The lives of Christians living through conflict and persecution was brought vividly into focus on Saturday when speakers from Syria and Pakistan gave their testimonies at Aid to the Church in Need's annual event in Westminster Cathedral Hall.
Probably few people know more about the situation on the ground in Aleppo than Sister Annie Demerjian who leads a team of volunteers that go house-to-house, providing food, shelter and medicine at great risk to their own safety. She gave a harrowing account of life in Aleppo - "its indescribable" she said. "Aleppo is a broken city where life hardly exists. .. Aleppo has become a city of death."
Aleppo's Christian community has fallen from 200,000 to less than 35,000 since the war began. Those who have remained in the city are living in desperate conditions without food, water and electricity for weeks on end. In the sumer they endure intense heat. In the winter it is bitterly cold. They queue for hours for water sold at prices they can't afford. One couple sold their bed in order to buy fuel, which they used to heat one room for an hour a day. Then the rockets and bombs brings death each day - or worse - life changing injuries, pain and trauma. "Our people are resilient" she said "they are awaiting the dawn, but they can't see the horizon."
With Aleppo largely cut off from the outside world, Sister Annie uses aid to purchase much-needed items for distribution, especially to the house-bound. She meets living costs such as rent, fuel for heating and electricity which is powered by makeshift generators.
She said: "In the name of hundreds of families and children, we say thank you because you have entered the houses and the hearts of many; because you have fed hundreds of hungry families, because you provide warmth to those who feel cold, because hundreds of pairs of shoes protect hundreds of children from the harsh winter, because, through you, we can heal many wounded people."
She concluded by appealing for prayers: "Our world is a gift from God. part of it is bleeding. Be peacemakers for us and our children."
Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, the largest Catholic diocese in Pakistan, described how discrimination against Christians and other minorities have grown in recent years. Pakistan was founded on very peaceful ideals and historically Christians had lived peacefully with their neighbours, but since the nationalisation of schools, (which use textbooks that include messages of hate against non Muslims) and the introduction of the blasphemy laws, tensions have dramatically increased. Asia Bibi is one of many Christians in prison for blasphemy - her crime was to touch a cup of water intended for a Moslem woman. Archbishop Shaw described how a 4,000 strong mob descended on a young couple accused of blasphemy and threw them into a brick kiln. They had two children and the woman was six months pregnant.
A series of anti-Christian atrocities climaxed on 27th March 2016 when Christians celebrating Easter Day were targeted in a suicide bomb blast at Lahore's Gulshan-I-Iqbal Park. 72 people (including 29 children) were killed and 340 others were injured.
As a Franciscan friar, Archbishop Shaw's pastoral focus is on peace and justice He is campaigning to have the hate messages removed from textbooks and works to promote interfaith dialogue. He has organised a number of meetings and encourages the different faiths to celebrate each others feasts. "What we need to learn is to respect one another - to realise that we are all Pakistanis, whether we are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs or Hindus."
Other speakers were Jacques Kallassi who runs the Tele Lumiere TV station and is chairman of Noursat, Dr Caroline Hull ACN's NW Manager who recently visited Kurdistan, John Pontifex, ACN's Head of Press and Neville Kyrke-Smith ACN's National Director. They announced two major forthcoming events: On 24th November, ACN's Religious Freedom in the World will be launched at the Houses of Parliament. To highlight this event - on the evening of Wednesday, 23 November, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral have agreed to light up their facades in red. ACN is planning an interfaith gathering at Westminster Abbey and a Christian gathering at Westminster Cathedral at which they will launch their Advent Shine a Light Appeal.
ACN is asking individuals, parishes, schools, universities and groups to stand in solidarity with Christians and all those persecuted for their peacefully-held beliefs by asking people to wear an item of red clothing on the day.
For resources see: www.acnuk.org/redwednesday
ICN will be publishing further reports and interviews with Sr Annie and Archbishop Shaw soon.