Brief journal of the Night of Witnesses
Since it was first held in the 2008, this special vigil has been staged in 29 different cities, and a total of 31 witnesses have given personal testimony of their experience of persecution in their respective countries, before a total audience of more than 25,000.
The Night of Witnesses was conceived in the French office of the Foundation – Aid to the Church in Need – which President Marc Fromager helped us to organize in our “areas” for our Churches. This time, our areas were located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia. For a first time event, the four locations were a challenge: Sarajevo, Kotor, Dubrovnik and Medjugorje. With soft background music and the procession with candles illuminating the portraits of persons who have suffered a violent death in hatred of the faith in the past 50 years. During the vigil we listened to their short biographies and testimonies of the reality exposed by those who personally suffered persecution or spoke first-hand about the collapse of religious and human rights in regions where they come from. Such reports cannot be read in the media or accessible to the public. After attending this event, few are those who do not go away deeply affected.
Sarajevo, September 21, 2018
There is a pattern of martyrdom that is repeated throughout history, the testimony of God’s love to the last breath, namely on pain of death, often incomprehensible to us. The word martyr comes from the Greek word “martys” in the original meaning of “witness”. That’s why our event is called the “Night of the Witnesses”.
A martyr, from any time and space, testifies of his life for Christ to us, survivors, who are obliged to listen with attention and humility to this daring act of his death reflecting as we listen of Jesus’ biblical testimony. Just as the Passion of Jesus is repeatedly offered in liturgical celebrations, so the affliction of these people is a replication of what was happening to Him. An eternal reminder of full surrender and fusion with the divine, an opaque secret. When we read the biographies of the Blessed Martyrs of the Drina, do we not ask ourselves whether their free acceptance of death is the same as committing suicide, and why did they jump one after the other out of the window to be stabbed to death? No, they did not choose suicide, a denial of life, but a martyr and voluntary death, which is its acceptance in eternity …
In the very heart of Sarajevo is situated the Sacred Heart Cathedral, a national cultural monument of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The neo-Gothic building of “bare stone” remains a symbol of the survival of Catholics in this city, since after the last war the number of Croats (most of whom are Catholic) in Sarajevo has been halved, and has risen to a symbolic number that varies in official documents. But getting the statistics is always an alarming sign of the state of a particular community. We should not rely on numbers but on the centuries-old rootedness of people in this region. Their cancellation, relocation, restructuring, removal or deletion by dirty political eraser is a dangerous method of ethnic cleansing. Diversity should be a precious treasure to be guarded vigilantly, not a cause of contempt.
After all, all people have been invited to our prayer vigil, regardless of their religious affiliation, including atheists. In Syria is situated the Ecumenical Monastery of Sister Houda Fadoul, one of our witnesses. Along with several other monasteries, it was founded by a Jesuit, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, whose name we read at the very beginning of the list of abductees and whose destiny is still unknown. Priests and nuns hostages in the world:
Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, kidnapped in Syria in 2013.
Father Gabriel Oyaka, kidnapped in Nigeria in 2015.
Father Jean-Pierre Ndulani, Father Anselme Wasikundi, father Edmond Bamututé kidnapped in 2012 and Father Pierre Akilimali and Charles Kipas in July 2017 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Sister Gloria Cécilia Narvaez Argoty, kidnapped in Mali in February 2017.
The description of the Deir Mar Moussa Al-Habashi monastery located in the Syrian desert in springtime may seem totally unreal, and if we believe it, futuristic for the country we live in:
“…With the arrival of spring, the valley of our monastery was covered with a charming red dress made of poppy flowers, and for the first time after the long years of war, we had the immense joy of seeing the entrance to the monastery road full of movement, due to the presence of many Nebek families come to visit us. Every Friday we received hundreds of visitors. What a joy to see Christian and Muslim families come together to receive the blessing of this sacred place! What a comfort to receive the visit of young Nebek Muslims who came to show “their” monastery to their Christian friends and colleagues from other regions! What emotion when Muslim women approached the nuns to entrust them their prayer intentions! This expression of trust in the intercessional role of monks and nuns and the recognition of their special relationship with God has touched us deeply. This may seem idealistic, but the sincerity, simplicity and authenticity of these people are for us a source of hope for a better future…”
We meet all our guests at Sarajevo airport – witnesses from countries where they belong to a minority, as well as Catholics in Sarajevo or parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina – Sister Houda Fadoul from Syria and Father Kirill Gorbunov from Russia. As it is the first Night of the Witnesses in this region, Marc Fromager, as President of the French branch of the foundation the Aid to Church in Need also introduces himself as a witness.
After Mass celebrated by Cardinal Vinko Puljic we participate in the vigil of prayer for all persecuted Christians. The latest martyrology from 2017 shall be read, a list of martyrs being published each year. These are the priests and lay people who were killed because they refused to give up Christ in the hour of death. We also pray for abducted hostages whose destiny is unknown. We share with the participants the small images of martyrs on whose back is a beautiful Prayer for Martyrs with which the vigil ends. From the front door to the altar priests and faithful carry triptychs, three pictures of martyrs whose sketched life stories with the circumstances of their suffering we hear :
Father Samaan Shehata
51 years old, stabbed to death by an Islamist terrorist on October 12, 2017 in Cairo, Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Archpriest of St. Julius of Aqfahs Church, Upper Egypt, was visiting the capital along with another Coptic priest, Father Bayman Moftah, who was also wounded. Their attacker confessed to attacking them as soon as he saw them in Coptic religious clothing.
29 Coptic faithfuls killed in Minya, EGYPT
During the attack on their bus on May 26, 2017 on a pilgrimage to the Monastery of St. Samuel, soldiers of the Islamic State forced them to get off the bus, asking them to renounce their Christian faith and embrace Islam. One by one, they all refused. Among them were children who bravely refused to deny Christ.
44 people killed in 2 attacks, in EGYPT
April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday, in the city of Tanta, north of Cairo and in Alexandria, in St. Mark’s Church where Coptic Pope Tawadros II attended the Mass.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for these explosions, affirming its determination to continue the attacks against “every unfaithful or apostate in Egypt and everywhere”. Pope Francis, who was traveling to Egypt a few weeks later, expressed deep condolences to “the Coptic Church and all the dear Egyptian nation. ”
Sister Ruvadiki Kamundiya
49 years old, raped and murdered on October 22, 2017 in Mutoko, in eastern Zimbabwe, whilst residing at the Holy Cross shrine. The nun was a teacher at the Hartmann House in Harare. She had travelled to Mutoko to prepare for a school trip a few days later.
Father Evans Juma Oduor
35 years old, found unconscious on October 22, 2017 in Muhoroni in western Kenya with a head injury. Transported to the hospital, Father Evans died a few hours later, without regaining consciousness. The burnt carcass of his car was found 5 km away. This parish priest of the Sigomore Parish, in the Archdiocese of Kisumu, publicly defended the Luos, an ethnic group persecuted by the authorities.
The images of the martyrs are placed in front of the altar with the candles lit. The faces of the martyrs are also represented on a projector. Meditation and soft music. It’s like the vigil is designed and it’s like it’s happening.
The Commission for the Conservation of National Monuments has declared the area around the Cathedral to be protected, as well as the Cathedral, but only in the physical sense. It is forbidden to lift high-rises, hide sight, or change the look of buildings. But in this case, it loses its importance because at one point when suddenly and piercingly through the door live music sounds come from the square in front of the Cathedral. Understanding between what is happening inside and outside the Cathedral walls is disproportionate and undermines the dignity of the event.
It is only at this time we, ephemeral viewers, can perceive how degrading can be a deafened minority in some place. It is precisely against this that the Pontifical Foundation the Aid to the Church in Need is persistently engaged. The dominant religion in Sarajevo is Islam, but we should just remember that there is no a mosque in the city centre but a Roman Catholic Cathedral. A good reason for the status of proud interlocutor in a possible interreligious dialogue and in a daily conversation.
But interreligious dialogue is not feasible in this way. The touching speech of Cardinal Puljic and the testimony of our witnesses about conditions in which Christians live where they are a minority, on the one hand, and loud music without “themes and ideas” on the square in front of the Cathedral, on the other hand, are not on the line of dialogue. Can Sarajevo be the “European Jerusalem” as it was named by Pope Francis in 2015 at the Kosevo Stadium? It is a definition to which our ecumenical association for the healing of humanity Maranatha, as well as the pontifical foundation the Aid to the Church in Need certainly aspire. Human unity through preserving diversity is the only reasonable option.
When Maranatha organized a pilgrimage with interreligious meetings in 2016 throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, we adopted the following slogan: “Since Sarajevo was the starting point of the First World War, we dream that Sarajevo will become the starting point of world peace!” As crazy as it may seem, we should have the courage to resist the apparitions that darken our view and collapse the ground under our feet, transforming us into anonymous and silent puppets who may be thinking of being blind and deaf, at the same time forgetting that, despite everything, God still heals all forms of weakness. A man is complete only by the realization of the plurality of his identities that are upgraded to each other and not by their ironic denial.
We leave Sarajevo with the desire that it truly becomes what it should be and what might have been felt before the ravages of the last war: a new Jerusalem.
Kotor, September 22, 2018
In the center of Kotor is located the Cathedral of Sainte Triphon, in whose facade is engraved the year of its construction – 1166, one of the oldest in Europe. In the 9th century, a citizen of Kotor bought the sacred relics of St. Tryphon from Venetian merchants and funded the construction of the original church. When entering the cathedral, it is impressive to know that since 12 centuries there are the relics of the saint who is beheaded because he declared himself as a Christian before the Roman authorities. Another story of martyrdom, in addition to those we read :
Father Cyriacus Onunkwo
46 years old, kidnapped and suffocated on 1 September 2017 in Imo State, southern Nigeria, while traveling to his home village to attend his father’s funeral. His car was stopped by gunmen who hoped to receive a ransom from the Church in exchange for his freedom.
Father Joaquin Hernandez Sifuentes
Kidnapped on January 3, 2017, his body was found 10 days later in a desert not far from Saltillo in the state of Coahuila, Mexico. As the priest of the parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Father Joaquin had always protested against the violence related to drug trafficking very present in this province. The bishop of the Diocese of Saltillo denounced the murder with the words: “we live in a devastated environment, in a broken society and the priests do not live in shelters”.
Father Felipe Carrillo Altamirano
53 years old, shot dead on March 26, 2017 in El Nayar, western Mexico, while celebrating Sunday Mass. The Archbishop of Guadalajara, Cardinal Francisco Robles Ortega, was immediately outraged “that a Catholic priest was once again the target of crime.” Father Felipe was ordained in 1989 and was responsible for the indigenous pastoral care of Serrana.
Father José Miguel Machorro
55 years old, stabbed by a man when he had just celebrated Mass in Mexico City Cathedral on May 15, 2017. The Father was attacked in front of the altar still clad in liturgical ornaments. He succumbed to his injuries 3 months later.
Father Luis Lopez Villa
71 years old, found tied up and stabbed in his presbytery in Los Reyes, Mexico, Mexico, on July 6, 2017. The Mexican Bishops’ Conference condemned the crime and the ongoing wave of violence that continues to priests and religious in this country. Father Luis is the 20th priest killed in Mexico in five years. This country remains the most dangerous country in the world for priests.
The cathedral is full and, regardless of the fact that Croats in Montenegro are a national minority and not a constituent people as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the people are relaxed, curious and with great interest await the beginning of the procession. We do not need to encourage the people gathered to light candles in front of the images of martyrs because they approach us themselves. Msgr. Ilija Janjic, Bishop of Kotor, leads the mass celebration.
Father Kirill talks about the position of Catholics in Orthodox Russia. Christians have experienced the worst moments during the communist regime and the numbers of their victims are dizzying. Today, it is different, but a lack of knowledge of the “other” causes tragicomic situations in which Orthodox Russians entering the magnificent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located in the centre of Moscow wonder whether this cross is always wrongly designated. Another example of misunderstanding that oppresses us too.
Kotor is a beautiful ancient hospitable town where we feel the spirit of mutual respect. Although religious and national identity cannot be equated, one is indispensable for the other as a part of the collective cultural memory where the social environment is poisoned. The atmosphere in Kotor further reinforces our conviction that creating sinister statistical data is in fact a desperate act to do where, with the foreseen intention of political manipulation, all communication possibilities between members of different communities have been interrupted. This gloomy conclusion refers to the Croats who are a constituent nation in Bosnia and Herzegovina but who are paradoxically forced to adopt the defensive position of a minority where they are vulnerable here in Montenegro.
There are many similar examples in the Middle East, for example, where Sr. Houda Fadoul, community leader of the Deir Mar Musa Monastery in Syria, is transmitting a pattern of success: an ecumenical community with a relationship of trust established with their Muslim neighbours. Sisters run the school with 120 children, only six of whom are Christians.
We leave from Kotor with a sense of gratitude for the warm reception and experience that surpassed our expectations.
Dubrovnik, September 23, 2018
Although it is located in the centre of Stradun, the Church of the Friars Minor is built so as to not be reached by the noise of the full heart of the city. Dubrovnik is a favourite tourist destination and, because of its great cultural heritage, it cannot easily regain its freedom. The city cannot buy it as before, but on the contrary, the present type of occupation is paid by the people who visit it.
The church is full and the prayer vigil has been carefully organized in advance. Mass is celebrated by Msgr. Mate Uzinic, the Bishop of Dubrovnik. Young people of Dubrovnik wear triptychs and light candles in front of the paintings of those with whom assembled people feel unexpectedly very close tonight. These martyrs suddenly cease to be anonymous characters in media reports that usually begin with the words: “Today, a priest (unnamed) is killed in this or that place …” They pass by our senses, they get their names and faces on big pictures, they sympathize and become aware of their sufferings.
Brother Diego Bedoya
35 years old, stabbed in his office on April 10, 2017 in La Victoria, northern Venezuela. The Franciscan of the White Cross, of Colombian nationality, had lived in Venezuela for more than 15 years. He was responsible for a home for elderly people and children with disabilities. He knew his murderers, two young boys whom he helped regularly.
Father Pedro Bezerra
49 years old, stabbed in his presbytery in Borborema, Brazil on the night of August 23-24, 2017. The Father who was shortly going to celebrate his 24 years of priesthood was in charge of the pastoral area of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for two years where he gave a strong testimony of faith and social commitment.
Father Diomer Pérez
31 years old, killed on his birthday on the night of July 27, 2017 in the village of Puerto Valdivia in Colombia. Ordained in 2012, this young priest was a vicar in the parish of Raudal, a neighbourhood frequented by guerrillas of the National Liberation Army. Father Pérez was at the service of evangelization in his parish. Bishop Jorge Alberto Ossa Soto, who ordained him a priest, will pay homage to him by giving thanks to God for the gift of his life “sacrificed in the exercise of his mission.”
Father Abelardo Sánchez
41 years old, shot at close range on October 3, 2017 in Rionegro, Colombia. A Priest for 10 years, he worked for four months in the Parish of Cisneros in Antioquia, in the north-west of the country. Bishop Guillermo Orozco Montoya, the local bishop, invited “all believers to join a prayer for peace and reconciliation among all” at the funeral mass.
The short biographies of these martyrs are being read on the anniversaries of their sufferings. But their martyrdom is threaded through time and space by forming a cyclic prayer rosary for the victims and their killers, thus reminding us of the need for our personal commitment. These people were chosen and carried out their mission, taking on the suffering of the whole community and obliterating the cross with their own blood. An indestructible light like candles we place in front of their images to show us the way. Therefore, it is necessary to recall not only time or space, but also what is beyond us because, for God, they are always relative categories that lose their linearity face-to-face with His Cross.
This year, in addition to Paris, the “Night of Witnesses” was hosted in other towns and cities of France, Luxembourg and Italy. And, inspired by this initiative, other sister offices, such as those in Spain, the Netherlands, the Philippines and South Korea, will be organizing similar events later this year.
In this sentence, written at the beginning of the year, can be added three more countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia, although the Aid to the Church in Need does not have an office in these regions. We consider this to be a personal success for us and we will try to make the event important and host it each year.
Medjugorje, September 24, 2018
The Mass is celebrated by Archbishop Henryk Hoser and if you did not enter the Church of St. James in time, it is impossible to find a space to pray in a world sanctuary of prayer in all languages, the most appropriate and pervading symbolic end of our journey. The Archbishop joins us in the prayer vigil and the hall of Saint John Paul II filled to the last place welcomes him with a burning applause.
We begin with what we might have done in all the cities where we prayed, with a link between all the martyrs, no matter in what space or time they belong. Namely, images of martyrs placed next to large image prepared in advance of the 66 Franciscans of Herzegovina murdered during the Second World War.
What is the link between Father Marko Dragicevic from Izbicno, Sister Cecilia Grgic from Presnac and Father Joaquín Hernández Sifuentes from northern Mexico who lived at three different times in three different places? At first glance, if we observe with limited temporal and spatial human measures, none. But all three died in the 43rd year of life, they had the same vocations, Marko was dragged from the altar after his liturgical garment was torn off, his body was thrown into a pit and was never found. The body of Father Joaquin was thrown into the desert and found later, and the remains of the body of Sister Cecilia were found in the parish “in a state of ashes”. All three were murdered by violent death in hatred of the faith. Sr Cecilia’s primary slogan was: “By relying only on the help of our God …”
In Medjugorje there is a large number of foreign pilgrims who listen to the testimonies of our witnesses. With others, a young man from Israel joins us and repeatedly lights the candles in front of the images of martyrs by encouraging others to do the same. These are touching moments whose strength cannot be translated into words. We are once again watching and listening :
Father Adolphe Ntahondereye
He died on 11 May 2017 as a result of ill-treatment during his abduction and captivity in Burundi. Vicar of the Parish of Saint Francis Xavier de Gatumba, west of Bujumbura, the capital of the country. The father had been abducted during an ambush on April 9 by a group of armed men and kept 17 days in captivity.
Father Joseph Simoly
54 years old, assaulted on 21 December 2017 in Pétion-Ville, Haiti by three armed individuals on motorcycles. Specialist of the Marian doctrine, the Father was “Sunday Vicar” at the Parish of the Sacred Heart of Turgeau. He was very popular in the Catholic community of Port-au-Prince. In recent years, three missionaries have been killed in Haiti in similar circumstances.
Attentat à Quetta, au Pakistan
December 17, 2017 during the Sunday service where more than 400 people were gathered in the Methodist Church. Claimed by the Islamic State group the attack left at least eight dead and thirty wounded.
Christians represent about 1.6% of the 200 million Pakistanis and are daily victims of discrimination living in fear of accusations of blasphemy, often used wrongly against minorities to settle personal conflicts.
Father Marcelito Paez
72-year-old, ambushed in the Philippines on 4 December 2017, he died a few hours later as a result of his injuries. Priest of the diocese of San José in Luzon Island for more than 30 years, Father Marcelito was retired but continued his pastoral and apostolic work. He was the coordinator of the Philippine Rural Missionaries, which provides an active Christian presence in rural areas.
Father Lucien Njiva
46 years old, shot dead in the attack on his convent Ambendrana, the night of 22 to 23 April 2017, Antsohihy in Madagascar. The Capuchin had interposed himself between the robbers and a young deacon defending the convent. Many attacks on monasteries or Catholic churches have recently occurred in the country. According to the local press, four assaults accompanied by looting against convents were recorded in five weeks.
So tonight, we also remember the Franciscans of Herzegovina, the 66 that were executed during the Second World War. We will mention the victims of the war of the 1990s, whose memory is still fresh in our memory, seven priests and a nun of the diocese of Banja Luka and two priests of the monastery of Fojnica. The links with the martyrs of today refer to the age at which they were murdered and the duty they committed with dedication in difficult times. The martyrs of today and then were, by their age, peers. Their facial features comparable, clothes they wore unchanged. Circumstances are always similar, the rudeness of Evil before the Good that refuses to abandon Christ. Evil is a coward and he is in a hurry to act quickly, like a noisy crowd seeking the death of Jesus. He intends to destroy here and now, always in a targeted way, the one he perceived as the greatest threat. This “here and now” is in Gorazde in 1941, in Herzegovina in 1945, in Banja Luka in 1992 and in 1995, in Fojnica in 1993 and in Mexico, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Egypt in 2017.
Therefore, we must not only pay tribute to the anniversary of their suffering, but seize every opportunity to familiarize them more closely and feel the torment they have taken over ourselves for us with respect and for which they remained chosen as more courageous witnesses who at some point in some place stepped over the abyss to testify the truth again and forever instead of us …
Marc Fromager gives a panoramic overview of the most critical points of our planet. He does not stop only in the Middle East, for whom he can be considered as an expert, but leads us further, to China and South America. He does not live in difficult circumstances or in war-torn areas, but he testifies of them as a representative of the Church in Need, asking himself this difficult question: “What would I have done faced with these people’s three choices – to give up their faith, to die or to leave?” Our event is also a kind of promotion of his book “Wars, Oil and Radicalism – Eastern Christians trapped” for which he received the award “Pen and Sword “, translated into Croatian. We are grateful to Mr. Marc Fromager for his time, dedication and engagement that he has given to us in the first organization of this event already traditional in other countries, attracting more and more people every year to the foundation AED – The Aid to the Church in Need, considered a favourite papal foundation.
The movie ” The Night of the Witnesses from 21 to 24 September 2018 ”
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