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Cardinal says world leaders sidestepping persecution of Christians

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PEAPACK, N.J. —Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien told Catholics gathered for Mass and a symposium in the Metuchen Diocese that “the enormity of today’s modern Christian genocide is possibly the worst and bloodiest in church history.”

“The situation in Africa, Asia and the Middle East is conveniently sidestepped by the world’s leaders, even those in Washington,” the cardinal said in his homily during the Aug. 8 Mass at St. Brigid Church in Peapack. “We give God thanks for the grace that continues to nourish and strengthen them.”

Cardinal O’Brien, who is grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, gathered for a Mass with the Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre for what was believed to be the first time for the diocese the grand master had gathered with members of the order.

When Metuchen Bishop James F. Checchio welcomed the cardinal on such “a historic day for the diocese,” he told those assembled that “a Christian is killed every hour, 365 days a year, because of their faith.”

Resplendent in capes and berets, the Knights and Ladies led a procession for the Mass. The group included Lt. Vicki Downey, head of the order’s Eastern Lieutenancy, which has headquarters in New York, Bishop Checchio, retired Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski of Metuchen, St. Brigid pastor Msgr. Edward Puleo, and more than a dozen priests from around the diocese.

In his homily, Cardinal O’Brien quoted from “The Road to Character,” a book by New York Times columnist David Brooks, to explain why people persisted in faith despite persecution and suffering.

“Brooks reminded us, ‘People are beginning to feel a call; they are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They feel they must participate together in responding to the challenge,’” Cardinal O’Brien said. “Isn’t that precisely what brings us here together, in the face of an enormous, ongoing, senseless and seemingly endless persecution of our suffering believers around the world?”

Christ passed the test of suffering, the cardinal reminded the congregation, and he can help us and those persecuted for the faith in other lands do the same. It is our responsibility to speak out and pray for them.

“When they ask the heavenly Father for bread, he will not give them stone, or when they ask for fish, he will not give them a serpent,” Cardinal O’Brien said. “We feel their pain, and we must together respond. Our unity with them in the body of Christ demands we support them spiritually, purposely, and share in their suffering.”

Acknowledging the dozens of Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre seated before him, Cardinal O’Brien said, “May the prayers and petitions of our worldwide order echo in every heart. We are in solidarity with these martyrs. May their witness give new life in us to our people of faith.”

The symposium following Mass was sponsored by the Anglosphere Society, a nonprofit membership organization formed in 2012 to promote the defense of religious freedom in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Panelists included human rights lawyer and international Christian religious freedom advocate Nina Shea; Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean.org, a charity to aid and advocate for persecuted Christians; and Anglosphere founder Amanda Bowman, a member of St. Elizabeth-St. Brigid Parish, who served as moderator and asserted, “Evil must be confronted; mere words have never stopped homicide.”

Shea and Father Kiely held their listeners spellbound as they cited facts and anecdotes on the torture, seizure of private property and destruction of many houses of worship affecting Christians worldwide.

Noting that the symposium was taking place on the third anniversary of the conquering of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Shea said: “It has gone way beyond persecution, it is genocide. It is getting a bit better in this post-ISIS era: the imminent threat of death is gone, but (the Christians) cannot return to their homes.”

Shea reminded the assembly that these Christians could trace the roots of their faith to St. Thomas, but a population of 1.4 million Christians has dispersed and now fewer than 200,000 remain.

“In three years, they have not seen any of the $1.4 billion in aid from the United States,” she said. “We need to put the aid into reconstruction, but it will be tough putting Humpty Dumpty back together again; 82 percent of the Christians have left or died.”

The Knights of Columbus recently pledged $2 million dollars toward reconstruction of a Christian town in Iraq, Shea said, but “safety is dire, and Christian lands are being colonized by Iraqi militia. Whatever we do as Catholics –- prayer, petition, vote, speak with our senators, make donations – will help. Today, there are more martyrs than in the Roman period.”

Father Kiely shared his transformation from a Vermont-based parish priest to an advocate for the persecuted, and said, “I was called to spend the rest of my priesthood doing this.” He said that “the government has a strong hatred of Christians; only the church has been feeding and clothing these people for three years.”

Despite their persecution, Father Kiely said, “they would prefer death or giving up everything to losing their faith. From a spiritual perspective, they give us the intestinal fortitude and guts to stand up for faith.”

“Faith comes from them to us,” the priest continued. “They have a love of God and a deep pride in their heritage. They are the cradle of Christianity. Never let your own faith be weakened by what we have to suffer over here.”

The Anglosphere Society recommended using the acronym PRAY to help Christians worldwide. It stands for pray patiently but with perseverance; read about, research and respond to the needs of the persecuted; advocate and act so others become aware of the plight of persecuted Christians; and say yes by sharing time, talent and treasure on the Christians’ behalf.

“This will not go away,” Father Kiely said grimly. “This is happening in Nigeria, Pakistan, France, Germany … everywhere.”

By Christina Leslie

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Bishop briefs Tillerson on church’s interest in building the ‘common good’

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace met with the country’s top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, March 23, for a policy-packed 35-minute conversation about immigration, the Middle East, Africa and the role of the Catholic Church’s efforts toward building “the common good.”

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., gestures during a March 23 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., gestures during a March 23 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“After some small talk about Texas,” the two spoke about the Middle East, about Iraq and Syria, reaching out to Central America and Mexico, and the situation in Africa, said Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, explaining his initial meeting in Washington with Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, who, like Bishop Cantu, hails from Texas.

Bishop Cantu said the meeting was about letting Tillerson know “that our only motive is to help build the common good, that we don’t have ulterior motives,” and explaining the bishops’ peace and justice committee’s work in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Far East.

Bishop Cantu, as the chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, has spoken for a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict, against the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, for reducing the United States’ nuclear arsenal, and raised concerns about an executive order that targets refugees from some countries with predominantly Muslim populations, which are at odds with stances taken early by the Donald Trump administration.

“I have concerns,” he said in an interview with Catholic News Service, but said the meeting with Tillerson was about establishing a relationship that can help the church advocate for policy issues to help the common good.

“We bring a unique perspective,” said Bishop Cantu. “One of our principles in Catholic social teaching is the common good and that goes beyond our own church needs.”

Bishop Cantu said he talked about the church’s efforts in Congo and South Sudan and the need for stability in such places. U.N. agencies said in February that famine and war in the area are threatening up to 5.5 million lives in the region.

Because of the church’s humanitarian agencies, its solidarity visits, and long-term contact with local governments and populations around the world, the church lends a credible voice, Bishop Cantu said.

“He expressed that he was eager to have open lines of communication with us and to listen to our perspective on things,” Bishop Cantu said.

“The two areas we especially touched on were the Middle East and how to rebuild in Iraq and Syria. And the second topic that he wanted to hear our perspective on is the immigration issue, particularly how to reach out to Central America and Mexico,” said Bishop Cantu.

He said he emphasized to Tillerson the importance of having countries where religious minorities have a say in the government and of investing in rebuilding countries. The proposed Trump administration budget has been criticized for its plans to slash funding for the State Department up to 28 percent, or $10.9 billion. The cuts would greatly affect the department’s Food for Peace Program, which reduces hunger and malnutrition in poor countries, while proposing a $54 billion, or 10 percent, increase in military spending.

Bishop Cantu said he left information with Tillerson about the church’s concerns with the proposed budget.

“We’re concerned about the very steep increase in the military budget, the cutting back on foreign aid, we’re very concerned about that. I did want to emphasize how important development is in regions that need to be stabilized,” he said, “that those are wise investments of time and funds.”

The meeting also included a discussion about Christians in the Middle East, Bishop Cantu said, “and that Christians don’t want to live in a ghetto. … They believe it’s important that they live in an integrated society that is safe and secure,” to have a voice in local, regional as well federal government. He said he also emphasized “the fact that the (Catholic) church in the Middle East can act as a voice between the Sunnis and the Shia” and the importance of the church remaining in places such as Iraq and Syria.

“Any wise government official wants to listen to the voice of people who have a stake in different areas and to listen to the wisdom of experience,” Bishop Cantu said. “We have our brothers and sisters there, the church, who do live there. The fact is that … we bring a trusted voice.

“We bring some wisdom to the conversation,” he added. “Our vision is to build a society that’s stable, that’s just, that’s peaceful, and ultimately, that’s the goal of the state department … and so I think that’s why our voice is valuable to them.”

 

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U.S. bishops call for solidarity with Middle East victims of violence, refugees

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WASHINGTON — Christians and all people in the Middle East need the solidarity of the U.S. Catholic Church, said the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the head of the Catholic Relief Services board.

The damaged entrance of St. Mary's Church is seen in 2016 in Damascus, Syria. Christians and all people in the Middle East need the solidarity of the U.S. Catholic Church, said the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the head of the Catholic Relief Services board. (CNS photo/Mohammed Badra, EPA)

The damaged entrance of St. Mary’s Church is seen in 2016 in Damascus, Syria. Christians and all people in the Middle East need the solidarity of the U.S. Catholic Church, said the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the head of the Catholic Relief Services board. (CNS photo/Mohammed Badra, EPA)

“A concern for our Christian brethren is inclusive and does not exclude a concern for all the peoples of the region who suffer violence and persecution, both minorities and majorities, both Muslims and Christians,” said a Feb. 10 statement from four bishops.

“To focus attention on the plight of Christians and other minorities is not to ignore the suffering of others,” the statement said. “Rather, by focusing on the most vulnerable members of society, we strengthen the entire fabric of society to protect the rights of all.”

The group included Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace; Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the Committee on Migration; and Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, New York, chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services.

The group pointed to the findings of a recent USCCB delegation to Iraq, which confirmed that Christians, Yezidis, Shiite Muslims and other minorities had experienced genocide at the hands of the Islamic State group.

“It is important for Syrians and Iraqis of all faiths to recognize this as genocide, for that recognition is a way to help everyone come to grips with what is happening and to form future generations that will reject any ideology that leads to genocidal acts and other atrocities,” the bishops said in their statement.

The bishops called on Americans to accept “our nation’s fair share” of vulnerable families, regardless of religion and ethnicity, for resettlement as refugees. They called for special consideration of the victims of genocide and other violence.

They urged the U.S. to encourage the Iraqi government and the regional government in Irbil, Iraq, to “strengthen the rule of law based on equal citizenship and ensure the protection of all.”

U.S. aid should assist local and national efforts to improve policing and the court system and encourage local self-governance, the bishops said. Similar efforts are needed in Syria as well, they said.

The U.S. also can provide “generous” humanitarian and development assistance to refugees, displaced people and Iraqi and Syrian communities as they rebuild, the statement said. Such funding can be directed in part to “trusted faith-based nongovernmental agencies” such as Catholic Relief Services and local Caritas agencies, the bishops said.

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Minority faiths in Middle East threatened by intolerance, says speaker

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Catholic News Service

NEW YORK — A rising tide of intolerance in the Middle East threatens minority faith communities with cultural extinction, said speakers at a May 10 lecture in New York.

Religious minorities are the most seriously impacted among the millions who have fled their homes to escape violence and the percentage of Christians in the region has dropped to an all-time low, panelists said.

Douglas M. Padgett, foreign affairs officer in the Office of International Religious Freedom with the U.S. Department of State, gestures during a May 10 panel discussion at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. Also pictured are Haider Elias, president of Yazda, a global organization that assists Yezidis; Iraqi Father Gewargis Sulaiman, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East; journalist Eliza Griswold; and Sarhang Hamasaeed, senior program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace. (CNS photo/Leo Sore , Fordham University)

Douglas M. Padgett, foreign affairs officer in the Office of International Religious Freedom with the U.S. Department of State, gestures during a May 10 panel discussion at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. Also pictured are Haider Elias, president of Yazda, a global organization that assists Yezidis; Iraqi Father Gewargis Sulaiman, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East; journalist Eliza Griswold; and Sarhang Hamasaeed, senior program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace. (CNS photo/Leo Sore , Fordham University)

The Russo Family lecture event at Jesuit-run Fordham University was titled “Endangered: Religious Minorities in the Middle East and their Struggle for Survival” and co-sponsored by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and its Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

A vast and vibrant network of religious and spiritual communities flourished in the Middle East for millennia and managed to live in peace, although with difficulty, according to journalist Eliza Griswold, who has traveled in and written extensively about Christianity and Islam.

Christians and other religious minorities were first targeted for persecution after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, she said. Iraq was destabilized and the Arab Spring felled tyrannical leaders whose forces previously “shored up” religious minorities. Neighbors turned against one another. Griswold said religious minorities were attractive targets because they had money.

“It’s not a sensational story; it’s the reality for those living in the region,” she said.

Although numbers vary from country to country, Griswold said the Christian population of the Middle East is now 4 percent, down from 20 percent. She said Islamic State buys and sells Christian women and girls in telephone negotiations. She witnessed a man in an Iraqi restaurant pose as an Islamic State member to negotiate the purchase of his kidnapped wife and daughters.

Iraqi Father Gewargis Sulaiman, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East, described the plight of Christians in Iraq as cultural genocide, for which immigration is the only immediate solution.

Father Sulaiman said he did not think Christianity would die in Iraq, because Christians have overcome violence in the past. “We are people of that land and believe God put us there to be the salt and light our ancestors were,” he said.

“When there was justice, people could live together. The cultural norms were protective to each group, but when politicians abuse power for personal benefit, there is no justice or protective norms,” Father Sulaiman said.

“Christians are integral to the social fabric of the country. They’ve been the source of peace, integrity and values and raised the standard of every community they’ve lived in,” Father Sulaiman said. “The world is obliged to provide assistance to prevent genocide. The disappearance of Christians in the Middle East will hurt everyone,” he said.

Haider Elias is co-founder and president of Yazda: A Global Yazidi Organization. He said Yezidis are an ancient ethno-religious minority indigenous to what is now northern Iraq. They practice a monotheistic religion and have endured 74 massacres and genocides in recorded history, Elias said. There are now fewer than 1 million Yezidis.

Islamic State militants attacked Yezidis in August 2014, kidnapping 6,000 women and girls and killing 5,800, including several members of Elias’ family. More than 400,000 Yezidis live in camps for displaced persons in Iraq.

Any resolution in Iraq requires the defeat of Islamic State before anything else can be done, Douglas M. Padgett said. He is a foreign affairs officer in the Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. Department of State. His office works with vulnerable communities, tracks laws and coordinates with civil society groups to identify and help those persecuted because of their faith.

The subsequent challenge is “to put Iraq back together in such a way that diversity can be maintained” and minority groups can enjoy security and economic and political viability, Padgett said.

“The humanitarian need is so vast, it’s shocking,” he said, but United Nations’ appeals for help are routinely underfunded by at least 40 percent. Padgett said other needs include efforts to document atrocities and mass graves for potential prosecution, and a plan to establish transitional justice to help people live together again after the conflicts. In addition, survivors need medical, psychological and social support.

Sarhang Hamasaeed, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace, said Iraqis have three options: return to homes in liberated areas, remain wherever they relocated, or resettle somewhere safe.

Elias is an Iraqi refugee who worked as a translator for the U.S. Army. He said most Yezidis want to be resettled elsewhere. “This is not the first, second or third time this has happened. They’ve lost trust in the Iraqi government and surrounding cultural communities,” he said.

“Those who want to stay want international protection,” Elias said.

Speakers agreed that protection in the form of international peacekeepers, troops on the ground or the creation of a no-fly zone is prohibitively expensive and extremely unlikely.

Padgett said there is potential for a self-secured autonomous zone for religious minorities in northern Iraq after Mosul is retaken from Islamic State. Griswold said the Iraqi Constitution includes a provision for such a zone, but Elias said self-governance of the envisioned zone is complicated by conflicts among five competing groups in the area.

Panelists agreed the needs outpace the resources, but individuals can take action. “In 20 years of covering conflict, I have never seen a more pressing need for funding,” Griswold said.

Jesuit Refugee Services, Caritas, Assyrian Aid Society, Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization and other small nongovernmental agencies are working in the affected communities to serve people in need, they said.

Griswold urged listeners to invite members of groups such as Yazda to address parishes and meetings of interested people because the extent of the suffering is poorly understood in this country.

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An embrace brings pope and Russian patriarch together in Havana — updated

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Catholic News Service

HAVANA — At long last, Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow embraced, kissing each other three times.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis meet at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Feb. 12. The pope was traveling to Mexico for a six-day pastoral visit. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis meet at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Feb. 12. The pope was traveling to Mexico for a six-day pastoral visit. (CNS/Paul Haring)

“Finally,” the pope told the patriarch Feb. 12 as they met in a lounge at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. “We are brothers,” he told the patriarch.

Amid the clicking of cameras and multiple flashes, Patriarch Kirill was overheard telling the pope, “Things are easier now.”

“It is clearer that this is God’s will,” Pope Francis told him.

A flight of almost 12 hours capped months of intense negotiations and more than two decades of Vatican overtures to bring a pope and a Russian patriarch together for the first time.

Cuban President Raul Castro played host to the pope and patriarch, who was on a visit to Russian Orthodox communities on the island-nation. Pope Francis had a pastoral visit to Mexico planned for months; the stop in Havana was announced only a week before the meeting.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill signed a joint declaration that emphasized the things the two churches have in common.

Addressing the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, they said that “whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.” They called on the international community “to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion” of Christians, to end violence and terrorism and to ensure that large amounts of humanitarian aid reach the victims of violence.

“In raising our voice in defense of persecuted Christians, we wish to express our compassion for the suffering experienced by the faithful of other religious traditions who have also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence,” they said.

“Attempts to justify criminal acts with religious slogans are altogether unacceptable,” they said. “No crime may be committed in God’s name.”

They called those who have died “martyrs of our times” and said they helped unite various churches “by their shared suffering.”

They spoke of the need to be vigilant against European integration that is “devoid of respect for religious identities.” They also spoke of extreme poverty, the “millions of migrants and refugees knocking on the doors of wealthy nations” and consumerism.

They spoke of life issues: abortion, euthanasia, new reproductive technologies and threats against the churches’ view of marriage.

After they signed the document, the two leaders embraced, and each spoke briefly.

Patriarch Kirill said they had a two-hour, “open discussion with full awareness of the responsibility we have for our people, for the future of Christianity, and for the future of human civilization itself. It was a conversation filled with content that gave us the opportunity to understand and hear the position of the other. And the results of the conversation allow me to assure that currently both churches can cooperate together to defend Christians around the world; with full responsibility to work together so that there may be no war; so that human life can be respected in the entire world; so that the foundations of human, family and social morality may be strengthened through the participation of the church in the life of human modern society.”

Pope Francis said: “We spoke as brothers, we share the same baptism, we are bishops, we spoke about our churches. We agreed that unity is done walking (together). We spoke clearly without mincing words. I confess that I felt the consolation of the Spirit in this dialogue. I am grateful for the humility of His Holiness, his fraternal humility and his good wishes for unity. We left with a series of initiatives that I believe are viable and can be done. ”

He thanked Patriarch Kirill and others involved in arranging the meeting and also thanked Cuba, “the great Cuban people and their president here present. I am grateful for his active availability; if it continues this way, Cuba will be the ‘capital of unity.'”

Patriarch Kirill gave Pope Francis a small copy of an icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which itself is a symbol of Vatican-Russian Orthodox detente, but also of failed hopes. The oldest known copy of the icon, an ornate 18th-century piece had been hanging in St. John Paul II’s study for a decade as he hoped to return it to Russia personally. Instead, in 2004, he had Cardinal Walter Kasper take it back to its country of origin as a gesture of goodwill.

The icon is one of the most revered and replicated icons in Russian Orthodoxy.

Pope Francis gave Patriarch Kirill a reliquary with a relic of St. Cyril, the patriarch’s patron saint, and a chalice, which not only is a sign of hopes for full communion between the two churches, but also a sign that the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of the Orthodox sacraments.

The addition of a stopover in Cuba was widely seen as a sign of Pope Francis’ willingness to go the extra mile to reach out a hand in friendship. At the same time, observers said, it gave those Russian Orthodox opposed to ecumenism a sense that their church is special and that it bowed to no one in agreeing to the meeting.

In a commentary distributed Feb. 11, Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris said: “The pope is demonstrating humility; he is going to the territory of the other. In the eyes of nostalgic Russians, Cuba is almost home territory, a last outpost of a lost Soviet Empire.”

For decades, the Russian Orthodox told the Vatican that a meeting between the patriarch and pope was impossible because of the activities of Latin-rite Catholics in Russia and, especially, the Eastern-rite Catholics in Ukraine.

The Moscow Patriarchate had said that while those problems still exist with the Catholic communities, they take a backseat to the urgency of defending together the rights and very existence of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

The harsh persecution of Christians and other minorities in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region has been a cause Pope Francis has pleaded before world leaders and for which he has rallied the prayers of Christians across the globe.

He speaks often of the “ecumenism of blood,” the fact that Christians are killed for believing in Christ with the persecutors not knowing or caring what denomination or church they belong to. Christians are fully united in that suffering and, the pope has said, those who die for their faith are in full communion with each other and with centuries of martyrs now in the presence of God.

But the fate of persecuted Christians was not the pope’s primary motive for meeting Patriarch Kirill. Simply meeting him was the point.

Metropolitan Hilarion Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s external affairs department, told reporters a week earlier that Patriarch Kirill chose Havana in the “New World” because Europe, the “Old World,” was the birthplace of Christian division.

Ukrainians, Catholic or not, have expressed concerns about Pope Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill given the patriarch’s apparently close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time of ongoing fighting in Eastern Ukraine.

“The topics of discussion will not be explicitly political ones,” Bishop Gudziak wrote. “The gist of the rendezvous will be the encounter of church leaders representing very different experiences, agendas, styles and spiritualities of ecclesial leadership. One can hardly expect revolutionary results. Yet, it is through encounter that spiritual change occurs. Let us pray for good spiritual fruit.”

– – –

Contributing to this story was Junno Arocho Esteves in Mexico City.

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Bishops visiting Holy Land urge peace efforts to help ‘forgotten’ Christians

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — With crises in Syria and Iraq deepening, Catholic bishops on a solidarity visit with the “forgotten” Christians of the Middle East are urging stepped-up peace efforts to resolve conflicts tearing apart the troubled region.

Highlighting the ongoing plight of Iraqi Christian refugees who face another winter of displacement, 18 months after fleeing persecution by Islamic State militants, is also their top concern.

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

“They want a future which is full of peace,” Bishop Declan Lang of Bristol, England, said of the Iraqi Christians who attended a packed, solemn Mass at Our Lady of Peace Center on the hilly, tree-lined outskirts of the Jordanian capital.

“These people are of tremendous faith, and that’s where they find their identity. What we are trying to say to them is that you are not forgotten,” Bishop Lang told Catholic News Service.

Bishop Lang has been leading 12 bishops from Europe, South Africa and North America on the third and final leg of a pilgrimage to encourage Christians in the Holy Land. Known as the Holy Land Coordination, the annual event was set up at the invitation of the Holy See at the end of the last century to offer support to local Christian communities of the Holy Land.

The bishops earlier traveled to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to encourage a Palestinian Christian population increasingly dwindling in the land of Jesus’ birth.

But the bishops told Catholic News Service that it also was important to hear from Iraqi Christians and other refugees, so the wider Christian community can effectively help them.

“It’s important that we remind our governments and the general population of the situation of Iraqi Christians,” Bishop Lang said of the some 8,000 Iraqi Christians currently sheltering in neighboring Jordan.

They fled their ancient homeland of more than 14 centuries after Islamic State militants told them to convert to Islam, be killed or leave. Tens of thousands are internally displaced in northern Iraq.

“So one of the responsibilities and obligations that we have is to keep reminding people of the stress and distress of the Iraqi refugees,” Bishop Lang said.

One Iraqi Christian, identified only as Bashar, said after the Mass, “My family and I sadly feel that we can never go back to our home in Mosul.” A mechanical engineer, the man had once owned his own telecom company in Iraq’s second-biggest city, which is now in the hands of Islamic State.

“The military didn’t protect us, and our Muslim neighbors betrayed us, even robbing us of our personal possessions. So we believe that the only future for us is somewhere in the West,” said the man, who now shelters with his family of four at the center’s compound because he has lost his savings.

Bishop Lionel Gendron of St. Jean-Longueuil, Quebec, told CNS that one of the first things he plans to do is talk to the new Canadian government about the issue of opening more resettlement opportunities to Iraqi Christians.

“I will insist on the fact. Iraqis are practically not allowed to go back to their country,” the Canadian bishop said. “Many Syrians left (their country) because of the war and the political situation, while the Iraqis left mainly because of their faith.”

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told CNS that “the time for peace is now.”

While praising the work of the international Catholic charity, Caritas, which aids more than 1 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the other humanitarian efforts in Jordan, he called them “a band-aid.”

“It’s not sustainable in the long run,” said Bishop Cantu, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “We have to look at the root causes of these issues. It’s in everyone’s interest to build peace, so we will certainly be advocating for that as we return.”

“It’s also important that the U.S. take in its fair share of refugees,” Bishop Cantu said of the increasingly divisive issue in the United States.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, accompanied Bishop Cantu on the visit. He said the office’s work on behalf of “all the peoples of the Middle East” has involved supporting a resolution in Congress declaring that Iraqi Christians and Yezidis have suffered genocide at the hands of Islamic State militants. He said his office also has worked to encourage the U.S. to accept its “fair share of refugees” and “invest in more resources for countries, like Jordan, to cope with the refugee influx, so they are not destabilized.”

Colecchi emphasized the need for active international peace efforts that recognize the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East.

“We’ve got to work for peace and ultimately stop the atrocities of Islamic State and the flow of refugees,” he said.

“A more united and effective response is needed to that kind of extremism from which Muslims are suffering and particularly, Christians and Yezidis, are targeted by,” Colecchi added.

Among the other bishops who took part in the Holy Land Coordination were Bishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, South Africa; Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England; Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, Ireland; and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway, Scotland.

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Commentary: Church serves, strives to keep Christian presence in Bethlehem

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As we approach the feast of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, we must renew our prayers for peace in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East. Unfortunately, the situation of Christians in that area of the world got worse during the past year, mainly because of the Islamic State that is intent on driving Christians out.

The city of Christ’s birth continues to lose Christians. In 1948, just after World War II and when Israel was recognized as a country, Christians comprised 85 percent of Bethlehem’s population. That slowly declined, but it was still 54 percent after the 1967 war between Israel and the Arab countries that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, where Bethlehem is located. Read more »

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Knights raising money, awareness of plight of Christians in Middle East

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Catholic News Service

 

PHILADELPHIA — Christianity may be thriving around the world, but it is under severe attack and threatened with extinction in the Middle East, the region of its birth.

This was a major theme at the 133rd Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in Philadelphia Aug. 4-6.

It was stressed at an Aug. 4 news conference with Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and two Catholic archbishops of Eastern Catholic Churches with direct experience of the situation. They were Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, and Chaldean Archbishop Bashir Matti Warda of Erbil, Iraq. The two archbishops also spoke at a general meeting of the convention. Read more »

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Pope pushes Putin to work for peace in eastern Ukraine

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — When Pope Francis met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vatican June 10, the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine was the principal topic of their conversation and was a concern for many others as well.

Pope Francis talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a private meeting at the Vatican June 10. (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)

Pope Francis talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a private meeting at the Vatican June 10. (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)

Putin arrived at the Vatican more than an hour late, beating the 45-minute tardiness he chalked up in November 2013, the last time he visited the pope. Pope Francis and Putin spoke privately, aided by interpreters, for 50 minutes before the Russian president introduced the members of his entourage, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“The meeting was dedicated principally to the conflict in Ukraine and to the situation in the Middle East,” said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman.

“The Holy Father affirmed the need for a commitment to a sincere and serious effort to reach peace and there was agreement on the importance of restoring a climate of dialogue” and on adhering to the promises made in the cease-fire agreement, Father Lombardi said.

The “serious humanitarian situation” in eastern Ukraine also was discussed, the spokesman said, as was the need to assure humanitarian workers have access to the region.

Dozens of Ukrainians attended the pope’s general audience earlier in the morning, waving blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags and holding up a sign saying, “Holy Father, Pray for Ukraine.”

In March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine and about a month later fighting began along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. Although Putin denied it, there were widespread reports that Russia not only was supporting separatists in the region, but that Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine.

Hostilities reportedly have eased since an internationally mediated cease-fire agreement was signed in mid-February, but the fighting has not stopped.

A report June 1 from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “Between mid-April 2014 and May 30, 2015, at least 6,417 people, including at least 626 women and girls, have been documented as killed and 15,962 as wounded in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine. This is a conservative estimate and the actual numbers could be considerably higher.”

Father Lombardi said the pope and Putin also spoke about the continuing crises in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, and the need for the international community to find ways to promote peace and protect “all components of society, including religious minorities, especially Christians.”

Exchanging gifts, Putin gave Pope Francis a cushion embroidered with gold thread; the design was of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which Putin explained had been “destroyed in the Soviet era,” but has been rebuilt.

Pope Francis gave Putin a medallion of the “Angel of Peace,” who, he said, “defeats all wars and speaks of solidarity among peoples.”

The pope also gave the Russian president a copy of the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which the pope said, “has many religious, human, geo-political and social reflections.”

Ukrainian Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych told reporters June 9 he had written to Pope Francis ahead of the meeting, asking him to “be the voice of the Ukrainian people, its children, all the Catholic believers in Ukraine who suffer.”

Until now “no one, neither diplomacy nor the systems of international security nor the leaders of this world, have been able to stop the war,” he said. “We are hopeful that the pope can do what has been impossible.”

Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador the Holy See, was asked June 10 about the U.S. government’s view of the meeting.

“We would like to see the Vatican … continue to express its concern particularly about what’s happening in the Ukraine,” the ambassador told reporters at his residence. “Maybe this is an opportunity where the Holy Father privately could raise concerns.”

“We think they could say something more about concern for territorial integrity, those types of issues,” the ambassador said. “It does seem that Russia is supporting the insurgents and does seem that there are Russian troops inside Ukraine.”

For the first time since 1998, the leaders of the world’s most industrialized countries, the so-called G-7, held a summit in June 2014 and excluded the Russian president, citing the invasion of Crimea. They renewed their exclusion of Putin this year when the G-7 leaders met June 7-8 in Germany.

“This is a very serious situation and I believe that the G-7 has pretty well decided that they are going to continue the sanctions because we have not seen the adherence to the Minsk agreements” for a cease-fire, Hackett said.

 

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Arms trafficking a root cause of Middle East violence, Pope Francis says

October 2nd, 2014 Posted in Vatican News Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis opened a three-day summit on the violence and persecution underway in the Middle East, saying arms trafficking was the root cause of many problems in the region.

Displaced people fleeing violence in Iraq walk toward the Syrian border town of Elierbeh in this Aug.11 file photo. Pope Francis opened a three-day summit Oct. 2 on the violence and persecution underway in the Middle East, saying arms trafficking was the root cause of many problems in the region. (CNS photo/Rodi Said, Reuters)

Displaced people fleeing violence in Iraq walk toward the Syrian border town of Elierbeh in this Aug.11 file photo. Pope Francis opened a three-day summit Oct. 2 on the violence and persecution underway in the Middle East, saying arms trafficking was the root cause of many problems in the region. (CNS photo/Rodi Said, Reuters)

The pope convened the Vatican summit Oct. 2-4 because of his growing concern and desire to do something about “the dramatic situation” Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities are facing in the Middle East, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said Oct. 2.

Those called to the summit included the seven Vatican nuncios based in Syria, Jordan-Iraq, Egypt, Israel-Palestinian territories, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as top Vatican officials from the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s permanent representatives at the United Nations in New York and Geneva, as well as from Vatican offices dealing with issues concerning refugees, charitable aid and Eastern churches.

The pope opened the proceedings and spent about 30 minutes with the 24 summit participants.

Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the pope spoke about his worries connected with the wars in the region and his concern for those suffering because of the widespread violence.

The pope mentioned the problem of terrorism, “in which a person’s life has no worth. He underlined the problem of the trafficking of arms that is at the root of many problems, as well as the humanitarian tragedy lived by the many people who are forced to leave their country,” the Jesuit priest said in a written statement.

Pope Francis encouraged continued prayers and the need to pinpoint concrete programs and action at many “more levels” that would show the church’s solidarity and involve the international community as well as people of good will in helping the countless people in need, he said.

The start of the summit came the same day Pope Francis met with the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East.

“No religious, political or economic reasons can justify what is happening to hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children,” the pope told Catholicos Dinkha IV, the patriarch of a church whose oldest communities are in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

“How many of our brothers and sisters are suffering a daily persecution,” as can be seen with “the violence striking Christians and the faithful of other religious minorities, especially in Iraq and Syria,” he told the patriarch.

In their suffering, one can see “the body of Christ that, still today, is wounded, stricken and humiliated,” he said.

While theological discussions continue and much ecumenical progress has been made, the Assyrian Church of the East is not in communion with Rome.

Pope Francis pledged the Catholic Church’s continued commitment to dialogue and cooperation, and said, “We feel deeply united in prayer” and in charitable aid and action being taken to help alleviate the suffering of all Christians.

 

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