The Synod for Amazonia will be taking place from 6 to 27 October at the Vatican. It is a synod that has caught the attention not only of Catholics but of all the world. Mgr Neri José Tondello is Bishop of the diocese of Juína, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, and one of the 18 members of the pre-synodal Council. In the interview below with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) he relates the recent history of the Church in relation to Amazonia and speaks of the experience of the Gospel among the indigenous peoples. He also explains the consultative character of the synod.

Mgr Neri José Tondello is Bishop of the diocese of Juína, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Mgr Neri José Tondello is Bishop of the diocese of Juína, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil.

You have been part of the pre-synodal Council. This synod has caught the attention not only of people within the Church but also of all the major communications media. To what do you attribute the great interest in this particular synod?

 Bishop Neri: The Synod for Amazonia has a long history. It is evident that it has awakened great interest, because it is tackling the theme of an integral ecology. This includes not only the original inhabitants living there, especially the indigenous peoples, who are the first and legitimate proprietors of the Amazon region. It also includes the communities living on the riverbanks, the quilombolas (descendants of former African slaves), the colonists and so many other people who are now living in the region in search of a better life. The aim of an integral ecology is to seek to consider our “common home” in all its complexity, and Pan-Amazonia is a region which serves the whole planet with its benefits. This region, within this context of being a common home, is currently affected by problems that are having a grave and far-reaching impact. To this one can now add the forest fires that have been started; this is also a serious problem and a threat. Previously people did not pay much attention to the impact of these fires, but they lead to deforestation and illegal logging, agribusiness, poisoning of the rivers, and consequently to the killing of the fish within them. The hydroelectric dams and the mining industry – with its toxic byproducts such as mercury – are likewise killing off the fish stocks. We are speaking of the basic food supply for our indigenous peoples. All these things end up by gravely harming the Pan-Amazonian region in all its biodiversity.

This then is the general context, which in consequence is not restricted solely to the internal debate within the Church but which in fact involves the whole world, because Amazonia is not a separate issue – everything is interconnected, everything is interrelated, and that is why the region is of crucial importance for the world. Pope Francis is also posing the question as to what the world can do to save Amazonia.

What does the Amazon synod mean to you?

I would say that the synod is a Kairós. I know that there has been much talk about the subject around the world and that the synod has met with widespread publicity. Even though there are some who speak ill of it, who condemn it and say ugly things about the synod, the great majority take a positive view of this special assembly for the Pan-Amazonian region and for the whole Church. As someone involved in the preparation process, one is very aware of this. There are those who don’t like it, who criticise it, but in general the synod is a Kairós for the Church. We are going to have to ask for many prayers so that we can have the gift of discernment.

We have listened to the reality of the situation in Amazonia and to the clamour of its peoples, who are expressing their unhappiness. During the course of the synod we will be listening to the scientists, and above all we will be listening to what the Holy Spirit wishes to say to the Churches in the Amazon region.

It is important to remind ourselves that the synod is not a deliberative body; according to its guidelines it is a consultative organ. But let us nonetheless not be lacking in courage to propose new ways for the Church and for an integral ecology. May this great event help Pope Francis to take the necessary decisions and give us sure guidance that will be appropriate to this blessed place that is our beloved Amazonia.

"I don’t understand the reasoning behind this culture of using fire to clear the pastures".

“I don’t understand the reasoning behind this culture of using fire to clear the pastures”.

What is needed if the Church is not to be solely a “visiting Church” throughout Amazonia?

Evangelization was brought to us by men and women who came from abroad, who gave their lives, many of whom are martyrs of Amazonia. But many of the things that were imported were not always the best; they were often schemes of colonisation, of domination, which disregarded the potential already existing there. In other words, they did not take account of the true face of the Amazon, a face that had the capacity to become the protagonist of its own form of evangelization, through the inculturation of the Gospel, incarnated in the reality of the “seeds of the word” already present among the indigenous peoples, the riverside dwellers, the settlers and all the other people who inhabit this region. And consequently, in order to achieve a more permanent Church, more effective and more present, and closer to the people themselves, their communities and their groups, there is a need both in religious formation and also in the organisation of the community, to draw more deeply on these gifts, these charisms, ministries and individuals. Of course we have to acknowledge baptism as the starting point for everything, a baptismal and collegial Church, different from a clerical Church. In saying this I want to make it clear that our document, the Instrumentum laboris, presents the Pope with an opening to this call.

Celibacy will never disappear, because it will always be a gift for the Church. But I also believe that the Church can reflect, from the point of view of the theology of spirituality and pastoral considerations, on the need for other new forms that will help to assure a more continuing presence alongside the People of God that will go beyond this idea of a “visiting Church”. We need to be closer, more present, and for this reason we need to explore the ideas on which people have been working for so long – for example the idea of a community priest, someone with a community face, an Amazonian face, someone who lives on the spot and knows all the members of the community and can help to make the process of evangelization much more effective.

Amazon synod: “The indigenous peoples have had God with them for a long time”.

Amazon synod: “The indigenous peoples have had God with them for a long time”.

Colniza is one of the towns in your diocese and at the same time one of the towns in the country that is suffering most from the forest burnings. What is the situation like there at the moment?

The fires have been terrible. They have always happened, but this year they were excessive. The region of Colniza and Guariba are among the towns that have statistically seen the most fires during this year. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this culture of using fire to clear the pastures. It seems to me that we cannot admit that the use of fire is becoming something cultural, because it is far more destructive than it is beneficial. I have been in the Mato Grosso region for 17 years and I have been able to see that this year the fires have been worse than in other years, by a wide margin. Some of the burnings are even criminal, whereas others were accidental, but they have caused great damage in the region. There is even a “day of fire” organised by one particular group of delinquents. Now the region is fearing reprisals in its international commercial relationships. We are trying to develop a sense of awareness, in collaboration with the members of IBAMA, the Brazilian Institute for the environment and renewable natural resources (Instituto Brasileño de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales Renovables), with the members of the forestry workers union, and with the firefighting agency, which is always organising campaigns to guide and warn people. We are joining forces with them and we are also using our powers of evangelization in order to draw attention to people’s responsibility in the face of this grave risk, involving the destruction of nature by means of fire.

ACN has been supporting pastoral projects in Amazonia for over 40 years now. Your diocese of Juína is also one of those that have received our help. What kind of benefits have you seen from these projects for your people?

Our diocese has benefited enormously from the projects in which ACN has been involved. Whether in catechetical formation, the family apostolate, youth apostolate and children’s apostolate, the 2000 Bibles supplied in your Bible distribution campaign, the evangelization materials, the children’s rosaries or the help for our solar energy project. After all, in the Amazon synod we cannot think only about the destruction of the forest and the construction of hydroelectric dams to obtain energy. No, we need to create alternatives, and solar energy is one of these. ACN has helped us greatly in this respect.

As to the importance of formation, we recently held some ethics classes with the group from the formation school, with the idea of establishing permanent deacons in the near future. We already have 10 deacons exercising this ministry. It is a mixed school, ethnically. We have over 20 indigenous students and 15 non-indigenous. Within this formation school we have people with close links to the riverside villages who are leaders in our communities. Thanks to the aid of ACN we feel very much a part of this Amazonian reality and really appreciate this support, amplified by your help with evangelization projects and at the same time with projects which aim to build up and train individuals for the work of evangelization within the region.

The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, scheduled for 6 – 27 October this year, has attracted the attention not only of faithful Catholics but of the entire world. The agenda for the meeting includes the defence of our Common Home, concern for the indigenous peoples and riverside communities, and new paths of priestly ministry. Mgr Sebastião Bandeira is the Bishop of Coroatá, in the state of Maranhão in northeast Brazil. Born in the region of Amazonia Legal, he has spent practically his entire life in the region. Bishop Sebastião recently visited the headquarters of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN, where he spoke of the situation of his people and the expectations for the forthcoming Synod. He was interviewed by Rodrigo Arantes.

 ACN: The Amazon region is critical, not only for those living in the region, but also for the health of the entire planet. What are the expectations in regard to this Synod, which is vital not only for the inhabitants of the region but also for the entire world, since in a sense it depends on the Amazon for its natural equilibrium?

Bishop Sebastião: Although the Synod is meeting to discuss a particular region, namely the Amazon, the issues it raises, the decisions it takes will undoubtedly influence the whole Church and the whole world. Pope Francis has chosen the theme for the Synod, which is “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology”. Hence, as Church we need to grasp this privileged moment that we are living with Pope Francis, who has been very courageous and has shown himself very open to the problems of Amazonia and attaches great importance to the Church in this region. We need to seek these new paths, so that our evangelisation can be more sound and solid.

And the other aspect, that of an integral ecology?

This is an appeal to the whole world. We need to look after the people of the Amazon. So in Maranhão for example, we have a moderately large indigenous population, but we also have a significant number of quilombola among the population (rural communities formed by the descendants of slaves) who form part of the demographic reality of Maranhão and of the Church throughout Amazonia. We want to take care of the people and of the environment and, above all, we are looking for new ways so that the Church can fulfil its role at such a decisive moment as the one we are living through today.

You speak of new paths and a more solid evangelisation. We know that there are many communities in Amazonia which are only visited by a priest once or twice a year, owing to the distances and the shortage of priests. What are the expectations of these people, for example the riverside dwellers and the indigenous peoples, with regard to this Synod? 

In the first place, the Church in Amazonia has fulfilled a most important role, thanks to the missionaries who have left their mark on the entire region, both in religion and culturally. These were veritable heroes who dedicated their lives in such distant lands to the promotion of an integral development and to evangelisation. Moreover, in Amazonia the popular religiosity is very vigorous, not least because many people in the northeast moved to Amazonia, taking with them their popular religiosity. This religious spirit was also a form of resistance to the attacks of the Protestant sects. On the other hand, we know that Amazonia needs to have a Church with a face of its own. And as the preparatory document for the Synod states, we need to move from  “a Church that visits” to “a Church that remains”. This enduring presence of the Church will only be possible when we have people, ministries that are there on a daily basis, so that the people can really feel themselves to be Church and participate in a more enduring way in the life of the Church. I believe that the question of the ministries will be the subject of much discussion, because this is really the principal concern – how to maintain an institutional presence in a situation that is so remote and so challenging as the one in Amazonia.

Boat Pope Francis, a boat donate with help of ACN for Tefé: Father Pedro (Piotr) Schewior on board of the boat.

Boat Pope Francis, a boat donate with help of ACN for Tefé: Father Pedro (Piotr) Schewior on board of the boat.

Given that you have referred to the question of ministries, do you believe that the Church will be able to offer a more sound and solid evangelisation to these peoples?

Our communities are at risk of disappearing in many places, because we don’t have enough people. Many missionaries are weary and discouraged, so consequently we have to provide a response so that the Church can continue to be alive and active in this very difficult region with its own distinctive features. Many other places in the world, facing different situations, have also thought deeply about this fundamental ministry so that the Eucharist – which is the Sacrament par excellence – can be received and can strengthen our communities. Pope Francis is continually underlining these problems, which are undoubtedly a challenge, in the hope that we can find appropriate solutions in order that the Church can continue to thrive and act, continuing the mission of Jesus, as a prophetic Church that is a sign in the world, a servant, even though she may be persecuted. For even though the Church is facing many difficulties, what matters most is to continue her mission in this world. It is to us as shepherds that this task has been entrusted, and we cannot neglect it under any circumstances.

When it comes to tackling the difficulties, Amazonia has held a place in the heart of ACN ever since the 1970s, when our charity sent 320 ex-army trucks which were crucial to the “mobilisation of the Gospel” in the region. What solutions can you envisage for giving a new impetus to the Gospel in the Amazon region today?

First of all I would like to express my profound gratitude to ACN, which has always helped our local churches, including my diocese of Coroatá, in Maranhão State. We have been blessed by the help of your Foundation, which has helped us in the construction of churches and the purchase of vehicles, so that the Gospel can be brought to so many remote and needy communities. And our religious sisters have also been greatly helped.

Responding to your question, what I can see is the following: nothing is more important than investing in the formation of local leaders. And so we are endeavouring to see how to improve their formation and increase their number, because it is they who will transform our society. Of course, I also believe greatly in the means of social communication, because there is no doubt that they can directly reach so many places we cannot. It is well-known that within Amazonia the parishes are far apart from one another. For this reason I can see that the leaders of the Church in Brazil are most enlightening when they speak of missionary ecclesial communities. That is to say, we need to form communities which, enlightened by faith, will become evangelising communities, who will bear enthusiastic testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason I am very hopeful, because even the experience of the preparatory work for the Synod is already a great victory. Never before has so much attention been paid to a Synod in recent times, a Synod that holds out the opportunity of opening up to the ordinary people, the indigenous peoples, the quilombolas, the young, the fishermen, those on the margins. Undoubtedly, many things will emerge from it, because the Spirit is in the Church, and when the Church gathers together, it is always in order to open up new paths and respond, in the light of the Word of God, to new challenges.

“The Greatest Asset of the Church is the Faith of the People”

 It is exactly ten years since the inception of terrorist activities by the Boko Haram Islamist group in Nigeria. This group of radical Islamist, whose principal goal is to create a strict Islamic state in the North of Nigeria started in 2009 and have continued to carry out deadly attacks, ravaging entire villages, killing and maiming people indiscriminately, bombing and burning down churches and public places, kidnapping especially women and girls who were force to convert to Islam.

The North East of Nigeria has been the hotbed of this terrorist group affecting the Catholic dioceses of Maiduguri, Yola and Taraba. Of these Dioceses, the worst hit has been the diocese of Maiduguri, as the terrorists have their main base in Borno State (Maiduguri is the capital of Borno State). In this interview with Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Catholic bishop of Maiduguri diocese, Msgr Oliver Dashe Doeme speaks about the current situation and the progress made by the Church through the years.

Msgr Oliver Dashe Doeme, Catholic bishop of Maiduguri diocese.

Msgr Oliver Dashe Doeme, Catholic bishop of Maiduguri diocese.

 How is the Church in Maiduguri diocese faring at the moment after ten years of  Boko Haram terrorism?

For the past ten years the Church in the Catholic diocese of Maiduguri has experienced severe persecution in the hands of the dreaded Islamic sect known as Boko Haram. Colossal destructions have been caused to lives and property by the sect members. Boko Haram means Western Education is evil and since Christianity has a link with western education, it should be eliminated. But at the moment, things have improved greatly. Many of our people who were displaced have returned to their ancestral homes. The faith of the faithful is becoming stronger. Some of the destroyed structures have been rebuilt. In despite of all we give thanks and praise to God for his mercy and kindness towards His children in the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri. To God be the glory.

One of the just few weeks ago rebuilt structures is the diocesan St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was destroyed by Boko Haram and on the 10th of July 2019, was dedicated by the Apostolic Nuncio to Nigeria, Archbishop Antonio Guido Filipazzi, what does this mean for the Church in the diocese of Maiduguri?

Our cathedral and other structures within the compound were affected by two separate bomb blasts that occurred outside the fence in 2012. Thanks be to God, no life was lost because there were no people around the cathedral premises.  But the cathedral church, the priests’ residence and our diocesan secretariat were badly affected by the bomb explosions. The dedication of the newly rebuilt cathedral in the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri is a clear sign that victory has been won by God for his people and it marks the beginning of the Church’s recovery from the crisis. In 2014, over half of the areas covered by our diocese were under Boko Haram control. At that time, we would have never imagined that by now we   would have a new cathedral standing in Maiduguri city. Even though some of our lay faithful fled the diocese and up to now some have not yet come back. Those on ground have been very supportive to the church. Amazingly, the parishioners in St. Patrick cathedral Maiduguri were able to raise up to three quarter of the funds realized for the building of the new cathedral. We thank the international foundation ACN for her support. The greatest asset the Church possesses in the midst of this persecution is the faith of the people.

Ten Years of Boko Haram terrorism in Nigeria.

Ten Years of Boko Haram terrorism in Nigeria.

 Boko Haram also destroyed many of the structures belonging to the church in different parts of our diocese. Could you give figures of diocesan structures affected by the insurgence?

The list is very long, to summarize:  Our Minor Seminary in Shuwa. It was turned into a camping ground by the terrorists, where they gathered people who were conscripted and kept their loots. As they departed the seminary, they set most of the structures ablaze. Thank God it has gone through stages to reconstruction thanks as well to the support of ACN. Also our Catechetical Training Centre located in Kaya, was destroyed in 2014 and was heavily looted by the terrorists. Furthermore two convents, two mission hospitals, over 15 mission schools, more than ten priests residences and over 250 parishes and outstation churches.

You mentioned that a number of the faithful, religious and Priests were displaced from their homes, parishes, convents and places of assignment. Have they all returned?

The peak of the attacks of Boko Haram on our people was in 2014. In that year, the sect members took over many areas covered by our diocese. As a result of this, more than 25 priests were displaced, over 45 religious nuns were sacked from their convents, over 200 catechists were driven away from their places of work, and more than 100,000 Catholics were sent running from their ancestral homes. But we give thanks to God for the tremendous improvement in the security situation. All the priests have come back to their places of apostolate. There are some of our priests who are out on mission both within and outside our country. Out of the 44 parishes and pastoral areas that we have in the diocese, only three parishes are still not functioning because of some pockets of attacks that occur there. Some of the religious sisters have come back to their convents, but others have not come back because their convents have not been rebuilt. More than 90% of our lay faithful have come back to their communities. To God be the glory.

In 2014 the sect members took over many areas covered by our diocese. As a result of this, more than 25 priests were displaced, over 45 religious nuns were sacked from their convents.

In 2014 the sect members took over many areas covered by our diocese. As a result of this, more than 25 priests were displaced, over 45 religious nuns were sacked from their convents.

 What is your message to ACN and benefactors?

 Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has been the back bone of the Church in our diocese. Without the support we have received from ACN, the church in our diocese would have long collapsed.  ACN has assisted and is still assisting the diocese in areas such as sponsoring our annual priests’ retreats, training of our priests, training major seminarians, mass stipends, rebuilding our minor seminary and rebuilding of priests residences among others. We are indeed grateful to the staff of ACN and the numerous benefactors of ACN, for the tremendous support they have been giving the suffering Church in the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri:  The suffering Church is praying for all of you. May the good Lord who can never be outdone in generosity reward you all with his peace in this world and eternal life in his Kingdom.

Archbishop reports on the current situation in the Holy Land

Pierbattista Pizzaballa has already spent more than three decades of his life in the Holy Land. In 2016, the Franciscan was made Archbishop and Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. In an interview with Daniele Piccini while visiting ACN Germany, the archbishop recently explained why current international political decisions exacerbate the conflict in the Holy Land and why the Church is relying on the power of small steps.

ACN: Your Grace, what is the current situation of the Christians in the Holy Land?

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa: It is often said that three groups of people live in the region that is considered the Holy Land proper: Israelis, Palestinians and Christians. But the Christians are not a “third people”. The Christians belong to the people among whom they live. As Christians we don’t have any territorial claims. Meeting a Christian does not represent a danger to Jews or Muslims. However, life is not easy for the Christians: it is more difficult for Christians to find work or a flat. The living conditions are much more difficult.

Does this mean that the religious freedom of the Christians is very restricted in the Holy Land?
It is necessary to make distinctions here. The freedom to practice religion is one thing, the freedom of conscience is another. The freedom to practice religion exists: the Christians can celebrate their divine services and develop their community life. Freedom of conscience means that all church members can express themselves freely and should members of other religions wish to become Christians, they have the right to do so. That is a lot more complicated. Politics always plays a major role in the Holy Land. Even wanting to visit a certain place can quickly evolve into a political issue. For example: Christians from Bethlehem would like to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to pray. However, this is often not possible because they need a permit to do so. Therefore, is this an issue of religious freedom or is it just politics and they are not being granted permission to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because they are Palestinians? It is all interconnected.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Archbishop and Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Archbishop and Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The U.S. government recently moved its Embassy to Jerusalem. How perceptible are the effects of political measures of this kind?
For the time being, this has not had much of an effect on everyday life. However, politically, relocating the U.S. Embassy is a dead end. All issues relating to Jerusalem that do not take account of both sides – Israelis and Palestinians – lead to a deep fracture on a political level. And that is exactly what happened. After the relocation of the U.S. Embassy, the Palestinians broke off all relations with the U.S. government, bringing the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian regions, which were moving sluggishly anyway, to a complete standstill.

The latest escalations have led to the radicalisation of a growing number of young people, particularly among the Palestinians. Does this also have repercussions for the Christians?
There are Palestinians who belong to fundamentalist movements. But there are also many who oppose violence. The majority of Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinians. Therefore, they live under the same conditions as the Palestinian Muslims. Religious fundamentalism places Christians clearly on the fringes of society. We experience both cooperation and solidarity, but also exclusion and discrimination.

Another problem is the growing emigration of Christians …
Emigration is not a mass phenomenon, or the Christians would have long since disappeared from the Holy Land. It is a constant trickle. Each year when I visit the parishes, the priests tell me, “This year we lost two, three families.”

Is there something the Church can do in this dead-end political situation?
Christians make up about one per cent of the population. We therefore cannot expect to carry the same political weight as other groups. But of course the Church has strong connections worldwide. And then there are the millions of Christian pilgrims from all over the world. It is our job to communicate to the people: there is a Christian way of living in this country. There is a Christian way of living with this conflict. This is not the time for big gestures. The Church has to try to establish small connections, to build small bridges.

The majority of Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinians. Therefore, they live under the same conditions as the Palestinian Muslims.

The majority of Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinians. Therefore, they live under the same conditions as the Palestinian Muslims.

Pope Francis visited the country in 2014. Did this have an effect on the political situation, but also on the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians?
The visits of the Pope are important stepping stones on the way to peace, even though they will not bring about a major change. However, the opposite is true when it comes to ecumenism: with his visit, Pope Francis built on the historic meeting that took place between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964. Keeping this in mind, the visit of Pope Francis, in particular the ecumenical prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was a decisive and perceptible turning point in the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

Aid to the Church in Need has been close to the Christians in the Holy Land for many years. In Jerusalem, for example, the pastoral charity funds an interreligious seminar entitled “Develop forgiveness, overcome  hatred”, which is attended by hundreds of Christians, Jews and Muslims. Could you tell us  something about this initiative?
First and foremost, I would like to thank ACN because the pastoral charity does a great deal in the Holy Land. It supports many projects, including this seminar, which is organised by the Rossing Center. Daniel Rossing was a Jew who felt that Jerusalem in particular needed to be a place where all religions felt at home. Many young people who participate in these classes apply what they learn in their professional lives. Which makes religion, which is often an element of division in the Holy Land, an element of unity.

 

Father Prasad Harshan supports the victims of the terror attacks in Sri Lanka with his “Faith Animation Team”

An interview by Stephan Baier / Kirche in Not (ACN)

Father Prasad, the terror attacks at Easter in three Christian churches in Sri Lanka have wounded the faithful not only physically and psychologically, but also in their faith. How does the Church support them?

Our Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith wanted to have missionaries on the street, going from parish to parish, from street to street, to listen to the people in their homes, to hear their stories and stand by them in all their struggles of faith. We already started this three years ago. Now, when we learned of this tragedy, it has become a blessing; a blessing for the Church and for the people. We are five priests who are working with the terror victims. We are particularly active in Negombo, where 115 people were murdered and more than 280 injured in a single parish. Everywhere we see black flags of mourning. The people are wounded, physically, mentally and spiritually. We see how the people have been wounded in their faith and in their religious life. In 30 years of civil war, we never had such bomb attacks in churches. The people are asking themselves, why did it happen? And why at Easter?

Did this cause any doubting of faith and distancing from the Church?

At first the people were shocked. How could God have permitted it in His own house? We priests were determined to stay at the people’s side, even though we had no answers to give. We were with them in their homes. We wanted to show them that God is and remains with them. After the shock came anger. Especially when they learned that the government had received warnings  in advance. The people had to struggle with their feelings. Here, the Cardinal’s appeal to be guided by faith and not by emotions played a great role.

What is your pastoral work in concrete terms?

We are working a great deal with children, who are scared to come to church or Sunday school again. And also with mothers, to strengthen their faith. 475 years ago, a Hindu king murdered 600 Christians in the north of Sri Lanka. We are taking the families of the victims to the places of memorial to these martyrs in the north. Those who died on Easter Sunday are martyrs, because they lost their lives for their faith. Through this visit to the earlier martyrs, we seek to heal the wounds of the families. People who were wounded or widowed in the civil war also speak with them, encourage them, and give witness to their faith in God.

Father Prasad Harshan.

Father Prasad Harshan.

Many Catholics in Sri Lanka have told me that, after the terror attacks, they have become stronger and more devout than before.

For those who were directly affected, the wounds remain today. But altogether, it was a blessing for the Catholics in our country, because the whole country was baptised overnight. There is baptism with water, and baptism with blood. Suddenly, our whole country became aware of the presence of the Catholics and the special nature of their faith. In the past, some 4,000 people watched the Cardinal’s video message. Now there are hundreds of thousands. They want to see what he thinks. We saw the true meaning of Easter! But it began with the torn bodies, with the blood of the martyrs.

The Buddhists represent 70 per cent of the inhabitants of Sri Lanka. Why have the terrorists not attacked Buddhist temples?

They are the majority in this country, and they also include fighters. We do not know why no Buddhist temples were attacked. It may have to do with the fact that, although the Catholic Church represents a minority in this country, it is the largest religious community in the world. The terrorists want to get the whole world involved.

How have the killings affected relations between Buddhists and Catholics?

The Buddhists started to discuss among themselves how admirable the Catholics were. Why did they not seek revenge?  Fortunately, we have a wonderful system in the Catholic Church: the priests listen to the Cardinal, the faithful listen to the priests. Now the Buddhist monks also admire us Catholics, and they treat us with a great deal of sympathy and respect.

How did the leaders of the Islamic religious community in Sri Lanka react to the terror from within their own ranks?

The Muslim authorities recognised that it was their mistake to remain silent about the activities of terrorist groups in their communities. We were not aware of it, but they knew about it. They understood that it is a disaster for the whole country. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the suicide bombers were Muslims. Therefore, the Muslims could not deny their share of responsibility. They now have the mission to cleanse themselves internally. When the investigations started, weapons were found in the mosques. That was shocking for us. The Islamic leaders have a duty to interpret the Koran in a peaceful way.

Has international solidarity with the victims in Sri Lanka been noticeable?

International Catholic relief organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) have greatly helped us here. We are a minority in the country, but we know that we are  part of a larger family. People who have never been to Sri Lanka pray for us and give donations! Thus, the Catholic Church has become a blessing for all the people of Sri Lanka. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists also died in our churches. An inner transformation has begun, in that the people are looking to the Catholic Church. They begin to understand what it means to live in Christ.

On August 6, 2014, IS units razed and conquered the Christian settlements of the Nineveh Plain, north of Mosul. Some 120,000 Christians had to flee overnight. Many of them found refuge around the Kurdish city of Erbil. For the following three years, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Mgr. Bashar Matti Warda, was one of the pillars in the maintenance and support of the community. Early 2016 Iraqi forces and their allies were able to recover the territories and tens of thousands of displaced Christians returned to the ruins of their home cities. Others decided to stay in Erbil or emigrate out of the country. The ACN Foundation together with the local churches significantly supports the reconstruction. Five years after the invasion of the Nineveh Plain, ACN interviews Mgr. Bashar Matti Warda – an eye-witness of all these events – about the consequences for Christians in Iraq but also for the entire Middle East and for Western countries.

The interview was conducted by Maria Lozano.

It has been five years of Calvary. Looking back what would be the lesson you have taken?
When a people have nothing left to lose, in some sense it is very liberating, and from this position of clarity and new-found courage I can speak on behalf of my people and tell you the truth. But I would like to remark that we are a people who have endured persecution in patience and faith for 1,400 years confronting an existential struggle, our final struggle in Iraq. The most immediate cause is the ISIS attack that led to the displacement of more than 125,000 Christians from historical homelands and rendered us, in a single night, without shelter and refuge, without work or properties, without churches and monasteries, without the ability to participate in any of the normal things of life that give dignity; family visits, celebration of weddings and births, sharing of sorrows. Our tormentors confiscated our present while seeking to wipe out our history and destroy our future. This was an exceptional situation, but not an isolated one. It was part of the recurring cycle of violence in the Middle East over 1,400 years.

Mgr. Bashar Matti Warda, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil.

Mgr. Bashar Matti Warda, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil.

So in fact, the ISIS invasion was just the “tip of the iceberg”?

With each successive cycle the number of Christians falls away, till today we are at the point of extinction. Argue as you will, but extinction is coming, and then what will anyone say? That we were made extinct by natural disaster, or gentle migration? That the ISIS attacks were unexpected, and we were taken by surprise?  –That is what the media will say. Or will the truth emerge after our disappearance: that we were persistently and steadily eliminated over the course of 1,400 years by a belief system which allowed for regular and recurring cycles of violence against us – like the Ottoman genocide of 1916-1922.

But during these 1,400 years of Christian oppression, were there periods of Muslim tolerance as an alternative to violence and persecution?

One cannot deny the existence of times of relative tolerance. Under al Rashid, the House of Wisdom, the great library, was founded in Baghdad. There was a time of relative prosperity while Christian and Jewish scholarship was valued, and a flowering of science, mathematics and medicine was made possible by Nestorian Christian scholars who translated Greek texts, already ancient in the ninth century. Our Christian ancestors shared with Muslim Arabs a deep tradition of thought and philosophy and engaged with them in respectful dialogue from the 8th century onwards. The Arab Golden Age, as historian Philip Jenkins has noted, was built on Chaldean and Syriac scholarship. Christian scholarship. The imposition of Shari’a law saw the decline of great learning, and the end of the “Golden Age” of Arab culture. A style of scholastic dialogue had developed, and which could only occur, because a succession of caliphs tolerated minorities. As toleration ended, so did the culture and wealth which flowed from it.

"The most immediate cause is the ISIS attack that led to the displacement of more than 125,000 Christians".

“The most immediate cause is the ISIS attack that led to the displacement of more than 125,000 Christians”.

 So, would you say that peaceful coexistence is possible and tolerance is the key to the development of peoples?

Exactly. But these moments of toleration have been a one-way experience: Islamic rulers decide, according to their own judgment and whim, whether Christians and other non-Muslims are to be tolerated and to what degree. It is not, and has never, ever, been a question of equality.  Fundamentally, in the eyes of Islam, Christians are not equal. We are not to be treated as equal; we are only to be tolerated or not tolerated, depending upon the intensity of the prevailing Jihadi spirit.  Yes; the root of all of this is the teachings of Jihad, the justification for acts of violence.

Iraqi Christians are going back to their villages again. Is the situation now improving? How is life for the Christians and other minorities?

There are still extremist groups, growing in number, asserting that killing Christians and Yazidis helps spread Islam. By strictly adhering to Koranic teaching they prescribe Dhimmi status (second class citizenship) to minorities, allowing confiscation of property and enforcement of jizya Islamic tax. But it is not just this. If you were a Christian in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East, you would never accept for one moment the shadow under which we Iraqis live – and under which we have lived for centuries. By my country’s constitution we are lesser citizens, we live at the discretion of our self-appointed superiors. Our humanity gives us no rights.

In Western countries you stand equal under the law. This basic principle of European and American life is a foundation of Christian civic order, in which we are all children under a loving God, created in His image and likeness, which gives us all dignity, and urges on us mutual respect. Civic security grows out of a worldview that values every individual human not for their position or role, but simply because they are human. This view has been the great gift of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Rebuilding civil society means rebuilding it for everybody. Everyone has a place, and everyone has a chance to thrive.

The truth is, there is a foundational crisis within Islam itself, and if this crisis is not acknowledged, addressed and fixed then there can be no future for civil society in the Middle East, or indeed any- where where Islam brings itself to bare upon a host nation.

 

Some voices said that the brutality and the violence of ISIS have changed the Islamic world, too. What do you think?

Clearly, ISIS shocked the conscience of the world, and has shocked the conscience of the Islamic-majority world as well. The question now is whether or not Islam will continue on a political trajectory, in which Shari’a is the basis for civil law and nearly every aspect of life is circumscribed by religion, or whether a more civil, tolerant movement will develop.

The defeat of Daesh has not seen the defeat of the idea of the re-establishment of the Caliphate. This has re-awoken and is now firmly implanted in minds throughout the Muslim world.  And with this idea of the Caliphate there comes all the formal historical structures of intentional inequality and discrimination against non-Muslims. I speak here not only of Iraq. We see leaders in other countries in the Middle East who are clearly acting in a way consistent with the re-establishment of the Caliphate.

How do you think that the West will react to this?

This is a crucial question and the religious minorities of the Middle East want to know the answer. Will you continue to condone this never-ending, organised persecution against us? When the next wave of violence begins to hit us, will anyone on your campuses hold demonstrations and carry signs that say, “we are all Christians”? And yes I do say, the “next wave of violence”, for this is simply the natural result of a ruling system that preaches inequality, and justifies persecution. The equation is not complicated.  One group is taught that they are superior and legally entitled to treat others as inferior human beings on the sole basis of their faith and religious practices. This teaching inevitably leads to violence against any “inferiors” who refuse to change their faith. And there you have it – the history of Christians in the Middle East for the last 1,400 years.

On August 6, 2014, IS units razed and conquered the Christian settlements of the Nineveh Plain, north of Mosul.

On August 6, 2014, IS units razed and conquered the Christian settlements of the Nineveh Plain, north of Mosul.

But what would be the solution? How are we to build a better future?

This change must come about as the conscious work of the Muslim world itself. We see the small beginnings, perhaps, of this recognition in Egypt, in Jordan, in Asia, even in Saudi Arabia. Certainly much remains to be seen as to whether there is actual sincerity in this.

Has Christianity in Middle East a prophetic mission?

Mine is a missionary role: to give daily witness to the teachings of Christ, to show the truth of Christ and to provide a living example to our Muslim neighbours of a path to a world of forgiveness, of humility, of love, of peace. Lest there be any confusion here I am not speaking of conversion. Rather, I am speaking of the fundamental truth of forgiveness which we Christians of Iraq can share, and share from a position of historically unique moral clarity. We forgive those who murdered us, who tortured us, who raped us, who sought to destroy everything about us. We forgive them. In the name of Christ, we forgive them. And so we say to our Muslim neighbours, learn this from us. Let us help you heal. Your wounds are as deep as ours. We know this. We pray for your healing.  Let us heal our wounded and tortured country together.

And what about our Western secular society, according to your opinion, what would our task be?

We ask that you consider our situation truthfully, as it actually exists, and not in stretched attempts at historical relativism, which diminishes, or more honestly, insults, the reality of our suffering, and thereby robs us even of the dignity of our continued faith. The heart of the struggle is to understand the nature of the battle. You will have to ask yourselves, how long can a moderate and decent society survive without the influence of Christian institutions? How long can the tradition exist after the faith has died?  What will flow into the vacuum?  The role Christian communities play, or have played, in Islamic societies has been overlooked. It is an important part of the formation of civil society in most of the world. It needs highlighting because the situation in Iraq has been woefully misread by Western decision makers. There is no reason to believe they will not misread the same signs and portents in their own countries. You think you are a long way from the chaos of Iraq? Let me assure you; it is only six hours away.

Speaking about decision makers, what would be the role of politicians?
We ask them to support efforts to ensure equal treatment for all minorities in Iraq and elsewhere. We pray that policy makers can find in themselves the humility to recognize that their theories, which over the past decades have become our horrific reality, have been almost universally wrong, based on fundamentally flawed assessments of the Iraqi people and situation. And in these mistaken policies, designed in comfort and safety from afar, argued over in the media as partisan intellectual talking points, hundreds of thousands of innocent people have died.  An entire country has been ripped apart and left to the jackals. This horror all began with policy, and we beg those of you who continue to have access in shaping policy for your country, to daily remember that your policy assessments and those of your allies have life or death consequences. Please, walk humbly and make sure that you truly understand the people on whom you are passing sentence. Understanding what has happened in Iraq means being truthful about the nature and purpose of Christian civil order. It means being truthful about the nature and purpose of the laws of Islam. It means being truthful about what happens when these two come together in one place. I appreciate that this is an uncomfortable subject to discuss in the comfort of a peaceful country. But for Iraqi Christians this is no abstract matter.

The most painful question: Are we facing the end of Christianity in Iraq?

It could be. We acknowledge this. Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest Churches, is perilously close to extinction. In the years prior to 2003, we numbered as many as one-and-a-half million: six percent of Iraq’s population. Today, there are perhaps as few as 250,000 of us left.  Maybe less. Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.

In the end, the entire world faces a moment of truth. Will a peaceful and innocent people be allowed to be persecuted and eliminated because of their faith? And, for the sake of not wanting to speak the truth to the persecutors, will the world be complicit in our elimination? The world should understand, in our path to extinction we will not go quietly any further. From this point we will speak the truth, and live out the truth, in full embrace of our Christian witness and mission, so that if someday we are gone no one will be able to say:  how did this happen? We Christians are a people of Hope. But facing the end also brings us clarity, and with it the courage to finally speak the truth. Our hope to remain in our ancient homeland now rests on the ability of ourselves, our oppressors, and the world to acknowledge these truths. Violence and discrimination against the innocents must end. Those who teach it must stop.  We Christians of Iraq, who have faced 1,400 years of persecution, violence and genocide, are prepared to speak out and bear witness to our oppressors and to the world, whatever the consequence.

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