ASIA/LAOS - The Church remembers Lionello Berti, first Bishop and missionary

Luang Prabang - The small Laotian Church participates spiritually, with great affection and gratitude, at the memorial of Mgr. Lionello Berti, missionary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who died in Laos on 24 February, 50 years ago. As Fides recalls Fr. Angelo Pelis, OMI missionary for many years in the small Southeast Asian country, "half a century after the tragic death of Mgr. Berti, the first Bishop of North Laos, we will participate with deep feeling at the Eucharist for his commemoration in Reggello , on February 24, with other witnesses of the drama still engraved in the soul". Reggello is located in the diocese of Fiesole, Mgr. Berti’s birthplace.
As a priest, after joining the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1957, Berti accepted his designation in northern Laos. Laos, a former French colony, independent since 1955, then had just over three million inhabitants, belonging to a mosaic of ethnic groups very distant from each other: language, customs and traditions.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate were present in the north of the country, in an area with animist and Buddhist population, since 1935, and the arrival of the six young Italian priests gave new impetus to the missionary work. In 1963 the Vicariate of Luang-Prabang was created, of which Mgr. Berti will be the first Bishop. The conditions of life for the population, in this poor country which lacks ways of communication, were complicated by guerrilla actions that the opposing factions, among them the Pathet-Lao communists, hired to obtain independence.
In this context it was easy to identify the Catholic religion as "the religion of the colonialists" and the missionaries paid the price. In fact, in total 17 priests and catechists, who in those years sacrificed their lives, engaged in pastoral service, beatified on December 11, 2016 in Vientiane. Moreover, the first missionaries had arrived together with the French colonizers who had seen in the propagation of the Christian faith a possible vehicle for extending their political influence on the population.
In 1962, at the age of only 37, Fr. Lionello Berti was consecrated Bishop and appointed vicar of Luang-Prabang. When the Luang-Prabang area was entrusted to Mgr. Berti it had 80 Catholics and in 1968, year of his death, there were a thousand: in his five years of pastoral ministry, despite the poverty of means and personnel, the mission extended to the borders of Thailand, Burma and China. Bertì began construction work on the cathedral, the seminary and the schools. He entrusted the care of the sick and partly the formation of the catechists to the Sisters of Charity. He founded the congregation of the "Auxiliaries of Mary Mother of the Church" for the human and Christian formation of women, secular order that continues its work even today.
On February 24, 1968, a small group of Hmong families prepared to leave for the area of Sayaboury, where they sought refuge from the guerrillas that raged in the mountains. Mgr. Berti decided, with paternal devotion, to accompany them.
Inexplicably, just a few minutes from destination, the plane on which they traveled crashed in the Mekong. The remains of the bodies of 13 people were torn apart by the animals in the river. Eleven days after the disaster, the body of the young Bishop emerged from the river, miraculously intact.
During the 1975 revolution, foreign missionaries were expelled, their properties seized and used for civilian use, the chapel was transformed into a warehouse and there were no traces of Mgr. Berti’s tomb for thirty years. Subsequently, thanks to a patient work of mediation with the Laotian local authorities, the tomb was traced and repaired with dignity.
AFRICA/SOUTH SUDAN - Kenyan missionary:"I will continue to work in South Sudan despite the alarm of my government"

Nairobi - "Here in Rumbek, the few Kenyans I have met feel unsafe but as they work in these areas, they just entrust their lives to God", says to Fides Father John John Waweru, a Kenyan priest incardinated in Rumbek diocese in South Sudan, reacting to the warning given by the government of Kenya about traveling in South Sudan.
On February 21, Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an advisory, alerting its citizens against traveling to parts of South Sudan that are affected by conflict. In particular, the statement urged all Kenyan nationals living or travelling to South Sudan to avoid areas where armed conflicts and inter-ethnic violence have occurred within the last six months.
The Nairobi government raised the alarm after two Kenyan pilots’ aircraft had developed technical problems on January 7, crash landing in the rebel-controlled area of Akobo, killing a South Sudanese and some heads of cattle, an episode that saw the pilots held by the army affiliated to the opposition for 44 days. The two pilots were released after a compensation of over a hundred thousand dollars had to be paid.
"I shared with some Kenyan mechanics working here the travelling advisory report issued by the government, but they just said they cannot avoid being here despite the challenges, even if the place is unsafe", said Fr. Waweru, who has been working in South Sudan since 2000.
"I know there are many Kenyans here in Rumbek, Western Lakes State and Eastern Lakes, and here in Rumbek, there are perpetual ethnic conflicts but we are working in these areas", says Fr. Waweru, who is a parish priest in a mission some 50km west of Rumbek town.
Pope Francis has dedicated Friday, February 23, 2018 as a day of prayer for peace in South Sudan, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
AFRICA/DR CONGO - Still violence while the world is praying for the DRC and South Sudan

Kinshasa – While today, 23 February, the world Day of prayer and fasting for peace in the world is being celebrated, and in particular for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, announced by Pope Francis, Agenzia Fides continues to receive news of violence in the DRC.
On Sunday 18 February, unknown persons abducted a Catholic priest: Don Idelphonse Myatasi, parish priest of Visiki, kidnapped together with his driver in Kambya on the road between the villages of Cantine and Mabalako in Beni Territory, in North Kivu, in the east of the DRC. The priest and the driver were released on 19 February, it seems thanks to the strong pressure of the population.
According to the local organization CEPADHO for the defense of human rights, the area is plagued by kidnappings for extortion reasons where not even priests are spared.
On February 17, four operations were carried out by the NGO "Hyrolique sans Frontière" in the Rutshuru Territory, always in North Kivu. The bodies of two of them were later found with gunshot wounds.
According to the testimony of one of the surviving hostages who managed to escape from the hands of his kidnappers, the death of his two comrades occurred, when the kidnappers met and crossed a rival armed group. The two hostages were killed in the conflict. The fourth hostage was later released after payment of a ransom.
The kidnapping of HYFRO technicians, a local NGO based in Goma, risks accentuating the ethnic tensions between the different communities in the Rutshuru Territory. The kidnappers in fact belong to the Hutu militia, Nyatura, an ethnic group of Rwandan origin that often clashes with the local Nande.
The tensions in fact turned into violence on February 20, when in Mutanda, in the northwest of Rutshuru Territory, groups of young people from the Nande and Hunde communities set fire to several homes of the Hutu community. The young people said they wanted to avenge the killing of a member of the Hunde community, killed in the night by alleged Nyatura militiamen. According to CEPADHO, the whole Hutu community was expelled from Mutanda. According to CEPADHO "it is urgently necessary to impose State authority in the area to avoid an escalation of ethnic tensions between Hutu, Hunde and Nande. Otherwise the peacekeeping efforts of the government and MONUSCO will be undermined".
As the Peace Network for the Congo recalls "In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the continuous postponements of the presidential elections are one of the main causes of the current violence. The authorities recently set 23 December 2018 as the voting date. But since the end of 2016, Congolese leader, Joseph Kabila, 46, shows that he wants to delay the start of the electoral process as much as possible and remain in power when the country's Constitution prevents him from running for a third term. The current hostilities have caused about 4 million displaced people throughout the Country. In the north-east of the territory, especially in the Kivu region, the population is in fact the victim of numerous armed groups, often financed by businessmen and politicians with the aim of exploiting its precious resources. In the central province of Kasai, on the other hand, more than 3,300 civilians were killed in the last year of fighting in over 40 common graves discovered". As for South Sudan, it is emphasized that "For four years we have been living the atrocities of a brutal civil war in South Sudan, that is difficult to decipher. According to the latest estimates, there are about 3.5 million refugees throughout the territory or in neighboring Countries. In addition, the Country was hit in early 2017 by a dramatic famine that had a serious impact on about 5 million civilians, half of the population".

ASIA/INDIA - Indian Church and other religious communities join the Pope in prayer for peace in Africa

New Delhi - The Catholic Church in India and also the faithful of other religions, Hindus and Muslims, have responded to Pope Francis’ appeal and have joined the pontiff and universal Church in celebrating today, 23 February, a Day of prayer and fasting for peace, especially for the peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, in Africa. As Fides learns, numerous churches and religious communities throughout the country have celebrated prayer meetings, vigils and special moments of fasting. They were joined by faithful of other religions, many of Hindu religion, expressing the desire of long lasting for peace.
John Dayal, Catholic journalist and intellectual, former president of the "All India Catholic Union", told Agenzia Fides: "A day of fasting can give great spiritual benefit, in order to internalize the issue: the importance of peace cannot be minimized, thinking about Africa but also about the political environment in which India is situated".
The Holy Father also invited members of other religions to take part in the initiative, in the forms they consider most appropriate , underlining that religions can contribute considerably to the consolidation of peace.
Dayal continues: "India is going through a social phase marked by violence. Politics is also polarized with the use of the religious factor. In this context, the desire for peace and the common effort of the people assume an individual and collective value. We support the Holy Father's call to prayer and fasting in this time of Lent".
Dominican Fr. Francis Arackal, Professor of Media and Philosophy in Delhi, joins the prayer and tells Fides: "Fasting is an effective means of establishing peace and balance. This is how a peaceful society is built. I believe that it is with this spirit that the Pope asks people to fast. Without peace, there can be no development".
In some dioceses, parishioners, nuns and priests gathered in prayer of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Mary Ratnam, a Catholic laywoman from the Archdiocese of Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh tells Fides that her community gathered in silent prayer: "Our hearts and prayers go to Africa and to other parts of the world where hostility is increasing and people are suffering. Many people live in fear and uncertainty or die because of war. We hope and pray that violence stops, and that peace reigns".

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