Around the world, people joined ACN’s campaign for religious freedom. From Chile to Australia – through Brazil, Mexico, USA, Canada, Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, UK, Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Malta, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Philippines – cathedrals, churches, schools, colleges, universities, public buildings were illuminated red in memory of the blood of the martyrs shed because of religious persecution. People made a stand for faith and freedom, wearing red, praying and taking a moment of the day to reflect on the sad situation of lack of religious freedom in many countries of the world. #ReligiousPersecution #ReligiousFreedom
In the region of Marmarita the local Catholic Church is working together with the international Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) to support the refugee families and help them return to their homes
Ghassan Abboud and his wife Maha Sanna used to live in Homs with their two sons, Joseph and Michael. But exactly five years and seven months ago their lives changed completely, on a day that will be forever burnt in their memories. “We were at home”, Maha recalls. “My son Michael was standing quietly in the sitting room, when we suddenly heard the sound of breaking glass. When we went to see what had happened, we found Michael lying prostrate on the ground. A stray bullet had gone through the window and straight through his head. He died instantly.”
The civil war in Syria had erupted in the city of Homs just a few months earlier, and the initial outbreaks of urban warfare had unleashed bloody bombings and sniper attacks throughout the city. The street protests calling for an end to the regime of President Bashar al Assad had prompted a hardline response and fierce political repression. Everything dissolved into a civil war which led to a division within the army and within society and to the appearance of numerous armed groups of a jihadist stamp. As of today, the death toll stands at around 500,000 people, and one of these victims was the youngest son of the Abboud family.
Hassan Abboud with his wife Maha Sanna and son Josef Abboud.
“Michael was a wonderful boy. He worked as a TV film producer and dreamt of becoming a film director one day”, his mother explains, sadly, yet with a tinge of pride. Following his death, and due to the outbreak of still worse fighting within the city, the family decided to leave. “We were planning to leave the country, but we were refused a visa. We didn’t have much money and so we gave up on the attempt. Instead, we came here to the Valley of the Christians”, Ghassan explains.
All these years the Abboud family have lived in a small rented house in the village of Almishtaya, one of the 20 or more villages that make up this region, which was known before the war as a local holiday destination for the people of Homs. Many of them used to come here from the city to enjoy the peace of its valleys and mountains. Maha explains that their economic situation was not good enough to be able to afford a rented home in another town where there was no fighting, but at the same time they couldn’t go on living in Homs, surrounded by so much violence. “Ever since we arrived here, we have been supported by the priests and the young people of the Saint Peter’s Centre in Marmarita”, she tells us. “Without their help to pay for this house, for food and the medication I need for my heart, I don’t know where we would be today.”
Her husband and her other son Joseph both lost their jobs when they left Homs. In the Valley of the Christians they managed to find work for a few months, but the economic situation of the country and the saturation of the refugees has caused the work to dry up, and the wages are in any case very poor. “I am self-employed”, Ghassan explains. “But now I’ve stopped working. I am over 60 now, but I don’t get any pension.” His son Joseph does have work, as an electrician, “but the employment situation here is very unstable. I would like to return to Homs and earn my living there”, he tells us.
The Abboud family is one of over 2000 families who are receiving monthly subsistence aid distributed by the local Church, thanks to the financial support of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Many of these families have recently expressed their intention to return to their former homes as soon as possible, and as soon as they can be rebuilt. “I am almost certain that we will be able to return soon”, Ghassan tells us. “We were able to return to Homs and see the state of our house. Although it is partially damaged, it is not that bad. But nevertheless it is still difficult to live in Homs, with all the ruin caused by the catastrophe and the many shortages of electricity and water, but nevertheless it’s always better to be in your own home rather than living here as refugees. Besides, having to pay rent is also very costly”, he acknowledges.
With this hopeful message about their return, Ghassan, Maha and Joseph say goodbye to the small visiting group from ACN who have travelled to Syria to learn about the situation of the refugee families and their needs. “What gives us hope is the support we receive from Iliash, the young man in charge of coordinating the aid at the Saint Peter’s Centre. The priests and the Catholic Church are supporting us in every way. Theirs is the only help we receive; it is a testimony to their generosity, and it is all the more precious to us, given that we are not Catholics, but Orthodox Christians”, Maha explains.
“My faith is what gives me the strength to continue, despite so much suffering. You tell us that many people in Europe and other countries feel strengthened in their faith when they hear about our story and our perseverance in the face of our difficulties. I can only say ‘Alhamdulillah’ (God be praised! in Arabic)”, Ghassan remarks. And as they lean over the balcony of their home and wave goodbye, they warmly add: “Shukran ktir ktir (Many, many thanks!)”
“Many people arrive here weeping, with serious problems, anxious or saddened because they are leaving their country, because they have nothing to eat, or can’t get medicines, and our mission is to comfort them with the light of the Word of God and with prayer.” The person speaking is Father Esteban Galvis, parish priest of the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in the suburb of Aguas Calientes, in Ureña, Venezuela, on the border with Colombia.
Fr. Esteban Galvis. Venezuela
Caring for migrants at the border, and at the same time for the people living in poverty in the frontier zone itself, means not only giving material help, despite the limitations, but above all providing pastoral and spiritual support.
“We are facing a very harsh reality, a particularly difficult situation”, Father Estaban explains. “On the one hand there are the would-be emigrants, passing through our parish centres, and on the other the poverty of the local families living here close to the border; our own people, who continue to be affected by the critical situation in the country.”
“We are the poor, caring for the poor – even though we can only offer them a glass of sweetened sugarcane water”, he tells us.
As the parish priest in Aguas Calientes, he is aware that “every individual and every family group has its own particular story to tell, but they all share a trust in God. And they come to the priest and to the parishes, seeking a refuge where they can find new strength and consolation. They come to confess, and to entrust themselves into God’s hands.”
“One memorable story was that of Juan Carlos, who was travelling with his wife and son from Falcón State (in northwest Venezuela), hoping to reach another country; but by the time he got here, he had no money left to continue his journey”, Father Esteban explains.
“Here was a man weeping, together with his wife, because they didn’t know what to do next. The first thing I did was to pray with them, asking God to enlighten us; then I shared some food with them. And then, during the day, somebody else from our community offered them a place to stay for the night. So they decided to remain in the area. During the day they travel to work in Cúcuta (Colombia). Little by little they are finding a solution, with the help of God.”
In the frontier parishes the social outreach has been strengthened especially through such spiritual care and companionship, for “in this lies our principal mission. Many people come to the church, weeping, with their problems and concerns. And our task is to be instruments of God in consoling and comforting these people”, Father Esteban explains.
Fr. Esteban Galvis. Holy Mass
As part of his pastoral activities in the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in Aguas Calientes, he also organises days of Eucharistic adoration and provides constant spiritual guidance for people seeking comfort and support.
“Ever since the border was closed”, he adds, “we have been running social action campaigns and sharing the little food we have, but inflation is making this work impossible for us. We continue to help, but with the very barest minimum, and with particular emphasis on the elderly and children, since we don’t have enough for everyone.”
The recent newsletter Movilidad Humana Venezolana, published in May this year by the Jesuit Refugee Service in Venezuela, reports that the principal reasons driving the Venezuelan people to cross the frontier are the insecurity, the worry about what is happening in the country, the hunger, the high levels of stress on a daily basis, the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen next and the lack of medicines and medical treatment. 83.6% emigrated in search of a safer place to live, and 31.2% even felt forced to flee from home.
Fr. Esteban Galvis. Holy Mass
Recently, there was a meeting of the Asamblea de Laicos de la Frontera, a group of committed laypeople together with their priests and the local bishop of the diocese of San Cristóbal,. They all gathered to renew their commitment to special and continuing pastoral service here in the border region.
Father Esteban Galvis emphasises the fact that Christians must make a serious commitment to “prayer and fasting, since this will help us resolve the situation”. And he concludes by inviting us all to unite with them in this task: “We are a source of comfort and counsel to those who live here and to those who have migrated here and suffer.I invite all those who would like to help us to join in prayer for the people living here, because God is our only strength.”
Aid to the Church in Need recently visited the town of San Antonio de Tachira, in Colombia, in order to offer support in the present difficult situation and show solidarity with the dioceses located on the Venezuela -Colombia border . Furthermore, the possibility of providing future support for a planned migrant hostel, the Casa del Migrante was discussed.
International annual report of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need
Over the past year, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need was again able to maintain a high level of donations. This is documented by the organisation’s 2017 Annual Report, which has now been released following attestation by the auditing firm KPMG. The report shows that the total sum of donations, legacies and other income was almost 125 million euros (124,057,414 €).
The largest part of the donated funds (82.5 per cent) was used to finance mission related expenses. The main share of this – 84.0 per cent or 84.6 million EUR – served to carry out 5,357 projects in 149 countries. 16 per cent of the mission related expenses served to raise awareness for the cause of the suffering church, media work and advocacy work with political institutions.
Another 7.0 per cent of the funds was used for administrative purposes and 10.5 per cent was used for fundraising, advertisement and communication with the around 400,000 benefactors of the organisation. The pontifical foundation now has national offices in 23 countries.
Specific items included in the annual report: 1,212 construction projects were co-funded by donations. These were chapels, churches, cathedrals and seminaries, many of them in regions devastated by natural disasters. A third of the funding in this area went to church building projects. Every tenth priest (a total of 40,383) received help in the form of Mass stipends, particularly in Africa (15,440) and Asia (10,748).
(Right-Left) Alessandro Monteduro, Director of ACN-Italy. Card. Mauro Piacenza, International President of ACN, Thomas Heine-Geldern, ACN Executive President, and Alfredo Mantovano, President of ACN-Italy.
Aid was also approved for 13,643 seminarians, a larger number than ever before, a part of which was again granted in the form of stipends. This is equivalent to every ninth seminarian around the world, most of whom are in Africa. Subsistence aid was granted to 12,801 religious sisters (mostly members of contemplative orders) as was funding for their training. Donations were also made for cars, motorcycles and bicycles as well as three boats, four lorries and three buses. Around 2,000 aid requests were not approved because they did not meet the strict criteria for funding.
Last year, a large portion of the aid once again went to the Middle East. Second only to Africa, this region is the focus of many relief measures. Since 2011, the year of the “Arab Spring”, around 75 million euros have been directed towards conflict areas in the Near and Middle East, more than 17 million euros in the past year alone. Measures taken with this funding ranged from emergency aid and pastoral expenses (e.g. the printing of Bibles) to church building projects. Thanks to this aid, thousands of Christians were able to return to their homes. One major project was – and still is – the rebuilding of Christian settlements on the Nineveh Plains in Iraq after their devastation by the “Islamic State”. With almost 9.3 million euros, Iraq is at the very top of the list of countries that received aid from Aid to the Church in Need in 2017. India ranked second on the list of recipient countries with 5.86 million euros, followed in third place by Syria (5.8 million), in fourth by Ukraine (4.7 million), in fifth by Brazil (3.88 million) and in sixth by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (3.42 million).
Card. Mauro Piacenza, ACN International President, and Thomas Heine-Geldern, ACN Executive President.
“In 2017, the regional focus of our aid projects was the Middle East as well as Africa. In all of our project work, the dialogue with the local church is particularly important. After all, the local bishops and religious know best where the need is greatest and which relief measures need to be taken. We believe that our job is primarily to support the church in those places where it does not have the material resources to carry out its pastoral activities or where Christians are suffering from suppression, persecution and violence,” Thomas Heine-Geldern, the executive president of the pontifical foundation, explained.