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Latin American bishops call for help for food-short Venezuela

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Catholic News Service

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Bishops from across Latin America condemned the ongoing violence in Venezuela and called for the church to find ways to provide charity to the South American country amid food shortages that have left thousands hungry.

A protester faces the National Guard during clashes May 10 in Caracas, Venezuela. The motto on his back reads: "Mom, today I went out to defend Venezuela. If I do not come back, I went with her." Latin American bishops have condemned the ongoing violence in Venezuela and called for the church to find ways to provide charity to the South American country amid food shortages  (CNS photo/Miguel Guitierrez, EPA)

A protester faces the National Guard during clashes May 10 in Caracas, Venezuela. The motto on his back reads: “Mom, today I went out to defend Venezuela. If I do not come back, I went with her.” Latin American bishops have condemned the ongoing violence in Venezuela and called for the church to find ways to provide charity to the South American country amid food shortages (CNS photo/Miguel Guitierrez, EPA)

“We are worried and pained by the deaths, the violence, the lack of the most basic goods, the divisions, the violation of human rights,” said Auxiliary Juan Espinoza Jimenez of Morelia, Mexico, secretary general of the Latin America bishops’ council, known by its Spanish acronym, CELAM.

Bishop Espinoza spoke during CELAM’s assembly in San Salvador, which brought together Catholic representatives from 21 Latin American countries plus delegations from the United States and Canada. The meeting, which ended May 12 and was themed “A poor church for the poor,” dedicated special attention to the situation in Venezuela.

The conference appointed a commission to study the issue and make recommendations. The commission will be headed by Archbishop Diego Padron Sanchez of Cumana, Venezuela, president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference.

“The bishops, presidents and delegates of the episcopal conferences of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have placed our minds and hearts with our brothers and sisters in Venezuela,” the bishops said in a letter that was read at the meeting. “We want to express to all citizens, and especially those in the Catholic Church, our closeness, solidarity and support, at the same time that we transmit a voice of hope in Christ, way, truth and life.”

The South American country of 31 million has been besieged by a deep political crisis since President Nicolas Maduro moved to expand his power, including taking over the functions of the opposition-controlled congress and, more recently, pushing for the constitution to be reformed.

Weeks of large-scale street demonstrations have led to violent clashes with police, leaving nearly 40 people dead and drawing international condemnation. The country has struggled with a deep economic recession and runaway inflation that has caused shortages of food and medical supplies. A survey by a Venezuelan university found about 75 percent of the population had lost an average of 19 pounds last year because of the lack of food.

Bishops Espinoza urged the church to respond to the crisis by providing supplies. “We call on the diocesan communities of Latin America and the Caribbean to initiate initiatives of charity with our Venezuelan brothers and to think about ways to make them effective, despite obstacles that may arise,” he said.

“The Catholic people of Latin America and the Caribbean know well that, in the most difficult moments of their history, we must turn to God with all pity to move forward,” the letter said, urging all churches to “pray for this brother and sister country for a prompt and definitive reconciliation and social peace.”

Latin American bishops call for help for food-short Venezuela

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As Islamic State steps up attacks, Christian leaders call for help

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — Christian leaders again called for help for Assyrian Christians as Islamic State militants stepped up their attacks against their towns in northern Syria.

Syria’s northeast Hassakeh province is emerging as the new battlefield in the fight against extremist group. Analysts say Hassakeh province, which extends like a thumb into neighboring Iraq and Turkey, could become the fault line of a new multifront and lengthy war between Islamic State militants and Christians allied with Kurdish fighters.

An Assyrian woman prays at a church in Damascus March 1 during a special Mass for Assyrian Christians abducted by Islamic State fighters. Christian leaders again called for help for Assyrian Christians as Islamic State militants stepped up their attacks against their towns in northern Syria. (CNS photo/Omar Sanadiki, Reuters)

An Assyrian woman prays at a church in Damascus March 1 during a special Mass for Assyrian Christians abducted by Islamic State fighters. Christian leaders again called for help for Assyrian Christians as Islamic State militants stepped up their attacks against their towns in northern Syria. (CNS photo/Omar Sanadiki, Reuters)

“This is a very dangerous situation,” said Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, warning of the major new offensive on Christian villages along the Khabur River.

“The villages on the south side of the river are in the hands of Islamic State militants,” Ishak told CNS.

“They took Tal Nasri, which is very close to Tal Tamar,” Ishak explained. Tal Tamar “is at the crossroads of many highways to Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city; to Qamishli, to Hassakeh and Ras al-Ain.”

The March attacks follow a raid by Islamic State militants on a cluster of villages along the Khabur River Feb. 23. More than 220 Assyrian Christians residents and other minorities were abducted then.

About 20 Assyrian Christians were later released. And although the apostolic nuncio to Syria, Archbishop Mario Zenari, told the Rome-based missionary news agency AsiaNews that Islamic State militants released 52 abducted Assyrian Christian families without ransom payment March 5 and 6, a priest who talked to church leaders in Hassakeh confirmed March 9 those families were not released.

A statement issued by the Syriac National Council of Syria, the European Syriac Union, and the Christian Coalition for Syria said Islamic State militants seized “all villages on the south bank of the Khabur and several villages on the north bank.”

Catholic News Service obtained a copy of the statement, which warned that the extremist group will “try to cross the Khabur with large numbers of fighters and heavy weapons, vastly stronger than the lightly armed self-defense forces of both Christians and Kurds in the area. Residents reported that the Khabur’s water flow strangely and suddenly dropped sharply on (March 8), although its source is in Turkey.”

Turkey should “restore water flows in the Khabur to make crossing the river harder for (the Islamic State extremists) and reopen its border with Syria so fleeing refugees can reach safety,” it said. There is also an “urgent need for more international humanitarian and military assistance,” it added, saying “1.5 million Christians, Kurds, and other civilians are at risk.”

Although U.S. coalition warplanes aided the Kurdish and Christian fighters by striking some Islamic State positions March 7-8, the statement said that “coalition airstrikes may put the militants off for a day or two but the situation is truly critical.”

“The Khabur River Valley is large and weakly defended in comparison with (Islamic State) armed battalions and heavy equipment. The ratio of fighters is probably 100 to 1,” the statement added.

Some Syriac Orthodox religious leaders in Europe have reportedly urged their congregants to go fight Islamic State militants to save their ancestral homeland.

Other clerics, such Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI, provided practical aid to Syrian Christians.

He told CNS that he was on the Iraqi-Syrian borders where a truck has been sent with relief items, such as medicines, milk and blankets to the Hassakeh province’s displaced Christians.

Father Rifat Bader, speaking on behalf of Jordan’s Catholic community, said prayers were being offered up for the tragic circumstances unfolding in northeastern Syria and throughout the Middle East.

“The suffering is becoming greater not only for Christians, but the region in general. The whole region is on fire,” said Father Bader, who heads the Catholic Center for Studies and Media.

“The persecution of Christians is rising and a human disaster is unfolding. These groups pretend to be Islamic, but are void of religion. They are filled with cruelty and violence destroying our civilization, whether people or stones,” he said, referring to reports that Islamic State militants are looting and destroying renowned ancient archaeological sites.

“Catholics are praying. We can’t talk about the future without a solution,” Father Bader said, urging that “we must support a political solution to end these attacks.”

 

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