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Bishops visiting Holy Land say Christians must oppose Israeli settlements

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JERUSALEM — Christians have a responsibility to oppose the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, said bishops from the U.S., Canada and Europe.

“This de facto annexation of land not only undermines the rights of Palestinians in areas such as Hebron and East Jerusalem but, as the U.N. recently recognized, also imperils the chance of peace,” said bishops who participated in the Holy Land Coordination Jan. 14-19.

Bishops from the U.S, Canada and Europe walk through a street Jan. 16 in Hebron, West Bank. (CNS photo/Marcin Mazur, Bishops' Conference of England and Wales)

Bishops from the U.S, Canada and Europe walk through a street Jan. 16 in Hebron, West Bank. (CNS photo/Marcin Mazur, Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales)

“So many people in the Holy Land have spent their entire lives under occupation, with its polarizing social segregation, yet still profess hope and strive for reconciliation. Now, more than ever, they deserve our solidarity,” said the statement, issued Jan. 19, at the end of the visit.

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, was among the 12 bishops who signed the statement. Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, Quebec, represented Canadian bishops. The statement also was signed by representatives of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community and the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, as well as bishops from the United Kingdom and other European countries.

During their visit, the bishops visited Hebron, West Bank, where the main market area is closed off to accommodate the security needs of some 800 Israeli settlers. Afterward, Bishop Cantu told Catholic News Service, “It becomes clearer that (the settlements) are not just about outlying settlements but something more systematic; more about infiltrating Palestinian land and forcing Palestinians out by making them so uncomfortable with such limited freedom they don’t want to continue living there.”

Three of the bishops also visited the Gaza Strip, where an Israeli blockade has made it difficult to get supplies for reconstruction of buildings destroyed by Israeli shelling. Bishop William Nolan of Galloway, Scotland, one of the bishops who visited Gaza, said he left feeling “sad and helpless” at the poverty and lack of basic commodities.

In 2006, a government led by Hamas was elected in Gaza. Israel, the United States and the European Union have listed Hamas. an Islamic political party with an armed wing, as a terrorist organization and have imposed economic sanctions against Gaza.

In their statement, the bishops said Christians had a responsibility to help “the people of Gaza, who continue to live amid a man-made humanitarian catastrophe. They have now spent a decade under blockade, compounded by a political impasse caused by ill-will on all sides.”

They also said Christians must continue to encourage nonviolent resistance, as encouraged by Pope Francis.

“This is particularly necessary in the face of injustices such as the continued construction of the separation wall on Palestinian land, including the Cremisan Valley,” the statement said.

The barrier is a series of cement slabs, barbed wire fences and security roads snaking across part of the West Bank. If completed as planned, the separation wall would stretch nearly 400 miles and restrict the movements of 38 percent of residents of the West Bank. Israel maintains that the barrier contributed significantly to a decrease in the number of terrorist attacks, while Palestinians contend that the barrier is simply another Israeli land grab, imprisons them and imposes travel limitations.

The bishops said that each year since 1998, they have called for justice and peace, “yet the suffering continues.”

“So this call must get louder,” their statement said. “As bishops, we implore Christians in our home countries to recognize our own responsibility for prayer, awareness and action.”

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U.S. doctors, nurses treat Syrian refugees for free in Jordan

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Catholic News Service

MAFRAQ, Jordan — American doctors and nurses on a medical mission to Jordan are performing badly needed surgeries and other medical treatment free of charge to thousands of Syrian refugees who can no longer afford basic health care.

Dr. Bassel Atassi of the Little Company of Mary Hospital, a not-for-profit Catholic community hospital on Chicago’s South Side, led the 80-member mission.

Dr. Anas Safadi, a cardiologist with the Syrian American Medical Society, checks his Syrian refugee patient Jan. 11 at Gardens Hospital in Amman, Jordan, after performing free heart catheter surgery the previous day. (CNS/Scott R. Carey)

Dr. Anas Safadi, a cardiologist with the Syrian American Medical Society, checks his Syrian refugee patient Jan. 11 at Gardens Hospital in Amman, Jordan, after performing free heart catheter surgery the previous day. (CNS/Scott R. Carey)

Fanning out across Jordan, under the auspices of the Syrian American Medical Society, teams provided cardiac, eye and orthopedic surgeries; others offered care in pediatrics, obstetrics, dentistry, pain management and nephrology for refugees, inside camps and in the community. They also aided poor Jordanians.

Atassi, originally from Homs and Aleppo, Syria, said the brutal, nearly six-year Syrian conflict has scattered his immediate family around the globe.

One of the two main oncologists at Little Company, Atassi praised the hospital for its support.

“The hospital donated medications and other supplies to the mission. The last time I was here in the fall, the hospital asked me to speak at a big meeting about the mission, showing my documentary video. They are very appreciative of this effort,” Atassi said.

Compassion for the sick and cancer treatment are deep-rooted at Little Company. Its founder, Venerable Mary Potter, fought a personal battle with cancer. The hospital has a state-of-the art cancer center affiliated with the University of Chicago Hospital. While the latest technology is key to treatment, so too, Little Company says, is the “spiritual connection of prayer to the healing process.”

“The hospital has a real humanitarian ethos,” said Dr. Junaid Makda, an orthopedic surgeon who also works at Little Company and joined Atassi on the mission.

“This trip really ties into the hospital’s mission statement of giving back and across all religions. That is something that is fundamental to everyone,” Makda told CNS during a clinic held in Mafraq, a northern Jordanian town hosting thousands of Syrian refugees near the Syrian border.

Aminah, a former teacher who fled the Syrian conflict three years ago with her tiny daughters, waited for treatment at the clinic in Mafraq.

“Life in Jordan is very difficult for us,” said Aminah, who asked to be identified by her first name only for fear of reprisals against family members still inside Syria.

“It’s difficult to find work, our funds are finished, and so I’m grateful that these doctors have come here to help us and provide medicines free of charge. This is a great blessing,” the petite woman, sporting a leopard-print headscarf, said as refugee children raced around the packed waiting room.

Atassi said the Syrian American Medical Society does most of its work in Syria, while carrying out missions in neighboring countries that host the refugees.

“SAMS used to be a small organization with few members. Now in 2017, we have thousands of members and hundreds of people employed both inside and outside Syria,” said the doctor, citing the crisis in Syria as a real turning point for the nonprofit medical relief organization with offices in Washington, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

“SAMS has been one of the first responders and biggest nongovernmental organizations bringing medical relief inside Syria, often through its field hospitals, including in Aleppo,” Atassi said. As of September, the group said it had treated more than 2.7 million Syrians.

Atassi said that during the recent battle for control of Aleppo, SAMS operated the largest field hospital in the eastern part of the city. It had been hit several times before, but the recent attacks left it completely destroyed.

“Some doctors lost their lives, others were injured. The majority evacuated to safe zones. They demonstrated a lot of dedication. After the evacuation, SAMS has opened new facilities for these doctors,” Atassi said.

Lona Gabree’s eyes welled up with tears when she explained why she traveled to Jordan for the first time to aid Syrian refugees.

The nurse for the past 27 years from Claverack, New York, said, “There is a crying need for help here and, because I can do it and my heart is here, why not rise up and grab the chance.”

Gabree anticipated having to deal with a lot of post-traumatic stress suffered by the refugees.

“I helped people dealing with PTSD right after Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “I was very humbled to work there and am now humbled to be here.”

Dr. Soroosh Behshad, a cornea specialist and ophthalmologist at Atlanta’s Emory University, told CNS he wanted to participate in the mission because, as a child, he was a refugee, and he knows what that experience means for the many displaced Syrians.

“My parents fled first to Pakistan after the Iranian Revolution, when my mother was pregnant. Later they made it to Austria and finally to the United States, where our family settled, I was schooled and am now a doctor,” he said.

Atassi said he experienced one of his toughest days as a cancer doctor at one of Jordan’s camps for Syrian refugees.

“I’m an oncologist and used to delivering bad news. But today I was almost going to cry,” he said.

“I saw the tears of the young woman and the faces of some family members. It was bad. My hands are tied here. If I am back at my clinic in Chicago, I can do tons of stuff for her. I can cure her. But today, I can’t do anything. You try to refer her to agencies that can help and you just hope for the best,” Atassi said.

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Priest found dead in northern Mexico, fourth deadly attack of a clergyman in four months

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Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY — A Catholic priest has been found dead in northern Mexico, marking another attack on clergy in a country where the widespread violence of the past decade has not spared church leaders.

The body of Father Joaquin Hernandez Sifuentes, 42, was discovered Jan. 11 in Parras de la Fuente, approximately 90 miles west of his working-class parish in Saltillo, while his vehicle was discovered abandoned in another state, the Coahuila state prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

Details on the disappearance of Father Hernandez remain uncertain, although Saltillo Bishop Raul Vera Lopez said Jan. 11 that two suspects had been arrested.

Father Hernandez was last seen celebrating Mass New Year’s Day at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in a community known as La Aurora and was scheduled to take vacation thereafter.

Colleagues became suspicious when they were unable to reach Father Hernandez on his cellphone, according to a diocesan statement. His room in the parish residence appeared messy, with draws left open and clothing strewn on the floor, uncharacteristic for Father Hernandez, while his suitcase had been left behind, along with his reading glasses.

Neighbors spotted two young men driving away with the priest’s car Jan. 3, but Father Hernandez was not with them. Bishop Vera said two suspects had been arrested, though the authorities had yet to confirm the details.

“All of Mexican society is exposed. Priests are not spared from violence,” said Bishop Vera Lopez, whose diocese has worked tirelessly to provide legal and spiritual support for the families of missing persons in the state of Coahuila, which borders Texas.

Father Hernandez was ordained in 2004, had worked in the diocesan family ministry and was pursuing a master’s degree in family studies at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Study on Marriage and Family at Anahuac University.

“Father Joaquin was someone who searched for perfection in every activity he did; the desire to always innovate in his work was reflected in the love of the faithful, including during these past 10 days,” while he was disappeared, the diocesan statement said.

The disappearance and death of Father Hernandez marks the fourth time in four months that a Mexican priest has been murdered. Another priest, Father Jose Luis Sanchez Ruiz, was found alive with signs of torture after being abducted in Veracruz state.

At least 16 priests have been killed since December 2012, according to a count by Mexico’s Catholic Multimedia Center.

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Church in Kerala, India, forms support group for transgender people

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COCHIN, India — The church in India’s Kerala state has formed a group of priests, nuns and laypeople to respond to the pastoral needs of transgender people, reported ucanews.com.

Formed in Cochin under the aegis of Pro-Life Support, a global social service movement within the church, the ministry is significant as it is one of the few outreach programs for the transgender community by the institutional church in India.

A member of the LGBT community attends a pride parade in Bangalore, India Nov. 20, 2016. The church in India's Kerala state has formed a group of priests, nuns and laypeople to respond to the pastoral needs of transgender people. (CNS photo/Jagadeesh Nv, EPA)

A member of the LGBT community attends a pride parade in Bangalore, India Nov. 20, 2016. The church in India’s Kerala state has formed a group of priests, nuns and laypeople to respond to the pastoral needs of transgender people. (CNS photo/Jagadeesh Nv, EPA)

“The whole church has a big role to play,” said Father Paul Madassey, who is in charge of pro-life support for the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council. He noted Pope Francis had talked about the need to give “pastoral care to the LGBT community.”

“There is an active sex racket from North India eyeing transgender people in Kerala. They are trying to exploit the discriminatory situation they face,” Father Madassey told ucanews.com.

India has an estimated 500,000 transgender people. They are often ostracized from their families and, without adequate state support in terms of employment, health and education, end up on the street begging for money or are exploited in the sex trade.

In mid-December, sisters of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel offered their buildings to form an exclusive school for dropouts among transgender people, considered the first of its kind in the country. The nuns offered their venue after at least 50 building owners declined to let out their buildings, indicating the discrimination prevalent in the society, Father Madassey told ucanews.com.

Earlier this year, Caritas India, the social service wing of the Catholic Church, announced a program to fight such discrimination.

Vijaya Raja Mallika, a leading transgender activist in Kerala, is pioneering a three-month pilot school for transgender school dropouts in Cochin. Mallika said the “church has been very supportive” of their struggles.

“Religion plays an important role in social and behavioral change at the grass-roots level,” said Mallika.

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Pope Francis to visit Fatima in May for 100th anniversary of Marian apparitions

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis will visit Portugal in 2017 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions of Fatima.

The pope, who accepted the invitation made by President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and the bishops of Portugal, “will go on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima from May 12-13,” the Vatican announced Dec. 17.

A statue of Our Lady of Fatima is carried through a crowd May 13 at the Marian shrine of Fatima in central Portugal. Thousands of pilgrims arrived at the shrine to attend the 99th anniversary of the first apparition of Mary to three shepherd children. Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, received the first of several visions May 13, 1917. (CNS photo/Paulo Chunho, EPA)

A statue of Our Lady of Fatima is carried through a crowd May 13 at the Marian shrine of Fatima in central Portugal. Thousands of pilgrims arrived at the shrine to attend the 99th anniversary of the first apparition of Mary to three shepherd children. Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, received the first of several visions May 13, 1917. (CNS photo/Paulo Chunho, EPA)

The pilgrimage will mark the anniversary of the Marian apparitions, which first began on May 13, 1917, when three shepherd children reported seeing the Virgin Mary.

The apparitions continued once a month until Oct. 13, 1917, and later were declared worthy of belief by the Catholic Church.

Following the announcement, Father Carlos Cabecinhas, rector of the Fatima shrine told Agencia Ecclesia, the news agency of the Portuguese bishops’ conference, that the visit was a cause for joy for the shrine.

“For the shrine of Fatima, it is a great joy to receive this confirmation of Pope Francis’ visit,” he said.

“We know that those days will be a pilgrimage marked by this festivity that, on the one hand is for the centennial of the apparitions and, on the other hand, marks the presence of the pope in our midst and a pope as beloved as Pope Francis,” Father Cabecinhas said.

While the Vatican confirmed the dates of the visit, the pope had already said that he intended to go.

“Certainly, as things presently stand, I will go to Portugal, and only to Fatima,” he told journalists during his return flight to Rome from Azerbaijan Oct. 2.

Pope Francis will be the fourth pontiff to visit the Marian shrine, following the footsteps of Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who each paid homage different years to Mary on the anniversary of the first apparition May 13.

 

Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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Syriac Catholic patriarch ‘horrified’ after seeing Iraqi ‘ghost towns’

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Catholic News Service

BEIRUT — The Syriac Catholic patriarch said he was horrified to see widespread devastation and what he called “ghost towns” during a recent visit to northern Iraq.

People climb on a vehicle to flee the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, Iraq Dec. 2. (CNS photo/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)

People climb on a vehicle to flee the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, Iraq Dec. 2. (CNS photo/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)

Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan wrote in an email to Catholic News Service that there was little left in some of the communities that he toured Nov. 27-29 and that “the emptiness of the streets except for military people … the devastation and burned-out houses and churches” was shocking.

About 100,000 Christians — among them more than 60,000 Syriac Catholics — were expelled from the Ninevah Plain by the Islamic State group in the summer of 2014 as the militants campaigned to expand their reach into Iraq.

Patriarch Younan also called for understanding from the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump about the plight and ordeal of all minorities, including Christians affected by violence in the region.

The patriarch told CNS about “walking through the Christian towns of Qaraqosh, Bartella and Karamles and witnessing the extent of devastation as if we had entered ghost towns!”

Graffiti and inscriptions “expressing hatred toward Christian symbols and doctrine were seen everywhere” on walls near streets, outside and inside houses and churches, he wrote.

“Aside from the looting, destruction of and damage to buildings, we discovered that the terrorists, out of hatred to the Christian faith, set fire to most of the buildings, including churches, schools, kindergartens and hospitals,” the patriarch’s message said, noting that only Christian properties were targeted.

In Qaraqosh — once inhabited by more than 50,000 Christians — the patriarch celebrated the Eucharist Nov. 28 “on an improvised small altar” in the incinerated sanctuary of the vandalized Church of the Immaculate Conception. That church, which had 2,200 seats before its desecration by Islamic State, was built by parishioners in the 1930s.

In this 2014, file photo, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan listens to a question about the Islamic State at the National Press Club in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

In this 2014, file photo, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan listens to a question about the Islamic State at the National Press Club in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Few people could attend the liturgy, among them a few clergy and some armed youth and media representatives, the patriarch said.

“In my short homily, I just wanted to strengthen their faith in the redeemer’s altar and cross, although both were half broken behind us. I reminded them that we Christians are the descendants of martyrs and confessors, with a long history dating back to the evangelization of the apostles,” he wrote.

“I had the intention after its restoration five years ago, and still have it, to ask the Holy Father, the pope, to name this church as a minor basilica,” the patriarch added.

In addition to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, all of the churches the patriarch’s delegation visited, including St. Behnam and St. Sarah Monastery, which dates to the fourth century, sustained significant damage or were destroyed.

In opening the trip Nov. 27 in Irbil, which escaped being occupied by the militants, Patriarch Younan celebrated Mass for more than 800 displaced people at Our Lady of Peace Syriac Catholic Church. Located in the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, where many of those uprooted from the Ninevah Plain sought refuge, the church recently opened to serve refugees.

Concelebrating the liturgy were Syriac Catholic Archbishops Yohanna Moshe of Mosul and Ephrem Mansoor Abba of Baghdad and 20 priests. Patriarch Younan said he felt “mixed feelings” among the worshippers, who were pleased that the Islamic State group had been forced out of the Ninevah Plain during the current Iraqi military campaign, but also were saddened because of the “horrendous state” in which the militants left their communities.

The patriarch also said he met with the faith community, religious leaders and nongovernmental organizations to discuss the future of Christianity in northern Iraq.

Based on “what happened in recent times,” the patriarch noted, “it was the overall opinion that none would dare to return, rebuild and stay in the homeland, unless a safe zone for the Christian communities in the Plain of Ninevah is guaranteed.”

He called for a “stable, law-abiding and strong government” to support the establishment of an eventual self-administrative province under the central government of Iraq.

“I therefore reiterate what I have been saying for years. We, Christians in Iraq and Syria, feel abandoned, even betrayed, by the Western politicians of recent times,” Patriarch Younan said.

“We have been sold out for oil and forgotten because of our small number compared to the ‘Islamic Ummah’ (Islamic nation) in which we have lived for centuries.”

The patriarch urged the “so-called ‘civilized world’ to uphold its principles and to seriously defend” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he described as “vital for our survival.”

“It is time to stand up and condemn those regimes that still discriminate against non-Muslim communities, with (their) excuses such as … ‘our law, our education and governing system’ are based on our ‘particularities of culture, history and religion,’” the patriarch continued.

Patriarch Younan expressed his “strong hope” that the Trump administration “will understand our plight and the ordeal of all minorities, including Christians.”

“It is time that the United States be respected around the world,” and most particularly in the Middle East, as “a nation of hope and freedom and not a land of opportunism.”

By Doreen Abi Raad

 

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Dec.1, World AIDS Day: In South Africa, stigma still keeps HIV patients from treatment

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Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Each week, 2,000 women ages 15-24 are infected with HIV in South Africa.

In poor communities, young women are mostly infected through sex with older men who provide for them and, while testing is easy and readily available, few men get tested until they are seriously ill.

A child at an orphanage for those infected with HIV attends a candlelight prayer on the eve of World AIDS Day in Kathmandu, Nepal, Nov. 30. (CNS photo/Narendra Shrestha, EPA)

A child at an orphanage for those infected with HIV attends a candlelight prayer on the eve of World AIDS Day in Kathmandu, Nepal, Nov. 30. (CNS photo/Narendra Shrestha, EPA)

“Men have told me that the reason for this is that the clinics are mostly staffed by women and that women talk too much,” said Dr. Annette Houston, who works for Hope, an HIV outreach project with international Catholic funding.

Houston works at a pediatric HIV clinic in Delft, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. She told CNS unless HIV-positive women and girls are taking antiretroviral drugs, if they contract HIV while breastfeeding they can pass on the virus to their babies. Houston said she sees an “urgent need to persuade breastfeeding women to come for testing every three months.”

In trying to get HIV-positive men to get treatment, Doctors Without Borders and other organizations have begun setting up HIV clinics primarily for men.

Pauline Jooste, who oversees Hope’s community outreach projects, said being HIV-positive still carries a lot of stigma for men and women. She said some mothers will not tell their children that they, too, are infected.

In an interview at Hope’s office in Blikkiesdorp, a temporary settlement area within Delft where 15,000 people live in corrugated tin shacks, Jooste said that, to understand the reluctance to talk about being infected, “you need to bring it home.”

When health officials ask women when they plan to tell their children they have HIV, “when he or she is old enough is the answer you hear,” Jooste said.

Pauline Jooste, who oversees a South African HIV outreach project with international Catholic funding, walks with Gerald Flagg, a community worker, at the organization's Blikkiesdorp premises near Cape Town Nov. 15. (CNS photo/Bronwen Dachs)

Pauline Jooste, who oversees a South African HIV outreach project with international Catholic funding, walks with Gerald Flagg, a community worker, at the organization’s Blikkiesdorp premises near Cape Town Nov. 15. (CNS photo/Bronwen Dachs)

“Imagine how difficult it must be to tell a teenager she is HIV-positive and wait for her to ask, ‘So how did you get HIV, Mom?’” she said.

At Delft clinic, “we try to initiate conversations” between mothers and their HIV-positive children, Houston said, noting that children should know their HIV status by the time they are 10 or 11 years old.

“Often, the mother is battling with anger or shame and needs someone to talk to,” she said. “We give mothers and children books that they can read together that can help children understand what HIV is and how to live with it.

“Sometimes the children know, but they don’t tell that they know, which creates an unhealthy dynamic in the family,” she said.

South Africa’s HIV epidemic is among the most severe in the world. According to U.N. estimates, 6.4 million people, 12.2 percent of South Africa’s population, are HIV positive.

Dominican Sister Alison Munro, director of the AIDS office for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said about 3.4 million people are on antiretroviral drugs.

The risk of HIV transmission is enormously reduced when those infected take antiretroviral drugs regularly, Sister Munro said in a telephone interview from Pretoria.

Orphans and other vulnerable children are the main focus group of the AIDS office and “we are working on getting as many tested and on treatment” as possible, she said.

Sister Munro said South Africa has 41 orphan programs funded by PEPFAR, the U.S. government initiative to provide AIDS relief, and there are more than 100 other programs in dioceses and parishes across the country.

Until 2008, when a new health minister was appointed, South African officials infuriated AIDS activists by questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and holding back on providing antiretroviral drugs. But Houston said that, since then, “I’ve seen kids born with HIV finish high school and go to college, which is so rewarding.”

The drive to have everyone who tests HIV-positive on medication brings with it the danger of developing drug resistance, she said, noting that in the past treatment was provided to HIV-positive patients only when they became at risk of developing AIDS.

“There’s no coming back from drug resistance,” Houston said, noting that church and other programs work hard to ensure that people adhere to their treatment regimen.

Avoiding drug resistance “is our biggest challenge now, and we can’t leave children in a situation where they take drugs on an ad hoc basis,” she said.

Hope project staff sometimes move children into temporary care so that their HIV treatment can be managed while the project works to bring stability to their home environments, Houston said.

“Sometimes the mother needs to go for drug or alcohol rehabilitation,” she said, noting that substance abuse is very common in South Africa’s poor communities.

Adherence to a medication regimen among teenagers “is notoriously bad, but this is not unique to HIV,” Houston added.

Jooste said the Hope project services up to 40,000 people a month. She said HIV-positive patients in Blikkiesdorp and other areas are given reference letters for health centers, shown where to go and “told to look out for our health workers wearing red shirts that say Hope.”

The project’s community workers check that patients comply with their medication needs and even accompany those with no income to government offices, where they can apply for social grants, Jooste said.

“A lot can be achieved when you have someone speaking on your behalf,” she said.

Blikkiesdorp, which means tin-can town in the Western Cape language of Afrikaans, has an unemployment rate of about 65 percent, and most residents are on a list for free government housing. Many who live in the area are immigrants from Somalia and Congo and fear attacks on foreigners.

“We never ask for identification documents; we are here to serve everyone,” Jooste said, yet immigrants “don’t even come to our regular family health days where clinics bring their general services to our premises.”

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French archbishop criticizes bill that would make anti-abortion websites illegal

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PARIS — The president of the French bishops’ conference wrote French President Francois Hollande to express his worries about fast-tracked legislation that would extend illegal interference on abortions to websites. Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, president, said the bishops think the legislation questions the very foundations of liberties in France, and he urged Hollande to not allow the bill’s passage.

The archbishop said the idea of illegal digital interference could have an impact on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. Referring to the oft-used French expression for abortion, “voluntary pregnancy interruption,” Archbishop Pontier added that the bill would make it less “voluntary,” simply because it would make it “less and less free,” calling it a “serious infringement to democratic principles.”

Earlier this fall, the French government presented a draft law regarding the creation of illegal digital interference on abortion. France’s National Assembly passed the bill Dec. 1, and the Senate is expected to consider it Dec. 7, with a final vote in February. If it passes, it would condemn websites for “intimidating and/or putting psychological or moral pressures” in order to dissuade someone from getting an abortion. The text modifying an already existing abortion law raised acrimonious political debates in France.

Politicians backing the legislation say it is mostly aimed at websites that look very similar to official or neutral websites, but do everything to discourage women from getting an abortion, thus tricking users with disinformation. The bill would institute penalties of up to two years of incarceration and a 30,000-euro ($31,820) fine.

Laurence Rossignol, France’s minister for families, said it is time for the government to react to websites offering biased information. Opponents say it would violate free speech.

In the Nov. 22 letter, released Nov. 28, Archbishop Pontier said the legislation does not take into account a woman’s distress regarding her decision to get an abortion, especially since the abolition of a mandatory one-week waiting period earlier this year.

“In other words, women don’t find … official support to their questions in conscience,” said Archbishop Pontier. He said websites are more than ever an essential part in helping women find some answers.

“Some of our fellow citizens, joined in associations, have decided to give their time, particularly through digital instruments, to listening to hesitant or distressed women regarding a possible choice for abortion,” he wrote.

The success of such listening websites “proves that they fill a need. Must we worry? Many women turn to these sites after an abortion because they need a place to put words on what they lived. Others persevere in their plan to abort. Finally, others decide to keep their child. This diversity of expression and behavior is made possible by this place of liberty that are these websites. Their positioning calls for reflection, and this is precisely what they are being criticized for (in the legislation). It’s as if they should adopt at once a favorable positioning toward abortion. However, such a grave matter cannot be constrained in militant positions,” the archbishop wrote.

“Should we necessarily exclude every alternative to abortion to be considered a model citizen? Can the slightest encouragement to keep one’s child … be called a ‘psychological and moral pressure?’” he asked.

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Catholic leaders in Holy Land pray for those hit by wildfires

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Catholic leaders in the Holy Land expressed solidarity with those affected by regional wildfires, which continued to burn after five days.

“We thank God for the fact that the majority of human injuries were light; we express our solidarity with those who suffer from physical or material damage,” they said in a Nov. 25 statement.

A plane drops fire retardant during a wildfire near Nataf, Israel, Nov. 26. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

A plane drops fire retardant during a wildfire near Nataf, Israel, Nov. 26. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

“Our country needs the fire of love which unites people, expands hearts and thoughts and enables a safe life full of faith, justice and love,” they said.

By Nov. 28 security officials said most fires were under control; of the 90 fires that broke out throughout Israel and the West Bank, 40 were suspected arson, they said, adding they believe the outbreak of the initial fires was due to a combination of negligence, accidents and dry, windy weather after a two-month drought.

Local mosques and Christian institutions made themselves available for those evacuees in need of a place to stay, though the majority of the people stayed with family and friends or in hotels.

The fires broke out Nov. 22 and spread across the countryside, damaging hundreds of properties and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, 60,000 of those in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa, Israel’s third -largest city. Firefighters also battled flames in several Arab and Druze villages, including a village outside of Nazareth, and several communities outside of Jerusalem, including the Neve Shalom community, where Jews and Arabs live together.

Haifa is home to a large population of Christian residents who make up 14 percent of the city’s inhabitants. The numerous brush fires in the city did not affect the neighborhoods where the majority of Christians and Christian institutions are located.

At the same time in a sign of rare regional cooperation with its Arab neighbors, Israel received assistance in form of personnel and equipment from Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority in addition to other countries, including the United States, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Italy and Russia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to thank him for his assistance, and the Israeli press reported that Jewish settlers from Halamish, one of the hardest-hit communities, came out to thank the Palestinian firefighters who had helped battle the flames.

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Castro’s death spurs prayers for peace in Cuba, condolences from pope, Miami archbishop

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WASHINGTON — In a video message, Cuban President Raul Castro announced the Nov. 25 death of his 90-year-old brother and longtime Cuban leader and Communist icon whom many in Latin America know by just one name: Fidel.

“It is with great sorrow that I come before you to inform our people, friends of our America and the world, that today, November 25, 2016, at 10:29 p.m., the commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz passed away,” said his brother Raul, who took over control of the island in 2006, after Fidel Castro, became too sick to govern.

Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures to Pope John Paul II during the pope's arrival ceremony at Jose Marti Airport in Havana Jan. 21, 1998. Castro, who seized power in a 1959 revolution and governed Cuba until 2006, died Nov. 25 at the age of 90. (CNS photo/Zoraida Diaz, Reuters)

Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures to Pope John Paul II during the pope’s arrival ceremony at Jose Marti Airport in Havana Jan. 21, 1998. Castro, who seized power in a 1959 revolution and governed Cuba until 2006, died Nov. 25 at the age of 90. (CNS photo/Zoraida Diaz, Reuters)

Until that year, Fidel Castro had ruled Cuba in some form since 1959, the year he led a revolution that toppled the government of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Over the years, he survived attempts to be toppled by others, including the United States. He gained fame throughout Latin America, where many saw him as a David-against-Goliath figure each time he denounced the commercial, “imperialist” interests of the U.S. as attempts to rob the region of its riches.

But for others Castro was a menace and a dictator, particularly those whose properties were seized when his regime nationalized homes and businesses on the island nation without compensation. Over the decades, he was accused him of a range of wrongdoings, from unjust imprisonment to executions to religious persecution. Others lauded him and pointed to Cuba as a model for other Latin American countries to emulate in the areas of education, medicine, and gender and racial equality. Many also blamed the U.S. embargo against Cuba, not Castro’s governance, for the island’s financial woes.

Recognizing the complexity of the different feelings the Cuban leader evoked in life, and now in death, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, where many Cuban exiles live, released a brief statement Nov. 26.

“His death provokes many emotions, both in and outside the island. Nevertheless, beyond all possible emotions, the passing of this figure should lead us to invoke the patroness of Cuba, the Virgin of Charity, asking for peace for Cuba and its people,” Archbishop Wenski said.

He repeated the words later that day during a Mass “for peace in Cuba” at the Ermita de la Caridad in Miami, a shrine devoted to the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, and a place, he said, built by the sacrifices of Cubans in exile.

“On the eve of this first Sunday of Advent … we have learned that Fidel Castro has died,” Archbishop Wenski said during the homily. “Each human being, each one of us, will die and we will all be judged one day. And now it’s his turn.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration restored diplomatic relations with the island in 2015, expressed “a hand of friendship to the Cuban people” in a statement but also recognized the range of feelings surrounding the leader’s death.

“We know that this moment fills Cubans, in Cuba and in the United States, with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” he said.

In an interview with Spanish radio COPE, the president of the Cuban bishops’ conference, Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago, said that each time there’s a change of government,  there’s a change for a country, but in this case, there hasn’t been a change in the presidency.

“The figure of Fidel has been so significant, so influential, that it will always have an impact on society,” he said.

In a telegram in Spanish, Pope Francis extended his condolences to Raul Castro on the “sad news” of “the death of your dear brother.” The pope, credited with the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, also expressed condolences to the government and to the Cuban people, and said he was offering prayers.

Though Raul Castro has publicly expressed admiration for Pope Francis, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government can be described as a work in progress.

Catholics, like other religious groups in the country, witnessed the seizing of church properties, including schools, churches and other centers used for religious gatherings, following the 1959 revolution. Some locales were closed; others were put to nonreligious uses.

Priests and religious suspected of being against the revolution were jailed or expelled and practice of the Catholic faith dwindled on the island, particularly when the nation, under Soviet influence, was for a period an officially atheist country.

In recent years, however, the government allowed physical reconstruction of church buildings and some properties were returned to the care of the church.

In 2015, the government granted permission for the construction of a new Catholic church on the island, something it hadn’t allowed in more than five decades.

In 1998, then Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the island that many credit with loosening religious limitations in Cuba. Since then, each pope who has visited the island also met with Fidel Castro, even after he ceded power.

Fidel Castro was last seen in public Nov. 16 when he met with the president of Vietnam. In the video announcing his death, his brother said Fidel Castro’s body was to be cremated, as he had wished.

Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist party, announced nine days of national mourning from Nov. 26 until Dec. 4. His ashes, the newspaper said in an online article, will travel through some parts of Cuba, and mourners are expected to pay their respects during rallies that have been organized in his honor. His ashes will ultimately be interred at St. Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, where Cuban national leader and Latin American icon Jose Marti is buried.

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