ROME – Since 2014, international charity organization Aid to the Church in Need has spent some $46.6 million funding relief and reconstruction efforts in Iraq, with the majority of support going toward basic needs such as housing.
However, according to Thomas Heine-Geldem, executive president of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), now that the international community chipping in to rebuild Christian villages destroyed when ISIS took over the Nineveh Plains in 2014, the organization’s primary focus will shift from funding basic reconstruction to restoring religious structures such as churches and monasteries, many of which were desecrated and burned under ISIS rule.
With nations such as Hungary, which has long supported reconstruction efforts in Iraq, and the United States offering financial help, ACN can take a step back and focus on their “pastoral vocation,” Heine-Geldem said, noting how ACN was founded as a means of providing both spiritual and material help to Christians who are persecuted or living in poverty.
The next stage in the rebuilding process in Iraq, then, will center “on the renovation of destroyed churches, there are many, destroyed seminaries and destroyed monasteries. That’s back to our original vocation,” Heine-Geldem said.
In June, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged to give some $10 million to two aid organizations working in Iraq, one of which is Catholic Relief Services, and an additional $25 million will be given later to support “persecuted communities” in Iraq, specifically Christians returning to the Nineveh Plains and Yazidis in Sinjar.
So far, structures being built or restored as part of this “pastoral vocation” include a pastoral center in the village of Kirkuk; a church in each of the villages of Teleskuf, Qaraqosh and Bartella; three convents for Dominican sisters serving in Bartella and Qaraqosh; and the Holy Family orphanage in Qaraqosh.
Representatives from ACN will be making visits to both Iraq and Syria within the next few months to determine what the needs are and to discuss with local ecclesial leaders which structures should be taken up next.
Heine-Geldem was present alongside other ACN representatives, including Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, major penitentiary of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary and president of ACN international, at the July 4 presentation of the organization’s annual activity report for 2017.
According to the numbers in the report, last year ACN spent the majority of funds on projects in mission territories, supporting some 5,357 projects in 149 countries. The rest went toward administrative costs, advertising and fundraising.
The organization, which has offices in 23 countries around the world, had around 368,000 benefactors in 2017, with a large portion of funding also coming from Catholics who donated in exchange for a Mass intention for themselves or a loved one.
In total, ACN gave around $98.5 million in 2017 to support their mission projects, most of which are in Africa, followed by Asia, Latin America, Eastern and Central Europe, and the Middle East.
In terms of where most of the money is spent, Africa again took the lead, followed by the Middle East, which Heine-Geldem said was the result of a concrete decision by ACN to provide “exceptional” support to the region to help Christians stay.
“If Christians are not helped to stay there, they will be forced to leave,” he said, adding that “if we don’t have Christians in the Middle East, there is no need to help the pastoral work.”
Most of ACN’s funding in Iraq is going toward their Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project, and providing spiritual support through Masses, formation and catechesis, as well as food and transport.
The reconstruction project, Heine-Geldem said, has also helped bring different Christian rites in Iraq together and has allowed them to interact in a way that was not typical in the past.
“We have created a platform,” he said, noting that the committee for the project is composed of leaders from the Syriac Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church.
“This is very, very important, because in addition to all these struggles, these tragedies, all this ethnic and religious persecution, we have still found a lack of experience in cooperation among Christians in the Middle East,” he said, noting that the committee as a body evaluates the needs and decides which villages or churches to focus on next.
In Syria, which is second on the list of Middle Eastern aid recipients for ACN, most of the funding comes in the form of basic humanitarian aid since the country is still at war.
“We still have war, we still have uncertainty, and people still need emergency help in order to enable Christians there to remain or to entice them to return,” Heine-Geldem said, reiterating that the organization’s main priority is to help Christians stay in their home country.
“This is not a political statement about immigration, but it is our vocation to do that,” he said, explaining that from a geopolitical view, they don’t want the area to become “totally Christian free.”
“Christians are a good backbone of society,” he said, noting that many Muslims have told him Christians are needed in the Middle East, because they form the majority of the middle class, and are educated.
In terms of 2018, Heine-Geldem said Syria and Iraq will continue to be a priority, as will the religious freedom report ACN publishes annually, which will be released in November.
Additionally, India will also be a key focus, with particular attention for Catholics who are members of the “Dalit” class, which is the lowest in the caste and whose members are considered “untouchable” and less than human.
These people are “oppressed and neglected by the system,” and they also face increasing religious persecution from the amplified presence of Hindu extremists, Heine-Geldem said, noting that ACN recently launched a campaign to “open the eyes” of the world to what is happening on the ground.
“From what I’ve seen, they really deserve our help. It is a very serious situation.”