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We have a lot to learn this Lent from persecuted Christians, advocate says at Vatican

Crucifix inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem May 23 2014 Credit Lauren Cater CNA CNA 2 9 15 A crucifix inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one of the sites of the Hearts Aflame pilgrimage for priests and religious. / Lauren Cater/CNA.

In approaching the penitential practices of Lent, Catholics can learn a lot from persecuted Christian communities, an advocate for Aid to the Church in Need said at the Vatican on Friday.

“Consider the many kidnapped priests and sisters in Africa, who are held for ransom by militias … We have much to learn from them. Are we helping them or are we maybe sitting on their cross? We have to know that they are ready to help us carry our cross with their life, prayer, and death,” Marcela Szymanski said at a Vatican press conference on Feb. 12.

Szymanski is the European Union and United Nations Advocacy Officer for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a charitable organization that serves persecuted Christians in around 140 countries. 

Based in Brussels, she connected via video link to the Vatican event reflecting on Pope Francis’ Lenten message to share stories from the persecuted communities that she represents through her work.

“The example of those who would rather die than renounce their faith is unforgettable and very hard to comprehend,” Szymanski said.

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As the editor of ACN’s regular reports on “Religious Freedom in the World,” Szymanski has heard stories from persecuted Christians in many parts of the world:

“When I hear the stories of those oppressed and my eyes cannot get any bigger, just listening to them. They tell me: ‘But Marcela, please, when you speak about us, ask them to pray for us. We want to be like you, to be able to read the Bible whenever we want, to go to temples that are open all day, to celebrate Christmas like you do.”

“Then comes to my mind the vision of dusty Bibles on shelves, closed churches, the strange Christmas that we lived recently … And I have to answer them: ‘No, I will not pray for you to be like us, but for us to be like you. And I and my neighbors would like to have your strong faith and hope in the future, and the strength to keep giving to others like you do,’” she said.

She shared the story of Archbishop Selwanos Petros al-Nemeh, the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Homs and Hama, Syria, who died of cancer last December at the age of 52.

“Selwanos was an orphan from a very young age, and he was raised by religious sisters, where he came to find his religious call, together with his brother,” she said.

“He worked tirelessly for the orphans of the region. Many remember his dark silhouette in the streets during the bombings when he was looking for the children to bring them back to safety.”

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“One of those bombs killed his brother in a cathedral … in 2014. However, with or without bombings, he never stopped providing foster care for the children, and as soon as the bullets stopped, he reopened schools and new kindergartens.”

“Right in the middle of the war, in 2017, he came to Brussels, where I live, carrying large suitcases full of drawings by the children of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus. The drawings were intended as letters to the politicians, asking them to increase humanitarian aid, and to show them what was their daily life …”

“On another occasion, I could tell you of the insults and humiliations Selwanos received from some European politicians. When I was there I was furious, but he had seen worse things in life. He promised to pray for them. He returned to Homs, where he served the poor until his very last breath.”

Szymanski held up one of the drawings from an 11-year-old Christian girl from Aleppo, who had depicted her memory of the time when Islamist terrorists from al-Nusra Front, which fought against the Syrian government in the Syrian war, attacked her family, killing her sister and brother in 2016.

She noted that this was drawn only 2,200 kilometers (roughly 1,367 miles) from Rome, “the same distance by car to the south of Spain. That is how close Aleppo is to Rome.”

“We have to be conscious of their closeness, not only spiritually, but also physically to us. This is what they suffered,” she said.

“What can we learn for Lent, from such a family, who went through a cruel Calvary but consider themselves really ‘resurrected’ with Christ? What would we tell them, if we met them today? We have heard it often from the Holy Father that, ‘with the power of love, with meekness, one can fight against arrogance, violence, and war, and one can bring about peace’ for the entire Church.”

Szymanski said that the testimony of persecuted Christians served as a reminder that “sacrifice goes together with deeply rooted love.” 

She highlighted the work of Christians in India to help the poor during the coronavirus pandemic.

“During the first COVID lockdown in India … millions of workers were stranded without jobs or shelter for days under the killing heat, waiting for a little space in the train to go back home,” she said.

“A group called the Small Christian Communities, a network in India, which includes lay people and religious men and women, took it upon themselves to distribute food and water, as well as masks and disinfecting gel to those along the tracks.” 

“The members of these Small Christian Communities are as poor as the ones needing help, but they fully trust in the power of prayer and Providence. So they went back home … organized prayers from home, but using megaphones to recite the litanies from the roof so that those along the tracks could join them.”

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“We have to remember this and take it seriously: Hell trembles at the sound of the prayers of the poor,” she said.

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