7 November 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. The revolution developed into a brutal civil war that ended with the establishment of the communist Soviet Union: a violent dictatorship ideologically rooted in Marxism, Leninism and Stalinism. This began one of the worst periods of persecution in Church history. Now, one hundred years later, it is the Christians in the Middle East who are being persecuted. And it is the Church in Russia, once severely persecuted itself, that is working together with the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) to support those being persecuted today.
The interview with Peter Humeniuk, head of the Russian and Central Asian section of Aid to the Church in Need, was held by Maria Lozano.
Is the day commemorating the October Revolution an important date in Russia?
Very important: this is a period marked by one of the worst persecutions of Christians of the modern age and possibly of history. We should not forget how greatly the Eastern Orthodox church, which the Second Vatican Council referred to as a “sister church”, suffered during Soviet times. Twenty years after the October Revolution, only 100 of what were once approx. 60,000 churches were still in existence. Fifteen thousand priests were killed during the first two years after the October Revolution. More than 300 bishops were executed or died in prison. The region affected by the worst persecution of Christians in history extended from Kaliningrad all the way to the Pacific.
Is this why the persecution of Christians is a topic that is especially important to the church in Russia?
Certain parallels can be drawn between the events of the last one hundred years since the October Revolution and the events that are currently unfolding in the Middle East, for example. The Russian church just went through that which our confrères in the Middle East are now experiencing. This is why we Russians cannot just accept it as a piece of news when the attempt is being made to wipe out Christianity somewhere in the world.
Pope John Paul II was very conscious of that which is known as the “ecumenism of the martyrs”. With this in mind, it was his heartfelt wish to see the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Church grow closer. This wish was shared by Father Werenfried van Straaten, founder of ACN. He devoted his entire life to working towards this reconciliation.
Aid to the Church in Need is continuing his work, primarily by initiating solidarity campaigns for the persecuted Christians in Syria. How did this cooperation develop?
This cooperation is one of the practical results of the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kyrill that took place in February of 2016 in Cuba. The meeting gave rise to a series of joint projects for Syria that are being organised by the Roman Catholic Church in Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate. For example, a joint Orthodox-Catholic delegation, which included ACN, visited refugees in the Beqaa Valley and met with representatives of the local churches in Lebanon and Syria in April 2016.
I have just returned from another trip to Lebanon, during which Metropolitan Hilarion met with prominent representatives of all local denominations. Mons. Kirill Klimovich, bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Irkutsk, also joined us from Russia. The main purpose of the meeting was the development of a database to document the destruction of the “spiritual infrastructure”. A further topic was the restoration of the holy sites destroyed by IS and targeted child and youth services in this region. We have informed Pope Francis and Patriarch Kyrill about this work.
Why is documenting the destruction so important?
For IS, it is not just about destroying the physical buildings. Rather, they would like to destroy the “spiritual home” of the people. For the people there, all Christian symbols and buildings provide a sense of belonging, of having roots. IS wants to destroy these people with their history and social networks. It is important for us to hold on to the witnesses of the martyrs. These are crimes that need to be documented, simply so that they do not happen again in the future and so that they are remembered. This is why we would like to compile the individual experiences of the people and have these checked to ensure that the sources be traced back.
Aid to the Church in Need is also celebrating an anniversary at the moment: Exactly 25 years ago, on 13 October 1992, Father Werenfried van Straaten first travelled to Moscow to meet with Patriarch Alexy II. This meeting marked the beginning of a programme for the Russian Orthodox church. How would you describe the cooperation today?
Since then, a relationship of trust has been established with the Orthodox Church on a number of levels. We have overcome obstacles and I am very happy about the current form of cooperation. I am sure that our work in the past helped make the meeting in Havana possible. Now we have the important task of putting Havana into action. This is why we have formed a mixed work group of Russian Catholics, the Russian Orthodox Church and our pastoral charity. The work of this group is being overseen by Archbishop of Moscow Paulo Pezzi on the Catholic side, by Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Foreign Office, on the Orthodox side, and by Johannes Heereman, Executive President of the foundation, on the side of ACN.
And what have been the results?
In addition to the campaigns in the Middle East, concrete examples are providing aid to women who find themselves in critical situations, are victims of domestic violence, are suffering hardship or distress or are in need of shelter because they have decided against having an abortion. It is important for us to strengthen Christian values such as the family or the protection of life. We are also promoting an exchange of experiences between Catholics and Orthodox. For example, a delegation from Italy and Portugal met for the first time in St. Petersburg with Russian-Orthodox partners to discuss drug addiction. The Catholic seminary in St. Petersburg provided the setting for this meeting, which was attended by the pro-rector of the Orthodox seminary and academy as well as many Orthodox priests who are professionally trained as physicians, psychologists, etc. and know a great deal about this subject. For us, this is an expression of living ecumenism, in the service of the people and in the spirit of joint responsibility.