Reflections on a Visit to Syria – Part 4

syria-president-visiting-front-line

An Anglican colleague of one of our friends, Rev. Andrew Ashdown, recently returned from a visit to Syria. Rev. Ashdown led the first British Christian delegation to Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011 and which saw numerous meetings with local political and religious leaders and Christian communities.

He has written a fascinating account of the visit.

REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT TO SYRIA – Part 4

31 August – 7 September 2016

Journey from Damascus to Homs

It was with trepidation that we began the journey to Aleppo. What was before the war a five hour journey on a direct highway is now an 8 hour journey on a route that is regularly attacked by ISIS on one side and Jabhat Al Nusra on the other. Because of the make-up of the group, and the danger, particularly closer to Aleppo we were provided with an armed escort in convoy, though our own vehicle was a ‘low key’ very cramped minibus. The first part of the journey to Homs is largely safe having been secured by the Syrian Army.

I have travelled this segment several times since April 2014 when it was still at risk of sniper and shell attack. Most of the villages en route had been destroyed in intense battles, but it was encouraging to see rebuilding taking place, and even more surprising to find the occasional ‘motorway restaurant ‘ newly restored and serving the people who travel this route. Homs was a divided city. The part of the city that was occupied by ‘rebels’, which included the Old City and the Christian quarter was largely destroyed, but the rest of the city remains vibrant, though rarely safe and has suffered numerous car-bomb attacks by the rebels which have killed hundreds of people and injured thousands.

Today, there is a feeling of hope. The amnesty and reconciliation process agreed by the Government and arranged with the help of local faith leaders, means that most fighters have now left or laid down their arms. Some have even joined the Syrian army. (This process, which has led to dozens of ceasefires around the country and the rehabilitation of many fighters has been largely dismissed by most of the international community despite its success.) Quite a few of those who fled rebel- controlled areas of the city are now returning and starting to rebuild a life among the ruins. But the peace is fragile.

In Homs we stopped at a checkpoint for some rest and refreshment. We talked with the soldiers before continuing the more dangerous part of the journey. The next day, that very checkpoint was one of four in the country blown up by co-ordinated car- bomb attacks by the ‘moderate’ rebels. Over 40 people were killed and dozens injured in that particular blast, including amongst them probably the soldiers with whom we had talked and who had wished us well the day before. None of these attacks were reported in the western media.

Journey from Homs to Aleppo. The Castello Rd.

One of the main reasons for travelling to Syria was as a Pastoral one to honour an invitation by Christians in Aleppo to visit and to see for ourselves the realities there. The journey to Aleppo is currently one of the most dangerous in the world, with the only access to the government-controlled part of the city (where most of the population live) being via a circuitous route close to ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra lines, who regularly attack the road. If it wasn’t for a 20km track into the city opened up by the Syrian Army, 1.5million people would be under rebel-siege, as they were for nearly three years. Their story though is rarely told by media networks who are embedded with terrorist groups on the other side. For us, not going to Aleppo was not an option, despite the danger, and we are grateful to the Syrian government both for the permission to do so, and for the security the Army provided for the journey.

The journey from Homs however is a profound experience, for it involves hours of travelling across expansive plains, through miles of destroyed and deserted villages and towns that had been occupied, terrorised and destroyed by Islamist fighters, and the battles that ensued. Most of the millions of internally displaced who fled to the comparative safety of government-controlled areas, and refugees who have fled the country fled early in the fighting, both because of the brutality of the rebel groups, and because of the government bombing of the enemy. But none of us realised the extent of destruction which had been done at the hands of the fighters, who would destroy the homes and factories of anyone who opposed them.

As we passed through the deserted destroyed streets of one large town, we saw graffiti insulting a local Saudi Sheikh who had preached the Wahhabi ideology, and who had encouraged the town to rise up against the secular government. Throughout our visit, people in different places told us that one of the factors leading to the uprising had been the influence of Wahhabi doctrine on the thousands of Syrians who had gone to Saudi Arabia to work and study prior to the conflict. This was an insight of a which I had not been previously aware.

Continuing the journey, we pass many burnt out vehicles, the occasional tank, and Syrian army and Russian positions. And the tension rises as we approach Aleppo, the most dangerous part of the journey.

One of the most poignant sights of the journey, is the obliterated industrial city on the outskirts of Aleppo. Prior to the conflict there were four industrial cities, comprising thousands of factories producing all kinds of products. Of the four only one remains. The largest was outside Aleppo- a city comprising 5000 factories which produced numerous products for export. When the western- backed rebels overran the area, they stripped the factories of all the machinery and took it to Turkey; and then destroyed the buildings. Today it is a deserted city of ruins – a symbol of the deliberate attempt to destroy the economic heart of Syria.

The last part of the journey is a difficult 20km pot-holed track through demolished suburbs, with sandbanks to protect from sniper fire. It is regularly attacked. Yet this is the only lifeline and access to the city for the 1.5 million people who live in the government-controlled parts of the city.

And then – suddenly and without warning – the bombed out streets become normal, and you enter the government-controlled city, where the majority are getting on with their lives, under the constant threat of the rockets and ‘hell-fire canon’ – the gas canister missiles that shower down upon the city bringing death and destruction, not from the government, but from the ‘moderate’ rebels. And one discovers that the whole city is not destroyed, but that most of it, and the majority of its population, are still standing and getting on with their lives.

Men fill gas canisters with explosive for usage with a cannon named "Borkan" (Volcano) inside a weapon factory in Aleppo countryside March 5, 2015. The "Borkan" is made out of four tubes attached to a loader, which can fire four shells at a time, and have a range of three kilometres (1.86 miles).    Picture taken March 5, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail (SYRIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR4SGAQ

Important Pro-Life Appointment in Russia

russia-pro-life-anna-kuznetsova1

Experienced pro-family activist, and pro-life counselor, Anna Kuznetsova, who is a 34 year-old mother of six children, has been appointed as Ombudsman for Children’s Rights for the Russian Federation by President Putin.

The post of Children’s Ombudsman was created in 2009 and provides for the Ombudsman to supply expert advice and to present conclusions and recommendations to legislative bodies on any issues concerning children. The Ombudsman also has the power to review the work and make enquiries of any Federal or Municipal body and can file complaints whenever necessary.

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Reflections on a Visit to Syria – Part 3

Syria - Maaloula

An Anglican colleague of one of our friends, Rev. Andrew Ashdown, recently returned from a visit to Syria. Rev. Ashdown led the first British Christian delegation to Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011 and which saw numerous meetings with local political and religious leaders and Christian communities.

He has written a fascinating account of the visit.

REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT TO SYRIA – Part 3

31 August – 7 September 2016

Formal meetings: Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, Presidential Adviser and Tourism Minister Besher Yazji

Our first day in Syria was taken up in formal meetings. This was not an official delegation and never claimed to be, but it was appropriate and courteous that as the first British group with significant members to visit the country since the start of the conflict, we should respond to official invitations. Meeting with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, the eloquent Political and Media Adviser to the President, she pointed out that even in the Presidential Office, the diversity of the country is represented, with senior staff coming from Sunni, Shia and Christian communities. She was highly critical of the biased international media representation of realities in Syria (a criticism echoed by everyone we met throughout the country); and asked why the West claims to be fighting terrorism  whilst allying with countries who are funding and supporting terrorists. Dr Shaaban acknowledged that there had been mistakes in dealing with political unrest, but like other ordinary citizens we spoke with, she said that the war had stifled the development of the active civil society that was beginning to emerge prior to the conflict. Reforms and the development of democratic processes could only take place in a peaceful context.

We then visited the Minister for Tourism, Besher Yazji. He is a younger man who is passionate about the abundant historical heritage of the country. Immediately prior to the conflict, the government had been doing a huge amount of work to restore monuments and improve the tourist infrastructure in the country – something I witnessed for myself in 2010. He lamented the massive destruction and looting of historical sites, most of which had taken place at the hand of extremist factions whose ideology wishes to obliterate the diverse history, culture and faith of the country. He pointed out that where sites had been liberated from terrorist control, restoration work has already begun (as we saw for ourselves in the restoration of the churches in Maaloula.)

Of course the tourism industry, a major source of income for the country has been devastated by the conflict, with hundreds of hotels and restaurants closed. However, the tourism industry is picking up a little. Pilgrims continue to visit the Shia and Christian shrines in the country, and as the security situation has improved in many of the government-controlled areas of the country, Syrians themselves are wanting to return to places of interest and relaxation that are ‘safe’. Sadly sanctions have deeply affected all the industries and of course with sanctions against Syrian banks the country is mostly operating under a cash economy which is very hard on ordinary people. The Minister said that the concert that was held in the amphitheatre at Palmyra after its liberation, where Syrian soldiers had been executed by terrorists only months before, (and which was cynically condemned in the western media), was a symbol of the new life and hope that will emerge and that will overcome the horrors of extremism. He emphasised that post conflict every effort will be made to restore the ancient sites and that international experts will be welcome to participate in that process.

Maaloula

We spent a most moving day meeting the people of Maaloula, one of the most famous Christian villages in the Middle East, famed for its early Christian shrines, and for being one of few villages in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus is spoken. Occupied by Jabhat Al Nusra and ‘Free Syrian Army’ ‘rebel’ groups in 2013, we met with leaders of the village and villagers, who spoke of the murder and kidnap the terrorists perpetrated against the Christian population, tragically aided by some of the Muslim villagers, and the attempted destruction of the ancient Christian monasteries. Famed for centuries for its religious co-existence, villagers are traumatised by the events. However, there are signs of hope. The restoration of both shrines and homes has been started and is progressing, and about half the original inhabitants have returned to help rebuild the village. The village is strong in its support of the Syrian Government and the Syrian Army, and are dismayed at the international community’s support of the ‘rebels’, whose brutality they have experienced first hand, and whose sectarian extreme Islamist agenda and intentions are proven and explicit.

The monastery of St Sergius in Maaloula was used for months by the terrorists as their headquarters, and was badly vandalised by them. The Church is 3rd Century, and has a unique pre-Christian altar, which they smashed but which has since been repaired. The numerous historic and valuable icons that adorned the Church were either stolen or destroyed. After visiting the monastery, we walked down the famous gorge to the Convent of St Thekla, a disciple of St Paul. Here, the terrorists burned the Church and the cave shrine where St. Thekla is buried.

Here too, the government is assisting the work of restoration.

A couple of stories…pictured first [a PDF of the report with photographs is available on request] the only pharmacy in Maaloula, which was destroyed by the ‘rebels’ and has recently been reopened. Due to sanctions, only the most basic drugs are available, and those are expensive. Syria used to have a major factory producing pharmaceutical drugs, but it has been destroyed and neither the equipment to produce the drugs or the raw materials to make them are allowed into the country due to sanctions.

Secondly, a picture of Antionette in the Cave in her home where she was shot and seriously injured when ‘rebels’ came into the house and shot dead her brother and two other male relatives when they refused to renounce Christianity. The residents said that the FSA were assisting the attackers. Do we really think these ‘moderates’ will bring ‘democracy’ to the country?

Meeting with the Grand Mufti

It is always a joy to meet with the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr Hassoun. A Sunni Muslim scholar of renown and a spiritual leader of stature. Yet he is vilified for two reasons: firstly that he is an appointee of the government (as all Grand Muftis in the region are); and secondly because of his liberal views towards people of other faiths. The Mufti is passionate about the importance of Syria’s religious diversity and he believes in the theological as well as political significance of the religious minorities. A few years ago he was cynically accused of ‘threatening’ Europe with suicide bombers. This is very far from his character and he has explained time and again that his words were not a threat, but rather a warning of what would happen if Europe continued with its policies. Of course his prophetic prediction has come true. The Mufti told us: “Christ summarised his teaching in ‘God is love’. Any religion not based on love is made by man…God is not in temples, churches or mosques, but in human hearts.” He lamented the rise in Islamic extremism and said we should be wary of its growth in the UK. He could not understand why our Government allies with the country where the worst kind of extremist ideology is nurtured and supported. Dr.Hassoun told us that after his son was murdered by ‘rebels’, he publicly forgave them and asked them to talk to him. The reply they sent was that they would kill him too. He was very clear that terrorism has been imported into Syria by many countries. Of the government he said: “I do not stand against Assad and his government because we are secularists who separate religion from politics. It shouldn’t be for others to tell us what to do. We should decide our own future.” He continued: “If there is a God, we will be asked one question at the day of judgement: Did you love one another? As a Muslim I love Jesus and I call you brothers. Please let us stop fighting. Let’s give our children the flower of love, not the seeds of hatred, or they will ask us; ‘ why didn’t you teach us to love?'”

Meeting with Syrian Orthodox Patriarch. His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem

It was a joy and a privilege to meet the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Syria, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem, and also with him the Bishop of Hassakeh. As we gathered at the Patriarchate, a wedding was taking place in the Church and in a hall next door a family were receiving condolences on the death and funeral of their mother in a terrorist attack in Hassakeh eight days previously. The son of the deceased came in to meet us. Visibly distressed he told us how when terrorists were bombing the town, his parents had hid in a basement but a rocket had landed above them filling their basement with flames and smoke. The mother had 60% burns and all the flesh burned from her legs. His father had 50% burns and was still comatose. They were transferred by military helicopter to a hospital in Damascus but his mother died a few days later.

As he spoke, children were playing in a neighbouring Hall. The Patriarch commented on the cycle of life and death: a Wedding; children playing; a funeral all surrounding us. He said: “Five years ago Syria was not like this. We are a pluralistic society with freedom of religion. Do you think Saudi or Qatar will bring us ‘democracy’? Is it ‘democracy’ that the international community do not allow us to choose our own leader and want to impose another? If the regime is toppled it will be the mullahs ruling like Iran or Egypt. There is no secular opposition; any ‘moderate’ group will only be used by the Muslim Brotherhood. Bashar may be a dictator but he is secular. Christians in this country are siding with those who are defending them. We do not support Bashar as a person but as a representative of the government that is defending us. You say Christians are supporting the regime. But I am not ashamed to support the government that is protecting us, whilst western policies are helping to empty the region of Christians.”

His message to the Churches in Europe was this: “We greatly appreciate you coming here to see us. My message to our Christian brothers and sisters is: ‘please try to understand and come and see for yourselves’. We want to be helped to stay here, not to leave. We want our Churches to have a better life. we want as Syrians to be able to choose our own life and our own future. I hope we will see churches in the West come to visit, and especially the World Council of Churches who haven’t even asked if we are OK. Please support us. God bless you all.”

And to conclude with a comment from myself: Everywhere we went in Syria, everyone expressed such gratitude for our going to visit and listen; especially the Christian communities in Damascus, Maaloula and Aleppo. Why is it that I am one of just a handful of Christian leaders to have made a Pastoral visit to the country, and why is it that the Christian leadership in this country are so  profoundly critical of that engagement? Would Jesus stay silent? Would he follow the politically expedient path? If I believed he would, I would not be a priest.

syria-grand-mufti-and-rev-andrew-ashdown

 

Reflections on a Visit to Syria – Part 2

Our Lady of Damascus Church 1

An Anglican colleague of one of our friends, Rev. Andrew Ashdown, recently returned from a visit to Syria. Rev. Ashdown led the first British Christian delegation to Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011 and which saw numerous meetings with local political and religious leaders and Christian communities.

He has written a fascinating account of the visit.

REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT TO SYRIA – Part 2

31 August – 7 September 2016

Damascus

The journey into Syria is always one of mixed emotions…excitement and anticipation at meeting friends and being a witness to profound, complex and painful realities; and a realistic unease that nowhere is completely safe. That concern was particularly heightened on this occasion knowing that we would be travelling to Aleppo. Though that journey is literally life-threatening, not going was not an option. We had been invited by the Armenian Church and by the Chaldaean Catholic Bishop, and we felt it vital to make a Pastoral visit to the city and to be a witness to what we saw and heard. The journey from Beirut is quite magnificent over the Chouf mountains into the Bekaa Valley. Pictured here, we are at the border official waiting room where we were met by my dear friend and guide Qusay, who arranged everything and stayed with us throughout, and by my friend Revd Harout Selimien, President of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Aleppo, one of those who invited us. The journey continues into Damascus through numerous checkpoints, with views over the city, both of the devastated rebel-controlled areas, and the cosmopolitan and bustling city centre which is under government control.

So what is Damascus like in the midst of the conflict?

It is a divided city. The outer areas of the city have been under the control of extremist fighters, and have been heavily bombarded by the government. Most of the residents of these areas fled early on in the fighting from the ‘rebels’ either to join refugees outside Syria, or to the comparative safety of government- controlled areas. (Remember that there are more internally displaced refugees from rebel-held areas being cared for in government-controlled areas than all the external refugees in the region and Europe combined.) Two years ago, I visited some of the refugees on the outskirts of Yarmouk and heard the horrific stories of the brutality of the rebel groups against the citizens, and of the harsh conditions under the ensuing siege. Speaking to other internally displaced people from rebel-held areas, (and we also spoke with others on this visit) they consistently report that supplies that do get through are withheld by the fighters or sold at exorbitant prices to the residents in order to promote the kind of starvation that will evoke international sympathy and condemnation.

Then there is the common misrepresentation of facts. A few weeks ago, the government siege of Darraya was lifted. The UN had told the Syrian government that there were 10000 civilians in the suburb and that they should provide food for 10,000 people. The government consistently argued that there were less than 10,000 people there but nevertheless provided what was asked. When the reconciliation was reached with the help of the local reconciliation committee, the total number of people who left Darraya was 1826 people, of whom 1200 were fighters. (Despite reports of ‘eating grass’, they did not appear to have reached that level of starvation) The remaining civilians (though many are families of the fighters) are now being housed by the Syrian government and Syrian Red Crescent. The fighters are given an option: to be bussed safely to other rebel-held areas; or to receive amnesty, lay down their arms, be reintegrated into the community or join the Syrian army and police. Many have chosen the latter, but of course this is never reported. Consider by contrast what happens when Syrian soldiers are captured by our ‘moderate’ friends anywhere in the country. They are in almost all cases summarily executed, very often by brutal and inhumane means.

Arriving in the centre of Damascus, a city at war, is strange. Security throughout the city is necessarily tight with numerous checkpoints. Citizens are generally accepting of these, as the risks of car bomb and terrorist attacks are high. But on the surface everything appears normal. The streets are busy. People go about their daily lives. Striking too is the evident diversity of the city for which Syria has always been renowned. Dress ranges from modern western to conservative Islamic. People are free to dress and move as they wish. Churches and mosques stand side by side and the Call to Prayer often mingles with the sound of Church bells. Christians, Sunni, Shi’a, Druze, Alawite, Kurds, mix freely on the streets and in the restaurants and markets. It remains a beautiful city. But beneath the surface lie other realities.

This was my fifth visit to Syria since April 2014 and I have seen the changes. The city is certainly quieter since two years ago, when the Old City and the city centre were under continuous ‘rebel’ bombardment, and received regular car- bomb attacks that randomly killed hundreds of people and injured thousands more. And the sound of government bombing of rebel-held suburbs was also frequent. Today such attacks have reduced as government advances and reconciliation initiatives in the Damascus countryside have reduced the threat. There is a renewed sense of hope that the (western-backed) terrorists may not prevail. However the cost on society has been huge, and sanctions are affecting everyone, especially the vulnerable. With the collapse of the Syrian pound, everything is expensive, and the value of incomes has plummeted. There are widespread shortages of essential goods. Electricity cuts are frequent and sometimes electricity is available only 2 hours a day. We were told that some of the power stations that serve the capital are under ‘rebel’ control, and therefore the government are forced to liaise with ‘rebel’ factions and come to financial arrangements in order to ensure the provision of power to the city.

Meanwhile, throughout Syria, including areas under the control of different factions (including IS), government employees are paid in full, and healthcare and education provision continues to be provided free of charge as has always been the case.

However, with the huge strain of millions of internally-displaced flocking from ‘rebel’- held areas to the comparative safety of the government – controlled territories, one sees many people on the streets. Some pavements are filled with clothes either being given away or sold cheaply because many cannot afford to buy in normal shops. Yet, life goes on. There is a perseverance and dignity in the people that is admirable. A common phrase is: ‘Syria will survive: continuing to work and live is our resistance to terrorism. ‘

We must not forget the place of women in society. Women in Syria have enjoyed more freedom of rights in Syria for many years, than almost in any other Arab country. One woman we met whilst walking freely in the streets spoke for many:

“You’ve walked the streets and seen the women. We have total freedom to dress the way we want, to eat what we want and to get appropriate education and medical care. We choose our own way of life. The situation for women in Syria is perfectly good and was before the crisis. Now in areas controlled by Daesh and other groups, women are really suffering: they are not allowed to get education or practice their rights under the control of the extremist mentality. If the regime changed in Syria and these extremists took control of everything, just imagine how miserable life would be for us women. We won’t even be able to walk in the street without a male accompanying us. Females will be forced to stay at home. We can’t imagine that.”

Most Damascenes (indeed most Syrians we spoke with) have no wish to see regime change because the alternative is likely to be too awful to contemplate. They do wish to see reform though and yearn for the international community to stop supporting extremist people of violence and to work with the Government to defeat terrorism, and bring about peace and reform. Damascus was and is one of the most beautiful, diverse and tolerant cities in the Middle East. It is also the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. The people deserve for their voices to be heard. It is unconscionable that those of us who seek to listen and to enable those voices to be heard, are criticised for doing so. This surely raises serious questions about the agendas behind Western policies towards the conflict and the suffering people of Syria.

syria-asma-al-assad-evita-of-the-east

Reflections on a Visit to Syria – Part 1

syria1

An Anglican colleague of one of our friends, Rev. Andrew Ashdown, recently returned from a visit to Syria. Rev. Ashdown led the first British Christian delegation to Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011 and which saw numerous meetings with local political and religious leaders and Christian communities.

He has written a fascinating account of the visit.

REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT TO SYRIA – Part 1

31 August – 7 September 2016

Why Did We Come to Syria

1. We came to listen, to learn, to meet as many people as possible in order to contribute our experiences to the wider discussions of the situation in Syria.

2. We emphasise our commitment to the fundamental principle of impartiality and solidarity with all those who are suffering, whatever their faith and cultural traditions or political views.

3. A pastoral visit to the suffering people of Syria – including Christians, Muslims and Yazidis; to see for ourselves the realities on the ground; to listen to as wide a range of voices as possible who are not being heard outside Syria; to hear from religious leaders, communities and political leaders as well as Internally Displaced People (IDPs).

4. To visit different religious communities in different Syrian locations; to listen to the voices of their members and leader; to experience their places of worship and view any destruction of churches and mosques and loss of ritual treasures.

5. To learn about efforts being made within Syria to bring about a peaceful resolution.

6. To reflect on our response and that of the UK and other members of the international community.

7. To explore academic relationships relating to possible cultural and academic collaboration.

8. We emphasise our fundamental commitment to as much impartiality as possible. For this reason, the visit was at our own expense.

Invitation:

We were invited by the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr. Hassoun, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Armenian Archbishop of Damascus; Bishop Audo of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Aleppo; and Revd. Harout Selimien, President of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Syria.

Participants

Revd. Andrew Ashdown  (Leader of the Group)

Revd. Dr.David Clark

Baroness Caroline Cox

Dr. Simon Fisher

Lord Raymond Hylton

Rt Revd. Michael Nazir-Ali

Ms Jo Simister

Asma al-Assad with Syrian war orphans

Young Catholic Adult Weekend – Berkshire

young-catholic-adults

Young Catholic Adult Weekend @ Douai Abbey 28th – 30th Oct 2016

Are you 18-40, do you want to deepen your knowledge of the Catholic Faith, learn its devotions and meet like minded people? Young Catholic Adults is organizing a weekend at Douai Abbey, in Berkshire, led by Fr. Thomas Crean O.P.

You’ll be able to hear catechetical talks, learn how to sing Gregorian Chant, pray the Rosary, socialize and have fun. Book soon as places are limited! All Masses are in the Old Rite.

Book here – https://v1.bookwhen.com/yca-douai-2016

Updateshttp://youngcatholicadults-latestnews.blogspot.co.uk

Further detailshttp://www.youngcatholicadults.co.uk/events.htm

Prices start from £12.