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United States urged to address religious freedom violations worldwide

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. congressman told attendees at a Washington summit on Christian persecution that “more than ever before, vigorous U.S. leadership and diplomacy are needed to address religious freedom violations globally.”

“Religious persecution is festering and exploding around the world. What has been unconscionable for decades, centuries, has gotten worse,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, said May 12 in remarks at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. Read more »

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Backgrounder: Long-awaited executive order on religion has unclear path ahead

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — At a White House Rose Garden ceremony May 4, President Donald Trump told a group of religious leaders: “It was looking like you’d never get here, but you got here, folks,” referring to their presence at the signing of the executive order on religious liberty.

Maybe some in the group wondered where “here” was since they hadn’t even seen the two-page executive order they were gathered to congratulate and only knew the general idea of it from a White House memo issued the previous night with just three bullet points.

People recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a presentation on religious freedom at St. Patrick Church in Smithtown, N.Y., in 2016. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

People recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a presentation on religious freedom at St. Patrick Church in Smithtown, N.Y., in 2016. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The order didn’t seem to part any seas to make an immediate path to religious freedom, especially since it places decisions for how this will play out in the hands of federal agencies and the attorney general.

Catholic leaders in general seemed to view it with cautious optimism, praising the order as a first step but not the final word.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who attended the White House ceremony also celebrating the National Day of Prayer, said immediately after the event that he had yet to see the entire executive order. He defined the principle of it: “There should not be an overly intrusive federal government” involved when people are exercising their religious freedom in the public square or institutions they run.

The two-page order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” was posted on the White House website hours after it was signed. It is half the length of a leaked draft version of this order published Feb. 1 in The Nation magazine. The order signed by the president is short on specifics and far less detailed than the leaked draft.

It devotes the most space to a promised easing of the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that bans churches and nonprofit organizations with tax-exempt status from taking part in partisan political activity. Although it would take an act of Congress to do away with this regulation, Trump can direct the Internal Revenue Service not to enforce it.

Many people likely aren’t familiar with the amendment by name, or they weren’t before this executive order, but they support the idea of it, according to a May 4 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The poll shows 71 percent of Americans favor the law, as do most all major U.S. religious groups Only about one-third of white evangelical Protestants favor allowing churches to endorse candidates, compared to 56 percent who oppose it. Also, just 23 percent of white mainline Protestants, 25 percent of Catholics and 19 percent of black Protestants support churches endorsing political candidates.

In an interview with Catholic News Service at Reagan National Airport May 4 on his way back to his diocese for a confirmation Mass, Cardinal DiNardo said the amendment was likely more important to evangelical Christians than Catholics because, as he pointed out, the Catholic Church “has the tradition of ‘Faithful Citizenship,’” which he said puts the Johnson Amendment in a bigger context.

“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops’ quadrennial document on political responsibility, guides voters not according to the stances of specific political candidates but Catholic social teaching.

Richard Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said in an email to Catholic News Service that the order’s emphasis on weakening the Johnson Amendment did not seem particularly significant, noting: “it is already the case that the relevant agencies and officials are highly deferential — as they should be — to churches and religious leaders, especially when it comes to what’s said in the context of sermons and homilies.”

Commenting on another major point of the executive order, relief to employers with religious objections to include contraception coverage in their employees’ health care plans, Garnett called it “a good thing — and long overdue,” but he also noted that “such regulatory relief was already probably on its way, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decisions.”

In a statement after the order was signed, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price promised to take action “to safeguard the deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their employees.” The promise didn’t give any specifics.

The lack of details in the order even caused the American Civil Liberties Union, which had been poised to sue, to change its course. In a statement issued hours after the order’s signing, ACLU director Anthony Romero said the order had “no discernible policy outcome.”

“After careful review of the order’s text, we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process,” he said.

But the group also stands ready to sue the Trump administration if the order generates any official government action. Religious groups, for opposite reasons, likewise stand ready to see if the order has any teeth.

As Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in a statement: “This order marks an important step in restoring those constitutional principles guaranteed to every American,” with the added caveat, “There is still work to be done.”

 

Contributing to this story was Chaz Muth.

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Cardinal says Trump’s religious freedom order begins to relieve burden of HHS mandate

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Many religious leaders viewed President Donald Trump’s executive order on religious freedom, which he signed in a White House Rose Garden ceremony May 4, as a step in the right direction.

President Donald Trump shows his signed Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during a National Day of Prayer event at the White House in Washington May 4. (CNS/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

President Donald Trump shows his signed Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during a National Day of Prayer event at the White House in Washington May 4. (CNS/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

In a ceremony for the National Day of Prayer prior to signing the executive order, Trump told the assembled religious leaders: “We’re taking big steps to protect religious liberty” and he assured them the government “won’t stand for religious discrimination.”

Three religious leaders, including Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, offered prayers during the ceremony. Just prior to the event, Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, met with Trump about the order.

In an interview with Catholic News Service at Reagan National Airport just after the White House ceremony, Cardinal DiNardo said the meeting with the president was brief but productive.

Earlier, in a statement, the cardinal said the executive order “begins the process of alleviating the serious burden of the HHS mandate,” referring to the mandate issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services requiring most religious employers to provide coverage of artificial birth control for their employees even if they morally oppose it.

But Cardinal DiNardo also stressed that the U.S. bishops will “have to review the details of any regulatory proposals.”

The text of the order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” states that cabinet offices “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.”

During the White House ceremony, Trump told some of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the crowd: “Your long ordeal will soon be over.” The sisters are just one of the groups that challenged the federal contraceptive mandate all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, superior of the Little Sisters’ Baltimore province, said in a statement that the sisters are “grateful for the president’s order and look forward to the agencies giving us an exemption so that we can continue caring for the elderly poor and dying” without fear of government punishment.

Another aspect of the order is a weakening of what Trump called the “unfair” Johnson Amendment during the May 4 event. The 1954 amendment bans churches and nonprofit organizations of all types from participating in partisan political activity at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.

Trump told the religious leaders that the order’s attempt to lessen restrictions of the amendment will be “giving our churches their voices back.”

The order states the Treasury Department shall ensure and “respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.” 

It also calls for department officials to “not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization” for speaking about “moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”

Regarding religious liberty, the order is not very specific. It states: “In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant federal law, the attorney general shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law.”

Cardinal DiNardo, in his statement, stressed that in recent years, “people of faith have experienced pressing restrictions on religious freedom from both the federal government and state governments that receive federal funding.”

He noted that church agencies have specifically experienced such a restriction in adoption, education, health care and other social services, where he said “widely held moral and religious beliefs, especially regarding the protection of human life as well as preserving marriage and family, have been maligned in recent years as bigotry or hostility.”

“But disagreement on moral and religious issues is not discrimination; instead, it is the inevitable and desirable fruit of a free, civil society marked by genuine religious diversity,” he added.

Cardinal DiNardo told CNS that the executive order emphasizes that there should “not be an overly intrusive federal government” involved when a person or group is exercising one’s faith.

He also said the president seems to be putting some of these religious liberty issues directly in the hands of federal departments and the attorney general, which he called “an important dimension” and a “good way to have this unpacked.”

The White House did not release the full text of the order prior to its signing. A draft of an earlier version of the order, which included stronger language, was leaked and published Feb. 1 in The Nation magazine.

Regarding the new order, Cardinal DiNardo said in his statement that the bishops will “continue to advocate for permanent relief from Congress on issues of critical importance to people of faith,” noting that religious freedom is “a fundamental right that should be upheld by all branches of government and not subject to political whims.”

Richard Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said in an email that the order will likely be viewed as a commitment from the administration that it wants to protect religious liberty. “In terms of specifics, however, the order does very little and does not address a number of pressing and important questions.”

Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, also welcomed the order and said the organization “looks forward to reviewing the details” of it with the hope that applying it will “allow Catholic Charities agencies to continue to serve all their clients in accordance with their inherent dignity while at the same time preserving the freedom of these agencies to serve in conformity with our beliefs.”

 

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

 

 

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Executive order missing? No religious freedom action from Trump yet

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Talk of President Donald Trump possibly signing an executive order on religious freedom, which drew both criticism and praise, has been replaced with discussion about what happened to it and what a final version, if there is one, will look like. Read more »

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U.S. bishops OK four-year 740-things-to-do list

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Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE — A new strategic plan adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 15 during its fall general assembly reflects the efforts of Pope Francis to establish a more merciful and accompanying church, said the archbishop who led the planning process.

Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, listens to a speaker Nov. 15 during the annual fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, listens to a speaker Nov. 15 during the annual fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The plan, adopted by a vote of 199-4 with two abstentions, will govern the work of the conference and its committees from 2017 through 2020. It takes effect in January.

“We have adapted these priorities to coincide with the priorities of Pope Francis,” Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans and chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Priorities and Plans, told the assembled bishops before their vote.

The plan incorporates the theme “Encountering the Mercy of Christ and Accompanying His People With Joy” in setting five priorities: evangelization, marriage and family life, human life and dignity, vocations, and religious freedom. In total, the five priorities identify more than 740 individual projects to accomplish during the next four years.

Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis, who recently was appointed archbishop of Newark, N.J., asked where in the plan might be concern for the environment and people who are experiencing the negative effects of climate change.

“It is more urgent than ever given the possibility that the new (presidential) administration is not going to be interested in the issues Pope Francis is interested in,” Cardinal-designate Tobin said.

Archbishop Aymond responded that the plan’s work on the environment, climate change and a response to the needs of people on the margins of society worldwide falls under the human life and dignity priority.

In that section, one of the areas addressed includes teaching and advocating about what the pope has described as integral ecology, “emphasizing environmental degradation and its impact on the lives of the most vulnerable.”

The plan also calls for the U.S. church to move from a “silo approach” to ministry as expressed through the USCCB committees to deeper collaboration and cooperation in service of each bishops’ ministry.

“Committee chairmen and committee members will need to make sure we stay on track,” Archbishop Aymond told the assembly.

The plan, more than a year under discussion by the bishops through their committees, subcommittees and an ad hoc committee, stems in large part from Pope Francis’ message to the bishops when he visited the U.S. in 2015.

The 28-page document offers an overview of the plan and outlines several specific areas to address under each priority. Much of the plan was developed to support individuals of all ages as well as families as people go through daily life and to encourage actions that carry out what is described as “missionary discipleship.”

Another passage in the plan stresses that it charts “a path of hope for the people in need of a loving embrace as they face the challenges of the world.”

      Further, the document states, “The USCCB strategic plan exists to serve the mission of evangelization entrusted in a particular way to each bishop; it is the tool the U.S. bishops rely upon to prioritize, organize, optimize and resource good works which will allow the conference to fulfill its mission.”

      Two major events are expected to help achieve the priorities including the national Convocation of Catholic Leaders scheduled for July 1-4, 2017, in Orlando, Florida, and the V Encuentro for Hispanic Latino Ministry in 2018.

      Thousands of Catholics are expected at each event to discuss, learn, pray and act on ideas to strengthen the church at the local level and inspire new leaders to take on the challenges posed by modern society.

      The strategic plan also mentions that the early projects being undertaken will help the bishops as they prepare a pastoral letter on race relations that is planned for the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2018.

      In his presentation Nov. 14, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, as chairman of the the USCCB Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities, urged his brother bishops to issue the statement on racism sooner than scheduled, because of the racial turmoil that has affected many of the nation’s communities after police shootings of African-Americans. The archbishop also said such a statement would help address postelection tensions across the country.

 Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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Report shows religious freedom is declining worldwide

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The state of religious freedom worldwide saw more decline than improvement in the last year, said Robert George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

A refugee prays in front of an image of Christ in a makeshift church in a camp called "The Jungle" in 2015 in the port of Calais, France. (CNS photo/Stephanie Lecocq, EPA)

A refugee prays in front of an image of Christ in a makeshift church in a camp called “The Jungle” in 2015 in the port of Calais, France. (CNS photo/Stephanie Lecocq, EPA)

“Regrettably, things have not improved, and in some places, things have gotten worse,” said George, a Princeton University law professor and director of the university’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, during a May 2 telephone news conference coinciding with the release of the commission’s annual report.

“At best, in most of the countries we covered, religious conditions have failed to improve in any demonstrable way. In most cases, they have spiraled downward,” he added.

The 2016 report, covering the year from March 1, 2015, to Feb. 29, 2016, notes the nations labeled by the State Department to be “countries of particular concern” for their treatment of its citizens’ religious rights: China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Four of the countries — China, Iran, Myanmar and Sudan — have had the designation since it was first issued in 1999. An 11th nation, Tajikistan, was added by the State Department in April.

Myanmar, formerly Burma, remains on the list despite its transition from a military regime to a civilian government. “Among the displaced were thousands of Rohingya Muslims forced to flee their homes in Burma, joining other Rohingya already displaced internally. While last year’s general elections marked the country’s bid to emerge from its past as a military dictatorship, the government enacted four discriminatory ‘race-and-religion’ bills that not only effectively disenfranchised as many as one million Rohingya, but also denied them the right to contest the elections,” the report said. “These measures reflect a legacy of their brutal persecution by both government and society, which contributed to the refugee crisis.”

The commission identified seven countries that it recommends being added to the State Department list: the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam.

Another 10 countries were labeled by the commission as being “Tier 2” for their restrictions on religious practice: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey. The commission also monitored the situation in Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Western Europe and the Horn of Africa.

The terror attacks late last year in Paris and Brussels “produced backlashes against Muslims by members of the wider society, in which Muslims often are blamed collectively,” the report said. “Mosques have been given police protection in several countries, and European Union officials have stressed the importance of not stigmatizing all Muslims.” Moreover, the number of French Jews leaving France for Israel quadrupled, from 2,000 to 8,000, it added.

The only nations and regimes to have had the country of particular concern label withdrawn are the Slobodan Milosevic regime of the former Yugoslavia in 2001, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2003, Iraq in 2004 and Vietnam in 2006.

George cited one example in Vietnam as particularly distressing. A Vietnamese religious figure had met with Rabbi David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, who was visiting Vietnam. Almost immediately after the meeting, the Vietnamese activist was arrested by authorities.

“Egypt and India’s presidents have made positive remarks” regarding religious freedom, George said. “But rhetoric doesn’t really matter unless it is accompanied by action.”

India is a Tier 2 country, George said, because of “political violence and societal violence. It has also failed to reform a criminal justice system that fails to prosecute attackers in a timely manner. This leads to a sense of impunity.”

George said he hoped the United States would become more welcoming to refugees fleeing religious persecution in their homelands.

“The conception for religious freedom goes all the way to our founding,” he said. “It’s not a local right, it’s not a local privilege. … It’s not just for us, it’s for everybody. It’s a universal human right. Part of what makes America exceptional is our belief in universal human rights. The very founding documents of our country. It’s in our in political DNA.”

 

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Iranian President Rouhani visits Vatican, asks pope to pray for him

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Vatican, Pope Francis told him he had high hopes for peace.

And while Pope Francis usually asks those he meets for their prayers, the Shiite cleric pre-empted the pope’s request and said, “I ask you to pray for me.”

Pope Francis shares a light moment with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a private meeting at the Vatican Jan. 26. (CNS photo/Andrew Medichini, pool via Reuters)

Pope Francis shares a light moment with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a private meeting at the Vatican Jan. 26. (CNS photo/Andrew Medichini, pool via Reuters)

President Rouhani, who was in Europe to build political and economic ties after Iran’s historic nuclear agreement, met with the pope Jan. 26 for 40 minutes of private talks with the aid of translators. The president then had a separate meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

The recent international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program was discussed as well as “the important role Iran is called to play with other nations in the region in promoting adequate political solutions to the problems that afflict the Middle East, opposing the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking,” the Vatican said in a written communique.

When he convened a Middle East summit at the Vatican in 2014, Pope Francis had said that arms trafficking was the root cause of many problems in the region.

Also underlined during the Jan. 26 discussions were “the importance of interreligious dialogue and the responsibility of religious communities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance and peace,” the Vatican communique said.

“During the cordial conversations, common spiritual values were highlighted” and “the good state of relations between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Iran” was recognized, the Vatican said.

Mention also was made of how the Catholic Church in Iran and the Holy See seek to promote “the dignity of the human person and religious freedom.”

The small Catholic community in Iran dates back to the church’s early centuries and has had a long history of living in harmony with the Muslim majority; there are some restrictions on full religious freedom, including the risk of the death penalty for those who convert from Islam.

After their closed-door meeting, Pope Francis greeted the 12-person Iranian delegation and accepted two gifts from the president.

Speaking in Persian, Rouhani said the intricately designed rug he was giving was “handmade in Qom,” a city considered holy for Shiite Muslims. He also gave the pope a large book of reproductions of Persian miniatures painted by Mahmoud Farshchian, who lives in the United States.

The pope gave Rouhani a large medallion of St. Martin of Tours giving his cloak to a poor person. The pope told the president that the medallion’s image depicted “a sign of selfless fraternity.”

The pope also gave him a copy of his encyclical letter “Laudato Si’” and told him the document was “on the protection of creation.” The pope apologized there was no translation of the document in Persian, but “I’m giving it to you in English” and he explained a copy in Arabic is online.

As the entourage was leaving the papal library, the pope told the president, “Thank you for this visit. I have high hopes for peace.”

Rouhani then replied through a translator, “I ask you to pray for me,” and told the pope it had been “a true pleasure” and wished him good luck with his work.

Mohammed Khatami was the last Iranian leader to meet a pope for private talks at the Vatican. In addition to his meeting with St. John Paul II in 1999, Khatami also attended St. John Paul’s funeral in 2005.

While former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended a U.N. summit in Rome in 2008, he did not visit the pope or hold an official state visit with Italian leaders.

Rouhani, a former lawmaker and diplomat, was visiting Italy and France, meeting with those nation’s leaders in the hopes of re-establishing stronger diplomatic and commercial ties with Europe after decades of sanctions. He ran his 2013 presidential campaign on a platform calling for greater openness, transparency and establishing trust with the wider world.

In July, Iran reached a landmark agreement with six nations, including the United States; the agreement allows U.N. inspectors to include military sites in its monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activity. While a U.N. arms embargo would remain in place for the near future, other sanctions on trade and assets were to be eased.

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USCCB plans fourth annual Fortnight for Freedom

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WASHINGTON — Threats to religious freedom continue to emerge, making it more urgent for people of faith to take action to defend the full realm of religious practice, said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore.

Speaking during a May 28 webinar announcing the fourth annual Fortnight for Freedom, Archbishop Lori called on Catholics to learn about the importance of religious liberty throughout the history of the United States and to actively promote free religious practice during the two-week period beginning June 21.

This year’s fortnight observance will open with Mass at 10:45 a.m. June 21 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. It closes with Mass at noon July 4 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

“Religious freedom is not something that stands alone. It’s not simply a legal question for the church. It pertains very much to the new evangelization,” Archbishop Lori explained.

This year’s fortnight observance theme is the “Freedom to Bear Witness,” stemming from the Gospel message that Jesus came to the world to bear witness to the truth, said Hillary Byrnes, assistant general counsel for the USCCB, who joined the archbishop during the webinar.

She said dozens of local events in dioceses across the country are planned, including prayer services, discussions and charitable works.

“We would definitely encourage people to attend those events as well as read and educate yourself on religious freedom,” Byrnes told the nationwide audience of diocesan employees and parish leaders.

“We’re looking this year to raise awareness of religious freedom so people don’t take it for granted,” she added.

Archbishop Lori said government policies, such as the federal mandate to include a full range of contraceptives in employee health insurance and the redefinition of marriage throughout the country, pose growing threats to religious freedom.

The fortnight, he said, also is meant to draw attention to the dangers to religious liberty around the world as Christians and people of other faith traditions face persecution, limits on their freedom and death.

“Pope Francis pointed out that we are truly living in an age of martyrs,” the archbishop said. “I think we have to pay a lot of attention to the sacrifices which people are making for their faith around the world. Many Christians are being persecuted, beheaded. And Muslims are being persecuted for not being Muslim enough.

“These are men and women of deep faith and deep courage, and as we witness their sacrifice, first of all I think we have to hold up and to highlight what’s happening to them. I’m not sure our leadership is paying enough attention to their sacrifice.”

Information about the fortnight and various resources to help plan local observances are available online at www.Fortnight4Freedom.com.

 

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Pope Francis proclaims Sri Lanka’s first saint, right to religious freedom

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Catholic News Service

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Canonizing Sri Lanka’s first saint, who ministered to Catholics under persecution three centuries earlier, Pope Francis proclaimed what he called the “fundamental human right” of religious freedom.

“Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion,” the pope said Jan. 14, before a congregation of more than 500,000 in a park on the Indian Ocean.

Dancers perform before Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass of St. Joseph Vaz at Galle Face Green in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Dancers perform before Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass of St. Joseph Vaz at Galle Face Green in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis gave his homily half an hour after canonizing St. Joseph Vaz, a 17th- and 18th-century missionary from India who rebuilt the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka after its suppression by Dutch Protestant colonists.

The pope called on Catholics today to emulate the new saint by spreading the Gospel with “missionary zeal.”

“St. Joseph knew how to offer the truth and the beauty of the Gospel in a multireligious context, with respect, dedication, perseverance and humility,” the pope said. “We are called to go forth with the same zeal, the same courage of St. Joseph, but also with his sensitivity, his reverence for others, his desire to share with them that word of grace which has the power to build them up. We are called to be missionary disciples.”

Noting that St. Joseph had won the support of a Buddhist king by caring for victims of a smallpox epidemic, and thus “was allowed greater freedom to minister,” the pope praised today’s Sri Lankan Catholics, who make up only 7 percent of the population, for their charitable service to their neighbors.

The church in Sri Lanka today “makes no distinction of race, creed, tribe, status or religion in the service she provides through her schools, hospitals, clinics and many other charitable works. All she asks is the freedom to carry out this mission,” he said.

“As the life of St. Joseph Vaz teaches us, genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all.”

The canonization Mass reflected the multicultural character of Sri Lankan society. The pope celebrated the liturgy in English and Latin, but there were readings in the local languages of Tamil and Sinhalese. Drums and sitars accompanied the choir, and dancers in traditional costume performed before the start of Mass. The altar was housed in a structure whose peaked roof recalled the Buddhist temple architecture of Kandy, the central region of the country where St. Joseph won acceptance for his ministry.

Temperatures and humidity levels were both in the high 70s and attendants held umbrellas over priests as they distributed Communion.

As the canonization service began, a black wooden cross was carried in solemn procession. The cross was one that St. Joseph had planted in one of the churches; it has been preserved in the church in Sri Lanka’s North Western province.

“There is no trace of St. Vaz’s tomb. The only big relic we have is this cross. Wherever he went, he installed crosses,” Father Cyril Gamini Fernando, spokesman for the papal visit, told Catholic News Service.

At the end of Mass, Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo addressed the pope, thanking him for the new saint, “God’s precious gem for Sri Lanka.”

Cardinal Ranjith also asked for Pope Francis’ blessing and guidance in the search for reconciliation after Sri Lanka’s two-and-a-half decade civil war between government forces and rebels from the Tamil-Hindu minority, which ended in 2009.

“We call upon you to kindly help us in that search for a true healing of hearts, the strength to ask pardon from each other for the senseless violence unleashed then, to forgive and forget that sad past and to arrive at a process of a give and take to build bridges of understanding between the parties hurt in the conflict. We are still far from reaching that goal,” the cardinal said.

“Our nation, blessed by teachings of the great world religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, does possess the moral and spiritual strength and nobility needed to generate such peace, but we will all need to make that leap toward each other with a genuine spirit of reconciliation, trust and a sense of reciprocity,” the cardinal said.

As Pope Francis gave the final blessing, people held aloft items, such as rosaries or statues; a deaf girl lifted a portrait of the new saint.

Soon after the pope left, priests swarmed the elevated altar and posed around the wood-carved statue of St. Joseph as Sri Lankan and papal flags fluttered around it.

The Mass was Pope Francis’ first public event on his second day in Sri Lanka. In the afternoon, he traveled by helicopter to the northern town of Madhu for a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine that sheltered refugees during the civil war. He was scheduled to fly to the Philippines the next day.

Contributing to this story was Anto Akkara.

 

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‘Fortnight’ to emphasize religious freedom and service to the poor

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — For Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, the third annual Fortnight (14 days) for Freedom is an opportunity to consider the link between religious liberty and service to the poor.

 

Participants pray during a rosary rally for religious freedom at St. Bernard Church in Levittown, N.Y., May 24. Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore will open the 2014 Fortnight for Freedom sponsored by the U.S. bishops with Mass June 21 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

“People who value their Catholic faith will understand that there is an organic connection between what we believe and how we practice our faith in service well beyond the borders of the church,” said Archbishop Lori. “We want to be able to practice it unabashedly, whether in church or in the workplace or as part of church ministry. We don’t think we should have to compromise our beliefs in order to observe.”

As chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, Archbishop Lori has been involved with the fortnight movement from the beginning. Originally stemming out of a 12-page statement released by the committee in June 2012 titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the fortnight aims to protect religious liberties from government infringement.

For the Catholic Church, chief among threats to religious freedom is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that most employers, including Catholic hospitals, schools and charities, provide insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs.

Although the event mainly targets Catholics, Archbishop Lori cites the fortnight as a chance for individuals of all faiths to educate themselves regarding the issue of religious freedom.

“The aim of the Fortnight for Freedom is to build a prayerful awareness not only among Catholics, but among all people of good will, of the importance of religious freedom,” he said June 3. “This year, we are working with ecumenical and other faith groups to lay foundations over time for a larger, unified religious freedom movement.”

Archbishop Lori will open this year’s fortnight with Mass June 21 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. After two weeks dedicated to prayer, study, catechesis and public action, this year’s program will end with Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on July 4.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, will be the homilist at the Independence Day Mass. Archbishop Kurtz is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Discussing this year’s fortnight theme, “Freedom to Serve,” Archbishop Lori said, “While almost everyone in our culture gives acknowledgement to freedom of worship, it is when churches step beyond their walls and reach out to the poor that religious freedom is sometimes challenged. Individuals have a duty to fulfill their life’s mission in accordance with the faith and what we believe.”

As the church celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of political persecution throughout the two-week event, the archbishop hopes that campaigns like this will provide hope to religiously persecuted individuals everywhere.

“This is a time for individuals to come to understand better what religious freedom is, what the church teaches about it and how that affects the way we exercise good citizenship and an appropriate love for our homeland,” said Archbishop Lori. “We believe that the flame of freedom ought to be kept burning brightly within this country as a beacon of hope for religiously persecuted people around the world.”

— By Julia Willis

 

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