A church destroyed by a Russian attack on the village of Bohorodychne in Ukraine’s Donetsk region is pictured Feb. 13. OSV News photo/Vladyslav Musiienko, Reuters

If Christians are oppressed, ACN can be found

  • March 14, 2024

Between them, Regina Lynch and Philipp Ozores have served over five decades with the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), and this year alone will help oversee 5,000 projects to aid suffering Christians worldwide.

In June 2023, the Northern-Ireland born Lynch was appointed executive president, one of the first women to head a pontifical foundation. Lynch first joined the organization in 1980, which makes secretary general Ozores, who only started work for the charity in 2013, a relative newcomer.

Lynch and Ozores, on a visit to the offices of ACN Canada in Montreal, sat down recently to discuss the work of the charity and to share their experiences in the countries where ACN is active.

“We fund more than 5,000 projects every year all around the world, but the priority for ACN during Lent is to speak about Ukraine,” said Ozores, who visited Ukraine in December 2023.

“It’s very moving when you stand at the graves of men that were still alive three days ago and you meet the widows and the small children. It’s a very localized war, which directly affects the men and through the men, the rest of the country. And the Church is caring very much for them, for the families, for widows, mothers who lost their sons.” 

The work of caring for people displaced by war and the support of the Church goes to heart of ACN’s historical mission. Founded by Belgian priest Fr. Werenfried van Straaten in 1947, ACN was crucial to the survival of the persecuted Church throughout Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

After the December visit, said Ozores, “The full focus shifts now to caring for the Catholics who suffer from the consequences of the war.” He says “the thing which surprised me is how much people need to talk about what has happened the last two years.”

“Even the leaders, they just didn’t stop. Though the fear is less imminent that they might be conquered, they are still under shock from the attack. The air raids, the sirens. I mean, all these children who have been going down into the cellars for two years has left a mark, a very strong mark on their psyches. You can tell them, ‘Well, actually, you made it, you survived the attack.’ But they’re still under shock from what they experience. And the Church is there to listen, to accompany.”

ACN provided financial aid for trauma healing training for over 1,000 Ukrainians in 2023. But it is there not just to help the Church as it helps the people, but to assist the priests and nuns who have been profoundly affected by the war.

“The priests, the sisters, the bishops, they all need a rest. They need to be treated. Many of them are burnt out and traumatized from what they have experienced. I mean, grown men started to cry in front of us because probably we’re speaking for the first time about a friend who had just died or a cousin. It’s all very fresh and deep.”

Open dialogue with local churches and the bishops is what creates the ideas for the many projects ACN spearheads. In the Middle East, for instance, Lynch explained ACN’s focus is to help Christians remain in their countries.

“Before Saddam Hussein there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Today there are maybe 150,000,” said Lynch. “After the war in Syria, a similar outmigration began. After the 2020 explosion in the Port of Beirut, I mean, we saw the whole country of Lebanon falling apart. Christians wanted to leave because they saw no future for their children.”

ACN stepped in.

“A lot of the schools, including the Catholic schools, that should have been subsidized by the government, they hadn’t received help for four years. The Christians really value education and if they don’t have their schools, well, they’re not going to stay. A lot of the teachers were being headhunted by the Gulf States and by France,” she said.

“The Nuncio already had a project going to help some of the schools and we said, if we can, as an exception, start helping these Catholic schools survive, maybe this will help to convince Christian families not to leave. The other thing is that the Catholic schools have always been a place where Muslims sent their children. When these kids grow up together and there’s not the same prejudice that you would have if they had separate schooling.”

This is the third year that ACN has provided support for close to 300 Catholic schools in Lebanon.

Ozores said that he has great respect for the young people in the Middle East.

“I am really impressed by the youth of the Middle East. They speak obviously three languages fluently and are very good in the sciences, which makes it even harder to stay. But many of them really want to stay. They feel the responsibility. It’s almost like being on a mission for God because everything else tells them to go, but they feel responsible.”

Given its roots with the persecuted churches behind the Iron Curtain, ACN has long concerned itself with the state of religious freedom throughout the world. In its 2023 report on religious freedom, ACN reported that 47 countries have seen the situation worsen as regards religious discrimination and persecution. The report claims that “62 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is restricted or violated.”

But Ozores says it would be a mistake for Christians in the West to think the threat to religious freedom is just a problem “in far away countries like Nigeria or Pakistan.”

“I think we should be sensitive about what is happening in our own backyard. I don’t think you need to be a staunch believer to understand that our own constitutions and societies are based on beliefs which cannot be recreated. If we undermine these beliefs, it’s an illusion that we will be able to sustain those societies as we knew them.”

Ozores points directly to Canada to illustrate his point.

“While you can dispute whether, for example, abortions or euthanasia could be offered as an option to its citizens, the fact that doctors may be obliged to perform these actions on patients and thus not able to exercise their free conscience is unthinkable in any other part of the world. We think this is a very severe infraction of not just of religious liberty, but even the freedom of conscience. So, while we’re very happy to know that the Catholic Church in Quebec is engaged in disputing these developments, we really hope that they are not copied elsewhere in the world. And definitely, they will be part of our next religious freedom report as an example not to follow.”

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