Good Friday collection could help new partner Damascus archdiocese

| March 30, 2017 | 1 Comment

A Syrian girl with an amputated leg sits outside a tent Jan. 19 at Syria’s Bab Al-Salam camp for displaced in Azaz, near the Turkish border. When it comes to helping the poor, the marginalized and refugees, Pope Francis urged Catholics not to mimic the “Mannequin Challenge” by just looking on, frozen and immobile. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis recently entered into a partnership to help Syrian Catholics. CNS

Local funds from an annual Good Friday collection April 14 to aid work in the Holy Land might benefit the Maronite Catholic Archeparchy of Damascus, Syria.

The Center for Mission of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is in the early stages of forming a partnership with the archeparchy, which reports significant suffering, including Christian persecution, among its members amid a civil war.

The Holy Land collection is taken annually worldwide on Good Friday to fund Franciscan-supported ministries in the Middle East, including their presence at sacred shrines; parishes, schools and other academic institutions; and outreaches to refugees, the poor and the elderly. Some funds also support the region’s Catholic dioceses.

Last year, the archdiocese contributed $222,000 to the collection. This year, funds exceeding last year’s collection will go directly to the Damascus archeparchy, said Deacon Mickey Friesen, Center for Mission director.

“We don’t want to take anything away [from the Franciscan ministries],” Deacon Friesen said. “This would be anything above what we would have raised previously. We’re using that as our benchmark.”

Deacon MIckey Friesen

In the Maronite Catholic Church, an archeparchy is similar to an archdiocese in the Roman Catholic Church. Christians make up less than 10 percent of the Syrian population. Most of the region’s Catholics belong to Eastern Catholic Churches, including the Maronite Church, which is in communion with Rome.

The Archeparchy of Damascus includes eight parishes that once served 15,000 to 20,000 Catholics, according to the Center for Mission. An estimated 40 percent have fled Syria.

The partnership began in response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ call in 2016 to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East. At the request of Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Deacon Friesen explored ways to support a Middle Eastern diocese, and was connected to the Damascus archdiocese through Chorbishop Sharbel Maroun of St. Maron in Minneapolis and Catholic Relief Services’ Middle East regional director, Minneapolis-native Kevin Hartigan.

Deacon Mickey Friesen saw the opportunity to partner with the Damascus archeparchy as providential.

“We’re the only diocese named after St. Paul [in the U.S.], and we’re being led down the ‘road to Damascus,’” he said, alluding to the conversion of St. Paul as recounted in the Book of Acts. “Whatever we do [to help], hopefully it would be some sort of a mutual agreement that we be involved in some way.”

Deacon Friesen has been corresponding with Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus, who has been sharing the struggles of his local church. Syria has been in a civil war since 2011, and Catholics report persecution from the Muslim majority and the Islamic State. The Church in Damascus currently helps more than 1,000 displaced families through its social services. Meanwhile, it suffers from a clergy shortage, with 27 of its 65 priests having fled the country.

Archbishop Nassar has also shared stories of the Church’s suffering members. He said that one man told him, “I have no home and I have lost all my family. I do not have work, I’m hungry and sick without medication. I can’t get a visa to go to another country. I am like a beetle at the bottom of a cup who cannot get out and runs in circles until it dies at the bottom.”

“Many Syrians feel like this man,” Archbishop Nassar told Center for Mission staff. “It seems to many that all doors to survival are closed.”

Deacon Friesen said the Center for Mission has begun work on forming a steering committee for the partnership, which would consist of parish leaders and Center for Mission staff. The archdiocese also has partnerships with dioceses in Venezuela and Kenya.




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