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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’ official urges Tillerson to back two-state solution in Mideast

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government should continue to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and avoid actions that would undermine results, said the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

The brother and relatives of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Rajabi weep during his Jan. 7 funeral in Hebron, West Bank. Rajabi was killed by Israeli forces. A prominent U.S. bishop urged the U.S. government to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (CNS photo/Abed Al Hashlamoun, EPA)

The brother and relatives of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Rajabi weep during his Jan. 7 funeral in Hebron, West Bank. Rajabi was killed by Israeli forces. A prominent U.S. bishop urged the U.S. government to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (CNS photo/Abed Al Hashlamoun, EPA)

Drawing on his observations from a January trip to the Holy Land, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, committee chairman, wrote Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and urged him to continue to work for a peace agreement “that respects the human dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians and advances justice and peace for all.”

Bishop Cantu told Tillerson that Israeli settlements were an obstacle to peace.

“Settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian lands undermines a two-state solution, destroying the homes and the livelihoods of Palestinians as well as the long-term security and future of Israelis,” he said.

The bishop spoke of his Jan. 14-19 visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories with bishops from Canada and Europe. In a statement at the end of the visit, the bishops said Christians have a responsibility to oppose the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, because “this de facto annexation of land not only undermines the rights of Palestinians … but, as the U.N. recently recognized, also imperils the chance of peace.”

In his Feb. 1 letter, Bishop Cantu reminded Tillerson that 2017 marked 50 years of “a crippling occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, crippling for both peoples.”

He also spoke of problems created by the Israeli security barrier, a series of cement slabs, barbed wire fences and security roads snaking across part of the West Bank. If completed as planned, the separation wall would stretch nearly 400 miles and restrict the movements of 38 percent of residents of the West Bank.

“The Cremisan Valley is home to a Salesian monastery, convent and school, and the agricultural lands of 58 Christian families who live in nearby Palestinian towns,” Bishop Cantu said in his letter. “The building of the wall constricts residents’ movement, impairs access to their lands, separates Christian institutions from those they serve, and encourages Christian emigration.

“The Cremisan Valley is emblematic of the alarming number of Palestinians who have lost their homes and livelihoods. Settlement expansion, confiscation of lands and the building of the separation wall on Palestinian lands violate international law and undermine a diplomatic solution,” he said.

Bishop Cantu also mentioned President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would erode the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution and is a threat to pursuing peace and ending conflict. Its impact would incite and destabilize the area, compromising U.S. security,” Bishop Cantu said.

The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act authorized funding for the embassy to be moved to Jerusalem by 1999. However, the act contained a provision to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv if it was in the best interests of U.S. national security. U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pledged to move the embassy, then kept it in Jerusalem so as not to inflame tensions.

Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, said Jan. 23 that the administration is studying the situation.

Bishop Cantu told Tillerson the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would continue to engage the State Department on international issues, but that getting a peace agreement for Israel and Palestine would “require arduous work.”

“It has been 50 years of tumult and turbulence, of egregious injustices and random acts of violence. However, the United States has always provided leadership and support to the peace process,” Bishop Cantu said.

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Pope denounces ‘homicidal madness’ after attacks in Berlin, Ankara

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Expressing his condolences to victims and their families, Pope Francis called for an end to terrorism following a string of deadly attacks in Berlin and Ankara.

Similar to an attack with a truck that took place in July in Nice, France, a tractor-trailer veered into the crowded Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in Berlin and plowed through bystanders, killing 12 people and wounding nearly 50.

A mourner prays in front of a makeshift memorial Dec. 20 at the scene where a truck plowed into a crowded Christmas market the previous day in Berlin. The terrorist attack killed at least a dozen people and injured nearly 50 as it smashed through tables and wooden stands. (CNS photo/Hannibal Hanschke, Reuters)

A mourner prays in front of a makeshift memorial Dec. 20 at the scene where a truck plowed into a crowded Christmas market the previous day in Berlin. The terrorist attack killed at least a dozen people and injured nearly 50 as it smashed through tables and wooden stands. (CNS photo/Hannibal Hanschke, Reuters)

In a Dec. 20 telegram sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, to Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin, the pope prayed for the families of the dead and the wounded, “assuring his closeness in their pain.”

“Pope Francis joins all people of good will who are working so that the homicidal madness of terrorism does not find any more room in our world,” Cardinal Parolin wrote.

Cardinal Parolin said the pope received news of the attack with “profound emotion” and joined the families of the victims in their mourning and “entrusts the dead to the mercy of God.”

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany, president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, said news of the attack in Berlin had “deeply shocked me” and called on the people of Germany to “hold together and stand united as a society.”

“The violence on the Christmas market is the opposite of what visitors were seeking. My compassion goes to the relatives of the dead and injured. For all of them, I will pray,” he said Dec. 20.

Police detained an asylum-seeker from Pakistan who was near the attack. However, as of Dec. 20, authorities said they are unsure whether he was the driver of the truck.

The attack in Berlin occurred not long after the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, by a lone gunman during the opening of an art exhibition in Ankara.

Mevlut Mert Altintas, an off-duty Turkish policeman, shot Karlov several times, shouting “Allahu akbar (God is great). Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria! Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria!”

The gunman was later shot and killed by police. Several family members and the gunman’s roommate were detained by investigators seeking a possible connection with terrorist groups.

Cardinal Parolin conveyed the pope’s condolences to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, saying he was “saddened to learn of the violent attack in Ankara.”

“In commending his soul to almighty God, Pope Francis assures you and all the people of the Russian Federation of his prayers and spiritual solidarity at this time,” Cardinal Parolin wrote.

The Vatican also told journalists that Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican secretary for relations with states, telephoned the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, to “express his condolences for the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey.”

 

 

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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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U.S. bishops’ committee chair hails framework on Iran’s nuclear program as a step to peace

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WASHINGTON — The adoption of a framework related to Iran’s nuclear program by the United States and other countries is an important step in “advancing a peaceful resolution” to the questions surrounding the program, the chairman of the U.S. bishop’s Committee on International Justice and Peace.

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector checks the uranium enrichment process inside Iran’s Natanz plant last year. The chair of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace has praised the framework reached with Iran last week as "a step toward peace." (CNS/EPA)

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector checks the uranium enrichment process inside Iran’s Natanz plant last year. The chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace has praised the framework reached with Iran last week as “a step toward peace.” (CNS/EPA)

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, said April 8 in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and April 13 in letters to every member of Congress that the framework was a milestone in the long-standing negotiations to curb the “unacceptable prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons.”

Copies of the letters were released April 14 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The framework was announced April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland, and involved Iran and what is often referred to as the “P5+1,” or the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — plus Germany.

The talks have been criticized by some members of Congress, who argue that Iranian officials cannot be trusted to abide by any deal and that any agreement with Iran could be disregarded once President Barack Obama concludes his term Jan. 20, 2017.

Bishop Cantu wrote that despite the challenges in reaching an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, “it is vital to continue to foster an environment in which all parties can build mutual confidence and trust in order to work toward a final accord that enhances peace.”

“For this reason, our committee will continue to oppose congressional efforts that seek to undermine the negotiation process or make a responsible multiparty agreement more difficult to achieve and implement,” the letter continued. “The alternative to an agreement leads toward armed conflict, an outcome of profound concern to the church.”

The letter cited the words of Pope Francis, who prayed Easter Sunday that the framework “may be a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.”

“We share the Holy Father’s hope,” Bishop Cantu wrote.

The bishop called for a final agreement to secure peace in southwestern Asia and to “ensure its full implementation.”

“As we have noted in the past, Iran has threatened its neighbors, especially Israel, and contributed to instability in the region. We hope this agreement is a first step in fostering greater stability and dialogue in the region,” the letter said.

As congressional representatives received the letter, an advertisement supporting the framework was published in the April 13 edition of Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill.

More than 45 Christian leaders signed the ad, including Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, who is executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network; Sister Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, who is executive director of Pax Christi USA; Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International; and Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

 

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U.S. asks Vatican for help in relocating Guantanamo detainees

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY —U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Vatican counterpart Dec. 15, and asked him to support the Obama administration’s efforts to close the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, met with Kerry for an hour, according to Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. Ken Hackett, the U.S. ambassador of the Holy See, was also present at the meeting.

Kerry underscored the “commitment of the United States to close the Guantanamo prison and the desire for the Holy See’s support in the search for appropriate humanitarian solutions for the current detainees,” Father Lombardi said.

The main topic of Kerry’s discussion with Cardinal Parolin was the “situation in the Middle East, and the commitment of the United States to avoid a worsening of tensions and an outbreak of violence, as well as the commitment to promoting a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” Father Lombardi told reporters.

Kerry was in Rome as one stop of a European tour dedicated largely to reviving peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He was scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rome later the same day.

Father Lombardi said the two secretaries of state also touched briefly on other subjects, including the civil war in Eastern Ukraine and the Ebola epidemic.

 

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Vatican starts hiring freeze, forbids overtime

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican announced an immediate end to new hires, wage-increases and overtime in an effort to cut costs and offset budget shortfalls.

Pope Francis, with input from the Vatican’s central accounting office, also determined that volunteers could be used to help provide the labor needed to make up for the hiring freeze and eventual attrition.

Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, sent a letter, dated Feb. 13, to the heads of all Vatican offices, institutions and agencies.

He said the budget forecast for 2014 “necessitated the immediate adoption of some measures needed to contain” personnel costs. In its last published report, the Vatican said it had a slight budget surplus of $2.7 million in 2012 after experiencing one of its largest budget deficits of the past decade in 2011.

The secretary of state’’ letter said the budget forecast expected a cash shortfall for 2014, prompting the pope to approve several measures that would apply to all Vatican dicasteries, offices, institutions and bodies; the measures were to start immediately and stay in effect until further notice.

The new measures included:

• Banning new hires, both on temporary and permanent contracts, including a freeze on filling current and future vacant posts.

• Temporary contracts, including third-party contracts, will not be renewed when their terms are up, unless there is a “specified” and “documented” need.

• There will be no more raises, promotions or new appointments for existing employees even where posts are available.

• Overtime is to be considered an “exception” and the frequent or “habitual recurrence” of workers clocking overtime “is forbidden.”

• Departments are encouraged to help fill vacancies by notifying the secretary of state of existing personnel who could be transferred to another office.

The letter asked that employees “generously take on” the workload and duties left when their colleagues leave or retire.

It also said that volunteers would be “a useful way” to cover “temporary and specific work needs.”

The majority of the Holy See’s annual expenditures are related to wages and other personnel costs for about 2,800 people. Its revenues come from contributions from dioceses and religious orders, returns from the Holy See’s financial investments and profits from the Vatican bank’s investments.

There is a separate budget for Vatican City State, which employs nearly 1,900 people, and receives substantial revenues and profits from the Vatican Museums and Vatican post office.

Base starting salaries for most workers in 2009 ranged from about $1,600 to $2,600 a month and are tax-free.

 

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