Letters from the Central African Republic
Dated Dec. 5, 2013, a letter written by Abbot Dieu-Béni Mbanga, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic
More violence—it is too much!!
Christians in the Archdiocese of Bangui went to sleep last night planning to get up today to join the diocesan pilgrimage to the Marian sanctuary at Ngukomba, some 24 kilometers (14 miles) from Bangui, on the Damara route. It turned out very differently. The firing of weapons of war woke up all of Bangui. There were reports of clashes between armed groups: one the one hand fighters belonging to anti-balaka forces (associated with the ousted president), and, on the other hand, Seleka (Jidadist) forces.
Some residents caught between warring parties stayed holed up at home; others found refuge in churches and with religious communities. By mid-morning, the parishes of St. John of Galabadja and Bangui’s Cathedral of Our Lady the Immaculate had taken in some 1,000 people; St. Peter of Gobongo about 2,500; St. Bernard more than 3,000; Our Lady of Africa more than 3,500; and St. Paul of the Rapids more than 5,000. The stream of people seeking shelter continued to grow in the afternoon, doubling in size, with their number tripling by nightfall. Church facilities also took in the wounded who have been without medical care until now.
Some parishes, like Our Lady of Africa, came directly under fire by Seleka militants; others, like St. Peter of Gobongo, St. John of Galabadja, St. Bernard of Boy-Rabe, St. Charles Lwanga of Begoua, received threats of attack.
The violence plunged a number of households into mourning. There are a large number of victims among the civilian population. Different figures are given: 85, 105, 130, more. One thing is certain: the finding and counting of the dead has not finished, especially as we learned that revenge attacks by the Seleka forces on the non-Muslim population are going on pretty much in all neighborhoods of the capital; plus, anti-balaka forces have not yet left Bangui and its surroundings.
As the one in charge of the site of the Marian sanctuary of Ngukomba I am particularly worried about the safety of scouts and guides, as well as of a few pilgrims sent out there yesterday, who are the targets of reprisals. I keep them in my prayers and commend them to yours: that, through the intercession of Mary of Ngkukomba, God may guard over each of them and protect them, just as He promised to all those belonging to His people: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num. 6: 24-26).
The head of the transitional government announced via radio a ceasefire between 6PM and 6AM. As night is covering the Central African Republic with its dark mantel, a ‘night of long knives’ is certainly to be feared. We hope that the UN Security Council’s passing—at 4PM this afternoon—of a resolution authorizing the intervention by African and French forces will go into effect immediately, along with the decision of the French Security Council to intervene this evening; and that these actions may be followed by provisions for the unarmed population of the Central African Republic, which has already suffered too much …
A letter dated Dec. 6, 2013
All night, until the end of the ceasefire, sporadic gunfire was heard in some neighborhoods of Bangui, and bodies were found near Fatima, Bimbo, PK15 on the Boali route, at Boing, Kattin—I passed them by. There are ongoing reprisal attacks and pillaging targeting the non-Muslim population by members of the Seleka faction; these have doubled in intensity at Boy-Rabe, Fouh, Gobogon, PK 10, PK 11, PK 12 … The rain that has been falling on Bangui and surrounding areas since dawn has by no means kept these faithless and lawless attackers from the throats of the peaceful inhabitants of Bangui.
You will surely remember the fear I expressed yesterday in these words: “While night covers the Central African Republic with its dark mantle, a night of long knives is to be feared.” Today, between noon and 13.00, I went to the FOMAC (Multinational Force of the Central Africa) military base at Mpoko in the hope of finding a corridor that would allow safe passage for the scouts, guides and pilgrims still stuck at the Marian shrine at Ngukomba who are at risk of becoming targets for reprisals. What atrocities did I not see on the way from the cathedral to the base:
- More than 30 lifeless corpses of men, women and children lying on the ground, some of them close to Seleka militants
- The streets, the roadways, the marketplaces are deserted.
Information gathered at the beginning of the afternoon made clear that what I had seen was only the tip of the iceberg. Many dead are strewn across the footpaths and at street corners in almost all the neighborhoods of Bangui and surroundings.
- In the Boeing neighborhood near the Bangui-Mpoko airport 40 bodies were found; while at Begoa one of the neighborhood chiefs was assassinated this morning along with his children, and everyone is saying there are too many deaths;
- The lives of those hiding out at home are in danger;
- Those who have found refuge in Church buildings are not safe from bullets in the least, as attacks by Seleka militants are even penetrating these structures. That is what happened today in the parish of St. Bernard de Boy-Rabe and in the Monastery of Our Lady of the Word where there are reports of already three deaths among the people who found refuge there; one person died of a heart attack, the two others died from gunshot wounds; the same is happening at the parish of St. Charles Lwanga of Begoa and in the Protestant church of Castors.
With regard to the last example, the protestant church of Castors has taken in more than 1,000 people. Last night, that church received threats of attack because of the mobilization of young people in the area that had come in the wake of protests against the (Nov. 16) assassination of local magistrate Modeste-Martineau Bria by Seleka militants. Today, a Seleka colonel named Bichara and his men entered the church and ordered only women and children to leave the church, the men having to stay inside. The men did not comply and decided to leave at the same time as the women and children. That is when Seleka forces opened fire on them, killing five men.
Seeing all these atrocities and the cold-bloodedness of those committing them with impunity, one has the right to question the humanity of those faithless and lawless oppressors of the peaceful people of the Central African Republic. Seeing how they have no respect for the living or the dead, it makes one wonder if human life has any value in their eyes. We have heard of older people [who have been victims], whom a humane person must respect, be he or she living or dead. More than the living, the dead deserve respect and honor. Death? Now that is celebrated.
Asked about the reasons for all the strewn across the roadways and streets of the capital, the Red Cross responds:
- · No safe passage permitting the movement of aid workers
- · No vehicle to transport staff or to move the dead,
- · Burial for most of the victims takes place by the side of roadways or streets at the spot where they are found.
It’s clear that without means or freedom of movement the Red Cross is unable to help people. And that has some grave consequences:
- · Parents consider their loved ones missing while in fact they are dead and already buried,
- · Families are unable to honor some of their dead because they do not know the date of their passing, nor the place of their burial,
- · Living spaces are polluted because of these burials in cities, villages and neighborhoods in spots that aren’t intended for grave sites,
- · The psychological trauma caused by the knowledge that someone has been buried, well or poorly, very close to where one lives.
My fear yesterday as the one in charge of the Marian shrine of Ngukomba that the scouts, guides and pilgrims who had been sent there are in danger of becoming target for revenge attacks is moving toward a solution. FOMAC is considering a strategy. We are hoping for a solution tomorrow. Again I entrust the subject to the prayer of the Virgin and to your prayers.
Nelson Mandela—whose death yesterday stole the media spotlight from the pre-genocidal situation in the Central African Republic—left us with a proclamation that should be taken to heart by the warring parties, who cause such suffering for our people: “No one is born hating another because of his color, his culture or his religion. Hate must be learned. But one can also learn love. And love comes more naturally to the human being than hate.”
At the twilight of this day, aircraft that have to be French have been flying over the territory of the Central African Republic, in support of the heavy Franco-Africa patrols coming into the area since this morning. We are waiting for the good this will do for the harmless population of the Central African Republic, who are dying ….
From a letter dated Dec. 7, 2013:
… The discovery of lifeless bodies continued all day long. … Church structures continue to take in people who fear for their lives, including some Muslims who are afraid they will be the targets of revenge attacks by Christians who themselves have been the victims of reprisals at the hand of other Muslims, Seleka militants or others.
…. There are reports that in the 5th arrondissement and around PK 12 Muslims, armed with knives, machetes and firearms are hunting for Christians. Many Christians have been wounded if they escaped with their lives. Their number continues to add to those who already sought refuge in churches, religious communities, or on the tarmac of the airport, leaving their homes and possessions at the mercy of their attackers.
…. Children, young people and the elderly are killed in cold blood in hospitals. It will take time, much time, for the Central African Republic to heal from these wounds.
My worries about the scouts, guides and pilgrims trapped at the Marian shrine of Ngukomba continue. We continue to hope ….
From a letter dated Dec. 8, 2013:
Saturday night passing into Sunday morning appeared to be the calmest since the recent outbreak of violence in Bangui. But the news we received in the early morning hours told a very different story. Through the night Seleka militia continued to take revenge, violate, pillage and kill. They are doing so now, however, in a “silent mode:” they have been going door-to-door in the Castor neighborhood, in the 5th arrondissement, in Kattin, Bimbo, Fouh, Bego, continuing to threaten people with their rifles, wounding and killing them with their knives. This way they don’t draw the attention from neighbors or the patrols of the Franco-African intervention forces. At daybreak, the wounded and the dead were discovered in those areas.
… In the late morning, some of the displaced [who have been sheltered in our churches] wanted to go back to their homes. But very quickly the eerie calm in their neighborhoods, the door-to-door reprisals, the military movements by the Seleka and the presence of armed Muslims persuaded them to return to the Church structures. Even there the Seleka has sought to gain access for this or that reason. That was the case in the parish of St. Charles Lwanga of Begoa which was visited twice by Seleka militants who indicated they were “looking for someone.”
In the afternoon, the minister for social affairs, health, youth and sports—under heavy escort from Seleka militia—toured some of the sites in the city to, it was said, “visit the displaced.” The delegation was not received pretty much everywhere. Nobody wanted the same people who killed and displaced inhabitants to return under the pretext of “making a visit.”
… My fear about the scouts and guides, as well as the pilgrims trapped at Ngukomba finally was resolved. FOMAC gave us a strong escort which allowed them to leave in a truck. They are now living in the cathedral, awaiting the evolution of security conditions with regard to returning to their parishes and families.
In a Dec. 7, 2013 statement condemning the violence committed by all parties, the bishops’ conference of the Central African Republic explained the nature of the “anti-balaka forces.” These are referred to in some reporting on the situation as simply Christian militia, as opposed to the Muslim Seleka, also designated as ex-Seleka forces; hence, the conflict is wrongly depicted as a clash between Christians and Muslims. The anti-balaka forces, the bishops said, are the expression of a part of the population against the numerous abuses committed by the Seleka rebels. “We reiterate,” said the bishops, “that not all anti-balaka are Christians and that not all Christians are anti-balaka,” adding that “the same is true for ex-Seleka and Muslims.”
“We condemn the transgressions committed by both armed factions, the anti-balaka and the ex-Seleka,” the bishops proclaimed in criticizing both the destruction of a mosque in Bangui by anti-balaka elements and the ongoing attacks on Christians sheltered in churches and on Christian neighborhoods perpetrated by ex-Seleka militia.
A letter by Bishop Nestor Desiré Nogo Aziagbia of the Diocese of Bossangoa, Central African Republic
December 16, 2014
Dec.10, 2012-Dec.10, 2013 … The Central African Republic just celebrated the first anniversary of the rebellion started by the Seleka coalition—seleka meaning alliance or pact in Sango, the national language.
What a strange and sad anniversary, you say! Certainly, the change promised by these hawkers of illusion has been nothing but trials and tribulations for the suffering people of the Central African Republic. They have suffered the worst: rape, assassination and murder, kidnapping and ransom demands, destruction of property, the theft of cows, destruction of farmland, the burning of houses and villages, vandalism of government buildings, the annihilation of historical memory through the destruction of communal records, the pillaging and ransacking of practically all Church structures, the desecration of churches, extortion of all kinds. It is a sinister picture. Desolation is everywhere. This banditry has gotten even worse now that these scoundrels operate openly. The rebels have adopted military ranks which they display with arrogance and great pride.
That is the context of our present life in the Diocese of Bossangoa. Numerous extortions and human rights violations have pushed some of our people to revolt; the violence has led them to organize themselves in order to fight back and to demand justice in the face of Seleka abuses. This has led to the creation of self-defense units called anti-balaka (anti-machetes.) Such militia first appeared in the late 90s in the north-west of the country. They fought against bandits terrorizing the highways, known as zaraguina. These militia were also active in the battle against the Houda and Mbara tribes. These guardians of Tchadian cattle armed with kalashnikovs did not respect any humanitarian corridors, and let their cattle graze on the land of farmers. They did not hesitate to use their weapons to kill, set houses on fire and destroy entire villages at the slightest resistance of farmers. The weakness of our failing state added to the tension and violence throughout the region.
Military clashes between the seleka and anti-balaka always end up in suffering for the civilian population. It is part of the criminal logic of both parties. The Christian and Muslim communities also got caught up and became de facto victims of these angels of death. We have to absolutely get away from the unhappy tendency to lump the anti-balaka together with Christian movements and to identify the seleka with the Muslims. In fact, not all anti-balaka are Christians and not all Christians are anti-balaka. The same is true for the seleka and the muslims.
This logic of reprisal and counter reprisals has sent many people hiding in the bush, hurt and killed a great many, led to the destruction of possessions (fields, cattle, homes, harvests…), and caused enormous displacement. The image of 35,000 displaced people in the Diocese of Bossangoa has made headlines around the world. This number has gone up in the wake of the renewed outbreak of violence on Dec. 5, 2013. The city has been reduced to two centers: the chancellery where some 50,000 people are holed up and the Liberty School that currently houses 8,000 displaced Muslims. It is not mentioned enough, but the situation is more or less the same in Bouca where 3500 people have sought shelter in a mission station.
The origin of this humanitarian crisis in de Prefecture of Ouham is particularly political. Under the pretext of battling (ousted President) Franois Bozize, the regime in Bangui wants to strangle an entire population, crushing any kind of grand plan for the country. How else can we explain the equivocation and the slow response by the government to the crisis in Bossangoa and Bouca? Without being polemical, I simply note that the response was a lot faster in the case of Bangassou, Bouar and Mongoumba. Despite numerous appeals I have made, government leaders have not stopped deceiving us and making false promises, while coming up with all manner of excuses for their lethargic response. It is very clear that the people of Ouham are condemned to the catacombs. Their one sin is to belong to the region where Bozize came from.
With their destruction the goal, the local people have been subject to real psychological torture. That has been the experience of the displaced people at the chancellery and at the Bouca mission station. These people who escaped death are mocked throughout the day by these Tchadian warlords. They are constantly threatening to attack with heavy weaponry the chancellery and those seeking shelter inside. The latest threats came in the wake of the anti-balaka attack on the capital city of Bangui on Dec. 5, 2013. Thanks be to God for the bravery of the Congolese troops of the Multinational Central African Force (FOMAC) and their professionalism in protecting the civilian population, regardless of people’s political, philosophical and religious convictions. The criminal burning down of 500 homes in the neighborhoods surrounding the Bangui’s archdiocesan chancellery … triggered the deployment of French troops in the city. On Monday Dec. 9, 2013, they began with the disarmament and billeting of seleka forces. Some anti-balaka militants who had slipped in among the displaced staying at the chancellery … gave up their arms to FOMAC and French troops, before retreating into the bush. It took a lot of persuasion for these men to overcome their fear and comply with this security measure. We are now entering a period of reasoning and the voluntary surrender of weapons.
The coup of March 24, 2013 was too much. It has plunged this suffering country into the depths of an abyss. The country is in shambles, its administration paralyzed, its economic fabric destroyed. The Central African Republic has become a shadow of its former self. The country now faces one of its worst demons. It is a failed state that has subjected its citizens to lawless hordes of mercenaries. How can we rebuild this country that has been razed to the ground? Hospitals are non-existent and the schools are not functioning. The future of the republic is up for grabs, at the mercy of adventurers and dubious politicians. The prospects for the future are dark and uncertain. Reconstruction will be difficult. As regards the diocese, things are terrible. Moreover, its pastoral institutions—the pastoral center of Bossangoa, the catechetical center of Gofo, presbyteries, convents, churches and chapels—as well as those providing healthcare and education have been pillaged and vandalized. … Nonetheless, we need to do something urgently for those staying at the chancellery. Hence, in partnership with UNICEF, we have repaired the dispensary at Bossangoa.
The military and political crisis that has affected the bulk of the diocese since March 2013 has kept us from being able to properly execute our pastoral programs in the areas of health, education and professional formation. Nevertheless, we have become adept at managing an emergency situation. We thank all those who have supported us financially in our efforts to help victims of the unrest. We thank the friends of the schools of Bossangoa for their precious contributions to the pursuit of activities in the realm of healthcare, agriculture, education and professional formation. … Already I can say that the re-launch of initiatives will largely depend on careful thought, the repair of infrastructure and the production of educational and medical supplies.
The socio-political situation appears to be desperate. Nonetheless, Advent prepares for the celebration of the happy event in human history: God made Himself one of us in His smallness, his humility and his fragility. He lifts us up from our degradation to fill us with His glory. I am confident that this hope for the people of the Central African Republic will not be in vain. The God who stoops down to the poor, the orphan and the widow, will certainly dry the tears in His children’s eyes and bring them His joy.
The letters from Bishop Nogo Aziagbia, Abbot Mbanga and the statement by the bishops’ conference of the Central African Republic were made available to Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.orgRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
This month may well mark a milestone in the life of the US Church: on Nov. 11, in his final Presidential Address to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called on his brother bishops to make action on behalf of the suffering and persecuted Church around the world “a priority”—“not one good cause among others,” as the Cardinal put it, “but a defining element of our pastoral priorities.”
Important as the fight for religious freedom is in the US—in the face of the government requiring that employers cover birth control, for example—the Cardinal said, such battles “pale in comparison” to the suffering of Christians in countries such as China, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Nigeria. “If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then their suffering must be ours as well,” the archbishop said.
We are greatly encouraged by and deeply grateful for the Cardinal’s fiery speech. We salute him also for including Aid to the Church in Need among organizations preforming “heroic work” on behalf of the persecuted and suffering Church. Here follows the Cardinal’s talk in full:
Just last August, I had the honor of concelebrating the Mass of Dedication for the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Kiev. A particularly moving moment came when Metropolitan Shevchuk asked the Lord’s protective hand upon believers suffering persecution for their faith anywhere in the world. That such a heartfelt plea came from a people who had themselves been oppressed for so long made it all the more poignant.
This morning I want to invite us to broaden our horizons, to “think Catholic” about our brothers and sisters in the faith now suffering simply because they sign themselves with the cross, bow their heads at the Holy Name of Jesus, and happily profess the Apostles’ Creed.
Brother bishops, our legitimate and ongoing struggles to protect our “first and most cherished freedom” in the United States pale in comparison to the Via Crucis currently being walked by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, who are experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief. If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then their suffering must be ours as well.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly referred to victims of Christian persecution as “martyrs.” We are living in what must be recognized as, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, “a new age of martyrs.” One expert calculates that half of all Christian martyrs were killed in the twentieth century alone. The twenty-first century has already seen in its first 13 years one million people killed around the world because of their belief in Jesus Christ – – one million already in this still young century.
That threat to religious believers is growing. The Pew Research Center reports that 75 percent of the world’s population “lives in countries where governments, social groups, or individuals restrict people’s ability to freely practice their faith.” Pew lays out the details of this “rising tide of restrictions on religion,” but we don’t need a report to tell us something we sadly see on the news every day.
While Muslims and Christians have long lived peacefully side-by-side in Zanzibar, for instance, this past year has seen increasing violence. Catholic churches have been burned and priests have been shot. In September one priest was the victim of a horrific acid attack. Nigeria has also been the site of frequent anti-Christian violence, including church bombings on our holiest days.
The situation in India has also been grave, particularly after the Orissa massacre of 2008, where hundreds of Christians were murdered and thousands displaced, and thousands of homes and some 400 churches were torched. Just recently, a Christian couple was recently attacked by an angry mob just because of their faith, their Bibles torn from their hands.
We remember our brothers and sisters in China, where Catholic bishops and other religious leaders are subject to state supervision and imprisonment. Conditions are only getting worse, as the government closes churches and subjects members of several faiths to forced renunciations, so-called re-education, and torture.
Of course, it’s not just Christians who suffer from religious persecution, but believers in other faiths as well. Much religious persecution is committed by Muslims against other Muslims. Buddhists in Tibet suffer under government torture and repression. In Myanmar Muslims suffer at the hands of Buddhist mobs. All of us share apprehension over reports of rising anti-Semitism.
But there is no escaping the fact that Christians are singled out in far more places and far more often.
I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that our brothers and sisters in the Middle East face particular trials. As Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has observed, for Christians in the Middle East, “even the simple admission of Christian identity places the very existence of [the] faithful in daily threat…Exceptionally extreme and expansive occurrences of violence and persecution against Christians cannot leave the rest of us – who are blessed to live peacefully and in some sense of security – indifferent and inactive.”
The humanitarian catastrophe that continues to unfold in Syria has been particularly close to our hearts these past few months. We’ve prayed for and stood in solidarity with the Church and the people of Syria, and with Pope Francis and the bishops of the Middle East in their call for peace.
It’s no surprise that this violent and chaotic situation has bred even more religious persecution. Of course we’re all familiar with Syria’s venerable history as the place from which our faith spread to the rest of the world, and Syria has long been home to a sizable Christian minority. Yet those Christians who have remained in Syria face ever-present, rising threats of violence.
Last April two of our Orthodox brother bishops were kidnapped in Aleppo by gunmen as they returned from a humanitarian mission. Their driver was shot and killed. And a little less than a year ago an Orthodox priest from Hama was killed by a sniper while helping the wounded. Similarly tragic violence against believers is now commonplace.
Just as Syrian Christians have suffered from the war raging in their land, the war in Iraq has devastated that ancient Christian community in that country as well. As Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Iraq tearfully told us during our spring assembly in 2012, remember, the situation of Christians there “became a tragedy of immense proportions after 2003,” with many religious and lay faithful tortured and killed.
Violent attacks continue to terrorize the Iraqi people. Just a little over a year ago the war’s worst massacre of Iraqi Christians occurred in a brutal attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, where some 58 believers were massacred. Those martyred for their faith included their parish priest who died holding a crucifix, forgiving the gunmen and asking him to spare his people.
The situations in Syria and Iraq wrench our hearts, but the plight of Christians in Egypt is no better. This past summer saw the serious escalation of violence against our brothers and sisters there, as the ancient Coptic Christian community has been targeted. Dozens of Coptic churches have been burned; Christian-owned businesses and hotels have been attacked; and individual believers have been murdered.
To take one example, John Allen reports that in August, “hundreds of Muslim extremists stormed a school run by Franciscan sisters in … Upper Egypt, where they reportedly raped two teachers. Three nuns were paraded before the crowd as prisoners of war.” It was only through the intervention of a Muslim lay teacher that other sisters’ lives were spared.
We as bishops, as shepherds of one of the most richly blessed communities of faith on the planet, as pastors who have spoken with enthusiastic unity in defense of our own religious freedom, must become advocates and champions for these Christians whose lives literally hang in the balance.
Pope Francis recently invited us all to an examination of conscience in this regard during his General Audience on September 25:
“When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent, or is it as if a member of my own family is suffering? When I think or hear it said that many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith, does this touch my heart or does it not reach me? Am I open to that brother or that sister in my family who’s giving his or her life for Jesus Christ? Do we pray for one another? How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted? How many? Everyone respond in his own heart. It’s important to look beyond one’s own fence, to feel oneself part of the Church, of one family of God!”
I am convinced that we have to answer those questions of Pope Francis, not merely as individual believers, but collectively as a body of bishops.
So you ask me, what can we do? Without any pretense of being exhaustive, here are some ideas I’d like to lay before you, with a nod to John Allen and his recent compelling work on this topic.
First, we can encourage intercession for the persecuted. Remember how the “prayers for the conversion of Russia” at the end of Masses over a half-century ago shaped our sense of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain? A similar culture of prayer for persecuted Christians today, both in private and in our liturgical celebrations, could have a similar remedial effect.
We can also make people aware of the great suffering of our brothers and sisters with all the means at our disposal. Our columns, our blogs, our speeches, and our pastoral letters can reference the subject. We can ask our pastors to preach on it, and to stimulate study sessions or activist groups in their parishes. We can encourage our Catholic media to tell the stories of today’s new martyrs, unfortunately abudndant. Our good experience defending religious freedom here at home shows that, when we turn our minds to an issue, we can put it on the map. Well, it’s time to harness that energy for our fellow members of the household of faith hounded for their beliefs around the world.
We know the importance of supporting organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Catholic Relief Services, and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, who have done heroic work, while among our Protestant brothers and sisters groups such as Open Doors make a similar contribution. Writers such as Nina Shea, Paul Marshall, John Allen, and Phillip Jenkins here in the United States help keep the issue alive, as does our own Committee on International Justice and Peace.
Finally, we can insist that our country’s leaders make the protection of at-risk Christians abroad a foreign-policy priority for the United States. We can also cajole political leaders to be more attentive to the voices of Christians on the ground, since those Christians will certainly feel the consequences of whatever the West does or doesn’t do. As Dr. Thomas Farr reminded us at our spring meeting a couple summers ago, the protection of religious freedom abroad, and advocacy of oppressed believers, has hardly been a high foreign policy priority for administrations of either party.
In general, my brothers, we can make supporting the suffering Church a priority – – not one good cause among others, but a defining element of our pastoral priorities. As historians of this conference know, speaking up for suffering faithful abroad has been a hallmark of our soon-to-be-century of public advocacy of the gospel by the conference of bishops in this beloved country we are honored to call our earthly home.
Protecting religious freedom will be a central social and political concern of our time, and we American bishops already have made very important contributions to carrying it forward. Now we are being beckoned – – by history, by Pope Francis, by the force of our own logic and the ecclesiology of communion – – to extend those efforts to the dramatic front lines of this battle, where Christians are paying for their fidelity with their lives. As the Council reminded us, we are bishops not only for our dioceses, not only for our nation, but for the Church universal.
May all the blessed martyrs, ancient and new, pray for us, as we try to be confessors of the faith.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
By George Marlin
After severing its colonial ties with Great Britain in 1947, India, a nation of 1.2 billion people, organized a secular Democratic republic that guarantees freedom to practice and propagate one’s faith.
Christianity in India dates back to the Acts of the Apostles, but is the faith of only 2.5 percent of the population today. The total number of Catholics is 19.5 million.
Sadly, in the 21st century, the religious liberty clause in the Indian constitution has been ignored by Hindu fundamentalists who have planned, coordinated, and executed murderous anti-Christian campaigns. On Christmas Day 2008, for example, over 100 Churches and Christian facilities were looted, damaged, or destroyed, and more than 400 Christian houses were gutted.
Since 2008, the focus of Hindu terrorists has been in the jungle district of Kandhamal located in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa). Over 56,000 of the 117,000 Christians living there have been driven from their homes, with 6,000 of their houses burnt to the ground. Three hundred Churches and holy places have been desecrated or destroyed.
The Christians are being persecuted not only because of their faith, as they are in Egypt and Syria, but because they refuse to renounce it and embrace or re-convert to Hinduism. As a result, thousands of Indians, including priests, nuns, and ministers, have been sadistically tortured. Many have lost limbs; others have been burnt alive. Over 100 have been martyred for the faith.
Reacting to these hideous crimes, the Archbishop of Bombay, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, said: “The blood of the martyrs has always been the seed of Christianity. That is the mystery of the Cross! I have no doubt that much blessing from God will be showered upon the people of Odisha and India as a result of the suffering of the Kandhamal Christians.”
But it will come at a heavy price. In his work, Early Christians of the Twenty-first Century, award-winning Indian journalist Anto Akkara, who visited Kandhamal sixteen times, recounts how the anti-Christian violence was orchestrated, and records the testimonies of victims and their families. The volume contains “a collection of over 100 true witnesses to Christ-testimonies soaked in blood, tested and purified by untold suffering.”
Akkara describes how police looked away as churches were being destroyed and further how, in many cases, they refused to report the cause of deaths as murders. To avoid prosecution, Hindu terrorists hid the evidence. The bodies of martyrs were cremated or dumped into bogs or rivulets in the jungle. As for the few cases that went to trial, kangaroo “fast track” courts dismissed or acquitted Hindu bigots, citing lack of evidence.
After a dozen Christian leaders led by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar confronted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the orchestrated violence. Singh publicly acknowledged that it was a “national shame,” but took few measures “to restore the confidence of the Christian community.”
For the faithful, India’s constitutional guaranteed freedom of religion and equality before the law remains a meaningless slogan.
There are many heart-wrenching stories in Akkara’s book, but one that particularly struck me involved a 56-year old priest and a 28-year old nun.
Father Thomas Chellan, director of the Divyajyoti Pastoral Center, and his assistant, Sister Meena, managed to escape over a wall of their compound as Hindu terrorists destroyed the complex, which included a church, a large dormitory, and other facilities.
The next day they were captured and just before Chellan’s kerosene-soaked head was torched, there was a last second decision to hold off. Instead, a gang of 50 Hindus beat the priest and nun. “It was like a crucifixion parade,” Father Chellan later recalled.
Their tormentors stripped them of their clothing and began raping Sister Meena. Later they paraded their half-naked prisoners through the streets and Chellan was ordered to rape the nun: “When I refused, they kept beating me and dragged us to the nearby government office. Sadly, a dozen policemen were watching all this quietly.”
Finally, a senior policeman took them to a police station 12 kilometers away and their ordeal ended. The next day they were released and flown to Mumbai for treatment.
Sister Meena, who recovered from her traumatic ordeal, refused to be silent. She went public, held a press conference in front of 200 television cameras in New Delhi and demanded an investigation into her rape. She described everything in gruesome detail and reported that the police tried to dissuade her from lodging a criminal complaint after the mandatory medical test confirmed the rape.
“Maybe God wanted me to suffer with our people and become an instrument to speak up for the voiceless people of Kandhamal,” she told the media. Sister Meena concluded by publicly thanking God “for choosing me to face this humiliation and giving me the opportunity to suffer for the people of Kandhamal. I got a chance to undergo the experience of being crucified.”
The rock-like faith of Sister Meena and thousands of others inspired Anto Akkara to write his book. He believes they deserve the title “Early Christians of the Twenty-first Century” because they held on to their faith “amid diabolic cruelty, rampant impunity, and state apathy.”
Mr. Marlin is Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org
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It’s hard to miss the news today: in Pakistan earlier this month, more than 80 people died in a bomb attack on a Protestant Church; last weekend, assailants killed three members of a Christian wedding party in Egypt; in Syria, Jihadists are ever more brazen in their determination to target Christians. But, still, President Obama and other leaders in the West—though remembering the victims and acknowledging the evil in passing—are not making any concerted effort to make this particular slaughter of innocents a foreign policy priority.
However, at least here in the US, a new book may help tilt matters in the right direction. The National Catholic Reporter’s well-known reporter John Allen just published “The Global War on Christians—Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution” (Image). Aid to the Church in Need is grateful to John for his generous acknowledgement of our organization as a key player when it comes to supporting the suffering and persecuted Church, and as an important resource for his exhaustive research and reporting.
The book—which could serve as a policy primer for both Western politicians and religious leaders, even as it educates the lay audience as well—sets out to give the lie to a number of what the author labels as pernicious myths: “the myth that Christians are at risk only where they’re a minority; “the myth that no one saw it coming;” “the myth that it’s all about Islam;” “the myth that it is only persecution if the motives are religious;” and “the myth that anti-Christian persecution is a political issue.”
Significantly, John opens the book with a reflection on why, indeed, governments and even Western religious institutions have been so silent in the face of the global persecution of Christians. “On the whole,” he writes, “the war on Christians remains the world’s best-kept secret.” He cites the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, who reflects on the ever worsening plight of Arab Christians in the Middle East: “Does anybody hear our cry? How many atrocities must we endure before somebody, somewhere, comes to our aid?”
John cites a number of reasons for the silence on the part of the secular world: there is an overall ignorance of religious issues, as well as a “reflexive hostility to institutional religion … [and people] conditioned by such views are inclined to see Christianity as the agent of repression, not its victim.” Then there is the fact that “the war on Christians is also simply too far away.” Moreover, the author writes, persecuted Christians fall through the cracks of the left-right divide—they are too Christian for liberals and too foreign for conservatives.
In the end, secular inaction might be expected, John suggests, but what about the relative silence of mainstream Western Christianity? One key reason, he writes, is that Christians in the US and Western Europe have no personal experience of persecution, plus there is the “broad tendency” in the West to “see the primary function as promoting inner peace and tranquility.” Dwelling on the often incredibly cruel treatment of Christians abroad is simply not very pleasant and hence easily avoided.
Then there is the heavy investment in interfaith initiatives on the part of mainstream Christianity in the West, which has produced what John calls “the risk of ‘interfaith correctness’” that basically avoids confrontation with the world of Islam or Hinduism. Finally, the author points the finger at “a distressing share of Christian time and treasure today [being] eaten up by internal battles, making it difficult to galvanize a unified response on anything.”
We heartily salute John upon the publication of this powerful and important book. We join him in calling on all Christians and people of good will to “wake up”—as the back of the book jacket urges—to the plight of the suffering and persecuted Church. On countless occasions, our founder, Father Werenfried van Straaten, insisted upon a truth that John here gives a dynamic, contemporary spin: Christians in the West are called to come to the aid of persecuted and suffering brothers and sisters, with whom they form one body in Christ—the gift of faith comes with a huge responsibility.
Please click here for information and a sample chapter from “The Global War on Christians—Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
3,500 Houses Destroyed Thousands Fleeing
City Under Attack People Held Captive
These are headlines in the news lately. We have heard many terrible stories from Syria and Egypt as Islamist forces have been attacking and destroying properties of Christians and using fear and terror to cripple cities. These two headlines, however, are not about Syria or Egypt.
The first headline concerns the Central African Republic, a country of 4.5 million, where a militant group called Séléka has been attacking and destroying Christian homes.
The second headline is about the city of Zimboanga in the Philippines. In that city of more than one million people, an extremist Islamic separatist group called Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has sent in a few hundred well-armed terrorists to hold the city hostage. Their demand…a new separate country.
In both places, the Islamic population is a small minority. In both places, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for many years. There are more places that could be added to this list: Uttar Pradesh, India; Kaduna, Nigeria; Basilan, Philippines and unfortunately, the list is growing.
With all of these violent occurrences, there will be need for help. Refugees will need shelter, churches and schools will need rebuilding. The Christian message of hope will need to be proclaimed by our actions.
Recently, the Holy Father has asked Catholics and people of faith around the world to fast and pray for peace and an end to war. We Christians are challenged by our call to love our enemy and seek peaceful resolutions. We are challenged by our sense of fairness and justice to not let those in these violent places to suffer without protection.
It is a challenging time for us Christian observers. We must follow Pope Francis’s example and pray with earnestness. We must answer the calls for help from those who are suffering with strength and true Christian love.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We are called Easter People and Eighth Day People. This is because Christ rose from the dead on Easter Sunday…the eighth day. The Easter Liturgy is so central to our faith that each Sunday and each Mass recalls the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I recently had a conversation with a priest who lives and works in a place where Sunday Mass is offered every day of the week. The parishioners cannot come to Mass on Sundays because their bosses and very low wages don’t allow that freedom. In fact, to openly tell people that you attend Catholic Mass will put your life at risk.
The Holy priest said that during April, he celebrated Easter Liturgy twenty two times…almost every day of the month. So important was Easter Mass to the people April essentially became a month of Easter Sundays. As he wanted each liturgy to be as like Easter Sunday as possible, the priest prepared a different homily for each congregation so each group would hear a message particular to their place and situation. His name and location are not being revealed to protect the safety of the people involved.
In 2012, over 100 thousand Christians were killed for their faith. Some made headlines, but most if not almost all of these killings went unreported in the major media outlets. So the next time you hear the priest or deacon say, “The Gospel of the Lord,” be sure to say a prayer for those who cannot hear those words every day. And when you respond, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,” say it knowing that those words are special…especially for those who have to say them in hiding.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Nigeria is the 7th most populous country in the world and home to some 21 million Catholics. In recent years, growing corruption and religious violence have distressed this West African nation. In a recent visit to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, and Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto voiced their concerns of this descent into disorder. With an economy of over $244 billion and recipients of generous international aid, little help reaches the poorest and most in need. Where government has been unable to or unwilling to serve the people, the Catholic Church, whenever possible, has filled the void. Illustrating the vital role of the Church in the life and well-being of the nation is the fact that the area of Sokoto, where the Catholic population is smallest is also the poorest and most violence ridden.
Nevertheless, the Church remains, serves and suffers with the people through the many attacks and problems and offers hope.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
On the afternoon of April 22nd, Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo, Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi were abducted on the road to Aleppo. They had made the dangerous trip seeking the safe release of two brother priests, Fathers Michel Kayyal (Armenian Catholic) and Maher Mahfouz (Greek Orthodox). This past Sunday, you might recall that the Gospel was “The Good Shepherd” (John 10:27-30). Jesus said that He is the Good Shepherd. Following the example of Jesus, the archbishops were willing to place their lives in jeopardy for the sake of the flock placed in their care. There has been no contact from them nor their abductors.
This is happening with terrible frequency in the Middle East. The many who are being held as hostages need our prayers and our dedicated support. Pray for the safety and freedom of Fathers Michel Kayyal and Maher Mahfouz and Archbishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Early morning Tuesday March 26th, Benjamin Camil was supervising distribution of food for the poor and displaced of Damascus. This work was not new to the 35 year old seminarian and soon to be deacon. His bishop praised him for his kindness, generosity and service.
At 11:30 AM, he was walking near his family home that is empty and abandoned since the outbreak of the war when a bomb fell and Benjamin Camil was killed instantly.
As Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar said of Benjamin Camil’s death, “To die during the Holy Week with the Crucified to serve and praise forever the Risen Savior and to beg for peace for his martyred country.”
Let us pray for the people of Syria and for the soul of Benjamin Camil
May perpetual light shine upon him and may his soul and the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace…
Director of EvangelizationRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The seizure of businesses in Venezuela has led to fears that the country’s radical government may be poised to carry out a mass confiscation of Church property, according to a lay Catholic expert.
Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, a source close to the Bishops’ Conference of Venezuela said a number of policies put in place by President Hugo Chavez are causing widespread anxiety.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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