Escaping the tyranny

JOHN PONTIFEX

Catholic leaders in Damascus are grappling with a massive 25,000 refugees desperate to escape the ethnic cleansing that is sweeping Iraq.

The faithful at
St. Teresa's Church in Damascus

With reports coming in all the time of women being forced to take the veil and death threats against priests, Syria’s Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo is leading the taskforce to provide for Christian communities flooding over the border.

Stressing that Syria had received the vast majority of refugees, the Bishop of Aleppo said that the Iraqis arriving in Damascus had received “a warm welcome” for which they were very grateful.

He said the refugees had packed into Damascus, with the authorities allowing them in without visas and supporting the efforts of Catholic leaders to provide accommodation and gain access to health care.

Bishop Audo went on to thank Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity for persecuted Christians, which has pledged to give further aid for the refugees to top up the emergency packages dispatched since the Iraqis began arriving in Syria soon after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

He stressed how in recent months there had been an explosion in the number of refugees desperate to get away from Iraq.

In an interview with ACN, Bishop Audo described how his relief operation was enabling each family in need to receive US $20 food aid on a regular basis.

He said that ACN’s help had also funded urgent hospital operations for the refugees. Every month, up to three people each received US $200 to cover the cost of surgery.

The bishop reported that another chunk of aid was going towards catechesis for up to 300 children, just some of the multitude who descend on Damascus’s Chaldean Church of St Teresa on Fridays.

Now, six Masses are celebrated across the city every Sunday, each packed with hundreds of worshippers.

Bishop Antoine Audo

Bishop Audo said: “There is a big need to help the people in Damascus. We cannot provide a solution for all the problems but we are doing whatever we can. We are very grateful to Aid to the Church in Need for all the help they have given us.”

The bishop went on to underline the increasing dangers faced by Christians in Iraq.

“Kidnapping, death threats and forcing the girls to wear the veil — for all these reasons, it is dangerous for Christians. They leave because they are afraid.”

“The fanatics want to get rid of Christians completely,” he added.

He described how an Iraqi priest had escaped from the country after receiving death threats on his mobile phone. “The priest left everything behind — even his car,” said Bishop Audo, adding that he had fled to Damascus. “He still feels insecure.”

The Bishop added his voice to criticism of plans, promoted by the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference, for a safe haven to be created for Christians in the Nineveh Plains, close to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Agreeing with Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, who dismissed the plans as “difficult and risky”, Bishop Audo said the scheme would put the Christians at risk of militant Muslims in Mosul.

He said: “The Sunnis will take this as a pre-text to attack the Christians. The Sunnis will say: ‘Look, the Christians are asking for independence from us. We must stop them.’ The Christian has to live with everybody else. That is the way it should be.”


A universal pastoral charity of the Catholic Church, with over 5,000 projects in Eastern Europe and throughout the world, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) was founded on Christmas Day 1947 to help those suffering or persecuted for their Faith.

Today Aid to the Church in Need is present wherever it is most needed, from the bleak villages of Siberia, to the underground Church in China: seminarians are trained, priests and religious supported, churches and chapels are built and restored, religious programmes are broadcast on radio and television, Bibles and religious literature are printed, refugees are helped the world over. ACN receives no government grants and relies only on the generosity of its supporters. Visit the Aid to the Church in Need (U.K.) web site here, Aid to the Church in Need (Canada) here. Donate to ACN in the United States here. Donate to ACN in Canada here.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

John Pontifex. “Escaping the tyranny.” ACN News (November 15, 2006).

Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need.  ACN is a Catholic charity — helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.

Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An Outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 145 countries throughout the world.

The charity — whose UK office is in Sutton, Surrey — undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 43 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide.

For more information about Aid to the Church in Need, contact John Pontifex on 020 8661 5161 or Terry Murphy on 020 8661 5165

THE AUTHOR

John Pontifex is head of press and information for Aid to the Church in Need (U.K.).

Copyright © 2006 Aid to the Church in Need


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