Crisis turns to confidence

JOHN PONTIFEX

A bishop in one of Sudan’s most war-damaged regions has spoken of the people’s renewed sense of hope in a diocese where Catholics have trebled in number.

Communion at a green cathedral

Tambura-Yambio, in south-west Sudan, was decimated by a 20-year civil war, which sparked a humanitarian crisis and a mass exodus of people desperate to escape the killing.

Now after more than three years of peace, Bishop Joseph Abangite Gasi said that in the last 50 years, Catholics in this region of Western Equatoria had at least trebled in number to 500,000 — and now represented about a third of the total population.

Speaking from Sudan in an interview with the charity Aid to the Church in Need, the 80-year-old bishop went on to highlight the humanitarian and spiritual needs of a people “fed up” of poverty and wanting to usher in change.

With up to 60,000 exiles returning to the diocese since 2003, Bishop Gasi stressed the need to provide housing for former refugees who were living in tents and mud huts and who were desperate for jobs. Huge construction projects, he added, were now underway.

Now less than two months on from his golden jubilee as a priest, a bishop who has led his people through a series of catastrophes has now set as his priority building a cathedral in Yambio to seat 4,000 people.

Last month he laid the foundation stone and now he is organising the building work, bringing in supplies from as far as Uganda in a project which he reported as requiring “more than one million bricks”.

Until now, the faithful have had to make do with a “green cathedral”, meeting for Mass in the open air in crowds of up to 17,000 with only the trees providing shelter from temperatures of up to 40C and sometimes torrential rain.


Bishop Gasi said: “The Catholic Church is very dynamic here. People never forget how we have stayed with them during the hardest times.”


He paid tribute to Aid to the Church in Need, the charity for suffering Christians, which he said had helped build chapels and churches.

The bishop said ACN had supported many of the 400 catechists at work across the diocese — devoted lay faithful who have proved crucial in converting thousands to Catholicism.

Bishop Gasi said: “The Catholic Church is very dynamic here. People never forget how we have stayed with them during the hardest times.”

He explained that with more than 100 schools and two hospitals and further medical care for lepers and people with HIV/Aids, the Church was recognised as a key part of society.

“When people gathered for the celebrations to mark my golden jubilee [as a priest] in December, we had crowds almost half of what you’d expect to see at St Peter’s Square in Rome.”

The Church’s high profile helps explain the vocations increase in a diocese where the number of priests has risen from six to 33 in 50 years.

Bishop Gasi said that in some cases, people fleeing Tambura-Yambio to strongly Muslim regions such as Khartoum had been pressured into converting to Islam but since coming home had gone back to Christianity.

“I thank God often for the graces he has given to us and the Church here,” said the bishop.

Bishop Gasi explained that Protestant groups were also very strong in Tambura-Yambio with increased membership.

Sudan is a priority country for Aid to the Church in Need which provides up to £1 million every year to help suffering Christians there.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

John Pontifex. “Crisis turns to confidence.” ACN News (February 12, 2008).

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


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.

THE AUTHOR

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

Copyright © 2008 Aid to the Church in Need



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