Browsing News Entries

Following sixth journalist murder this year, Mexican bishops speak up

Mexico City, Mexico, May 22, 2017 / 03:22 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Mexican Bishops' Conference offered prayers for journalists as they face increased violence in their efforts to uncover truth.

“The Mexican Bishop's Conference expresses its support and solidarity with journalists throughout Mexico, facing violence attacks in the exercise of their profession,” the bishops said in a May 21 statement.

According to the international journalist advocacy group Reporters without Borders, an estimated 105 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since the year 2000. This makes Mexico the third most deadly country in the world for journalists, after Syria and Afghanistan, and ahead of Iraq.

So far in 2017 alone, six journalists have been murdered in Mexico.

The most recent was Javier Valdez, shot dead May 15 in Culiacan, Sinoloa. The journalist, a correspondent for “La Jornada” in Sinaloa, had done in-depth reporting on drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico.

In their statement, the Mexican bishops recalled Pope Francis' words that the journalist “has a very important role and at the same time a very great responsibility.”

“Freedom, in the form of expression, is a gift bequeathed by God, so no one has the right to take it away from anyone…there is nothing to justify an attack on that freedom,” they stated.

“We join in prayer that the Lord Jesus may console and alleviate the suffering and the worries that overwhelm the entire profession that today is afraid to do its work, since we are aware that the aggression is being directed at people who are members of the media in general: reporters, cameramen, editors, bureau chiefs, managers, among others.”

The Bishops of Mexico stressed that “hatred and resentment must not be the protagonists in the history of salvation, which is why we speak out in readiness to continue working strenuously to establish peace in our nation.”

“We are aware that only through actions of solidarity is it possible to heal society,” they said.

The Mexican Bishops' Conference reiterated the commitment of the Church in the country to spiritually accompany “the families of the victims of those who have suffered attacks, extortion, kidnappings, murders, because of their reporting work, as a consequence of the social deterioration that prevails in our country.”

“Before God, no one's work is unimportant, especially when it comes to the search for and dissemination of the truth which clearly allows the Kingdom of God to be built up.”

The bishops also called on the civil authorities to ensure “that everyone can exercise their profession in freedom and security, to fight the impunity and corruption which is striking and wounding our country so much.”

“Holy Mary of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, save our homeland an preserve our faith,” they concluded.

Pope Francis' newest cardinals show a global Church

Vatican City, May 22, 2017 / 03:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Only seven months after Pope Francis’ last consistory, he will create five new cardinals in June. He continues a pattern of finding cardinals at the peripheries of the world, from dioceses which have not traditionally had a cardinal.

The next consistory will take place June 28.

In this new batch Pope Francis has confirmed his preference for dioceses that are not traditional sees for a cardinal. For instance, this is the first time a bishop from El Salvador, Sweden, Mali, and Laos will receive a red hat.

The Pope’s choice of Bishop Louis Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, Vicar Apostolic of Paksé, reveals his particular interest in Laos.

Laos, a one-party communist republic averse to religion, is one of the few countries lacking full diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
 
However, in recent years the Laotian government has been showing a greater openness to the international community, and also to the religious sentiment of its mostly Buddhist population.

There are only 45,000 Catholics in Laos, less than one percent of the 7 million Laotians. Laos has no dioceses: there are only three apostolic vicariates with 22 priests and 11 religious priests. Three new priests were ordained in the country in 2016, and two more will be ordained this year.

The beatification of Italian missionary Mario Borzaga, of the Laotian priest Joseph Thao Thien and 14 companions martyred in 1960 gave more impetus to the Laotian “baby Church,” to use Bishop Mangkhanekhoun's words.

The beatification Mass took place in Vientiane on Dec. 11, 2016, with the participation of over 7,000 faithful. The government’s permission for the public celebration was considered a sign that the Laotian government is changing its hostile attitude towards religion. Meanwhile, the Holy See is trying to establish full diplomatic ties with the country in order to better protect the Catholic flock.

In Mali, the red biretta for Archbishop Jean Zerbo of Bamao can also be read through diplomatic lense.

Archbishop Zerbo has strongly committed to the ongoing dialogue for reconciliation in his country. In 2012, Al-Qaeda exploited a rebellion carried out by ethnic Tuaregs and tried to take control of the central government. Ever since, Mali has been living in a constant political crisis that has turned into a refugee crisis.

His elevation as cardinal will give Archbishop Zerbo more weight in the peace talks.

After his trip to Sweden late last year, Pope Francis also named as cardinal Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm.

Bishop Arborelius, a convert from Lutheranism, is the first Swedish-born Catholic bishop in the country since the Lutheran Reformation.

In El Salvador, Bishop José Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, is the first auxiliary bishop ever to be appointed a cardinal while the bishop in charge of his archdiocese remains but a bishop.

His red biretta may be considered a reward for his service to El Salvador in his more than 30 years as auxiliary bishop, especially during the difficult years of the 1980-1992 civil war.

In contrast to other cardinals-to-be, the red hat for Archbishop Juan José Omella Omella is not a dramatic departure from tradition, as Barcelona is traditionally a see with a cardinal. Archbishop Omella’s predecessor, Cardinal Lluis Martinez Sistach, turned 80 on Apr. 29.

The announcement that Archbishop Omella will be created a cardinal comes only two days after the new presidency of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference met with Pope Francis in a private audience in Rome.

The Spanish Bishops’ Conference gathered for its general assembly in Madrid on March 15. Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez Pérez was re-elected as president for a second three-year mandate by a strong majority. Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, archbishop of Valencia and former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, was elected vice-president.

In the race for the presidency, Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra of Madrid, got four votes, while Archbishop Omella got just one vote.

By naming Archbishop Omella a cardinal, the Pope might want to show the Spanish Bishops’ Conference the men in whom he places his trust. The two Spaniards, Cardinal Osoro Sierra, appointed by Pope Francis as Archbishop of Madrid, and Archbishop Omella will have gotten their red hats in back to back consistories only seven months apart.

All of the new cardinals are below 80, so they all have the right to vote in a conclave to elect a Pope. Sweden’s Bishop Anders Arborelius is the youngest, as he will turn 68 in September, while Bishop Rosa is the oldest, about to turn 75.

In the last consistory, 13 out of 17 new red hats were given to bishops or archbishops below the age of 80.

Church rules set the maximum number of cardinal electors in a conclave at 120.

With the five new cardinals, Pope Francis has the increased the number of voting cardinals to 121, exceeding the limit by one.

The five new cardinals also slightly re-shape the composition of the College of Cardinals. After the June 28 consistory, Europe will be represented by 53 voting cardinals, compared with 51 at present. Central America’s voting cardinals will increase to five from four. Africa and Asia combined will have 15 cardinals in a prospective conclave, an increase of one.

Other regions’ number of cardinal electors is unchanged: North America still has 17 voting cardinals, South America has 12, and Oceania four.

Up to now, Pope Francis has created 61 cardinals: 49 voting cardinals, and 12 non-voting. The college of voting cardinals is completed by 52 cardinals created by Benedict XVI, and 20 by St. John Paul II.

Ban on religious icons in cars sparks Catholic outcry in Philippines

Manila, Philippines, May 22, 2017 / 03:07 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- In the most recent clash between the government and the Catholic Church in the Philippines, authorities have banned hanging rosaries and religious icons in vehicles, citing safety concerns.

According to reports from the AFP, the ban is part of a new law that will take effect Friday aimed at eliminating distractions for drivers, including talking or texting on mobile phones, applying makeup, or eating or drinking.

The ban, announced last week, sparked outcry in the majority-Catholic country, where roughly 80 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.

“This is an overreaction, insensitive and lacks common sense," Father Jerome Secillano, executive secretary for public affairs at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, told the AFP.

He said that most drivers feel safer with religious icons in their vehicles, because they give them a sense of divine intervention and protection.

In a statement on the website for the Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines, Fr. Secillano said he believed the ban on religious icons was an over-extension of a law initially meant to cut down on drivers distracted by their cellphones.

“I agree with banning the use of phones while driving but they are absolutely missing the point by prohibiting the display of small religious images in cars,” he said.

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board, which issued the ban, has said that religious icons may still be attached to the dashboard or rearview mirror if they do not swing around or block a driver’s line of vision.

Piston, an association of jeepney drivers and owners, a common form of public transportation in the Philippines, said there was no evidence that rosaries and religious icons caused accidents.

“Do not meddle with the drivers’ faith in God,” said its president, George San Mateo.

The ban is just the latest clash of government authorities with the Catholic Church in the country.

The Catholic Church has been one of the most outspoken opponents of President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent and unrelenting war on drugs, as well as his policies on the death penalty and reproductive health that go against the social teaching of the Catholic Church.

President Duterte in turn does not lose much love on the Catholic Church, hurling shocking insults at Church officials who cross him.

Pence to Notre Dame graduates: Bring values into the workplace

South Bend, Ind., May 22, 2017 / 02:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence challenged University of Notre Dame graduates on Saturday to promote human dignity and the sanctity of life in the workplace.

“I urge you, as the rising generation – carry the ideals and the values that you’ve learned at Notre Dame into your lives and your careers,” Pence told the graduates, praising the university for its rich traditions of defending human life and religious liberty in the face of persecution.

The vice president delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on March 20. He called on the graduates to “be exceptional from this day forth.”

Pence commended the university’s defense of religious liberty, noting that it was among the plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.

“Just as Notre Dame has stood strong to protect its religious liberty, I’m proud that this President just took steps to ensure that this university and the Little Sisters of the Poor could not be forced to violate their consciences to fully participate in American civic life,” Pence said in reference to the lawsuits.

“I’m so proud that the University of Notre Dame has stood without apology for the sanctity of human life,” he continued, pointing to the university’s efforts to uphold human dignity, through its educational initiatives, social commitment and focus on ethics and culture.

Around 100 students walked out of Pence’s speech on Saturday, according to an estimate by the university reported by CNN. They reportedly did so to represent racial minorities, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ persons and others who they said would be adversely affected by the administration’s policies.

Pence, formerly a member of the U.S. Congress and the governor of Indiana, was baptized Catholic, but by 1994 he called himself a “born-again, evangelical Catholic.” He had begun attending an evangelical megachurch with his family in the 1990s.

He has recently described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”

Pence has a long history of pro-life and religious freedom advocacy, but has also quarreled with Catholic bishops over immigration matters.

As governor of Indiana, he tried to halt the state’s participation in the U.S. refugee resettlement program as he, along with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, questioned the security of the program. This came in the wake of deadly terror attacks in Paris in November of 2015, where a terrorist who was reportedly one of the perpetrators had allegedly entered Europe by posing as a Syrian refugee, according to reports at the time.

Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, now Cardinal of Newark, had directed Catholic Charities Indianapolis to resettle a Syrian refugee family during that time. He met with Governor Pence in December. Pence’s office said after the meeting that the governor “respectfully disagrees with their decision to place a Syrian refugee family in Indiana at this time.”

Pence’s speech at Notre Dame continued the tradition of presidents and vice presidents speaking at the university and receiving honorary degrees.

In May of 2009, President Barack Obama became the ninth U.S. president to have an honorary degree from the university. He spoke amidst controversy over his staunch pro-abortion record.

Then-Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput issued a strong statement saying that Notre Dame “conferred an unnecessary and unearned honorary law degree on a man committed to upholding one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in our nation’s history [Roe v. Wade].”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic who supported abortion as a U.S. senator and who was in an administration that issued the controversial contraception mandate, received an honorary degree from the university last year.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the local diocese, said the university should not have honored a politician with “gravely irresponsible” positions on abortion and marriage that are at odds with Church teaching.  

“We should seek to honor those who act to protect human life and dignity from conception to natural death, who respect true marriage and the family, who promote peace, justice, religious freedom, solidarity, the integral development of the poor, the just treatment of immigrants, and care for creation,” he stated last March. “We should not honor those who may be exemplary in one area but gravely irresponsible in another.”

In his speech this weekend, Vice President Pence called for the university to continue to foster a free discussion of ideas, as free speech has been curbed in much of academia.

“Notre Dame is a campus where deliberation is welcomed – where opposing views are debated and where every speaker, no matter how unpopular or unfashionable, is afforded the right to air their views in the open for all to hear,” he said, adding that the university “is an exception” and is “an island in a sea of conformity.”

Many schools have “speech codes, safe zones, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness,” he said, which “are destructive of learning and the pursuit of knowledge. And they are wholly outside the American tradition.”

Pence also exhorted the university’s graduates to “have faith.”

“Strive every day to lead for good with courage and conviction.  Live your life according to the precepts and principles that you have learned and seen here at Notre Dame,” he said.

“And in all that you do, have faith that He who brought you this far will never leave you, nor forsake you – because He never will.”

 

What common ground could Trump and Pope Francis find?

Vatican City, May 22, 2017 / 12:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- When Pope Francis was asked last week about his upcoming meeting with U.S. president Donald Trump, he made headlines for answering that he always tries to look for common ground.

Given that they have vocally disagreed on prominent issues in the past, what will the areas of shared agreement be?

The two are set to meet at the Vatican Wednesday, May 24, at 8:30 a.m., before Pope Francis' weekly general audience.

President Trump arrives to Italy May 23 after stopping in both Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of his first international trip, which lasts nine days. He will also attend a NATO meeting in Brussels on May 25 and a G7 summit in Sicily on May 26.

Perhaps the most prominent area of disagreement between Trump and Francis is immigration.

During a Feb. 18, 2016, in-flight press conference, the Pope was asked to respond to Donald Trump’s immigration stand, particularly his threat to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Pope Francis responded saying “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” However, he also said that he would “give the benefit of the doubt” to the political candidate.

One week prior, Trump had bashed Pope Francis as a “pawn” for the Mexican government and “a very political person” who does not understand the problems of the United States.

After the fact, then-Holy See spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio that the Pope’s comment “was never intended to be, in any way, a personal attack or an indication of how to vote” and had repeated a longstanding theme of his papacy: bridge-building.

During Trump’s time in office so far, U.S. bishops – who have Francis’ full backing on the issue – have been critical of Trump’s moves on immigration, criticizing the “ban” he implemented in his first week in office halting refugee admissions for 120 days – indefinitely for Syrian refugees – and temporarily banning visa permissions for people seeking entry to the United States from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

Trump and Francis also have very divergent opinions on climate change. Francis insisted on the need to protect creation in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si, saying problems such as global warming are caused by human activity.

The Pope gave his full support of the Paris Climate deal in 2015, sending Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to the Nov. 30-Dec. 11 summit as his personal delegate to the gathering.

Trump later threatened to back out of the deal, but delayed the process until after the G7 summit he’ll be participating in this week.

While there will certainly be these and other points the two disagree on, there are several issues – other than their shared disregard for formal protocol – that could actually bring the two together.

These, to name a few, could be: pro-life issues, above all defense of the unborn; religious freedom, particularly for Christians in the Middle East; and the push for a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Since his campaign days, Trump has identified himself as pro-life, and even gave a shout-out to the Jan. 27 March for Life in Washington D.C. in a clip of an interview with David Muir of ABC.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence became the first vice president to participate in the event, giving a keynote speech that stressed the “sanctity of life.”

Pro-life issues are likely to be at least one strong point of union for Trump and Francis, who has often spoken out against abortion and other concerns such as euthanasia, calling them in one audience in 2014 “sins against God.”

He has also encouraged the use of conscientious objection based on religious convictions, at one point describing it as “a basic human right.”

When it comes to the Trump administration, the pro-life issue remains a big issue for many U.S. Catholics, who praised the president’s reinstatement of the “Mexico City Policy,” which prohibits U.S. funding of non-government organizations that either promote or perform abortions through family-planning funds.

Trump was also lauded for his appointment of Niel Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left when Justice Antonin Scalia passed away last year. Gorsuch has been praised not only for his pro-life stance, but also for his commitment to religious freedom.

Pope Francis and Trump are also likely to share concern for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

Both Trump and Francis have called for greater solidarity and protection of persecuted Christians.

Francis has repeatedly spoken out on modern persecution, saying there are more martyrs today than in the early Church, with the “ecumenism of blood” having become a watermark phrase of his pontificate.

Trump himself said during his campaign that protecting persecuted Christians would be a priority. As evidence of this intent, at a May 11 summit on persecuted Christians U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said, “We’re with you, we stand with you,” and assured of both his and Trump’s prayers.

As with any political figure, questions still loom as to how much Trump will actually do, especially if differing political opinions get in the way. But overall, the topic will likely be a point of agreement and collaboration with the Vatican.

And while Trump’s previous rhetoric on Islam is something Francis would likely hastily disagree with, a recent shift in the president’s tone is something the Pope would certainly welcome.
 
During his election campaign, Trump called for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and voicing his opinion that “Islam hates us.”

However, so far Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims has cooled during his first international trip abroad.

In his May 21 speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Ridyadh, Saudi Arabia, Trump avoided the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” referring instead to “the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.”

“The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their country and, frankly, for their families and for their children,” Trump said, speaking to leaders from more than 50 predominantly Muslim countries.

The choice is “between two futures,” and “it is a choice America cannot make for you,” he said, adding that “a better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists.”

He said he didn’t come to “lecture,” but to seek an end to terrorism and the beginning of peace in the Middle East region, noting that roughly 95 percent of terrorist victims are themselves Muslim.

The president said he wants a partnership with people who share the same “interests and values” as the U.S., calling Islam one of the “great faiths” with an “ancient heritage” that has served as the “cradle of civilization.”

In addition, Trump said the problem of terrorism is not “a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it...This is a battle between good and evil.”

The U.S. president’s more moderate tone on Islam, and indeed his unprecedented praise of some aspects of Muslim culture, is something Pope Francis would likely appreciate. The Pope has on multiple occasions warned against “Islamophobia,” insisting that not all Muslims are terrorist.

However, while the two might have new-found common ground in terms of how they refer to the Muslim community, at least in the public sphere, Francis will likely take issue with the weapons deal signed by Trump and Saudi King Salman.

The deal guarantees the Middle Eastern powerhouse some $350 billion in weapons over the next 10 years, with $110 billion going into effect immediately.

Francis has consistently called for an end to the arms trade, criticizing nations that sell weapons to warring countries in order to keep the conflicts going that line their own pockets. The Pope has used almost countless occasions to insist for an end to this “scourge.”  

Saudi Arabia has also been criticized by many other Middle Eastern nations for funding ISIS, most directly through weapons sales.

But regardless of the deal, terrorism is sure to be one of the key topics discussed, and if Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia is an indication of how he intends to address the issue from here on out, the two just might be able agree on this point.

After leaving Saudi Arabia, Trump flew to Israel for an official visit in a bid to cement Israeli ties and help move forward on a peace deal with Palestine. After arriving this morning, he voiced hopes to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin of a broader peace deal in the region.

“You have a great opportunity right now. Great feeling for peace throughout the Middle East. People have had enough of the bloodshed and the killing. I think we're going to start see things starting to happen,” he told Rivlin.

In a speech to Israeli Prime Minister on the tarmac, Trump said: “We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace, but we can only get there working together. There is no other way.”

In a previous encounter, Trump had asked Netenyahu to “hold off” on building more settlements in order help give space to further peace discussions in the region.

Earlier this month Trump met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, telling him that when it comes to a deal that pleases both parties, “we will get it done.”

The commitment to a two-state solution has been a longstanding priority for the Vatican, which was reinforced during a recent 2015 agreement between Palestine and the Holy See to promote religious freedom in the area.

Trump himself, however, has said his administration is not married to the idea of a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict, deviating from previous administrations on the issue.

While the Vatican and Trump might not agree on what exactly a peace deal looks like, it’s likely to be a shared concern.

Another topic that could be a point of union between the Pope and the president is human trafficking; not necessarily because Trump himself has been a hardliner on the issue, but more likely because the president’s daughter and high-profile adviser Ivanka Trump has made a commitment to it.

It is in this capacity that she is participating in each of the nine days of Trump’s first trip abroad as president, including the public portion of his meeting with Francis.

While in Italy, Ivanka is also set to meet with the Community of Sant’Egidio, a group often praised by Pope Francis for their work with the poor and refugees, to discuss putting an end to human trafficking.

During the meeting, the Ivanka is expected to meet with several women who are victims of trafficking, and discuss various ways in which the Church and the U.S. government can collaborate on the issue.

So while there are clearly many areas in which Pope Francis and Trump diverge, the meeting will likely find both men seeking to find common ground.

Francis himself during his May 13 press conference refrained from making a premature evaluation of Trump, saying “I never make a judgment of a person without listening to them. I believe that I should not do this.”

When the two finally meet, “things will come out, I will say what I think, he will say what he thinks, but I never, ever, wanted to make a judgment without hearing the person.”

Peace and friendship are things that can’t be forced, he said, explaining that they take daily effort and are “handcrafted.”

“Respect the other, say that which one thinks, but with respect, but walk together,” he said. Even if someone thinks differently, “be very sincere,” and respectful. 

Sanctions on Syria's military a good step, Christian advocate says

Washington D.C., May 22, 2017 / 10:35 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The United States House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that issues additional sanctions against supporters of Syria’s Assad regime, and those providing arms for the regime.

“This bill is a big step in the right direction,” Phillippe Nassif, executive director of the group In Defense of Christians, told CNA.

The House passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act May 17, issuing additional sanctions on the Assad regime and its “backers,” especially human rights violators and those involved in the trade of weapons or weapons parts with the regime. Those supporters could include Russia and Iran, international allies of Assad.

The Syrian civil war is now in its sixth year, and over 400,000 have died, with over 11 million displaced from their homes, including 5 million registered refugees. Civilian witnesses have given testimonies to the carnage – hospitals bombed, chorine gas bombs unleashed, and starvation are only some of the atrocities that have been inflicted.

Christian leaders in the area have denounced the trafficking of weapons into Syria as something which helps the conflict continue. Wednesday’s bill at least claims to target those supporting the Assad regime’s air force and those doing business with the regime.

The bill also directs the State Department to assist those investigating war crimes in Syria.

Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced the arms trade. In his September 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress, he emphasized that Christians must ask “why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?”

“Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade,” he said.

Last July, in a video message promoting peace in Syria, he lamented that “while the people suffer, incredible quantities of money are being spent to supply weapons to fighters.”

Some of the arms suppliers “are also among those that talk of peace,” he said. “How can you believe in someone who caresses you with the right hand and strikes you with the left hand?”

House leaders cited recent atrocities committed by the Assad regime as a further motive of the sanctions – the deaths of over 90 civilians by sarin gas back in April after pro-government forces bombed a neighborhood in Idlib, and the Saydnaya military prison run by the Assad regime where Amnesty International estimates that up to 13,000 prisoners were executed in five years, along with repeated torture.

These atrocities, along with the repeated bombings of hospitals and killing of humanitarian workers and obstructing aid convoys trying to reach vulnerable populations, call for action, members of Congress insisted.

“If you’re supporting this murder – if you’re enabling the Butcher in Damascus to continue waging that sort of violence against his own people – you’re going to face consequences,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stated on the House Floor on Wednesday.

“This bill would sanction anyone who provides material support for the Assad regime,” he explained. “We want to go after the actual hardware that keeps his war machine running: the planes and bombs that terrorize the Syrian people, and the spare parts and oil that keep everything running.”

Supporters of the bill expressed their hope that sanctions would drive parties toward international peace negotiations.

“IDC hopes that these steps will result in the swift resolution of the conflict, the substantial defeat of ISIS, Al Qaeda affiliates, and Iranian backed extremist groups in Syria and the Middle East; promotes stability in Lebanon and Jordan; and end the human rights catastrophe, now in its sixth year,” Nassif stated.

“For there to be peace in Syria, the parties must come together,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stated. “And as long as Assad and his backers can slaughter the people of Syria with no consequences, there is no hope for peace.”

For sanctions to really work, however, they must be enforced and the perpetrators who are being targeted must be publicly shamed.

The bill does allow the president the flexibility to suspend the sanctions if serious peace negotiations are taking place and the violence against civilians in Syria has stopped. It also directs the president to report to Congress on the names of all those responsible for serious human rights abuses.

However, the actions could also show hypocrisy from the U.S., some claim, as it is set to approve a $300 billion arms deal with ally Saudi Arabia which, according to Hillary Clinton’s emails unearthed by WikiLeaks, has covertly funded the Islamic State in the past.

Justice Alito warns seminarians religious liberty is in danger

Philadelphia, Pa., May 22, 2017 / 03:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In his address to graduating seminarians on Wednesday, United States Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. emphasized the importance of religious freedom and the dangers it faces today.

Religious freedom means that “no one is forced to act in violation of his own beliefs,” Alito said, according to Catholic Philly. “Most of my life Americans were instilled in this,” he added, and urged the audience “keep the flame burning.”

Alito gave the keynote address at the concursus ceremony for the graduating class of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia May 17, where he also received the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honorus Causa, from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.

He was awarded the degree “in testimony to and recognition of his many outstanding contributions to society … especially in protecting the sanctity and dignity of human life, the full responsibilities of the human person and promoting true justice and lasting peace,” Archbishop Chaput said.

Alito, 67, is a practicing Catholic from an Italian family in Trenton, New Jersey, and was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush, where he has served since January 2006.

He wrote the majority opinion for the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. case, in which the court allowed for closely-held, for-profit corporations to be exempt from a regulation its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law's interest, according to the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

He also wrote a dissent from the majority opinion in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case, in which the Supreme Court held that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage.

Prior to his address, in an interview with the St. Charles Borromeo blog Seminarian Casual, Alito again spoke about religious freedom as well as the effect his faith and family has had on his career.

Religious freedom is “one of the most fundamental rights” in the United States, Alito said, and the founding fathers “saw a vital connection between religion and the character needed for republican self-government.”

“What the founders understood more than 200 years ago is just as true today,” he said, though “(t)here is cause for concern at the present time.”

In his Obergefell dissent, Alito said he “anticipated that… 'those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.’”

There is already evidence of this happening, he said, such as in a case the Supreme Court declined to hear, in which a pharmacy was being forced to sell emergency contraceptives despite their religious beliefs against them. He said he anticipates even more struggles for religious freedom in the years to come.

“This is not an easy time to be a priest, but priests are desperately needed,” he said.

In particular, priests of the 21st century are needed to “express what is essential about the faith in a way that registers with a culture that speaks a different language. It is a daunting task, but that is essentially what was done by brave priests in the past who took the faith to every corner of the globe,” he said.

“One priest who especially stands out in my memory is the pastor of the church in New Jersey that we attended before moving to Washington. He had a marvelous way of speaking to the parishioners in a way that was seemingly simple but attractive and ultimately profound.”

When asked how his Catholic faith has shaped him, Alito said his faith provides him meaning and purpose.

“The title of a book by Tolstoy has been translated as What Then Should We Do? My faith gives me an answer. It would be terrible to think that life has no meaning, that we are going nowhere, and that what we do until we die is a matter of indifference. That is what tortures so many today.”

He added that the strong family values with which he was raised influenced the way he raised his own family, and that he is grateful for a career that allows him some flexibility to be able to spend time with his family.

“Nothing on this Earth is more important to me than my family,” he said.

“I have been fortunate to have jobs that allowed me to control my work schedule to a very great degree,” he said. “Very few people today have this luxury, and it is hard for busy people to balance work and family life. Our society needs to do a better job of making this possible.”

Man builds replica of St. Peter's Square with 36,000 toothpicks

Vatican City, May 21, 2017 / 04:23 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Eiffel Tower, the Roman Coliseum, the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal; are just some of the universal monuments that a Colombian teacher makes to scale out of little wooden sticks (toothpicks).

One of his recent works is Saint Peter's Square and he dreams of showing it to Pope Francis during the visit the pontiff will make to this country in September.

Alberto Antonio Cruz Serna has been building models with toothpicks since he was 12.

He currently resides in the town of Puerto Berrio, in the Antioquia district teaches natural science to high school students at the Antonio Nariño Educational Institution, and has built more than 200 artistic creations with his own unique style.

Among his works there are also small-scale replicas of Catholic buildings such as Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Puerto Berrio and Saint Peter's Square in the Vatican.

Cruz, who is the father of five children, has displayed his works in a number of cities in Colombia, such as Medellín and Barrancabermeja. He has also won several awards.

“What motivates me to build these works of art in toothpicks is the challenge of it. The structure is spectacular. It's not like the wood you cut and set in place. Here it's about joining stick to stick, seeing the lengths and making shapes. The degree of difficulty makes it more interesting,” the 59-year-old teacher told CNA.

Cruz revealed that he has never visited the monuments he has reproduced with toothpicks. Nor has he studied architecture or design. He just does research on the Internet and in books on every detail of the artwork he wants to reproduce.

His tools? A nail clipper and special wood glue.

Cruz commented that his motivation for building the replica of Saint Peter's Square was that in late 2015, he learned that Pope Francis might be visiting Colombia. The Vatican would later confirm the trip, which is scheduled for this September.

The construction of the artwork took 17 months. Cruz spent about five hours a day on the project. On weekends, he worked almost all day. 

The Saint Peter's Square model was made of more than 36,000 toothpicks. It measures about 6 feet long by 3 feet wide.

Cruz said that one of the most beautiful characteristics of St. Peter's Square are the columns because “they are like arms that welcome Catholics from all parts of the world each time that the Pope celebrates a Mass or appears. The shape of the plaza is like a hug.”

While he was working on this structure, Cruz also made a reproduction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Roman Coliseum.

Regarding the pontiff's visit to his country, Cruz said that “we Colombians are waiting for the moment when the pope visits. It is critical to the process we are going through (as a nation).”

He added that the Pope is important to him because “I'm Catholic, my family is too. And so, who would not want to meet the Pope? If he is the closest representative of God that we have on Earth? For Catholics, who would not want to be at his side?

Cruz said that he would like to display the model of St. Peter's Square and the other works of art in Medellin during Pope Francis' apostolic visit.

“My dream is that wherever the Holy Father is, I'd be nearby with my artwork and so he could take a look at them…That is the dream I want to fulfill. So he would be with me for just a few seconds.”

The teacher hopes that the Antioquia political and religious authorities will take an interest in his work and he will have the opportunity to display them. “I'll keep on persevering and knocking on doors,” he said.

Cruz said that the governor of Antioquia will soon be visiting the school where he teaches, and he will take advantage of the occasion to show him the Saint Peter's Square, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Roman Coliseum.

His upcoming projects include the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Las Lajas, and Notre Dame Cathedral.
 

Always act with gentleness and respect, Pope Francis says

Vatican City, May 21, 2017 / 11:20 am (CNA/EWTN News).- During a visit to a Roman parish Sunday, Pope Francis repeated his frequent condemnation of gossip, telling the congregation instead to always treat others with gentleness and respect, as the Holy Spirit does.

“The language of Christians who cherish the Holy Spirit, who was given to us as a gift, is special: they don’t have to speak in Latin, no. It’s another language: it’s the language of gentleness and respect,” the Pope said May 21.

Reflecting on these two points can help each of us to reflect on our own attitude as Christians, he said, asking “is it an attitude of gentleness, or of wrath? Or bitterness?”

“It’s terrible to see people who say they are Christians, but who are full of bitterness,” Francis said, adding that the language of the Holy Spirit “is gentle...because he’s gentle. And respect. Always respect others. He teaches to respect others.”

Pope Francis made his comments during an off-the-cuff homily while celebrating Mass at Rome’s St. Peter Damiani parish in the Casal Bernocchi neighborhood in the south of Rome.

After leaving the Vatican around 3:45p.m., the Pope arrived at the parish around 4:15p.m. and was greeted by the Vicar of Rome Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the titular bishop of the parish, as well as the auxiliary bishop of Rome’s southern sector, Paolo Lojudice, and the pastor, Fr. Lucio Coppa.

Francis’ visit marked the third time a Pope has gone to the parish. The first was Bl. Pope Paul VI in 1972 for the 900th anniversary of the death of St. Peter Damiani, and the second was St. John Paul II in 1988.

Before celebrating Mass at 6p.m., Francis met with 80 children enrolled in First Communion classes and around 100 youth who attend post-Confirmation activities. During the discussion, he responded to two questions posed by the youth.

He then met with sick and elderly parishioners, families whose children have been baptized this year, members of the Neocatechumenal Way, employees of the parish and volunteers with the parish’s Caritas program. Four of the parishioners then went to confession with Pope Francis before Mass.

In his brief homily, the Pope noted that even though Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit as his advocate, which he promised to do in the day’s Gospel reading from John, “the devil knows how to weaken us.”

“He will do everything, so that our language is not respectful or gentle, even within the Christian community,” the Pope said.

He lamented the fact that many people come to a parish in the hope of finding a meek and respectful community, and instead find one with “internal bickering, gossip, chatter, competition.”

“They find that air that’s not of incense, but of gossip, and then what do they say?” the Pope asked. “(They say) ‘if these are Christians, I prefer to stay a Pagan,’ and they go away disillusioned.”

With the language focused only on ambition and jealousy, “we push people away and we don’t allow the Spirit to work,” Francis said, explaining that he returns to the topic of gossip so often because “this is the sin that’s the most common in our Christian communities.”

Jesting, Pope Francis said he once spoke to a priest who said some of his parishioners could receive communion standing at the back of the church, because their tongue reached all the way to the altar.

“We must cherish the Holy Spirit and not speak like the devil teaches us,” he said, adding that gossip “hurts my heart,” and is the sin “that destroys our communities the most.”

Francis closed his homily pointing to Mary, telling parishioners, when they go to pray in front of her, to look down at the serpent she is standing on and pray not to be like that: not to leave one’s tongue stuck out, but rather to cherish the Holy Spirit as she did.

“Let’s not throw stones at each other. The devil has fun, this is a carnival for him,” the Pope said. Instead, “let us ask for this grace: to cherish the Holy Spirit that is within us, not sadden him, and that our attitude be one of gentleness and respect.”

Pope prays for victims of heightened violence in Central African Republic

Vatican City, May 21, 2017 / 06:10 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Sunday Pope Francis offered his prayer and support for victims of a recent jump in violence in the Central African Republic, repeating his frequent call for the use of dialogue, rather than weapons, to solve conflicts.

“Painful news unfortunately comes from the Central African Republic, which I carry in my heart, especially after my visit in November 2015,” the Pope said May 21, noting that recent clashes “have caused numerous victims and displaced, and threaten the process of peace.”

He voiced his closeness to the people, the bishops, and to “all those who work for the good of the people and for peaceful coexistence” in the CAR.

Francis then prayed for the deceased and the wounded before renewing his appeal that “weapons be silenced and the good will of dialogue prevail in order to give peace and development to the country.”

The Pope’s words come after a spike in violent fighting this week between mainly Muslim fighters from the former Seleka rebel coalition that in 2013 overthrew former CAR president Francois Bozize, and anti-balaka militias, formed mainly of Christians.

At least 22 people, including 17 civilians, were killed during fighting between the two groups this week in the western town of Bria. Nearly 10,000 others were forced to flee to avoid further bloodshed.

Pope Francis visited the CAR from Nov. 29-30 at the end of his tri-nation tour to Africa, which also included stops in Kenya and Uganda. One of the highlights of his visit was his opening the Jubilee Holy Door in the capital city Bangui, ahead of the official Dec. 8 start of the Year of Mercy.

Francis' trip to the CAR marked his first time as Pope in an active war zone. The country became embroiled in violence in December 2012 when several bands of mainly Muslim rebel groups formed an alliance, taking the name Seleka. They left their strongholds in the north of the country and made their way south, seizing power from then-president Francois Bozize.

In reaction, some Central Africans formed self-defense groups called the anti-balaka. Some of these groups, mainly composed of Christians, began attacking Muslims out of revenge, and the conflict took on a sectarian character. Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, with many more displaced.

In his brief speech before praying the Regina Coeli, the Pope focused love of God and neighbor as “the greatest commandment” in the Gospel.

He turned to the days’ Gospel reading from John, in which the Evangelist recounts Jesus’ promise to send another “paraclete,” or “advocate,” in reference to the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ assurance to his disciples that “I will never leave you orphans” transmits “the joy of a new coming of Christ: he, risen and glorified, dwells in the Father and, at the same time, comes to us in the Holy Spirit,” Francis said.

By reflecting on these words, we understand that we are part of the People of God in communion with Jesus through the Holy Spirit, he said, adding that it is precisely in this union that the Church discovers the “inexhaustible source of her own mission, which is realized through love.”
Pope Francis then pointed to Jesus’ words that “whoever loves me keeps my commandments,” saying it’s love that brings us to knowledge of Jesus thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit.

“Love of God and neighbor is the greatest commandment of the Gospel,” he said, adding that today the Lord asks us to respond to the call to love by “putting God at the center of our lives and dedicating ourselves to the service of our brothers, especially those most in need of support and consolation.”

Noting how difficult it can be to love at times, the Pope said that “if there is an attitude that is never easy, is never a given even for the Christian community, it’s knowing how to love, to love one another well based on the example of the Lord and with his grace.”

“At times conflict, pride, envy and division leave their mark even on the beautiful face of the Church,” he said, explaining that a Christian community must live in the charity of Christ.

However, it is exactly there where the devil comes and tries to fool us, Francis said, adding that those who allow themselves to fall for his delusions are “the most spiritually weak people.”

Even for Christians, knowing how to love is never a given “once and for all,” he said. Rather, we must begin again each day and put in the effort so that the love we have for the brothers and sisters we meet “becomes mature and purified by those limits or sins that leave it partial, selfish, sterile and unfaithful.”

“Every day we must learn the art of loving, every day we must follow with patience the school of Christ, with the help of his Spirit,” he said, and led pilgrims in praying the traditional Regina Coeli prayer, recited during Easter instead of the Angelus.

After, Francis noted that on May 24, the same day as his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, Catholics in China will celebrate the feast of Mary, Help of Christians, who is venerated in the shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.

“To the Chinese Catholics I say: let us raise our gaze to Mary our Mother, so that she help us to discern the will of God regarding the Church’s concrete path in China and sustain us in welcoming with generosity her project of love.”

“May Mary encourage us to offer our personal contribution for communion among believers and for the harmony of society as a whole,” he said, urging Chinese Catholics not to forget to “bear witness to the faith with prayer and with love, always remaining open to encounter and dialogue.”