The following interview was conducted by Hussein Al-alak, editor of Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra), with Catherine of Aid to the Church in Need, who many have got to know through their groundbreaking work inside of Iraq and the wider Middle East.
In this interview, Catherine reflects on the World Youth Day events which were held in Krakow, Poland. Catherine also speaks out on the work being carried out by ACN across the Middle East, while giving valuable insights into the history of this unique and remarkable charity.
What is your name and can you please give us some background on Aid to the Church in Need?
Hi, my name is Catherine and I’m the Administrative Officer for Aid to the Church in Need UK’s (ACN) North West office. ACN is an international Catholic charity that supports Christians around the world, wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need.
The charity works in over 140 countries on around 5,000 projects every year and has offices in 20 countries.
Through a three-part model of prayer, information and action ACN offers support to millions of Christians through awareness-raising and fundraising campaigns as well as by helping to orchestrate projects on the ground in the countries where the charity works.
Projects include the building and repair of churches, providing Religious with transport to reach their communities, training of seminarians and emergency humanitarian assistance in the Middle East, to name a few.
In this way, ACN supports the Church “on-the ground” to continue supporting its communities, which lies at the heart of ACN’s mission. You can also find out more about the types of work ACN is involved with on our website.
Aid to the Church in Need is working in Iraq and across the Middle East, can you please tell us about the work they carry out and why?
Following the Arab Spring and outbreak of violence in 2011, the situation for civilians in parts of the Middle East such as Iraq has radically worsened. With 485,000 Christians being driven out of Mosul alone in 2014, there are now an estimated 3.3 million displaced people in the country.
ACN has been integral in providing housing and basic survival resources for the now homeless thousands in the form of temporary refugee camps. One such camp in Northern Iraq Werenfried Village, named after the charity’s founder, houses 200 families, totalling around 1,000 individuals, with ACN having funded 150 of the cabins there.
Since June 2014, ACN has given nearly £12 million to support suffering Iraqi Christians and it continues to raise funds for provisions such as food parcels, each one of which provides enough food for an Iraqi family for one month for the price of just £42.50.
You recently took part in the World Youth Day events in Krakow, Poland, which was organised by the Roman Catholic Church, can you please tell us why WYD 2016 was important to you and to an organisation like ACN?
The theme of WYD 2016 was “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” This really spoke to us at ACN. Having become a Papal Foundation in 2011, ACN works directly under the Papal See and in this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has given us this message: “I invite you all, together with ACN, to do everywhere in the world, a work of mercy.”
Taking on board this message, ACN created the campaign, “Be God’s Mercy”, inviting Christians around the world to be merciful by supporting the vital project work of this charity. This idea of active mercy was also the message ACN took to WYD and it formed the basis of our youth campaign while there, #LetsBeOne.
The #LetsBeOne campaign sought to raise awareness for, and show solidarity with, the suffering Church worldwide. Specifically, it was launched to raise awareness about the many young Christians who for different reasons were not able to travel to Krakow for WYD2016. But more than that, it invited a simple act of mercy to live out those ideas.
That act was to write a postcard to one of the Christians who were not able to make it, letting them know that they were being remembered at WYD. In return, the recipient would pray for the author of their postcard and in doing so we created a web of prayer and unity between young Christians across the world.
You can visit the #LetsBeOne campaign over on our website at www.acn-youth.org.
Throughout WYD, Pope Francis stressed the importance of being active in bringing about change. This lies at the heart of ACN’s message – that we cannot be passive in our future. It is estimated that more Christians have been martyred in the 21st century than in all other centuries combined.
We need radical intervention now and it’s down to young people to do this by mending the mistakes made by previous generations. As Pope Francis put it when he addressed 1.5million young Catholics in Błonia Park, Krakow, “teach us [adults] that it is easier to build bridges than to build up walls.”
There were delegations to WYD from across the entire Middle East region, what was it like to meet the people who ACN have been working in support of?
ACN sponsored 3,500 young people from the Middle East and throughout the world to attend WYD. In the church of the Conversion of St. Paul, ACN gathered around 300 of those sponsored for a special event of personal testimony, worship and celebration.
It was inspiring to hear speakers from those countries tell us about the courage and strength their Faith gave them, but also how grateful they were to ACN for the assistance its projects had provided, working to support the Church in their communities. ACN was also privileged to be invited to take part in The Way of the Cross - stations with Pope Francis.
These were “living stations” with delegates from different international groups carrying the cross between the stations which were then acted out through contemporary dramatic performances. ACN carried the cross for the third station, “Jesus falls for the first time”, with a combination of staff and sponsored young people from countries such as Iraq, Palestine and Egypt.
As ACN International’s Communications Director, Mark von Riedemann, pointed out, this experience was particularly pertinent to the work of ACN as we help to support our brothers and sisters around the world who are singled out and victimised for professing the Faith.
Perhaps my most striking encounter with young people attending from the Middle East, though, was listening to the speech given by a young Syrian woman, Rand Mittri, at the Vigil with Pope Francis. She addressed the crowd of almost 2 million young people saying,
“God, where are you? Why have you forsaken us? Do you even exist? Why won’t you have mercy on us? Are you not the God of love? We spend a few minutes each day asking these questions. I don’t have an answer.”
She then went on to list the names of her friends who had been killed in the conflicts.
Throughout all her trauma, though, she told us that she still kept her Faith and that she was able to do that, despite all she had experienced, by witnessing God reaching into the world through the acts of mercy carried out by people around her. Again, it reminded that Mercy is not an abstract concept, but an active and practical solution to the problems Christians face today.
As part of a wider team of delegates to WYD, from Aid to the Church in Need, how has your experience compared to others from the organisation?
I was in a team of about 30 ACN staff members from all over the world including Columbia, Brazil, Paraguay, France, Germany, Poland, South Korea and Ireland. It was great to be among a group of young people who had all dedicated their careers to working towards the same goal of helping to end religious persecution.
I believe we all had the same overarching impression of WYD – that we were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the pilgrims and their eagerness to learn about ACN’s work and our #LetsBeOne campaign.
Another delegate travelled from ACN UK with me - Michael, our Communications Executive in Scotland.
He took part in The Way of the Cross alongside the young Catholics who ACN had sponsored. He was particularly moved by the way he saw Pope Francis’s message of active mercy coming to life in ACN’s sponsorship of these young people who he walked alongside, carrying Christ’s cross.
Michael has written a reflective blog based on his time in Krakow and people are welcome to send him their feedback at @ACN_Scotland on Twitter.
As the next WYD is scheduled for Panama in 2019, from your experiences in Krakow, how do you see your future efforts, as playing a constructive role on the road to the next World Youth Day?
Active mercy is something ACN has been preoccupied with ever since it came into being in 1947 with its founder, Fr Werenfried van Straaten, working to help the 14 million displaced and starving Germans in the wake of WW2, when few others would.
This concept of active mercy has to be what I will take away most from my experiences at WYD, as well as asking myself how I can encourage other young people to carry out acts of mercy, either as one-off actions or as life-long career choices.
I hope that through my work with ACN, I can encourage the next generation of adults not to be passive on the issue of Christian suffering, but to take a stand to end it.
I hope that it will also mean that at future WYDs, young Christians such as Rand won’t have to give personal witness accounts of the suffering in the Middle East, but will be able to attend as pilgrims along with all the other Christians we remembered in our #LetsBeOne campaign, who sadly were unable to attend this WYD because of the effects of persecution or poverty.