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China urges religious groups to promote Chinese culture, orders retired officials to shun religion

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BEIJING — A top Politburo official told faith leaders that religious groups must promote Chinese culture and become more compatible with socialism.

Yu Zhengsheng said religious leaders must form a bridge between the Communist Party and hundreds of millions of Chinese that follow the country’s five officially recognized religions — Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism, reported ucanews.com.

Chinese Catholics receive Communion in 2012 during Christmas Eve Mass in Beijing. A top Politburo official told faith leaders that religious groups must promote Chinese culture and become more compatible with socialism. (CNS photo/How Hwee Young, EPA)

Chinese Catholics receive Communion in 2012 during Christmas Eve Mass in Beijing. A top Politburo official told faith leaders that religious groups must promote Chinese culture and become more compatible with socialism. (CNS photo/How Hwee Young, EPA)

Xinhua, China’s state news agency, said Yu “called on religious groups in China to continue adding Chinese characteristics, dig into positive elements in their religions and make more effort in building a religious ideology with Chinese characteristics.”

Yu, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, led the meeting. Vice Premier Liu Yandong and Sun Chunlan, head of the United Work Front Department, which manages relations with faith groups, also attended. National broadcaster CCTV broadcast Yu’s instructions on its evening bulletin Feb. 4, ucanews.com reported.

It said Liu Yuanlong, who took part in his role as vice director of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, was not immediately available for comment.

Without explanation, Beijing has repeatedly postponed a major meeting on religion that was due to be chaired by President Xi Jinping at the end of last year. Delays may be due to problems drawing up a cohesive religious blueprint for the whole country, according to analysts.

Yu has met regularly with religious groups across the country over the past year as the party makes plans for the meeting.

Under Xi, China has veered toward a more repressive policy on religion that has stressed Chinese faiths over those deemed imported from overseas. The Chinese president has regularly quoted from Confucius, whose popularity has been resurgent in recent years, while Christians, Muslims and Buddhists have complained of growing persecution.

Amid a campaign by the provincial authorities in Zhejiang that has led to the removal of more than 1,500 church crosses over the past two years, authorities there have started a new program that includes efforts to tie Bible passages to party doctrine.

In another major shift on religious practice, the party’s Central Committee and State Council have issued a circular ordering retired officials to steer clear of religion, Xinhua reported Feb. 4.

The circular “clearly stated that retired cadres cannot believe in religion, cannot participate in religious activities and must resolutely fight against cults,” the document said.

Retired officials must distinguish between “ethnic customs” and “believing in religions,” it said.

Although Beijing has barred active cadres from practicing religion, this is the first time a state document has also ordered retired officials not to follow a faith since the party set up its retirement system in 1982.

How the state plans to enforce the measure remains unclear. As many as 84 percent of party members admitted some kind of religious belief, a survey by Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society found in 2007.

“Many of the exposed corrupt officials of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) are reported to believe in religion or magic, such as patronizing and consulting spiritual masters,” said Fenggang Yang, the center’s director. “This kind of behavior is probably common among other officials as well.”

Vatican joins international appeals for increase in aid to victims of Syrian crisis

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican joined international appeals for raising money to provide emergency and long-term assistance to the millions of people affected by the crisis in Syria.

Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their country walk with their families Jan. 14 after crossing into Jordanian territory, near the the capital, Amman. (CNS photo/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)

Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their country walk with their families Jan. 14 after crossing into Jordanian territory, near the the capital, Amman. (CNS photo/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)

Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Vatican secretary for relations with states, attended the Syria Donors Conference in London Feb. 4 and said the Catholic Church would continue to help the region through its fundraising efforts. The Vatican released a copy of the archbishop’s address the same day.

The meeting, co-hosted by the United Kingdom, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations, was meant to gather together leaders from world governments and NGOs to raise funding and support to address the six-year-long humanitarian crisis.

The conference website said there are 13.5 million vulnerable and displaced people inside Syria, and 4.2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries in need of assistance.

U.N. agencies have appealed for $8.4 billion to help those in Syria and refugees in host countries.

In his address, Archbishop Gallagher said the crisis in Syria was marked by “ever-increasing human suffering, including extreme cases of malnourishment of innocent children and other civilians, especially among the high number of people who are trapped in hard-to-reach and besieged areas.”

Religious minorities, including Christians, “suffer disproportionately the effects of war and social upheaval in the region,” he said.

“In fact, their very presence and existence are gravely threatened,” he said, which is why “Pope Francis has repeatedly called attention to the particular needs of Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East.”

The Vatican and the Catholic Church have been responding to the crisis “from the very beginning” by providing not just
“emergency aid but also the medium and long-term needs of refugees and host countries,” he said, adding that the Vatican welcomes the conference’s emphasis on providing education, jobs and economic development as part of aid programs.

Just last year, he said, Catholic dioceses, aid agencies and NGOs in partnership with governments and other international organizations provided $150 million in humanitarian assistance that directly benefited more than 4 million people. The assistance went to educational programs, food and nonfood aid, health care, housing, work programs and direct cash assistance.

Catholic agencies and entities, he said, “make no distinction regarding the religious or ethnic identity of those requiring assistance,” but they do try to give priority to the most vulnerable and those most in need, which include religious minorities.

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Haitian bishops call for negotiated solution to political crisis

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Catholic News Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti’s Catholic bishops urged political leaders to reach a negotiated solution to the country’s looming political crisis as President Michel Martelly’s term ends Feb. 7 and elections to find a successor have been indefinitely delayed.

“It is high time that the people know how we will run the country after that date,” the bishops said in a statement released Feb. 1 after meeting in an extraordinary assembly.

A man crosses a police cordon during a protest against the government and the electoral process Jan. 29 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Haiti's Catholic bishops urged political leaders to reach a negotiated solution to the country's looming political crisis as President Michel Martelly's term ends Feb. 7 and elections to find a successor have been indefinitely delayed. (CNS photo/Andres Martinez Casares, Reuters)

A man crosses a police cordon during a protest against the government and the electoral process Jan. 29 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Haiti’s Catholic bishops urged political leaders to reach a negotiated solution to the country’s looming political crisis as President Michel Martelly’s term ends Feb. 7 and elections to find a successor have been indefinitely delayed. (CNS photo/Andres Martinez Casares, Reuters)

The church leaders urged that a “mutually acceptable” agreement must be reached quickly “with wisdom, insight, moderation and patriotism.”

“It is imperative to prepare all the Haitian people to manage the coming days as responsible citizens,” the bishops said in calling the country “to come together in order to reach an agreement based on the constitution and Haitian wisdom to ensure the continuity of the state and political stability of country in the respect for life, property and fundamental rights of the human person.”

The bishops pledged to accompany Haitians on “the path to dialogue, peace and development.”

The crisis has grown since the first round of elections in October to determine which candidates would have faced off in December. The vote later was delayed until Jan. 24, then was called off by the country’s electoral commission over safety concerns.

Martelly is constitutionally prohibited from seeking re-election, and his term ends Feb. 7. He has backed little-known candidate Jovenel Moise, who won the first round of voting with about a third of the vote. Moise remains the favorite.

However, opposition candidate Jude Celestin, who finished a close second to Moise, has refused to campaign, charging that the government was working against him.

Haiti’s 213-year history has been marred by discord and conflict. The country suffered one of its most severe setbacks in 2010 when a devastating earthquake claimed tens of thousands of lives and left more than 1.5 million people homeless in Port-au-Prince and its surroundings. Hundreds of people continue to live in tent camps that popped up after the disaster.

Martelly has been criticized by opposition leaders, who cited his inability to live up to campaign promises to remake Haiti’s image in the wake of the earthquake. He also has alienated many former supporters because of his brashness and go-it-alone attitude.

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Eucharist, the Lord’s meal, must create a culture that welcomes all, says Manila cardinal

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CEBU, Philippines — The Eucharist is supposed to create a new culture, one that is welcoming and only sees the flaws and failures of others as a reminder of one’s own need for God’s mercy, said Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle. Read more »

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U.S. priest laments destruction of Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — Catholic clergy lamented the destruction of Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery, St. Elijah, and urged the international community to do more to stop such assaults.

“I had the same emotional and perhaps spiritual experience as I did when I was standing over the bodies of fallen soldiers,” Father Jeffrey Whorton told Catholic News Service after seeing pictures of the monastery’s destruction.

This 2009 photo shows the remains of St. Elijah Monastery in Mosul, Iraq. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the recent destruction of Iraq's oldest Christian monastery after a preservation effort was mounted to save the 1,400-year-old site. (CNS photo/courtesy Father Jeffrey Whorton)

This 2009 photo shows the remains of St. Elijah Monastery in Mosul, Iraq. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the recent destruction of Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery after a preservation effort was mounted to save the 1,400-year-old site. (CNS photo/courtesy Father Jeffrey Whorton)

Father Whorton served as a Catholic chaplain for the U.S. military in Iraq and holds the rank of major, was instrumental along with others in seeing a preservation initiative mounted on the 1,400-old structure. Father Whorton said he believed he was the last priest in 2009 to “offer Mass on that altar before it was destroyed.”

The last recorded church service in recent years to take place inside the monastery’s walls was the Easter Vigil in 2010, but that was held in the courtyard rather than the altar area.

Reading of the destruction “was that profound and surprisingly strong emotion because of my connection with the monastery,” Father Whorton, who now works at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, told CNS. “It was a kind of a grief that was like a loss of life almost.”

The Associated Press confirmed the news that the ancient monastery on the outskirts of Mosul had been turned into a field of rubble, with exclusive satellite images published early Jan. 20. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility.

Father Whorton said the chance to both worship and give informal tours of the monastery during his tour of duty in Iraq “was probably the highlight of my entire priesthood.”

“I was able to offer Mass there three or four times on that altar. I was made very aware of the great cloud of witnesses,” said Father Whorton, explaining his sense of those ancient Christians who had worshipped over the centuries at St. Elijah.

“In the forefront of my mind was the reality that in 1700s, 150 or so (monks) had been martyred there,” the American priest said. “So I knew I was in a sacred place offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass. I felt extremely unworthy standing at the venerable altar. That, along with celebrating with the Holy Father, was the highlight of my entire priesthood.”

People were forced to bend down physically to enter the monastery. It was a “humble acquiescence of bending low for this great space that you are entering,” the priest said.

Father Whorton said another unusual feature was a piece of wood shaped like a yoke that stood above the entrance to the nave.

“For me, there was a kind of putting on the yoke of Christ and to bend low into that space where my fallen brothers and sisters had died (centuries ago). It was extremely emotional and a spiritually palpable event for me,” he said of his experience ministering in the ancient monastery.

“God became present once again on that ancient altar as he has done thousands and thousands of time throughout the 1,400 years of its existence. That’s the weight of glory,” Father Whorton said.

Many had voiced concern about the fate of the monastery after Islamic State militants swept into the area in June 2014 and had cut off most communication there. Hundreds of thousands of Christians were forced to flee rather than convert to Islam, pay a protection tax or be killed.

Father Whorton said the finality of ancient monastery’s fate has weighed heavy on him.

“I did not realize until I saw the pictures of the destruction that I would be one of the ones to literally close the door on this ancient church,” he said.

“I hope that I closed it with all the necessary decorum that is due to such a venerable place,” he added.

Assyrian Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI, denounced the attack as yet another assault once again on Christians and their heritage in their ancient homeland.

“Dozens and dozens of scientific, philosophic, historical and other books were written or translated in such monasteries. This is a memory of Iraq which has been cut off,” he said.

“When they damage my 2,000 years of Christianity and 5,000 years of Assyrian heritage as the indigenous people of this country, my question is this: If my history is being damaged, my present is being threatened, is there any future?” the cleric asked.

He cited examples of the Islamic State’s bulldozing the Assyrian city of Nimrod, where the Tower of Babel is believed to have existed. The United Nations called its destruction cultural cleansing and a war crime.

Father Youkhana also drew attention to the destruction of archaeological sites in Ninevah along with the forced displacement of Christians and other religious minorities long present in Iraq from their historic area.

He renewed a call for the international community to do more to preserve the Christian presence in their ancient homeland, saying it pained him to see many Christians escaping for safety to the West.

“What will be the future of Oriental Christianity if we don’t protect or give future chances for Christians to survive and to build a future,” he said. “We have to keep this mosaic and diversity, not give up.”

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Church leaders condemn vandalism at two Christian sites in Jerusalem

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — One week after a Christian cemetery was desecrated outside of Jerusalem, two more Christian sites were vandalized in the city.

Several anti-Christian slogans in Hebrew were discovered scrawled along the walls of the Benedictine Dormition Abbey monastery and the neighboring Greek Orthodox seminary, both located on Mount Zion next to the walls of the Old City.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem denounced the acts, which occurred Jan. 16 and 17, and repeated its belief in the importance of education toward tolerance while urging “follow-up” against those who incite intolerance against Christians.

“It is regrettable that such episodes of hatred come 50 years after ‘Nostra Aetate’ which initiated the interreligious dialogue of the Catholic Church with other religions, and turned a new page between Catholic Church and Judaism,” the patriarchate said in a statement Jan. 17. “We hope that the perpetrators will be arrested before proposed threats are carried out.”

For the Dormition Abbey, which is believed to have been built on the spot where Mary died, it was the fifth time the building was vandalized in recent years. A fire that broke out at the monastery in February was determined to be arson, and another arson incident took place just after Pope Francis’ visit to the monastery in May 2015. In 2012 and 2013, anti-Christian graffiti also appeared on abbey walls.

Authorities said the graffiti appeared to be written by different hands. Photographs depicting the graffiti showed statements such as “Christians go to hell,” “Death to the heathen Christians, the enemies of Israel” and “Let his (Jesus’) name and memory be obliterated.”

Benedictine Father Nikodemus Schnabel, spokesman for the abbey, said in a statement Jan. 17 that the red and black paint the Israeli police used to crudely and unsuccessfully try to cover up the graffiti did even more damage.

He noted that between the nights of Jan. 16 and 17, there had been a loud and aggressive gathering with music and chanting by “Jewish right-wing radicals” in their neighborhood near the contested Tomb of David site. He said such disruptive gatherings have taken place nearly every Saturday for three years.

The graffiti, he said, was found in an area of the monastery that is not monitored by security cameras despite what he said was promised by Israeli security authorities in the summer 2013 when several monastery cars were badly damaged and hate graffiti was discovered on monastery walls.

Mickey Rosenfeld, Israeli police spokesman, said he was unaware of such a promise about cameras and that police were investigating the most recent.

“We call on the security agencies to take appropriate measures against this hate crime and to work toward an improvement of the security situation on Mount Zion as it has been promised since summer 2013,” Father Schnabel said in his statement. “We are grateful for the overwhelming solidarity of all our friends in Israel. We as monks of Dormition Abbey will not cease to pray for reconciliation, justice and peace and also for the perpetrators of tonight, that hatred may disappear from their hearts.”

As they have done since 2011 after other incidents, Tag Meir, a faith-based organization working to end racism in Israel, sent a delegation of members in support of the monastery and seminary to denounce the attack.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attacks during a weekly cabinet meeting, saying “there is no place for actions like these.”

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Anglican leaders suspend U.S. Episcopalians from world body over same-sex marriage

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Catholic News Service

Because of the U.S. Episcopal Church’s moves to unilaterally change canon law to allow same-sex marriage, Anglican leaders voted to suspend Episcopalians from positions representing the Anglican Communion and from participating in some Anglican bodies.

Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, speaks with protestors on the grounds of England's Canterbury Cathedral, which was closed for a meeting of primates of the Anglican Church. At the meeting, Anglican leaders sanctioned Episcopalians over same-sex marriage. (CNS photo/Toby Melville, Reuters)

Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, speaks with protestors on the grounds of England’s Canterbury Cathedral, which was closed for a meeting of primates of the Anglican Church. At the meeting, Anglican leaders sanctioned Episcopalians over same-sex marriage. (CNS photo/Toby Melville, Reuters)

Primates meeting in Canterbury, England, said that for three years, members of the Episcopal Church will be barred sitting on Anglican bodies making decisions on doctrine and polity and from representing the Communion on ecumenical and interfaith bodies.

The move comes in response to a policy allowing gay marriages, adopted last year by the General Convention, or governing body, of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church in the United States.

The change in canon law in the U.S. has been strongly opposed by many of the theologically conservative African churches, some of whose leaders had threatened to walk out of the five-day primate meeting if the Episcopal Church was not penalized for its actions.

The suspension was announced in a statement issued by the primates Jan. 14, a day earlier than planned because of leaks to the media.

It said the changes in teaching on marriage in the Episcopal Church represent a “fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our provinces on the doctrine of marriage,” which it defined as a lifelong union between a man and a woman.

The change had caused “deep pain,” impaired the Anglican Communion by placing “huge strains” on its unity, and created “deeper mistrust between us,” the statement said.

The policy set a precedent that could be copied by other provinces, such as Canada, where Anglicans will vote on same-sex marriage in July, and this “could further exacerbate this situation,” the statement said.

It added that the primates had expressed a “unanimous commitment to walk together” and had asked Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, to appoint a task group to work toward dialogue, trust and healing among the provinces.

The Jan. 11-15 meeting brought together 39 Anglican primates to reflect on the challenges posed to the unity of their communion.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry addressed his fellow bishops before they voted for suspension, telling them that Episcopalians were committed to creating “an inclusive church.”

“This decision will bring real pain,” he said in comments he later released to the Episcopal News Service. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain.

“For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope,” he continued. “This will add pain on top of pain.”

The Global Anglican Future Conference, a coalition of conservative Anglican leaders from around the world, welcomed the suspension, adding that “this action must not be seen as an end, but as a beginning.” The suspension infuriated gay rights activists, however, with some traveling to Canterbury Jan. 15 to demonstrate at a “vigil” outside the meeting.

Paulist Father Ron Roberson, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said he doubted the suspension would have an impact on ARCUSA, the 50-year-old dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the USCCB Committee on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs.

He told Catholic News Service Jan. 14 that while “the statement of the primates could be open to different interpretations,” in the bilateral dialogue, “the Episcopal Church never claimed to represent the other Anglican provinces.”

Each province of the Anglican Communion is independent and runs its own affairs; even the Archbishop of Canterbury has no authority over an individual province like the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Vatican Radio Jan. 15 that he hopes the next three years “will be used to find deeper unity within the Anglican Communion.”

The cardinal noted that the official Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, the official body for Catholic-Anglican theological dialogue, is discussing on a general level what the Anglican primates were dealing with at their meeting.

“On the one hand, there is the relationship between the local church and the universal church,” while on the other hand there is a need “to find greater unity” in dealing with ethical questions. “These are the principal themes of our dialogue and have become visible now in the Anglican Communion. It would be beautiful if our dialogue was able to be of help to the Anglican Communion so that it would find its unity again.”

The Episcopal Church, which has about 2 million members, is among the most liberal of Anglican provinces in the world and has continuously divided opinion among Anglicans with its policies.

Tensions came to the fore in 2003 when Canon Gene Robinson, who was openly gay, was elected an Episcopal bishop. Soon afterward, then-Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury asked the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada to halt any future such ordinations and to withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council.

After Mary Douglas Glasspool, a lesbian, was ordained as suffragan bishop of Los Angeles in 2010, Archbishop Williams barred members of the Episcopal Church from representing the Anglican Communion on international ecumenical dialogue commissions.

 

Contributing to this story were Barb Fraze in Washington and Cindy Wooden at the Vatican.

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Bishops visiting Holy Land urge peace efforts to help ‘forgotten’ Christians

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — With crises in Syria and Iraq deepening, Catholic bishops on a solidarity visit with the “forgotten” Christians of the Middle East are urging stepped-up peace efforts to resolve conflicts tearing apart the troubled region.

Highlighting the ongoing plight of Iraqi Christian refugees who face another winter of displacement, 18 months after fleeing persecution by Islamic State militants, is also their top concern.

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

“They want a future which is full of peace,” Bishop Declan Lang of Bristol, England, said of the Iraqi Christians who attended a packed, solemn Mass at Our Lady of Peace Center on the hilly, tree-lined outskirts of the Jordanian capital.

“These people are of tremendous faith, and that’s where they find their identity. What we are trying to say to them is that you are not forgotten,” Bishop Lang told Catholic News Service.

Bishop Lang has been leading 12 bishops from Europe, South Africa and North America on the third and final leg of a pilgrimage to encourage Christians in the Holy Land. Known as the Holy Land Coordination, the annual event was set up at the invitation of the Holy See at the end of the last century to offer support to local Christian communities of the Holy Land.

The bishops earlier traveled to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to encourage a Palestinian Christian population increasingly dwindling in the land of Jesus’ birth.

But the bishops told Catholic News Service that it also was important to hear from Iraqi Christians and other refugees, so the wider Christian community can effectively help them.

“It’s important that we remind our governments and the general population of the situation of Iraqi Christians,” Bishop Lang said of the some 8,000 Iraqi Christians currently sheltering in neighboring Jordan.

They fled their ancient homeland of more than 14 centuries after Islamic State militants told them to convert to Islam, be killed or leave. Tens of thousands are internally displaced in northern Iraq.

“So one of the responsibilities and obligations that we have is to keep reminding people of the stress and distress of the Iraqi refugees,” Bishop Lang said.

One Iraqi Christian, identified only as Bashar, said after the Mass, “My family and I sadly feel that we can never go back to our home in Mosul.” A mechanical engineer, the man had once owned his own telecom company in Iraq’s second-biggest city, which is now in the hands of Islamic State.

“The military didn’t protect us, and our Muslim neighbors betrayed us, even robbing us of our personal possessions. So we believe that the only future for us is somewhere in the West,” said the man, who now shelters with his family of four at the center’s compound because he has lost his savings.

Bishop Lionel Gendron of St. Jean-Longueuil, Quebec, told CNS that one of the first things he plans to do is talk to the new Canadian government about the issue of opening more resettlement opportunities to Iraqi Christians.

“I will insist on the fact. Iraqis are practically not allowed to go back to their country,” the Canadian bishop said. “Many Syrians left (their country) because of the war and the political situation, while the Iraqis left mainly because of their faith.”

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told CNS that “the time for peace is now.”

While praising the work of the international Catholic charity, Caritas, which aids more than 1 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the other humanitarian efforts in Jordan, he called them “a band-aid.”

“It’s not sustainable in the long run,” said Bishop Cantu, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “We have to look at the root causes of these issues. It’s in everyone’s interest to build peace, so we will certainly be advocating for that as we return.”

“It’s also important that the U.S. take in its fair share of refugees,” Bishop Cantu said of the increasingly divisive issue in the United States.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, accompanied Bishop Cantu on the visit. He said the office’s work on behalf of “all the peoples of the Middle East” has involved supporting a resolution in Congress declaring that Iraqi Christians and Yezidis have suffered genocide at the hands of Islamic State militants. He said his office also has worked to encourage the U.S. to accept its “fair share of refugees” and “invest in more resources for countries, like Jordan, to cope with the refugee influx, so they are not destabilized.”

Colecchi emphasized the need for active international peace efforts that recognize the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East.

“We’ve got to work for peace and ultimately stop the atrocities of Islamic State and the flow of refugees,” he said.

“A more united and effective response is needed to that kind of extremism from which Muslims are suffering and particularly, Christians and Yezidis, are targeted by,” Colecchi added.

Among the other bishops who took part in the Holy Land Coordination were Bishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, South Africa; Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England; Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, Ireland; and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway, Scotland.

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South Sudan bishop says attack on nuns shakes church

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Catholic News Service

YAMBIO, South Sudan — An attack on religious sisters at a teacher training college in South Sudan has shaken and saddened the church, a church leader said, while urging people of faith to demand the implementation of the latest peace accord to end the civil war.

Violence and fear-mongering seem “rampant in both church and society” in the northeast African country, said Bishop Edward Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio.

Sister Sandra Amado, a Comboni sister from Brazil, teaches a class in 2012 at a teacher training institute in Yambio, South Sudan. A late-December attack on religious sisters at the training institute in South Sudan has shaken and saddened the church, a church leader said. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Sister Sandra Amado, a Comboni sister from Brazil, teaches a class in 2012 at a teacher training institute in Yambio, South Sudan. A late-December attack on religious sisters at the training institute in South Sudan has shaken and saddened the church, a church leader said. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Five armed men, believed to be allied to South Sudan’s main rebel group, assaulted and threatened religious sisters at the Solidarity Teacher Training College in Yambio, the capital of the country’s Western Equatoria state, Dec. 28.

After climbing the fence surrounding the college, the men confronted the nuns, who were locking up the building for the night, and demanded guns, cash, phones and computers, De La Salle Brother Bill Firman, director of Solidarity with South Sudan, said in a statement.

“Of course the sisters had no guns, but handed over the other items” and the men drove away in two cars, Brother Firman said.

“It was clearly a planned attack, but the assailants were not familiar with the compound,” he said, noting that it was “a very traumatic incident, but there were no casualties.”

More than 100 people have been killed since May in Western Equatoria, which until then had been relatively peaceful in war-torn South Sudan. In early December, violent battles erupted between armed groups in Yambio.

Solidarity with South Sudan is a Catholic missionary group implementing teacher and health training, agriculture, trauma healing and pastoral programs in many parts of South Sudan, under the auspices of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

According to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur website, the Solidarity community in Yambio includes religious from different congregations around the world, including Montana and California as well as Ecuador, Ireland and New Zealand.

Fifty students graduated from the college mid-November and were to teach in primary schools around South Sudan.

Despite being offered the option of “withdrawing from this area that has experienced a rapid decline in law and order,” most Solidarity members have chosen to stay “as the college is one of the few signs of hope and providers of opportunity for the people of this disturbed nation,” Brother Firman said.

While classes are set to resume Jan. 11, Brother Firman said he expects the number of students to be lower than before.

“The insecurity and tribal divisions are making people unwilling to travel far” from home, he said, noting that “a return to unity and normal levels of security are essential” for people to be able to use the educational opportunities offered by Solidarity.

Two years ago, fighting broke out in Juba, capital of South Sudan, between ethnic Dinka and Nuer in the presidential guard. This was months after President Salva Kiir, who is Dinka, fired his vice president, Riek Machar, who is Nuer.

The conflict soon turned into an all-out war in which thousands of South Sudanese have been killed and about 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

Bishop Kussala called on people of faith to “demand that our political representatives find ways to implement” an August peace agreement signed by Kiir, Machar and other stakeholders and to work toward ending the “senseless violence.”

Noting that “our communities are disrupted and lives are fractured by such violence,” the bishop said he prays that people “will reach out to one another with the love of God and with a voice that inspires justice, courage and peace.”

Noting that “not a day seems to go by without a news story that sends shivers down my spine,” Bishop Kussala said in a statement that he was devastated at recent attacks, including that on the religious sisters.

A deep sense of tragedy “hangs in the air and, in addition to praying for the perpetrators, those killed, injured, harmed and all of their families, I find myself lamenting the lack of progress” in ending the attacks, he said.

Noting religious leaders’ efforts to bring about gun control, Bishop Kussala said that “our awareness of the massiveness of the task should not lead us to give up in despair but encourage us to do what we can, where we are, with what we have.”

“We are called more than ever to be witnesses of hope,” he said.

After attending prayer services at St. Teresa Cathedral in Juba Dec. 27, Kiir called for peace and reconciliation in the country, according to the Sudan Tribune. He urged churches, other faith-based groups and civil society to help his government disseminate messages of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.

The previous day, in a message broadcast on state-run television, the president said he had assured the rebels of the government’s commitment “to do whatever we can do to implement this peace agreement in order for us to return the country back to normal.”

In a New Year message, Machar assured the people of South Sudan that his rebel group is working to ensure that the August peace deal is implemented.

While saying that Kiir’s creation of 28 new states without consultation was an obstacle to the accord’s implementation, Machar noted that 78 members of the rebel group arrived in Juba in late December and met with Kiir and other government leaders in preparation for further negotiations.

By Bronwen  Dachs

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Bishop says Mexican mayor’s murder was message from organized crime

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Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY — The assassination of a Mexican mayor the day after she assumed office was a message from organized crime and evidence of its influence in the area around the city of Cuernavaca, said the bishop who celebrated her funeral Mass.

“How is it possible that all of a region of the state is in the hands of organized crime, that people are paying protection money,” said Bishop Ramon Castro Castro of Cuernavaca, in comments published by the newspaper Reforma.

Gisela Mota takes the oath of office as new mayor of Temixco, Mexico, Jan. 1. She was killed the next day at her home by four gunmen. (CNS photo/Stringer, Reuters)

Gisela Mota takes the oath of office as new mayor of Temixco, Mexico, Jan. 1. She was killed the next day at her home by four gunmen. (CNS photo/Stringer, Reuters)

“This is evidence of our reality,” Bishop Castro said Jan. 3 outside the home of slain Mayor Gisela Mota in Temixco, about 50 miles south of Mexico City in Morelos state. “I’ve been saying it for some time and pleading, and no one has been able to do anything.”

He said Mota’s murder sends the message, “If you don’t cooperate with organized crime, look at what’s going to happen to you.”

“This crime is a signature act that characterizes the failed public security system in the state,” he said at the funeral. “I hope and pray to God that Gisela’s death helps to make us all more conscious.”

Authorities said Mota was murdered after assailants burst into her home Jan. 2, one day after she took the oath of office. Two of the suspects were subsequently killed in a shootout with police, while three more were arrested. The exact motive remains unclear, though Mota promised to clean up Temixco, a suburb of Cuernavaca.

Morelos Gov. Graco Ramirez said the suspects belonged to a drug cartel known as Los Rojos. The mayor’s Party of the Democratic Revolution said at least 100 mayors in Mexico had been attacked over the past 10 years as criminal groups attempt to infiltrate and corrupt local governments.

Drug cartels have been fighting over territory in Morelos for much of the past decade, causing crime to escalate and damaging the tourism economy of Cuernavaca, a city once popular with expatriates and weekenders from Mexico City and known previously for its local pastor, now-deceased Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo, nicknamed the “Red Bishop.”

Former Mexican soccer star Cuauhtemoc Blanco, controversial for his on- and off-field behavior and a novice to politics, assumed office as mayor of Cuernavaca in late December, sparking a dispute with the state government over policing.

Ramirez took to Twitter to blast Blanco for backing out of a scheme for putting all police in the state under a single commander, a concept promoted as an attempt to prevent police corruption. Blanco, who won the last mayoral race with less than 30 percent of the vote, said the scheme was not working.

Bishop Castro has stayed out of politics and has promoted peace in the Diocese of Cuernavaca since arriving in 2013, although his work has not been without controversy.

Before the June election, he organized a Walk for Peace that resulted in attempts at a boycott and buses from one parish being prevented from leaving.

Follow Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero.

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