Friends and Benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need Malta gathered on 29th May 2019 at The Victoria Hotel Sliema for a Talk to mark the 5th Anniversary of the Pontifical Foundation in Malta with the theme, “Faith and Fortitude…Christians in the Middle East”.
Speaking to participants at the event, Mr. Neville Kyrke Smith shared stories and videos of personal encounters with Christians and families who are living through persecution in the Middle East. The stories he shared all had something in common and this is captured in his words, “what struck me, above all was the faith of the people”.
He explained how during one of his project trips to Mosul in Iraq, he attended Mass at a Seminary which had been plundered by ISIS and interacted with a woman and her family who came face to face with ISIS when they attacked their home. Asked to convert to Islam at gun point, she said to them“I don’t believe in your God. I believe in the God of forgiveness. You can shoot me now, I will go to Heaven.”
She later explained what inspired her brave response, “ We are living with the faith. Without faith we cannot go on.”
Mr. Neville who witnessed the inauguration of ACN in Malta praised the efforts of the Maltese National Office of the Foundation,
“It’s remarkable what you have achieved these five years with the Spirit and with energy. It’s a privilege to come back here five years on. Steve Axisa and his wonderful team have done remarkable work, and so have you through your love”.
Quoting the words of Sr Annie, one of the project partners of ACN in Aleppo Syria whose words he said are an echo of our mission, he said:
“It is not by chance that we are in the Middle East, we are carrying out the mission of what our Lord said, to be the light of the world. Thank you for supporting us to maintain our mission as we witness to God’s love in the midst of the suffering at our Golgotha. We are still carrying the cross in a different way- we have not yet arrived at the resurrection. We will not only have to rebuild our homes, but also rebuild the souls for only by doing this can we be a bridge of peace and reconciliation. We and our families which you help, always keep you in our prayers, opening our hearts as we receive your love and as we pray for you.”
“Despite everything, the faith is still alive”, he sighed. We have tried to tell their stories through our publications.
Among many projects carried out by ACN to help Middle Eastern Christians and their families especially those fleeing from the terrors of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Neville explained that “last year we supported 391 projects in the Middle East, the vital work- supporting Christian families in Syria and Iraq, medical care, heating for families in Aleppo, summer camps, spiritual and psychological support for displaced refugees as a revival after the trauma that people have been through.”
“Major reconstruction support still continued last year to help in housing families from Nineveh and Mosul and nearly half of the Christians have returned to the Nineveh plains. We helped repair more than 2000 out of 6328 properties to be restored”, he explained.
ACN is also helping 650 families who fled to Lebanon, providing meals to 1000 people a day through the St. John the merciful table described as a restaurant of love.
“It’s been a wonderful thing for me to visit this project- to meet the families, to know the families”, he said.
Mr. Neville referred to the words of an Iraqi Archbishop during a service in the UK where the Prince of Wales was present.
“I wish to encourage the people to help the Christians in the Middle East, their brothers and sisters who are facing such difficulties and suffering, we need the presence of Christians in the Middle East and diversity and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. A Sheik said to me, “If you Christians leave, we Muslims will live in darkness. The light will go out.”
“The Christians are the building blocks, the bridge, sometimes indeed the battle zone. Either the Christians are targeted or they are caught in a terrible crossfire”, he said.
According to my Neville,
“One of my favourite projects, I go to visit when I can, in Lebanon is the dispensary of the Good Shepherd Sisters. The stories of what the Christians and others have been through are too much to tell at times; this place is a place of healing and love, supported, thanks to you. “
The compassion of the people in Lebanon, the fact that they have coped with so many refugees, is an immense witness of their faith and their kindness. The Christians have found a welcome there, in Christian homes, in church communities, he said.
Mr Neville also spoke about the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, whose convent in Karakosh was used by ISIS to rape women. The Altar was hacked and the convent was almost completely destroyed. The sisters decided to rebuild the altar using stones to show the brokenness and unity of the Christians there. Nearly 100 sisters of this order have been in Iraq and are doing remarkable work, he narrated.
“The only thing we want to do is be with the people, we lost homes, we lost everything but we have the people”, said one of the sisters.
Also sharing a reflection, Rev. Mgr. Professor Hector Scerri, Ecclesiastical Assistant of ACN Malta said,
“Each time I listen to these narratives, I am moved. I am strengthened in my faith. It is providential that this year’s meeting is being held during the last days of Easter-tide because what keeps us going, what keeps our brothers and sisters going in these lands, is our faith, their faith in the risen lord who is victorious; their encounter with the risen Lord as they pray against all odds in churches which have been destroyed”.
“What faith! What courage! What resilience! What fortitude!” , he exclaimed.
According to Mgr Scerri, the Acts of the Apostles is still being written in the lives of these Christians. They are showing us what it means to be a Christian. We stand in awe. Their faith is an inspiration to us. Our love and generosity towards them are our duty and responsible.
Also speaking, H.G Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon thanked Aid to the Church in Need for the invaluable work of bringing succor and hope to persecuted Christians.
“Throughout these 31 years in the service of the Holy See, I have witnessed the work of ACN all over the world, you are always there. I really know how important the work of ACN is for Christians all over the world”, he said.