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.
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”.
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.
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.
“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”.
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.
ACN is funding two aid projects for the local Catholic community as they return to a scene of utter devastation
The number of people who have died as a result of the terrorist attacks of 15 November last year on the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in the diocese of Alindao and on the refugee camp right next to it, continues to grow, and has now reached over 80, according to information given to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). What is the reason behind this sudden upsurge in violence against Christians in the south of the Central African Republic? In the report below the local Church analyses the situation and explains the consequences of these terrible events.
“The people, who almost all fled into the forest, are now returning, hoping to be able to find a few grains of rice that they can eat and foraging among the ashes for any beans that have been only partially burnt”, says Bishop Cyr-Nestor Yapaupa of Alindao, describing the dramatic scenes in his town. The number of those who have died since the attack has now increased to over 80, including two priests and two Protestant pastors, according to hospital sources.
A local Church source reports that the refugee camp, which once sheltered over 26,000 people and was supervised by the priests of the diocese, has now been totally destroyed. “The old people and the handicapped were simply burned alive, if they were not already shot dead or beheaded”, Bishop Yapaupa added. “In their panic, many parents were forced to leave one or other of their children behind in order to save the others. The attackers simply fired indiscriminately on the people.” Quite apart from the loss of human life, “the fire tore through the reception centre and several of the Church buildings. The cathedral lost its roof. The terrorists stole cars, motorcycles, solar panels, food from the storeroom, money and fuel…”
The cathedral of Alindao after the massacre.
A country torn apart
At the present time there are over 14 different armed groups scattered across the Central African Republic. The president of the country, Faustin Touadéra, does not have the resources to control the activities of these groups, the remnants of the civil war initiated in 2013, and which dissolved into clashes between the Seleka rebels – an almost entirely Muslim coalition – and the so-called “anti-balaka”, initially a self defence militia (a contraction of the phrase “anti-balas AK-47”, or “anti-bullets AK-47”) which ultimately degenerated into gangs of animist or nominally ‘Christian’ youths.
The authors of this particular terrorist attack were a Muslim militia, an offshoot of the Seleka, ironically named “Unity and Peace in Central Africa” (UPC). So why have the tensions suddenly increased just here in Alindao?
Alindao, “a cow to be milked”
According to the UPC, this was a legitimate act of defence because the Anti-balaka in Alindao had killed two Muslims on 14 and 15 November. However, our source informed us that it was rather the desire to compensate for a lack of means on the part of the UPC, which saw Alindao as “a flourishing commercial centre, and a cow to be milked”. After being expelled from Bambari in October, the UPC was forced to abandon its local commercial support base and the gold and diamond mines it controlled. “The weekly collections extorted from local traders in order to feed their troops” had led to big protests, and so they had had to go in search of another source of income, “Alindao and its war booty.”
The Church as a target
“Organised and structured as she is, the Catholic Church plays a fundamental role in responding to the local humanitarian crisis”, this African bishop explains. The Church maintains relations with the humanitarian agencies, with the president and the UN mission MINUSCA. At the same time, however, she is an “object of covetousness” and an institution that the men of war would like to bring down. Was this the reason for the inaction of the Mauritanian UN forces during the terrorist attack on Alindao, who “in this way smoothed the path for the attackers by not fulfilling their mission of protecting the refugee population”? Our source also provided a further piece of information, explaining that “two days before the tragedy, the leader of the UPC was received by the Mauritanian contingent.” The diocese sees this meeting as having been possibly one of “consensual planning”, or outright collusion. The leaders of the three main faith communities in the Central African Republic – Cardinal Nzapalainga, Pastor Guerekoyame Gbangou and Iman Omar Kobine Layama – have called for an investigation by the international community.
Bischof Cyr-Nestor Yapaupa von der Diözese Alindao in der Zentralafrikanischen Republik.
“We have lost everything, except our faith.”
“We have lost everything, except our faith”, Bishop Yapaupa concludes. “We can still look into the eyes of our enemy and offer him our sincere pardon, without giving way to a spirit of vengeance or fear.” ACN is proposing an emergency aid for the diocese of 45,000 US dollars, to help rebuild the community, and also Mass stipends to help the local clergy in this situation of total desolation.
This year, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its children’s Bible, God Speaks to His Children. Since its release, more than 51 million copies have been distributed across the globe in 189 languages. “It is beyond human understanding just how many children as well as adults have opened themselves to God through the children’s Bible,” the executive president of the foundation, Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern, explained when asked about the anniversary. He pointed out that for many families living in the world’s poor regions, the children’s Bible is the only book that they will ever own.
A secret global bestseller turns 40 Aid to the Church in Need’s Children’s Bible celebrates anniversary.
Children’s Bible relieves longing for God
“The letters we have received over the past 40 years, in which children, families, bishops and pastoral workers have expressed their thanks for the children’s Bible, bear witness to the deep longing for God that this book continues to relieve today,” said Dr Heine-Geldern. Divided into 99 short chapters, God Speaks to His Children retells the most important texts of the Old and New Testament in a way that is easy for children to understand. The stories in the current edition of the children’s Bible were written by German theologian Eleonore Beck (1926-2014) and brightly illustrated by the Spanish religious sister Miren-Sorne Gomez (*1937). The illustrations have become popular in religious instruction and catechesis.
The “father” of the children’s Bible was the Dutch Premonstratensian Father Werenfried van Straaten (1913-2003), the founder of Aid to the Church in Need. When the United Nations proclaimed 1979 as the “Year of the Child”, this became the impetus for the realisation of a long-cherished idea of Father Werenfried. He wrote at the time: “Children need something like a children’s Bible so that the image of Christ will become a living one in their hearts. The Church often does not have the means to acquire a children’s Bible written in the native language. Or the Church is being persecuted and is not allowed to publish literature of this kind. Many children are so poor that they cannot afford to buy a book. And so we would like to give them the Bible as a gift.”
Since its release, more than 51 million copies have been distributed across the globe in 189 languages.
In great demand from the very beginning
ACN presented the children’s Bible at the Conference of the Latin American Bishops that took place in late January 1979 in Puebla, Mexico, and was also attended by Pope John Paul II on his first foreign tour. The response was overwhelming: the bishops immediately ordered 1.2 million copies in Spanish. As soon as missionaries, bishops and catechists from other countries learned of its existence, additional translations became necessary. Today, the Bible is available in 189 languages, from Afar, which is spoken by around 1.5 million people of the same name in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, to isiZulu, a Bantu language spoken in southern Africa. New translations are added regularly. After all, more than 2,000 distinct languages are spoken in Africa alone. There, the children’s Bible continues to play an important role in fostering literacy today.
From the very beginning, ACN has distributed the children’s Bible in poor countries free of charge. In more affluent countries, it is sold at cost price. The editions with the widest distribution are those in Spanish (around 14 million), Portuguese (10.3 million), English (2.5 million), French (1.2 million) and the East African language Swahili (950 000). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian edition of the children’s Bible was mentioned by a Christian radio station. ACN was flooded with half a million orders within a short amount of time.
The editions with the widest distribution are those in Spanish (around 14 million), Portuguese (10.3 million), English (2.5 million), French (1.2 million) and the East African language Swahili (950 000).
The popes also recognised the importance of the children’s Bible. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, handed out the ten millionth copy of the children’s Bible during his pastoral visit to Brazil in May of 2007.
Over 1000 Holy Masses have been celebrated by Catholic communities in the Middle East in order to thank Pope Francis for his participation in the Advent initiative Candles for Peace in Syria, which was organised by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). On the first Sunday of Advent last year, during the Angelus prayer at the window of the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis lit a candle and prayed that “this flame of hope and many little flames might scatter the shadows of war”.
Sister Annie Demerjian handed the candle to Pope Francis that he lit during Angelus for Peace in Syria along with 50 thousand Syrian kids.
Now scores of parishes in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and even on the Arabian Peninsula have expressed their gratitude to Pope Francis for his gesture by celebrating Holy Masses for his intentions. And many Orthodox Christians in the Middle East have also associated themselves with this expression of thanksgiving and prayed for the intentions of Pope Francis.
Also participating in the Candles for Peace in Syria campaign, were over 50,000 children of different religious faiths and denominations in many of the major war-torn cities of Syria, such as Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Marmarita, al-Hasaka, Tartus and Latakia. And thousands of people worldwide also associated themselves with the campaign and expressed their solidarity and concern for the people of Syria.
On 1 January 2019, the World Day of Prayer for Peace, at the initiative of Melkite Catholic Archbishop Issam John Darwich of Zahleh and Forzol, hundreds of parishes in Lebanon also associated themselves with the campaign, lighting candles at their New Year‘s Day Liturgies and praying for peace in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
On different occasions Pope Francis expressed the wish that young people should pray for peace in the world. In order to respond to this request, ACN has offered to send rosaries as a gift to the young people gathering at the World Youth Day in Panama in January 2019.
Responsibility for supplying these rosaries has been entrusted to Caritas Jerusalem. In this way this charity has been able to provide work to many needy families, young unemployed, prisoners and refugees over many months in Bethlehem and its surrounding area. The rosaries, which can also be worn as an armband, have been produced at a cost of one US dollar apiece.
Bethlehem is a sort of microcosm of the situation of Christians in the region – their presence and survival is now at stake in the very place where Christ was born. “So that these rosaries can be a genuine instrument of peace, they have been made in the Holy Land, of local olive wood, and by the people of this very region, which is marked by such violent tensions and yet is at the same time a bearer of hope and peace. You could buy these rosaries cheaply in China – but if we made them in Bethlehem it is a sign of active solidarity with the people of the Holy Land”, says the initiator of the project, Emeritus Bishop Peter Bürcher of Reykjavik.
Msgr. José Domingo Ulloa (Archbishop of Panama Ciudad) meet olive wood workers in Jerusalem. They produce the rosaries, which Pope Francis will distribute to the pilgrims on the World Youthday in Panama 2019.
Archbishop Ulloa Mendieta of Panama underlines this ideas as well in a letter sent to the pontifical foundation ACN, one of the sponsors of the project: “On the one hand, it will encourage prayer and on the other, thanks to this initiative, it will sponsor an aid project that contributes to the support of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land”.
For months now the Christians of Bethlehem have been working to produce 1 million rosaries. For each of the 200 families involved in Bethlehem the project will yield enough to support them for a full year. And they too will be contributing by their work; they will be personally involved. Though trapped in the shadow of the warfare in the Middle East, they are not forgotten. And what is equally important to them is the fact that hundreds of thousands of young people will be praying for peace and thereby fulfilling a personal wish of the Pope.
Olive Woord Rosary with a photo of Pope Francis. He will distribute to the pilgrims on the World Youthday in Panama 2019.
It is expected that there will be at least half a million young people in Panama. Pope Francis has repeatedly called on us to pray this prayer, saying that with the Rosary nothing is impossible, since “the Rosary is the summary of the history of God’s mercy”. This is also very in the line of the theme of the World Youth Day: “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
Bethlehem remains a city of hope. And we are entrusting this hope, along with the rosaries, into the hands of the young people in Panama.
The Pontifical Foundation ACN supports the World Youth Day in Panama with several projects. The charity is also one of the sponsors of the rosaries included in the pilgrim’s kit, a project that it has helped with 100,000.- €.