International News

Organization Honored for Helping Persecuted Christians Around the World

By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent

Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of Aid to the Church in Need International, gestures during an interview in Washington Nov. 28, 2018. Aid to the Church in Need is the 2019 recipient of the Path to Peace Award. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

NEW YORK – Earlier this year, the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nationswas instrumental is the passage of a United Nation resolution that condemned, among other forms of religious hatred, “Christianophobia.”

At the May 22 annual gala for the Path to Peace Foundation, which supports the work of the Holy See at the United Nations, papal nuncio Archbishop Bernardito Auza observed that “It was the first time that the term Christianophobia appeared to denounce the hatred behind anti-Christian attacks. Words are not enough, of course, but they are important. They describe what is happening. They make it harder to ignore. They make it easier to respond. But they must be followed up action.”

For that reason, the Path to Peace Foundation chose to honor the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need with its annual award for its work. Auza described the organization as the “the leading organization in the world putting words to the persecution Christians are suffering in certain places and, even more importantly, responding with action.”

In an interview with The Tablet on the morning after the gala, Aid to the Church in Need Executive President, Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern, described:

  • Why he believes the United Nations plays a central role in the global acceptance of religious freedom as a human right.
  • How ultranationalism is incompatible with Christianity.
  • How Pope Francis’ call for “artisans of peace” goes beyond just calls for no more war.

What follows are excerpts of Heine-Geldern’s conversation with The Tablet.

The Tablet: What role do you believe the United Nations, and particularly the work of the Holy See’s Mission to the U.N., plays in elevating the plight of persecuted Christians for a global audience?

Heine-Geldern: The respect and recognition of religious freedom as a human right can only become accomplished by the full commitments of nations and the international organizations, so in my opinion, the United Nations plays a very important role for the global acceptance of religious freedom as a human right. Saying that, it is clear that the Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations plays an important role.

The Holy See has an observer status and the Holy See is a permanent defender of human rights. There is a lot to do, and there is a lot to do for silenced minorities whether they are Christian or Yazidi or other minorities without a voice. When we have the concept of equal human dignity of every human being, the enforcement of the acceptance of the human rights is extremely important.

Last night in your acceptance speech you noted that “At least 75 percent of all religiously-motivated violence and oppression around the world is carried out against Christians.” Why, in your view, have Christians in particular been targeted?

Maybe it has to do mainly with the fact that in a lot of countries with a predominant other culture, there are everywhere Christian minorities. The Christian Church is a missionary Church. We have the mandate of our faith, therefore there are minorities of Christians everywhere. I think that’s one of the answers. Other religions have a more concentrated set-up on the world map.

The other thing is that faithful Christians will not be very fast in being tempted by ultranationalism. As the Gospel speaks about peace, speaks about forgiveness, speaks about reconciliation, and speaks about love, you are not an aggressive nationalist when you accept that. You are not against something, you are in favor of something, and with that you create a bewilderment or aggressiveness on the other side. We read in the Gospel that you will be hated, you will not be accepted, and so forth. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. We had decades and centuries in the Western world of a lovely comfort zone, but when you read the Gospel, maybe that’s not a normal situation. We are a contradiction to a lot of nationalistic, populistic policies and ideologies that try not to embrace others but to exclude them. If we walk our talk, we’re certainly not a religion of exclusion.

Aid to the Church in Need is a papal charity. In what ways has Pope Francis brought a distinctive approach to addressing concerns of the persecuted Church?

The Catholic Church is not a Church of exclusion, that’s exactly what his message is. He says go to the borders, go to the people, take them in, and try to understand them, try to help them, and don’t close your eyes when the other is suffering or persecuted. Be open-minded and do what the Gospel says. That’s especially what Pope Francis suggests. He is trying to teach us, help us, asking us to become “artisans of peace,” and that means we have to do something and have the right understanding. The right understanding of peace is not just simply saying no to war, it’s more. It starts with respect for other people.

In Aid to the Church in Need’s “Religious Freedom in the World” biannual report, you chronicle not just areas where the Church is under threat, but also areas where religious freedom has improved. What are some common themes you’ve discovered about the necessary foundations for improving religious freedom?

In the majority of the constitutions of the different states, it is written that people and persons are considered equal. Very often that is not accepted in practice. To enforce what is written in the constitution, to live it, and to allow those who have been considered second-class citizens, that would make enormous improvements. To accept that there are minorities, that there are religious diasporas, but to also maintain the constitutional enforcement of equal rights for everyone, if equal rights are accepted for everyone, the situation of people who are persecuted for their faith improves dramatically.

Aid to the Church in Need has projects going on in over 140 countries. Tell me about some that are closest to your heart.

We have approximately 8,000 applications for projects and only five or six thousand that we can realize and execute. We are a pastoral charity, and our main purpose is to be able to support the Church where it is persecuted or suffering or where the Church does not have the financial means to fulfill its mandate. So, when we can help a bishop get a car, a parish priest with a donkey, or a nun with a bicycle, then we do small projects as such.

As for the big projects, it’s important that many charities or foundations look to Aid to the Church in Need as the “know-how” agency and want to cooperate with us. For example, because of the wars in Iraq and Syria, we had a big increase of our work there because the foundations of Christianity are there. So, we decided that for those who want to remain there, for those refugees that are internally displaced persons and want to go back to their villages and hometowns, then we help them to be able to do so. We’ve done an enormous amount of work in Iraq and the population of the Nineveh Plains.