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Mexicans respond to quake with generosity, concerns about aid distribution

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Catholic News Service

CUERNAVACA, Mexico — Donations from Caritas chapters across Mexico started streaming into affected areas after an earthquake rocked central Mexico Sept. 19, claiming more than 300 lives, leveling homes and churches and leaving thousands homeless.

Bishop Ramon Castro Castro of Cuernavaca, Mexico, celebrates Mass Sept. 24 outside the city’s cathedral, which dates to the 1500s and was badly damaged by the Sept. 19 earthquake in Mexico. (CNS photo/David Agren)

Some of those donations being trucked into Morelos state, just south of Mexico City, were stopped, however, and diverted to government-run collection centers, said Bishop Ramon Castro Castro of Cuernavaca. He sounded the alarm in a short video — and set off a scandal.

“This surpasses any minimal moral logic,” Bishop Castro said in an online video, which described how three trucks with Caritas supplies were detained, then diverted by police. “I ask those who have the authority and ability to stop this to do so.”

Bishop Castro’s video went viral in Mexico, where people have responded to the earthquake with generosity and rushed to rescue those trapped in rubble, even risking their own lives and working without sleep in the process.

But his comments have come to embody the country’s fatigue with politicians, some of whom have been chased away or jeered by irate locals while visiting disaster areas. Some politicians have put their promotion or logos on supplies or made assistance in poor areas conditional on recipients showing an electoral identification.

Mexico’s Catholic leaders have joined in the condemnation of the country’s political class, while also accompanying a population often distrustful of their authorities and depending on each other in a time of crisis. In a homily Sept. 24, Bishop Castro called for citizen vigilance to avoid corruption and crass politicking.

“I would ask the government to honestly distribute this money, this disaster fund to reconstruct the country and that no percentage of it ends up in anybody’s pocket. That we as citizens observe and denounce any abuse,” Bishop Castro said in a Sept. 24 homily.

“We hope this tragedy serves to humanize our political class,” added an editorial published Sept. 24 in the Archdiocese of Mexico City publication Desde la Fe. “Mexicans are fed up with the excess of politicians and public officials, the corruption, scandalous salaries, benefits and frivolities … politicians’ ostentatiousness, which insults the more 50 million poor people living in our troubled country.”

The magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck central Mexico especially hard, with the epicenter about 45 miles southeast of Mexico City on the border area of Morelos and Puebla states. In Morelos, served by the Diocese of Cuernavaca, at least 73 people died. Some towns reported more than half the homes there damaged or destroyed.

The citizen solidarity and generosity in Morelos has been overshadowed somewhat by concerns state officials and politicians are trying to use the tragedy for political purposes and to promote themselves ahead of the 2018 elections.

To prevent abuse, Caritas Mexico has developed an application that allows people to identify the disaster areas with the greatest needs, but also to track the delivery of donated supplies.

The application, still in its test phase, allowed the Diocese of Cuernavaca to spot a Caritas truck carrying relief supplies from northern Mexico being stopped by state police as it entered Morelos. Caritas officials rushed to the scene so the truck would be allowed to continue to its original destination, said Oscar Cruz, diocesan communications director.

Bishop Castro told Catholic News Service the Morelos government issued a directive to have all aid arriving from out-of-state distributed by state agencies.

“They want to distribute (church aid) because later they put a label on it, ‘Government of Morelos,’” he said. “This is support from many other people, and (labeling it otherwise is) a total lack of honesty.”

The diocese reports 111 parishes were either damaged or destroyed, while 13 parish residences were left uninhabitable, leaving those priests homeless.

“Some of these churches are 400 years old,” Bishop Castro said at the Cuernavaca cathedral, which dates back to the 1500s. The cathedral was undergoing renovations, but suffered such damage that services could no longer be celebrated inside. “These buildings were still standing after previous earthquakes, storms, but didn’t survive this. That tells you how powerful this was.”

The Diocese of Cuernavaca has focused on “accompanying people,” Bishop Castro said, meaning Masses and funerals were celebrated at all parishes, outside of the buildings.

The diocese also established three collection centers, which were swamped with donations and offers of assistance. One of the centers in the diocesan seminary had as many as 800 volunteers working at a time.

“People are showing a lot of solidarity,” said Father Israel Vazquez, seminary director. He said people sent donations to the church because they thought the church would distribute the aid to those most in need.

Some in the state went straight to the disaster areas. Otilia Diaz and four relatives collected clothing and shoes they no longer needed and drove to the town of Jojutla, which was hit especially hard.

“We collected all we could find in the house to give,” she said. “One woman asked us for shoes because her husband only had sandals and was clearing the rubble of their home.”

In a Mass celebrated outdoors for the victims of the earthquake, Bishop Castro called for change after the earthquake and expressed hopes the disaster, with its expressions of solidarity and demands for better from Mexico’s political class, would lead to a better country.

“Concern yourself with your country, a more just and honest society, that there’s justice. Concern yourself with defending the truth,” Bishop Castro said. “You’re leaders in this story. You’re a protagonist in a new Mexico. It’s the opportunity for change.”

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Greece’s Caritas aids refugees with food, clothing, human warmth

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Catholic News Service

IDOMENI, Greece — Weary faces, fussy babies, little boys teasing little girls to the point of tears and repeated uses of the Arabic word, “inshallah” (God willing) reflect the uncertainty faced by refugees trying to reach northern Europe.

Thousands of people fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan pass through the makeshift transit center daily at Idomeni, a Greek village, population 120, on the border with Macedonia.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila gives a food bag to a refugee family as they arrive at a transit camp in Idomeni, Greece, on the border of Macedonia Oct. 19. Thousands of refugees are arriving into Greece from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries and then traveling further into Europe. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila gives a food bag to a refugee family as they arrive at a transit camp in Idomeni, Greece, on the border of Macedonia Oct. 19. Thousands of refugees are arriving into Greece from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries and then traveling further into Europe. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The crossings began as a trickle in the summer and by late October were occasionally reaching 10,000 refugees passing through in a single 24-hour period.

“Uncertainty is the name of the game,” said Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, president of Caritas Internationalis.

The cardinal visited the camp Oct. 19 with members of Greece’s Caritas Hellas and helped them hand out bags of food to refugees arriving on buses from Athens, 380 miles to the south. With a little bit of rest, some food, water and a toilet break, the refugees continue their journey north, most hoping to join family already in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden or Norway.

Amin and Sambra are a young Sudanese couple who were living and working in Syria when the war broke out; they were given refuge in Turkey, but not a work permit, so Amin could not provide for his growing family. He said he paid 2,500 euros ($2,850) for the whole family to get on a rubber boat to Greece. Sambra gave birth to their fourth child Oct. 13 on the island of Samos. Then they headed for Athens and on to Idomeni.

Those standing in line near the border, marked with rolls of barbed wire, outside the Idomeni camp share key parts of Amin’s story. Fleeing Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, they traveled to Turkey. From there, they paid smugglers more than 1,000 euros each for a place in an overcrowded rubber boat bound for one of the Greek islands. Once in Greece, they paid to ride a ferry to Athens, and then they paid 80 euros for the bus ride to Idomeni. They will walk half a mile to cross the border, then pay 25 euros for a train ticket to Belgrade, Serbia, four hours away.

Luca Guanziroli, a staffer of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said the train ticket cost only 5 euros in the summer, but the Macedonian government has raised the price due to the increased demand.

Just outside the Idomeni transit camp, some enterprising Greeks have parked food trucks. It seems, however, that their most popular offering is a connection to their generators; they will recharge cell phone batteries with the purchase of a beverage or sandwich.

The UNHCR still is trying to secure electricity to the camp for more than its current two or three hours a day.

Patrick Nicholson, communications director for Caritas Internationalis, said the Syrian refugee crisis is unusual for the network of national Catholic charities because it involves “working with people for very short periods of time over such a long route. We have people helping them all the way from Turkey to Germany.”

Guanziroli said the refugees are at the Idomeni center for anywhere from 30 minutes to 10 hours, depending on how many trains Macedonia runs and how many refugees there are arriving that day.

With only one paid staff member and dozens of volunteers, the Thessaloniki section of Caritas Hellas is providing what the refugees say they need in Idomeni. “Basically,” Nicholson said, “they say they want a snack and things that they can carry. They have everything they own on their backs and many are carrying children as well.”

Cardinal Tagle, who visited with the refugees after handing out the food bags, said that although the refugees are assured at each stage that they are safe now, the uncertainty continues. They don’t know when the trains will arrive, which borders will be open to them and how they will be treated by police and border control agents.

“What crosses my mind is can the nations not make it easier?” the cardinal said. “Can we not work together and say these are human beings? They already have escaped horrible, horrible experiences.”

Yasin, 29, and his shy young wife fled Aleppo. Syria, to the Kurdistan region of Iraq three years ago. Now, with four children who are between the ages of 1 and 9, they are trying to join family in Norway.

The boat from Turkey to Leros was the worst part, Yasin said. “We were crying and praying because of the waves. … Huge waves made water come into the boat, but at least we had life jackets.” Some news reports have said the jackets cost extra.

Father Antonios Voutsinos is president of Caritas Hellas; he has five paid staff and an army of volunteers who are trying to help meet the needs of the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 refugees entering Greece each day. Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas aid agency, has helped fund the work of Caritas Hellas.

Cardinal Tagle stood in the dusty transit center between a medical tent set up by Doctors Without Borders and the little awning that marks the spot where Caritas volunteers handed out 1,200 food bags in just two hours Oct. 19.

“Caritas Hellas has only one paid staff person here; all the others are volunteers taking their turns every day to pack food, to sort out donations of clothing and coming here to spend the day or evening with refugees,” he said. “That is ‘caritas,’” which means love.

“Yes, Caritas Hellas is the beneficiary of a lot of goodwill and donations from other parts of the world,” he said, “but in the end, without the warm bodies, without the spirit of volunteerism … Caritas as an institution will not survive.”

“Caritas is Caritas because of those simple people who give of themselves,” the cardinal said.

While weary, the refugees are calm at Idomeni. They are organized into groups of 50 to receive food, rest a while, then move in orderly, well-spaced groups across the border and, they hope, on to trains.

The uncertainty obviously is greatest for the children, but the 6-year-old girl in the brand new, one-piece, red polka dot pajamas with reindeer on the pockets was smiling broadly. Cardinal Tagle and the Caritas volunteers gave her raisins and dates and cookies and a juice box and water. And a caress.

 

Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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God will judge people on care for the poor and the environment, pope says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The powerful of the earth will face God’s judgment and will be asked to account for how they cared for the poor and how they cared for the environment so that it could produce food for all, Pope Francis said.

“The planet has enough food for all, but it seems that there is a lack of willingness to share it with everyone,” Pope Francis said May 12 during his homily at a Mass opening the general assembly of Caritas Internationalis.

The network of 164 Catholic charities, who were to welcome Caritas South Sudan as the confederation’s 165th member, was to focus on the theme, “One Human Family, Caring for Creation.” Read more »

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Church agencies help educate displaced Iraqi youth

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Catholic News Service

SHARIAH COLLECTIVE, Iraq — Young children happily sing songs in Kurdish and Arabic, play interactive games, learn to count and how to read and write under a big colorful tent. Meanwhile, teens and pre-teens study more serious subjects.

It’s all part of a pilot project called Child-Friendly Spaces that Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Caritas are using to help Iraq’s religious minority children heal after being traumatized by the violence and displacement experienced at the hands of Islamic State (IS) militants.

Displaced Iraqi Yezidi children greet Catholic Relief Service workers and a delegation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Bishop Oscar Cantu, during a visit to Shariah Collective, Iraq,  Jan. 17. (CNS photo/Dale Gavlak)

Displaced Iraqi Yezidi children greet Catholic Relief Service workers and a delegation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Bishop Oscar Cantu, during a visit to Shariah Collective, Iraq, Jan. 17. (CNS photo/Dale Gavlak)

With most of Iraq’s displaced youth out of school because there are no places in existing institutions, CRS and Caritas staff members said the key to restoring hope is helping them resume their education.

“Of course, the people are affected greatly by the war and crisis after IS attacked and took control of their villages. They are very worried about the future,” said Omar, a project officer for the program who is among the displaced from the strategic Iraqi town of Sinjar. He and others asked that their last names not be used because of fear of repercussion from the militants against family and friends.

“The spaces are to fill the empty time, rather than have children bored or playing in the streets. Now they have a place to organize their time,” he said at one of four child-friendly spaces run by the program, about 30 minutes from Dohuk.

About 1,100 children are involved in the program, said Hani El-Mahdi, CRS Iraq country representative.

“The plan is to set up eight more child-friendly spaces. They all started with private donations. We also need to increase the scale and attract some more private funds,” El-Mahdi explained.

“Definitely the children have missed this school year, but we don’t want them to miss the next school year,” El-Mahdi added.

Islamic State militants attacked Mosul in June and its surrounding villages on the Ninevah Plain and Sinjar in August, thrusting 800,000 displaced Iraqis into the Kurdish region.

A delegation of U.S. Catholics,led by Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, in conjunction with CRS, visited northern Iraq Jan. 16-20 to see international church agencies’ work among Iraq’s internally displaced Christians and other religious minorities.

A number of the displaced, such as Omar, are working with CRS and Caritas, sharing their knowledge of what people are experiencing and suggesting ways to help.

The displaced include Christians who taught at the University of Mosul and Muslims and Yezidis, who worked for the United Nations or have professional degrees and are using their expertise to help other displaced minorities.

Yasser, a Christian from the predominantly Christian village of Qaraqosh, said he owned two homes and two businesses before fleeing with his family to a tiny village outside of Dohuk. There, his family and those of his three brothers all share a small, cramped dwelling.

“IS stole everything we had,” Yasser said. “If we were to return home, we might just find walls. IS is now booby-trapping the houses so if the owner returns and opens the door, the house will explode.”

Life in a remote village is also difficult, CRS workers said, because “we don’t have hot water because the electricity isn’t good in the village.”

“But more importantly, my two children cannot continue their studies as there are no nearby opportunities. Now they just sit at home,” Yasser said.

Sarah, a Muslim from Mosul, also helps CRS. She had to cut short her studies when the militants took over Iraq’s second-largest city.

Although Mosul is best known for the Islamic State’s expulsion of Christians who had lived in the region for 16 centuries, Sarah said Muslims also suffered hardship under the group’s radical brand of Islam, and that’s why she fled.

“IS doesn’t respect anybody there, Sunni Muslim, Christian or Yezidi. We saw what they did to the people in Raqqa, where IS has its base in Syria, and we knew we had to escape while we could,” she said.

She described her future as bleak and doubted whether she would be able to return to Mosul; she said people will have become distrustful because of the violence perpetrated by the militants.

Yasser agreed.

“There is no culture of peace in the world. Instead we see the opposite,” he said. “People have changed inside. We should work for peace.”

Kevin Hartigan, CRS regional director for Europe and the Middle East, said the agency is committed to supporting education for the displaced youth.

“We will be working with all the other actors, with the U.N. agencies, the local government, the Ministry of Education, the church, church schools, partner agencies and religious congregations to try to find a number of solutions,” said Hartigan, who also was in Iraq to see CRS programs.

“We need to look at every way we can be useful to the different local actors that are trying to expand education so it might be improving physical infrastructure, buildings, training teachers, providing funding for the creation of new schools and equipping of them,” he told Catholic News Service.

Providing curricula in both Kurdish and Arabic poses another challenge to the agencies. The displaced Christians mainly speak Arabic, while a number of Yezidis and other religious minorities speak Kurdish.

“We have to be open to everything,” Hartigan said. “We will take the lead of the local government and the church to decide how to manage these issues and will support whatever solution or consensus the Iraqis come to.”

 

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Pope to participate in wave of prayer against hunger Dec. 10

December 3rd, 2013 Posted in Vatican News Tags: , , , , ,

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will help launch a global campaign of prayer and action against world hunger.

Organized by Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based federation of Catholic charities, the global “wave of prayer” will begin at noon Dec. 10 on the South Pacific island of Samoa and head west across the world’s time zones.

Pope Francis will offer his blessing and support for the “One Human Family, Food For All” campaign in a five-minute video message being released on the eve of the global launch.

Caritas Internationalis invited its 164 member organizations and local churches to pray for an end to hunger and malnutrition as well as to act on a local, national or global level against food waste and promote food access and security worldwide.

Nearly 1 billion people or about one in eight people experienced chronic hunger or undernourishment during 2010-2012, according to the Caritas website.

“One of the worst sounds a parent can hear is their child crying at night tormented by hunger. Many parents living in poverty hear this cry and yet they have no food to give them,” Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, president of Caritas Internationalis, said in a video message.

“There is enough food to feed the planet. We believe that with your help and the help of governments and the U.N. we can end hunger by 2025,” he said.

Caritas is urging Catholics to take a few moments at noon Dec. 10 to join the world in praying against hunger as well as engage in long-term action through raising awareness, advocacy, charitable work or other efforts supporting food security.

(In the Diocese of Wilmington, Bishop Malooly will participate in a Catholic Charities’ prayer service Dec. 10 at noon.)

The right to food is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the “Food For All” launch-date of Dec. 10 marks the U.N.’s Human Rights Day.

The Caritas campaign is calling on the United Nations to hold a session on the right to food at its 2015 General Assembly and is asking governments to guarantee the right to food in national legislation to help alleviate their own citizens’ hunger.

The campaign will continue with a “global week of action” in October 2014 with events aimed at pressuring national governments to support laws for the right to food.

In Rome in May 2015, Caritas Internationalis will also host a general assembly of its members’ leaders to focus specifically on eradicating hunger.

People can contact their local Caritas organization for more information or the campaign’s main site at www.food.caritas.org.

 

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Rebels destroy Caritas office, church in Mali

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VATICAN CITY — Rebels fighting to establish a separate state in northern Mali destroyed a Caritas office and a local church in Gao, one of the cities they captured in late March and early April, according to Caritas Internationalis.

“Caritas staff fled Gao on Saturday. We learned from our guard today that the center and the church compound have been destroyed,” the priest who directs Caritas Gao told the organization’s Vatican-based central office April 2.

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