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VATICAN LETTER Jun-24-2005 (800 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

No glory for little-known Vatican agency that funds Eastern churches

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When the Vatican agency that coordinates funding to Eastern Catholic churches -- more often called by its Italian acronym, ROACO -- hired a Belgian priest to head its office, the first thing he said was "What is ROACO?"

Father Leo Lemmens said that when he was asked earlier this year to be the organization's secretary, he never had been aware of its existence.

Hardly a household name, ROACO is much like the backstage manager of a big Broadway show: far from the limelight, ROACO coordinates the roles of numerous Catholic aid agencies on the world stage and gets little glory when things go without a hitch.

Created by the Vatican's Congregation for Eastern Churches, ROACO coordinates nearly 20 U.S. and European agencies and organizations that provide assistance to Eastern Catholic communities in Asia, Northern Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Coordinating the vast amounts of aid and the projects to be funded is key if the church and its donors want to avoid doubling efforts.

Such was the case in Iraq.

Donor agencies last year were eager to contribute humanitarian aid to the country. But ROACO told members that the Caritas Internationalis network was successfully providing the needed emergency assistance.

Instead, further donor help was needed in providing pastoral care to help strengthen the local churches in Iraq especially after several church buildings had been the targets of bombings in 2004.

ROACO also acts as sort of clearinghouse, taking in requests for aid and support from the Eastern churches all over the world. Eastern Catholic churches are often a minority in overwhelmingly Muslim or Orthodox Christian nations and are located sometimes in very poor countries.

At its annual meeting June 20-24 at the Vatican, ROACO alerted its members to the urgent requests for help coming in from Eritrea -- a country on the horn of Africa.

"The institutions of the Catholic Church there: the charity houses, the schools, hospitals, and clinics are risking collapse" if they do not receive needed aid, Father Lemmens told Catholic News Service.

Eritrea is "the fifth poorest country in the world and yet it is among the five countries of the world receiving the least help," he said.

Though funding remains "a huge problem," Father Lemmens said ROACO helped assign which member donor agencies would take on projects there that needed assistance.

ROACO also acts as a bridge linking the Holy See and Christians of the Latin tradition to those of the Eastern Catholic churches. The Eastern churches have their own distinctive liturgical and legal systems, but enjoy the same dignity, rights, and obligations as members of the Latin rite.

In his June 23 address to ROACO members, Pope Benedict XVI praised the organization for its work in helping "brothers and sisters in difficulty" and in "making visible the charity that binds Christians" of the Latin and Eastern traditions.

"To strengthen such ties is to offer a very precious service to the universal church," he said.

Moreover, in a world in which individualism seems to reign, the pope said Christians need to show "solidarity that crosses all frontiers."

Though ROACO addresses the needs of the Eastern churches across three continents, it also comes to the aid of the Latin-rite communities in the Middle East, particularly the Holy Land.

In order to better assess how they can help the Christian communities there, ROACO invited Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's representative to Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custodian of the Holy Land, to tell donor agencies about the current situation.

Father Pizzaballa told CNS that "unfortunately the political and social situation remains unstable for Christians" with many continuing to emigrate abroad.

Pope Benedict said there have been "some positive signs" seen recently that have strengthened "our hope that the day of reconciliation" between Israelis and Palestinians "will not be long in coming."

Father Pizzaballa, however, said Israel's continued construction of a security barrier was a symbolic sign of stalemate.

"The wall is a strong, visible reality that is a symbol of the actual situation (in the Holy Land) of no dialogue between the parties," Father Pizzaballa said.

He urged ROACO members to keep investing in schools and training teachers "because the future for Christian communities passes through the schools."

He also said the number of foreign tourists coming to the Holy Land on pilgrimage was on the rise. He said the visits not only help stoke the local economy, they also give a "human and psychological" boost to Christians, Jews and Muslims.

"Because if they see the city is full of life, this helps" bring a greater sense of normalcy to the lives of local residents, he said.


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