OTTAWA (CCN) — Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada national director Carl Hetu reports Catholic aid agencies contributed $150 million in 2015 to help the people of Iraq and Syria.
“This is quite amazing,” said Hetu, who attended the Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches (ROACO) at the Vatican June 14-16, as a representative of CNEWA.
This was the highest level of aid going into the Middle East from any group after the United Nations, Hetu said. This Catholic response, organized, planned and working with and through the churches of region, went to help “all of the people in the Middle East” not only Christians.
Also present were agencies under the Caritas Internationalis federation, Aid to the Church in Need, and nuncios representing Jordan and Iraq, Lebanon and Ukraine. The Reunion met with the Congregation for Eastern Churches and capped off their meeting with an audience with Pope Francis.
One of the big concerns for the Middle East remains how to maintain a Christian presence in Iraq and Syria, Hetu said.
“From our little corner of the world, it’s always difficult to see the overall picture,” Hetu said. The Reunion is an opportunity to hear from others who are also involved in providing aid. “It makes you feel like you are part of something larger, part of a big important response to this crisis.”
The meetings also heard about what the Holy See is doing on an international level through the United Nations and in Geneva, to promote peace. The Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Richard Gallagher has “been at the different tables pushing for peace,” and working to see that people will be fed in war-torn areas, and that a cease fire in Syria allows people to receive aid, Hetu said.
“On behalf of the pope he asked us to continue to support all the people who are victims of war in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan,” he said. “It is still dire. Nobody that talked told us peace was about to happen tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for peace. It’s hard to reach peace, so we have to double our efforts.”
“The good news is the cease-fire in Syria,” Hetu said. “The ceasefire will mean people will start tasting what peace is. They will be fed; they won’t hear shelling and bombs and that might start a spiral towards peace, a movement that the cease-fire is not enough.”
Those working for peace in the region are prepared to work with the Assad government, Hetu said.
“The last five years have shown us and shown the world if you really want peace, you have to work with who’s there,” Hetu said. The alternative of leaving a political vacuum as in Libya is “very, very scary.”
“Working with Assad doesn’t mean you approve Assad and the Syria government,” he said. “It means you are working for peace and a solution with Assad. That’s the starting point not the end.”
The Reunion also heard about conflict in Ukraine and India.
“Even though it’s not being talked about there’s death every day in Ukraine,” Hetu said. “The conflict is not about to be resolved. The Ukrainian economy is basically falling apart and people not directly victims of conflict are now collateral damage.”
There are those directly affected by conflict, living as displaced persons or refugees, and an even wider group of people who are suffering from the economic collapse, Hetu said. “Families are now struggling to get food, medical aid and housing.”
The Reunion also heard from a Syro-Malabar bishop and a Syro-Malankar bishop about persecution of Christians by Hindu fanatics in parts of central and northern India, Hetu said. These Catholic churches have been reaching out to people in parts of India that have never been evangelized, to tribal peoples and those of the lowest caste in the Hindu caste system. “The church brings them hope, dignity and love. They are very grateful for that love from the church,” Hetu said. “But the Hindu fanatics and groups are trying to prevent that outreach.”
“There’s amazing work being done by religious and lay people, a very gentle beautiful work that CNEWA fully supports,” Hetu said. Those who engage in this ministry are risking their lives, he added.