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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
CHALDEAN ARCHBISHOP Bashar Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan has been the prime mover behind the establishment of two major new Christian institutions in the region. In 2016, the Catholic University in Erbil opened its doors and late summer will see the formal opening of the new Catholic hospital in Erbil, the Maryamana, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. For more than three years, the Archdiocese of Erbil hosted more than 120,000 Christians who fled the 2014 onslaught of ISIS on the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq. While some 40,000 faithful have since returned to their homes, many thousands have made Kurdistan their permanent home. The university – the only Catholic university in Iraq – and hospital will be a significant boost for the re-established Christian communities on the Nineveh Plains as well as for the local Christian community in Kurdistan. The archbishop spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the significance of both projects.
What is your vision for the new Catholic hospital?
The overall goal of the hospital is to bring effective and affordable healthcare to a war-torn region that is totally lacking in resources and modern equipment. This is partly due to decades of continuous conflict but also because of the inactivity of the government. It is likely that in the next decade there will be even more refugees, IDPs, and older persons in need. We will be in a position to support the neediest patients and offer them discounts of up to 60 percent.
Bashar Matti Warda, archbishop of Erbil, Kurdistan Iraq.
The hospital must also be important, especially for Christians, in generating jobs in a region with high unemployment?
The provision of jobs will show Christians that we are building a future for them in Erbil.
Christians and other minorities are often denied jobs and are overlooked for promotion due to a prejudiced political system. There are few if any politicians willing to stand up for the rights of Christians. This has a direct correlation to people leaving the country. Along with the university, Maryamana is a crucial and pivotal project that aims to keep Christians in Erbil and on the Nineveh Plains. Both institutions demonstrate that Christians matter and that they are an integral part of Iraqi society.
Will the hospital serve only Christians?
The hospital’s mission aligns with that of the Church. Any person, regardless of religion or race, can receive treatment at Maryamana Hospital; priority will be given to those whose medical needs are most urgent. It is well known that Muslims trust Christian healthcare professionals; hopefully, Maryamana will also facilitate our communal reconciliation efforts by addressing the health-care needs of other faiths.
What medical services will the hospital provide?
The hospital will have 70 beds and seven operating rooms, all of which we expect to be in constant use. The hospital will be able to serve 300 outpatients per day and will offer most medical services. In addition to the care of pregnant women and pre-term infants, there will be clinics for a full range of specialties. The hospital will have up-to-date laboratory equipment and be able to administer the full spectrum of diagnostic tests (e.g., MRIs, CT scans); there are two emergency departments, as well as a pharmacy. In some three years, we hope the Maryamana can become a teaching hospital. Planning for an oncology center at the hospital is also underway.
What is the mission of the Catholic University in Erbil?
The Catholic University in Erbil was founded to secure educational and professional opportunities for our young people so that they will be encouraged to stay in Iraq and become the future leaders of the Christian community here and elsewhere in the country. Eventually, when our young people are getting good jobs in a majority Muslim country, they will find hope and turn to the university as their conduit to succeed and thrive in their careers in Kurdistan and Iraq. We hope that the university will inspire religious minorities and prove to them that they have viable and bright futures here. We are trying to establish Erbil as a long-term home for the Christian community—and people choose to stay when there are jobs and when there is a strong infrastructure of services and institutions. The school will give the Christian community a major sense of worth and belonging.
In Kurdistan, Iraq, a new Catholic hospital and university bring hope to an embattled Christian community.
How many students does the university have now and what is your goal?
Currently 108 students are enrolled, including 10 Muslims; academic degrees are awarded in Accounting, English, International Relations, Information Technology and Computer Science Our target for the academic year 2022-2023 is to have 825 students enrolled – 615 Iraqi Christians, 125 Muslims and 85 Yazidis, from Kurdistan, Mosul, the Nineveh Plains, Duhok, Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra. To attract students, we are aiming to build and establish additional departments in core academic disciplines: Economics, Engineering, Health & Medical Sciences, and Education.
We want to establish the university as an international anchor project to keep Christianity in Iraq. We are building relationships with the relevant ministries here and working internationally with many universities to establish the brand of the Catholic University in Erbil. Iraqi Christians and other minorities are drawn to the university because the teaching is done in English and because of its location in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil, an environment that promises safety and care. The new Maryamana Hospital is also located in Ankawa.
What are your main concerns regarding these initiatives, the hospital and university?
The key challenges were getting both institutions built and operational. With the hospital, the priority is to repay our loans, but we know that the hospital will be fully utilized and become profitable. The demand is there. In Kurdistan, there are more than a million refugees and hundreds of thousands of elderly people; clinics in Erbil and Duhok serve more than 1,000 patients each month; as many as 2,000 chronically ill patients rely on our local clinic, St. Joseph’s, for very expensive drugs.
The university, still young, requires more funding, since most of our students – many of them from Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plains – are attending on full scholarships. We need to expand academically, since the number of departments correlates with the number of applicants. It is difficult to recruit native English speakers as teachers, as consulates say that Kurdistan is unsafe. We can only attract people through word of mouth and testimonials from visitors, but I believe that we will succeed. Currently, 14 of our local young people are earning Master’s degrees in the US, the UK, Italy and Australia. Upon their return home, they will play key roles at both the university and the hospital. I thank all our benefactors with all my heart and prayers; they are doing a magnificent job for all of us here. God bless them all.
For the past two years, ACN has supported the Catholic University in Erbil and the Maryamana Hospital with funding for scholarships and for the purchase of state-of-the-art medical equipment. From 2014 through 2017, ACN sponsored projects totaling more than $40M in support of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil as it provided food, medical care, housing and education for the IDPs who had fled the Nineveh Plains after ISIS captured the region.
Nicaragua is still shaken by the crisis that began 14 months ago. The country continues to make headlines – such as in mid-June with the pardoning of almost one hundred people who were still imprisoned for protesting against the government the year before. This matter was also addressed at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States held in Medellín from 26 to 28 June. The situation in the Central American country is critical, with a great degree of polarisation and a lot of confrontation. Bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos of Matagalpa talked about this during a visit to the international headquarters of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
ACN: What is the situation in Nicaragua after more than 14 months of crisis?
We are living in a situation that is critical both socio-politically and economically. There is a great degree of polarisation in Nicaragua, a lot of confrontation. We as a Church bring the people a word of hope to create the bedrock and foundation for our own narrative. It is about the hope for a better future in a country where the next generations can live in peace, justice and progress within the framework of institutionalised democracy, of course one that has a social orientation for the poor, as the Latin American bishops declared in Puebla in the 1970s.
Bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos of Matagalpa.
The bishops played an important role in the entire process during the severe crisis in 2018: is the Church now less involved than it was then?
The Nicaraguan church is directly committed to the narrative of its country. It feels and sees itself as a people, a nomadic and a pilgrim people, as a working people, who believe in themselves and are of course directed by the hand of God. I believe that we Nicaraguans have the potential to develop this as our future.
As regards the future of the country, those most affected by the crisis were the many young people who had tried to give voice to their protests. Doubtless, youth is one of the groups that suffered the most under the crisis. Would you agree?
Pope Francis says that young people are the now of God. Which is why young people in Nicaragua are writing history. They are developing their own narrative. That is why all of living society, both young people and adults, has to overcome transitory things and focus its thoughts and energy on ensuring that future generations will inherit a better country.
A number of media sources and social networks reported that there was a certain degree of disharmony in the Nicaraguan Church and different fractions in the Church. Is this statement true?
With all due respect: I see this as the complete and utter opposite of our reality and even anachronistic, obsolete, because the Church in Nicaragua may have been fragmented in the 1980s, when the famous “Church of the People” emerged all over Latin America with its so-called “Theology of Liberation”. A number of theologians have presented several aspects of this incorrectly, because any genuine theology is liberating.
Our Church is more unified than ever. This is made very clear by the fact that we have been able to achieve a very prophetic work with the help of the Holy Ghost. This includes the proclamation of hope: to keep your eyes open to the reality we live in today, but aspire to a better future and speak out against every injustice. If the Church in Nicaragua were not united, then it would not be able to realise this prophetic work, this prophetic mission. This would quite simply be impossible. I can also confirm that the unity of the Church, the unity of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, is currently the greatest strength that we bishops have in our country.
“We are living in a situation that is critical both socio-politically and economically”.
What is the next challenge that you will have to face? What is the next step that you as a Church will have to take?
We Nicaraguans are responsible for our now. We have to learn from the mistakes of the past in order to be able to develop a better future. Shared responsibility means knowing and feeling that each of us is responsible for his own narrative, for our narrative and that we can and must change the narrative for the better. We can look back on more than 190 years of history, a history which found us very fragmented and divided and embroiled in confrontation. This made it difficult to build up a solid and stable country. I think that it is the duty of the Church not to neglect this responsibility in its prophetic mission and to play a role in the transition that the narrative of Nicaragua is currently making. A transition that can be achieved by all of us sitting together at the table, each at his or her place, without excluding anyone, and breaking bread together in dignity.
And of course we must continue to proclaim hope in the viability of our country. We must not lose hope – I believe that this is vital and a challenge for the Nicaraguan Church.
One last question: What would you like to say to benefactors of ACN throughout the world? What can we do for your country?
I really like the name of the foundation – Aid to the Church in Need – because the Church truly is in need. It needs prayer and hope in order to be able to continue to work prophetically. The Church must continue to become the people and open its doors to all without discrimination. We are all the poor widow: not only those who have a lot of money, but also those who have very little. The secret is in the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta, “to give until it hurts.” That is why I say to the benefactors of ACN: “Continue to do what you have done in the past without fear, until it hurts, by giving a part of that which you have to live on. Because by doing so you are giving us life.”
Auxiliary bishop reports on the Ukraine summit at the Vatican
Pope Francis invited the metropolitans and high-ranking clerics of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church to a meeting held at the Vatican from 5 to 6 July. The objective was to reflect on “the delicate and complex situation in which Ukraine finds itself.” This meeting was unique in that it was the first to be held in this constellation and shows the pope’s concerns for the eastern European country. About 4.5 million Ukrainians belong to the Greek Catholic Church, many of whom live in other countries.
Tobias Lehner, ACN Germany, talked with Greek Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh from Kiev about encouraging signs that emerged during the meeting with the pope, ongoing aggression in the country and new approaches to pastoral ministry.
ACN: Did the invitation to the meeting come as a surprise and what does it mean for you that the pope has made Ukraine a “top priority”?
Auxiliary Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh: The invitation of Pope Francis reflects his stance on prioritising people in need. In his speech at the beginning of the meeting, the Holy Father called upon us to have an open heart and remain close to all who are oppressed and currently experiencing “a night of sadness”. The pope lives what he teaches. We in Ukraine have felt the proximity and support of the pope for years. However, this kind of meeting was something very new in the relationship of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Holy See. And so in this respect: yes, it was a surprise.
What was discussed during the meeting? Are there concrete results?
At first we described the political and economic situation in Ukraine, particularly in view of the ongoing war in the eastern part of the country and the humanitarian crisis this has called forth. We expressed our gratitude for the initiative “Pope for Ukraine” [editor’s note: a special collection held in all European churches, which Pope Francis had called for in April 2016 and that resulted in donations of almost 16 million euros]. We also talked about new initiatives for those in need.
Bohdan Dzyurakh, Greek Catholic Auxiliary Bishop from Kiev.
We devoted a great deal of time and attention to pastoral issues. In addition to evangelisation and catechesis, one topic was the pastoral ministry for Ukrainian emigrants in various countries. We also discussed the role of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the ecumenical dialogue. It was very important and invaluable to discuss our standpoint directly with the pope and his closest staff and to share our joys, hopes and concerns with them.
The war has been raging in eastern Ukraine for five years, Crimea was annexed by Russia and the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine led to serious conflicts with the Russian Orthodox Church: what can the Greek Catholic Church do to reunite this fragmented country?
In spite of all the difficulties that our people and the Churches in Ukraine are currently experiencing, we want to continue to be messengers of hope, truth and love. The pope has called upon us to do so. A lot of tension has arisen through the war, which is not being waged with military weapons alone. In order to overcome these difficulties, our country needs consolidation, inner strength and spiritual powers of discernment. This is what we want to strengthen. Our prayers and our vigilance are key elements of our service for the Ukrainian people.
About 4.5 million Ukrainians belong to the Greek Catholic Church, many of whom live in other countries.
As far as domestic policy is concerned, Ukraine is open to anything. The new president Volodymyr Selenskyi recently caused a stir when he withdrew troops from Eastern Ukraine. How did the Ukrainian people react to this step? Is the hope for peace growing?
It is clear to all observers, both those in Ukraine and those in other countries, that the key to peace in Ukraine does not lie in Kiev, but in Moscow. Individual steps can bring short-term relief. However, it would be naïve to expect them to solve the conflict or bring enduring peace. This will require a lot more solidarity and unity within the international community.
The Iron Curtain fell 30 years ago, which also led to the end of the communist dictatorship in Ukraine. During this period, the Greek Catholic Church endured bloody persecution. Church life has flourished in many places since the political turnaround. When you consider the next 30 years: what are the greatest challenges facing the Greek Catholic Church – and what can Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) do to help?
Our most important tasks will revolve around concerns of strengthening the faith, proclaiming the faith among those who have not yet encountered Christ as well as youth and vocation ministry. In addition, it will be necessary to deal with the tragic aftermath of war and violence, which will hopefully come to an end one day with the help of God.
Even when we were faced with trials in the past, we never felt abandoned. ACN remains one of our most important partners and has stood by our side time and again, lovingly supporting us with prayers and financial aid. As a pontifical foundation, we are sure that Aid to the Church in Need will continue to be inspired by the words of the pope, who said to us during the meeting on 5 July: “The ‘suffering brother’ should not be forgotten.”
The social, political and economic situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate gravely, with shortages of food, medicines and the basic necessities of daily life. The Church is suffering the consequences of this crisis along with the people, and in many of the dioceses of the country the clergy and other pastoral workers, who are involved in the indispensable work of addressing the material and spiritual needs of the people, are themselves in need of aid in order to survive.
Cardinal Baltasar Porras, who is apostolic administrator of Caracas and at the same time Archbishop of Mérida, spoke recently with a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) who were visiting the country to see the situation for themselves and observe how the aid projects of the charity are helping the Church in Venezuela in its pastoral and social outreach.
Venezuela is not actually at war, yet in reality it is living as though it were in a state of war. What would you say of this assessment?
We are living in an exceptional and unheard-of situation, which is not the result of war, nor of any armed conflict, or any natural catastrophe, and yet which is having similar consequences. The political regime that is running Venezuela has broken the country and has generated an atmosphere of social conflict that is steadily growing worse. On top of this there is the reality of so many Venezuelans living in exile – something that was unheard of before. People are leaving on account of their economic situation and because of their political ideas, while others are doing so on account of the harassment and repression in the country, whose economic system is now practically ruined. There is absolutely no security under the law. At the same time there is no work and no proper healthcare, there is no possibility for people of bringing home even the minimum to support their family. The experts describe this whole situation as a wartime economy.
Cardinal Baltasar Porras,apostolic administrator of Caracas and Archbishop of Mérida (Venezuela).
We have heard about the negotiations in Oslo between the government and the opposition, but there is a great deal of scepticism in regard to them. Do you think that this could really be a way forward to improve the situation in the country?
We have to understand that over the past 20 years, when the government found itself in difficulties, it frequently called for dialogue. But these appeals were only made in order to “paper over the cracks”, because the government had no real desire to negotiate sincerely, or to concede anything at all. Given this situation, a large proportion of the population have lost all trust and belief in the idea of dialogue. But despite this, it is an opportunity to discover if there is any will to restore democracy, which has for now been totally sidelined in this country. We are deeply concerned at the fact that in the last year the number of people who have been arrested, tortured, murdered or “disappeared” has been growing and that those involved in these actions include not only high-ranking members of the military, but also some members of the pro-government popular classes. Some of the state organisations are looked on by people as “Nazi” police, and generate fear among the people. The government has lost the streets, and now the only way it can control the people is through fear, and by deliberately provoking fuel, food and energy shortages.
During our visit we were able to see how, wherever there is a parish or another Church institution, people flock to it and find help and leave somewhat comforted. Could one say that the Church in Venezuela is a Church of Hope?
The public and private institutions have been destroyed, and the only institution remaining is the Church. This is thanks to our closeness to the people and to our presence at every level of society. Besides, the Church has had the courage to point out the defects of this regime. Other social agencies have not spoken out about this crisis, for fear of the government, which has threatened and closed down the communications media and attacked private enterprises.
As a result of its clear and firm stance the Church too is suffering from threats and pressure. Can it be said that the Church in Venezuela is being persecuted?
I would say, we cannot say that it is not persecuted. For example, in the field of education there are restrictions on the Catholic centres; it seems as though they are looking to place obstacles, so that it is the Church itself who has to close her own schools. For years we have been suffering subtle forms of pressure, including verbal threats and harassment against our social institutions such as Caritas, for example. The parishes are attacked by the government, by the communal councils and the so-called “colectivos”, pro-government popular groups. For example, in Caracas, the members of these groups stand at the church doors and listen to what the priest says in his homilies, and if they don’t like it, then the threats begin.
There are already 4 million Venezuelans outside the country – 1.5 million in Colombia, 700,000 in Peru, 400,000 in Chile, 500,000 in Florida.
What would happen in Venezuela if it weren’t for the presence of the Catholic Church?
The situation would be worse, and worsening for many people. It hurts us to see our people like this. Given the phenomenon of emigration, those of us who have been left behind are “orphans of affection”, because the family and the whole environment in which we used to live have disappeared. We feel the lack of companionship and we also suffer because many of those who have emigrated are not doing well either. Venezuela is turning into a geopolitical problem that affects other countries also. There are already 4 million Venezuelans outside the country – 1.5 million in Colombia, 700,000 in Peru, 400,000 in Chile, 500,000 in Florida – half of them without papers, we are told. And there are many more in other countries of the Americas and in Europe. It is terribly sad.
What has Pope Francis said to you in the meetings you have had with him?
The Pope knows the situation in Venezuela very well, since long before he was appointed Pope. And in addition, his closest collaborators, such as the Vatican Secretary of State, have had direct connections with Venezuela and are very much involved. The Pope is trusting in the local bodies. In the last meeting that we had between the entire Venezuelan episcopate and the Holy Father he said to us “I endorse everything you are doing”. Some people wonder why he doesn’t say more about Venezuela. Things are being done, but discreetly, partly so as not to endanger the organisations which are helping the Church in Venezuela.
Have you a final message for those in ACN who are working together with the Church in Venezuela?
The support of many institutions, and not only Catholic ones, is a great source of consolation for us. In particular we are profoundly grateful to ACN, not only for your material support, but for the spiritual closeness expressed by you, above all through prayer. And there is one thing in particular we must acknowledge, namely that thanks to the support we receive from ACN in the form of Mass intentions, you are helping enormously to alleviate the needs in the parishes, and in this way we can devote other resources to support our social outreach. You are helping us to continue to be present and support the people who need us most.