Eastern European tragedies, disasters and wars have been destroying innocent lives for so long now, many charities find the public has finally shifted its interest elsewhere. James Penn finds out how Catholic charities are coping.
IN THE. TELEVISION age, charity can be one of the first things to suffer. When horrific images of bloodshed and bombshells are on the screen, people may be perfectly happy to reach into their pockets and stump up; but memories are short and, as soon as the grisly footage disappears, the urge to give can too.
This fact of life has struck some of those Catholic agencies engaged in aiding eastern Europe, particularly the former Yugoslavia, and the war state, Bosnia. "We've now pulled out of there. Donations are not coming in on their behalf," said Patrick Phelan of SPICMA (Special Projects in Christian Missionary Areas).
"The war's been dragging on for so long. It's only when you get dramatic TV pictures that you get the input. Especially after three years, interest wanes. People gave very generously when it was on television, but since the ceasefire the donations have gone on the backburner as has the News. What's on the News generates cash.
"Like most charities, our income is down. It's to do with unemployment and the National Lottery," added Mr Phelan. The agency has since become more African-orientated, and moved from emergency aid to development aid.
One charity still very much involved with Yugoslavia is Refugee Aid. The organisation's Ron Waller was in Mostar, in south west Bosnia, a fortnight ago, where they are supplying Caritas Sarajevo with food and medicine. He notes that the country is once again in need of the basics. "They are asking for things they were asking for four years ago. Our next convoy out there on 2 December will take these plus children's shoes and office equipment like old typewriters and computers. They arc trying to set up distribution points in the state, and the equipment will help with that.
"We are also sending out pens, pencils and exercise books for the schools, which have been badly shelled and many of which are in need of rebuilding.
"The centre of Mostar is almost totally destroyed," he added. "Muslims have the old part and Croats the new part." As if the situation wasn't bad enough, British Aid workers have been targeted recently by Muslim soldiers, in retaliation for the alleged shooting by British UN troops of one of their men.
Specialising in the rest of eastern Europe is Aid to the Church in Need, a charity that looks after people's spiritual rather than material needs. Currently, they have 3,000 projects in eastern Europe, said Neville KyrkeSmith. It has been helping since a Dutch priest started it in 1947 to aid Second World War refugees, and began by building chapels near the Iron Curtain.
The organisation must have seemed more like MI6 than a charity during the Cold War, when it went in for sporadic "Biblerunning", smuggling Bibles, catechisms, prayer books and the odd copy of 1984 illicitly into the eastern bloc. Mr Kyrke-Smith was a part of this and regularly ran the risk of being stripsearched as the authorities tried to crack down on the unwanted reading material. He had some interesting run-ins. On one occasion he and his wife were caught trying to take literature into Czechoslovakia. The police confiscated his wife's trunkfull of books, but, little known to them, Mr KyrkeSmith had another suitcasefull of his own 20 kilograms of them. Today, the threat is more likely to come from the Mafia than the secret police.
The charity is not restricted to working with Catholic communities. At present, they arc helping 13 dioceses of the Orthodox Church in Russia. While there are 12,000 Orthodox priests in the countries, there are only 60 Catholic priests.
"We've got to show that Catholicism is not proselytsing, but helping in love," he said.