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.
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.
The convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Abancay, in southern central Peru, was initially established in 1964 with seven religious from Cusco. Today the community has no fewer than 20 religious, who live a strict life of prayer and self-denial. And so by now they have been able to send some of their sisters to no fewer than four other Carmelite convents, where vocations were fewer. They write: „In our contemplative life we pray daily for the needs of the world and of all mankind.“
A new host baking machine for the discalced Carmelite Sisters in Abancay, Peru
The sisters of this contemplative congregation support themselves by the work of their hands. They make floral arrangements and sew liturgical items, but above all they make the hosts that are used for the celebration of the Eucharist in their diocese. Each month they produce over 300,000 hosts in their convent of Saint Joseph! However, with their old host making machine they found it very hard to produce this quantity, and at the same time the quantity needed has been steadily increasing as a result of the migration from the surrounding rural areas. So now the sisters have turned to ACN and, thanks to the generosity of our benefactors, we haven‘t let them down. 11,870 Euros was the amount they needed, and so now the sisters are rejoicing in their new host baking machine, which makes their work so very much easier. They are most grateful to you all and write, „May God reward you all for your generosity! You may be assured of our prayers. In our poverty we take our prayers to Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar and ask him to pour out his graces and blessings on each and every one of you.“
A new host baking machine for the discalced Carmelite Sisters in Abancay, Peru
The people of the Gumuz tribe live in western Ethiopia, close to the border with Sudan. Until just a few years ago they were a mainly nomadic people. In the late 19th century and well into the 20th century, many of the Gumuz people fell victim to Arab slave traders from Sudan.
To this day people living great poverty, and life is particularly difficult for the women. They have to do very heavy physical work, even while pregnant. And since there is a belief that the blood of a woman in childbirth brings a curse upon the family, the women are forced to go out alone to an isolated spot, such as a river bank, or deep in the forest, and give birth without any help or support. And since many girls are forced into marriage at a very young age, their bodies are scarcely mature enough to give birth for the first time, and of course they have no experience either. As a result they often suffer extremely long and difficult births, frequently with fatal complications. This and other such superstitions govern all areas of life, especially for the women, and are a cause of a great deal of suffering and fear.
Support for religious sisters working with the Gumuz people in Ethiopia
It was not until a few years ago that the Gumuz first came in contact with Christianity, but now the Good News of Christ is touching more and more hearts. Many of the people who have ceased to be nomadic and now live a more settled life, build their round huts as close as possible to the nearest church, and more and more of them are seeking baptism.
For the past three years now the sisters of the Congregation of Saint Joseph of the Apparition have been working among the people. The three sisters of the congregation prepare the candidates for baptism and generally help the people to better understand and live by the Christian faith. They give special support to the women and girls, for example by ensuring that the girls can attend school. In general, the Gumuz have been slow to embrace education and schooling, and while the government has recently been trying to encourage school attendance in the area, its efforts have so far borne little fruit. It is often very difficult to persuade the parents of the value of sending their daughters to school. The sisters are doing valuable work in persuading them, since this is one of the best ways of improving the lives of the girls and women. One of the sisters also runs a small kindergarten, which among other things helps to prepare the children for attending school when they are older.
The three sisters live in extremely simple conditions in a mud hut. They have asked our help to support their life and ministry. Although they ask very little for themselves, they still need to cover the cost of things like fuel, since their work means they have to travel to the many different widely scattered settlements. We have promised them 13,200 Euros to support their life and apostolate.
The Order of the Visitation Sisters was founded in 1610 by Saint Francis of Sales and Saint Jane Frances de Chantal. Also known as the Salesian Sisters, they live a contemplative life of prayer in enclosure. At the same time, however, many are also involved in spiritual accompaniment and education.
The name of the order is taken from the Visitation of Our Blessed Lady to her cousin Elizabeth in Saint Luke‘s Gospel (Lk 1:39-56), when Elizabeth greeted Mary as „blessed among women“ and Mary responded with the Magnificat. The emblem of the order is the pierced Heart of Jesus, surrounded by the Crown of Thorns.
Support for the Salesian Sisters in Malaga, Colombia
One of the best-known saints of the order was Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque who, in the 17th century in a series of visions in her convent in Paray-le-Monial in France, was urged by Christ himself to promote and spread devotion to his most Sacred Heart, in reparation for the cold-heartedness and ingratitude shown by so many people towards their Redeemer. In the visions Jesus expressed his great sorrow and suffering at the fact that so many people are utterly indifferent to the great love he has shown in dying for them on the Cross and allowing his Sacred Heart to be pierced through for their sake. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the appropriate response to this infinite love. Both the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the First Friday devotions to the Sacred Heart take their origin from these revelations and are now firmly established in the Universal Catholic Church.
Altogether, the Order of the Visitation Sisters has some 2,500 religious sisters, spread across over 150 different convents in four of the five continents.
The Visitation convent in Malaga, in Colombia, has recently gained two young aspirants after many years without any new vocations. They now have 10 sisters altogether, seven of them professed sisters who have taken their permanent vows.
They write: „By our contemplative lifestyle, in accordance with the Rule of the Order, we offer up to God each day our prayer, our humble service, joyful reparation and sisterly life together as a living prayer for the world and the Holy Church. We strive to constantly advance the formation of the community and of each individual sister, so that our prayer and our spiritual life may become better. We share the times of recreation and rest in the joy of being together and responding together to the call of God.
Our entire life, which is marked by obedience to a daily pattern, involving times of prayer, silence, work, study and community life, is a silent offering that we make to God, lovingly and for the salvation of souls.“
The sisters produce candles as a means of supporting their modest lifestyle. But their income from this is not sufficient to provide the sisters even with the basic necessities such as medical care and their daily needs. And so they have turned to ACN. We are proposing to help them once again this year as we have in the past, and so we have promised them 3,500 Euros.
Aid to the Church in Need is supporting the pastoral work of the Sacred Heart Sisters in the Syrian city of Homs.
The church of Altip, in the Bab Al-Sebaa district, just south of the Old Quarter of Homs, is a social and pastoral training centre. “Years ago it was a Catholic school, but then the government banned all non-state schools. Since then we have used it as a catechetical centre, giving religious instruction to young people and adults, and we also hold social events and sports days here”, explains Sister Samia Syiej, the religious sister in charge of coordinating catechetical instruction for a group of Confirmation children.
Sister Samia is a member of the Sacred Heart Sisters, a congregation founded in Syria and inspired by Ignatian spirituality. “We have 12 houses throughout Syria. I am also involved in pastoral work with handicapped children. Our congregation is very active and we pursue a range of initiatives, both pastoral and social”, she continues.
Sister Samia Syiej
Sister Samia points out the exact spot where the bombs fell, close to the centre of Altip. “Local families have helped us to repair two sections of the roof which were destroyed by the bombing. But in addition to everything else, what we now have to do is to help repair not only the external damage, but the damage within people’s hearts. I am a religious, and my first responsibility is to bear witness spiritually and help people. This is what moves me. We lived through the war and witnessed it close up. Catechesis is important in helping to heal the wounds.”
Working alongside Sister Samia are a number of young university students who divide themselves between the various different catechetical groups and actively help in this pastoral apostolate. A delegation from our international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) happened to visit while they were endeavouring to explain to the young boys and girls about the life of Jesus during his Passion and Crucifixion, a central point of the Christian faith. One of these catechists is Haya Elias. “Sister Samia taught us how to become closer to God, and now we are passing this on those who come after us.” She is studying philology at university and has always been a member of the group helping the sisters.
Children Gifts for Christmas in Aleppo 2017
“I am very conscious that I owe my life to God and to the prayers of people like Sister Samia”, says a young man who is currently unemployed. He was in the army of the Assad government, compulsorily recruited to fight in the war. During an ambush he was captured by a rebel group and held prisoner for months. Everybody assumed he was dead, but miraculously he succeeded in escaping. “I thank God, and I thank the sisters for never having given up praying for me. I am so grateful to them today and so now I am helping them as a catechist.”
The Church in Syria is very much alive, despite more than seven years of war. The priests, and the religious brothers and sisters in the country have become a fresh source of hope for the people. “We have never stopped offering our help, our prayers and our accompaniment… Everything is being done through the collaboration of the priests, religious and laity. We all work together to organise these activities and, thanks be to God, we have some very active young people”, Sister Samia continues.
In addition to coordinating the religious instruction, Sister Samia also works in a home for mentally handicapped children. “We have always carried out projects with the help of ACN, even during the bloodiest moments of the war. Children and adults alike often need a word of hope, and want to grow stronger in their faith. The children come to the church, and they can also be very demanding. During the summer, for example, we held a number of youth camps, which gave fresh hope to many people. This is what motivates us.”
During the year 2018, and thanks to the generous help of our many benefactors throughout the world, the pontifical foundation ACN has been able to support more than 35 pastoral courses and programmes for young people and children in various different parts of Syria, for a total cost of 170,000 Euros.
Children Gifts for Christmas in Aleppo 2017