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Convent, Maronite village targets of vandals in Israel

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Catholic News Service

JERSULALEM — A Catholic convent near Jerusalem and a largely Maronite village in Galilee were damaged in recent weeks as a two-year wave of vandalism directed at Christians and Muslims in Israel and the West Bank continued.

In late March, anti-Christian and anti-American graffiti was scrawled on the walls of the Deir Rafat convent, also known as Our Lady Queen of Palestine. The tires of cars at the monastery also were slashed.

On April 3, residents in the northern village of Jish, known as Gush Halav in Hebrew, awoke to find that the tires of about 40 vehicles had been slashed and graffiti was a painted on a wall saying that “Only goys (non-Jews) will be driven out of our land.”

Authorities said they believe the graffiti is a reference to calls for Jews to leave West Bank settlements and a halt to building additional Jewish settlements while U.S.-led Palestinian-Israel talks continue.

The village is home to about 3,000 mostly Maronite residents as well as Muslims.

Authorities said the “price tag” attacks likely were carried out by a group of hardline settlers who have opposed the talks.

The Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land condemned the vandalism at the convent. Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal visited the convent a day after the incident and called the acts “madness.” He also said he regretted that the planned May 24-26 visit of Pope Francis should be “marred in this way,” according to the Latin patriarchate website.

“But we, like the nuns, will continue to pray for these sick minds, so that the Lord takes away their ignorance and their narrowness of mind,” Patriarch Twal said. “However, we must not be silent and we will do everything to ensure that justice is done and that these vandals and fanatics are prosecuted.”

A group of Israelis calling themselves “Illuminating Tag,” founded to counter the vandals, later visited the convent to express their support for the sisters in residence and condemn the attack.

Maj. Gen. Zohar Dvir, northern district police chief, told reporters the attack was “a criminal, despicable phenomenon.”

Elias Elias, head of the Gush Halav Regional Council, said in an interview with a Galilee radio station that the vandalism was the first of its kind in Jish and that it created a bad feeling.

A month earlier in Gaza, a Catholic church was hit by vandals in a separate unrelated incident. The patriarchate website reported that an explosive device had gone off outside the Church of the Holy Family and graffiti was scrawled on the facade of the church.

Father Jorge Hernandez, a parish priest, extinguished the resulting fire. Damage was modest, but the incident “has deeply shaken the small Christian community,” the patriarchate said.

Community and religious leaders visited the parish following the attack in a show of “solidarity and sympathy,” said the posting. The patriarchate’s general administrator later celebrated Mass with parishioners on behalf of Patriarch Twal.

 

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Pope honors slain Jesuit, pleads for peace in Syria — updated

April 7th, 2014 Posted in International News

By

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said the assassination of “my confrere,” a 75-year-old Dutch Jesuit in Syria,
“filled me with deep sadness and made me think again of all the people who suffer and are dying in that martyred country.”

Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt “arrived in Syria about 50 years ago” and “always did his best for everyone with graciousness and love, and so was loved and held in esteem by Christians and Muslims,” the pope said April 9 at the end of his weekly general audience.

Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt chats with civilians, urging them to be patient, in the besieged area of Homs, Syria, Jan. 29. The priest was assassinated there on April 7.. (CNS photo/Thaer Al Khalidiya, Reuters)

Father Van der Lugt had refused to leave war-torn Syria, instead staying in Homs to help the poor and homeless. He was beaten by unidentified armed men and killed April 7 with two bullets to the head, according to the Jesuits’ Middle East province.

“From my heart, I ask you all to join my prayer for peace in Syria and in the region,” Pope Francis said, “and I launch a heartfelt appeal to Syrian leaders and to the international community: Silence the weapons! Put an end to the violence. No more war. No more destruction.”

Father Van der Lugt, a psychotherapist, had worked in Syria since 1966 and had been offering shelter in his monastery to Muslims and Christians left homeless by the war, which began in March 2011.

In a statement, Father Adolfo Nicolas, superior general of the Jesuits, and the staff of the Jesuits’ headquarters expressed their sorrow “for the brutal assassination of a man who dedicated his life to the poorest and neediest, especially in Homs, and who did not want to abandon them even at times of great danger.”

“He always spoke of peace and reconciliation,” the statement said, “and he opened his doors to all those asking help without distinction of race or religion. ‘I don’t see Muslims or Christians,’ he used to say, ‘but only human beings. I am the only priest and the only foreigner in this place, but I don’t feel like a foreigner.’”

The Jesuits prayed that “his sacrifice would bring the fruit of peace and that it would be a further stimulus for silencing the weapons and setting aside hatred.”

Father Van der Lugt became known around the world after appealing for aid for the people of the besieged city of Homs in a video posted on YouTube in late January.

The United Nations supervised an evacuation of about 1,400 people from Homs in early February; arriving in Jordan, the refugees confirmed Father Van der Lugt’s accounts of people, especially young children, starving to death.

Speaking to Catholic News Service by telephone Feb. 6, the Jesuit had said: “There has been no food. People are hungry and waiting for help. No injured people have been allowed to leave. Families have been hoping to get out of the siege and out of the fighting between the two sides.”

“The wounded have not received proper treatment, so healing has been difficult. Newborns die very quickly because of a lack of milk,” he said. “There have been cases of death due to hunger and starvation.”

In Syria, Jesuit Refugee Service announced it would close for three days after Father Van der Lugt’s death.

“Father Frans was a beacon for all of us; he did not only preach about love and reconciliation but he lived it out every day,in humility and with compassion for all, until the very end,” said Father Peter Balleis, JRS International director.

 

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Cardinal praises Philippines’ peace accord with Muslim rebels

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MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines’ newest cardinal was among 1,000 guests who witnessed the peace agreement between the government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group.

Cotabato Cardinal Orlando Quevedo’s archdiocese in the southern island of Mindanao includes the main administrative camp for the rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. A number of ranking members of the front attended Oblate-run Notre Dame University, where the cardinal served as president. They have noted his long-standing empathy and understanding of the plight of the Muslims.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front forces take a break during a show of force inside Camp Darapanan in southern Philippines March 27. The Philippines and its largest Muslim rebel group signed a final peace pact, ending about 40 years of conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people in the country’s South. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Cardinal Quevedo told reporters on the sidelines March 27 that he admired the determination of negotiators for the rebels and the government and “also their wisdom because the Bangsamoro has finally achieved their own fundamental aspiration for self-determination.”

In a speech, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, called the pact “the grandest articulation of our aspirations.” He said it finally restored the identity, powers and resources of all residents of Muslim-majority Mindanao, called “Bangsamoro.”

“These three things, which have been ours since time immemorial, unjustly taken through colonization and occupation, are now returned to us,” Murad said at the ceremony on the grounds of the presidential palace in Manila.

For nearly 40 years, the Muslim rebels fought for the right to self-determination, engaging government troops in skirmishes and forcing millions of residents to flee their homes. Approximately 120,000 people were killed.

The pact, which officials call the “Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro” creates a self-governing region in Mindanao.

The region to be called Bangsamoro, a name coined by the rebels for all residents of Muslim-majority Mindanao, including Christians and indigenous peoples, will have a parliamentary form of government. It will be able to generate its own revenues, collect a significant portion of royalties from natural resources in the area and form its own law enforcement, among wide-ranging powers. The central government in Manila will maintain national defense, currency and postal services.

This new region will supersede an existing autonomous region that was born out of a 1990s peace pact between the government and a smaller Muslim rebel group. That region, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is the poorest part of the country, and Philippine President Benigno Aquino called it a “failed experiment.”

“The huge imbalance between Muslim Mindanao and the rest of the country served to breed resentment and consequently insurgency,” Aquino said at the signing. “When the Bangsamoro people felt that they had no redress within the system, they then tried to address their grievances from outside of the system. We must therefore give them a significant boost up, so that they can catch up.”

Officials say the economic problems that plague the region now are a long way from the Christian versus Muslim conflict that dominated the struggles in the southern Philippines during Spanish colonial times through the early part of the 20th century.

Still, Cardinal Quevedo acknowledged there was room for even better understanding on the part of Catholics in the region.

“I know that living together with Muslims, which has been part of my long life in Mindanao, is something I appreciate very much, when I used to have my Muslim students interact with me at the university,” said Cardinal Quevedo. “So at the grass-roots level, in the marketplace, be friends with one another. Pray for one another. Live together in the community, and all those biases and mistrust can be somehow significantly reduced.”

“Let’s pray for the success of this peace agreement that promises lasting and just peace in our region of Mindanao,” said Cardinal Quevedo.

In a statement, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said the conference rejoiced “with our countrymen” over the signing. He urged the implementers of the agreement to pay special attention to “those who feel marginalized,” including smaller rebel factions not happy with the deal, and he pushed for development in the affected region.

“The promotion of total human development is long delayed. It cannot wait further. The people of Mindanao have been suffering for decades,” said Archbishop Villegas.

By Simone Orendain

 

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Vatican accepts resignation of free-spending German bishop

By

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has accepted the resignation of a German bishop who was at the center of controversy over expenditures for his residence and a diocesan center.

Following a diocesan investigation, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops studied the audit’s findings and accepted the resignation of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg. Auxiliary Bishop Manfred Grothe of Paderborn was appointed to serve as apostolic administrator of Limburg in the meantime, the Vatican announced March 26.

Bishop Tebartz-van Elst would be assigned, “at a suitable moment,” another unspecified assignment, the Vatican statement said.

Pope Francis called on the German clergy and faithful in the diocese to accept the Vatican’s decision “with meekness and to try to dedicate themselves to rebuilding a climate of charity and reconciliation,” the statement said.

The pope had authorized a leave of absence for the bishop in October after allegations of overspending and leading a lavish lifestyle.

“A situation has been created in which Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst currently cannot exercise his episcopal ministry,” the Vatican said last year in a written statement.

The bishop has been at the center of controversy over the remodeling and building project in Limburg, which was estimated to have cost about $40 million. Media dubbed Bishop Tebartz-van Elst the “luxury bishop” and “Bishop Bling.”

In early September, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, sent retired Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo to visit the diocese to promote peace between the bishop and some of the diocese’s priests concerned about the diocesan center project.

After the cardinal’s visit, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst agreed to publish figures about the construction project and cooperate with a commission established by the bishops’ conference to audit the project and examine how decisions were made. In most cases, church law requires consultation with a diocesan finance council before large sums of diocesan money can be spent.

In a separate controversy, the bishop agreed in November to pay a court-ordered fine of 20,000 euros rather than contest charges that he perjured himself before the Hamburg District Court. Hamburg prosecutors had charged him with lying to the court in a case involving the magazine Der Spiegel.

The bishop had sued over an article alleging that he had flown first class on a trip to India for charity work when he told a Der Spiegel reporter that he flew business class. Although the bishop denied that he said he flew business class, the reporter had a recording of his words.

 

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Abuse survivor says new Vatican panel must achieve real change

By

Catholic News Service

DUBLIN — The lone clerical abuse survivor nominated by Pope Francis to sit on the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors said the commission needs to achieve concrete change in order to “show other survivors that the church is going to get it right.”

Marie Collins, who was abused by a chaplain as a sick 13-year-old at Crumlin hospital in Dublin in the 1960s, told Catholic News Service that many survivors will be watching the new Vatican commission “with interest, but many will have written it off as merely a PR exercise.”

Irish abuse victim Marie Collins, left, who was assaulted as a 13-year-old by a hospital chaplain in her native Ireland, attends a 2012 vigil in Rome. Collins is the lone clerical abuse survivor nominated by Pope Francis to sit on the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

“Survivors will not be satisfied with more words or promises, they need to see real change,” she said.

Collins, who campaigns on behalf of abuse victims, said her priority is “a strong worldwide child protection policy which would include sanctions for any member of the church in a position of authority who ignored these rules.”

She added that too many bishops who have protected abusive priests have been allowed to remain in place undisciplined.

“I would like to see the way survivors and their families have been treated change. The concentration on often-abusive legalistic responses instead of caring for those hurt needs to end,” she said.

The cultural attitude within the church and laws that “categorized child abuse as a moral lapse rather than a criminal offense also have to be tackled,” she told CNS.

The Dubliner is seeking greater transparency because “the secrecy of the past led to enormous failures.”

The initial eight members of the commission will be free to decide what issues they are going to deal with, how they are going to work and who else will join the commission, Collins told CNS.

Though it is in its early stages, she said her understanding is that the commission will make its recommendations directly to Pope Francis and will not communicate through any Vatican departments.

Asked who else she would like to see on the new commission, she told CNS she would like to see Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin because he “is the template for how child protection should be handled at ground level,” and also Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who really “got it” when it came to addressing clerical sexual abuse.

Collins told CNS that she met another commission member, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, in 2011 as he led the Vatican investigation of the Archdiocese of Dublin and was “very impressed with his openness and his ability to listen.”

She also worked with another member of the commission, Baroness Sheila Hollins, during the Toward Healing Symposium at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 2012.

“I feel we worked very well together. She is very devoted to the cause of the vulnerable adult and has great expertise in this field. I am looking forward to working with Cardinal Sean and Baroness Hollins.”

However, Collins said she was “disappointed” listening to Pope Francis’ recent comments when he said no one has done more on the issue of child sexual abuse than the church, and yet the church is the only one to be attacked.

[“He seemed to miss the point that the huge anger directed at the Catholic Church has not been caused by the fact it had abusers in its ranks but by the unique situation whereby those in authority were willing to protect these men. This has been shown in inquiry after inquiry around the world,” she told CNS.

She said it was up to the new Vatican commission to change the pope’s mind on this.

Asked what it means to have a survivor on the commission, Collins said in the past there had been a fear of survivors and “an inability to handle their justified anger.”

At other times, survivors were seen as people who could be placated by words of apology but this “underestimated the damage done to lives and the hurt and anger and thirst for justice that so many survivors feel.”

“In this context it is a big step for the church to include a survivor on the commission, but a very necessary one,” she commented.

She has already been contacted by many survivors and survivor groups from various parts of the world. The majority responded positively, wanting her to take their particular concerns to the commission. She said some have suggested that she is a “token survivor” appointed just to give the church good public relations.

“I have remained a Catholic but not without much difficulty and struggle,” she told CNS. “There have been periods when practicing my faith has been impossible. I have tried to separate the institution of the church from the faith. My belief in God has never wavered. Being appointed to the commission has not changed anything in this regard.”

 

 

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Aid agencies, artists work to help 2.5 million Syrian refugees, including children

By

Catholic News Service

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — As Syria’s civil war hurtles into its fourth year, hopes of returning home soon seem far off for the 2.5 million refugees sheltering in neighboring countries, like Jordan. Syrians are soon expected to overtake Afghans as the largest refugee population in the world, according to the United Nations.

A boy cries as he stands amid rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Aleppo March 6. (CNS photo/Hosam Katan, Reuters)

Top U.N. officials warn that the grinding conflict will leave a generation of 5.5 million children in and outside Syria physically and emotionally scarred. But American street artist Samantha Robison is working hard to change that.

A Washington, D.C. native, Robison and her team of international artists paint alongside the refugee children, encouraging them to remain strong and positive in Jordan’s Zaatari camp.

Covered in splashes of paint in every color of the rainbow, Robison encourages a 9-year-old Syrian girl named Zeinab to express her future dreams through painting on a recycled tent tarp.

“I am drawing a bird flying in the air. To me, it represents the freedom we want,” the enthusiastic child said as she drew.

Peaceful demonstrations protesting the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad erupted three years ago and were soon met by sniper fire from government troops before bursting into all-out civil war.

Robison said the young Syrian refugees at Zaatari remember the start of the conflict, but now look to the future.

“Yes, commemorate the three years, but also remember where they’ve come from and how much they’ve accomplished,” she said.

“Honor the human dignity and the next generation and the future of Syria. I think is where a lot of the energy needs to be focused,” she added, speaking of the children.

Zaatari is now the second-largest refugee camp in the world and Jordan’s fifth-largest city. Just more than half the 120,000 refugees there are under the age of 18.

Robison encourages the children to use their imaginations as they draw and paint and not to use well-known cartoon characters in their illustrations.

“What does your dream village look like? Draw yourself saying hello to children in other countries,” she urges them.

In the process, they magically transform dull canvas tents, metal trailers, schools and other facilities into colorful and creative works of art. Healing and hope come to the children and their families.

She encourages them to explore their creativity and have the space to just be children, something the civil war back home — full of bombings, the death of family members, and assaults — has robbed them of.

“Painting for these kids is fun and gives them a way to express themselves while putting them back in touch with themselves as children. It’s not about working or making ends meet,” said Leah O’Bryant, a Washington state artist working with Robison’s AptART organization in the camp.

“That’s something that kids take for granted in other places, but isn’t always possible here. They are expressing some intense emotions, but they are also just having fun. That’s one of the most important things that we do,” she said.

Syrian children along with women are among the most vulnerable of those fleeing the conflict, international aid workers say.

“The images on TV often show Syrian men fighting, but among the refugees, the heart of the story is women and children, who make up nearly 75 percent of the refugee population,” Caroline Brennan, Catholic Relief Services’ senior communications officer, told Catholic News Service March 17.

Brennan regularly visits CRS field work in Jordan and Lebanon. CRS, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency, aids 250,000 Syrian refugees across the Middle East region.

“Because they make up such a large percentage of the population, our services are predominantly supporting women and children, especially those in towns where the vast majority live as urban refugees, by providing for their basic needs for survival and health care,” Brennan said.

“Given the enormity of needs for women and children, we focus on education for children and counseling for mothers and children. Issues of trauma are so significant,” Brennan said.

She said CRS medical workers have observed that 45 percent of Syrian refugee children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and 60 percent from depression.

“Going to school helps children stay at their school level, have a place to go during the day and enables them to claim some semblance of childhood. Counseling is a big component of that, not only for those children, but their mothers. The mothers are caring not only for their children who are traumatized, but also making major decisions for their families in a way they were not necessarily making back home,” Brennan said.

A Syrian refugee mother who identified herself only as Reem said she struggles with her new role as the female head of her household.

“My husband divorced me recently, and my father died shortly afterward. I have to be strong and protect myself and my children. This is contrary to Middle Eastern culture,” the young woman emphasized.

Other Syrian female refugees say their husbands are also absent. They are either fighting back home or have been killed or abducted in the conflict.

“A glass might drop. It doesn’t even break, and the children are crying and shaking. Older children are wetting the mattress. The issues are severe,” Brennan said.

“The mothers are desperate to know how to care for children suffering from trauma when they have their own issues they are wrestling with. Our counselors are there to help,” she said.

 

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Chinese bishop, who was imprisoned 20 years, dies at 96

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HONG KONG — Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang of Shanghai, a prominent leader of China’s underground Catholic Community, died after a brief illness March 16 at his home. He was 96.

Bishop Fan, like many other Catholic leaders, served in prison after he and other priests were arrested in 1955 during a government crackdown. From 1958 to 1978, Bishop Fan was imprisoned in Qinghai province, where his job was to carry corpses in a cemetery, reported the Asian church news portal ucanews.com.

China’s estimated 10 million-12 million Catholics are divided between two communities: one that, for decades, remained underground because it did not accept compromises and political control after the Chinese communist takeover in the 1950s, and one that the Vatican has acknowledged accepted some compromises and political control in order to continue its existence. Both are faithful to the pope, and both have faced persecution from Chinese authorities.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, said young priests, even those from the so-called open church community, often met with Bishop Fan before they were ordained. Shanghai has lost a “steadfast and persevering” leader in Bishop Fan, he said.

A Jesuit, Bishop Fan was ordained a priest in 1951. He refused to recognize the Chinese government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association when it was established.

The Connecticut-based Kung Foundation said Bishop Fan was secretly ordained as coadjutor bishop of Shanghai in 1985 when Bishop Ignatius Kung Pin-mei remained incarcerated in a government jail. Bishop Kung died in 2000, and the foundation said Blessed John Paul named Bishop Fan his successor.

However, the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai, another Jesuit who spent 18 years in prison during the communist repression, was recognized by the government as bishop of Shanghai in 1989. He did not reconcile his status with the Vatican until early in the 21st century, according to information on the diocesan website.

Born Jan. 13, 1918, Bishop Fan was baptized a Catholic in 1932. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1938.

After his release from prison, Bishop Fan became a teacher. Later he was allowed to return to Shanghai.

Funeral arrangements were not finalized as of March 16 but will be limited to two days as outlined under Chinese law.

Lam told ucanews.com that bishops of the underground church likely will meet to suggest a successor to Pope Francis.

Meanwhile, the future of Shanghai Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who was ordained in 2012 with the approval of both Pope Benedict XVI and the Chinese government, remains uncertain. Bishop Ma said during his ordination Mass that he would no longer hold any position in the Catholic Patriot Association so that he could focus on pastoral work and evangelization. He was immediately placed under house arrest at Sheshan Seminary. The government also rescinded his appointment.

 

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Ukrainian Catholic leader meets with pope after vote in Crimea

By

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis met privately at the Vatican with the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church March 17, the day after pro-Russian voters on the Crimean peninsula voted to secede from Ukraine in a referendum the United States and European Union called illegal.

A man waves a Russian flag as he celebrates the announcement of preliminary results of the Crimean referendum in Lenin Square in Simferopol, Ukraine, March 16. Pope Francis met privately at the Vatican with the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church March 17, the day after pro-Russian voters on the Crimean peninsula voted to secede from Ukraine in a referendum the United States and European Union called illegal. (CNS photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Reuters)

While Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, head of the Eastern-rite church in Ukraine, declined requests for interviews, it was assumed his talk with the pope would include a discussion about the fate of the Ukrainian Catholic priests ministering in Crimea.

Ukrainian Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris, head of the Ukrainian church’s external relations department, issued a statement March 15 saying Father Mykola Kvych, pastor of the Dormition of the Mother of God Parish in Sevastopol, was taken from his church that morning, “seized by two men in uniform and four men in civilian clothing.”

Earlier in the week, Bishop Gudziak said, the church’s leadership had urged Father Kvych and the other priests in Crimea to evacuate their wives and children to mainland Ukraine.

“The priests themselves returned to their parishes to be with their faithful in a time of crisis and moral and physical danger,” he said.

Several hours after Father Kvych was taken from the church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s information service reported he had been freed after questioning, which apparently focused on accusations that he had been organizing anti-Russian riots.

The next day, however, parishioners helped him leave Crimea. He told the church information service that “several unknown individuals” continually rang the doorbell of his apartment, then tried to break in. When they left, he took the chalice and paten he uses for Divine Liturgies and some important documents and left the city.

Father Kvych also said that he spoke to the priests in Yalta and Yevpatoria, who were “now in a safe place. He didn’t mention where exactly,” the information service said.

Ukrainian Catholics make up about 10 percent of Crimea’s 2 million inhabitants; the majority of the people on the peninsula are ethnic Russians and speak Russian. Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in late February and, in early March, Russian forces entered Crimea.

Crimean politicians said more than 96 percent of voters participating in the referendum March 16 voted to secede from Ukraine. Members of the Crimean Parliament March 17 formally asked to join the Russian Federation.

 

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Russia’s occupation of Crimea ‘is only the beginning,’ says Ukrainian bishop

By

Catholic News Service

A Ukrainian Catholic priest in Crimea said church members are alarmed and frightened by the Russian military occupation and fear their communities might be outlawed again if Russian rule becomes permanent.

Father Mykhailo Milchakovskyi, a pastor in Kerch, Ukraine, described the atmosphere as tense because many residents of the town located in the eastern part of Crimea were unsure of their future.

Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk in formation near a Ukrainian military base in Crimea March 7. A Ukrainian Catholic priest in Ukraine’s Crimea region said church members are “alarmed and frightened” by the Russian military occupation and fear their communities could be outlawed again if Russian rule becomes permanent. (CNS photo/Vasily Fedosenko, Reuters)

“No one knows what will happen. Many people are trying to sell their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine,” Father Milchakovskyi told Catholic News Service March 12.

“Our church has no legal status in the Russian Federation, so it’s uncertain which laws will be applied if Crimea is annexed. We fear our churches will be confiscated and our clergy arrested,” the priest said amid tensions over a planned March 16 referendum on whether the autonomous territory should join Russia or remain in Ukraine.

Father Milchakovskyi said the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s leader, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, had pledged prayers and support if fellow-Catholics found themselves in danger.

However, he added that his church feared Russian rule would inflict a “new oppression” on Ukrainian Catholics, whose five communities traditionally make up about 10 percent of Crimean peninsula’s 2 million inhabitants.

“Many have already stopped coming to church, after being branded nationalists and fascists by local provocateurs,” Father Milchakovskyi said.

“The Orthodox have always insisted they’re dominant here and done everything to make life unpleasant for us. If they’re now given a free hand, we don’t know whether they’ll behave like Christians or follow the same unfriendly policy,” he said.

Under Soviet rule, from 1946 to 1989, the Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed. The strongest members lived their faith clandestinely, while others attended an Orthodox church or no church at all. The government confiscated all church property, giving some buildings to the Orthodox and putting other buildings to secular uses.

In January, Archbishop Shevchuk said Ukraine’s now-ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, had threatened to ban the Ukrainian Catholic Church because of its support for pro-Western opposition protests. However, Leonid Novokhatko, Ukraine’s former culture minister, denied that Yanukovych planned to ban the church.

Father Milchakovskyi said he had been allowed, as a military chaplain, to visit Catholics serving with the Ukrainian naval infantry in Kerch, after their base in the eastern port was blockaded by Russian-backed forces.

He reported that Russian troops were “controlling who and what gets through,” and said young recruits now lacked food and medicines.

“Everyone says the results of the referendum are already known, although many would vote to remain in Ukraine, or to retain Crimea’s autonomous status,” the priest said.

“The referendum will have no legal status, and we don’t even know who’ll conduct it and count the votes. But we’re deeply anxious it will be used as a pretext to act against us,” he added.

Two days earlier, in a separate CNS interview, Father Milchakovskyi said Catholics would likely not vote in the referendum.

“They say that It’s not legal. They will not take part in it and that it is just illegal,” he said using his wife, Alexandra, as an interpreter. Eastern clergy may be married prior to priestly ordination.

Ethnic Russians make up 58 percent of the Crimean population, with Ukrainians 24 percent and mostly Muslim Tartars about 12 percent.

In a March 12 statement on his diocesan website, Bishop Bronislaw Bernacki of Odessa-Simferopol criticized the international community for not taking action against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The world talks, criticizes Russia and does exactly what Putin expects, nothing,” said Bishop Bernacki.

He predicted the Crimea referendum, which has been rejected as illegal by most foreign governments, would “prove 80 percent support” for the region’s annexation by Russia and reflected a “wider policy by Putin,” as revealed in a 2008 military campaign against Georgia.

“Cutting off Crimea is only the beginning, it will then be time for Ukraine’s eastern and southern counties, and then perhaps the whole country,” the bishop said.

The president of Ukraine’s Latin-rite bishops’ conference, Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki of Lviv, told Poland’s Catholic information agency, KAI, March 12 the bishops would hold their March 19-21 plenary in the eastern city of Kharkhov, “to be closer to those in greatest danger.”

News reports March 12 said unarmed groups of volunteers, with support from local authorities, were attempting to protect churches, mosques and cemeteries from looting and vandalism.

A day earlier, a bishop with Crimea’s Orthodox Church associated with the Kiev Patriarchate, which backs the new Ukrainian government, said several prominent pro-Western activists had disappeared. The statement said there was a “real danger to the lives of Ukrainians” in the territory.

Meanwhile, prices for fuel and food were rising fast, Father Milchakovskyi said.

“Our parishioners aren’t wealthy, and our clergy live in the same conditions, but we can’t request money or material help because we’ve no way of receiving them,” the priest said.

“We’re counting on the prayers of Christians abroad and also their moral support in protesting and making our problems known as widely as possible.”

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Czech priest wins $1.8 million Templeton Prize for interfaith dialogue

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Msgr. Tomas Halik, a Czech priest, has been named the 2014 Templeton Prize winner for his work in promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding throughout the world.

The John Templeton Foundation made the announcement March 13 at a news conference in London.

John M. Templeton Jr., foundation president and chairman, said in a statement that this year’s winner “inspires us all to break free of repression, whether it comes from a totalitarian government or our own blinkered world view.”

Msgr. Tomas Halik gestures during a news conference after being awarded the 2014 Templeton Prize in London March 13. Msgr. Halik, a Czech priest, was honored for his work in promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding throughout the world. (CNS photo/Oliva Harris, Reuters)

In an interview from London a day earlier, Msgr. Halik, 65, told Catholic News Service that the honor belongs in no small part to his teachers, many of whom were imprisoned for years under communism.

“They inspired me intellectually and morally,” Msgr. Halik said.

He was born in 1948 in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia. Influenced by authors such as Graham Greene and G.K. Chesterton, he entered the Catholic Church as a teenager in 1966. In 1978, after years of training in secret for the priesthood, he was clandestinely ordained. Even his mother was not told of his new status.

Before the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” that toppled communism in his country, Msgr. Halik helped organize an underground university and church community that advanced the ideals of faith and freedom.

“Whether risking prison to liberate the minds of his nation or daring to engage views that many keepers of the faith would find heretical, Tomas Halik has continually opened vistas that advance humankind,” said Templeton.

The revolution that brought down Czechoslovakia’s one-party government came about through massive, nonviolent street demonstrations organized by students and other dissidents. In June 1990, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.

Msgr. Halik initiated an ecumenical project called the “Decade of National Spiritual Renewal” to create “a moral and spiritual biosphere” to prepare Czech society for a democratic transition.

In 1993, the country split into two independent nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

After the fall of communism, Msgr. Halik returned to public life. In addition to serving as pastor of his parish in Prague, he was appointed as an adviser to the Pontifical Council for Non-Believers by Blessed John Paul II. In 1993, the council was incorporated into the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Msgr. Halik also began lecturing on sociology and religion in universities across Europe and the Americas.

Since 1995, Msgr. Halik has traveled all over the world to promote understanding between religions and cultures. He has taken part in talks among Jewish thinkers in Israel, Hindus in India and Great Britain, Buddhists in Nepal, Japan and Thailand, and Muslims in Egypt, Jordan and Great Britain.

Msgr. Halik believes that Catholics play an instrumental role in interfaith dialogue today.

“The Catholic tradition may be the only one which has something in common with both of these very different worlds, the world of Islam and the world of secular culture,” Msgr. Halik said. “We can understand both sides and promote dialogue between them.”

Each year, a nine-member panel chooses a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension to receive the Templeton Prize.

The prize includes a monetary award of about $1.8 million. Msgr. Halik told CNS that he had no immediate plans for the money, but would use it to further encourage dialogue among faiths and with nonbelievers.

“I see my mission as being a communicator with seekers,” the priest said. “It is important for the church not to be concerned only with dwellers, but also with seekers.”

 

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