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This humanitarian group is working to ensure that Christians communities continue to exist

Paul Malo / Aleteia
Erbil women from Mar Elia camp
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Aid to the Church in Need was honored by Holy See Mission to the United Nation for it work helping Catholics provide pastoral care.

From providing a bicycle for a catechist in southeast Asia to the construction of a cathedral in the predominantly Islamic nation of Bahrain, the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need undertakes thousands of projects a year to help Catholics around the world get the spiritual care they need.

In some ways, Aid to the Church in Need has begun to appear more like a humanitarian aid organization in recent years, but while it does deliver material goods in certain circumstances, its primary concern remains the same some seven decades after it began: helping local Churches provide pastoral care.

Humanitarian aid comes into play when it’s necessary to help a local Christian community remain in place.

And there’s another element that remains at the center of ACN’s work that was there in 1947, when Fr. Werenfried van Straaten started the work: mercy and reconciliation, said the foundation’s executive president.

In an interview this week, Thomas Heine-Geldern pointed out that ACN was founded just two years after the Second World War. “And it was a Dutch Norbertine priest who started to collect funds in order to help Germans who were forced to emigrate to leave their home countries in Eastern Europe,” said Heine-Geldern. Someone from the Netherlands, a country that had been invaded by Hitler, had no special obligation to help suffering Germans.

“So it was really mainly the work of mercy and reconciliation in the beginning,” Heine-Geldern said. “In the beginning, it was only concentrated on those German refugees—there were 14 million refugees coming from the Eastern European countries to Germany. Out of them were 6 million Catholics, and there were not enough Catholic priests for them.”

In the 1950s, Fr. van Straaten worked to assist religious serving within communist countries like Hungary and Poland. Over the years, ACN’s work expanded to Asia, Latin America, the Philippines, and Africa.

In 2011, Aid to the Church in Need was elevated by Pope Benedict XVI to the status of a Pontifical Foundation. With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it has worked in recent years on behalf of displaced persons in Syria, Iraq and other countries in the Near East and in Africa.

In Syria and Iraq, “the reason we provide so much humanitarian aid is we want to support the local Christians, and in order to support pastorally the local Christians we have to ensure that they remain there,” Heine-Geldern said. “The real risk in Syria and Iraq is that the Christian community is fading away due to the impact [of war]. Whatever we can do in order to support those Christians who are willing to remain in their own territory, in their own countries, in their villages and towns where they have been for the last 2,000 years, we should do that. Therefore we have decided that in these cases we would provide emergency help, and we did that, and it has shown some positive effect.”

He said in a keynote address at the Path to Peace Foundation dinner in New York, where ACN was given the 2019 Path to Peace Award, that ACN was the first Catholic organization to respond in 2014 after the Islamic State group caused some 125,000 Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain to seek refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Koenigstein, Germany-based agency provided eight prefabricated schools because local schools were being used as shelters for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Children went to classes in the prefabs in three shifts each day, and and on the weekends the units were being used for religious education.

ACN ended up spending $40 million in humanitarian relief aid in Iraq and returned 40,000 IDPs to their homes on the Nineveh Plain as the threat of ISIS receded.

“An enduring Christian presence in Iraq and throughout the Middle East helps create stability, benefiting Christians and non-Christians alike,” Heine-Geldern said. “The  presence of Christians ensures a plurality of ethnic and religious identities within society. Without Christians and other minorities, a single religion and/or a single tradition within a religion would have an absolute monopoly, risking extreme intolerance. The Christian faith, alongside the presence of other minorities, promotes tolerance and diversity.”

During the eight-year Syrian civil war, over 1,700 Christians have been murdered and more than 700,000 Christian have fled the country, he said. “In addition to the ravages of the war and the impact of the economic embargo, the Christian minority suffered severe religious persecution at the hands of jihadist groups, which targeted Christians with threats of forced conversion, extortion, and torture, Heine-Geldern said. “Since the beginning of the conflict through 2018, our donors have supported Christians in Syria with more than $33 million in medical and food aid, rent and educational support, pastoral projects as well as scholarships for more than 10,000 students.”

With religious conflict on the rise, ACN has its work cut out for it.

“The International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Frankfurt, estimates that 80% of all acts of religious discrimination and persecution in the world take place against Christians,” Archbishop Bernardito Auza, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said in remarks at the Path to Peace dinner. “On Easter Sunday, the whole world was horrified by what happened in Sri Lanka. As Christians were marking their most important annual feast and celebrating the ultimate triumph of life over death, good over evil and light over darkness, terrorists attacked three Christian Churches during prayer and two Easter Sunday brunches.”

ACN sent a delegation to Sri Lanka to support Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, and project partners in the area in the wake of the terrorist attacks, which killed 253 people.

Amrith Rohan Perera, permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, said on the sidelines of the Path to Peace dinner, held at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan May 22, “Out of very difficult times, a distressing period, our country was able to come together, irrespective of race or religion, and interfaith leaders were able to play a very important role. Here in New York, in the tristate area, we had a number of events, one at the Sri Lanka mission, another at the United Nations, and Archbishop Auza and the Holy See Mission gave leadership in that very difficult hour, and we drew strength from their support.”

Aid to the Church in Need, which works in more than 145 countries, “has been the leading organization in the world putting words to the persecution Christians are suffering in certain places and, even more importantly, responding with action,” Archbishop Auza said.

Commenting on the choice of ACN to receive the award, Heine-Geldern said in the interview, “Peace is not only a warless environment. Peace is a state, as it is described especially at Easter-time in our Gospels and readings. It’s linked to the Lord’s greeting ‘Peace be with you,’ as he appears after the resurrection. This peace carries the meaning of mercy, of reconciliaiton, of Christian dignity, of the dignity of the human being.”

“We cannot be peace-builders without respecting and protecting human rights,” he added in his keynote address. “Religious Freedom is a fundamental human right. It is the responsibility of all nations and international NGOs to protect every individual’s right to religious freedom. We must not give up the fight for the full implementation of this basic human right, which is inseparably linked to the dignity of every human being.”

 

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