On the evening of 22 November 2023, Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral hosted Australia’s second annual ‘Night of the Witnesses’ event, a poignant and moving gathering dedicated to remembering and praying for the persecuted Church.

An initiative of and organised by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the pontifical foundation that supports persecuted Christians worldwide, the event brought together hundreds of people to hear firsthand testimonies from three international speakers who shared their personal experiences of persecution, with Archbishop Peter A Comensoli presiding.

To draw attention to those who continue to be persecuted for their faith, the Cathedral was floodlit red—the colour of sacrifice—as were churches around Australia and the world as part of ACN’s ‘Red Wednesday’.

The personal accounts shared by the international speakers at Night of the Witnesses provided a rare glimpse of the challenges faced by those who stand firm in their faith despite persecution.

Due to ongoing hostilities in the region, His Beatitude Joseph Absi (Patriarch of Antioch and All the East for Melkite Greek Catholics), could not speak at the event and was instead represented by Archbishop George Bacouni of Beirut, who relayed this message from His Beatitude:

I want to express my profound gratitude for your committed support to ACN—Aid to the Church in Need. Your dedication to standing beside the church in the Middle East is a beacon of hope and a testament to the power of solidarity. Your generosity and prayers are making a meaningful impact, and I encourage you to continue your noble efforts.

Other speakers included Sr Majella Dogonyaro OP, a Dominican Sister from Northern Nigeria, and Mr Xavier Stephen Bisits, ACN’s Head of Projects for Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.

Mr Bisits spoke about how, despite the destabilising conflict that continues to tear the Middle East apart, there are pockets of Christians who refuse to leave their homeland, recognising that if they do, Christianity may well be lost in the region, and Christians are some of the few voices openly advocating for peace.

Your dedication to standing beside the church in the Middle East is a beacon of hope and a testament to the power of solidarity.

‘One of my friends in Syria is a Catholic called Charbel,’ Mr Bisits said. ‘After being kidnapped by ISIS, his family was offered many times by Christians in Australia to come here as a refugee. They continue to refuse. When I ask him why, he answers, “This is our land. We refuse to give it up to others.” With your help and your prayers, we can continue to help Christians like him.’

Sr Majella spoke about how often her religious order has been tempted to leave Nigeria, threatened as they are by bandits and Islamist extremists. Despite terrible violence being inflicted on Christians in Nigeria, ‘God’s grace has kept us still in the community and God has continuously protected us.’

She offered words of encouragement to everyone: ‘God has a mission for each and every one of us. For some of us … it takes faith and courage to cope with such missions … We have faith in his divine presence and providence, come rain, come shine. May we always find consolation and strength in the love of our God, our neighbour and in the hope of the future glory.’

Throughout the evening, the images of 12 martyrs were processed through the Cathedral and their stories told. There was also a period of silent eucharistic adoration, prayerful litanies and worship to finish the ceremony.

God has a mission for each and every one of us ... We have faith in his divine presence and providence, come rain, come shine.

Bernard Toutounji, Australia’s National Director for ACN, concluded by encouraging people to get involved with ACN’s mission however they can.

‘Ours is a unique mission only supported by people like you who care deeply enough about their own faith to be concerned to help sustain the faith of others,’ he said. ‘I believe all the baptised have a duty to in some way be a part of this work to support faith where it is at grave risk.’

ACN’s Community Engagement Manager, Cathy Ransom, later spoke of the evening’s profound impact on those who participated. ‘In a world full of anxiety and fear, Night of the Witnesses is an event that gives participants a tangible experience of Christian courage and hope,’ she said. ‘People have said to me “I have a completely changed perspective about the value of my faith having heard of men and women willing to die rather than deny their Lord.”’

The Night of the Witnesses has its roots in events held at Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur cathedrals in Paris over 15 years ago. Since then, it has become a global phenomenon, touching hearts in cities such as Madrid, London, Washington DC and Krakow. In Australia, the inaugural Night of the Witnesses took place in 2022 in the nation’s capital, Canberra.

Visit the ACN website for more information about their important work and future events.