Syria: Consecrated to Jesus and Mary for peace

Christian leaders across Syria have joined with the faithful to consecrate the country to the hearts of Jesus and Mary in a bid to bring lasting peace to the war-torn land.

On Friday, September 29th, prayer ceremonies were held across the country, including Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, Tartous and Haba. Bishop Elias Sleman, who helped lead the celebrations in Damascus with Maronite Bishop Samir Nassar of Damascus, told Aid to the Church in Need that the consecration was vital to help restore peace.

Bishop Sleman said: “The consecration is so important to sanctifying the Syrian people. Peace must begin in our spirit and within us, and then spread throughout our society, to become a national, and social, peace.”

Bishop Sleman, who was Maronite Bishop of Latakia, northern Syria during the early part of the conflict but is currently in Lebanon in a senior canonical role, emphasised the need to change people’s hearts to bring about a lasting peace. He said: “The most important factor is the human one. We have to transform human beings. That is the way of the real and permanent peace.”

Bishop Sleman’s plea for inner conversion echoed the prayers of the consecration: “O Queen of Peace, ask your Son Jesus for our sake, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to heal our bodies and souls, to purify our minds, our hearts and our memory. Teach us to forgive, to live according to the will of the Father, for peace, love and reconciliation, to be established, through the intercession of all the saints and the martyrs of this holy land.”

The events which took place across Syria were jointly organised by several Eastern Catholic Churches including Maronite, Melkite, Syriac and Armenian Catholics – and Orthodox Christians also joined in the prayer ceremonies. The formal act of consecration took place at 7pm following Mass, Rosary and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A novena – nine days of prayer – was undertaken to prepare for the consecration. The novena involved prayer, penitence and fasting.

Bishop Elias Sleman stressed the importance of supporting Christians to return to life after conflict. He said: “We have to prepare our people for the period post war. The first victim of the war is generally the ethic, dignity, and honesty. We have to face these factors.” He underlined the importance of supporting young Catholics both morally and spiritually.

Starting Sunday, October 1st Syria’s Catholic Churches began a nine-day period of prayer and thanksgiving, following on from the consecration.

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Bangladesh: Flourishing despite Discrimination

Exploitation, discrimination and violent outbursts against Bangladesh’s small Christian community are being encouraged by the authorities’ indifference, according to a senior Church figure. Archbishop Moses Costa of Chittagong told Aid to the Church in Need that authorities were exploiting Christians and other minorities working in dangerous conditions dismantling old ships.

Stating that men have been killed in Chittagong’s shipbreaking yards on the coast of southern Bangladesh, he said: This work is carried out in very hazardous conditions and claims innumerable human lives.” But according to Bishop Costa, officials are preventing him from helping the workers. He said: I am not permitted to visit this place, because the authorities have refused me permission.”

Highlighting the Church’s concern about the increase in violence against parishioners, he described the situation in his archdiocese as “difficult and dangerous”. With Catholics only numbering 270,000 (0.2 percent) of the country’s 156 million population, he described how they were often scapegoats. Bishop Costa said: “Last year a thousand Bengalis attacked a parish in Chittagong because two business men had been killed many miles away and we Christians were accused of having had something to do with it.”

The archbishop criticised the state for not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to ensure “equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions”. He said: The government does not acknowledge their rightful existence and ignores them, so that they have scarcely any possibility of development.”

Speaking about the heavy flooding in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in June 2017, Archbishop Costa said the authorities had ignored problems caused by the monsoon rains – refusing help for ethnic minorities living there. ACN responded to urgent requests from the archdiocese by helping repair and maintain damaged chapels and other Church buildings.

Chittagong Archdiocese reported that are more than 950,000 tribal people in the region representing about five percent of its population. Archbishop Costa went on to highlight the number of Christians among the country’s ethnic minority groups. He said: “When the ethnic minorities suffer, the Church also suffers, for 60 percent of our Catholic faithful belong to this group.”

He added: “Moreover the minorities are often discriminated against in the workplace, even in some schools, since they do not speak the national language.” Despite intolerance, the Church is working in education and medical care. Archbishop Costa said: “Generally speaking, and despite its numerically small size, the Church in Bangladesh makes a significant contribution to the educational system through its schools and is likewise very active in the area of health care. It is widely respected by many people as a result.”

ACN is helping local Church leaders to stand up for people’s rights by providing support at the Inter-Religious Dialogue Centre in Khulna. The charity is also assisting in the spiritual development of young people in Dhaka Diocese.

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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


Iraq: Celebrating and Returning to Nineveh

About 500 Christian families – up to 2,500 people – celebrated their long-awaited homecoming to Iraq’s Nineveh Plains with ceremonies marking a fresh start in their old towns and villages.

In Qaraqosh (Baghdeda), the largest of Nineveh’s Christian towns, priests and lay people holding olive branches processed through the streets chanting hymns in Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. Protected by security personnel, the procession was headed by priests holding crucifixes aloft.

A service took place in the town centre at the Immaculate Conception Syriac Catholic Church, a building desecrated by ISIS. During the ceremony, Aid to the Church in Need Middle East projects’ coordinator Father Andrzej Halemba called on people to forgive those who had forced them out of their homes and attacked their towns and villages.

Fr Halemba told the returnees: “Of course we cry when we see the violence that has been carried out but we should remove the anger in our hearts. There should be no hatred in our hearts. We should reconcile with our neighbour.” Afterwards, Father Halemba, who organised the ceremonies in conjunction with local clergy, distributed olive trees and branches to each family symbolising the return to their roots – the communities where they have lived for centuries.

Another olive tree distribution ceremony also took place at the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church, Bartella; a largely Syriac Orthodox town, close to Qaraqosh. At least 2,000 families – 10,000 people – are reported to have returned to Qaraqosh, with at least another 500 families – 2,500 people – expected by the end of September.

ACN is repairing hundreds of homes in a number of Nineveh’s Christian-majority towns and villages, where widespread destruction was carried out during and after the ISIS occupation of the region from August 2014 to October 2016. The charity is also committed to repairing churches in both towns as well as in Teleskuf, where restoration of St George’s Church is well under way.

Thanking the charity for organising the ceremonies and helping with the repair of homes, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Timotheos Moussa Al Shamany of Bartella said: “This was a wonderful way to mark the start of our return to our homes – the land where we belong.” The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, an especially important feast in the region, saw further celebrations and processions.

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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


Philippines: Desecrated Cathedral retaken

After more than three months, St. Mary’s Cathedral in Marawi City has finally been cleared and retaken.

The Cathedral was desecrated and destroyed by ISIS-inspired terrorists on May 23rd, 2017. The Philippine Security Forces had to empty the church of improvised explosive devices. Photographs taken at the site reveal bullet-ridden walls of the Cathedral and fragments of destroyed icons and church adornments scattered on the floor. The altar of the Cathedral was completely ravaged, and a beheaded figure is the only statue left standing inside the building.

Along with the Cathedral, the Philippine security personnel were also able to clear the Grand Mosque, the largest place of worship for Muslims living in Marawi City. Although the destruction was not as bad as that of the Catholic cathedral, the government forces disclosed that the terrorists had dug holes and tunnels beneath the site and made holes on the mosque’s walls to engage in firefight.

For the past three months, the military has conducted extensive bomb raids on the city of Marawi, but it has deliberately refrained from bombing mosques as a sign of respect to the Maranaos, the Muslim ethnic group that called Marawi City its home for centuries. This move, however, was exploited by the terrorists who used the mosques as fortresses against the Philippine security.

Assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman of the provincial crisis management committee of Marawi, recounts how Christian police officers and soldiers helped clean the worship site and secure its surroundings.

“That again was a tacit indication that the conflict here is not a conflict among Muslims and Christians. It is these two groups that are working together to restore law and order in Marawi City,” Adiong said.

In an interview with ACN in August, Marawi Bishop Edwin dela Peña disclosed that there were plans for reconstruction, rehabilitation, and rebuilding of the Cathedral. He added “what is more important is to restore the Christian community and its good relations with Muslims living in Marawi.”

On August 8th, 2017, Aid to the Church in Need donated $30,000 which was used to distribute sanitary kits to 1,500 Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) coming from Marawi City.

Bishop dela Peña thanked ACN for the donation and continued to plead for help from all Christians to help the Prelature of Marawi and the Diocese of Iligan in assisting the IDPs of Marawi City. The Bishop also urged Christians to realize that Christ is also present in the suffering of non-Christians.

“When we are on a mission, we do not distinguish whether the people we are helping are Christians or not. We help because the Lord is telling us there is the need to help your brother and sister. We help because there is a need and where there is a need, that is where God is calling us,” said Bishop dela Peña.

By ACN with reports from The Philippine Star and GMA News

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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


Iraq: At Last WE CAN GO HOME

Religious Sisters are planning to return to their home in the Nineveh Plains in order to continue their mission of help and healing to the thousands of Christian families returning there.

Sister Clara Nas, a Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Sienna, the Prioress of the badly damaged Immaculate Mary Convent in Qaraqosh, a large Christian town in Nineveh, spoke to Aid to the Church in Need about the importance of maintaining the Christian presence in Iraq.

Seeking to help Christians in towns and villages across Nineveh, Sister Clara added: “We have decided to return to our towns as we trust that our presence in the area will encourage the Christian families to return to their homelands.”

Despite 30 percent of Qaraqosh being destroyed by Daesh’s (ISIS) genocidal violence, it is estimated that about 1,050 families returned to their homes during August.

In total, approximately 13,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by Daesh during their 27-month occupation of the Nineveh Plains.

Aid to the Church in Need is repairing many of these homes and is helping the Sisters sustain their witness to hope in the rebuilding of their Qaraqosh convent.

Sister Clara intends to send members of her congregation to the rebuilt convent as and when the security conditions allow. With inspiring forthrightness the good sister added ‘We want to rebuild and return home.” And in doing so she thanked ACN for all the emergency relief assistance it provided her community and the many thousands of displaced Christians over the past three years.

In particular Sister Clara voiced her deep appreciation for ACN’s leading role in founding and funding of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC) which aims to return up to 15,000 Christians to Qaraqosh alone. So far almost 1,000 family homes have been restored in the area.

The Sister’s comments were echoed by Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad who highlighted the importance of the continuing Christian presence in Iraq.

Speaking in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, he said the Christian community should not “act like a minority anxiously clinging to a past history, [but] we must rebuild our homeland with hope in the future and on the basis of the God given dignity of every human person.”

He added: “The Christians of Iraq are citizens of a great nation, and not a minority imprisoned by their own helplessness.”

In recent weeks, ACN has provided €900,000 towards the emergency shelter for up to 12,000 displaced Christian families – 60,000 people – still in Erbil, Kurdish northern Iraq. Many of these families are now preparing to return to their homes in Nineveh.

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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


Syria: Making a Difference in Aleppo

St. Louis Hospital, which is run by the religious order Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, is located in the city district of Ismailie in the western part of Aleppo. It is one of the few medical facilities that was left standing in the northern Syrian metropolis after the bomb attacks in December 2016 came to an end. “We are working day and night to treat those who were wounded during the war and the other sick people,” the medical director of the hospital, Dr George Theodory, says.

The work has steadily increased in the hospital. “We currently have 55 patients. We have a medical staff of about one hundred people. But there were times when we had more than twice that number of admissions, casualties from the bombings.

Resources are in short supply. Dr Theodory explains “Our income hardly covers costs of wages and fuel for the generators. These are essential because there is not enough electricity throughout the city.”

This is why the hospital turned to the local church. The hospital asked for help to keep operating and in order to  replace the medical equipment it needs to treat the most seriously wounded. Aid to the Church in Need  responded by granting the hospital 250,000 euros in funding. This will be used to acquire new endoscopes, a lithotripter for the removal of kidney stones and several UPS (uninterruptible power supply) generators. The generators ensure that these and other medical equipment will continue to function in the event power supply being suddenly interrupted in the middle of an operation.

Dr Theodory is assisted by Sister Anne Marie. Sister Anne Marie comes from Canada, but has been living in Aleppo for 18 years. “There are six sisters in our community. We run the hospital. At the beginning of the war, our Reverend Mother gave us the choice of leaving the country. But all of us decided to stay here. Because it is our vocation to stand by the sick particularly when their need is greatest.”

She describes how she was deeply moved by the witness of 6-year-old Mahmud, who was born without arms. He was admitted to the hospital after his legs had been torn off by a bomb. “He survived. I took care of him. He was finally released from the hospital a few months ago. He left with a smile on his face.”

The history of the hospital goes back more than one hundred years. Relatives who have come to visit the sick linger in the hallways and stairwells. A picture on the wall depicts the word “peace” – pieced together using bullet casings a sister picked up off the streets.  “We also treat the destitute. Even though we are a Catholic hospital, we do not make any distinctions based on religious affiliation. I would estimate that about 70% of our patients are Muslim,” Dr Theodory explains.

He is a Christian of Greek descent. When the war started, he and his family emigrated to the United States. Later he returned to Syria. “Here in Aleppo, I was already a doctor. That is why I decided to return, to work together with my colleagues and help the people in this country who are in such desperate need.” He admits that he was sometimes afraid of the war, “but my faith gave me  hope. I am a Christian and feel obligated to help those who are in need of help.”

The doctor enters a hospital room with four beds. In the first bed, he greets Said Deri, a 17-year-old Muslim suffering from testicular cancer. Sister Anne Marie speaks with him in Arabic. She says that he is a good patient. She has become friends with him.

The 50-year-old man in the bed next to Said, Remond Tarrap, is suffering from a heart condition. His state of health is poor, “but we are not throwing in the towel yet. He seems to be doing somewhat better these last few days,” the doctor comments.

The final patient they greet is Munir Ocsan, who is already on his way to recovery. His family has come to visit him. “He is recuperating here because his spine was severely damaged during one of the last bomb attacks.” Munir smiles when he hears Dr Theodory.

Both Sister Anne Marie and Dr. Theodory are grateful for the support provided by Aid to the Church in Need. “We are very thankful for their great support. If we did not have it, we would not be able to treat as many patients or at least not treat them adequately.”

Of all the patients, the Muslims are the most grateful. “They are impressed that we Christians help them with so much kindness. They say that we have treated them better than any other hospital,” the sister adds.

“The strength to continue working comes only from God. The faith upholds us. We ask all ACN benefactors to continue to pray for us. ACN’s support is making a real difference. Heartfelt thanks!”

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Syria: Rebuilding our lives in Nineveh

“Returning home.” “Set foot on our soil again.” “To see the church again that we built ourselves.” “A new beginning.” “Keep going.” “We cannot live our entire lives as displaced persons.” “I do not want to leave my country.” “God is with us.”

 

These are a few of the thoughts going through the heads of the refugees and displaced persons who are currently living in Erbil but who originally came from the Nineveh plains in Iraq. They see their return to their native towns after the invasion of the terrorist organisation ISIS coming ever closer. Even though the vast majority of the houses were destroyed or burned down, what is most important to them is that these are their own houses. Aid to the Church in Need is helping to rebuild many of the houses belonging to Christian families. Even though they would have had the opportunity, these families do not want to emigrate to other countries. They insist upon staying in Iraq. Tawfeek Saqat from Qaraqosh is one such example. He worked as a farmer before he was forced to flee. He also ran a small hotel. “I was born in this country. I have spent my entire life here. I do not want to leave. My faith in Jesus gives me the strength to continue living here. Everything that I love is in Qaraqosh: my land, my business, my entire life. I am not going to emigrate so that I can live as an employee in Europe or some other place.” In a video of testimonies produced by Aid to the Church in Need, Tawfeek talks about how he and his family were persecuted for many years. The most harrowing time was, however, when he and his four children were kidnapped by terrorists.

The young student Rahma Jacon also experienced the apprehension and fear for herself. She remembers what a wonderful and peaceful life they led a few years ago.  “I often have to cry when I think about how we lived. I would like to return to the Nineveh plains because that is our homeland, our houses, our church,” she said. She explained that they never thought that their stay in Erbil as displaced persons would last as long as it did.Our faith gives us the strength to keep going. When times are difficult, I pray so that I am with God.”

Father Thabet Yousif lived in Karemlash, a Christian village that was completely destroyed after the terrorists came through. “We now have three kinds of houses: damaged, burned and completely destroyed houses,” he explained in the video reportage of Aid to the Church in Need. A lot of money is needed to rebuild, but the families have used up their entire savings to live all those years in Kurdistan or other places. “It is our homeland, these are our houses. We cannot keep on living as displaced persons or refugees forever. We want to go back to our village. Our identity is here in the Nineveh plains.”

 The mother and grandmother Rahel Ishaq Barber pats herself on the shoulder as she recalls how they built 11 churches and chapels in Qaraqosh themselves. “I was still a child. We sang as we carried the stones for the churches on our shoulders. Our history is there.” Rahel is currently sharing a room in Erbil with eight other people. “It has not been easy. God has helped us a great deal. We thank Him.”

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Iraq: Fr. Ragheed Ganni's Witness of Faith

Aid to the Church in Need has presented a book in Rome to commemorate the life of Father Ragheed Ganni, 10 years after his assassination.

10 years after the death of Father Ragheed Ganni, the Iraqi priest assassinated in Mosul on 3 June 2007, the international Catholic foundation ACN has presented a book on his life, written by another Catholic priest and friend of his, Father Rebwar Audish Basa.

The book, entitled “Un sacerdote católico en el Estado islámico. La historia del Padre Ragheed Ganni” (A Catholic priest in the Islamic State. The story of Father Ragheed Ganni) includes his hitherto unpublished writings and testimonies.

“The marvellous witness of faith of Father Ragheed deserves to be kept present in the memory of the Church”, states the preface to the book, written by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, who knew Father Ragheed personally during his time as apostolic nuncio in Iraq. It was a terrifying experience, he said, to serve God “in an Iraq where the violence and terrorism was daily robbing tens of human beings of their lives”.

As secretary to Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, then Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, and as parish priest of the Church of the Holy Spirit, Father Ganni was repeatedly confronted with the cruelty of the Islamist attacks and was a witness to the systematic violence aimed at eliminating the Christians from Iraq.

In 2004 he miraculously survived an assassination attempt aimed at the Archbishop of Mosul. There followed many attacks on his church and many threats against him personally. Until finally, on 3 June 2007 his killer confronted him:

“I told you to close down the church, why have you not closed it?”, said the assassin.

“I cannot shut the house of God”, said the priest, before being murdered in a hail of bullets.

Iraq has continued ever since to be a country of persecution, and the Islamist barbarism finally reached its peak with the invasion by ISIS of the towns and villages of the Niniveh plains in 2014. Nor did this persecution even spare the tomb of the martyred priest, in his native village of Karamles, which was destroyed and desecrated by the Islamic fundamentalists.

An ACN delegation, which went out to visit the Christian villages on the Niniveh plains following their liberation from ISIS, found his tombstone, on which the summary of the life of Father Ragheed was written, smashed in pieces.

“It seems as though the terrorists of ISIS didn’t like what was written there”, writes Father Rebwar Basa. “In this book we relate what they attempted to wipe out for ever.”

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Philippines: Destruction is everywhere in Marawi

“The general population is not sympathetic to ISIS elements

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

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

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

Was the Cathedral totally destroyed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I suppose it is.

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

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

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

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

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

What is your message to the ACN community worldwide?

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

Which are your urgent needs at the moment?

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

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Iraq: We thank our brothers in ACN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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