An interview with Johannes Freiherr Heereman, president of the international charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)
Mr von Heereman, for years now ACN has been helping Christian refugees from the Middle East to stay on in their own countries. Doesn’t the current flood of refugees into Europe – including many Middle Eastern Christians – tend to run counter to this work of yours?
It is shattering to see the suffering that has driven people to flee in this way. I can altogether understand any parent who, in the face of war and poverty, chooses to flee with his family and seek a future in Europe. I would probably do the same myself in their situation. But at the same time it naturally hurts to see Christians leaving the Middle East. We for our part are doing what we can to make it possible for people to stay on there. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that people do not easily make the decision to leave their homeland. I was in Iraq on two occasions and spoke with many refugees. Most of the older ones wanted to stay on and wait for their towns and villages to be liberated from the Islamic State (IS). But many of the younger ones dream of a life in freedom and peace in the West. Nobody willingly leaves his homeland, but a life in insecurity and fear leaves them with no prospects for the future.
Having seen the images from Europe, do you believe that still more Christians from the Middle East are deciding to leave?
Thanks to the modern media, the news is spreading like wildfire in the Middle East as well that it is now easier to get to Europe, and especially to Germany, than it was perhaps last year still. That naturally triggers a reaction, and further insecurity among those who are still in Iraq or Syria. That is a bitter pill to swallow in the face of the truly heroic efforts by the priests and bishops on the spot to maintain a viable future for their people, whether in Iraq or in Syria, and to keep these ancient Christian communities alive there. But we are still helping them in this. In Syria alone, since the beginning of the crisis, we have provided 8 million euros for humanitarian and pastoral projects there. They are a Church in great need, and hence it is our duty to help. If these communities were to disappear in their countries of origin, it would be a loss not only for Christianity but for the whole of humanity. What is more, winter is coming. On the one hand that makes it more difficult to flee across the ocean or through the mountains, but on the other hand it also makes it harder to stay on in their own country. We must not forget that, despite the immense wave of refugees into Europe, there are still almost 5 million internal refugees and 12 million people in need of help in Syria itself.
ACN is helping those Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon. Do you favour regional solutions rather than emigration to Europe?
We are helping the Church above all in Lebanon, where from Syria alone over 1 million refugees have been registered; then on top of these there are numerous Iraqi Christians. Even in a small country like Jordan there are as many Syrian refugees as in all the European countries put together. We are endeavouring to help them to be able to stay on and live there in conditions of human dignity. It is always easier to integrate into a similar culture and a similar kind of lifestyle. These people have no rootsin Europe. But we must be quite clear: these countries have reached the limits of their capacity to take in more refugees. Some Christians from Mosul, for example, who were forced to flee twice last year and who were betrayed by their Islamic neighbours, told me that they can no longer see any future for themselves and their children in the Middle East. That is something we have to accept.
The Chaldean patriarch Louis Rafael Sako has now called on the West to address the roots of the refugee crisis and seek a political solution. Does ACN also see things that way?
Of course it is true that we must get to the roots of the refugee crisis. Otherwise we will be dealing only with the symptoms and not with the cause. We are also supporting the Church in other countries, such as South Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon and Burundi in her concern for the refugees and the victims of violence. And our experience is always the same – if only those who actually have the power to influence the solution to the many conflicts would finally live up to their responsibility. Equally, in the Middle East, only a diplomatic solution and a return to reason can bring about lasting peace. Sadly however, history teaches us that when dealing with fanatics such solutions are not possible. Ultimately as Christians we trust not least in prayer. For in the end God always has a solution.
The Holy Father has called on Catholic communities in Europe to be generous in welcoming the refugees. How is ACN responding to this?
As Christians we have to heed the words of Jesus: I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. The Holy Father has now reminded the Catholics of Europe about this. Thank God, there are state bodies and other organisations who are coordinating and supplying the humanitarian aid for the refugees from the East. But we at ACN wants to supply our contribution within Europe in the places where funding is most genuinely needed for the pastoral care and support of our brothers and sisters. For example, in Sweden, where the Catholic Church has very few resources and where there are many Christian refugees from the Middle East, we have now given 100,000 euros to provide a place of worship for 20,000 Chaldean Catholic Christians from Iraq. With this form of aid we are in fact returning to our origins. The founding mission of ACN was one of ministering, with humanitarian aid initially but then also spiritually, to the many refugees in Europe after the Second World War. We intend to remain faithful to this mission.