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How the Church is helping Christians return to Aleppo

June 23, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Aleppo, Syria, Jun 23, 2017 / 10:06 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Christians who fled Aleppo because of the four year battle for the city are now returning, and in the face of such challenges as poverty, destruction, and a shortages of basic goods, they persevere with the help of the local Church.

Fr. Ibrahim Alsabagh, a Franciscan priest in the city, told CNA that between January and June, 18 Catholic families have returned to Aleppo from places like Armenia, France, Germany, and Venezuela. In addition, 400 Christian families of the Armenian community returned to the area.

He said these families have decided to return because in their host countries “they live in poverty and feel like foreigners. Also because they miss the warmth of the Christian community that welcomes, heals, and accompanies each family with all its needs.”

“When they see they aid that we give to the Christians in Aleppo, they say, ‘Why don’t we return home, to our culture, to our society when the bombings have ceased?’” he said.

Syria’s largest city before the country’s civil war began in 2011, control of Aleppo was divided among government and several rebel groups from July 2012 until the Syrian government recaptured the metropolis in December 2016.

The Franciscan said that while rebels have been expelled from the city, unfortunately “living conditions have not improved in Aleppo. The only thing that has improved is that there are no more bombings, thank God, but there is still insecurity.”

In addition, “it is difficult to work because there are few hours in which there is electricity. There is also a small labor force because many young people are gone.There is food, but high prices,” he added.

He explained that the economic situation in Aleppo is so difficult that “even if the both parents work, it is impossible to get ahead without the help of the Church. There are many needy people and we trust in divine providence.”

On the other hand, he indicated that only a third of the Christians have stayed in the city. He stated that the Christians who remained were the poorest. There are also some families who had the firm conviction that “what the Lord wants them there because they must fulfill the mission of being a bridge of reconciliation and of bearing witness to Jesus Christ in this land.”

Fr. Ibrahim stressed that in the midst of this difficult situation “the key is the community that comes out to give people a sign of hope and remains a beacon. They are a very strong support to the family, especially when people feel alone and have left everything to return to their country. “

He commented that the Franciscans have developed a project to help Christians rebuild their homes. Since 2016 the order has rebuilt some 470 homes, and this year they have created an office where nine engineers evaluate the cases of families whose houses were damaged in the war.

Fr. Ibrahim added that there are several families who, despite having their homes destroyed, are still required to pay the mortgage on their home to the bank. The church also helps them.

The priest said that the money with which he supports the families comes from “many of the people and the families around the world who pray for us and send donations. Even if they are modest, it shows how the Lord works miracles with them.”

“As St. Francis of Assisi said, we depend on the generosity, the divine providence from which our aid comes. Every day we see this miracle and we thank those who help us with our whole heart.”

In addition, the priest said that there are 30 couples who will get married soon, and said that this aid is also for them.

“This is a great joy for us, to see that young people get married and say yes to the gift of life. This gives us great consolation,” he said. “It means that there is a future in Aleppo and a desire for life to conquer death.”


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Youssef Absi elected Patriarch of Melkite Greek Catholic Church

June 22, 2017 CNA Daily News 1

Beirut, Lebanon, Jun 22, 2017 / 12:07 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The synod of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church elected on Wednesday Archbishop Youssef Absi as the Church’s new patriarch, who received ecclesiastical communion from Pope Francis the following day.

Elected June 21, Patriarch Absi, 71, succeeds Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, who retired May 6 at the age of 83.

The new patriarch was born in Damascus in 1946. He was ordained a priest of the Missionary Society of St. Paul in 1973. He became superior general of the society in 1999, and two years later was appointed curial bishop of the Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch. In 2007, he was appointed the Patriarchal Vicar of of the Melkite Archdiocese of Damascus.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church is an Eastern Catholic Church of the Byzantine rite, and it consists of some 1.5 million members. It is based in Syria and Lebanon, and most of its eparchies are in the Arab world. It also has structures to serve the Melkite diaspora in Australia, Turkey, Canada, Mexico, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela.

The Melkite Church traces its roots to the earliest days of Christianity, when Sts. Peter and Paul first evangelized the peoples of Syria, where followers of Christ were first called “Christians.”

During the 2010 Synod on the Middle East, Patriarch Absi lamented the strife among the Eastern Catholic Churches, calling the struggle a “fount of impairment and false testimony,” according to Vatican Insider.

“The Christians of the East,” he said, “are all on the same boat, and confront the same struggle. They cannot be disinterested each in the other.”

The new patriarch holds licentiates in philosophy and theology, and a doctorate in musical sciences and Byzantine hymnography from the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik in Lebanon. He has taught philosophy, Greek, and musicology at the university level.

Pope Francis wrote to Patriarch Absi the day after his election, congratulating him and granting him ecclesiastical communion.

Francis also noted the tribulation facing Christians in the region.

“The election of Your Beatitude comes at the time of a delicate situation for the venerable Greco-Melkite Church and when many Christian communities in the Middle East are called to bear witness in a special way to their faith in the dead and risen Christ,” the Roman Pontiff said. “In this particularly difficult time, Pastors are called upon to manifest communion, unity, closeness, solidarity and transparency before the suffering people of God.”

“I am certain that your Beatitude, in fraternal harmony with all the Synod Fathers, will know, in all evangelical wisdom, how to be not only ‘Pater et Caput’ in the service of the faithful of the Greco-Melkite Church, but also a faithful and authentic witness to the Risen One.”


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Cameroon’s bishops ask state action to protect clergy in wake of murder

June 15, 2017 CNA Daily News 1

Yaoundé, Cameroon, Jun 16, 2017 / 12:04 am (Church Pop).- After determining that one of their confreres was murdered two weeks ago, the bishops of Cameroon have called on the national government to take up its task of protecting human life.

Bishop Jean Marie Benoît Bala of Bafia, who was 58, left his residence late in the evening of May 30. He disappeared, and his car was found parked on the Sanaga bridge near Ebebda, about 25 miles northwest of Obala. His body was found June 2, about 10 miles from the bridge.

A note was found in his car which reportedly read: “Do not look for me! I am in the water.” This gave rise to the belief that he had committed suicide.

However, an autopsy showed that the bishop had not drowned, and there were signs of torture on his body.

“Given the initial findings, we, the bishops of Cameroon, affirm that Bishop Jean Marie Benoît Bala did not commit suicide; he was brutally murdered. This is one more murder, and one too many,” read a June 13 statement from the Cameroonian bishops’ conference.

The bishops noted that there have been a number of clerics and consecrated persons whose murders in the country have never been solved, citing, “to mention only a few”: Fr. Joseph Mbassi, killed in 1988; Fr. Antony Fontegh, 1990; Archbishop Yves-Joseph-Marie Plumey, 1991; a group of religious sisters in Djoum, 1992; and Fr. Engelbert Mveng, 1995.

“We have the impression that the clergy of Cameroon are particularly persecuted by obscure and diabolical forces,” the bishops wrote.

They called on the Cameroonian government “to shed complete light on the circumstances and the motives” for Bishop Bala’s murder and that those reponsible be identified and handed over to the authorities.

The bishops also asked that the government “assume its noble task of protecting human life, and notably that of ecclesiastical authorities.”

They said they are praying for Bishop Bala’s murderers, asking them “to strive for urgent and radical conversion.”

In light of the rumors that spread about the bishop’s supposed suicide, the bishops addressed the media and social media users, asking them “to renounce defamation, lies, calumnies, and recommending that they respect the dignity of the human person, truth, modesty, and discernment in the use of certain information.”

Addressing the people of the Dioese of Bafia and Bishop Bala’s natural family, the bishops said: “keep courage, for Christ has conqured the world. Your pastors carry with you the dolour of this sad disappearance. Do not let your faith fail.”

“Find the necessary strength in the celebration of the Eucharist,” they advised.

“May the Virgin Mary, Queen of Apostles, Our Lady of Sorrows, Patronness of Cameroon, accompany us in this difficult trial.”


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Nigerian priest shares harrowing story of being kidnapped

June 12, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Issele-Uku, Nigeria, Jun 12, 2017 / 03:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- It was supposed to be a quiet retreat weekend last April for Fr. Sam Okwuidegbe, a Nigerian Jesuit priest and director of a local spirituality center.

Before he left, he chatted with his new provincial, Fr. Chuks Afiawari, who joked with Fr. Sam: “Make sure where you are going they don’t kidnap you.”

“We laughed about it,” Fr. Sam recalled.

Little did the priests know that the joke would be an unfortunate foreshadowing of what was to come. In a testimony posted on the website of the Jesuit Superiors of Africa and Madagascar, Fr. Sam recalled how his faith carried him through a traumatic and harrowing experience of kidnapping.

On his way to the retreat, which was to be in Onitsha, in the state of Anambra, Fr. Sam took a familiar, seemingly safe highway on which he had traveled many times.

That’s why he was so surprised when he heard gunshots.

“On glancing back I saw all the vehicles behind me stopping, and trying to reverse … that’s when it hit me that there was something dangerous ahead of me,” he recalled.

“On looking up I saw masked men with AK47 rifles shooting. I was so scared. I also stopped my car abruptly and began to reverse, but as I was trying to do that, a man suddenly appeared … and said, ‘If you don’t get out of the car I’ll shoot you.’”

The priest could see behind him that the men had also stopped another car, a black Mercedes, and were forcing two men out of the car. In a hurry, Fr. Sam left his phone in the car.

He quickly identified the armed kidnappers as Fulani herdsmen, a notoriously violent group whose clashes with farmers have killed thousands of people in Nigeria over the past two decades. According to the Global Terrorism Index, they were the fourth most violent militant group in the world in 2014.

Violence against Christians has also significantly increased in the country in recent years, particularly in Muslim-majority areas. In 2016, one Nigerian bishop lamented that Christians had essentially become “target practice.”

The Fulani kidnappers led Fr. Sam and the other two men into the forest at gunpoint for eight hours, barely stopping for breaks. They eventually let one of the two other men go, because he could not keep up with the pace, but they first cut his feet so that he could not escape quickly, Fr. Sam recalled.

“The pace in the forest was jogging, jumping over tree trumps, going over leaves, which often cut through our skin. So it was quite brutal!” Fr. Sam said.

“I was so shaken, and began to ask myself, is this happening to me? What am I doing in this forest? What am I doing here? I felt extremely cold and in my confusion … I’d mutter to myself, this can’t be happening, God. This can’t be happening,” he said.

The captors started questioning Fr. Sam and the other man, and were suspicious when Fr. Sam identified himself as a priest; they thought he might be a government spy. They stripped him of all his belongings – his watch, wallet, and rosary.

When they questioned Fr. Sam about his phone, the captors were enraged that he had left it in his car –  which was fortunate, the priest said, because he had saved financial information from his work on it.

The militants asked him if he could remember anyone’s number – someone to call who could negotiate for Fr. Sam’s life and pay off the herdsmen. Traumatized by his experience, Fr. Sam couldn’t remember one phone number.

“That triggered a series of beatings…they huddled me up, hands and feet tied to the back with a rope like a goat before a kill. They removed my cassock, then my shirt, threw me into the dirt on the ground, and began to beat me with the back of their guns, they’d kick me hard on my sides, slap across my face, push and pull me hard across the ground…one of them said ‘We are going to burn you alive!’” the priest recalled.

“I really believed that they were going to do it…I began to pray in silence…I said, ‘God, I commit to you, I commit my spirit’ and I resigned to the thought of my fate, that I was going to die that day.’”

Finally, the beating stopped. Fr. Sam said he remembers praying constantly through the whole experience.

“I hoped for a miracle…every minute I’d pray saying all kinds of prayers, I’d pray to Saint Ignatius, say the rosary and the Divine Mercy (chaplet)…at one time I found myself singing heartily but in the inside, a Ghanaian song that says ‘God speak to me…God where are you?’ I kept humming in my heart…it gave me hope,” he said.

Eventually Fr. Sam was able to get the phone number of another Jesuit priest through the contact of the other man in captivity. This priest, Jesuit provincial Fr. Jude Odiaka, began negotiations with the herdsmen.

And while at times he prayed for death, Fr. Sam said he felt better once he had made contact with the Jesuits.

“I knew that word must have gotten around about the kidnapping, and that the sisters at the retreat centre and people who knew me all over, must have been praying for me.”

The other man who had been captured with Fr. Sam also was a great comfort, he recalled.

“…the guy I was kidnapped with…he was a grace for me, a gift from God. I hope I was too for him because we exchanged words of encouragement silently, as we were not allowed to talk to each (other).”

Finally, the captors seemed to have gotten what they wanted, and started talking of letting the men go.

“I intensified my prayers and I prayed to God ‘Please God, make this end well,’” Fr. Sam said.

“I recalled a saying that ‘God will not bring you this far, then abandon you’, so this brought some assurance to my heart,”

When the militants decided to release the men, they were left to wander alone together through the forest, trying to find the pathway out. Eventually, they were able to make it to safety and back home.

While the experience was “painful and traumatizing,” Fr. Sam said one of the best consolations upon his return was hearing from many people, near and far, that they had been praying for him.

“In all these things God revealed to me that I was never abandoned while in the forest, even if I was out of reach and in danger, that God heard the prayers and was with me,” he said.

“It has renewed my faith in God, my faith in people…the human person, God’s gift of friendship and that if what I do matters, then also those people I do it with are also very important.”

Fr. Sam said he also plans to use his experience to help other people in his work as a counselor.

“This has also given me an understanding to accompany those who come to me for help seeking solace, encouragement, strength, hope, renewal…you know…maybe that’s why it happened,” he said.

“I’m going to use it in my work as a counselor, psychologist and help those who come to me for help, because what support can be given to people that have been kidnapped? What help can we give such people? I think I have become part of that help with what I have received, and experienced.”


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Want Pope Francis to visit South Sudan? Work for peace, bishops say

June 11, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Juba, South Sudan, Jun 11, 2017 / 06:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The news that Pope Francis will not be able to visit South Sudan this year prompted the nation’s bishops to voice reassurances that a future visit is possible, and ask for a renewed commitment to peace.

“Pope Francis is very particularly (concerned) about the welfare of the suffering people in the world, and so is he for South Sudan,” the bishops said June 6, adding that the Pope “continues to remind us of the costs of war, particularly on the powerless and defenseless, and urge us toward the imperative of peace.”

Bishop Barani Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio, president of the Sudan Catholic Bishops Conference, wrote the statement representing bishops from both Sudan and South Sudan.

He noted the Pope’s great concern about the country and his prayers for South Sudan on several occasions at the Angelus and at the weekly audiences in Vatican City.

Sudan has been the scene of nearly continuous civil war since it gained independence in 1956. Many of the initial problems were caused by corruption in the government, which led to the political, economic, and religious marginalization of the country’s peripheries.

South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, but has been torn by a civil war since December 2013, between the state forces – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – and opposition forces, as well as sectarian conflict. A peace agreement was eventually signed, but was broken by violence in the summer of 2016.

The bishops voiced “great desire, hope and expectation” that a papal visit will be reconsidered, noting it would be the first papal visit to the new country of South Sudan. St. John Paul II visited Sudan in 1993.

A visit from Pope Francis could have “uplifted the faith” of Christians and other believers and raise expectations of peace. His presence would console the grieving and heal the broken-hearted, they said.

The bishops said the Pope’s decision not to visit in 2017 should be received “in respect and prayer.” They suggested challenges facing the country, including lack of security, were obstacles to a papal visit.

They encouraged the faithful of the two countries to embark “a very serious spiritual self-discernment” that includes peace-building in order to create an atmosphere conducive to a papal visit.

“Be that agent of change needed in South Sudan! Pray a lot more in sincere repentance of heart with the aim of consolidating peace in the country,” the bishops of Sudan and South Sudan said. “It is only such activities which can bring the Holy Father to South Sudan in no distant period.”

The bishops reflected on Pope Francis’ witness in the world.

“The Holy Father has been a leading voice for peace and for dialogue between people of different faiths and nations,” the bishops’ statement continued. “He has also, in both his words and his deeds, called all of us to address the challenges of poverty and inequality in our own country and around the world.”

“He reminds us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, is not determined by power or wealth or station or celebrity, but by how well we attend to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity – because we are all made in the image of God,” the bishops said.

In late May, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed that Pope Francis would not visit South Sudan in 2017. He had hoped to travel there with Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest prelate of the Church of England, to advance peace in the country.

Burke said the trip is still under consideration, but just “not this year.”

In fall 2016 the Pope met with ecumenical leaders from South Sudan. They discussed the situation in the country, stressing the collaboration present among Christians to face its challenges, and the delegation also invited Pope Francis to visit.


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Autopsy raises questions about circumstances of African bishop’s death

June 7, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Obala, Cameroon, Jun 7, 2017 / 03:17 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Local news reports say that “signs of torture” have been found on the body of a Cameroonian bishop whose body was found in a river last week.

Unusual circumstances surrounded the death of Bishop Jean-Marie Benoît Balla of Bafia, leading some to think he had committed suicide.

Bishop Balla, who was 58, left his residence late in the evening of May 30. He disappeared, and his car was found parked on the Sanaga bridge near Ebebda, about 25 miles northwest of Obala. His body was found June 2, about 10 miles from the bridge.

A note was found in his car which reportedly read: “Do not look for me! I am in the water.”

While some believe this was the bishop’s suicide note, others believe he may have been murdered, due to other unsolved murders of priests in the country. The bishop’s autopsy seems to support those suspicions.

The autopsy shows that the bishop’s body spent fewer than 4 hours in the water before it was found, even though his body was found several days after he had disappeared. The autopsy also notes the lack of water in his lungs, which would have been present had he died by drowning.

“The body removed from the river Sanaga had a stiffened arm, folded on its abdomen indicating that Bishop Balla was not fighting against the fury of the waters. Bishop Balla was tortured and brutally murdered,” stated the findings of the autopsy, according to BaretaNews.

Father Ludovic Lado, a Cameroonian Jesuit living in Ivory Coast, told the African edition of La Croix that for the most part, the suspected cause of death in the case has now moved from suicide to murder.

Archbishop Cornelius Esua of Bamenda told the daily Le Jour that Bishop Balla “did not seem to us as troubled as that (to have committed suicide),” and noted that bishop suicides are rare.

“The bishops do not commit suicide,” he said.

Fr. Lado noted that it was hard to imagine why a “discreet and devoted” person like Bishop Balla would be the target of assassins. The Cameroon Concord notes that the bishop was a beloved pastor whom the faithful often called “Papa Benoit,” and he was known especially for his care for the sick and under-served.

Fr. Lado added that some have suspected a link between the bishop’s death and the death of Father Armel Collins Ndjama, the rector of the minor seminary of Bafia, who was found dead in his room earlier in May.

Reportedly, Bishop Balla was particularly affected by the death of the young priest and cancelled several of his appointments after finding out about his death.

Catholic leaders in the country have called for prayers for Bishop Balla, as the investigations surrounding the bishop’s death are ongoing.

Bishop Balla was born in 1959, and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Yaounde in 1987. He was consecrated Bishop of Bafia in 2003.


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Muslims and Christians unite to rebuild Mosul monastery

June 5, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Mosul, Iraq, Jun 5, 2017 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- As government forces pry apart the Islamic State’s three yearlong grip on Mosul, Muslims and Christians have united to rebuild a damaged monastery.

A Facebook page called “This is Christian Iraq” – dedicated to connecting Iraqi Christians and maintaining the faith amid ISIS threat – recently posted a series of photos showing the joint effort.

The May 27 post said that young Muslims from the northern neighborhood joined Christians at the Monastery of Saint George, participating in cleaning and repairs.

The monastery belongs to the Chaldean Catholic tradition, an Eastern Catholic rite in full communion with the Vatican. ISIS militants vandalized the monastery – smashing windows, damaging the church’s dome, and discarding its cross.

Although still in need of repairs, the17th century monastery gathered Chaldeans for Easter celebration this year, according to the Irish Times.

“God willing, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ will also mark the return and rising-up of the Christians in Iraq,” Kyriacos Isho, an attendee of the service, told the newspaper.

A new cross has now replaced the old one, and the coming together of Christians and Muslims marks a promising time for both religions as reports announce a final push against the Islamic terrorists.

Residents have seen U.S.-backed Iraqi forces gathering around the local Grand al-Nuri Mosque in the 48 hours leading up to May 31, in what Reuters reports to be a “final showdown.”

The nearly 1000 year old mosque has flown the terrorist’s black flag since the group captured the capital city in 2014. The site is where Islamist caliphate was declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announcing the reign of a new Muslim leader.

Three years ago the Islamic State made roads into the Iraqi’s Nineveh Plain, and since then over 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced internally. Christians and moderate Muslims were also subject to persecution. They were often forced to pay heavy taxes or even offered a choice of conversion or death.

Over 2016, internal and international forces reclaimed parts of the city, and Eastern Mosul had been retaken in early January of this year.

The government forces are now focusing on Western Mosul, where the mosque is located at the Old City center, and the three districts near the Western side of the Tigris River.


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Body of African bishop who reportedly committed suicide found

June 2, 2017 CNA Daily News 2

Yaounde, Cameroon, Jun 2, 2017 / 02:45 pm (CNA).- The body of Cameroon Bishop Jean-Marie Benoît Balla, who has reportedly committed suicide, has been found, African sources have reported.

The Bishop of Bafia in Cameroon had been declared missing earlier this week when his car was spotted on Wednesday near the Sanaha river, near the nation’s capital, Yaoundé.

A note was reportedly found in his car, which read: “Do not look for me! I am in the water.”

While many believe this was the bishop’s suicide note, others believe he may have been murdered, due to other unsolved murders of priests in the country. Boko Haram has been accused of kidnapping priests and nuns in the country.

The La Croix newspaper in its edition for Africa reported that the Cameroonian Bishops’ Conference had issued a communique asking for prayers to find the Bishop, in whose car “the police have not found any sign of violence or blood.”

Obianuju Ekeocha, founder of Culture of Life Africa, posted a series of photos of the Bishop’s car and pleas for prayers early in the morning on Friday, June 2.


2 Days ago Catholic Bishop of Bafia Cameroon ????????- Msgr Jean Marie Benoit BALLA was reported missing

— Obianuju Ekeocha (@obianuju) June 2, 2017


Yesterday, fishermen discovered the body of the bishop underneath a bridge. He was 58 years old.

Investigations into his death are ongoing.

Bishop Balla was born on May 10, 1959. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Yaoundé on June 20, 1987.

He was appointed Bishop of Bafia on May 3, 2003 and consecrated on July 12 of that same year. The Diocese of Bafia has more than 200,000 Catholics.