ROME – According to Bishop Mathew Kukah of Sokoto, the Church in Nigeria is one of martyrs. However, he said it wasn’t a Church of sorrows, because despite the persecution perpetrated by Islamic terrorist organizations, “our people have risen to the challenge.”

“The great news for us Christians in Nigeria is that we’ve been quite relentless, and this persecution, which is part of the life and oxygen of Christianity, has found a greater witness of faith and confidence of our people,” he said on Friday.

The prelate also said that Nigeria is a “very troubled country, almost on the verge of internal explosion,” which has created “serious pressure” for the Christian community, with Boko Haram no longer restricted to Nigeria’s northeast, reaching even Kukah’s diocese in north central Nigeria.

“Every day, we see death and destruction at a massive scale,” he said, noting that two days ago, schoolchildren and their teachers were kidnaped, and their whereabouts remain unknown.

Kidnapping girls and selling them as slaves has long been one of Boko Haram’s strategies to finance its crimes.

Kukah’s words came during the presentation of the 2020 financial report of the pontifical charitable agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). According to the annual report, ACN raised almost $150 million last year, a 15 percent increase from 2019.

One of the questions raised during the presentation was the impact of the allegations made earlier this year against the founder, Father Werenfried van Straaten, who after an apostolic visitation to ACN in 2009 was found guilty of “serious violations” in four areas of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN International, said that the donors of the charity “understand that our mission is an important one, and they’re continuing to support our work with their donations.”

He also noted that most of the benefactors were “satisfied” with the way the papal charity had handled the allegations, claiming the past five months have been the most successful in raising funds in the charity’s history.

“Not only did the pandemic turn our own work upside down, but it also dramatically worsened the plight of Christians in many regions of the world, who found themselves — literally almost overnight, without work, pay or food. And many priests and religious were also left not knowing how to make ends meet,” he added.

“In this emergency, however, ACN‘s benefactors remained true to the charity. This great generosity leaves us feeling profoundly grateful,” Heine-Geldern continued. “It was quite unforeseen, especially since the crisis has inflicted profound economic insecurity and difficulties on us all. We were particularly pleased to note that the number of our benefactors has also increased worldwide.”

Through 2020 and the first semester of 2021, ACN financed 4,758 individual projects in all continents. Roughly a third of the total went to Africa, particularly to nations in the Sahel region, where there has been a rise in terrorist activities in recent years.

ACN is funded exclusively by private donations and receives no public monies either from Church or secular sources – with the exception of the pope, who often makes donations to help fund specific efforts. Pope Francis, for instance, donated the proceeds of an auction of a custom-made Lamborghini given to him in 2018.

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According to a statement released in parallel with the online presentation,  ACN International launched an emergency aid program for Lebanon, which has the largest single Christian community in the Middle East.

Top of the list in terms of the type of project supported worldwide was construction aid. Thanks to ACN‘s help, some 744 churches, parish houses, convents, seminaries or community centers were either newly built or rebuilt/restored after being damaged through war or terrorism. Among these were the Maronite Cathedral of Saint Elijah in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which was badly damaged by rocket attacks between 2012 and 2016. It was finally rededicated in July 2020.

But throughout 2020, ACN also channeled millions in Mass stipends for priests in developing countries, helped pay fees for seminarians, and bought transport and fuel for priests in missionary areas.

The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the sources of income for religious women in many regions of the world, and during the last year, some 18,000 women religious received direct help from the papal foundation, including providing for basic subsistence, training aid and help in their spiritual apostolates.

“The pandemic and its consequences will continue to occupy us in the future,” said Heine-Geldern. “And at the same time the terrible situation on the African continent, where terrorism and violence are spreading ever further, is a matter of great concern to our charity. Just as important as addressing the outward material need is the need to give these oppressed and persecuted Christians a voice and a face.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma