. Then they went to the dispensary and burned the vehicle there also so that nobody could escape”, explained Rafael D’Aqui, who heads ACN’s Africa desk for the area including Burkina Faso.

The parish house in Dablo, which stands next to the chapel and forms part of the parish, which is dedicated to Blessed Isidore Bakanja and includes 18 other villages, was built just six years ago with help from ACN.

Rafael D’Aqui, profoundly moved by the events, went on to explain that “ACN helped this community in 2013 because, although they had had a chapel for many years, they wanted to establish a proper parish there where there would be a stable presence of the Church. In the financial report sent to ACN after completion of the presbytery, the priest had described how this was a historic moment, filled with emotion, for the entire Christian community. They were so happy at the prospect of having a permanent priestly presence, supporting the eight catechists who were already there. It was a dream come true for them, and their joy was plain to see on all their faces”, he recalls.

Dablo lies in an impoverished and arid region, where the lack of rain makes it difficult for people to grow sufficient food, yet when the parish was founded there was no fear of any danger. Burkina Faso was regarded as an example of interreligious peace and harmony. As Rafael D’Aqui explains, the report from the parish struck a profoundly optimistic note: “With your help, the team of priests in charge of the parish will be able to quietly develop a range of pastoral activities for the local people.” Until now the religious minorities, including the Christians (23.9% of the population) and animists (21.3%) have not suffered any discrimination in this majority Muslim country, where there has traditionally been a relationship of mutual understanding between the different faith communities – a fact also underlined by the most recent report on World Religious Freedom published by the foundation ACN.

Although it is true that from a political perspective Burkina Faso has for some years been the target of jihadist attacks, fuelled by its northern neighbours Mali and Niger, these attacks were not directed at other religions. However, the situation has changed abruptly in recent months, and now, after a series of incidents – attacks, abductions threats and intimidation – everything appears to point to the fact that Christians have now become one of the targets of the jihadists, intending to destabilise the country.

Just two weeks or so ago, on 28 April, Pierre Ouedraogo, Protestant pastor was murdered together with two of his children and three other worshippers, in an attack on his church in Silgadji, around 60 km from Djibo, likewise in the north of the country. Three members of the Christian clergy have been assassinated in 2019. In addition to Father Simeon Yampa, the Catholic priest murdered in Dablo, and the Protestant pastor Pierre Ouedraogo killed in Silgadji, another priest was murdered on 15 February, Salesian missionary Father César Fernández, of Spanish origin, who was shot dead during an attack on a customs post in the south of the country close to the frontier with Togo. Also missing, whereabouts unknown is Father Joel Yougbare, a Catholic priest abducted on 17 March on the border with Mali.

ACN has likewise reported a number of threats against Catholic communities in various parts of the country, which have forced Sunday Masses to be cancelled and even obliged communities of religious sisters to vacate their convents. “The jihadist groups are going through the villages threatening local inhabitants and demanding they convert to Islam, shutting down Christian communities and places of worship, and also schools and health centres”, Rafael D’Aqui explains.

“The Church in Burkina Faso is suffering greatly from the situation but impresses me with its fortitude. The international community needs to respond, rather than to leave Burkina Faso to become a fiefdom of the Islamist fundamentalists. Let us pray that peace may return to this country”, he continues.

“Father Simeon only arrived in this parish in September last year, and the fact that he died on Good Shepherd Sunday is a moving sign for us. It is important to emphasise that his funeral on Monday 13 May was attended not only by two government ministers and by Church representatives (three bishops and the secretary of the Nunciature) but also by many animists and Muslims who are completely opposed to such barbaric acts”, D’Aqui concludes.


DR Congo: Suffering for other nations interests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Uganda: A new place of grace comes into being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Benin: The John Paul II Institute

Giving people the ability to communicate values for strengthening the family in today’s society through education – that is the main mission of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. The institute, which is headquartered in Rome, has branch campuses on every continent. The Benin campus is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Representatives of Aid to the Church in Need paid the campus a visit. The foundation offers more than 120 scholarships as part of its support of the African institute of theological studies.

The Kanga family from Cameroon is a good example of how the institute named after Pope Wojtyla works. Thanks to one of these scholarships, the married couple was able to make the trip from their country to Cotonou, Benin, with four of their five children. They are currently completing a master’s degree programme for lay people. After three years, they will return to Cameroon to help other families, offering them a professional orientation to help them deal with the problems of today’s society. The Seke family has already finished a course of study at the John Paul II Institute. The married couple has founded the “The Power of Love” centre, which offers engaged couples an orientation for marriage.

At the pontifical institute, both priests and religious as well as married or unmarried lay people complete courses of studies that are based on the principles laid out in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which states, “All that you succeed in doing to support the family is destined to have an effectiveness that goes beyond its own sphere and reaches other people too and has an effect on society.”

“The John Paul II Institute in Benin is a kind of beacon for the African society, which is under the influence of a global trend that is attempting to push through cultural colonisation in the form of gender ideology,” explained Rafael D’Aqui, head of the Benin section of ACN, after his return from the African country. He added, “A society without a foundation is doomed to collapse.” Students at the institute are trained to deal with issues that “are based on the daily values underlying marital life, of men and women as well as in the parish and in civil society – not only from a Catholic standpoint, but from an anthropological one.” 

The pontifical institute would like to serve all of Africa. For this reason, more and more students are coming from all parts of the continent. In Africa, the family still has a high standing, in spite of a general decay in its structure.

Classes are held in French; however, plans have been made to introduce further languages such as English and Portuguese. The course offerings will also be expanded to include evening courses to open them up to working students.

Aid to the Church in Need has supported the pontifical institute from its very beginnings. The international pastoral charity carries out building as well as book donation projects. Furthermore, it has made available more than 120 scholarships amounting to over €1.2 million.

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Benin: Little spokesmen for our Mother

The International children’s prayer campaign “A Million Children praying the Rosary”, which has been supported for several years now by Aid to the Church in Need, has had a particular impact in the country of Benin in West Africa. The campaign goes back to an idea of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, who in some way foresaw the great spiritual potential of these little ones when he said, “If a million children were to pray the Rosary, the world would change.” This year, for instance in the diocese Natitingou in Benin, the children there have proved him right.

At nine in the morning, in every one of the Catholic schools in the diocese of Natitingou in northwest Benin, you would have seen hundreds of children, aged between two and thirteen, gathered in groups to recite the Rosary – their aim this year being to pray for the children of Syria, the innocent victims of a seemingly endless war.

Thanks to the now well-established initiative “A Million Children Praying the Rosary” they were united in this with hundreds of thousands of other children all over the world who had likewise responded to the appeal launched by ACN. However, in Benin these groups of schoolchildren had produced an effect of remarkable unity – for here there were not only Catholic children praying at the same time, but also children belonging to various other religions, including Protestants and Muslims. All of them together praying for the grace of unity and peace in the world.

At the bilingual Holy Family Catholic primary school in the diocese Natitingou, the children gathered at the Catholic cathedral Cathédrale de l’Immaculée Conception around the Marian shrine of Our Lady of Atakora. Together with their teachers, they began with a Marian hymn and meditated on all five Glorious Mysteries. Each decade was interspersed with joyful singing and praises of Our Blessed Lady. Then afterwards, Father Servais Yantoukoua, the diocesan chaplain to the children’s apostolate movement in Benin (Mouvement d’Apostolat Des Enfants du Bénin), read from a letter specially written to the children for this occasion by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the President of ACN. He quoted the Cardinal’s words to them, saying that through prayer “we can build a society in which justice and peaceful coexistence are possible”.

Father Servais then went on to explain to the children the meaning of this prayer and the importance of unity and peace in the world, emphasising the example set by the three children who witnessed the apparition of Our Lady in Fatima, Portugal.

The Catholic diocese of Natitingou was fully behind this initiative and supported it via its children’s missionary committee. Afterwards the children returned home “conscious of the fact that they need to become spokesmen for the Mother of God in this peace-starved world”, as Father Servais put it.

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Western Congo: The impact of a cathedral

The position of the church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is difficult, especially in the eastern part of the country, where war has been raging for decades over the coveted raw materials mines. The effects of this can also be felt by Bishop Joseph Mokobe Ndjoku in the northwestern diocese of Basankusu. For some time now, an impressive church building has towered over the surrounding countryside there. A project that Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting for many years. It is now taking on definite shape in the middle of green fields.

But the ailing economy, marked by corruption and inefficiency, has left its mark everywhere. For example, in many places the infrastructure is in a very bad state of repair or hardly existent. This means that when Bishop Joseph Mokobe Ndjoku and his employees go out to visit the parishes in his diocese of 77,000 square kilometres, they can often only travel by canoe on the rivers because the streets are impassable. It takes him more than two days to travel about 300 kilometres.

National elections are planned for late 2017. However, Bishop Mokobe reports that the preparations for these are stagnating, the round tables at which the church had time and again championed peace talks and the reformation of the bitterly divided camps that make up Congolese society have ceased to take place. The well-known exploitation of natural resources and its devastating impact on the people remains unresolved. One of the main demands of the church has therefore become “to hold the upcoming elections”.

However, symbols of hope continue to rise in the middle of this state of affairs. One example is the nearly completed cathedral of Basankusu. With it, more than just a building has become visible and tangible to the local people. A Congolese saying goes, “Without a roof over your head – there is no such thing as community.” As the cathedral begins to rise up out of the field, “this literally establishes the community of believers for the local people,” explains the bishop. After all, this is where they can gather in prayer or for educational programmes, for trade fairs and celebrations, on sunny and rainy days. “For them, the cathedral is a perpetual source of motivation carved in stone to do something for the common good. It symbolises being a part of the large family of believers that stretches beyond national borders.” And it is thus also a link to the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need from all over the world who have contributed to the funding of this cathedral. At the same time, the new church represents the challenge “for Catholics in the Congo to become active in the Christian spirit for peace,” explains Joseph Mokobe Ndjoku. Which is why he describes the cathedral as the key for further campaigns of this sort – in spite of the austerity of daily life. The inauguration of the church is planned for the coming spring.

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Sudan: Eritrean refugees see hope here

Sudan’s tiny Christian flock is being swelled by refugees from Eritrea. Sudan – we are speaking of the northern republic, officially the Republic of Sudan, which since 2011 has been separate from the breakaway country of South Sudan – is no longer a Christian country. In fact 90% of the population today are Muslims. In the last few years, however, the tiny Christian flock in the country has been swelled – albeit involuntarily – by tens of thousands of Eritreans, among whom are many Christians and many Catholics.

They are seeking refuge here since they can no longer bear living in their own home country. “The regime in Eritrea is forcing people to serve for years, and sometimes even decades, in the army under compulsory military service. During this time they are paid practically nothing and are utterly at the mercy of the regime. It is a situation fewer and fewer people are willing to accept”, explains one of the catholic volunteers who cares for the Eritrean refugees in the capital Khartoum. We are to call him Joseph, since we cannot reveal his actual name.

Usually, this western and northern neighbour is intended merely as the first stop on a route that it is hoped will end in Europe, and which will cost thousands of euros in payments to the people smugglers. From Sudan the journey to Libya costs around 1500 Euros, and from there to Italy the same again. But many of the refugees have no money to make the trip and so they end up stuck in Sudan. Often they have to spend years there before they can move on further. “Any thought of a return to Eritrea is unthinkable. There they will only face imprisonment or worse”, explains Joseph, as he shows us round a school on the edge of Khartoum. “Meanwhile, life must go on. For the children especially, the years they spend here must not be wasted ones. In fact many were actually born here in the country.”

This is just one reason Aid to the Church in Need is supporting the school, which is attended by some 1200 children, up to Year 8. “The people want their children to have a solid education, and they also want them to be brought up and instructed in the Christian faith. In this way the children will be at less risk of losing their Christian roots and at the same time they will have the possibility of a future”, explains Christine du Coudray-Wiehe, the head of ACN‘s project section that deals with Sudan. “The Eritrean refugees in Sudan have a very difficult time of it. They have fled a totalitarian regime in their own home country, and ended up living in an Islamist regime. We want to stand by them and help them by supporting their children and helping them to grow in the Catholic faith.”

ACN is helping to pay the cost of schoolbooks and teachers salaries, and also the cost of food for the pupils themselves. More often than not their families have very little money to help pay for their childrens schooling. Employers give priority to the Sudanese, so most of the Eritreans struggle to make ends meet in the black economy. They save up every possible penny in the hope of being able to pay for the journey to Europe or some other Western nation for not one of them wants to stay on in Sudan. “Our people are so afraid of the police”, Joseph adds. “We Christians are helpless and at their mercy.” And it is true that many of the refugees again and again fall victim to oppression by the police.

“Sometimes the police imprison our people and will only let them free on payment of a ransom.” And he tells us how, when this happens, the people willingly put together what little money they have in order to help their brothers and sisters in need. “Our people have a strong faith. It gives them the strength to endure everything that happens here.”

Undoubtedly, these refugee families have to endure a great deal. Close to the Eritrean church in one of the poorest suburbs of the city, we visit the family of Isaias, who live in one room in a corrugated steel roofed hut. Here, in this one room, the entire life of this family of five takes place. “Here is where we sleep, here we cook, here we eat, here is where our children play”, the father of the family explains. We are offered lemonade and sweets, as with typical generosity they share what little they have. The father of this family served for years in the Eritrean army before deciding a few years ago to leave his homeland, because he could see no hope either for himself or for his children. “We would like to go to Canada”, he explains. Asked if he is not afraid of travelling to this distant foreign land, he responds energetically, “With my faith and my Church I am not afraid of anything!”

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Worldwide: Ignoring the worsening persecution

The persecution of Christians is worse than at any time in history – but it is being largely ignored by the UN and the international community, according to reports.

The new Persecuted and Forgotten? report, launched at a meeting in the Houses of Parliament on October 12, 2017, concludes that the persecution of Christians reached a high water mark in 2015-17 – with growing attacks on the faithful by Daesh (ISIS), Boko Haram, and other fundamentalist groups. According to the report produced by the Aid to the Church in Need UK office, the international community has failed to adequately respond to the needs of Christians attacked by militant extremists.

Persecuted and Forgotten? states: “Governments in the West and the UN failed to offer Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria the emergency help they needed as genocide got underway. If Christian organisations and other institutions had not filled the gap, the Christian presence could already have disappeared in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.”

The report also identified growing problems in certain majority Islamic countries and authoritarian states such as Eritrea and North Korea. Report editor John Pontifex said: “In terms of the numbers of people involved, the gravity of the crimes committed and their impact, it is clear that the persecution of Christians is today worse than at any time in history. Not only are Christians more persecuted than any other faith group, but ever-increasing numbers are experiencing the very worst forms of persecution.”

Although the report found in the countries under examination that many faith communities have suffered at the hands of extremists and authoritarian regimes, it concluded Christians have experienced the most hostility and violence. The report supports this claim with a series of examples showing the extent of the problems facing Christians in each of the 13 core countries it assesses in depth – as well as providing an overview of the state of religious freedom for the country’s various denominations.

Persecuted and Forgotten? found that members of China’s 127 million-strong Christian population have suffered increased persecution following new attempts to bring Christianity in line with Communist ideals. More than 2,000 churches and crosses have been pulled down in China’s coastal Province of Zhejiang – and clergy are still being routinely detained by authorities. During the campaign of genocide by Daesh and other Islamist militant groups in the Middle East, Christians were disproportionately affected by the extremists.

In Iraq, more than half of the country’s Christian population became internal refugees and Syria’s second city of Aleppo, which until 2011 was home to the largest Christian community, saw numbers dropping from 150,000 to barely 35,000 by spring 2017 – a fall of more than 75 percent.  Despite national governments and international organisations having determined that a genocide has taken place, local Church leaders in the Middle East have repeatedly said that they feel forgotten by the international community. A number of bishops in the region have accused the UN of overlooking the needs of displaced Christians, despite pledging to deliver aid “neutrally and impartially”.

Extremism has been a growing problem in Africa – particularly in Nigeria where Daesh affiliates Boko Haram have displaced more than 1.8 million. In one diocese alone – Kafanchan – within five years, 988 people had been killed, and 71 Christian-majority villages had been destroyed, as well as 2,712 homes and 20 churches. At the launch in the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Alton, Archbishop John Darwish – who has overseen the care of Syrian Christian refugees denied UN aid – gave a first-hand report about the crisis that has faced Christians and ACN’s John Pontifex presented the findings of Persecuted and Forgotten?

Bishop Matthew Kukah from northern Nigeria spoke about Christians living with violence from Boko Haram and other extremist militants. Work resettling displaced Christians in the towns and villages they were driven out of by Daesh in northern Iraq was described by Father Salar Kajo, who helps oversee the programme returning displaced families to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.

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Central African Republic: Disarm heart and mind

“We are trying to disarm both heart and mind”

Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui on the power of the religions to unite people in the fight against the civil war in Central Africa – “To join together like good honey”.

For years, rebel groups in the Central African Republic have been fighting for power and raw materials. The “Séléka”, a rebel group primarily made up of Muslims, toppled the corrupt government of Francois Bozizé in March, 2013. In response to the looting and murders, the “anti-Balaka” was formed, a group primarily made up of Christians but no less violent in its approach. More than one million Central Africans have since fled to other countries or other regions of the country. Churches and mosques offer civilians protection against the attacks. French military intervention and UN peacekeeping missions were able to somewhat stabilize the civil war situation in the country so that President Touadéra could be elected in February, 2016. However, over the past few months, the violence has flared up again. The Tagespost newspaper met with Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the world’s youngest cardinal at 50 years old, through Aid to the Church in Need in Kronberg.

Cardinal Nzapalainga, what did the papal visit to the Central African Republic in 2015 achieve for Christians and Muslims? How would you explain this?

The Pope brought peace and hope by visiting Christians and Muslims and bringing them all together in the stadium. I can tell you that his visit was an unforgettable event. The evening before, you couldn’t even get within 5 km of what is called the Muslim ghetto of Bangui, but the pope went in. When he came out again, it was like the Crossing of the Red Sea: just as the Jews passed through the Red Sea, many Muslims followed the pope on foot or on motorcycles – without being afraid. That was liberation, that was an absolute miracle.

How are things in Bangui today?

Today, you can come and go as you please in the district: the pope went to the Muslims to liberate them from the prison that this district had become. Today, they can go anywhere in the capital city, to the east, the west, the north and the south. Which is something they were once not able to do. That isn’t something that should be disregarded. And we believe that the visit of the pope got the whole world interested in the Central African Republic. Because we had television stations from all over the world there, following the papal visit from that initial event in the mosque, which showed that religion is not the problem. On the contrary, the pope urged the religions to work together to find a solution together. We all share the same progenitor; whose name is Abraham – our father in faith. The same can be said about the Koran and the Bible: we have everything we need to join forces and set out on the road to peace.

You are one of the three “saints of Bangui”…

Now, that whole thing about the “saints” was the doing of the French newspaper Le Monde. The people at the newspaper apparently believe we are saints just because we act like brothers and want to overcome the division. And so they wrote what they did. The other two are Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, pastor of the Protestant church and president of the Evangelical Alliance of the Central African Republic, and Imam Omar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council. The three of us worked together to build up a forum so that we could say: the word “religion” means “to join together”. One characteristic of religion is that it unites people. The Koran and the Bible contain unambiguous messages that the people should join together – like “good honey”.

How can you as religious leaders influence rebel groups such as the Séléka and the anti-Balaka?

We appeal to their conscience. We do not have any weapons. Our weapon – that is the Word of God. We are men of the Word of God. We go and knock on the gate to the hearts of the men and women. The people can either accept this or not. It is our job and duty to tell them: thou shalt not kill. And this is what we do when we see people who are killing. We say to them: no, you don’t have the right to kill. God doesn’t want you to kill. And we have to say this to them, and tell them to put down their weapons. We try to disarm their hearts and minds. After all, you may be able to disarm someone by force by taking away their guns – but if he is not convinced in his heart and mind, then he will just go get another gun. That is why it is important to first be sure that he is fully convinced in his mind and then you can start looking for solutions to establish mutual respect.

What is the political situation in the Central African Republic under the presidency of Touadéra?

Our country is not suffering a religious crisis, but a military and political one. There are those who use religion as an instrument to gain power and access to natural resources such as gold and diamonds. The state has become very weak in Central Africa: 14 of 16 prefectures are controlled by rebels. The rebel leader is the one who holds the real power. He can decide whether a person should live or die.

On the subject of diamonds, what do you believe needs to be done to ensure that there is more justice and less corruption in the country?

We believe that after everything that has happened in our country, the victims deserve to see justice done. There are civilians who have lost everything. And there are people who have killed and who need to admit that to themselves. The belief that there is a lot of money to be gained by corruption – that needs to be repudiated. Law and order need to be reinstated. We would like to see everyone being held to the laws. We would like to see those who kill people be put in jail. However, at the moment murder is exempt from punishment. Those who kill, don’t go to jail. And nothing changes. Justice must therefore be restored. People are killed for money, for diamonds, for anything and everything. The ones who have the guns are the ones taking the decisions. If you want to have a healthy society, you need to go about it in a different way.

What should happen?

You have to set fixed goals for people. Our problems down there are also caused by the natural resources. Central Africa is a country with vast natural resources. People come from all over the world to profit from this and sell the natural resources – to Sudan, Cameroon or Chad. Since the state has no control over anything anymore, the rebels can sell the diamonds in foreign countries and grow rich. The state remains poor. This is why we need to put an end to this situation. We have to build roads, schools and health centres – that is the direction things need to go.

Since fighting broke out in May 2017, about 2,000 refugees have sought refuge in the Catholic seminary in the city of Bangassou. What is the situation in the emergency housing of the church?

The situation is very difficult, if not to say catastrophic. The people just came and we even took in Muslims from the Séléka. The bishop had the courage to allow all of these Muslims onto his territory. But the young people with the guns want to kill them. That is why he is there to protect them. And thereby risks being killed himself. You have to understand: if someone has nothing to eat anymore, he becomes like a wolf. That is what created this difficult situation. The church is there, it is on site and offering protection, but the church also needs the international community for help.

What does it mean to be a Catholic in Central Africa?

I often say to people that the Catholic church is an all-inclusive church – and that means: diversity. And if I am really Catholic, then I also need to take in Muslims and do something good for them, I also need to do something good for Protestants – these are all children of God. And that is what we did during the crisis. The imam stayed with me for six months. And when the church supports us here, then it is our job to build bridges between the religions, to the Protestants and the Muslims. We sit down together to pray together, we sit down together to talk about our fears and act together.

You also talk about fear?

Yes, absolutely. There are a large number of refugee camps in the interior of the country. The people cannot go out on the fields to work. The people can’t go fishing, they are afraid no matter where they go because there is no such thing as safety. And they are confined to their camps. This is why I said that the situation is so catastrophic. The church is there on site, at the side of these people to continue to support them and to stand by them. Thanks to the support of the worldwide church and its aid organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need, we can realise joint projects.

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Love One Another

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

 

Romans 13: 8-10

Second Reading Sunday 10 September, 2017


Sudan: Forced to say Islamic prayers for food

Christian children in Sudan’s refugee camps are forced to recite Islamic prayers in order to receive food, according to reports received by sources close to Aid to the Church in Need.

A contact, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, described how Christian refugees from South Sudan are “in a terrible situation” in refugee camps there.

Speaking of the plight of these children in Sudan, the ACN source said: “We have heard that children are conditioned to say Islamic prayers before being given food. This is not right. These children are Christian. They should be respected for that.”

The source, who estimates that 700,000 South Sudanese Christians are refugees in Sudan, added: “The majority are left in camps, some in a very terrible situation. They are confined in those places. They are not allowed to leave and travel further north to the cities.”

ACN also received reports that it is hard for refugee families to survive on food provided by the government. A monthly food parcel for a family lasts little more than two weeks – leading parents to seek provisions in the local market.

Items provided by the UN are sold in the market – many still marked with UNICEF or UNHCR logos. ACN’s source went on to say that the Khartoum government has hampered charities seeking to provide urgent assistance to the camps ad preventing them from overseeing emergency help. He said: “We have heard the story that the government does not allow any other outside agencies to give support, including the Church agencies. The government is very aware that the Church is desperately trying to support those in need throughout the world.

Referring to visits made to displaced families in South Sudan, the source said: “I tell them I was once a refugee like you – that was not the end of the road… and now I can contribute something positive to society.”

As he described people being forced to leave their country, he compared refugees to the young Jesus Christ who fled with his parents to Egypt as a child, adding: “We call on humanity to have heart for refugees. Refugees should be given genuine respect, dignity and their rights should be upheld.”

The source’s comments come amid reports of increasing persecution against Christians in Sudan with the regime reportedly intensifying its Islamising agenda.

In May, 2017 a source who also requested anonymity for security reasons, told ACN: “Churches in Sudan are being destroyed but it’s claimed to just be ‘town planning’. The Church is not allowed to buy property.

Similarly, a Sudan Church source told ACN: “Churches are being torn down each month – you never hear that about mosques.”

Reports also note that Church leaders are increasingly concerned about Sudan’s particu lar intolerance towards Christian women. In June 2015, 12 Christian women were arrested as they left a church for wearing trousers or skirts which were seen to be “indecent or immoral dress”.

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Love One Another

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

 

Romans 13: 8-10

Second Reading Sunday 10 September, 2017