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US State Department: Pakistan's religious freedom record a 'particular concern'

Washington D.C., Dec 12, 2018 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- Religious freedom problems in Pakistan have led the US Department of State to designate the country as of “particular concern,” with nine others, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said Tuesday.

“I recognize that several designated countries are working to improve their respect for religious freedom; I welcome such initiatives and look forward to continuing the dialogue,” Pompeo said Dec. 11.

In addition to Pakistan, Pompeo listed Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. This means he believes they have engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, (and) egregious violations of religious freedom.” The designation took place Nov. 28, Pompeo said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom makes recommendations to the State Department about the list. Its April 2018 report examined religious freedom threats in Pakistan and around the world.

In December 2017, Islamic State group-affiliated suicide bombers attacked a church in Quetta, killing nine people. The run-up to the national elections in July 2018 exacerbated religious tensions in the country. According to the USCIRF report, approximately 40 people sentenced under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were awaiting the death penalty or serving life sentences.

“In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests, or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs,” Pompeo said Tuesday. “The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression. Protecting and promoting international religious freedom is a top foreign policy priority of the Trump administration.”

“Safeguarding religious freedom is vital to ensuring peace, stability, and prosperity,” he continued. “These designations are aimed at improving the lives of individuals and the broader success of their societies.”

CNA contacted USCIRF for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

In April, USCIRF Chair Daniel Mark told CNA he was particularly concerned about Pakistan.

“Matters concerning Pakistan are very sensitive on account of the fact that they are a partner of ours in combating terrorism around the world in the war in Afghanistan and so on,” Mark said. “But, given the rise of extremism in Pakistan... we really do think that pressure should be kept up, notwithstanding the cooperation that our two countries need.”

“Pakistan is a world leader in imprisonment and convictions, prosecutions for blasphemy and apostasy, and those sorts of things,” said Mark.

Asia Bibi, a Christian mother and field laborer, was among those facing blasphemy prosecution, spending eight years in prison despite her protestations of innocence. The Pakistan Supreme Court acquitted her of blasphemy charges in late October. The acquittal prompted protests and death threats. Her life is still in danger, as the ruling is under government review as part of a deal to appease groups that were leading riots in the streets.

Bibi’s family has sought asylum for her in the U.S., the U.K., or other countries in Europe. Italy has offered to help her find asylum.

Mark said conditions in Pakistan are bad at the legal level, such as the second-class citizenship treatment of the Ahmadi religious minority. There is also a growing “culture of impunity” in society, with vigilante mobs attacking people on the basis of blasphemy accusations.

Pompeo placed Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on the special watch list for having engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” In January the State Department had named Uzbekistan a country of particular concern.

The special watch list is a new designation, created by Congress’ 2016 amendments to the International Religious Freedom Act. Pakistan was first named to the watch list in December 2017.

Another list, entities of particular concern, includes al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, the Islamic State Group, the Islamic State Group in Khorasan, and the Taliban.

Pompeo noted his work as Secretary of State in hosting the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July, which brought together 85 governments and 400 NGOs that aimed to advance religious freedom.

“The United States remains committed to working with governments, civil society organizations, and religious leaders to advance religious freedom around the world,” Pompeo said.

Amid priest murders, religious freedom situation in Mexico draws concern

Mexico City, Mexico, Dec 12, 2018 / 05:40 pm (ACI Prensa).- With 26 priests murdered in the last six years, Mexico received a prominent mention in the 2018 Report on Religious Freedom in the World, recently published by the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Julieta Appendini, ACN's director in Mexico, explained that although the country is not experiencing “a persecution such as in the Middle East,” where religious minorities are being killed, they are instead seeing “new forms of persecution.”

The majority of the murders of priests are due to their “getting in the way” of organized crime and drug trafficking, since the priests “provide stability to society,” Appendini told ACI Prensa, CNA's Spanish language sister agency.

She added that confrontations between Catholics and Protestants in southern Mexico are also recorded in the ACN report, as well as cases of looting churches and extortion.

The ACN director in Mexico explained that the religious freedom report analyzes the right to religious liberty in 106 countries.

“Every two years, we see how each country is doing based on this right which is founded on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” she said.

Appendini said the situation in 2018 “has gotten worse,” since “in 38 countries out of 196 there is serious, heavy persecution and discrimination,” which is primarily concentrated in the Middle East and Africa.

In addition to China and Russia, India is also a critical case, where the government promotes Hinduism and encourages discrimination and repression of religious minorities such as Christians.

“Out of the world's population, 61 percent, we're talking 2.5 billion people, live in a country where there is religious persecution or discrimination.”

Faced with this situation, she said, ACN is seeking to inform and raise awareness, encourage prayer, and be bridges of charity.

“The foundation has helped financially, through all the donations of our benefactors throughout the world, especially for the persecuted Christians,” she said.

Appendini said that ACN has provided “emergency aid on all levels. Not just with spiritual support, but with food, building their churches, schools, and with emergency aid so they can survive.”

This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

 

Priest who survived major plane crash credits Our Lady of Guadalupe

Chicago, Ill., Dec 12, 2018 / 04:58 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- This year, for Father Esequiel Sanchez, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe brings up terrifying memories - and a huge reason to be thankful.

Sanchez was one of 103 passengers aboard Aeromexico Flight 2431, which crashed and burned in a field shortly after takeoff on July 31 of this year.

While there were some injuries, no one died.

“I personally attributed that to the intercession of Our Lady, and so did the other passengers, I think most of us...saw it as miraculous,” Sanchez told CNA.

Shortly after takeoff in Durango, the plane caught strong winds, causing the left wing to hit the ground and the plane to lose both of its engines.

As the craft was hurtling toward the ground, Sanchez said he thought he would either die, be paralyzed, or be burned by subsequent explosions. All he walked away with was a broken arm.

But his fear in the moment didn’t stop his priestly training from kicking in - he immediately started to pray out loud.

“They say police officers and firefighters and soldiers will tell you that when you get into a crisis situation, your training kicks in. I think that’s happened to me too,” he said.

“I prayed ‘God come to our assistance, Blessed Mother come to help us,’ and then I began to absolve everybody on the plane. I immediately said: ‘I absolve everyone on this plane, may the Lord have mercy,’” he recalled.

“I thought it was just going to be it, because it was happening so fast. You don’t (crash) a 100-ton airplane at 150 miles per hour and think you’re gonna be ok. But happily we were.”

When the plane crash-landed, emergency crews helped evacuate everyone before the plane exploded into flames.

Sanchez’ first thought was for the victims.

“I just couldn’t imagine finding someone’s mother who died and I survived. So for me to I wanted to tell them that I tried to get to them, so my primary concern was getting to the victims as best I could, and start ministering to them. When that’s what you’re concerned about, that’s what you’re going to go after.”

Some survivors had worse injuries - a little girl with burn injuries was taken to a hospital, others had neck and back injuries.

The plane “completely disintegrated,” Sanchez said, so the lack of deaths or worse injuries is miraculous.

Besides being a plane crash survivor, Sanchez is also the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

The shrine is the site of a massive celebration for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe every year on Dec. 12. The event attracts more than 200,000 pilgrims annually, many whom walk for hours or even days on foot to get there.  

For Sanchez, and for some other Durango plane crash survivors who have made the trek to the shrine this year, the Feast Day has taken on new significance.

“So for me, on Our Lady of Guadalupe today, and all those memories...I’m a pilgrim just like them, I come to give her thanks,” he said.

“Some of the survivors came and did the same thing, they came to give thanks to Our Lady.”

Besides being grateful for his survival and lack of serious injury, Sanchez said one of the greatest blessings since the event has been the “outpouring of everyone from the city of Chicago and beyond.”

“Everyone found out about the story and they prayed for us, there’s no place I can go without  people saying we prayed for you,” he said.

“So when you get that kind of generosity, my only response other than to say thank you is: I am so looking forward to becoming a better priest and a better minister, and I do things with a lot more joy,” he said.

Sanchez said he loves his ministry as the rector at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that every year it brings him hope to see the numerous pilgrims on Dec. 12, many of whom come with their whole families.

“I find no more effective image or evangelizing tool than Our Lady of Guadalupe and her message,” he said.

And whether you’re a pilgrim hurtling through the air in a near-death experience plane crash, or an undocumented immigrant trekking to the Shrine to beg her help: “She’s a source of hope.”

 

Church of England to create 'celebratory' transgender liturgies

London, England, Dec 12, 2018 / 04:50 pm (CNA).- The Church of England has published pastoral guidelines for liturgical services that would celebrate the completion of “gender transitioning” by those Anglicans who identify as transgendered.

The guidelines, titled Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition, were approved by the Church of England’s House of Bishops Dec. 10, and published Tuesday.

The guidance applies only to the Church of England, and not to other branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
 
The guidelines state that baptism is the “natural liturgical context for recognizing and celebrating [a transgendered person’s] identity in Christ and God’s love for them” and encourages ministers to accept and use “the preference of a transgender person in respect of their name and gendered (or other) pronouns” in the baptism of transgendered persons.
 
Baptized members of the Church of England are to be offered specially adapted rituals “to recognize liturgically a person’s gender transition,” the guidelines say.

Such liturgies would allow an individual to affirm a new gender preference while renewing baptismal promises.
 
The guidelines note that the Church of England “welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmations of trans people” and state that services to recognize their new identity should have a “celebratory character.”

The document offers guidance on the appropriate use of pronouns during the service, explaining that ministers “should be guided by the wishes of the candidate” with respect to acknowledging the actual sex of the person at birth.
 
The guidelines follow a 284-78 vote last year in the Church of England’s General Synod, calling for consideration of special liturgies which “might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition.” The newly published adaptation of existing liturgies for baptism and baptismal affirmation is thought to be a compromise agreed among Church of England bishops divided over the creation of new liturgies particular to “gender transition.”

But Fr. James Bradley, a former Church of England deacon and now a Catholic priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, told CNA that the move represents a dramatic shift in Church of England teaching.

“It appears to represent not simply a further change in Anglican practice, but a fundamental shift in the Church of England’s understanding of the human person and the sacrament of baptism,” Bradley said.

The Church of England’s Bishop of Blackburn, Julian Henderson, led the House of Bishops’ committee that developed the guidelines. “We are absolutely clear that everyone is made in the image of God and that all should find a welcome in their parish church,” Henderson said in a Dec. 11 Church of England press release.

Henderson called the new liturgical options “an opportunity, rooted in scripture, to enable trans people who have ‘come to Christ as the way, the truth and the life’, to mark their transition in the presence of their Church family which is the body of Christ.”

The decision has caused some controversy within the Church of England.

Andrea Williams, who is a member of the Church of England's General Synod told reporters that the  move is a "devastating trajectory towards an outright denial of God and his word" and a “misguided attempt to be loving” which “sacrifices truth.”

The Church of England is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and its head, the Archbishop of Canterbury, serves as “first among equals.” The Anglican Communion has been strained in recent years by division over moral and sexual issues.

The American Episcopal Church has approved same-sex marriage since 2015, while the Church of England called for a discussion for liturgies and blessings to recognize same-sex unions last year. Some member-churches, especially those in Africa, have resisted these moves, holding to more traditional Christian teachings.

A spokesman for the Church of England told CNA that the new guidelines were “just a consultation on guidance for use of liturgy in Church of England services” and so “not something with a wider Anglican Communion involvement.”

The announcement from the Church of England could make future ecumenical efforts between it and the Catholic Church more difficult.
 
Pope Francis has been outspoken in his denunciation of so-called gender theory and the Western trend to treat basic aspects of human identity as fluid or mutable. The pope has said that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.”
 
Addressing transgenderism in his 2016 Apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis said that “the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created.”
 
Pope Francis has also spoken out against so-called reassignment surgeries and techniques. In a 2017 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Life he said that such "biomedical technology" "risks dismantling the source of energy that fuels the alliance between men and women and renders them fertile."
 
Dr. Chad Pecknold, Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America and a Fellow at the Institute of Human Ecology, told CNA that the decision by the Church of England has caused a moment of sadness for some Christians concerned with ecumenical unity.
 
“As a Catholic who cares about ecumenical friendships with our separated brethren, I can only see this decision as deeply tragic for the cause of Christian unity, and a profound betrayal of a common Christian witness,” Pecknold said.
 
Pecknold told CNA that recognizing and celebrating so-called gender transitions went against basic Christian teachings on human nature and sacramental grace.
 
“The Church teaches that the human person bears God’s image, as soul and body, a union of the material and spiritual, made for friendship with one another and God,” Pecknold said.
 
“It is true that the Fall destroyed our original harmony with God, weakened our will, and disordered our desires, but the Church also teaches that the goodness of our created nature remains intact even in our fallen state.”
 
The Catholic Church has learned these essential human truths by reason as well as by revelation, Pecknold told CNA, but also through the struggle to overcome ancient heresies.
 
“From the earliest times, Catholic Christians have rejected Gnostic, Manichean, and Albigensian attempts to pit the body and soul against one another. Today we see that transgendered activists have revived gnostic dualism, pitting biological sex against gender identity.”
 
While many communities have struggled to find a balance between welcoming people suffering from gender dysphoria or other crises of personal identity while still affirming common truths and values, Pecknold told CNA that the adaptation of liturgy, especially the liturgy of baptism, to celebrate a change of gender was especially problematic.
 
“In baptism, which is the first sacrament, God sanctifies His beloved creature which He made ‘very good.’ Only God has the power to change and heal our nature as such, and only God can give us a new name,” Pecknold said.
 
“The Church is not in the business of blessing identities, but of healing nature.”

Nashville's sole remaining abortion clinic suspends abortion provision

Nashville, Tenn., Dec 12, 2018 / 04:38 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As Tennessee has seen an increase in pro-life legislation in recent years, the only abortion clinic in Nashville temporarily ceased its abortion services last week.

According to the Associated Press, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, Tereva Parham, confirmed Dec. 10 that abortion provision had been suspended the week prior.

The time-frame of the suspension has not been provided.

Parham said the clinic is “undergoing a period of quality improvement” and added that part of the reason for the suspension is a lack of abortion providers.

The Planned Parenthood clinic is still offering other services, but has been referring patients who request abortion to clinics in Knoxville and Memphis, both of which are about 200 miles away.

Nashville previously had two abortion providers, but The Women's Center closed in August when its building was sold. The organization said it would be looking for a new location, but it has not yet reopened.

Tennessee has enacted a number of abortion regulations in recent years.

In 2014, voters approved an amendment which categorically excludes abortion rights from the state’s constitution.

“Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives or state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother,” the amendment reads.

Legislators passed a 48-hour waiting period and in-person informed consent counseling for women seeking to procure abortion in 2015, which are currently being challenged in federal court.

In 2017, the state banned abortion of viable unborn children after 20 weeks.

The state also requires hospital admitting privileges for abortion doctors, and parental consent for teen abortions.

And in May, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law calling for the erection of a privately funded monument to unborn children on the grounds of the state capitol.

Haslam also signed a law seeking federal approval to prohibit the state's Medicaid program from payments for non-abortion services to any provider of more than 50 abortions in a year.

About 9,700 abortions were procured in Tennessee in 2016.

Strasbourg bishop speaks of 'lucid madness' after terror attack

At noon Dec. 12, the bells of every Catholic church in Strasbourg rang for 10 minutes to honor the victims of a terror attack at a Christmas market the previous day.

Vatican publishes schedule for papal visit to Abu Dhabi

When Pope Francis travels to the United Arab Emirates Feb. 3-5, he will meet with the international Muslim Council of Elders, participate in an interreligious meeting and celebrate Mass for the local Catholic population.

As the world appears to turn upside down (again), Advent is here

Hope is a difficult virtue to maintain these days, when the future seems uncertain and religious and political leaders have lost all credibility.

In New York, public school officials to evaluate private schools

Albany, N.Y., Dec 12, 2018 / 01:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Leaders of New York state’s more than 500 Catholic schools are planning to boycott a new state review system, whereby public school officials would evaluate religious schools to determine whether they offer a “substantially equivalent” education to public schools.

“The parents who choose our schools can have great confidence in the academic rigor of our schools,” James Cultrara, executive secretary of the New York Council of Catholic School Superintendents, was quoted as saying in Times Union.

“We simply cannot accept a competing school having authority over whether our schools can operate.”

The rebuke to the state comes after New York’s education commissioner released guidelines Nov. 20 “to ensure that all students receive the education to which they are entitled under law,” i.e. exposure to the same basic courses such as English, civics, and mathematics that public school students take.

The state’s action follows a New York City investigation into some Orthodox Jewish schools that a group of graduates say have been deficient in terms of teaching students “secular” topics other than the Jewish religion.

Under the new guidelines, local public school superintendents or their designees would be required to visit all nonpublic schools by the end of the 2020-2021, and every five years after that, to evaluate the schools. The local school board would approve the findings with a vote.

The Catholic superintendents body said in a letter to the State Education Department that they do not oppose school inspections from state officials, but conflicts of interest could arise if public school officials, who are essentially “competing” for the same body of students, are given the power to evaluate private schools.

“A review by local public school officials and a vote at a public meeting of a locally elected public school board, as is called for in the guidance, practically guarantees inconsistency and subjectivity,” reads part of the letter, which was obtained by Times Union.

“The Council of Catholic School Superintendents is committed to maintaining high-quality Catholic schools and working with you on designing an objective review and determination process to support the education of children in our schools.”

The superintendents have rejected the state’s guidelines and directed all of the state’s Catholic schools not to participate in “any review carried out by local public school officials.”

As of Dec. 12 the State Education Department has not commented on the issue.

The new guidelines mainly impact Catholic elementary schools, as nonpublic high schools in the state generally fall under the purview of the Board of Regents.

Jewish schools, which have a significant presence in New York City, could feel strong effects from the new guidelines as well.

New York City is home to 1.1 million Jews, around 32% percent of whom identify as Orthodox, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Strongly Orthodox Jewish private schools, known as yeshivot, educate an estimated 57,000 students in New York City alone, The New York Times reports. A group of graduates say that it has been “commonplace for decades” that students who graduate from yeshivot receive little instruction beyond studying Jewish texts, and “can barely read and write in English and have not been taught that dinosaurs once roamed Earth or that the Civil War occurred.”

The administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio opened an investigation into the lack of secular education at yeshivot in 2015. Prominent rabbis and other Jewish leaders have resisted critics of yeshivot, citing religious freedom concerns.

The US archdiocese with a relic of the original Guadalupe image

Mexico City, Mexico, Dec 12, 2018 / 12:14 pm (ACI Prensa).- Millions of pilgrims travel each year to see the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. In one U.S. diocese, however, pilgrims can see a relic of the original image that has been outside Mexico for nearly 80 years.

The relic, a small half-inch cutting taken from the tilma, is kept in a chapel in the Los Angeles cathedral which was dedicated by Archbishop José Gomez in 2012. The fragment of the tilma is preserved in a gold reliquary embedded into the midsection of a sculpture of Saint Juan Diego, giving the effect of the tilma the saint wore.

The relic was given in 1941 by then-Archbishop of Mexico, Luis María Martínez y Rodríguez, to his counterpart in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, John Joseph Cantwell, after he led a large pilgrimage to the Guadalupe Basilica in the Mexican capital.

Archbishop Cantwell provided significant help to Mexican Catholics during the Cristero War and the religious persecution by the Mexican government during the first decades of 20th century. The priest welcomed to his archdiocese priests fleeing from Mexico to survive.

Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Saint Juan Diego in 1531, and requested that he ask the first bishop of Mexico, Franciscan Friar Juan de Zumárraga, to have him build a church at the foot of Tepeyec Hill.

As proof of the authenticity of the apparition, the Virgin Mary asked the saint to bring flowers from a rosebush that miraculously appeared on arid Tepeyec Hill as a sign to the bishop.  When he presented the flowers to the bishop, his tilma, the garment in which he was carrying them, was imprinted with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The image of the Virgin, full of symbolism which could be read by the indigenous Mexicans, gave rise to the evangelization of Mexico, leading to millions of conversions in the following years.

Saint Juan Diego was canonized in July 2002 by Saint John Paul II.

This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.