CNEWA Canada's national director Carl Hétu says the organization has developed an identity around helping Christians caught in the chaos of the Middle East's recent conflicts. Photo by Michael Swan

CNEWA Canada finds success in unique mission

  • April 7, 2017

From zero to $4.3 million annually in just 12 years is part of the remarkable success story that is CNEWA Canada.

When the Holy See asked Canada’s bishops to help the Catholic Near East Welfare Association set up a Canadian operation in 2005, there were two reactions. Many thought the venture was doomed. Others worried that it would only divert money that would otherwise go to support established Canadian Catholic charities.

“A lot of people (in other Catholic charities) were telling me at the time, ‘Well, you’re only going to take money from us,’ ” recalls CNEWA Canada executive director Carl Hétu.

Today, CNEWA is a significant fundraising force among Canadian Catholics, but all those other Catholic charities have grown as well.

“CNEWA did not take one penny from them. Quite the contrary,” Hétu said. “The more you talk about the struggling people, the more people are aware, the more they give.”

To a casual observer, it might seem like Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) and CNEWA are fighting for the same charitable dollar. Both Catholic organizations fund partners overseas working with local churches in relief efforts.

“I don’t necessarily think we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said CJI executive director Jenny Cafiso. “People are moved by different things.”

The key in fundraising is to have a story to tell and find an audience willing to hear the story. A successful charity has a distinct, easily grasped identity, said Cafiso.

“They (CNEWA) have developed an identity,” she said.

The rise of CNEWA in Canada coincided with growing awareness of the Iraqi refugee crisis, and the existential threat faced by Middle East Christians in the aftermath of the American conquest of Baghdad. In the confusion of a civil and religious war between Iraqi Sunni and Shia Muslims, combined with an insurgency against the American military occupation and a complete breakdown of civil order, almost nobody wanted to talk about how Christians faced the threat of extinction in Iraq.

“We established ourselves as the only organization that would talk about those issues,” said Hétu. “I even remember people saying, ‘Yeah, but you’re only supporting the Christians, what about the others?’ I remember saying, ‘If you don’t support the Christians that will be it for the Church, for us and our mission.’”

Hétu pointed out that many of the people who have benefitted from programs CNEWA supports are Muslims, but the situation is particularly dire for Christians.

“Most of the aid is for Christians because they are about to leave the whole region forever,” said Hétu.

Canada’s charitable sector has come to be dominated by a few very large entities with resources to fund an around-the-clock media presence.

Small charities can disappear in the shadows of World Vision, Plan Canada, Oxfam and others, unless they are able to develop a community of donors who identify strongly with the mission of their charity, said Hétu.

“We were able to find a unique niche,” he explained. “We are really focused on helping the Christians, their institutions and the good work they do for all. It’s true, it’s a very small niche.”

In Cafiso’s view, small Catholic charities have to focus on developing a community of donors by telling a compelling story.

“There’s a lot of people who could give and we’re not necessarily reaching them,” she said.

In CNEWA’s case, their rise to fundraising respectability has been aided by the media profile of the catastrophe in Syria. The world’s largest refugee disaster since the Second World War has kept CNEWA’s cause in the headlines month after month.

But CNEWA also raises money for parts of the world that, despite enormous suffering, can’t get much media attention.

The war in Ukraine has killed close to 10,000, brought Ukraine’s economy near the brink of collapse and pulled in Canadian military advisors, but it still gets scant attention. Ethiopians are surviving the second year of their worst drought in 60 years, with famine conditions in large parts of the country, but there are no daily bulletins.

CNEWA supports Church institutions in northeastern Africa and in the former Soviet republics. Whenever those stories do find an audience, there’s genuine potential for charitable giving, said Hétu.

“If we had more funds we could do even more,” said Hétu. “The needs outweigh the small amount of $4 million we get a year.”

CNEWA Canada is really just a small part of a global charity set up 90 years ago as the Pontifical Mission for Palestine by Pope Pius XI.

It quickly grew to embrace a mission to serve masses of Christians on the move in the aftermath of the end of the First World War, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Soviet communism. As the communist bloc disintegrated in the 1990s, CNEWA found itself helping to rebuild church institutions for Eastern Rite Catholics who had been driven underground in the Soviet era.

In 2015 the international agency raised over $40 million.

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