ACN in Africa

(Originally published in Mundo Negro, June 2013, Spain – adapted by ACN in February 2017)

“It is night time in Africa. I am flying through the night from Rome to Africa. The flight takes remark six hours.” This comment is dated April 1965 and recorded in the book Where God Weeps by its author, Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). In it he records the moments leading up to his arrival in the capital of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This first visit of his to the African continent lasted just nine days during which, in addition to visiting Kinshasa, he also went to Kivu, Isiro and Kisangani. On his return he described the stages of his journey as “the stations on the Way of the Cross”. Following that first visit, there were to be five more journeys to Africa between September 1968 and the end of the 1980s, during which the man known to many as the Bacon Priest was able to witness first-hand the sufferings of the continent and the poverty of the Church there. But at the same time he was able to appreciate the work that needed to be done by the Church in Africa and the aid that ACN could give on that journey.

“There is a task to be done here by our charity”, he wrote. “Not only must we help the devastated dioceses … to rebuild, spiritually and materially; but we must above all invest our love, money and ideas in the formation of lay leaders trained in the pastoral apostolate.” At the time he was referring here in particular to the Church in the former Belgian Congo, but his words could equally well be applied to many other parts of the continent.

By the time Father Werenfried arrived in Africa, he already had a profound knowledge of the sufferings of the Church all over the world. The commitment of this Dutch Norbertine monk and priest to help those most in need led him, around the middle of last century, to establish the charity that is now known as Aid to the Church in Need, or ACN for short, in order to support evangelisation and the pastoral work of the Church. Created initially as a Public Association of the faithful, it was recently raised to the rank of a Pontifical Foundation in December 2011.

ACN was born in 1947, just after the end of the Second World War, initially to help the uprooted Catholic communities in Germany, expelled from Eastern Europe. Later it extended its goals to embrace other places, other continents, other challenges. Gradually, the primary motivation of helping those persecuted for their faith, as was habitually the case in the communist countries beyond the Iron Curtain, ceased to be the sole and overriding reason for its work. In other countries and other continents, the Church was suffering other forms of poverty and marginalisation, suffering which also required an appropriate response. And in this context, Africa, with its wealth of different languages, cultures, traditions and peoples, combined with its political instability and its marked social inequalities, came to be a major challenge for ACN.

The involvement of the charity in Africa followed close on the heels of the phase of decolonialisation and coincided with a burgeoning nationalist sentiment that was taking root among peoples who had formerly looked towards the colonial powers as their main point of reference. In the ecclesial field it coincided with broad areas of primary evangelisation, linked to communities where foreign missionaries had carried out an intensive, though still unfinished labour. It was a moment of the birth of new countries, but at the same time also a season of sowing the seed, so that a truly local Church could spring up, alongside Islam and the traditional African religions.

As Pope Paul VI said in 1969, during his visit to Uganda, “You have the right to live an authentically African Christianity.” And this was what was beginning to be necessary at that time. “With the rich experience of tens of thousands of missionaries, the Church is placing herself at the service of these youthful nations, without any foolish illusions, humble and disinterested”, Father Werenfried recognised in 1965.

Projects and initiatives

From those earliest aid projects and up to the present day, there have been thousands of initiatives funded by ACN on this continent. In 2016 alone a total of 1,800 projects were supported and almost 22 million Euros steered by the charity towards Africa. Notable here was the aid for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Madagascar, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. According to a report by the charity on its work in Africa last year, “In all the above-mentioned countries the youthful and vital African Catholic Church is in need of our solidarity … We give priority to the regions of recent evangelisation and those places where the local church is less well established.”

As an organisation whose main aim is to help the most needy, ACN helps in various ways – through Mass Stipends, pastoral projects, construction projects, training programmes for pastoral workers, motor vehicles, support for the life and ministry of priests and religious communities, religious literature and the communications media – by order of importance in terms of the number of projects approved. The aid requests from Africa have also revealed a picture of a local Church that is assuming a character of its own and which is in need of help to build or renew its infrastructure. The Church in Africa has grown rapidly in the past half-century – and with it so have its needs.

Impact of climate and the impact of war

ACN is conscious of the fact that a considerable proportion of the Church infrastructure on this continent “was built 40, 60, 80 or even more years ago by European missionaries and is now beginning to show clear signs of deterioration, owing to the passage of time and the inclemency of the African climate”.

Quite apart from the climatic factors, the armed conflicts on much of the continent have also taken a toll, directly or indirectly, on the churches, convents and other religious buildings so necessary to the local communities. Angola is an obvious example here, having suffered a protracted civil war ever since the end of colonial rule. Looking at recent photographs of some of the Angolan churches, you might be forgiven for thinking that the war had ended only yesterday.

The early contacts of the founder of ACN with the reality of Africa led quickly to the establishment of a special section for the continent within the international administrative headquarters of the charity in Königstein, Germany. That original section has now become three separate sections, which each deal with the various countries of the continent according to linguistic, geographical and historical criteria.

One of the most important factors, albeit with certain local variations, is the concern for the promotion and support of priestly vocations, which have been growing almost exponentially in some countries in recent years. “Each time there are more seminarians requesting our aid so that they can complete their academic courses”, ACN sources tell us. But this concern and care for vocations also involves a strong focus on the creation of the necessary infrastructure, so that these vocations can reach their fulfilment. There are various initiatives here, such as the construction of new seminaries in Uganda and Angola and the repair and renovation of other major seminaries in Madagascar, Tanzania, Guinea Conakry and the Central African Republic.

A pastoral and humanitarian mission

Only a little over half a century ago, Father Werenfried van Straaten had already understood the needs of the Church, but at the same time also the needs of those who were living without the barest of necessities. And this reality was not something to which either the founder or his charity were ever indifferent, despite the fact that the charity had been established to help in the pastoral field. “I know well that our charity is not a charitable organisation. Our task is a pastoral one”, the Bacon Priest acknowledged. “But I know too that Christ condemned a priest because on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho he neglected his duty to show love for his neighbour. And this same Christ multiplied the loaves and satisfied the hunger of those who had gathered there, because he did not wish to speak of God to a hungry crowd.”

Reflecting this attitude, ACN has likewise always been ready to provide emergency humanitarian aid in the event of natural disasters or armed conflicts. Hence, as the charity itself states, “All our projects in Africa, including those of a strictly pastoral nature, also include a humanitarian dimension. These two aspects are inseparable in Africa.” In fact two of the most recent projects have involved aid for refugee camps in Malakal, South Sudan, and for uprooted refugee families from Burundi who have sought shelter in Tanzania.

Turning back to the words of Father Werenfried about Africa, we read that “the Church, who is called to be the mother of the poor, is also their ultimate refuge.” Which is why the founder of ACN explained that, while attending to the pastoral needs of the Church, the charity was also close to the most needy. It is a path that ACN has followed and continues to follow, now more than half a century on from that day when a Dutch monk, on a flight from Rome to Kinshasa, described what he could see through the window of his plane:

“We are flying at a height of seven and a half miles. Strange constellations shine brightly in the dark night sky. Far below us, a fire slips past. A hunters’ camp fire, perhaps, or a village in Cameroon. A tropical thunderstorm sends flashes of lightning from the equator. The lightning on the horizon lights up the night sky.”

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.

 

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.

 

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.

 

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.

 

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.