Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.
ACN supports projects undertaken by the local Church – bishops, priests, religious communities and lay people – which have the specific aim of providing pastoral and spiritual support to Catholics all over the world. ACN only helps projects that have been approved by the local bishop (in the case of diocesan and parish projects) or religious superior (if the project is fully internal to the religious congregation).
Between 1994 and 1996, Bishop Pierre Claverie and 18 others were killed during the Algerian civil war. The cause for their beatification opened in 2007 and at the beginning of this year, Pope Francis signed the decree confirming that they died in “odium fidei” (hatred of the faith) thus recognising them as martyrs.
On December 8th the ceremony of beatification will take place in the Cathedral of the Diocese of Oran, where Mgr Pierre Claverie was Bishop.
Sr Yvonne Gera, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary who worked in Algeria for 22 years and knew each of the 19 martyrs personally, speaks to Grace Attu from the ACN National Office in Malta about the martyrs and her experience in Algeria at the time.
ACN: The official document of the Congregation for the causes of Saints describes the 19 Martyrs as “Bishop Pierre Claverie and 18 companions”, who are they, really?
Sr. Yvonne Gera, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary
Sr. YVONNE GERA: Yes. They are Bishop Pierre Claverie, seven Trappist monks from Tibhirine, one Marist brother, four White Fathers, and six Nuns from various congregations that had a presence in Algeria. They all worked with the people; helping the poor, the sick, the children. The Marist brother Henry worked in a Library of the diocese that attended to more than a thousand youth especially poor children, some of the sisters were Nurses. The 7 Trappists had a clinic, one of them was a doctor and all the people came. They didn’t ask if they were Muslim or Christians before helping them. Bishop Pierre Claverie always spoke the truth to the government and the people.
ACN: Can you give us a background of the situation that led to their death?
YVONNE GERA: First of all I would like to say that the war in Algeria was not a religious war but a civil war. The Islamists took advantage of the situation. On October 3 1993, all foreigners were warned that if they didn’t leave the country by the end of the year, they would be targeted.
On the eve of Christmas, the terrorists visited the Monastery. They wanted money but the Prior told them, “we live on our crops”. All of a sudden the bell rang for Christmas Eve Mass and he told them, “Today is born the King of Peace” and they told him, “Ayisa” in Arabic meaning that they will come back.
The quit notice was not only to religious but also to foreign Christian families. So, between 1992 and 1993, the Church lost almost all foreign Catholic families. Even as we were targeted, we all stayed. We used to say that the captain is not going to leave the ship while it is sinking. So we all remained.
ACN: They are being beatified together. What do they have in common?
YVONNE GERA: At that time, almost all religious had to write to their superior general if they were willing to stay. Those who were afraid left. But one thing these 19 had in common was that they decided to stay despite the threats. They continued working and taking care of the people. And they died at their duty posts.
ACN: You were also working in Algeria during this period. What was your experience?
YVONNE GERA : I worked 22 years in Algeria and out of it was 14 years of war. Why I am here and was not killed during that time, I don’t know. I was also a target. In the morning I tell the Lord, “keep your Hand on me, help me to do my duty”.
One morning, I received a call from French Ambassador. He asked to speak with Mgr Henri Teissier. The ambassador told him, “Go to the French hospital”. We went to the French hospital and there were 7 coffins. At first, they didn’t want to open it but Mgr Teissier told them, “If you don’t open it, I can’t say if they are the terrorists or the brothers”. Then he opened and in each coffin, there was only the head of each monk (the 7 Trappists). As I was waiting, Mgr Teissier told me, “Do you want to see them?”, I replied, “yes, for the last time”. It was horrible to see.
The Church suffered a lot. But it was a Church of presence. We never preached. We didn’t go and preach here and there but everyone was welcomed and they came. I was in charge of all the clinics of the Church and all clinics had a centre for malnourished children and a centre for mother and childcare. Everything was free.
We never had difficulties with the people. During Ramadan we used to be invited every evening to different families to have the meal with them. In the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa, it is written “pray for us and for the Muslims”. And the young women (including Muslims) who could not have a baby used to come to pray to our Lady, bringing a doll, and when she had the baby, she came to present it to Our Lady.
ACN: Even today, many priests and religious who work in crisis ridden countries suffer threats to their lives. Some have been abducted. What word do you have for them?
YVONNE GERA: We are missionaries. Whatever happens, we are missionaries. We know that that is our vocation and I say one thing, “you will receive more than you give”. It is sometimes difficult, yes but the Lord has called us. If the people suffer, we suffer with them. It is our vocation and the Lord is always there to help us. Even in suffering or in martyrdom. These 19 martyrs knew that they were targeted but they remained. Don’t be afraid, the Lord is there to help you.
On the occasion of the beatification of the 19 Martyrs in Oran, Algeria on December 8, 2018, Aid to the Church in Need (Malta) will issue a booklet about the Martyrs, who they were, the kind of life they lived and some testimonies about them.
Both the Cuban people and the Catholic Church in the country are living through a time of change, and yet the lack of true reforms and the lack of resources together constitute one of the greatest challenges facing society. Such is the situation, as explained to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International by Father Rolando Montes de Oca, a Cuban priest of the Archdiocese of Camaguey, who is currently living and studying in Rome. Aged 37, and belonging to the “Schönstatt” movement, he expresses his concern at the lack of a genuine religious opening in Cuba – consisting not merely of words but of deeds as well – in which families can freely choose the education of their children and the Church is allowed more places or centres in which it can demonstrate that “we are not a danger to Cuban society” but in fact quite the contrary.
The Castro era finally and definitively ended in April 2018. Fidel and Raul Castro have now been succeeded by Miguel Díaz-Canel as the country’s new president. How do the people see the new government?
I would say that it continues to be exactly the same as before. President Díaz-Canel himself has repeated on a number of occasions that his mission is to assure the continuity of the so-called “historical process”, or in other words the socialism initiated by Fidel Castro as the political, economic and social path to follow. Moreover, on his very first address as president, he stated that this continuity is the absolute priority of his government and insisted that it would still be Raul Castro who will take every fundamental decision for the country.
One of the first administrative actions of the new government was the promulgation of the new Constitution, which was endorsed by the Cuban parliament in July. The stated intention of the government was not only to open up to the market economy, but also to strengthen civil rights. How is the question of freedom of religion dealt with in the new Constitution?
There is freedom of worship, in the sense that people can meet together in churches to celebrate their faith. The articles already existing in the former constitution, which stipulate that the Cuban State “recognises, respects and guarantees religious freedom” and that “all individuals have the right to profess, or not profess, a religious creed”, have remained unchanged. However, it is important to understand what is meant by “religious freedom”. In my view it should not refer simply to freedom of worship. Nonetheless, these declarations regarding religious freedom might be seen as a point of reference, an ideal towards which we can advance through dialogue.
The tourists who come to Cuba see among other things churches full of people and an impressive participation in worship by the Catholic faithful. Is it possible to say that Christians can now freely live their faith? Would you say that the era of discrimination has come to an end?
Of course, things are not as they were in the time of the old Soviet Union. And even though the Internet is still not available to all the Cuban people, there are more and more people able to connect to the network, so that the modus operandi of the government is becoming more and more publicly visible, in the sense that it can cross national frontiers and is increasingly liable to generate notice in the international sphere. For its part, the Cuban system is very much concerned to project an image of democracy, of a Cuba that is fully free.
Nonetheless, although there is freedom of worship, I believe there is still a long way to go before we can arrive at true religious freedom. For example, Cuban families do not have the right to choose what kind of education they will give to their children, but are still forced to educate them under a Marxist atheist ideology. Despite claiming to offer a secular education, the philosophy that underlies it in regard to its analysis of history and reality is still very much an atheist and materialist one.
Does the Church also face restrictions in religious matters?
The pilgrim Church in Cuba is denied the right to its own space in the mass media. Except during papal visits and for an additional few minutes a year granted to the bishops on the local radio stations, there is no access to the media for the Church. Another major obstacle has been the ban on building churches and places of worship, despite the fact they allowed two or three churches to be built recently, after almost 60 years of petitions and dialogue.
There are also some very commonly occurring incidents that happen in the villages and towns, such as bans imposed on practical pastoral activities and sometimes against certain individual priests or certain specific works of charity on the part of the Church and so forth. These are disagreeable incidents, the origin of which is not clear – whether they are by order of government officials or by the independent decision of minor regional authorities.
And although, after so many years of religious repression, there is now some progress to be seen in regard to freedom of worship, the idea that seems to prevail in many people’s minds is that if they overstep their authority in acting against the Church, it will not cause them any problems, but if on the other hand they go too far in favouring religion, they may well have to face problems as a result.
And how is the Church to overcome these restrictions?
Although the Church in Cuba faces many difficulties, she will never yield. We are denied regular access to the mass media, yet we do not cease to convey the Gospel message. In the dioceses the bishops are producing magazines and newsletters which, in addition to speaking about faith, aim to enlighten the ordinary lives of the Cuban people. Although we don’t have access to education, because as I have already mentioned, it is practically entirely atheist, we do have our own formation centres where we can convey true Christian and civic values. It is extremely difficult to build churches, but in many small towns and villages that do not have them, there is still the Christian community, living, celebrating and bearing witness to faith in the private homes of those who open their doors to us so that we can celebrate the Eucharist and offer a Christian formation.
What is the role of the Church in Cuba?
We strive as a Church to engage in dialogue and show that we are not a danger to Cuban society. And still more than this, the Church has a great deal to offer and has the right to be allowed to have certain spaces in which it can better carry out this service. The aim is not to oppose each other but to help become united, by respecting the diversity of ideas, and so that one day it may be possible to arrive at a Cuba “of all and for the good of all”, without excluding anyone.
And what is the biggest challenge facing you?
In my view, the problem that most affects the Cuban Church at the present time has to do with her mission as a mediator in the process of national reconciliation, which is something we regard as necessary today. The Cuban people are divided, and the Church in Cuba is striving to find space for everyone and constantly calling on people to dialogue. Tragically, ever since the beginning of the “conflict”, there has not been any openness to dialogue, either on the part of the official government positions or on the part of the most radical opposition. As a result the Church is sometimes accused of being “communist” and at other times accused of allowing herself to be manipulated by the opposition or by US political interests. Both charges are false; the Church in Cuba is simply not being properly listened to. While the Communist Party demands our silence in the face of the grave and continuing social problems, as the price of good relations between the Church and the state, the other side often interprets the mission of the Church as a militant political posture, which excludes and condemns any relationship with the government, in absolute terms. Whereas the position of the Church in Cuba is not as an absolute belligerent in either sense. The Church is a mother, she is not the enemy of anyone. The Church is the Spouse of Christ, and she will not become wedded to any earthly powers, however difficult this may be for many to understand.
Cuba – Diocese of Holguín
How do you see the future of the Church in Cuba, and how can the charitable agencies such as the foundation ACN International help her in her needs?
It is very hard to imagine the future of Cuba. We dream of a future of peace, built through dialogue, justice and forgiveness. But whatever may happen, the Church in Cuba will not give up in the face of the difficulties. She has learnt to open windows when the doors were closed. The Church in Cuba is a community of hope which strives to transmit this hope to a society that is very much in need.
The problems facing the Church in Cuba are the problems faced by all the Cuban people. One of the most serious among them is the lack of financial resources. ACN has been very much involved in the evangelising activity of the parishes and has supported the formation of new priests in so many different ways, while also helping our mission through the publication of Bibles, catechisms, prayer books and teaching materials and funding the purchase of vehicles to enable the missionaries to travel and reach their communities. You have helped us to rebuild our churches when they were damaged by natural disasters, and in so many other ways besides. The enormous aid given by ACN to the Cuban Church has borne, continues to bear and will bear fruit in the future as well. Many of these fruits can indeed already be seen on a simple visit to the country. It is as though God is acting through the action of ACN, sometimes in ways that are unseen but which continue in the background and exercise their influence through conversions, the diffusion of Christian values and more humane attitudes, etc.
You yourself have known the work of ACN ever since your childhood, have you not?
I remember with great gratitude that day when I was still little boy and when our parish priest and catechist arrived, overjoyed, and bringing with them the Child’s Bible produced by ACN. I was only little then and I wanted to have good book about the faith, explained in the language of children. I read the whole book and I fell in love with God through the pages of this Bible. I still keep it in my home to this day. And since then I have used it many times for the religious instruction of children. Yes, the ACN Child’s Bible is something closely linked to the roots of my personal experience of God.
Interview with Mgr Launay SATURNÉ, Archbishop of Cap-Haïtien since 23 September this year and president of the Haitian Bishops’ Conference, during his visit to the international headquarters of the international Catholic pastoral charity and Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Mgr. Launay Saturné, Archbishop of Cap-Haitien, Haiti and president of the Haitian Bishop´s Conference.
His country, which was struck once again by an earthquake this October, is also plagued internally by cases of corruption extending to the highest levels of the state. On Monday, 22 October President Jovenel Moïse sacked two members of his cabinet, including the Chief of Cabinet (akin to a Prime Minister) due to involvement in scandals for their own personal enrichment.
The vast majority of the 11.5 million inhabitants of Haiti regard themselves as Christians and Catholics, with only 2.7% agnostics and 2.7% animists.These figures however by no means reflect the complexity of the religious picture, in which the influence of voodoo is a powerful force within society.
How did the bishops react to the recent cases of corruption which have convulsed the country?
The Catholic hierarchy in Haiti, including the Haitian bishops’ conference, has always accompanied the people, both in their faith and in their daily struggle for human dignity. The reaction of the bishops should be seen in this context. In an official statement, the bishops have publicly denounced the corruption, because it is a scourge, an evil in society. I quote: “It tends to become widespread in society, to develop into a system and it causes damage that is difficult to repair. This situation is nothing new, but this time it has reached a level and a scale that are unacceptable and unsustainable.” We have observed a positive reaction within society in the face of this scandal. “What is very interesting is that this scandal is causing a collective awareness that is strong and healthy. The people are demanding justice with one voice, fully aware that corruption is a radical evil which endangers their collective future.” Everything appears to indicate that funds intended for development, for bringing growth to the country and freeing us a little from the poverty of every kind, has instead been misused and misappropriated. Everyone knows just how useful this money would have been for the reconstruction of our country and for improving the socio-economic conditions of our people. As bishops and pastors we must walk together with the people of God, who have been entrusted to our fatherly and pastoral care.
What steps is the Catholic Church in Haiti taking in this context?
The Church must always remain faithful to her Divine Founder. It is by means of this fidelity that we can continue to grow in love and hope, as the Gospel tells us to. In this context our first action as the hierarchy of the Church is to continue walking with the people as we must do as their shepherds. In addition, we must help the people to become better educated in the social teaching of the Church, so that they can be more aware of its role and implication in the responsible management of public life for the good of all. Finally, the preaching of the Gospel is intrinsically a form of leaven that can change hearts and situations from within, like the yeast in the dough in St Matthew’s Gospel (13:33). All this is part and parcel of the overall plan of evangelization, education and formation, which the Church seeks to place at the disposal of all believers, in order to train and motivate them to assume their responsibilities within society and within the country.
But all of this has to take place first of all within the family and in the schools. These places are extremely important to us. Over and above the intellectual formation, the family and the school have to inculcate in children and young people the love of God, love of neighbour, love of country, respect for the common good, civic responsibility and patriotism. For the Church, education is a most urgent priority, as a result of which is the parish school, in which the Church can distribute the “bread of education” to the most disadvantaged children in the remotest areas of the country, where the State is absent. A great many priests and bishops have emerged from these schools – to which we should also add the schools run by the religious communities, which have a reputation of being the best in the country, and which are indeed the best. To tell the truth, we are making up for many of the deficiencies of the State, both in this and in many other areas.
“For the Church, education is a most urgent priority, as a result of which is the parish school”
At the same time we are engaged in many one-off programs to help our fellow citizens in difficulty. This is exactly what we have been doing for the victims of the recent earthquake on 6 and 7 October this year, helping to rebuild their homes and recover their psychological equilibrium.
The archdiocese of Cap-Haïtien owns over 80 hectares of good agricultural land, which we want to use in an environmentally friendly manner, in the spirit of the encyclical Laudato si’ of Pope Francis. The students at the faculty of agronomy at the UDERS in Cap-Haitien (a branch of the Université de Notre Dame de Haití) can carry out some important experimentational work there. Additionally, working this land can help to reduce unemployment, increase local production and persuade workers to stay at home and work to earn a living. The borehole we have on one of these pieces of land can provide water and this means that we have every possibility of success on our side. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis writes in his encyclical Laudato si’ that we must combat poverty via the protection of the environment. This is what we literally intend to do.
Do you have good relations with members of the other Christian groups?
We have good relations with Haitians of all Christian confessions. For some time now we have been accustomed to working together with them, and our relationship is based on the important values we share. This is particularly evident in the ecological field, because we share the same environment, and here we are all affected. Inspired by the publication of the encyclical Laudato si’, we organised a ceremony which brought together representatives of the Protestant communities, atheists and followers of voodoo. Ecology has no religion, it concerns us all!
Environmental problems frequently affect us here in Haiti and are a wake-up call. Our country is very vulnerable to natural disasters. However, I refuse to hear it called a cursed country. The Lord gave the earth to the children of Adam to till and cultivate it. Our happiness comes from something beyond, originating in the loving heart of the Creator. Geography alone cannot determine our happiness or unhappiness. On the contrary, we see ourselves as children blessed and loved by God.
“We are a people who practise our faith. The churches are full and the clergy accompany people to help them live a Christian life and live their faith on a daily basis”
What is the situation of the Church in Haiti?
We are a people who practise our faith. The churches are full and the clergy accompany people to help them live a Christian life and live their faith on a daily basis. We are fortunate in having many vocations. In our major national interdiocesan seminary we have 102 students in philosophy and 182 in theology. The future of the Church in Haiti, in terms of human resources, is well assured. The bishops of Haiti and the seminary formators are accompanying the seminarians and helping them to develop into priests who will work in harmony with the heart of God. The earthquake of 2010 destroyed the two buildings of the major seminary of Notre Dame of Haiti. Today the bishops are still seeking funds for the reconstruction of this national major seminary, all together in one place, which will cost 9 million dollars. We are seeking economic aid from various organisations and sister churches, episcopal conferences and dioceses, here and elsewhere, in order to make possible this project, which is currently one of the principal and most urgent priorities of the Church in Haiti. We still need 3 million dollars in order to be able to begin work on rebuilding this formation centre in 2019 – the project which the Haitian Bishops’ Conference regards as the first priority.
Would you like to say a few words to the benefactors of ACN?
Thank you, of course! Thank you for your donations, but thank you also for the visit by the representatives of ACN to Haiti, and to my archdiocese, to help us rebuild what was destroyed by the earthquake of 2010. We pray every day for the physical and spiritual health of the benefactors of ACN and for those working in your foundation. The reconstruction has still not been finalised and meanwhile, new misfortunes have befallen us. The Church in Haiti needs loving and generous hearts to support her pastoral and evangelising mission. We are most grateful to ACN for your great spiritual closeness and your effective and practical solidarity towards Haiti and the Church here.
Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, Head of Ethiopian Bishops Conference and Archbishop of Addis Ababa recently visited the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Königstein, (Germany) to say a word of thanks for the help given by the Charity to the pastoral work of the Church in his country. Benedikt Winkler, a journalist at the weekly newspaper “Die Tagespost”, took the opportunity to speak to him about the current political situation in Ethiopia, relations with Islam and the important work done by the Catholic minority in the country.
Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, Head of Ethiopian Bishops Conference and Archbishop of Addis Ababa
Eminence, the peace treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea was recently signed in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on 16th of September. How do you view the influence of Saudi Arabia on Ethiopia?
The decision for peace was taken in Saudi Arabia, not in New York or Bejing. I don’t know why. Saudi Arabia is a country with great influence in the Red Sea region. Saudi Arabia is probably also interested in the peace in the region around the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This may be the sole reason but I don’t really know whether other interests are involved.
Do you see the nascent peace in Ethiopia more threatened by religious or by ethnical conflicts?
I would say at the moment more by ethnical conflicts because the federal system of government in Ethiopia is based on ethnic lineage. This led to more diversity, more tension and a greater emphasis on ethnic differences than on the unity of all people in Ethiopia. This is why there are ethnic conflicts in various parts of Ethiopia. But I hope that the new Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed will unify the country and give more priority to unity than to diversity.
As you mentioned, Ethiopia’s new prime minister is Abiy Ahmed. He belongs to the Oromo ethnic group. His father is a Muslim, but he himself converted to Protestantism. Is Ahmed the right man to heal the ethnic conflicts?
I think so because he has been chosen by the coalition party. He is a person dedicated to unity. But probably some members of the past government are not happy with the way he is carrying out his new mandate. Thus he might encounter some opposition. Over the last six months he has shown that people should come together, forgive each other, reconcile with each other and solve conflicts. What moves him most is his love for his country. Whether he is the right person or not, time will tell. He has made peace with Eritrea. If Eritrea gets good democratic institutions for a stable government, then it could guarantee future stability not only for the horn of Africa but for all of Eastern Africa.
Ethiopia, diocese Meki
Eminence, compared to European countries Ethiopia is a nation with many young people. Many of them seek better job perspectives in Europe, South Africa and Saudi Arabia . What does the church in Ethiopia, the catholic minority and the orthodox majority, do so that young people can prosper in their home country rather than emigrate?
Accounting for less than two percent of the population, the Catholic Church is a minority in Ethiopia. It runs many institutions for the youth, be it educational, social or health institutions – in rural as well as in urban areas. We have more than 400 schools in Ethiopia spread all over the country. Most of the schools in the cities are able to maintain themselves but in the rural areas they need to be subsidized. We care for young people from different ethnic or religious groups – orthodox, muslim, protestant. As the Catholic Church in Ethiopia we feel it is important to create training opportunities for young people according to their capabilities. We train young women as nurses, as cooks, as hotel managers. We encourage young people to remain and work in their home country. For this we need an appropriate infrastructure and the possibility of creating new jobs. We don’t encourage emigration especially illegal migration without documents because then the youth become playthings for bandit groups engaged in illegal trafficking of people across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia or via Libya to Europe. To avoid this we encourage only legal migration – and only when abolutely necessary. We feel that young people love their country and so they should be given opportunities to remain at home.
How would you describe the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia?
The relationship between Islam and Christianity has been peaceful thus far. The prophet Muhammad founded Islam in Mecca. He was persecuted by his own tribe. He had to flee. He sent his relatives to Ethiopia. The Muslims came as refugees to Ethiopia. In Muslim tradition it is written “Don’t touch Ethiopia because Ethiopia was always kind to us when we were refugees”. So we have peaceful coexistence, in particular with the Sunni Muslims in Ethiopia. We don’t have many fundamentalists in the country. Fundamentalists like Al Shabbat which is linked with Al Qaida, can be found in Somalia. Within Ethiopia however we have peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
October 28 is WORLD MISSION SUNDAY. Usually people always think immediately of primary evangelization; but it is also appropriate to speak about what can be done for the re-evangelization of Europe?
You know Ethiopia has a lot to give to the world. We were grateful to hear that the Europe had accepted many refugees. Ethiopia itself has taken in nearly a million refugees from South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. Why? Because Ethiopia has Christian values. Ethiopia has been a Christian nation since apostolic times. We hold that hospitality is part and parcel of the Christian heritage of Ethiopia. Christian values are very important. An elderly person, a refugee, a migrant is first and foremost a human being. He might be sent by God to you. He might be a blessing for you. Receive him well, treat him well. That is biblical. Ethiopia has been doing this for centuries. We received Jews who later went on to Israel. Arabs too. We gave refuge to Armenians, who had suffered persecution in Turkey. Ethiopia has always been a country of hospitality in fidelity to the gospel.
I think Europe also needs to strive be faithful to its Christian heritage. The West should not be ashamed of being Christian with great values – be it in times of crisis or in good times like now. Ethiopia has shown that religion should be given its proper place in society. We hope that we have been able to bring across this message.
ACN supports numerous projects in Ethiopia. In 2017, there were more than 80 projects for nearly 1.4 million euros.
An interview with Bishop Raphaël Dabiré, President of the Episcopal Commission for the Clergy and Bishop of the diocese of Diébougou, in the southwest of Burkina Faso. His country, which borders on both Niger and Mali, is subject like its two neighbours to the pressures exerted by jihadist groups on all the peoples of the Sahel. Nonetheless, it can still be seen as an oasis of tolerance between the various religious communities. Christians account for 23.9% of the population, whereas 54.2% is Muslim and 21.3% animist.
How are relations between the various faith communities within Burkina Faso?
Bishop Raphaël Dabiré, President of the Episcopal Commission for the Clergy and Bishop of the diocese of Diébougou, in the southwest of Burkina Faso.
Our country has a tradition of religious tolerance which we do our best to maintain. I am regularly invited to the religious celebrations of the other communities. For example, on the most recent feast of Ramadan I went, at their invitation, to a Muslim place of prayer. I did not take part in the sacrifice of the sheep, but I shared their joy with them and wished them a good feast. In the same way the imams and the customary chiefs are invited to our Catholic Mass on the major feast days, and they join in a part of the celebration, generally leaving at the moment of the homily. These are symbolic acts of presence, accompanied by little acts of recognition as expressions of fraternity among us. When a priest dies, to give you another example, the imams never fail to express their sympathies to me.
How do you explain this general climate of good relations, at a time when the Sahel is shaken by ethnic and religious conflicts?
Our country has a solid tradition of tolerance and good relations between the faith communities. Almost every family has members who are Muslims, Christians and animists. It is something acknowledged by everyone.
This familiarity enables us to approach each other’s religion without any taboos, and even with a degree of good-natured irony. I think that the good relations between the communities in my country can be explained to a large extent by what we could call the propensity for teasing. It involves taking the liberty of making good-natured fun of my neighbour’s religion, on the understanding that he will do the same in regard to mine.
Does that mean that Burkina Faso has no problem in relations between the religious communities?
Sadly, no. Our capital city was attacked by terrorists last March, leaving around 30 people dead. The police and military are regularly attacked by jihadist groups, using antipersonnel mines and in organised ambushes. Naturally, the cowardice and violence of these attacks affects us deeply.
These attacks appear to be directed from outside the country, by groups from Niger or Mali. But are the Burkinans – the Burkinabé – themselves ever tempted by jihadism?
We don’t know the whole story, and undoubtedly there are some isolated individuals from our country who are involved in these actions, but overall, our society is resisting those who are seeking to divide us.
Three weeks ago certain individuals smashed the statue of Our Lady in a church, along with four other statues. They left a somewhat enigmatic message, giving to understand that Christians should not worship statues. During the Mass of reparation I urged my parishioners not to jump to hasty conclusions. We should leave it to the law to do its work. This act of desecration was an isolated act, fortunately, and I hope it will remain that way.
A landscape in the Sahel : water, the most precious natural resource in the region.
Burkina Faso is regarded as one of the poorest countries in the world. Do you see any development in the situation?
It appears to me that the economic situation is stagnant, and I’m afraid that, once again, it’s the actions of the terrorists that have a lot to do with it. They discourage investors who might otherwise take an interest in our country. Youth employment in particular is a major cause for concern.
This poor economic situation is a threat to the stability of the entire country. The opposition to the present president Kaboré, who is a Catholic and was elected in 2015, is playing on this instability in order to undermine his government. But it needs to be said that there is no religious conflict behind this agitation, and besides, there are also Christians among the opposition.
How is the Church faring in your country?
Our community is fervent in its faith. The churches are filled, from Saturday until Sunday evening, and we have a very lively liturgy. There are plenty of priestly vocations, and plenty of demand for baptism. But we have to remain vigilant and accompany this fervour. We need more catechists, and we need more resources to support our seminarians.
This is a vital task, without which people’s faith will remain fragile. In the villages, for example, we see Christians going back to pagan practices when they find themselves facing difficulties. This is a challenge which we must respond to through religious formation.
Seminarians formation diocese of Kaya
Do you have a message for the benefactors of ACN?
A huge thank you. Thanks to the support of your association we are dealing precisely with this great need for education, among our young Christians. You are supporting us in building the essential infrastructure, such as the seminaries, the parish offices and catechetical facilities. You have also helped us obtain vital means of transport, including bicycles, mopeds and cars, which are essential in many of our far-flung parishes where it is absolutely crucial to enable the priests and catechists to reach the people!
Thanks to the generosity of its benefactors in 2017, the pontifical foundation ACN supported more than 60 projects in Burkina Faso for a total of almost 750,000 Euros.
The pontifical foundation ACN supported more than 60 projects in Burkina Faso
Cameroon is in the midst of a political and social conflict between the English and French-speaking areas. What was a German colony in the late nineteenth century was divided into British and French mandates after the defeat of Germany in World War I. Both joined in an independent Cameroon in 1961. However, the population of the anglophone regions – in the southwest and northwest of the country- have felt marginalized by the French-speaking authorities. They accuse them of imposing the French language and traditions and demand greater autonomy and respect for their customs.
The level of unrest in Cameroon has been growing since 2016, when the country’s English-speaking community began to demand a return to federalism. There have been violent confrontations between government forces and secessionist militants, who have sought independence of the self-proclaimed republic of Ambazonia from the Republic of Cameroon. The army has not refrained from using force in its repression of Anglophones, which has led to more than 500 deaths and some 200,000 displaced persons.
Maria Lozano from the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need speaks about the situation with Auxiliary Bishop Mons. Michael MIABESUE BIBI of Bamenda, a mostly English-speaking archdiocese in northwestern Cameroon.
Mons. Michael Miabesue Bibi – Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Bamenda.
Maria LOZANO: Please fill us in on the background to the current situation in Cameroon: What happened in 2016? What triggered the crisis?
Mons. Michael MIABESUE BIBI: The Crisis began in 2016 when the common law lawyers of the anglophone regions in Cameroon requested that the Ohada Law be translated from French into English so that they too could apply it properly in a language they understood. This was accompanied by peaceful demonstrations but the military was sent out to stop them. The lawyers boycotted work in court and requested that French lawyers should not be sent to English courts and also that in the Anglophone courts cases should be handled in English and not French.
In November 2016, teachers called for a strike to begin on the 21st to protest the fact that French teachers were being sent to work in the English Regions and they were not teaching children in proper English since they were not anglophone. They requested that such teachers be transferred and in their stead English speaking teachers be sent to work in the anglophone regions. These demands also met with repression and herein lies the root causes of the present problem.
Some media talk about the threat of a civil war in Cameroon. Do you think that the situation is so serious?
The situation is very serious. Since it started in 2016, it has been steadily degenerating. What began as a matter of translating documents, transfer of teachers and reinstating the English subsystem of education, grew into the request for a two state federation and finally to a request of secession from the French speaking Cameroon. Since February 2018, there has been serious lost of human life on the side of the military and the boys fighting for the secessionist cause. We are living in a situation of grave insecurity and if the conflict is not solved quickly, there will be even worse ahead.
The recent elections of 7 October will have some effect on the crisis? Do you think that positive and productive steps can be taken?
In my opinion, the president can solve this problem if he decides to bring the people together and dialogue with them. What has happened so far is that government officials have been sent out on a good number of occasions but it has not helped to solve the problem. In my opinion, the silence of the president has been one of the reasons why people have been radicalized. If he comes out and speaks to all Cameroonians as his children I am sure they will listen to him. We need frank and sincere dialogue to solve the problem and this demands humility from both conflicting parties.
The Cameroonian Episcopal Conference has said that there were serious irregularities in the English-speaking regions” and many voters were not able to participate in the vote due to insecurity. How is the situation now regarding security?
Nearly every day in the English speaking region especially from Bamenda where I come from, there are gunshots fired either by the military or by the boys fighting for the cause, known as “ambazonian boys” (short amba boys). There is insecurity in the region and it was the reason why the elections could not take place in certain areas. In some areas where few people voted, they were heavily guarded by the military in order to be able to do so. Yes, there is insecurity in the region. Almost 95 percent of voters in both regions could not vote because of the lack of security.
Can you travel everywhere? How about the pastoral work of the Church, how is this influenced by the crisis?
Mobility in both regions is difficult. In the North West Region, roads are constantly blocked by the boys, bridges destroyed and trees felled on roads to restrict movement. Some days the roads are opened and on other days they are not. This makes it difficult for people to travel. This has greatly affected pastoral work since most priests in parishes cannot leave the main mission to go to other missions for pastoral work. It has become difficult for the bishops to carry out pastoral visitations since June. The pastoral week of the Archdiocese that was to run from the 13th to the 20th was canceled because people could not come to town. In Bamenda, travel is possible on some days, although from the 1st to the 10th October it was not possible to move about at all. On Mondays, the city turns into a ghost town and shops and business are all closed. No movement is possible even though some isolated people try to move about.
On October 4th, shortly before the elections, Gérard Anjiangwe, a seminarian from your archdiocese of Bamenda, was killed in front of the parish church of Bamessing in Ndop commune, Ngo-Ketunjia department. What happened?
Around 9:30am, at the end of the Holy Mass, after some of the Christians had left, Gerard Anjiangwe and some readers were still in the Mission preparing for the liturgy of the following day. A military van coming from Ndop stopped at the entrance of the road leading to the Church. Some of the military alighted from the van and started shooting. Some altar servers who were returning home after the mass ran back to the Church and others to the nearby bush. The readers who were with Gerard near the sacristy, seeing the military coming, ran into the sacristy and closed the door whereas Gerard, who was still outside, prostrated on the ground while praying the rosary. The military men tried to open the Church door but did not succeed. They approached Gerard lying prostrate on the ground and asked him to stand up, which he did without hesitating. After interrogating him, he was asked to lie down again. Then, he was shot three times on the neck and he died instantly. His father is a catechist and Gerard was the only son of the family.
Why do you think he was killed?
It is difficult to say exactly why Gerald was killed. But one can easily conclude that he was taken to be one of the ambazonian boys. This is the only reason I can think of for his being killed. There is a systematic attempt to kill all the young boys in the area since there is fear that they might be part of the ambazonian boys promoting the crisis.
Akiata Gerard Anjiangwe, a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Bamenda, dead the 4th October 2018
There were already two priests killed in July this year in Cameroon, one in the north (Batibo) and one in the south (Fr. Alexandre Sob Nougi), and several church properties were also destroyed. Are these all collateral damages? What is the role of the Church in the conflict?
Only one priest has been killed, namely Fr. Alexander Sob from Buea. According to our information, the person killed in Batibo was not a priest but a Ghanian pastor. In an attempt to flush out the amba boys, the military burns down and destroys property and as a result the Church too has been affected with many Church buildings, presbyteries and other material goods being destroyed. The role of the Church is simply to speak the truth and encourage dialogue. But the Church is sandwiched between the government and the amba boys. Whatever the Church says, it is accused by one camp or the other. When the Church says that children have a right to go to school and should not be stopped from schooling, the amba boys think that the Church has been bribed by the government to say that. Some government officials have out rightly accused the Church of fueling the crisis through the various write ups that we have produced. The Church believes in peace. But there can be no peace without justice. Justice and truth must prevail and that is what the church stands for.
According to different reports 160,000 people fled their homes within Cameroon, and 34,000 have fled to Nigeria. How is the situation of the refugees in Bamenda?
We have internally and externally displaced persons. The Archdiocese has formed an ad hoc committee to take care of the internally displaced persons living in Bamenda. They have identified all these persons, noted their names and where they live. Some people of good will and some parishes make contributions, which they forward to this committee who use it to buy food, drugs, mattresses and some other basic needs to assist them.. As for those who are externally displaced in Nigeria, assistance is given to them as regards health, food and other basic necessities through the diocese of Mamfe.
What is your message to the benefactors of ACN? What can we do to support your people in this difficult time?
During this difficult time, I would like that ACN should keep us in their prayers so that this crisis may be resolved as soon as possible. The amount of human life being lost, properties destroyed and persons displaced is a reason for real concern. ACN can also assist us in caring for the internally and externally displaced persons and also assist some of our parishes where priests suffer greater difficulty in carrying out their pastoral work.
Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.
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