Upon being appointed a Cardinal, Joseph Coutts, the former Archbishop of Karachi in Pakistan, was surprised to find that the government had provided him with police protection. One of the police officers assigned to him—a trained military commander—was none too thrilled by the Cardinal’s habit of sneaking away on his own. ‘Bishop, everything may look peaceful now,’ the commander told him eventually, ‘but you know what we have been through in the past and we don’t know what they’re planning next.’

While Pakistan is a federal republic, there are some in Pakistan who advocate for a theocratic Islamic state, and whose extremist interpretation of sharia law clashes with the official law of the land.

Recently, Cardinal Coutts visited Melbourne with the International Director of Projects for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Regina Lynch, and National Director Bernard Toutounji. ACN is the only international Catholic charity dedicated to the service of suffering Christians wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. Cardinal Coutts and Ms Lynch have been visiting supporters around the country, telling stories of ACN’s work internationally and testifying—through Cardinal Coutts especially—to the suffering of persecuted Christians, helping Australian Christians to understand the need for our ongoing help.

Their visit to Australia coincides with Red Wednesday, a special evening on 23 November when churches, cathedrals and major monuments around the world, including Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, will be lit red in recognition of persecuted Christians. One particularly important event on their schedule is the ‘Night of the Witnesses’—a vigil to be held in Canberra on Red Wednesday to commemorate the many Christian martyrs who give their lives for the faith even today.

Speaking about his experience in Pakistan, the Cardinal says that since his country’s creation in 1947, persecution and intolerance of Christians has only increased, encompassing everything from young men walking into churches with machine guns to more well-funded suicide bombers, and from young girls being kidnapped and forced to marry to the segregation of work, where ‘lower’ jobs such as sanitation and gutter work are reserved for Christians and Hindus. Life as a Christian in Pakistan is a ‘constant struggle’.

‘We live in that sort of tension,’ Cardinal Coutts explains. ‘Not "Will it happen again?" but "Where will it happen next?"’

Illiteracy is high in Pakistan at about 45 per cent, he explains, meaning many people see the world only through the lens provided by their religious leaders. From this perspective, everything ‘Western’ is also ‘Christian’, and whenever the ‘West’ does anything controversial, ‘we feel the heat,’ he says. He shares an incident that happened right after 9/11 when a pastor in the United States publicly burned a copy of the Qur’an, with the footage going viral.

We were bending over backwards having press conferences and putting out statements saying, ‘Look, we don’t know who this guy is. He’s a crackpot, he’s not a Christian. He’s not even recognised anywhere. It’s not we who are doing it.’ We did have one or two ugly incidents but thank God nobody was killed.

Sadly, Christians in Pakistan and elsewhere are easily implicated in events such as this, even when the connection is tenuous, Cardinal Coutts explains. Whenever ‘the West’ makes a move, whether it’s burning a Qur’an or an invasion, Christians locally are blamed. ‘It’s not the common man in the street’ who poses a danger, he clarifies, but the threat from the angry, radical fringe is very real.

Thankfully, despite being only 2 per cent of the population, Pakistan’s Christians ‘are not a silent minority,’ he says. ‘We do have a voice.’ The Cardinal has frequently taken part in protests and local advocacy. Through the formation of justice and peace commissions, they are able to serve those who suffer, including raising money for legal fees so parents can try to rescue their kidnapped children. ACN plays a role in helping with this too.

Their works of justice in the community mean they are held in high regard among ordinary Muslims, the Cardinal says, especially when it comes to the schools they’ve established. These schools put children on important pathways to higher education and a successful future.

No matter what persecution they face from extremist Muslims, they will continue to serve the people in truth, justice and love, he says.

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ACN Director of Projects Regina Lynch and Joseph Cardinal Coutts looking out at the Melbourne skyline.

The Cardinal’s message for Melbourne

Asked whether he has a message for the people of Melbourne, Cardinal Coutts says, ‘They will know we are Christians by love; by love they will know we are Christians. I think that’s what the world has got to see.’

Christians should care about more than just doctrines; they should care about people. ‘What does it mean to be a Christian? As St Paul says, it’s the love of Christ urging me on.’

He believes that Pope Francis has set a good example in this regard, shifting the language to talk more about our ‘common home’. The Cardinal is less interested in drawing religious divides and more interested in saying, ‘This is our home … Who’s home? Everybody’s home. The world is in danger and we’ve got to do something about it.’

If we take the lead in that as Christians, I think we have a message that, without really drawing religious lines, shows our message is so wide that we can include all of you as brothers and sisters.

Global persecution continues

Regina Lynch is ACN’s Director of Projects, overseeing about 5,500 international projects on an annual basis (though they receive requests for many more). The threats from the 'fringe element' experienced by the Cardinal in Pakistan are by no means an exception, she says. Radical forms of Islam continue to be ‘one of the main drivers’ of Christian persecution worldwide, with totalitarian governments in nations like Cuba making life extremely difficult as well.

In recent years, ACN has turned in a more pronounced way to the Middle East and Africa. In Africa, Boko Haram continues to be a violent force, burning churches and kidnapping young girls and forcing them to marry jihadists. In the Middle East, the instability caused by both Western intervention and the Islamic State is painfully felt.

In the wake of the 2014 invasion of the Nineveh Plains by ISIS, a move that drove out hundreds of thousands of Christians, ACN did a lot of work helping the people simply to survive, providing medicine, housing and food. And when ISIS was driven out by the end of 2018, ACN helped local people return to their roots.

We helped repair their houses, which had been badly damaged by the Islamic State. Some of them had been burnt, and we restored the churches, the convents, the priest houses, the kindergarten, so that there could be a normal-as-possible life.

ACN receives no government funding, relying purely on the generosity of global benefactors. The projects it funds are diverse and creative, a result of constant collaboration with local communities and their bishops to respond to the specific needs of the people. Ms Lynch shares just a few of the projects that ACN is able to do on the ground.

In Syria, where 90 per cent of people live below the poverty line, one unique challenge is the low rate of young couples getting married, particularly in Aleppo. Lacking the means to set up lives for themselves, young couples were also reluctant to have children, according to Cardinal Coutts. ‘So, we give a thousand dollars a head for each married couple so that they could get that first step,’ Ms Lynch explains.

They’re also able to provide micro-loans for small businesses in Syria, a project in ‘great demand’. People needing money to buy equipment for a variety of businesses approach ACN for small loans—enough to get things started—and then, when they are more established, the loans are paid back.

ACN has also been active in Lebanon. ‘There’s been quite an exodus of Christians who no longer see hope there,’ she explains. ‘And Lebanon is so crucial for the Middle East. I mean, if the Christians leave Lebanon, we can forget about the rest of the Middle East.’

ACN doesn’t usually work with schools, but the schools in Lebanon are in a precarious situation. As in Pakistan, Catholic institutes of learning are highly respected by Muslims and Christians alike, but when the teachers don’t have money to put petrol in their cars to drive to work, and when other countries are ‘headhunting’ them, the temptation to leave and go elsewhere is strong. To remedy this, ACN provides money to keep the schools open and functioning, helping both teachers and students.

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ACN Director of Projects, Regina Lynch, Joseph Cardinal Coutts and Bernard Toutounji, National Director of ACN

Telling their stories

ACN also engages in political advocacy. ‘We have somebody based at the European Parliament in Brussels, and we will bring guests from countries where Christians are persecuted or suffering and we let them speak because it’s much better than us speaking,’ she explains. ‘We do the same thing with the United Nations. We’ve been to Geneva, we’ve been to the United States, to really make these politicians understand what they’re dealing with in these countries.’

Telling stories is an important part of their work and an integral aspect of both Red Wednesday and Night of the Witnesses. Sadly, not everyone is able to tell their stories, though. Many Christians suffer quietly, their names and faces unrecognised, and their stories unheard. Without the work of ACN, and without the living witness of people such as Cardinal Joseph Coutts, many more stories would go untold.

St Paul wrote of the Church, ‘If one member is suffering, all the members share its suffering’ (1 Corinthians 12:26). The work of ACN reminds us that the Church is called not to let our brothers and sisters suffer alone.

To find out more about Aid to the Church in need and how you can support their important work, visit aidtochurch.org.