ROME – According to the international papal charity Aid to the Church in Need, 2019 is already one of the bloodiest for Christians in modern history, with violent attacks in the Central African Republic, southern Philippines, Nigeria, India and Sri Lanka.
Dozens were killed in CAR on Jan. 1, and an estimated 20,000 Christians were forced to flee their homes. In Jolo in the southern Philippines, 20 people were killed and 90 injured when an Islamist group attacked the local cathedral. In mid-March, attacks by the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen tribe on Christian villagers in the Nigerian State of Kaduna left more than 130 dead.
The list is long, and the reasons are many. Yet two recent letters sent to Crux, one from CAR and one from Aleppo in Syria, where ISIS perpetrated genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities, provide reminders that in such places the Catholic Church can be a force of good.
In CAR, persecution has the face of business
Father Aurelio Gazzera, a Carmelite priest in Bozoum, was arrested and then freed on April 27 for documenting illegal mining by four Chinese companies in the Ouham river looking for gold. Pictures taken by the priest show that the companies continued to work more than a month after the local government canceled the operations, declaring the extraction illegal on March 25.
When the priest headed back to the city, he was stopped by a soldier: “He is armed and I do not really trust him, so I tell him I just want to continue on my way. He then calls by radio other soldiers, who arrive immediately,” Gazzera wrote in his letter.
Questioned about his actions, the priest answered that it’s not forbidden to take pictures, and even less so seeing that he’d taken them from the opposite side of the river from the companies, so it wasn’t private property.
“They are very upset, and they threaten me, they yell and pull away my camera and my phone, then pat me down and search my pockets,” Gazzera wrote.
Eventually, the military put Gazzera on the back seat of his own car and drove him to a station called Brigade Minière, which, according to his letter, was donated by the Chinese companies. To get there they had to cross the city of Bozoum, “and the people looking on understand immediately that there is a problem.”
By the time they arrived at the base, “a large group of young people, women and other people arrive, yelling and demanding that I am liberated.”
The situation, Gazzera said, was “almost comical,” as the soldiers didn’t know what to do. Eventually, they decided to release the priest, and he demanded to have his camera and phone back.
“The entire population of the city are in the streets, happy that I have been freed, but also very angry toward the authorities, and above all against the Chinese mining companies,” he wrote. While he headed home the city was in upheaval, with people setting up road blocks and a car of a Chinese company set ablaze.
Gazzera was quick to stop the crowd of some 3,500 people who were ready to attack the mining companies. He sent the people back home, urging them not to commit violence, because the “savage exploitation of the river has to be solved according to the law.”
In Aleppo, faith raises from the ashes
Father Ibrahim Alsabagh, the parish priest of the Latin community of the war-torn city, sent a post-Easter message last week detailing how, despite shortages of food, oil and employment and “the sound of missiles still heard at night,” people were able to celebrate Holy Week.
The fact that there still are Christians alive in Aleppo, the priest wrote, is a “confirmation” of Christ’s resurrection, as is the fact that despite the difficulties they were able to celebrate the Easter feasts “in peace.”
“In this Holy Week, we wanted to inspire people, to sow hope in their hearts,” he wrote. “We adorned the church with a lot of creativity and we paid careful attention to every detail of the liturgy. All of this [was] to leave a great serenity in souls and to console everyone against bitterness and desperation.”
“The presence of the people was silence and prayerful,” Alsabagh writes. “The atmosphere [was] full of peace, despite the many concerns.”
Even though it would be easy for Christians in Aleppo to fall into despair, he said they continue their path “with sure and trustful steps, thinking about the future with peace and serenity, regardless of the drums of war that unfortunately continue to resonate throughout the world.”
Among sights of Holy Week that moved him, Alsabagh wrote, were the eyes of so many parents, as well as the elderly and young people who received help in his parish, from the Sacraments to food and health care.
“I saw in their eyes a particular light, as if they were telling me, ‘It’s thanks to you that we have joy in our hearts and are able to celebrate the Resurrection,’ and ‘Christ is risen, he’s truly risen’. We confirm this seeing how the charity of the Church reaches all of us, touching our hearts,” the priest said.
Amidst so much suffering, the priest wrote, the fact they’re able to eat and have water to drink in Aleppo is a “sign of the resurrection,” as are many projects to rebuild the city despite the fact that no one dares to think “beyond tomorrow.”
In recent months, many have celebrated the “military defeat” of ISIS. Yet war continues in Syria as does violence in the name of religion, something condemned by many Muslims, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, the closest parallel to the Vatican in the Sunni Islamic world.
Yet as the executive president of Aid to the Church in Need, Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern, said in a statement sent to Crux, “To say that ISIS has been beaten militarily and therefore no longer exists is a fallacy – the ideology lives on, as do its supporters; the contact channels appear to be working. Our project partners in the Middle East remain extremely concerned.”