The archdiocese of Antsiranana in the extreme north of the island of Madagascar has an area of 37,924 km2 - larger than Belgium and almost the size of Switzerland. Yet with just 1.6 million inhabitants, it is relatively thinly populated. A little over 40% of the population is Catholic, and the 65 diocesan priests and 42 religious priests in the archdiocese have to care for parishes that are in many cases as large as dioceses would be in other parts of the world.
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The apostolic vicariate of Gambella lies in the extreme west of Ethiopia, on the frontier with South Sudan. It is a remote and underdeveloped region where there is widespread poverty. Many of the children there are visibly malnourished, and there are recurrent and intermittent intertribal conflicts, above all between the more settled, farming tribes and the nomadic herders. The cattle eat the farmers‘ crops, and the farmers are taking away the traditional grazing lands of the herders. In this conflict over scarce resources there are frequent and violent clashes. Moreover, in recent times there have also been clashes between the local population and refugees of the Nuer tribespeople from South Sudan. Currently, in fact, according to the UNHCR, there are over 330,000 refugees from South Sudan in the area - almost as many people again as the existing population of Gambella state. In early 2016 in particular there was violent unrest here, with numerous deaths. The Catholic Church is working strenuously for peace and reconciliation and is the only force in this region - a potential powder keg - that is capable of combating the violence, hatred and rising anger.
This year the Church is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima. It was in the year 1917 that she appeared there, on six separate occasions, to three shepherd children with an urgent message for the whole world. Before the October revolution in Russia had even happened, she warned them of the dangers for mankind of Russia and of atheist communism and revealed to them that prayer, penance and interior conversion were the only means to prevent wars and disaster from engulfing the world. On 13 October 1917 a crowd of over 50,000 people witnessed a miracle of the sun, in which the sun began to spin on its axis, then appeared to plunge down towards the earth in a zigzag course before rising back to its place in the sky again.
The island of Basilan belongs to the Mindanao group of islands in the southern Philippines. Whereas in the Philippines as a whole Catholics form the great majority of the population, here on the island of Basilan Muslims make up around two thirds of the population. This is part of a region where the Islamist terrorists of the Abu-Sayaf group have been trying to establish a breakaway "Islamic State of Mindanao". Though they describe themselves as "Islamic fighters", they are regarded by the international community and by the rest of the Filipino population as terrorists and common criminals. They continue to try and spread fear and division through bombings and abductions.
The Catholic priests of Sudan know all too well what suffering is - not from reading the newspaper or watching the television, but directly and personally, as part of the bloody Way of the Cross of the Catholic Church in Sudan. The younger priests grew up during the long civil war and completed their studies in the most difficult of circumstances. An entire generation has known practically nothing else but violence, persecution and poverty. The almost 25 years of civil war, which led to the formation of the new country of South Sudan, have still left many open wounds that mark the people of the country, here in the North.