Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif Ul-Malook spoke to a delegation of ACN in Lahore, Pakistan. “Even though my life might have been destroyed due to Asia Bibi’s case, I do not regret having defended her. I never regretted. I would do it again. I am open for new cases such as this one in the future. If any Christian accused of blasphemy asked me to be his or her lawyer, I would do it without any hesitation”.

Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif Ul-Malook.

Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif Ul-Malook.

After Asia Bibi’s acquittal on 31st October, Saif Ul-Malook had to flee the country. He came back to Pakistan a few weeks ago for the final hearing on her case. A Muslim prayer leader had filed a petition to seek review of the verdict. The judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld her acquittal. When the lawyer came back to Pakistan, he was once more insulted and threatened. “My peers accuse me of being a bad Muslim. They are convinced I should not have defended a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy. Besides, I received death threats. Because of that some of my colleagues and friends do not ride on the same car as me. They fear I will end up being killed and they want to avoid the same fate.”

The lawyer recalled how much his client has suffered. After being imprisoned for eight years wrongfully accused on death row in a blasphemy case, she is still waiting to live freely with her family. “Asia Bibi has remarkable endurance. I do not know how she managed. She lived for eight years in an eight square meters room. She was only allowed to get out twice a day for half an hour. She had limited time for visitors once a month. Whenever I met her, I tried my best to comfort her and to motivate her. For me, it would be impossible to live in those conditions.”

Now that Asia Bibi’s case is over and she is free, Saif Ul-Malook said he is ready to help others in need of legal assistance. “I am willing to give my legal advice and to be at service of anyone who needs me regardless of their belief. If another Christian needs my help, I will be at her or his disposal”. At the end of the conversation with ACN delegation, the lawyer shares one of his wishes. “I would love to meet Pope Francis. Even though I am a Muslim, I admire him as the Spiritual leader of three-quarters of humankind, and I wish to pay my respect to him.”

United in their concern to “avoid still greater suffering and pain for the people” and in their hope for a change in the course of the political and democratic situation that Venezuela is currently going through, the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference have launched a joint communiqué, together with the Conference of Male and Female Religious and the National Council of the Laity in Venezuela, published on Monday 4 February in Caracas.

The statement expresses the “determination and hope” with which the signatories urge the search “for a political transformation via a process of transparent and peaceful transition that will lead to free and legitimate elections and the resumption of a democratic course, the restoration of the rule of law, the rebuilding of the social fabric, the revival of economic production, the restoration of the morale of the country and the coming together of all the Venezuelan people.” They speak of the difficult situation that is currently being written in the annals of Venezuelan history and one that both the Venezuelan people and clergy and also the international community are witnessing with great hope, and yet at the same time with great concern.

The Venezuelan bishops during ad limina visit to Rome: Group photo of the bishops with the venezulean flag at St. Peters Basilica in Rome.

The Venezuelan bishops during ad limina visit to Rome: Group photo of the bishops with the venezulean flag at St. Peters Basilica in Rome.

In their communiqué, the presidents of the three bodies which most fully represent the Catholic Church of the country denounce “the growing, politically motivated repression, the violation of human rights and the selective and arbitrary detentions” of individuals and they insist that this path of democratic change be allowed to unfold peacefully and with the National Constitution in hand.

They express their appreciation of the work of the activists who are defending and promoting human rights at a time of crisis and despite the risks, and they urge them to continue in their concern for “the victims who are suffering injustices”. They state: “We call for personal and legal respect and security for those who are exercising this worthy service in Venezuela.” In this way they remind people that the Catholic Church is committed to helping those most in need, “acting in accordance with the principles of independence, impartiality and humanity” and at the same time they request “the necessary permissions to have access to humanitarian aid as a means of mitigating the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable of the people. Caritas Venezuela and the various other social support institutions of the Church which have a wider outreach throughout the national territory commit themselves to continuing the service we have been providing, with equity, inclusivity, transparency and effectiveness.”

The communiqué ends with a call for prayer in “every church, every home and every community, calling on the Lord to grant us peace, reconciliation, liberty and health of body and spirit.”

A poster explaining why the opposition protest. "Why do the Venezuelans protest? Insecurity, injustice, shortages, censorship, violence, corruption. Protesting is not a crime. Is a right".

A poster explaining why the opposition protest. “Why do the Venezuelans protest? Insecurity, injustice, shortages, censorship, violence, corruption. Protesting is not a crime. Is a right”.

An unprecedented situation

The current political situation in Venezuela is the result of the presidential elections held in May 2018 which, according to the official government version, were won by the incumbent president Nicolas Maduro, but which were widely qualified as “illegitimate” by the majority of countries in the international community, including other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Santa Lucia, as well as by Canada, Spain and the United States on account of the numerous irregularities in the way in which they were held. Hence, given the illegitimate nature of the elections, President Maduro would thereby cease to be the legitimate president as from the conclusion of his previous mandate, on 10 January, and therefore no longer be recognised as President of the Republic. Instead, and in accordance with the Venezuelan Constitution, the acting president of Venezuela would be the president of the National Assembly of the country, who in this case is Juan Gerardo Guaidó. And so, on 11 January 2019, Guaidó announced that he would be invoking article 233 of the Constitution and calling new national elections, and on 23 January he was sworn in as acting president of Venezuela.

The Pope celebrated the largest Holy Mass ever to be held on the Arab Peninsula in Abu Dhabi. But what will be the result of the papal visit?

Gregory Fonseka is grateful: “I already experienced Pope Francis in Sri Lanka, my homeland. But I would never have thought that he would be celebrating Holy Mass here in Abu Dhabi. It has strengthened my faith in Jesus. Thank you, Pope Francis.” The local church in the United Arab Emirates is made up of people like Gregory, a foreign worker. The Catholic church has about one million members there. They are served by a total of nine parishes – a number that is of course far too small for so many people. They temporarily live and work in the country, which grants them the freedom to attend religious services, but not full religious freedom. This is no different for the citizens of the Emirates; they are prohibited from converting to Christianity or another religion. In theory, the renunciation of Islam is punishable by death, even if this punishment is not executed. Nonetheless, converts are under massive pressure from their families. Christian proselytizing is prohibited and punished with deportation.

In view of this, the Holy Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on Tuesday morning was something quite special. Pope Francis has in fact set a number of benchmarks simultaneously by holding the large Mass in Sheikh Zayed Stadium in the capital city of the Emirates. For the first time ever, a Catholic church leader has celebrated Holy Mass in the heartland of Islam, only a few hundred kilometres from Mecca. And it was not just any Mass, but the largest service ever to be celebrated on the Arab Peninsula. More than 160 000 Christians gathered in and around the stadium on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. They cheered enthusiastically when the Pope was driven through the masses in an open car. The fact that the divine service was held on public property was another first. In this country where Islam is the official state religion, Christians may celebrate divine services within the confines of a church. Church bells and crosses that are visible from the outside are not permitted. However, the celebration of Holy Mass in a state-owned building, broadcast on television, attended by members of the government: that was something special. A gigantic cross hung resplendent over the altar. Thousands of Muslims were present when Pope Francis delivered a homily on the Sermon on the Mount as a roadmap for Christian life. The crowd applauded appreciatively when Bishop Paul Hinder thanked the crown prince of the Emirates for the opportunity to celebrate Mass in a public setting. “The ruling family is in fact taking a risk by allowing this,” a journalist from Abu Dhabi, who does not wish to be named, commented. “Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia, for example, will not approve of the public celebration of Holy Mass on Islamic soil.”

More than 160 000 Christians gathered in and around the stadium on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

More than 160 000 Christians gathered in and around the stadium on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

But what will be the result of the papal visit? Will circumstances change for the better for the Christians living in the region? Bishop Camillo Ballin, the Apostolic Vicar for northern Arabia, is sceptical. Similar to the Apostolic Vicariate for Southern Arabia, the region Pope Francis has just visited, millions of Christians live as foreign workers in the region that is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Religious freedom does not exist in any of these countries. In a talk with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Abu Dhabi, Bishop Ballin commented, “The visit of the pope encourages Christians in the northern part of the Arab Peninsula to live their faith with even more conviction and to share human fellowship with Muslims. I am also certain that the interfaith meeting here in Abu Dhabi can foster a new mentality. But fundamental changes simply do not happen within 24 hours. I therefore do not expect any concrete improvements.”

The fact that the divine service was held on public property was another first.

The fact that the divine service was held on public property was another first.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Church, a Church that is united with Rome, is more optimistic. He considers the meeting between the Holy Father and leading representatives of Islam such as the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University to have been an important event for the relationship between Islam and Christianity. “Of course something will change, even in Saudi Arabia. There are no churches there and no public celebration of Mass. The meeting between the pope and the representatives of Islam will have consequences. But it will need time”, stated to ACN.

George Samia, a young Catholic who travelled to Abu Dhabi from neighbouring Dubai for the papal Mass, is very positive about the outcome. “The papal visit was an opportunity for non-Christians to learn more about Christianity and its message of love. It was wonderful. I am proud that I was able to be here for this historic event.”

Jolo, Sulu – A small city in military lockdown, an all-out war in the adjacent municipality against violent extremists, families in mourning after burying their dead, injured patients recovering in various hospitals, and some having to be amputated. Amidst all this, a local Church of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo is doing its best to provide hope to the Christian minority while their Muslim partners rally their members to show a force of unity amidst the fear and pain, which this impoverished city in the province of Sulu is suffering. This was the scene when the ACN delegation visited the capital of the island of Jolo to express its solidarity with the victims just nine days after the fatal double bomb attack on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on 27th January. This attack caused the death of 23 people, leaving 112 injured.

News of arrests and surrender of suspected perpetrators has failed to lift the spirit of the residents. Even with the assurance of tight security, a well-organized ‘Tribute to the Victims’ managed to draw only a fraction of the expected audience. Many opted to stay at home. A few of the families are seriously thinking of leaving Jolo for good. The bombing was the last straw, breaking their resilience in the face of years of threats, kidnapping, assassinations and harassment by what they call “the forces of evil.”

Fr Jeff Nacua Rector of the Cathedral being interviewed by ACN.

Fr Jeff Nacua Rector of the Cathedral being interviewed by ACN.

The “forces of evil” are the Muslim extremists, mostly Abu Sayyaf supporters, who have been terrorizing Christian minorities for years. Among their crimes are the killing of Bishop Benjamin (Ben) of Jesus in February 1997 in the Cathedral and two other priests, Claretian Father Roel Gallardo kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2002 and Father Rey Roda, Oblate of Mary Immaculate, in 2008. The victims of violence are not only Christians, because terrorists also kidnap Muslims with the intention of obtaining ransom to finance their actions.

Sources consulted by ACN name members of Ajang Ajang – a faction of Abu Sayyaf composed of drug traffickers and criminals, as the perpetrators of the latest attack at the headquarters of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo.

However, the messages from military, local government, traditional leaders, lay partners visited by ACN are constant: the persecution was not done by Muslims but a small minority of violent extremists.

“No bullet or bomb can destroy the harmonious relationship between Muslims and Christians in Jolo,” states Fr. Romeo Saniel, OMI. He has lived on the island for 18 years and was appointed Apostolic Administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo just a few weeks ago. As pastor of a small minority (one percent of the whole population of 120,000), he is revered and admired by the people for his commitment to provide quality education and opportunities to the young generation of Tausug  (Sulu’s indigenous ethnic group), as well as his courage and determination to reach out to the former fighters of the Moravian Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

On the morning of January 27, 2019, two bombs exploded at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Sulu, in the Philippines .

On the morning of January 27, 2019, two bombs exploded at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Sulu, in the Philippines.

“The only way for peace to be lasting is for both Muslims and Christians to stand together. We will not allow this tragedy to divide us and isolate us from the rest of the country,” remarks Datu Sakul Tan. As patriarch of a powerful political clan, he is considered the most influential man in the whole of Sulu, and he strongly believes in the relevance of quality education provided by the Catholic Church for the locals.

The needs are clearly articulated by the clergy and lay people. Even as the armed forces of the Philippines aim to eliminate the Abu Sayaf Group, everyone agrees that it doesn’t guarantee peace. Those who die will simply be replaced by the younger generation.

Fr. Saniel and Datu Sakul Tan both concur that a long-term need is to provide young people with programmes to prevent violent extremism through formal education, awareness campaigns, the creation of productive work for young people to provide them with livelihoods, and the development of sport.

On the other hand Fr. Jeff Nadua, OMI, Rector of the Cathedral, points to the need to rebuild the Christian community first and then rehabilitate the Cathedral. “We need to help our Christians recover from this trauma and see all this in the eyes of faith. Then we can focus our energies on rebuilding the structure which is heavily damaged by the twin bombing.”

On the left: Jonathan Luciano with Fr Romeo Saniel OMI - Apostolic Administrator of Jolo.

On the left: Jonathan Luciano with Fr Romeo Saniel OMI – Apostolic Administrator of Jolo.

The National Director of ACN Philippines, Jonathan Luciano, paid a solidarity visit to the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo on 4 and 5 February 2019.  He visited the seriously damaged Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and spoke with the Apostolic Administrator, Fr. Romeo Saniel, OMI, as well as some relatives of the victims.

Catholic Church leaders from the Near East have emphasised the significance of Pope Francis’s visit to the United Arab Emirates. “I believe that this is a very positive sign for the relationship between Islam and Christianity in the region,” Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, head of the Coptic Catholic Church, commented. In a talk with Aid to the Church in Need on Monday in Abu Dhabi, he said, “We Christians in Egypt may harbour renewed hope. The fruits will not become apparent immediately, but the message of tolerance and fraternity has been sown.”

Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Sidrak (Patriarch of the Catholic Coptic Church in Egypt) during Abu Dhabi conference on human fraternity.

Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Sidrak (Patriarch of the Catholic Coptic Church in Egypt) during Abu Dhabi conference on human fraternity.

The importance of the meeting that took place on Monday in Abu Dhabi between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University of Cairo, Ahmed al-Tayeb, one of the highest Sunni authorities, cannot be stressed enough, the Church leader explained. “This visit will help to correct the false image that many Muslims have of Christianity,” said the Patriarch, which Church is united with Rome. “Conversely, many Christians will realise that the majority of Muslims are not terrorists. The Islamic authorities want to show that they have nothing to do with terrorism.”

The pontiff’s three-day visit is the first time the head of the Catholic Church has travelled to the Arabian Peninsula, the home of Islam.

The pontiff’s three-day visit is the first time the head of the Catholic Church has travelled to the Arabian Peninsula, the home of Islam.

In the Holy Land as well, there were hope that the papal visit would be a source of momentum. In a talk with Aid to the Church in Need on Monday in Abu Dhabi, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa said, “The message of fraternity and dialogue that the Pope has brought to the Arab Peninsula is hopefully a seed that will also take root in the Holy Land.” The Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem stayed in the Gulf State during the visit of Pope Francis. This is the first time in history that a pope has visited the Arab Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. Archbishop Pizzaballa continued, “We cannot expect this visit to bring a concrete solution. Only general statements can be made. However, the meeting itself is momentous because it gathers together religious leaders in a region that is the cradle of the monotheistic religions, but also one that is shaken by religious conflict. A meeting between the Pope and the Grand Imam is thus an important sign.”

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land.

According to Archbishop Pizzaballa, the Christian-Islamic dialogue has entered a new phase. “There is a before and after ISIS,” the Italian Franciscan said. “The Islamic-Christian dialogue began a long time ago. But it was very formal and general. With the appearance of ISIS, the dialogue became more concrete and more realistic. For all involved, it is about stopping aberrant behaviour as well as killing and massacre in the name of religion.” As religions in the Near and Middle East also have a political and social dimension, the archbishop continued, the issue has now become how to develop positive relationships with each other in everyday life.

On Monday, Pope Francis attended an interfaith meeting in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. The meeting with the grand imam of Cairo on Monday and the celebration of Holy Mass with 130 000 Christians on Tuesday were the highlights of the three-day trip. Pope Francis returned to Rome on Tuesday.

After five years of marriage, Gulzar Masih and his wife, a Catholic couple, adopted a baby girl from a local hospital with the help of a family friend. The girl was named Meerab. Living in Sargodha, Pakistan, Meerab, who is 19 today, talks of the difficult realities of her life and her goals for the future to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need.

“My father was Gulzar Masih. My mother is Naasra Bibi. I have one brother, Shahryar Gulzar, who is eight. I belong to a Catholic family. My father worked for daily wages, building and painting; he earned 200 Pakistani rupees per day, which equals about $2. But some days he was unable to get work, so we missed the occasional meal. When it came to providing the necessities, my father always faced difficulties, but we were thankful to God for his blessings.

“One day, my father became very ill, and my mother took him to the hospital. The doctor diagnosed him with diabetes. We did not have the financial resources to arrange for proper treatment—as a result my father died.

Living in Sargodha, Pakistan, Meerab, who is 19 today.

Living in Sargodha, Pakistan, Meerab, who is 19 today.

“After my father’s passing, my mother, though experiencing great sorrow and pain, found work as a maid to meet our domestic and educational needs. Family income was low and expenditures were high, which eventually led to the discontinuation of my studies. But my mother encouraged me not to lose my faith in God, saying He would show us the way. All night, I would think about my father and our family’s needs. So I decided to help my mother, whose health was not strong. She is often sick and has high blood pressure.

“I told her that I would help her after school, that I would either join her at work or work on her behalf. One day, I went alone to work, and the owner of the home, about 40, asked me to make a cup of tea for him. When I went to serve him, he held my arm tightly and kissed me. I was so afraid to tell my mother; I thought that she would beat me. But when it happened again, I told my mother. I was no longer allowed to join her at work. I wondered if she faced the same harassment.

“I always prayed to God, hoping that He would help us and show us the way. Some people visited our home and offered their support. I continued my studies at St. Ann’s Primary School, which is run by the Catholic Church. My brother was also in school at the time, but due to our financial circumstances, he left school to work as a building painter.

“When I was in the eighth class, the St. Vincent DePaul Society, run by the diocese, began to help with costs. The initial monthly stipend was 500 rupees, and after two years, it increased to 1000. Later on, I was admitted to the local High School, which is operated by a Catholic organization and is one of the best schools in our city. I am thankful to our principal, who waived all fees so I could continue my education without disturbance.

"I continued my studies at St. Ann’s Primary School, which is run by the Catholic Church".

“I continued my studies at St. Ann’s Primary School, which is run by the Catholic Church”.

Because of the good people God sent to us, I am able to participate in a pre-medical program at a college. I face religious discrimination there, as the school is Muslim, but I know that God is with me. I live in a seriously impoverished area; so in the evenings, I provide 200 children with free tutoring. It is my deep desire to become a doctor and help the poor, so no one dies like my father did.

In 2017, Aid to the Church in Need provided more than $900,000 in aid to the Church in Pakistan, which included support for seminarians and living expenses for women religious, as well as for a range of pastoral programs.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT Aid to the Church in Need, VISIT http://www.churchinneed.org
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ABOUT US

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 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.