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Catholics urged to support Middle East Christians on Good Friday

Iraqi Christians attend Mass at a church in Baghdad (CNS)

Christians in the Middle East deserve the prayers and material support of Catholics around the globe this Easter, a Vatican official said.

Catholics can “become promoters of dialogue through peace, prayer and sharing of burdens” with Middle East Christians, said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches.

In a letter sent to bishops around the world, Cardinal Sandri asked for continued support for the traditional Good Friday collection for the Holy Land. Sixty-five percent of the funds raised go to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, an administratively autonomous province of the Franciscan order. The Franciscan Custody is responsible for most of the shrines connected with the life of Jesus as well as for providing pastoral care to the region’s Catholics, running schools, operating charitable institutions and training future priests and religious.

The collection, taken up at the request of the Pope, is administered by the Franciscan Custody and the Congregation for Eastern Churches. The congregation monitors how all funds are used, both the 65 per cent directed to the Franciscan Custody and the 35 percent used to support projects chosen by the congregation elsewhere in the Holy Land, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

None of the money will be used to help offset the deficit of the Franciscan order’s headquarters in Rome. US Franciscan Father Michael Perry, the order’s minister general, announced in December that because of a lack of oversight and “questionable” transactions, the generalate had a significant debt.

“From the time the collection was established, the congregation has distributed the funds directly to the Custody specifically for the projects approved,” said a friar who belongs to the Custody. “The generalate has nothing to do with the process.”

Along with Cardinal Sandri’s letter, the Vatican press office on March 10 released some details of how the 2014 collection was disbursed. It said close to $2.5 million was used to provide emergency assistance to people in Iraq and Syria; just over $2.6 million was used to support Catholic education at every level; and about $2.4 million went to a variety of small programmes, including support for the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land.

The Vatican also released a list of the projects supported through the funds given to the Franciscan Custody to assist the Christian minority in the region, preserve and provide pilgrim access to the archaeological sites and Christian shrines and support education.

Among the maintenance and restoration work carried out were projects at the basilica in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Cenacle where the Last Supper was believed to have been, the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the archaeological dig at Magdala, Capernaum, Mount Tabor, Cana and Mount Nebo in Jordan.

Meanwhile, Bishop Declan Lang, chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’s department of international affairs, is encouraging Catholics to contact Christian prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders with a message of hope this Easter.

For the first time Action by Christians Against Torture has published an Easter greetings list containing details of Christians including a teacher imprisoned on political charges in Indonesia, a priest facing threats because of his human rights advocacy in Cuba and an MP risking her safety by speaking out on behalf of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Highlighting the Pope’s focus on tackling persecution, Bishop Declan said: “Pope Francis has called on us to support Christians facing persecution wherever they are in the world. Sending an Easter message to Christian prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders is a practical yet powerful way to give hope and encouragement. Showing that they are not forgotten can also lead to better treatment by the authorities.