Campaign offers prayers for persecuted Christians

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | November 25, 2020

De Pere parish joins ‘Courage in Red’ initiative

DE PERE — An international campaign to spotlight the persecution of Christians around the world found its way to Our Lady of Lourdes Church last week. As part of the Aid to the Church in Need’s “Courage in Red” initiative, the church’s east facade was illuminated in red Nov. 16 to 22. 

Our Lady of Lourdes Church in De Pere is lit in red as part of the “Courage in Red” initiative sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

A vespers service, led by Norbertine Fr. Peter Ambting, pastor, was held Nov. 18 to pray for persecuted Christians. During the vespers service, Fr. Ambting quoted the second century theologian, Tertullian: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The Courage in Red campaign has special meaning to Fr. Ambting and the Norbertine community. Aid to the Church in Need was founded in 1947 by a Norbertine priest from the Netherlands, Fr. Werenfried van Straaten, as a way to meet the material and spiritual needs of homeless and displaced people in Europe following World War II.

Over the decades, as communism and other challenges to religious freedom grew around the world, so did the ministry of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

“ACN’s outreach grew to include Vietnam in 1975, where (it) began providing for the ‘boat people,’ as well as refugees from Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia who were fleeing  oppression in Laos and Cambodia,” according to the ACN website.

In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI elevated ACN to the status of a pontifical foundation, which means the agency is now under the umbrella of the Vatican. “Today, ACN continues working to counter the persecution and killing of Catholics and Catholic religious by Islamic fundamentalists,” the ACN website states, “and is reaching out to the millions of displaced persons in Syria and Iraq, and other countries in the region.” It serves people in more than 145 countries.

Fr. Ambting, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes since July 2019, left his parish in the Netherlands in 2017 to join the Norbertines. He said Aid to the Church in Need holds a special place in his heart.

“In my parish in the Netherlands, I worked with Christians, Catholic and Orthodox, from the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan,” he told The Compass. “They came to the Netherlands to seek refuge, because they fled from war circumstances or persecution. I heard many sad stories about their difficult circumstances.”

During the vespers service, Fr. Ambting shared a story about a refugee from Syria.

“I remember a young man, Mahir, who was seriously traumatized after he fought in a militia to protect his Christian village, Malula, the only place on earth where the people speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus,” said Fr. Ambting. “His story and many other stories touched me.

“Once, he came to me after church to ask for a blessing and then he started crying,” Fr. Ambting recalled. “He told me about his experience when he visited the town again (after its destruction by Islamic forces) all by himself. His body started shaking. He told me, ‘After I arrived, I slept in the ruins of my family house and in a dream I had a face-to-face with the devil. There was no light, only darkness and fear.’ The next day, he left his town to never come back and (like) so many Christians” did not return.

Fifty years ago, Malula had 15,000 residents, said Fr. Ambting. “Now it’s down to less than 5,000.”

“Christians from the Middle East looked for shelter elsewhere in the world, because there seems to be no place for them in the Middle East,” he told the small gathering inside Our Lady of Lourdes Church, along with those viewing the vespers service on livestream. 

“Tonight, we are together to pray for all of them. Young and old, men and women, families and singles,” Fr. Ambting said. “We pray for all those who are persecuted, whether they live in their own country or elsewhere in the world. With our prayer, we want to support them all.

“We also pray for the Christian martyrs of our millennium. That they may live with God and intercede for all those who struggle because of their faith,” he said.

As families in the United States observe Thanksgiving this year, Fr. Ambting told The Compass, it is a time for all Catholics to give thanks for the gift of expressing their faith freely.

“America is blessed with freedom of religion and we’ve never had a religious war,” he said. “Courage in Red is an occasion to express thanksgiving for that freedom and peace. Many people take these things for granted but they are not (free). I hope this prayer will generate more awareness among parishioners of how thankful we may be for the freedom we have.”

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