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Politician calls for coalition airstrikes to help Syrian Christians

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — A prominent Syrian Christian political leader has called for U.S.-led coalition forces to use airstrikes to aid fellow Christian and Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants following reports of flagrant abductions and church burnings in northwest Syria.

“There is a need for immediate action similar to what took place in Kobani,” Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, told Catholic News Service, referring to a key Kurdish city in Syria.

A displaced Syrian girl finds temporary shelter at a school in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 23. A prominent Syrian Christian political leader has called for U.S.-led coalition forces to use airstrikes to aid fellow Syrian Christian and Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants in northwest Syria following reports of flagrant abductions and church burnings. (CNS photo/Youssef Badawi, EPA) See SYRIA-APPEAL

A displaced Syrian girl finds temporary shelter at a school in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 23. A prominent Syrian Christian political leader has called for U.S.-led coalition forces to use airstrikes to aid fellow Syrian Christian and Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants in northwest Syria following reports of flagrant abductions and church burnings. (CNS photo/Youssef Badawi, EPA) See SYRIA-APPEAL

There, near the border with Turkey and with help from international airstrikes, the Kurds drove out the extremist militants in January after a four-month siege resulted in a victory against the extremists.

Ishak’s appeal to stop the Islamic State advancement has been echoed by Syriac Catholic Archbishop Jacques Hindo of Hassakeh.

“I wish to say quite clearly that we have the feeling of being abandoned into the hands of those Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State),” Archbishop Hindo told the Vatican’s Fides news service.

“American bombers flew over the area several times, but without taking action,” he said.

Analysts in Washington confirmed his information. They said U.S. planes flew overhead, but there were no airstrikes made against Islamic State militants in the Hassakeh area.

Ishak said the area is being defended mainly by the Syriac Military Council, Christian police called “Sutoro” and Kurdish People’s Protection Units, but all lack sufficient weapons and ammunition. The groups are reportedly seeking immediate air support against the extremists.

“We have a hundred Assyrian families who have taken refuge in Hassakeh, but they have received no assistance either from the Red Crescent or from Syrian government aid workers, perhaps because they are Christians. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is nowhere to be seen,” Archbishop Hindo told Fides.

The call by Archbishop Hindo, Ishak and other Christian leaders follows a church-burning and kidnapping spree that began Feb. 23.

The extremists attacked a series of Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabur River in the vicinity of the region’s hub of Hassakeh. They reportedly took 150 hostages, including women, children and the elderly, and forced more than 3,000 people to flee their homes.

At least one rights activist expressed concern that 30 young Christian women among those abducted would be used as concubines for Islamic State fighters.

“The terrorists first attacked the village of Tal Tamar … and all the many smaller villages as far as Tal Hermiz, where they set fire to everything,” Archbishop Hindo said.

The archbishop spoke of the militants taking “dozens of hostages, with the intention perhaps of using them to obtain a ransom or for an exchange of prisoners,” he added.

Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI, said Feb. 25 that more than 50 families in Tal Shamiran remained surrounded.

Dozens of other families had been captured and taken to the Sunni Arab village of Um Al-Masamier.

“They are alive so far, but the men have been separated from the women and children,” Father Youkhana said.

The priest said the situation represented another example in Syria of what was witnessed in Iraq this past summer: Arab Sunni Muslims joined and supported Islamic State in attacking their lifelong Christian and Yezidi neighbors.

He said the Assyrian Church of the East outside of Syria was communicating the direness of the situation to international agencies and decision makers.

Despite the turmoil and suddenness of the attacks, he said Bishop Aprim Nathniel of the Assyrian Church of the East remains in Hassekeh and is hosting and supporting the hundreds of displaced.

However, Father Youkhana said that because of ongoing conflict, the church lacks the required resources to aid all those in need.

Ishak also warned that if the villages of Tal Tamar and Ras al-Ain were to fall, then Islamic State militants could possibly encircle the area. This, he said, would pose a serious threat to larger towns such as Hassakeh and Amouda. Hassakeh borders Iraq and Turkey, and the extremists see it as a necessary bridge to unite areas under their control in Syria and Iraq.

The Assyrians are an ethnic group whose origins are in ancient Mesopotamia. They are a Christian people; the Chaldean Catholic Church was formed by a group of Assyrians who broke away and joined the Catholic Church in the 16th century. The Assyrians have traditionally lived in what is now Iraq, northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran and southeastern Turkey.

 

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Up to 100 Christians abducted by Islamic State forces in Syria

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DOHUK, Iraq — Dozens of Assyrian Christians were abducted by Islamic State forces during a new offensive against a string of villages in northeastern Syria, aid and civil rights organizations reported.

The exact number of people being held was unknown, but Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI, said that more than 100 residents had been captured during the assault, which began in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 23.

“Knowing the brutal barbaric record of IS with the captured, the destiny of those families is a major concern to us,” Father Youkhana said in a Feb. 24 email.

The priest said at least two villages, Tal Shamiran and Tal Hermiz, remained surrounded by Islamic State forces overnight.

It was not immediately clear what the militants would do with the abductees.

The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need reported that thousands of people fled the villages nestled along the Khabur River and were able to reach the largely Kurdish-controlled city of Hassakeh, Syria, to the east.

Bishop Aprim Nathniel of the Assyrian Church of the East reported that a local church and community hall were overloaded with people who fled the villages.

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan said he had been unable to reach Bishop Jacques Hindo in Hassakeh.

“We pray and hope that these latest tragic events end without killing and abusing our Christian community,” the patriarch told Catholic News Service Feb. 24 from the patriarchate in Beirut.

“It is shameful that the whole world, beginning with the so-called Western nations, became accustomed to these aberrations of religious and ethnic cleansing, in the name of a volatile, unrealistic Western democracy that never existed in countries ruled by Muslims. This is why the eradicating fanaticism is spreading in the latter nations,” said Patriarch Younan, who was born in Hassakeh.

He said the Islamic State raids on the Assyrian villages were in an area fueled by confessional hatred.

“So it is quite possible that they attacked innocent, defenseless Christians, where no Syrian army exists, but only civilian defenders, in order to revenge serious losses suffered up north, near Qamishli,” he said.

Nuri Kino, head of A Demand for Action, which works to protect religious minorities in the Middle East, told the Associated Press that the militants took between 70 and 100 Assyrians, including women and children.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with a network of activists in Syria, also reported the abductions and said that about 90 Christians were being held by Islamic State forces, the Associated Press reported.

As the assault unfolded, Father Youkhana said, Arab Sunni villagers from a nearby Assyrian village rescued 15 Assyrians who were expected to make their way to Hassakeh.

Kurdish forces managed to join the fight to slow the Islamic State advance, various media reported.

The Associated Press also reported that the Islamic State group’s online radio station, Albayan, said in a report Feb. 24 that Islamic State fighters had detained “tens of crusaders” and seized 10 villages around Tal Tamr after clashes with Kurdish militiamen. Islamic State militants frequently refer to Christians as “crusaders.”

Assyrians are an ethnic group whose origins are in ancient Mesopotamia. They are a Christian people; the Chaldean Catholic Church was formed by a group of Assyrians who broke away and joined the Catholic Church in the 16th century. The Assyrians have traditionally lived in what is now Iraq, northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran and southeastern Turkey.

 

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Freezing temps, tents: Half a million Syrian refugees struggle in Lebanon

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BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — Many Lebanese have spent as much time as possible indoors this winter, protecting themselves from this year’s unusually brutal cold season.

But for the approximately half a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, their makeshift housing, often flimsy tents or abandoned unfinished buildings, has hardly given them sufficient shelter from the continuous storms that have been pounding the mountains since last fall.

“The hardest part is being cold and not being able to leave the tent. Where would I go?” asked Safia Hassan Hussein, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo who shares a tent with seven family members in the town of Bar Elias. Their informal tented settlement, called Moussa Jassem, is one of about 600 in the Bekaa Valley. These settlements often have 200 tents, each housing anywhere from five to 15 people.

A Syrian child stands barefoot outside a tent Feb. 17 at a camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. This winter's heavy rains have caused the paths between the tents at the settlements to fill with water. (CNS

A Syrian child stands barefoot outside a tent Feb. 17 at a camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. This winter’s heavy rains have caused the paths between the tents at the settlements to fill with water. (CNS

The Hussein family insisted on serving hot tea, which they drink all day long to keep warm, showing the occasional visitor that they have not lost their sense of hospitality.

Lebanon’s heavy wind and rain began in October with only a few days of respite between almost back-to-back storms. Since then, Lebanon has seen around four times as much precipitation as the same period last year. This comes amid aid funding shortfalls for the refugees of the four-year-old conflict. The weather, along with the substandard living conditions, has exposed the refugees to illness, such as pneumonia.

Surviving the elements has become a full-time job for the refugees, whether they’re keeping warm by huddling in front of a small gas heater, fetching drinking water, cleaning clothes or gathering food. They are forced to choose between staying inside the tent and enduring the stench of gas and burning garbage or stepping outside into the cold air and onto a muddy path of open sewage.

This past winter, the temperatures in the Bekaa have ranged from just below to just above freezing. At times the wind has been at 60 miles per hour, in many cases damaging property, with tents and dilapidated houses particularly vulnerable.

On the outskirts of Zahle, Shiraz Mutanos Makhoul was fairing a bit better than her fellow refugees in tents. Ten months ago, she, her husband and newborn fled from Homs, Syria, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Now the family lives in an old abandoned house, but the home’s humidity and smoky heating system prevent her daughter from recovering from her runny nose.

“This is my first winter in Lebanon. It’s much colder than in Syria,” she said. She held her baby close to the heater to keep warm, then pulled her away when she started coughing from the smell. “She’s had a runny rose for a week, and I can’t take her to the doctor.”

Makhoul was an engineer in Syria; now she spends her days at home taking care of her baby while her husband, who owned a shop in Homs, goes out and looks for any work he can find, a task made all the more difficult with the severe winter hindering the agricultural sector, the area’s main employer.

“This has been the toughest winter for Syrian refugees,” said Wissam Tannous, Caritas Lebanon’s coordinator for the Bekaa Valley, as he drove up the main road from Beirut to the country’s eastern mountains between storms.

Tannous makes the trip every day, even in thick fog. One day in mid-February, as he crossed Dahr al-Baydar, the gateway to the Bekaa Valley that sometimes faces road closures during severe weather, he and a passenger saw a vast view of the snowy mountains with ominous dark cloud lurking above. The area has had many snowfalls, with still more to come.

Caritas Lebanon is currently providing aid to 56,000 Syrian refugee families across Lebanon. This year it has shifted from material to cash donations for the refugees, allowing for easier logistics for the agency and greater choice for the refugees.

Caritas continues to provide the elderly and the disabled, who have less access to the markets, with supplies such as food and blankets. Its partner agencies in places like the U.S., Canada, Britain, Ireland and Australia support the efforts.

This assistance has become all the more crucial as donations for the Syrian refugee crisis have significantly decreased over the last year, even if the needs have increased. The U.N. World Food Program aid has dropped from $30 per family member per month to $19. Aid agencies cite donor fatigue as a reason for a drop in funding, as Syria is no longer a new story.

For the refugees, more help is essential for survival until they can safely return home, but for many donors, the situation has dragged on far too long to be considered urgent.

“After four years, there’s donor fatigue. After four years, it’s no longer an emergency,” said Isabelle Saade Feghali, deputy manager and coordinator at Caritas. “People need to be sensitized, because the needs are still there.”

— By Brooke Anderson

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Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen seeks whereabouts of two bishops

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HONG KONG — Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, protested at the Chinese Liaison Office in the city and asked the whereabouts of Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang of Yixian, who was said to have died in detention.

The 83-year-old cardinal and members of the diocesan justice and peace commission submitted a petition asking the Chinese government to disclose the situation of Bishop Shi. The bishop’s great-niece was told Jan. 30 that the bishop had died, but the government released no more details.

They also sought information on Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding, who was arrested in 1997.

The group prayed for disappeared church figures and sang songs for them in front of the liaison office.

Cardinal Zen and the commission members also urged the Chinese government to stop suppressing the church and to respect religious freedom. China requires Catholic leaders to register with the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, which has ordained bishops without the approval of the pope, and Chinese authorities have frequently arrested Catholics who reject government control.

Meanwhile, in a Feb. 16 blog post, Cardinal Zen wrote, “It looks like someone is trying to shut us down.”

He added, “We do not see any sign that would encourage the hope that Chinese communists are about to change their religious policy,” although both the Vatican secretary of state and a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong recently expressed optimism over Sino-Vatican relations.

In the blog, he also doubted the accuracy of a recent interview with Chinese Bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar, who was quoted as saying that the Holy See needs to take the first step on Sino-Vatican talks. Cardinal Zen, a member of the Vatican Commission for the Church in China, said he has not been told if there were Sino-Vatican talks, or the progress of such talks if there were any.

He listed a number of thorny issues in the normalization of the church life in China and said that having no agreement between the Vatican and China could be better than having a bad agreement.

The cardinal said, “It is difficult for us to imagine that the representatives of the Holy See can sit down and talk to their communist counterparts without chagrin” when two old Chinese bishops lost their freedom for upholding their faith.

 

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Coptic Christians slain in Libya ‘whispered’ name of Jesus before death, bishop says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by Islamic State militants died as martyrs, invoking the name of Jesus, said an Egyptian Catholic bishop.

In line with Pope Francis’ assertion at morning Mass Feb. 17, Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina of Giza told the Fides news agency that the “diabolical” video of the Christians’ massacre, intended to “spread terror,” was a testament to their martyrdom in the faith.

Men in orange jumpsuits purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by Islamic State militants are marched by armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli, Libya, in this still image from an undated video made available on social media Feb. 15. The video is said to show the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians kidnapped in

Men in orange jumpsuits purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by Islamic State militants are marched by armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli, Libya, in this still image from an undated video made available on social media Feb. 15. The video is said to show the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians kidnapped in

The video of their beheading, released Feb. 15, shows that “in the moment of their barbaric execution,” some of the Christians were repeating the words “Lord, Jesus Christ,” he said.

“The name of Jesus was the last word on their lips,” said Bishop Mina. And like the early church martyrs, “they entrusted themselves to the one who would receive them soon after. That name, whispered in the last moments, was like the seal of their martyrdom.”

Following the news of their assassination in Libya, Christians in the various dioceses of Egypt began praying and fasting, as the government called for seven days of national mourning. Several Egyptian bishops have spoken about constructing churches, dedicated to the 21 martyrs, in their dioceses.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab announced President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would arrange state funds for the construction of a church dedicated to the 21 martyrs in the Egyptian city of Minya, from which many of the victims hailed. In addition, by presidential decree, the victims’ families will receive financial compensation for the death of their loved ones (about $13,000), as well as a monthly stipend. The families are asking that the remains of their loved ones be returned to Egypt for burial.

Al-Sisi, who also has referred to the 21 Christians as “martyrs,” paid a personal visit to Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II Feb. 16 to extend his condolences. Pope Francis extended his condolences to Pope Tawadros in a phone call the same day.

Back in Libya, members of the Catholic community resolved to stay put, despite the killings and the emphatic calls from various authorities to evacuate the country.

“Few of us remain,” said Latin-rite Bishop Giovanni Martinelli of Tripoli, Libya. He told Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Feb. 17 that many of those who remain are female Philippine nurses, who have decided to stay because of the dire medical needs in the city after the evacuation of the medical staff at the private St. James Hospital.

“It is for them that I remain,” the bishop said. “At this time, the situation is calm, but we do not know how things will evolve. Anyway, as I have said many times, so long as there is one Christian here, I will remain.”

 

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Kenyan bishops call laced vaccines ‘monumental human rights’ violation

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NAIROBI, Kenya — A Kenyan government vaccination campaign, sponsored and funded by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, amounted to a huge human rights violation, said the Kenyan bishops.

They said the government owes women and children an apology after test founds that the vaccine used during the nationwide tetanus campaign in 2014 was laced with beta human chorionic gonadotropin, or beta hCG, which can lead to miscarriages or sterility.

The report also said that “no further vaccination campaign should be undertaken in this country without an all-inclusive sampling and testing exercise done before, during and after the vaccination campaign.”

It said the Kenyan Ministry of Health must stop trusting foreign agencies, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF, to secure the safely of Kenyans.

During the vaccination campaign, the Kenyan bishops questioned why it was aimed at women between the ages of 14-59 and also why the government was conducting this campaign when the bishops were not aware of a nationwide tetanus crisis. They said they became suspicious because tetanus campaigns in places like Mexico, Nicaragua and Philippines also had been found to contain beta hCG.

The bishops noted that beta hCG occurs naturally during pregnancy but, when injected with a vaccine like tetanus, it becomes an antigen and stimulates antibodies, which can lead to miscarriages or sterility.

“When sterility is induced in any woman, without her knowledge and/or consent, it amounts to a monumental human rights abuse,” said a Feb. 13 statement signed by Bishop Paul Kariuki Njiru of Embu, head of the Catholic Health Commission of Kenya. “This is the highest violation of the sovereignty of any country, as it is a direct attack on the survival of a people and, therefore, national security.”

Kenyan doctors who conducted tests on vials of the vaccine were at the news conference at which the bishops released their reports, which the government has refused to acknowledge. The tests showed that 30 percent of the vials collected during the tetanus vaccination campaign contained Beta HCG.

 

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Dublin archbishop: Delay in applying child safety guidelines is ‘appalling’

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Catholic News Service

DUBLIN — Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said he would seek assurances from religious congregations operating in his diocese that they are rigidly following child protection guidelines after a fresh round of audits raised serious concerns.

In a statement Feb. 10, Archbishop Martin said it was “appalling” that some major religious congregations had delayed fully implementing the church’s child protection guidelines and that, in some cases, this process only really got underway in 2013.

Archbishop Martin said the delays left him “seriously concerned.”

The Irish church’s monitoring watchdog, the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, published 16 reviews on the implementation of policies in religious congregations, eight male, eight female.

Teresa Devlin, the board’s chief executive, said she was “disappointed that for the majority of orders, the whole area of safeguarding is only being embraced in the last couple of years.”

She also said that, concerning seven of the male congregations, “there is considerable work to be done.” She was referring to the Franciscan Friars, Franciscan Brothers, the Servites, Passionists, Augustinians, Discalced Carmelites and the Marist Fathers.

The safeguarding board was established in a bid to restore public confidence in the church’s handling of allegations of abuse against priests and religious after a series of judicial reports uncovered serious failings. Four Irish bishops have resigned following severe criticism of their failures in relation to handling allegations of abuse.

Archbishop Martin said that while improvements have been made, especially by the current leadership of the congregations concerned, the failures and delays that have emerged point to “the need to ensure greater systems of accountability of church authorities in the area of child safeguarding.”

He said the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors “noted clearly in the past days” that “part of ensuring accountability is raising awareness and understanding at all levels of the church regarding the seriousness and urgency in implementing correct safeguarding procedures.”

The archbishop warned that “survivors trying to regain their confidence in the church will be disillusioned once again” and “the many laymen and women who work voluntarily in church safeguarding structures in our parishes must feel disheartened.”

He said that he now intends to “meet with the superiors of all the religious congregations working in parishes in the Archdiocese of Dublin to verify once again the commitment of all these congregations to scrupulously applying the diocesan child safeguarding norms in every aspect of parish life.”

 

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Jordan’s Christian churches condemn pilot’s murder, offer prayers

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — Christian churches in Jordan condemned the Islamic State militants’ killing of First Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot who had been held in captivity by the jihadist group.

Special Masses and prayers were planned as churches sent condolences conveying their deep sorrow to his Muslim family and tribe, the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Amman reported Feb. 4.

“Christian churches in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan convey their deep sorrow and sadness over the martyrdom of pilot Muath Kasasbeh,” read a statement issued by Father Rifat Bader, the center’s director.

“As the churches denounce this heinous crime against humanity, they ask all citizens to reinforce their national unity under the Hashemite leadership, led by King Abdullah II,” it said.

Outraged and in pain, Jordanians are seeking retribution after the Islamic State’s murder of the fighter pilot, whose U.S.-led coalition plane went down over Syria on Christmas Eve. On Feb. 3, Islamic State released a video showing the 26-year-old airman burned alive inside a cage by militants.

Shortly afterward, Jordan hanged would-be Iraqi female suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi, involved in the country’s worst terror attack in 2005, and terror plotter Ziad al-Karboli, amid Jordan’s pledge to strike back hard at Islamic State. Both had been on death row.

Some Jordanians have opposed the use of executions, but with emotions raw and anger high, the government, military and tribe demanded such revenge.

Father Bader said prayers are needed for the pilot, the leadership of Jordan and its security institutions, national unity and to “keep Jordan strong as ever in the face of extremism and violence.”

Churches are also hold prayer vigils for religious harmony, Father Bader said, “so that religions will constitute a factor conducive for peace, harmony and unity among people, rather than a factor leading to division, killing, oppression and dispute.”

 

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Italian convents act as safe houses for victims of sex trafficking

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Global Sisters Report CASERTA, Italy (CNS) — The girl was waiting at the sisters’ gate one morning in August. Before her 18th birthday, Elizabeth had already traveled across the Sahara and the Mediterranean on her way from Nigeria to Europe and spent six months in a brothel in Denmark. She was being prepared to start working on the streets of Italy when she found her way to Casa Rut, a safe house for trafficking victims.

Ursuline Sister Rita Giaretta shows off the products at New Hope Cooperative in Caserta, Italy, in 2014. The cooperative offers women who have been rescued from sex traffickers a chance to earn a small salary and start a new life. (CNS photo/Megan Sweas)

Ursuline Sister Rita Giaretta shows off the products at New Hope Cooperative in Caserta, Italy, in 2014. The cooperative offers women who have been rescued from sex traffickers a chance to earn a small salary and start a new life. (CNS photo/Megan Sweas)

Elizabeth is among the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have taken the perilous journey to Europe in recent years.

An estimated 3,343 migrants have lost their lives at sea in the last year, even as Italy rescued 150,000 people through its now defunct Mare Nostrum program. But when migrants land in Italy, they’re greeted by the realization that it is not a land of opportunity.

While European policymakers debate how to respond to the influx of migrants, human traffickers are ready to take advantage of the chaos. In the decades that women religious have been fighting trafficking in Italy, they have learned that their network must adapt as quickly as the traffickers’ networks. But the heart of their work remains the same: restoring women’s dignity so that they can build a new life. Prostitution is hardly new.

Not far from Casa Rut in Caserta, tourists visit the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, where a favorite attraction is the ancient brothel. Here, the guidebooks will tell you, slaves from around the Roman Empire served local clients and handed their earnings over to their masters. Millennia later, migration following the fall of the Iron Curtain and war and famine in Africa in the late 1980s generated an increase in sex trafficking.

It continues with today’s wave of migrants. “Even women, young women, children, have become commodities,” Sister Eugenia Bonetti said. “We speak a lot about globalization, but we are revising even the market for human beings.”

As the director of the Counter Trafficking Office at the Union of Italian Major Superiors, Sister Eugenia, a Consolata Missionary sister, coordinates the efforts of 250 sisters who work in 100 convent-safe houses across Italy. Italian groups had contact with nearly 24,000 victims in 2012, according to a study released last fall. Most were women from Nigeria and Romania but groups fighting prostitution are more common than those fighting labor exploitation.

Sister Eugenia estimates that Italy has 70,000 to 80,000 victims at any given time. Numbers of trafficking victims in Europe pale in comparison to the numbers in the developing world. The International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million people are enslaved worldwide, with 22 percent of victims trafficked for sexual exploitation.

In Europe, even as the increasing number of migrants gives rise to more labor exploitation, sexual exploitation accounts for 62 percent of trafficking cases detected on the continent. Italy, as the most significant transit route into Europe, reflects the trend. Here, as in Germany and the Netherlands, sisters’ ministries with the poor put them in the position to recognize and respond to the problem early on.

Traffickers prey on the poor. Elizabeth, for instance, grew up in a family with four younger brothers. Her family couldn’t afford to educate her, so when she was 13, her mother gave, or perhaps sold, her to a hairdresser. While working as a servant for the woman, she met a man who said he would help her. He’d pay for her to go to Italy, and she could pay him back when she got there.

In the past, traffickers might have beaten their victims into submission, Sister Eugenia said, but this would force them to run away. Today, they often employ psychological manipulation. The women are given contracts, as if they were legitimate workers, but the terms are extreme.

Women typically must pay back nearly the equivalent of $75,000, plus expenses for food, shelter and even their spot on the street. Voodoo rituals sometimes bind Nigerian girls to their traffickers, threatening horrible consequences if they break their contracts. It was the contract that kept Mary, another Nigerian woman, now 31, on the street. Mary’s story is “the case where somebody sees a problem and tries to take an advantage over a person who is suffering,” as she put it.

Mary and her siblings were orphaned at a young age and had only each other. She doesn’t remember how she met the woman who trafficked her back in Lagos, Nigeria, but only that “I saw her at first like some kind of angel sent to help,” Mary recalled. “I was offered a better life. You can help your family; you can work and change your circumstance.” At 25, she boarded a plane to Italy, but “when I got here it was a different ballgame,” she said.

She was told there were no opportunities except for prostitution. Mary felt she had freedom because her madam stayed in Nigeria, but she still felt bound by the contract and was expected to pay her. That money went back through an underground system for transfers. Criminal networks involved in trafficking are international. After eight months on the streets, she tried to run away, but her madam would threaten her siblings, still in Nigeria.

Two years ago a friend recommended that Mary seek help at Casa Rut in Caserta, a small city near Naples. The sisters, she said, convinced her to change her phone number and cooperate with the police. Since then, the threats have stopped for her and her siblings.

In many African countries, corruption is so bad that the police are not to be trusted. Traffickers also warn their victims against going to police since they are often living in the country illegally. As migrants flood the port cities of southern Italy, this lack of trust makes protecting them more difficult.

“The bad people are in their country, they’re on the boat with them, and they’re here waiting for them. They are connected,” said Sister Valeria Gandini, a Comboni Missionary sister who works on trafficking issues in Palermo, Sicily.

A representative from the International Organization for Migration talks with the women when they first arrive, Sister Valeria said. One or two may step forward and report that they’ve been trafficked, but few are willing to ask for help in front of a group that may include their trafficker. Instead, the women are transferred to refugee camps, where they apply for asylum and await the results. Italy doesn’t restrict their movement, so the migrants often run away from the government-funded but privately run centers.

Although about 40,000 migrants entered Italy through the Mediterranean in the first half of 2014, few more than 20,000 applied for asylum in Italy. An Italian government report found that 3,163 of the 12,164 unaccompanied minors arriving in Italy in 2014 are unavailable. Most migrants leave the reception centers before applying for asylum in Italy to continue their journeys to Northern Europe, but the looseness of the system also opens the door to those who want to exploit migrants.

For this reason, Sister Eugenia is now organizing a group of convents to take in female migrants. They hope to protect them from falling into the hands of traffickers to begin with. Elizabeth’s story of being trafficked from one of these centers is not likely an isolated case, said Ursuline Sister Rita Giaretta, who helped start Casa Rut. Lay associates helped put together a report based on Elizabeth’s case, calling on the government to provide better protection for unaccompanied minors.

“We are not happy that Elizabeth is with us because we would like her to have been protected before,” Sister Rita said. “We don’t want to be nurses to heal wounds that could be avoided.”

Sisters go to the streets to meet the women and distribute information about a national hotline for victims seeking help. They have the right to stay in Italy as long as they take part in a rehabilitation program. They can, but don’t have to, cooperate with police investigations.

Every Saturday, Sister Eugenia leads an international team of women religious to visit an “identification and expulsion” center for undocumented migrants. Thanks to the lobbying power of women religious, Italian law recognizes the women as victims instead of criminals. Yet many of the women at the expulsion center are trafficking victims who are unaware of their rights.

Though Casa Rut started in 1995, Sister Eugenia and her colleagues pushed their fellow sisters to take on this work in a concerted way for the jubilee year 2000. They recruited 100 convents to open their doors to victims of trafficking as rehabilitation programs. Sister Eugenia said the sisters have saved 6,000 women from prostitution this way. But it’s not easy work. Women who’ve been on the streets are full of rage.

“You no longer see yourself as a human being,” Sister Eugenia said. “They have forgotten when to eat and sleep and how to interact with people in a civilized manner.”

Casa Rut consists of an apartment where four Ursuline sisters live, plus an attached unit with four rooms for the women and their children. They live, eat and pray together as a family, and they try to keep the number of women small. While secular NGOs run shelters in Italy as well, Sister Eugenia emphasizes that, for sisters, working with the women is their life. They aren’t simply staff who rotate in and out with each shift, but people who come to know the women deeply.

The women they work with stay in touch for years, calling when they need help. In recent years, the sisters have received more calls from women who have lost their jobs in the economic recession and haven’t been able to maintain their legal status in Italy. This precarious situation can push women back into prostitution.

Always adapting, the sisters developed a pilot program allowing Nigerian trafficking victims to voluntarily return home. About a dozen women and their children have gone back with financial support for housing and a small business, such as a shop or hair salon.

Sister Rita hopes to keep the women employed in the first place through New Hope Cooperative, which has a small store front in Caserta. There, Mary prepared to cut a piece of fabric with colorful African prints. Other women were sewing tags on fabric key chains and stuffing pillows.

Members of the coop earn a base salary of about $1,100 a month, plus additional pay depending on how many children they have.

“I see myself more as someone who’s productive, somehow making the world a better place now,” said Mary, who would like to return to Nigeria someday. Her dream is to open an orphanage so that other vulnerable people won’t be taken advantage of. “What I hope for is being able to somehow pay back for what I’ve been given,” she said.

This story was first published in Global Sisters Report, a project of National Catholic Reporter. The website is http://globalsistersreport.org.

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Catholics join in marking 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation

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Catholic News Service

WARSAW, Poland — Catholic leaders joined in commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where 1.2 million mostly Jewish prisoners were killed by the Nazis during World War II.

“When we ask how God was present in the hell of Auschwitz, we must remember God’s last word is one of peace,” said Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, Poland.

Survivor Juda Widaski, 96, poses for a picture inside a tent on the site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau near Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27. Some 300 former Auschwitz prisoners participated in ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp.(CNS photo/Laszlo Balogh, Reuters)

Survivor Juda Widaski, 96, poses for a picture inside a tent on the site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau near Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27. Some 300 former Auschwitz prisoners participated in ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp.(CNS photo/Laszlo Balogh, Reuters)

“Peace is a gift from God, for which we have to ask him. This is why we gather today to pray before taking the next step, and we must take that step, drawing conclusions from the past and from the witness of history.”

The cardinal preached at a Jan. 27 Mass in Auschwitz’s church-run ecumenical Center for Dialogue and Prayer. The Mass was concelebrated by the Vatican’s nuncio to Poland, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, and attended by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and around 150 former camp inmates.

Cardinal Dziwisz said questions still needed to be asked about human responsibility for Auschwitz atrocities, but added that the camp’s liberation was also a reminder that peace could be achieved by human effort.

He said numerous great initiatives had been launched to ensure future generations remembered the past while “responsibly building the future,” helped by survivors who recalled “the cry of the victims falling silent as they were brutally suffocated.”

Besides Jewish inmates, who made up 90 percent of victims, approximately 100,000 mostly Catholic Poles were killed by German occupiers in Auschwitz’s gas chambers and execution sites. The Nazis also killed Roma, Russian POWs and prisoners of other nationalities at the camp, located in Oswiecim, Poland.

St. John Paul II visited Auschwitz in 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2006. Organizers of World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow expect Pope Francis to visit the camp while he is in the country.

The anniversary of the camp’s liberation by invading Soviet forces was attended by heads of state and government and official representatives from 40 countries and included interfaith prayers at the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination center and a wreath-laying at the camp’s infamous Death Wall.

In a Jan. 27 Twitter message, Pope Francis said, “Auschwitz cries out with the pain of immense suffering and pleads for a future of respect, peace and encounter among peoples.”

Meanwhile, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, said Auschwitz ranked “among the fundamental experiences of mankind” as a place where “the Germans systematically and industrially organized the destruction of European Jews.”

He added that the death camp remained “an open wound on the body of humanity,” and said it was important to ask “why the crimes of Auschwitz happened on a continent marked for at least a millennium by Christianity.”

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