Philippines: Christians used as Bargaining Chips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Iraq: Many still hope to return home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the situation of the elderly people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


China: The Communists fear Our Lady of Fatima

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Syria: Priests must also be builders in Nineveh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hope for the least of God’s Children - India

It was in Bihar State that Mahatma Gandhi first launched his nonviolent civil disobedience campaign, which ultimately led to Indian independence.

But today that is little more than history for those living in Bihar, the poorest state on the Indian subcontinent.

When Catholics here pray the words ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ they do so in earnest, as many of them do not even have the bread they need.

And when they pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’, many have in mind the burden of financial debt that they can never shake off, on account of sinful rates of interest.

This particularly affects Christians, who almost all belonging to the Dalits, the lowest caste in India.

  • They are not allowed to drink from public wells;
  • They are forced to live in hovels on the edges of towns and villages and frequently
  • They cannot even send their children to the state schools.

This is why a disproportionately high number of them are illiterate. But the diocese has set up Small Christian Communities (SCCs), which are helping small groups learn to read and write. Most of those in these groups are women. They are also learning basic life skills like cooking and needlework.

In SCCs also they pray together and learn more about their faith and about Jesus; that every one has equal dignity in the sight of God; and that the family can be a place of selfless love – so they can bring the message of Christ’s joy into their poor homes and hovels, and into the hearts of their families. In the diocese of Buxar 300 women are involved in one of these programmes.

They are also learning that they are not outcasts, that their faith unites them and that they can mutually support one another. We are supporting these communities.

The poorest of the poor among the Dalits are the Musahars. They are being ministered to by the Claretian Fathers, who have asked our help to build a multipurpose hall where Musahar children can learn to read and write, to pray and grow together and be ministered to in their spiritual needs.

The Fathers explain that such a building ‘would be a blessing for these people and would give them a sense of self-confidence and an awareness of their own dignity’. We are being called to help the Claretian Fathers bring the hope and joy to these long suffering souls.

This article can be found in Mirror 0318.

The Ven. Cardinal Van Thuan - Witness to Hope

In 1975 the future Cardinal François Nguyen Van Thuan (1928 – 2002) was named coadjutor archbishop of Saigon, three months later he was imprisoned by the communist government. The next thirteen years of his life in the regime’s prisons, nine of them in solitary confinement.

In his later years Cardinal Van Thuan was president of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace in the Vatican. He passed away from cancer in September 2002. His cause for canonisation is being advanced.

Here in his own words are some reminiscences of his extraordinary Witness to Hope.

Prayer Saved my life

In my initial period in prison I spent many months in an extremely narrow space without windows, half suffocated by the heat and humidity. Often I had great difficulty in breathing. 

They tortured me by leaving me under lights day and night for ten days and then depriving me of all light for long periods. One day in the darkness I noticed a tiny hole through which the light shone. From then on I used put my nostrils there to breathe more easily.

Whenever there were floods snakes used to invade my cell and sometimes climbed my legs to avoid the water. They used stay with me until the floods passed. 

I had no toilet but since I received hardly any food I had little need of one. My daily rations consisted of some rice and vegetables cooked with salt. 

From five in the morning until 11.30 at night there was a constant din of voices over loudspeakers. To distract myself I did exercises, jumped, danced, sang and prayed. Prayer saved my life

In moments of great suffering, sometimes when I wanted to pray I could not. I was desperately tired, sick and hungry …often I was tempted to despair and rebellion. But the Lord always helped me.

The art of prayer

In my later years in prison five policemen guarded me. Some even studied Latin to censor any documents or telegrams sent from the bishops in Rome. 

One day a policeman asked me: ‘Can you teach me some song in Latin?’ I replied, ‘I’ll sing some and you can choose.’ He chose the Veni Creator (Come Holy Spirit) and asked me to write out the words. I did so not really expecting that he would learn them. 

But in a few days he had learned them really well and sang them every morning while he was on guard. I thought to myself: ‘When an archbishop cannot pray, the Lord sends him a policeman to sing the Veni Creator and help him to pray!

On another occasion a farmer came to the prison and asked permission to visit me. The police permitted it and he spent a few minutes with me. When he was leaving he asked: ‘Please, pray for me’, and he added: ‘Father, one prayer from you in prison is worth a hundred offered in freedom.’ 

That day the Holy Spirit sent a farmer to teach me the value of prayer in prison.

GOD knows what he is doing

While in prison I wrote several books. All our religious literature had been burned and permission to publish new ones refused. I wondered how, as a pastor, I could encourage the faithful. At that time I was in a closely guarded cell but children were allowed to visit me. 

One day I said to one of them: ‘Ask your mother to buy me a calendar-block’. When I received it I wrote my thoughts on the back of a sheet each night and in this way I produced my first book Pilgrims on the Road of Hope. 

At another time when I was feeling very low and had no desire to write I received a request from Pope John Paul II asking me to write some spiritual exercises. These later became the work Witnesses to Hope.

I have personally experienced the sorrow of a pastor forbidden to care for his people and forced to abandon his diocese. It caused me great torment to be in prison while the people were abandoned. But I discovered that it had all been God’s work. 

One night I sensed a voice in my heart saying: ‘François, God holds you in His hands. Always seek His will. God knows what He is doing. He will seek other collaborators who work better than you. Be at peace.’ 

That night I experienced a deep peace in my heart and I decided to seek God’s Will every minute of my life.

The love of Christ changes people

At one stage while in prison five young jailers, university students, guarded me. One reason that I survived was because of their friendship.

Those in charge had forbidden them to speak to me. Initially my guards were changed every fifteen days. Prison authorities believed the guards risked being contaminated if left with me for any length of time. 

Eventually they stopped changing them because apparently they were afraid I would contaminate the whole force. And so the young students became my friends. The Love of Christ has great power to change people.

I would chat with them through the door about my life, the various countries I had visited, my family, my childhood etc. I taught them English, French, and even a little Russian. 

One day I asked one of them to bring something to trim a piece of wood. He did and I was able to make a cross. Even though all religious symbols were prohibited, I now had a cross in my quarters. I hid it in a bar of soap. 

Another time I asked for a piece of wire and a pair of pliers. My friendly policeman said: ‘I will bring them but you have to finish in four hours’ – the length of his particular shift. In four hours I had fashioned a chain for my cross. The cross was later enclosed in silver and it is the cross and chain I still wear.’

True Medicine True Life

The day I was arrested I had to leave everything behind me. The following day I was allowed to write and ask my friends to bring my clothes, toothpaste, etc. I also asked them to include some wine ‘as medicine’. My friends understood. They sent me a little bottle of Mass-wine labelled ‘Medicine for Stomach Aches’ and also some hosts hidden in a little burner used to keep the humidity at bay.

Every night I kept a tiny piece of bread for the following day’s Eucharist. And so every day for many years I had the joy of celebrating Mass with three drops of wine and one of water in my palm. This was my altar, my cathedral. 

For me it was the true medicine of body and soul something to stave off death in order to live for ever in Christ.


Adapted and edited from ‘Preaching Hope from prison: Cardinal François Nguyen Van Thuan’

This article can be found in Mirror 0318.

The Truth: The Bible Changes People

Swetha belongs to the lowest caste in society. She cannot even tell us her age – as Dalits seldom have any papers. She is largely excluded from Indian society – this is the first discrimination.

But when the Dalits become Christians they lose even the support the state provides to the poorest in society – this is the second discrimination. Swetha looks as though she is in her mid-30s, but poverty and years of discord with her husband have worn her down. Is the source of their problems a customary disregard for women? Or jealousy about Swetha’s faith, which has become so important to her? Swetha cannot or will not say. But this much is true: women are less valued than men. This is the third discrimination.

Swetha has put up with a great deal – blows, suffering, helplessness. And yet she is determined to remain Catholic – and remain with her husband. ‘When he hit me on the head with a heavy object, I was knocked unconscious’. But she did not leave her husband. ‘My faith gave me strength. I went back to the church again, as soon as possible; not only on Sundays, but as often as possible.’ This, and the lack of sons were the sources of tension in her marriage.

Both of them are Dalits, who used to be called the untouchables. Dalits are disregarded, jobless, without a future. And treated accordingly. Commonly they are seen more as beasts than as human beings. Swetha’s three daughters blink suspiciously; they rarely smile. Even for children each day is a burden.

According to the UN, one in every two or three of India’s approximately 1.3 billion is so poor they have to get by on less than US$1 a day – for Swetha and her family it is a constant struggle for survival.

One day, when an unknown woman told her about the Bible, Swetha really pricked up her ears. ‘My father bought my brothers schoolbooks. But I had to go out to work. I learned to read only later; I wanted to know more about this Bible.’ The Good News of a King who goes out to the least and the lowest, who addresses them personally, who even gives his life for their redemption – this was something unheard of for the Dalits.

It is the Bible that changes people, transforms and heals them. That was Swetha’s experience. ‘After the quarrels with my husband, I became ill, again and again, very ill. Nobody helped me. But then he himself began to come with me to church. He could see the good that the Church and the Mass was doing to me.’ 

Soon both of them were attending a Catholic marriage seminar. The SCCs, or ‘Small Christian Communities’ organise Bible courses, prayer meetings and other forms of pastoral outreach. Today there are some 85,000 of them in India.

The Dalits are welcome, there is no discrimination. Here in the SCC for the first time they have experienced a sense of community and dignity as human beings, as children of God.

ACN is supporting these communities, along with many other projects in India. In 2017 alone the charity invested some almost 6.0 million Euros in the future of the  Catholics here.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

The Word of God is Real Treasure

Odisha (formally Orissa) is a land of numerous unknown martyrs. Many were killed simply for possessing a Bible. Yet the Word of God is a real treasure for the Catholics here. They not only read it, but they live it.

‘The persecution ten years ago has made us stronger’, says Bishop Kujur. But at the time, they fled in their tens of thousands throughout the region as they were attacked by hordes of fanatical Hindu extremists. The scars of the past are still painful.

But the Bible shows them that the Cross is the power of God. And it also shows that while our love for God is proven in fidelity to his Word, it is perfected in forgiveness. Christ’s disciples in Odisha are more than willing to forgive.

They want to live by his Word. ‘They are hungry for the Word of God’, writes their bishop. It gives them meaning and dignity. And for this reason alone, the Christians of Odisha need the Word in their own language, Odia. They already have the ‘Nutan Niyam’ (New Testament) in Odia. But it has long since been out of print.

For more than 10 years now priests, religious Sisters and lay helpers have been pleading for a new edition. And now the six bishops of Odisha state have between them brought out a new edition, simplifying the language but without changing the meaning, simple and attractive in form.

They plan to print 50,000 copies, and we have promised to help. For while the hearts of Odisha’s Christians are full of faith and love, materially speaking, their hands are empty.

The Bible is also needed for the training of men and women who will be providing spiritual help and counselling to others.

Some 250 such helpers from each of Odisha State’s six dioceses will receive training over a period of three years, on weekend courses, so they can then go out into the villages of the Dalits and tribal peoples and assist with parishes, the youth groups and women’s groups.

These missionaries will act as a bridge between the villages and the central parish, helping to keep the people’s faith alive and deepen it. Their work will include running marriage preparation courses, presiding at funerals, preparing for Sunday Mass and leading prayer groups.

But first they need the relevant training materials including the Bible, pamphlets on Catholic social teaching, human rights, papal encyclicals, and reports describing what works best in other places.

The training programme is substantial and the young students are strongly motivated. They will bring new life to the six dioceses, and promote justice and peace, in Odisha state. We have promised our assistance in all of this.

This article can be found in Mirror 0318.

Getting Ready to Give People Hope

Every year up to 1000 priests are ordained in India. They belong to 172 dioceses and serve in over 10,000 different parishes.

The number of seminarians is also growing, today there are over 15,000. But the poorest diocese, Buxar, has only 10. It is in its early days, it was only founded in 2006.

It has 15 parishes and three mission stations, and the 15 diocesan priests minister to some 25,000 Catholic faithful. All the Catholics belong to the very lowest caste – the Dalits – and live scattered in the villages out in the countryside.

It is there that these young seminarians will be working, after their ordination, helping the people. They are looking forward to it.

We have promised to support their seminary training. They ask for so little – and yet they have no one else who can help them.

This article can be found in Mirror 0318.

Precious Lives, Precious Vocations

According to the World Health Organisation, Papua New Guinea has the highest road accident rate in the Pacific region.

This is partly because of the roads which in most cases are very poor. Many people travel in dangerously overcrowded and unsafe conditions in the back of lorries and pickup trucks. For these small trucks are cheaper to buy than a minibus.

The Good Shepherd Seminary in Banz also has a truck. At present the seminary has 35 students and 15 will join them this year. There are too many to fit in the back of the truck and in any case the pickup is on its last legs.

You cannot make savings and put people’s lives at risk in the process; they need our help for a minibus for the seminarians and the teaching staff. The new vehicle would be especially useful for taking groups of seminarians to do pastoral work in the more distant parishes. Vehicles are expensive in Papua New Guinea. We have promised them help for life is precious, as indeed are priestly vocations too.

This article can be found in Mirror 0118.