IN SRI LANKA, suicide bombers hit three churches and hotels in coordinated, near simultaneous attacks Easter morning that left 290 people dead, while wounding an estimated 500 more.
The series of bombings began at approximately 8.45 AM in the capital of Colombo with an explosion at St. Anthony Shrine, a historic church designated as the country’s national shrine. It is the country’s best-known Catholic church. Within about 45 minutes, a second Catholic church was hit, St. Sebastian’s, in Negomba, some 20 miles up the country’s western coast from Colombo. Subsequently, a bomb exploded at the Protestant Zion Church in Batticaloa, on the eastern coast.
During the same time period, there were explosions at three upscale hotels in Colombo that are popular with Westerners. There are several dozen foreigners among the dead. There are reports of two additional explosions in Colombo.
Valence Mendis, Bishop of Chilaw, Sri Lanka, May 2010.
Reached by telephone, Bishop Warnakulasuriya Devsritha Valence Mendis of Chilaw told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that he condemned “the brutal attack, these acts of absolute violence that we cannot understand.” The bishop said the bombings were “totally unexpected” and that the country had been enjoying peaceful relations among the different faiths.
Buddhists account for 70 percent of the country’s population of 21 million; 13 percent are Hindus, with Christians making up some 10 percent. Sri Lankan Catholics number 1.3 million.
Most Catholics live in the western, coastal part of the country. “The area has many churches,” said Bishop Mendis, adding that St. Anthony’s Shrine attracts “people of all faiths,” with thousands of people visiting the shrine every day.
No group has claimed responsibility for the terror attacks, but there are some reports that Sri Lankan security officials had received warnings that there was a threat to churches, linked to the return to Sri Lanka of ISIS fighters. Indian officials said the coordinated explosions targeting crowded urban settings are typical of the terror method of ISIS.
Pope Francis, after celebrating Mass Easter Sunday, called the bombings “horrendous” and conveyed his “heartfelt closeness to the Christian community, attacked while gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such a cruel act of violence.”
After Sunday Mass, Diocese of Anuradhapura , Sri Lanka, May 2010.
Noting that people of various faiths died in the attacks on the hotels, Bishop Mendis labeled the terrorist strikes “a crime against humanity.” “Our Easter joy was taken away from us,” he said and Easter Sunday “became a day of mourning.” The bishop expressed confidence that “our people will face the future with courage and faith.” In a message to ACN donors, Bishop Mendis said that “we need your prayers that peace and harmony may be restored to our country.” He concluded: “As an act of solidarity, we must pray for all Christians who are suffering because of their faith.”
On Monday 15 April, the first day of Holy Week, the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was ravaged by a terrible fire. This was a drama which invited us to pray unceasingly, and without being discouraged.
Shortly before 8pm, the burning spire collapsed into the nave of the cathedral. The fire, which had broken out around 6.50pm in the timbers of the roof, was overcome by about 3.30am, according to the Paris firefighters. Two-thirds of the roof has been destroyed. Ravaged by flames in the night of 15-16 April, the building – the most visited in Europe, welcoming between 12 and 14 million visitors and pilgrims each year – had stood through history and survived countless events, from the French Revolution to the Second World War. An enquiry into ‘involuntary destruction by fire’ has been opened.
Cathedral Notre Dame in Paris during the fire.
“The shocking sight of Notre-Dame in flames reminds us of the dramatic reality lived by too many Christians throughout the world”, stated Fr Yves Genouville, French ecclesial assistant to Aid to the Church in Need. “But at the end of a night of sorrow, a striking image: in the midst of smoke and ash, despite the chaos resulting from the flames, the Cross appears, intact. The glorious Cross of Christ, at the foot of which so many pilgrims have come to leave their prayers. The Cross of Christ, at the foot of which Mgr Fridolin Ambongo, Mgr Theodore Mascarenhas, Sr Mona Adhem, and so many others came, during the 2018 ‘Nuits de Temoins’, to leave the sorrows and hopes of a Church faced with the folly of Evil. The Cross of Christ, today weighed down, at the foot of which stood Mary, his Mother, Our Lady, to whom the cathedral of the Paris archdiocese is dedicated.
While this fire has joined the long list of the dramas undergone by the Church in France, ACN, an international pontifical foundation, has received messages of compassion from the whole world. The universal church is united by prayer to the diocese of Paris, and to the Church in France. “Our heart is weeping with all of France, and with the Christians of the world: we are praying for you”, wrote Sr Mona. “We are praying for you, we are praying for France’, Mgr Mascarenhas assured us. “We feel your sorrow. Your loss is our loss, your sorrow our sorrow.”
Cathedral Notre Dame in Paris during the fire.
In a statement the French Bishops’ Conference invited “Catholics to always remain the living stones of the Church, by living the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, the source of our hope.” Guided by this Hope, at the start of this Holy Week, as we approach the paschal solemnities, ACN invites all to watch and pray, for the Church in France and for the universal Church; to watch and pray at the foot of the cross, at the side of Our Lady, and without discouragement.
The Church is under attack around the world. Internal scandals are damaging her credibility. Numbers of priests and religious are falling in Latin America, as elsewhere. Yet at this very time in one of the most anti-Christian countries on the continent, one particular community shines forth like a beacon for the future. They are the Discalced Carmelite Sisters in Florida, Uruguay.
There are twelve Sisters, eight permanently professed, two with temporary vows and two novices. They are young, and other young women are also seeking admission to the convent. Each has her own story to tell, of how God called her, tenderly but clearly, invisibly but unmistakably, quietly but insistently. Each of them could make her own the words of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. “Did not our hearts burn within us as he spoke to us…” (Cf. Lk 24:32). Sister María was just 16 when, in 2013 while on pilgrimage, she first recognised the urging in her heart. “You have given me everything, Lord, and I want to give everything to you.” This was her prayer, even without knowing exactly what God wanted of her.
A radiant bride of Christ: Sister María, 22, in the convent garden.
She was already engaged and loved her fiancé Fernando. Then she met a Carmelite nun. She read the Story of a Soulby Saint Therese of Lisieux. The signs that she was being called to the religious life multiplied, until she said in her prayers “Enough! No more signs please!” She wanted to become a Carmelite, but at the same time she also wanted to be a doctor and mother of a family. Together with her fiancé she prayed a novena to Saint Joseph. A few months later she unburdened her heart to a Carmelite Sister who said, without knowing anything of the novena, “Saint Joseph has sent you here. We prayed to him in the convent for a new vocation.” Her questioning was replaced with certainty. She broke off her engagement. Fernando had already begun to anticipate this,
and also to question his own vocation. Today he is a seminarian in Montevideo. María was 19 when she finally decided to enter the convent. Her friends and even her parents tried
to dissuade her and prayed desperately that she would not enter the convent.
A growing community: three professed Sisters with a novice and a postulant.
But the Sisters were also praying in their convent. One night María wrote a loving letter to her parents, climbed out of the window and knocked on the door of the Carmel. Today she says, “I am happy, happy to be the bride of Christ.” Sister María Belén also felt her heart burning. The more she became involved with her parish, the greater her longing grew to belong totally to God. Then her uncle, who was a priest, died in a car crash. In the midst of her grief she felt the open arms of God. She too read the Story of a Soul and then, two years ago, when she became acquainted with the Carmel, she knew: “This is my home, my doorway to heaven.” Now other young women are knocking on the door. They too want to give everything. But there is not enough space to accommodate them. An extension will make space for five additional cells. This is a sign for us, you could say, for the little online shop they run, selling their embroidery, needlework and handicrafts, will never cover the cost. So we have promised €70,000.
It would be hard to give a clearer illustration of the universal character of the Church than this: two Nigerian religious Sisters from the Poor Clare Missionaries of the Most Blessed Sacrament – which was founded in Mexico – are travelling to the Diocese of Saratov in Russia to help with pastoral and catechetical work under the direction of Bishop Clemens Pickel, from Germany.
But first of all Anastesia Ndubuisi and Cordelia Enwereuzo must learn Russian. “They are making progress”, says Bishop Clemens Pickel, who recalls how shocked the two women were when they saw the mist and snow for the first time. His diocese is something of a melting pot of cultures. Most of the 61 religious Sisters, who belong to different congregations, come from abroad – “anywhere from Argentina to the Philippines” – including a good number from Poland.
Part of the melting pot of Saratov: Bishop Clemens Pickel with his international team of religious Sisters.
A few are from Russia itself; many of these experienced life in the underground Church, under communist dictatorship, but for the younger Russian women “the radical decision for Christ had nothing to do with any tradition in their families. There was nothing of that; merely the call of God and an open heart.” “They are very versatile”, says Bishop Clemens with evident admiration. “Whether in catechesis, with the children and young people, visiting the sick, caring for the elderly or helping in the sacristy. I can sense at once if Mass has been prepared by one of the Sisters. It takes a real effort to achieve this kind of devotion to Christ in the little things.”
Sister Maria Šalaboda.
In fact, without the help of these foreign Sisters this diocese, one of the largest in the world, would not be able to function. There is a great deal of travelling involved, since the 20,000 or so Catholics account for just 0.04% of the 45 million people living in the diocese. For these and the many other Christians Anastesia and Cordelia have been learning Russian. But they have no way to pay for their language tuition (€3,000) or, like the other Sisters, even support themselves in the country. “We call it ‘existence help’, and with good reason”, says Bishop Clemens, thoughtfully. For it really is about the very existence of the diocese itself. We are helping with €35,000.
The population of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, in northwest Africa, is almost 100% Muslim. The mere 4,000 or so Catholic Christians are exclusively foreigners. And the bishop, priests and religious sisters of the only diocese in the country likewise come from 20 different countries of Europe, Asia and Africa.
The 27 religious sisters have their hands absolutely full in this, one of the poorest countries in the world. They care for expectant mothers, the sick, migrants, prisoners and the handicapped. They work in the schools and other educational facilities and teach the women, who have no opportunity to attend school, such practical skills as sewing, and also reading and writing. On top of this they care for many undernourished and malnourished children, of whom there are around 40,000 in the capital, Nouakchott, alone.
ACN is supporting the life and ministry of the 27 religious sisters there, with a contribution of 20,000 Euros.
The situation facing the Mauritanian people is becoming ever more difficult. Whereas as recently as 1960, when the country became independent, some 85% of the population were nomads and pastoralists, living from their livestock, the desert has been spreading ever further outwards, since the early 1970s, and many have now lost their flocks. More and more people are migrating to the cities and ending up in the slums. At the same time, the country, which faces west onto the Atlantic Ocean, is also affected by rising sea levels, which have rendered many outlying areas of the coastal towns and cities uninhabitable.
Although pressure from an insurgent Islamism is increasing in the country, the work of the Catholic Church is nevertheless highly esteemed by many Muslims. Bishop Martin Happe has one Mauritanian friend who, although a Muslim, has very happy childhood memories of the Catholic religious sisters. While he was still a child, he and his playmates used to think up all kinds of minor ailments, so that they could ring the doorbell at the convent of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. For then, his friend told him, „we not only got a sticking plaster but always a glass of lemonade as well.“ To this day he still remembers the names of the sisters in the convent at that time.
The Catholic Church is also respected by the government for its charitable work, but it does not receive any financial support. And so, this year once again, ACN is supporting the life and ministry of the 27 religious sisters there, with a contribution of 20,000 Euros.
In Aleppo the number of Christians shrank fivefold during the war. Now the economic crisis and the lack of professional employment opportunities are a source of anguish, especially for the young.
The performers are a choir of 60 or so children and young people, supported by five musicians. It is Saturday 17 March in the late afternoon. The Orthodox Youth Movement is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its creation. In the packed hall, the audience applauds appreciatively. A simple concept, but something that has become rare in recent years in this city of Aleppo, which was once the economic capital of the country, before the war.
The anguish of the young
Among the young singers is Miriam Toubal, aged 23, a student in biotechnology, who conducts the children’s choir. For a year now, for one hour a week, she has rehearsed them in singing these songs. The rehearsals are at least less stressful than during the war, though even that didn’t prevent the choristers from attempting to gather and sing.
It’s not long before Miriam confides in us her anxiety as to her future. Finding a good job so as to be able to continue living decently is a major challenge in a city devastated by six years of war, and since then by the economic sanctions. In Syria the level of youth unemployment is an estimated 78%. And so many of these young people are deeply concerned for their own future and that of those they love.
Aleppo (Syria), destroyed building in front of the Citadelle.
All activity paralysed
Since the end of the fighting, the situation has not got better in this once prosperous city. Quite the contrary, in fact. So many of the citizens of this town will tell you about the difficulties of daily life. The economic recovery, so long-awaited, is still not happening, and the average job does not pay well enough to provide the basic daily needs, so rapidly have prices risen. The souk, whose 13 km of stores and boutiques were once the pride of the city and were classed as a world Heritage site by UNESCO, still lies in ruins and has not yet been restored. In front of what was once his own stall, Elias Farah, on returning there for the first time, cannot hide his emotions, noting anxiously that the whole place seems to be in imminent danger of collapse.
The former economic capital of the country is suffering terribly from the economic embargo. «It’s the poor and the ordinary people who are suffering above all from the situation» says Syrian Catholic Archbishop Antoine Chahda of Aleppo. The war is continuing and the lack of future prospects is only adding to the unhappiness of the families and the despair of so many Christians. In the suburbs of Aleppo, the industrial zone is a desolate sight: the bombed out factories have been looted, and there is no sign of any activity whatsoever.
Aleppo (Syria), recital orgnized by MJO – Miriam Toubal, “the voice of Aleppo”.
In order to meet the daily needs of life, whether in Aleppo or in Homs, the Christian communities have organised themselves and are counting on the generosity of the universal Church. Once prosperous, they have become beggars, says Greek Orthodox Bishop George Abu Zakham of Homs, noting at the same time that the foreign aid is decreasing.
The support supplied by ACN, in the form of medical and food aid, help with rent and education, remains indispensable for many families. Lay committees have been set up, in order to be able to share out this aid fairly among the various different Christian communities. Their task is to identify the most urgent needs and closely monitor the use of the aid supplied. It is an effective system and one that enables the different Christian Churches to work together. It is a vital form of aid, and one that is rekindling a new spark of life in the stale air and smouldering ashes of a city in ruins. For a brief moment, Miriam was the voice of that city.
From March 2011 up to the end of 2018, ACN provided 29.5 million Euros in aid for Syria, in the form of 738 different projects. 80% of these projects were in the form of emergency aid.