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Salesian priest recounts his kidnapping in Yemen, imprisonment

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Catholic News Service

ROME — Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil was sitting in a room in an unknown location, one of several he had been relocated to during his 18-month imprisonment, when he received some unexpected news.

Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was released Sept. 12 after having been kidnapped 18 months ago in Yemen, kneels at the feet of Pope Francis during a Sept. 13 meeting at the Vatican. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

“Those who kept me came to where I slept (and said), ‘I bring you good news. We are sending you home. If you need to go to the bathroom, go. Take a shower, but quickly.’” Father Uzhunnalil told reporters Sept. 16 at the Salesian headquarters in Rome.

The Salesian priest from India was kidnapped March 4, 2016, from a home for the aged and disabled run by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen. On that day, four Missionaries of Charity and 12 others were murdered in the attack by uniformed gunmen.

Seeing a group of Missionaries of Charity sisters seated at the news conference in Rome, Father Uzhunnalil expressed his condolences. However, the memory of the four sisters’ martyrdom still proved too difficult to bear.

Silence filled the room as the Salesian priest covered his eyes, tears streaming down his face while doing his utmost to hold back emotions that he thought he could contain.

“I thank God Almighty for this day, for keeping me safe, healthy, clear minded; my emotions were in control until now,” he said after regaining his composure. 

“I don’t want to speak too much about the sisters because I get too emotional,” he said.

Although reports following his kidnapping suggested the attack was carried out by the so-called Islamic State, Father Uzhunnalil said his captors never identified themselves.

Knowing very little Arabic, Father Uzhunnalil said he spoke to the militants with the few words he knew: “Ana hindiin” (“I am Indian”). To this day, the Indian priest still wonders why he was the only one spared in the slaughter.

“Why they did not kill me, why they didn’t tie my hands, I don’t know,” he said. “Perhaps they wanted some ransom or whatever it is. I only believe that maybe God had put that into their heads when I said, ‘I am Indian,’ and they made me sit there while they killed the others, the sisters.”

After leaving him in the trunk of the car, the militants ransacked the chapel taking the tabernacle, wrapping it with the altar linen and placing it near the kidnapped priest. With his hands unbound, Father Uzhunnalil carefully moved the linen and found “four or five small hosts,” which he kept to celebrate the Eucharist the first few days of his capture.

After his short supply ran out, he said, he continued reciting the Mass prayers when alone despite not having bread and wine.

“I peacefully was able to say my Eucharist all from memory, although bread and wine wasn’t available. But I prayed to God to give me those items spiritually,” Father Uzhunnalil said.

He spent most of his days praying for the pope, his bishop, his Salesian brothers, and “certainly those sisters, all those persons whom God had called” on the day of his abduction.

Father Uzhunnalil said he found consolation in the words of a hymn, “One day at a time, sweet Jesus.”

“Just give me the strength to do every day what I have to do. Yesterday’s gone, sweet Jesus, and tomorrow may never be mine. Lord, help me today, show me the way, one day at a time,” he would sing to himself in the solitude of his room.

On Sept. 11, Father Uzhunnalil was given the news of his liberation. After traveling for hours blindfolded, the priest along with two of his captors waited in the car.

Several hours later, his captors told him “some arrangements weren’t done” and they headed back.

Not understanding the church’s teaching on the Holy Trinity and the “unity of God in three persons,” Father Uzhunnalil recalled, one of his captors said, “You might have prayed to the third God, now you must pray to the second God so tomorrow can go well.”

Returning to his cell, he slept briefly when he was rustled out of bed in the middle of the night Sept. 12 and taken on the same long ride, his head once again covered. He was then moved to another vehicle where a person pulled up his picture on a cell phone and asked the priest, “Is this you?”

After confirming his identity, the driver drove for more than a day through the desert and told him: “Now you are free, now you are safe.”

Father Uzhunnalil was then taken to the Omani capital of Moscat where he received medical treatment, fresh clothes, and a shaving kit.

While he knows few details about arrangements for his release, Father Uzhunnalil expressed his gratitude to those who helped secure his liberation, including Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said of Oman, the government authorities of India, and the Vatican, including Pope Francis whom he met the day after his release.

As Pope Francis entered the room Sept. 13, the Salesian knelt before him and kissed his feet. Visibly moved by the gesture, the pope helped him up and kissed his hands.

Before blessing Father Uzhunnalil, the pope embraced him and said he would continue to pray for him as he had done during his imprisonment.

“In that meeting, the pope kissed my hand. I never deserved it,” he said. “I’m only grateful to God for his blessings, I’m sure he prayed much for me.”

Even his captors, Father Uzhunnalil said, knew of the pope’s efforts and inadvertently gave him a reason to hope.

“One of the captors told me, ‘The pope has said you will be freed soon but nothing is happening still.’ From that, I knew that the whole world was there, the whole church was there, the world was worried for me. So, I am grateful,” he said.

 

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Southern Philippines bishops support ‘temporary’ martial law

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MANILA, Philippines — Catholic bishops in the southern Philippines supported the declaration of martial law in Mindanao following an attempt by a band of gunmen claiming to be Islamic militants to seize a city in the region.

“At present we simply do not have solid and sufficient facts to absolutely reject the declaration of martial law as morally reprehensible,” the bishops’ said in a statement released May 29.

Smoke billows near a mosque in Marawi, Philippines, May 30. Catholic bishops in the southern Philippines supported the declaration of martial law in Mindanao following an attempt by a band of gunmen claiming to be Islamic militants to seize the city. (CNS photo/Erik De Castro, Reuters)

Smoke billows near a mosque in Marawi, Philippines, May 30. Catholic bishops in the southern Philippines supported the declaration of martial law in Mindanao following an attempt by a band of gunmen claiming to be Islamic militants to seize the city. (CNS photo/Erik De Castro, Reuters)

President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial across the southern part of the country after gunmen claiming to have links with the Islamic State group stormed Marawi May 23.

State security forces continued to battle with fighters of the Maute group May 29, resulting in the displacement of thousands of people.

“We are certainly agreed that martial law must be temporary,” the bishops of Mindanao said in the statement signed by Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, ucanews.com reported.

The cardinal said the church leaders “condemn the terrorist acts that have caused the loss of many innocent lives” and the burning of houses, a Catholic cathedral and a Protestant school.

“We condemn the unconscionable kidnapping of teachers and church personnel,” the bishops said.

The gunmen took several hostages including Father Teresito Suganob, vicar of the Prelature of Marawi, some of the prelature’s staff and churchgoers.

The bishops condemned “terrorism in its various forms,” adding that it is an “ideology totally against the tenets of any religion of peace.”

“Terrorism distorts and falsifies the true meaning of any religion. It destroys harmonious relationships among peoples of different faiths,” the bishops’ added.

They noted that many Filipinos see Duterte’s declaration of martial law as “reminiscent of the horrors of a past dictatorship.”

Former dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the 1970s, resulting in human rights abuses carried out by the military.

“Martial law is a means of last resort,” the bishops said. “The answers to many questions are speculative. We have many fears.”

They offered their assurance that they will “condemn any abuse and as in the past will condemn it outright if it goes in the way of evil.”

The prelates urged Filipinos to be “vigilant.”

“We exhort everyone to be calm in the face of martial law, to be obedient to the just commands of lawful authority, and not to provoke violent reaction,” said the bishops.

Meanwhile, the Jesuits in the Philippines expressed concern about martial law, describing it as “fraught with danger.”

In a statement, Jesuit Father Antonio Moreno, head of the order’s Philippine province, said martial law in the region “is a source of deep sadness, as well as of real concern and alarm.”

“We have to assert that martial law is fraught with danger, as we in this country have so painfully known,” Father Moreno said.

Martial law is “not a path to be trod lightly, and becomes particularly worrisome in a context where there are already too many questions about the value of life and basic human rights,” he explained.

Father Moreno appealed to Duterte to make martial law “short-lived and calibrated” and avoid “escalating further to other areas.”

Duterte, however, warned that he might expand the coverage of martial law to the entire Philippines if terror threats persist.

The president said he would ignore the Supreme Court of the Philippines and Congress as he enforces martial law despite a provision in the constitution giving both branches of government oversight.

“Until the police and the armed forces say the Philippines is safe, this martial law will continue. I will not listen to others,” Duterte said.

The Philippine Constitution adopted in 1987 imposed limits on martial law to prevent a repeat of the abuses carried out under the Marcos regime, which ended a year earlier.

Duterte has described military rule under Marcos as “very good.”

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Pope Francis decries ‘barbaric attack’ on concertgoers in Manchester – updated

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Catholic News Service

MANCHESTER, England — Pope Francis decried the “barbaric attack” on concertgoers in Manchester, adding his voice to Catholic leaders dismayed at what British officials said was the deadliest case of terrorism since 2005.

In a telegram sent to English church officials on Pope Francis’ behalf, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said the pope “was deeply saddened to learn of the injury and tragic loss of life” after a suicide bomb killed at least 22 people and injured another 59 at Manchester Arena May 22. Many concertgoers at the Ariana Grande concert were teenagers, young adults and families.

Two women wrapped in thermal blankets stand near Manchester Arena in England where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing May 22. At least 22 people, including children, were killed and dozens wounded after an explosion at the concert venue. Authorities said it was Britain's deadliest case of terrorism since 2005. (CNS photo/Jon Super, Reuters)

Two women wrapped in thermal blankets stand near Manchester Arena in England where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing May 22. At least 22 people, including children, were killed and dozens wounded after an explosion at the concert venue. Authorities said it was Britain’s deadliest case of terrorism since 2005. (CNS photo/Jon Super, Reuters)

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack.

The pope “expresses his heartfelt solidarity with all those affected by this senseless act of violence,” the telegram said, as “he commends the generous efforts of the emergency and security personnel and offers the assurance of his prayers for the injured, and for all who have died.”

“Mindful in a particular way of those children and young people who have lost their lives, and of their grieving families, Pope Francis invokes God’s blessings of peace, healing and strength upon the nation.”

In Britain, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and other Catholic leaders offered prayers for the victims of the attacks and their families.

“My shock and dismay at the horrendous killing of young and innocent people in the Manchester Arena last night is, I know, shared by all people of goodwill,” Cardinal Nichols said in a May 23 statement posted on the Westminster archdiocesan website. “I know, too, that Catholics and many others will be praying earnestly for those who have been killed, for the bereaved and for grieving loved ones.

“We pray in support of all those working so hard in response to this tragedy: the police and security forces, hospital staff, neighbors and friends and for all the people of Manchester. May God, in his mercy, strengthen and sustain us and keep us firmly united in the face of all evil.”

The terrorist attack took place within the Diocese of Salford, which incorporates most of Manchester and much of northwest England.

Bishop John Arnold of Salford offered a lunchtime Mass May 23 at St. Mary’s, a popular city-center church close to Manchester Arena.

In a statement the same day, he said: “The citizens of Manchester and the members of the Catholic community are united in condemning the attack on the crowds at the Manchester Arena.

“Such an attack can have no justification. I thank the emergency services for their prompt and speedy response which saved lives,” he continued. “We join in prayer for all those who have died and for the injured and their families and all affected by this tragedy. We must all commit ourselves to working together, in every way, to help the victims and their families and to build and strengthen our community solidarity.”

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, whose diocese covers southern parts of Manchester, wrote to his clergy, urging them to pray for the victims and their families.

“Let us also keep in our prayer the police and emergency services, together with all hospital staff and chaplains,” he said in his letter.

The bishop added: “Together with church and religious leaders in Greater Manchester, I ask the prayers of your parishioners for peace and solidarity in all our communities that the hate which inspires such indiscriminate violence may be overcome by that love which faith and prayer inspires in our hearts. I hope the days ahead, overshadowed by this atrocity, will lead us all to such prayer and active charity.”

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote Bishop Arnold to assure him of the prayers of Catholics in the United States.

“Words are not enough to convey the deep shock and sadness with which Catholics and all people of goodwill in the United States learned of the horrible attack which took place yesterday at England’s Manchester Arena,” said his letter, released May 23 in Washington. He mentioned “the unspeakable loss of life, terrible injuries, and untold trauma to families — especially to children.”

“Evil, as dense and dark as it is, never has the last word,” Cardinal DiNardo wrote. “As we prepare to celebrate the new dawn of Pentecost again, may the Easter words of the risen Christ, ‘Peace be with you,’ settle deep into the hearts of the citizens of your great country.”

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

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Catholic News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Doreen Abi Raad

 

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Once Iraq recaptures Mosul, people will still need help, says archbishop

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Catholic News Service

 

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The military operation to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State group is not the only solution needed to get life back to normal, said Iraqi Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil.

The Chaldean Catholic archbishop, who has called for such intervention in the past, said the solution was a package. People must “think again about the education, about the curriculum, about all the violent acts that happened during the last years.” Read more »

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Pope offers prayers for Orlando victims of ‘terrible, absurd violence’

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis offered prayers for the families of the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando and expressed hope that people would find ways to identify and uproot “the causes of such terrible and absurd violence.”

Pope Francis . (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis . (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A lone gunman, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group, killed 49 people early June 12 at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Another 53 people were injured before the gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, was killed by members of a police SWAT team.

Police said Mateen, a private security guard, legally purchased the two guns he used in the shooting, which is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Describing the shooting as an expression of
“homicidal folly and senseless hatred,” a Vatican statement said, “The terrible massacre that has taken place in Orlando, with its dreadfully high number of innocent victims, has caused in Pope Francis, and in all of us, the deepest feelings of horror and condemnation, of pain and turmoil.”

“Pope Francis joins the families of the victims and all of the injured in prayer and in compassion,” said the statement released June 12. “Sharing in their indescribable suffering he entrusts them to the Lord so they may find comfort.

“We all hope that ways may be found, as soon as possible, to effectively identify and contrast the causes of such terrible and absurd violence which so deeply upsets the desire for peace of the American people and of the whole of humanity,” the statement concluded.

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Chaldean patriarch appeals to Iraqi leaders to work for reconciliation

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Catholic News Service

 

BAGHDAD (CNS) — Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad urged Iraq’s leaders to put an end to the “institutional, economic and security deterioration” in the country.

“We call upon you, with a saddened heart and sorrow because of what is happening in Iraq and because the people are suffering from violence, poverty and misery,” Patriarch Sako said in a statement. Read more »

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Italian authorities arrest six in plot to attack Vatican, Israeli embassy

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Italian authorities arrested six suspects who allegedly received orders from the Islamic State terrorist group to attack the Vatican and the Israeli embassy in Rome. Read more »

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Kerry says Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that atrocities carried out by the Islamic State group against Yezidis, Christians and other minorities were genocide, the first U.S. declaration of genocide since Sudanese actions in Darfur in 2004.

A man in Cairo Feb. 16 denounces the killing of Egyptian Christians in Libya. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said atrocities carried out by the Islamic State group against Yezidis, Christians and other minorities were genocide, the first U.S. declaration of genocide since Sudanese actions in Darfur in 2004. (CNS photo/Khaled Elfiqi, EPA)

A man in Cairo Feb. 16 denounces the killing of Egyptian Christians in Libya. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said atrocities carried out by the Islamic State group against Yezidis, Christians and other minorities were genocide, the first U.S. declaration of genocide since Sudanese actions in Darfur in 2004. (CNS photo/Khaled Elfiqi, EPA)

Kerry said he was not judge and jury, but the Islamic State had self-defined itself as genocidal because of its actions against Yezidis, Christians, Shiite Muslims and other minorities.

A 66-member coalition is “working intensively to stop the spread of Daesh,” Kerry said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. He said the world must “marginalize and defeat violence extremists, once and for all,” so they were not replaced by another extremist group with a different acronym.

“We must recognize and hold the perpetrators accountable,” Kerry said in a March 17 statement that included a litany of atrocities such as rape and murder. He said Christians often were given the choice of converting to Islam or death, which was a choice between two types of death.

Kerry said military action to defeat Islamic State was important, but so were other actions. He said the coalition against Islamic State was working to strangle the group’s finances and to ensure that people who fled would someday be able to return.

On March 14, the House of Representatives, in a bipartisan 393-0 vote, approved a nonbinding resolution that condemns as genocide the atrocities being carried out by Islamic State militants against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the areas it occupies in Iraq and Syria. They gave Kerry until March 17 to decide whether to make a formal declaration of genocide.

The European Parliament passed a similar resolution in February.

State Department spokesmen had said Kerry was studying volumes of information before deciding on the genocide information. Last October, they hinted that a genocide designation was coming for the Yezidi minority in the region, but not for Christians. The comments led to a firestorm of protest from Christian groups that resulted in the congressional action.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked U.S. Catholics to sign a pledge calling for an end to the slaughter of Christians and members of other religious minority groups in the Middle East.

“As a people of faith, we must convince the U.S. Department of State to include Christians in any formal declaration of genocide,” he said March 14, just days before Kerry’s deadline.

In his remarks, Kerry said the U.S. government did not have total access to everything going on but was basing its decision on intelligence and military sources and outside groups.

On March 10 in Washington, the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians issued a 278-page report containing contains dozens of statements collected from Feb. 22 through March 3 from witnesses and victims of atrocities carried out by Islamic State forces. The incidents included torture, rapes, kidnappings, murder, forced conversions, bombings and the destruction of religious property and monuments.

In Beirut, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan commended the “courageous and clear resolution.” He said adopting the resolution would “help the (world’s) first Christian communities survive in their homeland of the Middle East.” He made the remarks before leaving March 17 to visit Homs, Syria, his fourth visit since the liberation of the city.

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House panel calls attacks on Christians, others in Middle East ‘genocide’

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WASHINGTON — The House Foreign Affairs Committee March 2 unanimously passed a bipartisan measure condemning as genocide the killing of Christians, Yezidis and other ethnic and religious minorities by Islamic State militants in the Middle East.

The House body also passed a second measure unanimously calling for an international tribunal to hold the Syrian government led by President Bashar Assad accountable for war crimes for “terrible atrocities” committed against the country’s own people.

Kurdish women mourn during a funeral ceremony in Sirnak, Turkey, Jan. 10. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee March 2 unanimously passes two bipartisan measures to address war crimes and genocide in Middle East. (CNS photo/Refik Tekin, EPA)

Kurdish women mourn during a funeral ceremony in Sirnak, Turkey, Jan. 10. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee March 2 unanimously passes two bipartisan measures to address war crimes and genocide in Middle East. (CNS photo/Refik Tekin, EPA)

The resolution on genocide, introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, “expresses the sense of Congress that the atrocities committed by ISIS against Christians, Yezidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

“ISIS commits mass murder, beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture, enslavement and the kidnapping of children, among other atrocities,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, R-California. “ISIS has said it will not allow the continued existence of the Yezidi. And zero indigenous Christian communities remain in areas under ISIS control.”

The Islamic State “is guilty of genocide and it is time we speak the truth about their atrocities. I hope the administration and the world will do the same, before it’s too late,” Royce added.

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson issued a statement applauding the House Foreign Affairs Committee for taking “a courageous and historic step in giving meaning to the words ‘never again.’”

“We now look forward to passage by the full House of Representatives,” he continued, “which has the opportunity to be on the right side of history in a bipartisan manner, joining its voice to those of the European Parliament, Pope Francis, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom and prominent genocide scholars worldwide.”

The Knights of Columbus, based in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Washington-based group In Defense of Christians are currently sponsoring an online petition www.StopTheChristianGenocide.org urging Secretary of State John Kerry not to exclude Christians from a declaration of genocide at the hands of the Islamic state.

“America must end its silence about the ongoing genocide against Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria,” says the petition, launched Feb. 25 and being promoted with a new nationwide TV ad. So far, the petition has garnered almost 45,000 signatures.

Introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, the second resolution OK’d by the House committee “strongly condemns the gross violations of international law amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity by the government of Syria, its allies and other parties to the conflict in Syria; and calls on the (U.S.) president to promote the establishment of a Syrian war crimes tribunal.”

Royce in his statement noted that prior to the vote on the second measure, the committee “heard searing testimony regarding the terrible atrocities being committed by Syria’s government against its own people — widespread torture, industrial-scale murder, starvation as a tool of war and the terror of unending barrel bombs.”

More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and millions more have been forced from their homes in Syria’s civil war that began with the aim of overthrowing Assad.

A partial truce brokered by the United States and Russia began in Syria Feb. 27. A U.N. report said March 3 that “visible progress” has been made, but fighting continues in some parts of the country. Also, the cease-fire excludes areas held by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate.

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