From Ukraine to Nigeria, and from Nicaragua to the Holy Land, 2023 was full of tragic situations that deeply affected the church and faithful. OSV News revisited four places clinging to hope that the new year will bring an improvement in the lives of people living in societies torn by conflict and persecution.
"As we go into the New Year, millions of people across the world are experiencing deprivation, loss and disruption to their lives, due to circumstances beyond their control," said Caroline Brennan, emergency communications director of Catholic Relief Services, the international aid agency of the Catholic Church in the U.S.
"A moment of crisis can change the trajectory of people's lives, and have ripple effects that last years, especially for those who are exposed to extreme, life-threatening danger and hunger," she said in a statement. "We have to mobilize our collective efforts in aid, advocacy, funding and prevention to help people not only survive but have the means for recovery and resilience."
This year, according to the United Nations' June 2023 Global Humanitarian Overview, more than 360 million people needed humanitarian assistance -- at a cost of nearly $55 billion -- but only 20% of this need has been met by the international community. "This gap between need and assistance pledged is the highest ever," CRS said.
Russian attacks on Ukraine's civilian infrastructure inflicted severe hardships early in the year, although hopes were high that a long-awaited counter-offensive would recapture territory in the occupied eastern regions.
While the offensive made few gains, fears later grew of a shortfall in ammunition and military equipment, with Western attention diverted by conflict in the Middle East and political resistance, especially in the United States, to continued military aid.
"It was a year which started sadly, but also gave way to hope in Ukrainian hearts that we would be strong enough to be free," Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia recalled in an interview with OSV News.
"When I visited our soldiers, they were happy with every tank and artillery piece, believing the world understood and Ukrainians would have something to fight for. Closer to fall, problems began, as it became clear the Russians had strengthened their positions and the arms deliveries weren't as extensive as promised," he said.
Ukraine's religious leaders rallied national morale throughout the year, led by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko) of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, legislative moves continued in Kyiv's Verkhovna Rada parliament to ban communities from Ukraine's rival Moscow-linked Orthodox church, which is still maintaining ties with centers in a state "carrying out armed aggression against Ukraine."
Russia's Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who provided vigorous ideological support for the war in weekly homilies and speeches, was sanctioned by several Western countries, and placed on a wanted list in November by Ukraine's Security Service under his original name, Vladimir Gundyaev.
In a sign of retaliation, Archbishop Shevchuk's Greek Catholic Church was reported to be banned in Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia, along with Caritas, the Knights of Columbus and other Catholic organizations, under a decree charging it with working for "foreign intelligence services."
Bloody trench fighting continued around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Mykolaiv, Kherson and other strategic towns, leaving a two-year death toll provisionally put by the United Nations at 10,000 civilians, with Western estimates of military casualties running close to half a million.
While tens of thousands of war crimes were also reported, church leaders urged the return of abducted Ukrainian children, currently estimated at around 20,000 by the Kyiv government, whose deportation formed the basis for March war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court against President Vladimir Putin and his children's rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova.
On June 6, the destruction of Ukraine's Kakhovka Dam caused extensive flooding along the lower Dnipro River, leaving at least 58 dead and 31 missing, and threatening the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and long-term water supplies to Russian-controlled Crimea.
Bishop Sobilo said morale had been raised by visits by the Vatican's almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, and other bishops' conference delegations, as well as by "strong support" for Ukraine from the pope during his weekly Rome audiences.
Among summer highlights, Pope Francis sent a peace envoy, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, to Kyiv and Moscow to negotiate the return of prisoners, whose fate was also raised by the Vatican's Lithuanian Nuncio, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, one of few foreign representatives to remain in Kyiv throughout the war.
"In our eastern cities, which are shelled regularly, many people are tired of a war with no end in sight and many are leaving," Bishop Sobilo told OSV News.
"Aid has also greatly decreased, leaving widespread poverty, and the winter may turn out to be very harsh. On the other hand, there's still a desire to defeat the enemy occupier, and we'll be entering the new year with great hopes that the world will soon wake up again," he said.
On Dec. 19, after recent visits to Washington and other Western capitals, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told journalists he had turned down military requests to mobilize 500,000 more Ukrainians for the war, adding he was confident the U.S. and other allies would not desert his country.
A Dec. 14 decision by EU leaders to open membership talks with Kyiv was also welcomed by the president and Ukrainian church leaders, who united in celebrating Christmas for the first time on Dec. 25 in line with the Western calendar.
As the world heads into a new year, Nigeria seems to continue to lead the world in the persecution of Christians.
Emeka Umeagbalasi, chairman of Intersociety, a nongovernmental human rights organization, told OSV News that "the situation of Christians in Nigeria is precarious," and will remain so for the foreseeable future. He said that the country's government has long been partisan, unfair to Christians and has not provided the same protections to Christians as to Muslims.
"That is why in 2024, the killings are expected to continue to rise," he told OSV News.
He said the spate of Christian killings in Nigeria is worrisome and blamed the government for being complicit in them.
He estimated that at least 4,000 Christians have been killed in the African country in 2023, but the number could be higher because many of the killings went unreported. Instersociety estimated that between 4,500-5,000 Christians were killed every year in Nigeria between 2020 and 2022. Over the past 14 years, at least 52,250 Nigerian Christians have been murdered at the hands of Islamist militants, according to the group.
"The government of Nigeria still has a pro-Islamist security outlook. So, they (the militants) are expected to continue the killings. They are expected to continue burning of houses, sacred places of worship belonging to Christians, as well as Christian homes, villages, farmlands," Umeagbalasi said.
Responsible for the violence in the country are militant groups such as Boko Haram. In 2014, the group abducted 276 students from a girls' school in Chibok, and nine years later, 98 girls are still being held by Boko Haram. Other groups, such as the Fulani herdsmen, are violently targeting Christian communities, killing people and forcing them from their villages.
Umeagbalasi said Fulani jihadists "have enjoyed the protection of the government and security forces."
Senior Research Fellow and Director for Genocide Prevention at Christian Solidarity International in Switzerland, Franklyne Ogbunwezeh, said the Christian population of central Nigeria is facing a "genocidal campaign," and that the killings are intentional to "wipe out" Christians from the country.
In another chapter of what a priest called an "evil scheme" plaguing Nigeria, kidnappings of priests and seminarians became a tragic pattern. According to a January report by the research organization SB Morgen Intelligence, no fewer than 39 Catholic priests were killed by gunmen in 2022, while 30 others were abducted. The report also showed that 145 attacks on Catholic priests were recorded within the same period.
Busloads of political prisoners were taken in the middle of the night to the Managua airport in February, but they didn't know their destination. Some 222 of them boarded a flight for the United States and freedom -- though they were later stripped of their Nicaraguan citizenship. At least one detainee refused to leave, however: Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa. He was convicted the following day and sentenced to 26 years in prison for conspiracy and spreading false information -- after a sham trial.
Bishop Álvarez has repeatedly refused to be exiled from Nicaragua, even as part of negotiations involving the Vatican, according to media reports. In the process, he's become the face of resistance to the oppression of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, who have cracked down on all dissent over the five years to maintain power. He marked 500 days in detention on Dec. 18 -- and remains likely to stay there.
But Catholic persecution goes beyond the bishop and appears to have worsened in 2023, according to Martha Patricia Molina, a lawyer in exile who tracks aggressions against the Nicaraguan church. Molina has counted 738 aggressions since 2018, including 273 so far in 2023.
Priests, Molina says, are receiving "courtesy visits" from police, warning them to behave and not participate in celebrations of popular piety, processions and the December feast of the Immaculate Conception -- the most important in the country, according to Molina. Priests continued being arrested, too, and subsequently exiled, including a dozen who were sent to Rome in October after Vatican intervention.
A second Nicaraguan bishop was arrested Dec. 20 after voicing spiritual support for imprisoned Bishop Álvarez, according to independent Nicaraguan media. Bishop Isidoro Mora of the Diocese of Siuna, which serves the country's remote Caribbean coast, was stopped by police and paramilitaries as he was traveling to the community of La Cruz de Río Grande to celebrate the sacrament of confirmation at the local parish, according to news organization Mosaico CSI.
The Jesuits were also expelled from Nicaragua in 2023, with the regime seizing and renaming their flagship Central American University (UCA). Many religious communities with foreign missionaries, who have not been allowed by the government to renew their legal residency, also left the country -- and soon after, according to reports, the properties of some of these communities were confiscated by the government.
"I thought 2022 was the worst year," Molina told OSV News. "We can describe this last year as the year with the most attacks against the Catholic Church in the (most) recent five-year period."
There was a rare bright spot in November, when Sheynnis Palacios -- whose gown with a blue cape was thought to be inspired by the Nicaraguan flag and the Virgin Mary -- won the Miss Universe competition, sparking a patriotic celebration with flag-waving (a prohibited act) that the regime couldn't control.
However, analysts see difficulties for the church in 2024. Arturo McFields Yescas, a former Nicaraguan ambassador, told OSV News that the regime was likely to pursue legal changes, which could control religious activities and the content of sermons.
"Religious persecution is going to be institutionalized and legalized," he said. "They're seeking greater control and more submission using arbitrary laws."
After the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israeli communities, which left 1,200 people, including families, children, elderly and youth at a music festival murdered and 239 mostly civilian hostages taken into the Gaza Strip, and the outbreak of the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza, with over 20,000 Palestinians killed according to Gaza health officials as of Dec. 21, the Holy Land fell into the spiral of what seems endless violence.
Ahead of the new year, Catholic Relief Services listed its most pressing humanitarian crises to watch in 2024. The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza tops the list.
Nearly 2 million people -- about 85% of Gaza's population -- have been displaced, and nearly all of those forced from their homes report that they do not have enough to eat.
"Many have crowded into schools, churches, hospitals, homes and shelters, but thousands are living outside without safe shelter. Without an immediate cessation of violence and increase of humanitarian corridors, widespread suffering will continue," CRS said in a Dec. 21 statement.
"Even when I speak to our staff, they talk about not having enough food," said Cornelia Sage, CRS head of programs for Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza. "They talk about rationing meals, about not having enough to eat for their children. They tell me about going out to look for food for their families only to come back empty-handed. All of Gaza is going hungry."
"Store shelves are empty and have been empty for weeks," Sage said. "There are informal markets, but people are paying five to 10 times more for basic food items, especially key staples such as flour, oil and drinking water. Without cooking gas or fuel, people cannot cook, and they are eating what they can find. There is simply not enough food coming in to feed the people of Gaza."
The lack of proper food and clean water can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women and nursing mothers.
"My son is two months old," one CRS staff member said. "The first days were so hard for me. I had no milk, and the stress was just so hard, my body couldn't produce it. It was hard in the beginning of the war. But now? With the lack of water and the lack of food, it's become a real problem. We don't know how we are going to provide for ourselves."
Following the end of the ceasefire Dec. 1, Israeli forces have begun maneuvers in southern Gaza to root out Hamas leaders. During the ceasefire, 105 hostages, mostly women and children and including foreign nationals, were exchanged for 240 Palestinian women and teenage prisoners held by Israel.
There are 1,017 Christians now living in Gaza, of whom 135 are Catholic. The entire Christian community is sheltering either at the Greek Orthodox Church compound or at the Holy Family Parish compound. Most Christians have preferred to stay in the north of the Gaza Strip together with their community in the Christian compounds, although Israeli forces asked Palestinian civilians to flee to the south to avoid being caught in the battle.
In a heartfelt appeal during an Angelus prayer Dec. 17, Pope Francis called for an end to the "terrorism" of war, condemning the previous day's attack in which -- the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said -- an Israeli army sniper shot and killed Nahida Khalil Anton, and her daughter, Samar Kamal Anton, as they walked to a convent at the Holy Family Parish compound in Gaza. The convent of the Missionaries of Charity also was targeted.
In a Christmas message released Dec. 21, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem denounced "all violent actions and call for their end."
"We likewise call upon the people of this land and around the globe to seek the graces of God so that we might learn to walk with each other in the paths of justice, mercy, and peace," they wrote.
Contributing to this story were David Agren, Killian Chimtom, Paulina Guzik and Jonathan Luxmoore.