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Gaza parish staff and children had nowhere to go when told to evacuate

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — When the staff at the lone Catholic parish in the Gaza Strip received text warnings to evacuate the premises, they had nowhere to go.

Father Raed Abusahlia, president of Caritas Jerusalem who has been in contact with the parish priest, told Catholic News Service that Father Jorge Hernandez of the Institute of the Incarnate Word and three nuns who live at the parish had nowhere to evacuate the 29 severely disabled children and nine elderly women in their care.

Smoke rises from Gaza City after an Israeli airstrike July 29. Violence escalated the previous night after an attempted unofficial truce for the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday crumbled. (CNS photo/Mohammed Saber, EPA)

Smoke rises from Gaza City after an Israeli airstrike July 29. Violence escalated the previous night after an attempted unofficial truce for the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday crumbled. (CNS photo/Mohammed Saber, EPA)

Since Israel launched airstrikes against Gaza July 8, it has sent text messages to citizens to evacuate if they will be near a target. Israel bombed near Holy Family Catholic Church the morning of July 30.

The Vatican’s Fides news agency, citing details from Father Hernandez, said the main target of the bombing was a home a few meters away from the parish. The home was completely destroyed, and the parish school, office and some rooms used by the parish were partially destroyed.

Father Abusahlia told CNS all the windows of the whole compound, as well as that of the Greek Orthodox Church, already were shattered from previous bombings of buildings around them.

“They are in a very difficult situation,” said Father Abusahlia. “It is a very dangerous area.”

He said the number of refugees at the parish school, some distance away from the parish compound, increased from 600 people to 1,400 in the week ending July 30, and the number of refugees sheltered by the Greek Orthodox Church had increased from 1,400 to 1,900.

Caritas has been providing them with powdered milk, diapers and gasoline, which is especially important after the attack on the Gaza electrical plant. They rely on generators, Father Abusahlia said, and the gas to run them is very difficult and expensive to obtain.

Fides quoted Father Hernandez as saying: “We had a tough night, but we are here. This war is absurd.

“Everything happens around us,” he said. “The Hamas militants continue to fire rockets and then hide in the alleys. And we cannot do anything. We cannot evacuate, it is impossible with children. Their families live here. It is more dangerous to go out than stay here. We try to stay in safer places, always on the ground floor.”

 

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Working to end the madness, restore dignity in the Middle East

By

Catholic Near East Welfare Association

 

Catholic Near East Welfare Association works with churches to aid the poor, create dialogue, inspire peace

 

“The situation on the ground [in Gaza] is horrific. The attack on the Shajaia neighborhood yesterday [July 20] was very ugly and left 50 dead (including 17 children, 14 women and 4 senior citizens) as well as 210 wounded and 70,000 displaced. … “Those who visited the neighborhood during the two-hour humanitarian ceasefire yesterday reported bodies of women and children scattered in the narrow streets. …

“The Latin and Greek Orthodox parishes have opened facilities to receive those displaced mostly from Shajaia. There has not been any human loss affecting Christians, and property damage is limited to broken glass and minor damage. Let’s hope it remains this way. The most serious damage to the community is clearly psychological.

“We are continuously assessing the situation and continue to pray for an end to this madness.” Read more »

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Pastor returns to Holy Rosary in Claymont after serving as chaplain in Djibouti, Africa

By

Staff reporter

During Father John Gayton’s latest military deployment, troops are committed to the local community

CLAYMONT — With no shortage of projects on his to-do list, Father John Gayton is happy to be back in his office at Holy Rosary Parish in Claymont, which he has led since 2009. But he was happy to take a few minutes earlier this month to recall the work he did while deployed for much of the past year to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, Africa. Father Gayton, a Navy chaplain, tended to the spiritual needs of the approximately 5,000 service personnel on the base. He also led the community relations effort that is part of every Navy command. Read more »

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Sustaining a future for people who have served the church

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Special to The Dialog

 

Kevin Scott doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon from St. Elizabeth School, where he went to grade and high school and returned to work in 1981.

Still, the parish-based high school’s development director knows that at some point he will probably have to retire. “It’s a comfort to know that the diocesan pension plan is in place and is healthy,” Scott said. “That’s something I can depend on.” Read more »

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Young people volunteer to help others during the summer at Pitcher and Basin

July 24th, 2014 Posted in Featured, Our Diocese, Youth Tags: ,

By

For The Dialog

 

SALISBURY, Md. – John and Debbie Meyers sat in the living room of their home recently as a group of high school volunteers painted the front door, stairwell, and upstairs hallway and other teenagers groomed the Meyers’ yard.

“If they weren’t doing this, it wouldn’t get done,” Debbie Meyers said. She and her husband are both on disability and unable to do the work themselves. They also could not afford to have the work done. Read more »

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Maryland bishops seek compassion for children at U.S. border

July 23rd, 2014 Posted in Featured, Our Diocese

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The bishops of Maryland — Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Bishop W. Francis Malooly of the Diocese of Wilmington — issued the following statement on July 23:

The familiar words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” speak compellingly to us today as we witness the plight of the more than 50,000 unaccompanied children fleeing to our country to escape the violence and desperate poverty of their homelands.

Here in Maryland the Catholic Church stands ready to answer Jesus’ call to embrace the needs of these children and their families as we offer our welcome and assistance.

Immigrant families and immigration reform activists hold signs of protest during a July 7 news conference in Washington near the White House organized by Casa de Maryland and other pro-immigration reform groups. Several speakers at the event urged the Obama administration to provide relief for all children and their families who have crossed the U.S. border illegally to flee violence in Central America. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Immigrant families and immigration reform activists hold signs of protest during a July 7 news conference in Washington near the White House organized by Casa de Maryland and other pro-immigration reform groups. Several speakers at the event urged the Obama administration to provide relief for all children and their families who have crossed the U.S. border illegally to flee violence in Central America. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

We cannot turn our back on these children. They are fleeing to us because they know there are warm hearts and helping hands in America – and for so many immigrants, a home in the Catholic Church, no matter where their journey takes them. We must not prove them wrong.

We also cannot ignore the complexities faced by national and local elected officials in determining a just and sustainable response to this humanitarian crisis. A delegation of U.S. bishops traveled to Central America in November 2013 to learn firsthand about the conditions causing this crisis, and have developed a resource that provides helpful background on this issue titled, “Mission to Central America: the Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States,” available at www.usccb.org.

Eradicating the root causes prompting this crisis, most especially the uncontrolled and terrifying violence of criminal gangs, demands challenging international solutions.

Ensuring that local communities in the United States are equipped to provide immigrant children and their families appropriate services, whether on a temporary or more long-term basis, will require a significant increase in available financial and human resources, and unprecedented cooperation among government and religious and nonprofit agencies.

We support efforts at the federal level to increase funding to provide the social and legal services necessary to serve the children seeking asylum. We too share a concern about the risk in sending these children back to uncertain or even dangerous situations in the lands they have fled.

We are also grateful that Governor O’Malley and other elected officials in Maryland have expressed a willingness to welcome to our state children who need assistance. Through our Catholic Charities and other social service agencies, our parishes, and the generosity of the many parishioners who call us daily asking how they can help, we will do all within our capacity to offer our longstanding expertise and support in helping these children and their families. Providing such help is no different than what the church has done without fail for centuries in Maryland to help those in need.

As our national and local governments continue to grapple with this difficult situation, we are hopeful that partisan differences will not stand in the way of finding a just and humane response to this urgent need. We pray that our country will be able to look back proudly at how we answered this call, and ask God to touch the hearts and minds of the people of Maryland and throughout America with compassion and generosity.

Most importantly, we entrust these children to God’s providence, for we know “You do see, for you behold misery and sorrow, taking them in your hands. On you the unfortunate man depends; of the fatherless you are the helper” (Psalm 10).

 

The bishops of Maryland — Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Bishop W. Francis Malooly of the Diocese of Wilmington — issued the above statement on July 23 through the Maryland Catholic Conference.  Maryland Catholic Conference advocates for the Church’s public policy positions before the Maryland General Assembly and other civil officials. The Conference represents all three dioceses with territory in the state – the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Diocese of Wilmington.  Approximately 1.2 million Catholics live in Maryland. www.mdcathcon.org    

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Expulsion of Christians a ‘crime against humanity,’ Mosul bishop says

By

atholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Backed up by death threats and property seizures, the expulsion of the entire Christian community from Mosul is “a crime against humanity,” said an archbishop from Mosul.

Chaldean Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona said the Islamic State, which took control of Iraq’s second-largest city in early June, is carrying out “religious cleansing.”

“It’s an ugly word, but it is what happened and is happening,” he told Vatican Radio July 22.

Chaldean Patriarch Louis  Sako of Baghdad speaks during a July 22 news conference in Irbil, Iraq. He said the future of Christians in Iraq was uncertain because of the recent violence. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad speaks during a July 22 news conference in Irbil, Iraq. He said the future of Christians in Iraq was uncertain because of the recent violence. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Iraq’s Christian leaders are tired of people making appeals and declarations about their plight without backing up their words with real action, the archbishop said.

“Words do nothing today,” he said.

Support and prayers are needed, he said, but “we also expect all Christians to show solidarity with concrete action” and “without being afraid to talk about this tragedy.”

Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad said: “We need action first. The world is not bothering with what is happening to Christians in Mosul.”

The world’s leaders, including those of the United States, must live up to stated commitment to promoting what is good, he told Catholic News Service by telephone July 23.

“They must do something, because they can,” he said.

The international community must help those being displaced, not because they are Christians, but because they are human beings, he said. Because it overthrew Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the United States in particular must be asked: “Where are the human rights? Where is the democracy?” he said.

Bishop Warduni called for a complete end to selling weapons to Islamic State fighters.

“There are no words to describe them,” he said. “They have no conscience, no religion. Even though they talk about God, they don’t know God,” he said of the militant group that has declared a caliphate, a state governed by a religious leader.

The militants forced thousands of Christians from their homes, seizing their property and then robbed them of their belongings at checkpoints as they fled the city.

Bishop Warduni said, “They take everything, even a wedding ring from a widow, medicine from the hands of a small child, they just (pour) it on the ground.”

The militants confiscated the cars people were fleeing in, he said, forcing the occupants, including “small children, old people, sick people, to walk on foot in 48-degree (118 Fahrenheit) heat.”

Bishop Warduni was one of a number of Iraqi Christian bishops who gathered in Ankawa, a northern town near Irbil, July 21-22 to talk about the crisis unfolding in Mosul with representatives from the United Nations, UNICEF, Caritas and local government leaders.

At the end of the two-day meeting, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako and bishops from the Chaldean, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Armenian churches called on the Iraqi government to “stop the catastrophe” and guarantee the necessary protection needed for Christians and other minorities being targeted by the fighters.

“A crime is a crime, and it cannot be denied or justified. We expect concrete actions to assure our people, not just press releases of denunciation and condemnation,” the statement said.

The bishops also called on the Iraqi government to provide basic services, housing, schools, aid and financial support to those who have been forced from their homes and livelihoods. They thanked the regional Kurdish government for its hospitality and willingness to protect fleeing families.

Meanwhile, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, representing 57 Muslim countries, condemned the forced displacements in Mosul and called the action “a crime that cannot be tolerated.”

“The practices of the Islamic State have nothing to do with Islam and its principles that call for justice, fairness, freedom of faith and coexistence,” the organization said in a press release July 21.

According to a recent report by the Christian Aid Program, CAPNI, all churches and monasteries in Mosul, numbering around 30 structures, were confiscated and are under the Islamic State’s control.

Crosses were removed from Christian places of worship, which, in many cases, were then looted, burned, destroyed or occupied by the militant group.

Shiite mosques also were demolished and all Sunni, Shiite and Christian tombs in the city were destroyed, too, the report said.

Such destruction was endangering many of the nation’s ancient historical, cultural and religious sites, including the tomb of Jonah, which reportedly was broken into in mid-July, the report said.

All non-Sunni communities living in Mosul were being targeted, it said, including Shiite Muslims.

Those who escaped Mosul and found shelter in surrounding villages were still facing hardship, it said, as the Islamic State cut off electric and water supplies to neighboring villages.

There is no drinking water in some areas and the Islamic State was preventing medicine and other hospital supplies from getting past the areas it controls.

The fighters also closed the city’s banks, CAPNI reported, so many people who want to leave Mosul were delaying their departure because they couldn’t access their own bank accounts and they couldn’t find buyers for their homes given the “frozen” housing market, it said.

Most city services have “totally collapsed” and the private sector is “almost paralyzed,” it said.

 

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Bishops: Executive order prohibiting firing of gays by government and contractors is ‘affront’ to religion

By

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s executive order of July 21 has installed workplace rules forbidding the firing of employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity by the federal government and federal contractors — a key provision in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act languishing in Congress.

U.S. President Barack Obama is hugged at the White House July 21 after signing an executive order to prohibit the U.S. government and federal contractors from discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees. Two U.S. Catholic bishops said in a statement the executive order "is unprecedented and extreme and should be opposed" because it could exclude federal contractors "precisely on the basis of their religious beliefs. (CNS photo/Larry Downing, Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama is hugged at the White House July 21 after signing an executive order to prohibit the U.S. government and federal contractors from discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees. Two U.S. Catholic bishops said in a statement the executive order “is unprecedented and extreme and should be opposed” because it could exclude federal contractors “precisely on the basis of their religious beliefs. (CNS photo/Larry Downing, Reuters)

The U.S. bishops have opposed the bill, known as ENDA, which was passed by the Senate last November but was never scheduled for a vote in the House. The bill has been introduced in almost every Congress since 1994.

“Today’s executive order is unprecedented and extreme and should be opposed,” said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, New York, chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

“In the name of forbidding discrimination, this order implements discrimination,” they said in a joint statement. “With the stroke of a pen, it lends the economic power of the federal government to a deeply flawed understanding of human sexuality, to which faithful Catholics and many other people of faith will not assent. As a result, the order will exclude federal contractors precisely on the basis of their religious beliefs.”

Archbishop Lori and Bishop Malone and two bishops in an earlier posting July 21 on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ blog, addressed their opposition to the changes put in place by the executive order because it does not include a religious exemption and could keep Catholic agencies from getting federal contracts.

“To dismiss concerns about religious freedom in a misguided attempt to address unjust discrimination in the workplace is not to advance justice and tolerance. Instead, it stands as an affront to basic human rights and the importance of religion in society,” the four bishops said.

They included Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chair of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“The U.S. legacy of religious freedom has enabled the Catholic Church and other faith communities to exercise their religious and moral convictions freely and thus contribute to the good of all in society. No good can come from removing this witness from our social life,” they added in the blog posting.

“Eliminating truly unjust discrimination — based on personal characteristics, not sexual behavior — and protecting religious freedom are goals that we all should share. The current political climate makes it very difficult to maintain a reasonable dialogue on these contentious issues, but we must keep trying.”

Fourteen other religious leaders July 1 had asked Obama to include a religious exemption in his executive order. “We are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need,” said the letter.

Among the signatories were Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, and Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, at The Catholic University of America, Washington.

Schneck, in a July 19 analysis anticipating the executive order, said: “The executive order does not offer the nuanced exemption for religious positions that was sought. But, it does retain the 2002 George Bush executive order language that prohibits religious discrimination in the receipt of federal contracts and allows contracting religious organizations to prefer members of their own faith in some personnel matters.”

He added, “President Obama’s executive order will end discrimination against LGBT citizens in federal contracts while at the same time allowing religious organizations to ensure that key personnel positions in their organizations reflect the values of their faith. … By retaining the Bush order, the administration is recognizing the importance of religious organizations in providing for well-spent federal dollars to the neediest.”

In a statement July 21, Father Snyder said Obama’s executive order “upholds already existing religious exemptions that will allow us to maintain fidelity to our deeply held religious beliefs.”

“As has always been the case, Catholic Charities USA supports the rights of all to employment and abides by the hiring requirements of all federal contracts,” the priest said.

“Specifically, we are pleased that the religious exemption in this executive order ensures that those positions within Catholic Charities USA that are entrusted with maintaining our Catholic identity are to be held exempt,” Father Snyder said.

At a White House ceremony shortly before signing the executive order, Obama said, “Today in America, millions of our fellow citizens wake up and go to work with the awareness that they could lose their job, not because of anything they do or fail to do, but because of who they are — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. And that’s wrong.

“We’re here to do what we can to make it right, to bend that arc of justice just a little bit in a better direction.”

The president added, “Congress has spent 40 years, four decades, considering legislation that would help solve the problem. That’s a long time. And yet they still haven’t gotten it done.”

Lawmakers first drafted a measure similar to ENDA in 1974. The Senate vote last fall on ENDA was 64-32 for passage, with no vote schedule in the House.

 

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Catholic leaders urge help for migrant kids crossing U.S. border

By

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — A Latin America expert for Catholic Relief Services, the head of the bishops’ migration committee and the president of a Catholic college in Michigan were among those urging the government toward humanitarian responses to a surge of children and families crossing the U.S. border from Central America.

Among their recommendations were: fully funding a requested federal appropriation for services to deal with the influx of people; investigating and working to address the root causes of emigration from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala; and creating a program so people may seek permission to come to the United States without having to make the treacherous and illegal journey. Such programs have been successful in Iraq, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union.

In this handout photo courtesy of the office of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, unaccompanied migrant children are shown at a Department of Health and Human Services facility in south Texas. . Many undocumented minors coming across the U.S. border claim they are escaping gang violence in their home countries. (CNS photo/ handout, Reuters)

In this handout photo courtesy of the office of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, unaccompanied migrant children are shown at a Department of Health and Human Services facility in south Texas. . Many undocumented minors coming across the U.S. border claim they are escaping gang violence in their home countries. (CNS photo/ handout, Reuters)

In testimony to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs July 16, Richard Jones, the CRS deputy regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said his agency has seen the numbers of unaccompanied youth fleeing Central America double yearly since 2011.

“We have seen the homicide rates grow, forced displacement increase and Mexican and Colombian drug cartels battle over who controls the routes through Central America,” he said in written testimony. “In El Salvador and Honduras, there are more gang members than police.”

He gave the example of four boys who were killed and dismembered in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, last month because they refused to be drug couriers.

“Two of the four were brothers, one age 10, the other age 6,” Jones said.

Violence in El Salvador also has increased since March 2013, when a truce negotiated between gangs unraveled, Jones said. And since the election of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren earlier this year, he said, “violent deaths have risen to 13 per day or over 70 homicides (per) 100,000 people — nearly double what they were at the same time the previous year.”

In Guatemala City, that nation’s capital, the homicide rate is 116 per 100,000 people, he said, noting that, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, in just the past six months, more than 600 unaccompanied children from that city were apprehended in the United States.

He went on to discuss the various social factors complicating the raw violence, and to describe some of the programs CRS and other organizations are providing to try to address the problems at the core and keep families intact in their home countries, with education, skills and ways of improving their situations.

He mentioned various ways the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are trying to address their problems, including how to protect people who are returned there after being deported by the United States and Mexico. The efforts are inadequate, he said.

Jones gave several specific recommendations for ways the U.S. can best direct resources to the countries.

Among them, investing in community-based programs focused on security, job creation and violence prevention; including trying to better understand the local conditions causing people to flee.

In a July 17 letter to members of Congress, Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo, who heads the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly support supplemental funding requested by President Barack Obama to take care of the more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors and 36,000 families that have come into the country since October.

He said they also oppose changes to current laws “that would roll back protections for these children that were enacted as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008.”

Bishop Elizondo said that “this vulnerable group is fleeing violence from organized criminal networks. Many are likely to be eligible for a variety of forms of immigration relief, including asylum and various visas. Sending these vulnerable children back to their persecutors without a meaningful immigration hearing would severely decrease their opportunity for legal protection and possibly lead to their bodily harm or even death. We would oppose the repeal of key provisions of these laws in the supplemental appropriations bill or any other legislative vehicle.”

He also opposed placing families into detention facilities, and encouraged increasing funding for community-based alternatives to detention, as well as increased funding for legal representation and for the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged with caring for the children.

Bishop Elizondo also asked for funding to address the reasons why people flee their homelands and to support a program for orderly departure in the region.

“Such programs have worked successfully in Iraq, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union and other locations around the globe,” he said. “The United States and countries in the region could accept a number of children and youth each year, consistent with the best interest of the child standard. Such a program would ensure that children are protected and our international obligations are met while sparing children the dangers of a migration journey.”

And at Marygrove College in Detroit, President David J. Fike called the situation a humanitarian refugee crisis that warrants a different kind of response than has been happening.

“This shouldn’t be a debate,” he said July 17. “The fleeing of vulnerable women, children, and young adults we are witnessing has all of the classic markings of what the world has seen in war-torn regions over and over again, war-torn regions in which unprotected, threatened civilians will take extreme measures to reach a safe haven.

“The only difference in this instance,” he said, “is that the threat to vulnerable civilians is not from standing armies engaged in traditional combat or even organized guerrilla warfare. In this instance, the threat is from brutally violent gangs, extortionists, and narco-traffickers operating with impunity in widespread areas of extreme lawlessness.”

Fike said at a news conference at the Catholic college that the situation calls for a charitable and humanitarian response, yet political leaders and news media debate whether to do that.

“Our elected leaders are all-too-frequently characterizing this situation as being the result of our broken immigration system, or as being the result of our lack of comprehensive immigration reform, or as being the result of some sort of mass psychosis afflicting mothers in specific parts of this hemisphere who are spontaneously deciding to send their children on extraordinarily life-threatening journeys to far off lands,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Fike, said his personal passion on the topic comes from his time spent in Central America and his friendship with some of the University of Central America faculty and staff who were murdered during the El Salvador civil war.

“I’ve seen and understand the results of dehumanization and I don’t like it … it’s painful, it denies our better selves, it makes us smaller and meaner as a country,” he said.

He said he is frustrated by the lack of moral leadership and called on Obama to recognize the migrants as refugees. He said he would marshal the resources of Marygrove to help in any way possible, and encouraged other higher education administrators to do the same.

 

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Pope calls for prayers as Iraqi militants expel Christians from Mosul

By

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — As the last Iraqi Christians in Mosul fled the city, Pope Francis urgently called for prayers, dialogue and peace.

“Violence isn’t overcome with violence. Violence is conquered with peace” the pope said before leading thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square in a moment of silent prayer July 20.

An Iraqi man carrying a cross and a Quran attends Mass at Mar Girgis Church in Baghdad July 20. Pope Francis called for prayers, dialogue, and peace, as the last Iraqi Christians flee the Iraqi city of Mosul. (CNS photo/Ahmed Malik, Reuters)

An Iraqi man carrying a cross and a Quran attends Mass at Mar Girgis Church in Baghdad July 20. Pope Francis called for prayers, dialogue, and peace, as the last Iraqi Christians flee the Iraqi city of Mosul. (CNS photo/Ahmed Malik, Reuters)

“Our brothers and sisters are persecuted, they are chased away,” he said, as he assured Christians in all of Iraq and the Middle East of his “constant prayers.”

The pope’s plea came as the last Christian families living in Mosul were forced from the city after facing increasing threats, violence and intimidation.

The Islamic State group, which has taken control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, was threatening to kill any Christians who did not convert to Islam or pay a tax, Syriac Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan told Vatican Radio.

The militants in Mosul also burned to the ground the building housing the Syriac bishop’s office, residence and library, and everything inside, he said July 19.

Islamic State fighters “have already threatened that if they don’t convert to Islam, all Christians will be murdered. It’s terrible! This is a disgrace for the whole international community,” he told the radio.

The international community must immediately halt all aid to the Islamic State group, he said.

“Whom are they getting their weapons from? From these extremist nations in the (Persian) Gulf, with the approval of Western political leaders because they need their oil.”

The patriarch said the world community must uphold human rights and the freedom of religion.

“We are in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon: We Christians weren’t imported, we’ve been here for millennia and, therefore, we have the right to be treated as human beings and citizens of these countries,” he said.

Patriarch Younan spoke with Pope Francis by telephone July 20 while visiting Rome and told him of the “disastrous” situation in Mosul.

The pope said “he was following closely and with anxiety the plight of Christians” in Mosul, the patriarch told Catholic News Service.

During their nine-minute phone conversation, the patriarch begged the pope “to continue intensifying efforts with the powerful of this world” and to warn them “that it is a mass purification based on religion which is underway in the province of Ninevah,” whose capital is Mosul.

“What a shame for the silence of the so-called civilized world” in response to the tragedy, the patriarch told CNS via email.

The Syriac patriarch was in Rome with Syriac Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of Mosul and Syriac Catholic Archbishop Ephrem Yousif Mansoor Abba of Baghdad, to meet with Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, and explain the plight of Christians in Mosul and surrounding areas.

The patriarch proposed that the Vatican call on its diplomatic corps members to urge their respective governments to take “appropriate measures in order to prevent further killing and abusing of Christians and other minorities in the name of a religion.”

Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Moshe of Mosul told the Vatican’s Fides news agency that Islamic State fighters took possession of a Syrian Catholic monastery outside of Mosul, near Qaraqosh, July 20.

Earlier, militants occupied Mosul’s Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox cathedrals, removed the crosses at the front of the buildings and replaced them with the Islamic state’s black flag. Tombs and other places of worship were reported to have been desecrated, too.

Militants singled out homes belonging to Christians and marked them in red paint with the letter “N,” for “Nazarat,” which means Christian, as well as “Property of ISIS,” the Islamic State group, said Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Saad Sirop of Baghdad.

“Our worst fears have come true and we don’t know what to do,” he told Aid to the Church in Need.

Those who fled their homes with whatever possessions they could carry were then stripped of everything they owned by the militants at the city’s checkpoints, said Archbishop Jean Sleiman, the Latin-rite bishop of Baghdad.

The militants took people’s belongings, money, personal items “even their cars, leaving them with nothing and forcing them to walk miles under the sun to get to the first Christian villages outside the city where they’re welcomed,” he told SIR, the Italian bishops’ news agency.

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako told AsiaNews that any dialogue with the extremists seemed impossible.

The militants are like “a wall” as they only repeat: “Between us there is nothing but a sword,” the patriarch said. He added that “there is no one of authority to face,” so people “don’t know where they come from and what they really want.”

Patriarch Sako said that as late as the end of June, 35,000 Christians had lived in Mosul, and more than 60,000 lived there before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But now, “for the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.”

“Iraq is heading towards a humanitarian, cultural and historical disaster,” he said in an open letter to Iraqis and the world July 17.

“It is shameful that Christians are being rejected, expelled and diminished” from a land they have shared together with their Muslim fellow citizens for 1400 years, the patriarch wrote.

He urged Muslims who support the Islamic State “to reconsider their strategy and respect the unarmed innocent people of all ethnicities, religions and sects.” He asked Iraqi Christians to be rational, “calculate their options well,” to come together in solidarity and be patient as they prayed “until the storm passes.”

Syriac Catholic Father Nizar Semaan of Mosul told Fides that world leaders must do something concrete, like “include these groups in the list of terrorist organizations” as well as “make public the names of the countries and forces that finance them.”

He said intelligence agencies and some governments “know where certain weapons and money that keep these groups going come from. It would be enough to stop the flow for a month, and these groups would not have any more force.”

Also, Sunni leaders and followers must help isolate the jihadist groups and declare a religious ruling against them, which “would certainly have a significant effect,” the priest said.

Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad in Beirut.

 

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