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Jerusalem’s Latin patriarchate condemns Israeli law allowing seizure of Palestinian lands

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem warned of “serious consequences” from a new law that allows the government to seize private Palestinian lands where unauthorized Israeli settlements have been built.

Heavy equipment is seen as workers clear an area for the construction of a new home Feb. 7 in the Israeli settlement of Shilo, West Bank. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem warned of "serious consequences" from a new law that allows the government to seize private Palestinian lands where unauthorized Israeli settlements have been built. (CNS photo/Jim Hollander, EPA)

Heavy equipment is seen as workers clear an area for the construction of a new home Feb. 7 in the Israeli settlement of Shilo, West Bank. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem warned of “serious consequences” from a new law that allows the government to seize private Palestinian lands where unauthorized Israeli settlements have been built. (CNS photo/Jim Hollander, EPA)

“Such a law undermines the two-state solution, further eliminating hopes of peace,” the patriarchate said in a Feb. 8 statement. “The Latin Patriarchate strongly condemns this unjust and unilateral law that allows the de facto annexation of Palestinian private land for the benefit of Israeli settlements.”

“Strongly concerned about the future of peace and justice in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarchate calls on leaders to take decisive decisions in favor of peace, justice and dignity for all,” the statement said.

The Israeli Knesset passed the law Feb. 6. It will affect settlements or outposts built in good faith or on instructions of the government and will deem those lands as government property.

The legislation was quickly passed in the wake of the evacuation of the illegal outpost of Amona in the West Bank. The Feb. 1-2 evacuation took two days and was first ordered by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2014, but repeatedly had been pushed back because of legal appeals, until a final deadline of Feb. 8 was set in December.

The outpost consisted of mobile homes and log cabins and was built on privately owned Palestinian land. Some settlers had lived on the land for 20 years. The outpost’s buildings were either removed whole or demolished.

It is unclear whether the Palestinian owners will be permitted to return to farm there because the land abuts another Jewish settlement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to found a new settlement for the Amona evacuees on nearby land.

The Ha’aretz newspaper reported that a group of Palestinian civil and human rights organizations filed an appeal against the new law with the Supreme Court.

U.S. and European church leaders have spoken out against the settlements.

The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace told U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the settlements were an obstacle to peace.

“Settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian lands undermines a two-state solution, destroying the homes and the livelihoods of Palestinians as well as the long-term security and future of Israelis,” Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, wrote Feb. 1.

Bishop Cantu also reminded Tillerson that 2017 marked 50 years of “a crippling occupation” by Israel of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Bishops from the U.S., Canada and Europe who participated in the Holy Land Coordination Jan. 14-19 said the half-century of occupation “demands action” and expressed opposition to settlement construction.

“This is a scandal to which we must never become accustomed,” said the group of 12 prelates, including Bishop Cantu, after their visit.

“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,” the statement said.

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Iraqi Christian leader visiting Mosul sees little future for Christians

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Catholic News Service

MOSUL, Iraq — As some residents of the city of Mosul celebrate their new freedom from the Islamic State group, an Iraqi Christian leader who visited the war-torn city said Christian residents are unlikely to return.

“I don’t see a future for Christians in Mosul,” said Father Emanuel Youkhana, a priest, or archimandrite, of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Father Emanuel Youkhana, an archimandrite of the Assyrian Church of the East, walks through the rubble of a demolished church in Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Father Emanuel Youkhana, an archimandrite of the Assyrian Church of the East, walks through the rubble of a demolished church in Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Father Youkhana, who runs Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, a Christian program for displaced Iraqis around the city of Dohuk, entered Mosul in a military convoy Jan. 27, the day Iraqi officials raised the national flag over the eastern part of the city. Islamic State seized the city in 2014, causing Christians and other minorities to flee.

Once inside Mosul, Father Youkhana moved about freely, talking to residents and soldiers. He visited two churches, both heavily damaged.

:The churches were used as warehouses by Daesh,” he said, referring to the terrorist group by its common Arabic name. “They used the churches to store what they looted from Christian and Yezidi villages, but as the end neared they sold the buildings to local contractors, who started tearing down the walls to reuse the steel inside. If the army hadn’t entered for another couple of weeks, the buildings might have been completely destroyed.”

One building, belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church, had not been completely swept for explosives, according to Iraqi soldiers in the area. The front of the building was painted with an Islamist slogan by the Islamic State, and a military commander told Father Youkhana his troops would gladly paint over it. Father Youkhana replied that it was not his church, so he had no authority to authorize the troops.

“And leaving it as is preserves the evidence of what Daesh did here,” he told Catholic News Service.

At another church, owned by the Assyrian Church of the East, the body of an Islamic State fighter poked out of a pile of garbage in front of the sanctuary.

Father Youkhana, who went to high school in Mosul, also photographed several houses that belonged to Christians, but had been given or sold to Muslim families by the Islamic State. While he doubts Christians will return, he believes they will be able to recover the value of their properties, notwithstanding attempts by the Islamic State to destroy local government records.

“Christians aren’t going to come back to stay. The churches I saw were not destroyed with bombs, but by the everyday business operations of the community. How can Christians return to that environment? It’s unfortunate, because Mosul needs their skills. Most Christians were part of the intellectual and professional class here, they were doctors and lawyers and engineers and university professors. But I don’t see how they can return,” he said.

Father Youkhana would make no predictions how long peace will last once the Islamic State is driven completely out of Mosul, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city. The Iraqi army units that expelled the Islamic State are largely Shiite Muslim. Several of the military’s armored vehicles sported flags of the Popular Mobilization Units, a Shiite militia, and Father Youkhana said he saw several examples of graffiti written by Shiite soldiers calling for violence against the Sunnis.

“Why do they do that?” he asked. “They are undermining their achievement. People are thanking them for liberating them, and in return they try to provoke them. Just because they have the upper hand now.

“They should think about sustainability,” he added. “The residents are welcoming you as a savior, so don’t wear out your welcome by provoking them.”

Father Youkhana also visited Qaraqosh, a Christian town 20 miles southeast of Mosul that he described as “a ghost town.” While Mosul was bustling with busy markets and people digging out from the rubble of war, the streets of Qaraqosh were eerily silent, with most houses blackened by fire but still standing.

He explored the remains of the Syriac Catholic cathedral, reportedly the largest church in Iraq. Blackened by fire, its courtyard was filled with the ashes of what had been the church’s library, as well as shell casings and bullet-ridden mannequins that the Islamic State apparently used for target practice.

Some Christian leaders are pushing for a quick return to Qaraqosh. One Christian member of the Kurdistan parliament said he is looking for $200,000 that would finance the return of 50 families, buying them the basic furniture and household items they need to re-establish themselves in their houses.

But Karim Sinjari, Kurdistan’s interior minister, told a visiting ecumenical delegation that neither the necessary security nor appropriate infrastructure are in place.

“I won’t stop them, but I would advise them not to go,” he said. “The conditions aren’t ready yet.”

Iraqi Christian leaders echoed his concern.

“Security is the most critical need we have,” said Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil. “Rebuilding our churches is the last thing we should think about. We want to first build houses for our people so they can live with dignity, and we need infrastructure in the villages. But all this is only possible if we can have security.”

“Unless there is security, whatever we build will be for Daesh, not for us,” said Syriac Orthodox Bishop Nicodemos of Mosul.

Some residents of Qaraqosh have returned, carrying weapons and wearing uniforms of the Ninevah Plain Protection Units, or NPU, a militia formed by the Assyrian Democratic Movement, an Iraqi political party allied with the Shiites. It operates in coordination with the Iraqi military, which has assigned it primary responsibility for protecting Qaraqosh and a nearby village.

Father Youkhana said he is troubled by the NPU’s role.

“They are trying to play politics as a big actor, when in reality they don’t have that power,” he said. “What little role they have is exaggerated in the Christian diaspora, where it starts to sound like a Hollywood movie. If you’re sitting in Phoenix, Arizona, or Sydney, Australia, you’re not aware of this.”

The NPU and other smaller groups “can offer a Christian cover to the Shia militias,” Father Youkhana said, “allowing them to say, ‘Look, we have the Christians on board with us. We are all the same.’ I’m sorry, but we are not all the same.”

Fadi Raad is tired of running from the Islamic State, so the 25-year-old Qaraqosh native joined the NPU and today patrols the streets of the town on the lookout for lingering terrorists.

“I’m here to defend my village, and because I want to save the Christians in Iraq. It’s difficult here now, but when the government and the NGOs repair all the houses, then the Christians will come back. The NPU is here to stay. It’s different now. If Daesh comes back, we will kill them all,” he said.

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Iraqi patriarch: Fast track for Christian refugees will fuel tensions

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Giving priority to Christian refugees for settlement programs would be “a trap” that discriminates and fuels religious tensions in the Middle East, said Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic patriarch.

“Every reception policy that discriminates (between) the persecuted and suffering on religious grounds ultimately harms the Christians of the East” and would be “a trap for Christians in the Middle East,” said Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad.

A Yemeni and three children are seen in Sanaa, Yemen Jan. 26. Giving priority to Christian refugees for settlement programs would be "a trap" that discriminates and fuels religious tensions in the Middle East, said Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad.(CNS photo/Yahya Arhab, EPA)

A Yemeni and three children are seen in Sanaa, Yemen Jan. 26. Giving priority to Christian refugees for settlement programs would be “a trap” that discriminates and fuels religious tensions in the Middle East, said Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad.(CNS photo/Yahya Arhab, EPA)

The patriarch, speaking to Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, commented on an executive action by U.S. President Donald Trump that temporarily stops from U.S. entry refugees from all over the world and migrants from seven countries in an attempt to review the screening process. The document asks that once the ban is lifted, refugee claims based on religious persecution be prioritized.

Patriarch Sako said any preferential treatment based on religion provides the kind of arguments used by those who propagate “propaganda and prejudice that attack native Christian communities of the Middle East as ‘foreign bodies’” or as groups that are “supported and defended by Western powers.”

“These discriminating choices,” he said, “create and feed tensions with our Muslim fellow citizens. Those who seek help do not need to be divided according to religious labels. And we do not want privileges. This is what the Gospel teaches, and what was pointed out by Pope Francis, who welcomed refugees in Rome who fled from the Middle East, both Christians and Muslims without distinction.”

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, president of Caritas Internationalis, said any policy that gave priorities to Christians “might revive some of these animosities and might even pit Christians against Muslims, and that (also) might generate contrary action from the Muslims against Christians.”

“This is a time when we don’t want to add to the prejudice, the biases and even discriminatory attitudes evolving in the world,” he told Catholic News Service in Beirut Jan. 30 at the Caritas Lebanon headquarters.

Emphasizing that he had not read the text of the executive action, but only news reports, the Philippine cardinal said announcing a ban being applied to specific countries was akin to “labeling them and the migrants coming from those countries as possible threats to a country. I think it is quite a generalization that needs to be justified.”

Cardinal Tagle, who has visited refugee settlements as part of his role as Caritas president, said he asks people who express reservations about receiving refugees and migrants, “Have you ever talked to a real refugee? Have you heard stories of real persons?”

“Very often, the refugee issue is reduced to statistics and an abstraction,” he said, and when people actually talk with refugees, “you realize that there is a human story, a global story (there) and if you just open your ears, your eyes, your heart then you could say, ‘This could be my mother. This could be my father. This could be my brother, my child.’

“These are human lives,” he said. “So, for people making decisions on the global level, please know that whatever you decide touches persons for better or for worse. And if our decisions are not based on the respect for human dignity and for what is good, then we will just be prolonging this problem — creating conflicts that drive people away.”

Canadian Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, undersecretary for migrants and refugees at the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told CNS in Rome that Christians are asked to reflect on the Good Samaritan and not to “react and act as if the plight of migrants and refugees is none of our business.”

People should focus on those seeking security and “take the trouble to find out the facts” — like how “migrants, far from being a drain, make a net contribution to the domestic economy — rather (than) swallow allegations which just trigger fear.”

Richer countries should not only welcome those who are fleeing, they “can do much more to help improve security and living, working, education and health opportunities in the refugee- and migrant-producing countries,” he said in a written statement.

More effort should be put into peacemaking and more resources dedicated to “helpful foreign aid.”

“The role of government is to enact its people’s values, keeping different factors in balance. National security is important, but always in balance with human security, which includes values like openness, solidarity, hope for the future,” the Jesuit priest said.

“The bottom line,” he said “is the centrality and dignity of the human person, where you cannot favor ‘us’ and ‘them,’ citizens over others.”

 

Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad in Beirut.

 

 

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Religious, political leaders condemn fatal shooting of six at Quebec mosque

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Catholic News Service

QUEBEC CITY — Faith and political leaders condemned a shooting at Quebec’s main mosque that left at least six people dead.

Vigils were scheduled Jan. 30 in Quebec City and Montreal, the evening after two men entered the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center and opened fire, killing at least six men who were praying and injuring 19 more. Police later arrested two suspects, two men aged between 20 and 30. The motive behind the attack remained unclear.

Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec after celebrating morning Mass in the chapel of his residence at the Vatican Jan. 30. A Vatican statement said the pope assured Cardinal Lacroix of his prayers for the victims of a shooting in a mosque in Quebec City. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano,)

Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec after celebrating morning Mass in the chapel of his residence at the Vatican Jan. 30. A Vatican statement said the pope assured Cardinal Lacroix of his prayers for the victims of a shooting in a mosque in Quebec City. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano,)

Pope Francis met with Quebec Archbishop Cardinal Gerald Lacroix in Rome Jan. 30 and assured him of his prayers for the victims of the attack on the mosque. A Vatican statement said the pope highlighted the importance of Christians and Muslims remaining united in prayer in these moments.

Afterward, the cardinal immediately departed for Canada.

Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal said: “Nothing can justify such murderous acts aimed at innocent people. We are called to say again that, whatever our beliefs are, as human beings we are all brothers and sisters, all equal in dignity.”

The Anglican bishops of Quebec City and Montreal were in Canterbury, England, when the attack occurred.

In a joint statement on the shooting, Coadjutor Bishop Bruce Myers of Quebec and Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson of Montreal said: “Along with our grief and prayers we are called as disciples of Jesus to express our solidarity with our neighbors who are Muslim.”

“We wish to express directly to our Muslim neighbors in Quebec our grief and repugnance at this brutal act of violence against another community of faith, and one in the midst of prayer. When one is attacked, we are all attacked, and our whole society is diminished,” they insisted.

Over the years, the mosque had been targeted by hate crimes. A few months ago, a pig’s head was left at the front door, sparking indignation throughout the city.

Quebec City is the capital of the province and its second-biggest city, with more than 500,000 people. It has 6,100 Muslims.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was scheduled to be in Quebec City Jan. 30.

“It was with tremendous shock, sadness and anger that I heard of this (Jan. 29) evening’s tragic and fatal shooting,” he said. “We condemn this terrorist attack on Muslims in a center of worship and refuge.”

Quebec Mayor Regis Labeaume stayed up all night to assess the situation.

“My first thoughts go to the victims and their families hit while they were gathered to pray. Quebec is an open city where all must be allowed to live together in security and respect,” he said.

“I invite the population to come together and stand united. Quebec is strong, Quebec is proud, Quebec is opened to the world,” he added.

 

Vaillancourt is editor on Montreal-based Presence info.

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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.

 

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

By

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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