For 47 years, His Grace Georges Bacouni, Archbishop of Beirut, Lebanon, has carried shrapnel in his side. The result of a mortar blast at the age of 14 that wounded him and members of his family, it is a constant reminder of the conflict that has become a routine part of life in the region.

Sr Majella Dogonyaro OP is a Dominican Sister of Catherine of Siena based in Gusau, Northern Nigeria. There are many parts of her country in which she cannot travel wearing her religious veil for fear of being kidnapped or killed. She has been forced into hiding in her own village as militant Islamist forces hunted her, and while more than 50,000 Nigerian Christians have been killed by Islamist extremists in the last 14 years, many have also spent their lives hiding their faith.

One of the things Sr Majella and her order have been doing is trying to draw people back out.

Both Archbishop Bacouni and Sr Majella are key speakers at Australia’s second annual Night of the Witnesses, to be held this year at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on Wednesday 22 November. An initiative of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the night is an opportunity for them to share their experiences of religious persecution and encourage the faithful in Australia to continue their prayers and support for suffering Christians around the world.

Archbishop Bacouni and Sr Majella spoke with us about their experiences and were joined by Mr Xavier Stephen Bisits, ACN Head of Projects for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

Trusting in the providence of God

Archbishop Bacouni is travelling on behalf of His Beatitude Joseph Absi of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and all the East. The Patriarch had hoped to travel to Melbourne but, because of the war unfolding in the region, remained home to be with his people. The Archbishop volunteered to come in the Patriarch’s stead because he has seen first-hand the good done by ACN.

‘You don’t imagine what your contribution, not only via ACN but even via all the other NGOs, churches or movements, does … It makes a difference in the area,’ he says.

The Archbishop was 13 when the Lebanese civil war erupted, resulting in more than a million people fleeing the country and many hundreds of thousands being killed. The destabilising effects of that war continue to be felt today. The economic and political instability has created a fragile situation for many of Lebanese institutions, including churches and schools. Often teachers cannot afford to put petrol in their cars to drive to classes, and schools struggle to stay open due to electricity restrictions imposed by the government.

Xavier Bisits says that while ACN has are a number of big priorities when it comes to supporting the Church in the Middle East, a huge portion of their funds is actually spent on solar panels—and not for environmental reasons. ‘We’re installing solar panels because the states provide so little electricity per day,’ he explains. ‘Maybe zero to four or five hours depending on where you live in Lebanon or Syria.’

In situations of extreme cold or hot weather, access to electricity is especially important, he says. With generators being prohibitively expensive in the region and fuel difficult to find, solar panels are an effective solution because they offer energy independence, helping schools and churches stay open.

On top of an already precarious situation, Archbishop Bacouni says the war in Gaza has created new anxieties for his people. ‘All day, tension,’ he says. ‘What will happen? What will come? Will the war reach Beirut or not? Where are we going?’

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Archbishop Georges Bacouni, in conversation.

Reflecting on the gospel passage where Jesus invites people to take up the cross and follow him, Archbishop Bacouni points out that the cross is not something Lebanese Christians can pick up and put down whenever they like. He says it is now ‘second nature’ for them.

‘All the time you are living with suffering, suffering, suffering,’ he says.

Many Christians have left Lebanon over the years, and the Catholic population in Beirut is dwindling, he says. Those who have stayed do so either because they have the financial means or because they are convinced they should stay there as Christians in the region. To do this while living with the enormous challenges they face, Christians in Beirut tend to have a deep faith, he says.

Having exercised his priestly ministry in Beirut, Syria and Israel over the years, Archbishop Bacouni says one of the things he has learnt is to depend utterly on God. ‘I trust in the Heavenly Father because he called us to serve him,’ the Archbishop says. He was particularly moved by Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation on St Thérèse of Lisieux, which was about trust in the love of Jesus. ‘It’s about trust. Trust in God’s love for you and he will take care of you, whatever your circumstances are.’

He is encouraged by the material and spiritual support offered by people around the world. ‘When we feel there are people abroad who are thinking about us, it’s helpful … We are not alone.’

Doing everything in Christ

Sr Majella has been a professed Dominican Sister since 2004 and is now head teacher of the Regis Nursery and Primary School, Unguwan yawa, in Katsina State, Nigeria.

In her homeland, Sr Majella admits she has been ‘baffled’ by the explosion of Christian growth. Current figures suggest that nearly half of the population in Nigeria are Christians, with the other half Muslim. Despite a history of violent persecution—a persecution that is ongoing—Sr Majella and her community of sisters do a lot of work to build faith where they live.

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Sr Majella Dogonyaro OP.

She explains that schools and hospitals are big priorities for them. ‘If you don’t go to school, there’s no way you can defend your faith,’ she explains. Added to this is the fact that many Islamic schools in the region do not accept students with foreign or Christian names. When she was a child, Sr Majella herself was initially made to change her name in order to go to school. The same is true for hospitals. ‘If you go to the hospital, they will be asking whether you are John or Mary or any other name, and they will deny you access to government facilities.’

Not only do the Dominicans in Nigeria run their own school; they also have their own clinic and their own farm to support the students and teachers.

Life has not been easy for the Dominicans in Northern Nigeria. At one point, their parish priest was kidnapped and killed for not converting to Islam. Their schools have been burned down, and their community has received threatening letters from bandits, warning them of violent action if they don’t leave the area. They have been tempted to leave many times but remained convinced God that was calling them to stay. And thanks to the funding of various agencies, including ACN, they have been able to.

Sr Majella’s Dominican spirituality drives her. ‘St Dominic made us to understand that in all the things we are doing, make sure that Christ is everything, the centre of everything. If you are a teacher, teach as if it’s Christ that is teaching so that people will see you and admire the Christ in you. If you are a doctor, minister as if it’s Christ that is ministering to the sick.’

Like Archbishop Bacouni, Sr Majella’s experiences have shaped in her a deep openness and trust in God’s will for her life, even if she doesn’t understand it. Several disturbing experiences, including the death of her sister, have led her to this place. ‘I grew to live everything as however God wants it. I accept it,’ she says. ‘He always leads me right … I leave everything in the hands of God.’

‘I no longer see prayer as what I ask God—“Now! I must get it now!” I don’t see it as that. I pray so that I come close to God.’

Banner image: (from left) Sr Majella, Archbishop Georges Bacouni and Mr Xavier Stephen Bisits.