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Russia seeks to bar foreign-educated religious leaders from teaching, preaching

CNA Staff, Sep 26, 2020 / 06:01 am (CNA).- Catholic leaders in Russia are expressing concern about a bill that would restrict the ability of Russian religious ministers who receive religious education abroad to teach or preach in Russia.

The bill calls for “recertification” in Russian educational institutions of pastors and “personnel of religious organisations” who have received religious education abroad, ostensibly with the goal of preventing the spread of “extremist ideology” from abroad, the Barnabas Fund reports.

The bill was proposed in the Federal Assembly and approved for first reading Sept. 22, but the reading has been postponed.

Father Kirill Gorbunov, vicar general for the Archdiocese of the Mother of God at Moscow, told RIA Novosti, according to Asia News, that priests ministering from Russia who were educated elsewhere should be informed about the history, culture and religious traditions of Russia, and should not disseminate extremist ideas in their preaching.

However, he said it is the Church’s responsibility to regulate this, not the state’s— and the Catholic Church has no tolerance for extremist ideas, he said.

The attempt by the Kremlin to regulate what is being taught to religious leaders "does not provide for effective solutions, rather it would lead to inextricable contradictions.”

In addition to Catholics, Russsian Buddhists typically study abroad as part of their formation, Asia News reported.

The bill comes amid several years of deteriorating religious freedom in Russia.

In 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin approved a new set of laws that would restrict evangelization and missionary activity to officially registered Church buildings and worship areas.

Anti-terrorism measures, catalyzed by the 2002 Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity, have given Russian police powers to disrupt private worship services, to arrest and detain individuals handing out unapproved religious materials, and to outlay any publish preaching without prior approval from Russian authorities.

In 2017, the country’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah's Witnesses as an extremist group. Judges ordered the closure of the ecclesial community’s Russian headquarters and almost 400 local chapters, and the seizure of its property.

As of August 2020, over a thousand homes have been searched, nearly 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been charged, a few dozen convicted, and ten are currently serving time, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports.

Before Communism came to Russia, a majority of the country’s citizens were Eastern Orthodox Christians. During the reign of communism, the government attempted to destroy the Church by blowing up buildings and killing priests, religious sisters, and anyone who resisted them.

Once the government gained control of the Russian Orthodox Church, they appointed their own agents as hierarchy, who would then turn people in who came to the Church seeking baptism.

The seeds of distrust planted at that time still run deep, and the Russian Orthodox Church maintains its ties to the government today. 

On Sept. 16, USCIRF held a virtual hearing on the state of religious freedom in Russia and Central Asia, warning that “vague and problematic” definitions of "extremism" in Russian law give the authorities wide latitude to interfere in the religious sphere.

Iraqi archbishop who preserves historic manuscripts nominated for Sakharov Prize

CNA Staff, Sep 25, 2020 / 06:19 pm (CNA).- The Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul has been nominated for the Sakharov Prize for his work to preserve hundreds of historic manuscripts from destruction by the Islamic State in 2014.

Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel, a Dominican, has worked since at least 1990 to preserve manuscripts and other historic documents from the Mosul area.

The Sakharov Prize is awarded by the European Parliament to those dedicated to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.

The other nominees this year are the democratic opposition in Belarus; environmental activists in Honduras; and a group of LGBTI activists in Poland.

The prize winner will be announced Oct. 22.

Archbishop Najeeb was born in Mosul in 1955. He took simple vows with the Dominican order in 1981, and was ordained a priest in 1987.

The next year he became archivist of the Dominican convent in Mosul, and in 1990 he founded the Center for the Digitization of Eastern Manuscripts.

In 2018 he was confirmed as Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, and he was consecrated a bishop and installed in January 2019.

He spoke to CNA about his work in 2017: “First, we save them (the manuscripts) physically, materially. We bring them to safety and bring them with us at the peril of our lives, of course. But, we also electronically copy them and number them.”

“I did not save this history just because I am a Christian. I saved this because I am human and everything that is human interests me, like the lives of human beings and of a human being become much more valuable when he has roots.”

Since 2007 Archbishop Najeeb and those who help him have moved and protected manuscripts from likely destruction at the hands of Islamist extremists. So far, the group has digitally preserved more than 8,000 previously unpublished manuscripts, dating from the 10th to the 19th centuries.

“Culture and civilization were born here and today it is a bath of blood and the destruction is almost complete and total, but even with all of this we keep the hope for a better future,” Archbishop Najeeb said.

Since 1750 the many manuscripts had been kept in the library of the Dominican monastery in Mosul. They were moved from the monastery starting in 2007, amid the backdrop of increased violence against Christians and other minorities at the hands of extremist groups.

Because of the violence, which included the killing of priests, for safety the Dominican brothers began quietly to move from their church. They continued to say Mass and the sacraments, but were physically living more than 18 miles away in Bakhdida.

Not to draw attention to themselves they dressed in civilian clothes and came and went discretely to celebrate Mass in caves, “like the first Christians did in the catacombs at the beginning of the Christian era,” Archbishop Najeeb said.

It was during those next few years that the brothers began to bring progressively the manuscripts out of the convent in Mosul.

Then, in 2014, the Islamic State arrived in Mosul. Under threat of death unless they converted to Islam, Christians fled the city. Stopped at checkpoints on the roads, Islamic State took everything, so they were forced to leave with only the clothes they were wearing.

Archbishop Najeeb and his brothers made it safely past the checkpoints. Then, just ten days before Islamic State invaded Bakhdida, he rescued many of the manuscripts again, this time bringing them to Erbil, where they have remained.

The documents include more than 25 subjects, including theology, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, history, and geography, many of which date back “to the 10th, 11th, and 12th century in Aramaic,” Archbishop Najeeb said.

They also have documents in Syriac, Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Hebrew, Persian, and more: “All of this makes up our collection and heritage, not only Christian but also in the international communion for the whole of humanity,” he explained.

Archbishop Najeeb noted that preserving the manuscripts is far more important than merely having a record of history and an archive of historical objects, but something vital for the education of future generations as well.

“In fact, the manuscripts and the archives of these ancient document make up our history and are our roots. We cannot save a tree without saving its roots. The two can bear fruit,” he said.

“So, it is important, all of these archives. This history is a part of our collective archives, our past, our history. And these we absolutely had to save, as our children.”

Vandal takes baseball bat to Catholic seminary in Texas, but none harmed

Denver Newsroom, Sep 25, 2020 / 05:07 pm (CNA).- A man who wielded a baseball bat on the grounds of a Catholic seminary in Texas damaged a crucifix and several doors, but caused no harm to seminary students. The seminary asked for prayers for the unknown perpetrator and warned against a rush to judgment.

“Assumption Seminary in San Antonio received damage to an outdoor crucifix and five glass doors of the discernment house on campus during an act of vandalism which occurred at just after 10 p.m. on September 24,” Jordan McMorrough, communications director for the San Antonio archdiocese, told CNA Sept. 25. “San Antonio Police Department officers are currently investigating the incident and are searching for a suspect.”

“First and foremost, all of our seminarians and all the people at the seminary are safe,” Father Hy Nguyen, rector of Assumption Seminary, said Sept. 25. “We ask for your prayers for this misguided person, and for the safety of the Assumption community.”

An unidentified man who held a baseball bat was observed walking up to the dormitory building, Nguyen said. The man hit the glass doors several times. Though law enforcement was notified immediately, the suspect fled the area before police arrived, according to the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s statement.

Photos provided by the archdiocese appear to show damage to the feet of a statue of Jesus Christ crucified. A San Antonio Spurs NBA jersey was placed around the head of Jesus. The statue is adjacent to Our Lady’s Chapel, beside the discernment house.

In a Sept. 25 post on its Facebook page, the seminary said “since we do not yet know who the person is or their motives, please refrain from rushing to judgment but please pray for us and for the perpetrator.”

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio reflected on the event.

“This disturbing event can lead us to know that Jesus on the Cross gave us His Body and Blood, His whole being, for our salvation,” he said Sept. 25. “It is a reminder that we are called to love one another as He loved us.”

“We pray for the person who committed this painful act; he is in our prayers,” the archbishop continued. “As with many other things that have been happening in this regard, may our hurt lead us to love even more, and even better. We assure our seminarians of our prayers and our support as we seek resolution to this.”

Clean-up of the vandalism began on Friday morning.

Assumption Seminary concentrates on formation of men for Hispanic ministry and church leadership. It has students from dioceses around the U.S. The San Antonio archdiocese serves about 800,000 Catholics in a regional population of over 2.6 million people, according to 2018 figures.

Recent months have seen numerous acts of vandalism and destruction at Catholic churches across the United States, including arsons and graffiti.

In July, a man crashed a minivan into a Florida Catholic church and then started a fire inside the building.

In Los Angeles, San Gabriel Mission church, founded by St. Junipero Serra, also burned in a fire being investigated for arson. Numerous statues of the saint have been vandalized or destroyed, most of them in California.

Several other churches across the country have been set aflame, and statues of Jesus or Mary have been toppled or decapitated.

While some attacks on statues have been committed by large groups with clear political affiliations, the perpetrators of other acts have not been identified.

President Trump plans to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to Supreme Court

CNA Staff, Sep 25, 2020 / 04:20 pm (CNA).-  

President Donald Trump is expected to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett Saturday to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

A source close to Barrett told CNA Friday that the judge, who met with Trump this week, expects to be nominated to the post.

Several news outlets, including CNN and the NY Times, reported Friday that they had received confirmation of Trump’s intention from the White House.

Trump is not known to have interviewed other candidates for the job, but sources stressed that the president could change his mind, even while he is reportedly indicating that Barrett is his selection.

Born in New Orleans, the eldest of seven children, Barrett graduated from Rhodes College before receiving a full scholarship to Notre Dame Law School where she graduated first in her class.

Barrett went on to clerk for Judge Laurence Silberman and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, before going into private practice. She returned to Notre Dame Law School and taught classes in 2002 before becoming a professor in 2010.

Barrett has praised Scalia as an intellectual mentor and for his dedication to textualism, which holds that the Constitution should be interpreted with the context in which it was written.

In a November 2016 event in Jacksonville addressing a previous vacancy on the Supreme Court, Barrett stated that Scalia “resisted the notion that the Supreme Court should be in the business of imposing its views of social mores on the American people,” and that he thought it should be “up to the people to decide” things in the Constitution that weren’t explicitly banned or permitted.

Barrett’s selection is widely anticipated, with many media outlets touting her as the leading candidate for the nomination. She has already faced concerted media scrutiny and criticism for her Catholic faith.

During her 2017 nomination hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) questioned her on her personal faith and values, saying that “when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you. And that’s of concern.”

Just weeks after she was confirmed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett was added to President Donald Trump’s list of potential future Supreme Court picks, and was rumored to have been one of the finalists to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy upon his retirement in 2018.

Barrett and her husband have seven children, including two adopted from Haiti. In a 2019 interview at a Notre Dame alumni event in Washington, DC, Barrett said that raising children is “where you have your greatest impact on the world” and that she could imagine no greater thing.

Amid renewed scrutiny of Barrett’s personal life and beliefs, and facing the likelihood of a tough confirmation process if nominated, Princeton University Professor Robert George highlighted anti-Catholic tropes again being used in criticism of the judge.

“One would have hoped that having brought shame on themselves last time, and blunted their spear on Judge Barrett by attacking her religion, they would be more careful this time about exposing their bigotry to public view. But no,” he said on Twitter.

During Barrett’s confirmation hearings, questions were also raised about Barrett’s association with the lay organization People of Praise.

People of Praise has been referred to in the media as a “cult,” and criticized for a practice, which has since been changed, that called leaders “heads” and “handmaidens”--both of which are references to Biblical passages.

But the group is an ordinary expression of the Christian desire for community and holiness, Bishop Peter Smith, a member of the organization, told CNA, and not a cause for concern.

People of Praise was founded in 1971 as part of a “great emergence of lay ministries and lay movements in the Catholic Church,” following Vatican Council II.

The group began with 29 members who formed a “covenant”- an agreement, not an oath, to follow common principles, to give five percent of annual income to the group, and to meet regularly for spiritual, social, and service projects.

Covenant communities- Protestant and Catholic- emerged across the country in the 1970s, as a part of the Charismatic Renewal movement in American Christianity.

 

Black Pentecostal leaders: Amy Coney Barrett 'persecuted' for charismatic faith

Washington D.C., Sep 25, 2020 / 03:15 pm (CNA).-  

A letter released Friday by Black Pentecostal and charismatic Christian leaders has decried criticisms of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s charismatic Catholicism, ahead of her possible appointment to the Supreme Court.

“Today we stand with, and speak in defense of, Judge Amy Coney Barrett,” the Sept. 25 letter said.

“As black Christians we will not stand by in silence as our sister in the faith is persecuted for the ‘political crime’ of her beliefs,” said the letter, which was signed by numerous clergy members, scholars, and religious leaders.

Barrett, said the letter, should be judged for her record as a lawyer, law professor, and judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals, not her religious beliefs and affiliations. Barrett is a reportedly a member of the People of Praise, an ecumenical charismatic organization based in South Bend, Indiana.

The judge’s affiliation with People of Praise has come under the spotlight as President Donald Trump prepares to nominate a new Supreme Court justice. The group has been repeatedly referred to as a “cult” and has been falsely accused of inspiring the dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

The letter, entitled “A Black Defense of Freedom of Conscience and Amy Coney Barrett,” was published by the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies.

The letters signatories acknowledged that while they do not know if Barrett will be nominated for the Supreme Court, “we do know that attacks on her Christian beliefs and her membership in a charismatic Christian community reflect rank religious bigotry that has no legitimate place in our political debates or public life.”

“If Judge Barrett’s belief in the baptism of the Holy Spirit and in the moral convictions associated with the historic Christian faith disqualifies her for an office of public trust, then our American values of individual freedom and the right to follow one’s conscience are simply hypocrisy,” the letter said, adding that religious tests for public office are banned in the U.S. Constitution.

“Those who say that Judge Barrett’s charismatic Christian faith--or ours--is a threat to the Constitution are themselves enemies of the Constitution. They are enemies of the freedom of the individual,” the signatories added.

“Such behavior cannot be tolerated.”

Rev. Eugene Rivers III, director of The Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies and himself a Pentecostal minister, told CNA that “There’s an increasingly hostile environment for people of faith.”

“One of the cases that forced us to act was the disgraceful treatment of Professor Barrett. It was the disgraceful, unjust, unfair treatment of our sister of faith,” Rivers added.

“We felt it was absolutely essential, that as men of faith--or particularly as Black men of faith--that we needed to vigorously stand up and philosophically and politically defend the right of conscience and religion that’s part of our Constitutional order.”

Black men, said Rivers, are “acutely sensitive” to the persecution of the innocent.

“Few people could be more innocent and generous,” said Rivers.

“This loving mother, devoted wife, committed Christian. And so, as men, we felt that we were morally obligated to defend our sister.”

 

NI health department warns of risks of unregulated at-home medical abortion

CNA Staff, Sep 25, 2020 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- Northern Ireland's Department of Health told a Belfast daily on Friday that women who self-administer medical abortions at home are at risk.

Home administration of medical abortions is not permitted in Northern Ireland.

“Women are at risk if they access unregulated abortion services,” the health department told The News Letter Sept. 25.

“The Department’s view is that services should be properly delivered through direct medical supervision within the health and social care system.”

The News Letter's Adam Kula had asked the Department of Health about a online course being held Sept. 26 by Alliance for Choice. The course is meant to teach “the process of self-managed abortion with pills, how to look after yourself or help someone else using the medication.”

Northern Ireland law allows elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy; abortions up to 24 weeks in cases of risk to the mother's physical or mental health; and abortion without time limit in cases of severe fetal impairment or fetal fetal abnormality.

Abortions may be performed at General Practitioners premises, and Health and Social Care clinics and hospitals. Medical abortions are permitted up to 10 weeks, and the first medication, mifepristone, must be taken at a clinic.

The region's Health Minister, Robin Swann, is able to approve further locations for medical abortions. The Press Association reported earlier this year that approval of at-home medical abortions “will require the agreement” of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Home administration of medical abortions has been permitted in Scotland and Wales for some time, and it was approved in England in March.

In April, shortly after the law permitting elective abortion in Northern Ireland came into force, Michelle O'Neill, deputy First Minister and vice president of Sinn Féin, urged that women there be allowed to perform medical abortions at home.

Sinn Féin is an Irish nationalist party that has historically enjoyed significant Catholic support. It supported the liberalization of abortion laws in Northern Ireland imposed by the British parliament, and its party members endorsed the repeal of the Republic of Ireland's Eighth Amendment, which protected unborn children.

In contrast, First Minister Arlene Foster, who is also leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, stated that “The health minister will bring papers forward and we will have discussions, but I don't think it's any secret that I don't believe abortion on demand should be available in Northern Ireland.”

“I think it’s a very retrograde step for our society here in Northern Ireland. Instead of supporting people who find themselves in crisis pregnancies, we’re not even having any discussion around that and how we can support people in those circumstances, how we can provide perinatal care,” Foster added.

At-home medical abortions were discussed by the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive April 6, and the BBC reported that “Stormont sources said it had led to a row between the parties.”

Before March 31, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother's life was at risk or if there was risk of long term or permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.

In June the House of Lords backed the new abortion regulations for Northern Ireland by an overwhelming majority, and the British Minister of State for Northern Ireland said that while abortion regulation is a devolved issue, any local changes to Northern Ireland's abortion law would have to comply with human rights conventions.

The Northern Ireland Assembly had shortly before passed a non-binding motion rejecting the imposition of the abortion regulations by the Westminster parliament.

Northern Irish women had been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.

The new framework was adopted to implement Westminster's Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was passed while the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended.

Northern Ireland rejected the Abortion Act 1967, which legalized abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland; and bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.

The amendment to the NI EF Act obliging the government to provide for legal abortion in Northern Ireland was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who represents a London constituency.

In UN message, Pope Francis decries abortion and family breakdown

Vatican City, Sep 25, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis told the United Nations Friday that denying the existence of human life in the womb through abortion does not solve problems.

“Unfortunately, some countries and international institutions are also promoting abortion as one of the so-called ‘essential services’ provided in the humanitarian response to the pandemic,” Pope Francis said in his address to the UN Sept. 25.

“It is troubling to see how simple and convenient it has become for some to deny the existence of a human life as a solution to problems that can and must be solved for both the mother and her unborn child,” the pope said.

Speaking to the high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly via a video message, Pope Francis said that the problem of today’s “throwaway culture” was rooted in a disrespect for human dignity.

“At the origin of this ‘throwaway culture’ is a gross lack of respect for human dignity, the promotion of ideologies with reductive understandings of the human person, a denial of the universality of fundamental human rights, and a craving for absolute power and control that is widespread in today’s society. Let us name this for what it is: an attack against humanity itself,” he said.

“It is in fact painful to see the number of fundamental human rights that in our day continue to be violated with impunity. The list of such violations is indeed lengthy, and offers us a frightening picture of a humanity abused, wounded, deprived of dignity, freedom and hope for the future,” he continued. 

“As part of this picture, religious believers continue to endure every kind of persecution, including genocide, because of their beliefs. We Christians too are victims of this: how many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world are suffering, forced at times to flee from their ancestral lands, cut off from their rich history and culture.”

Pope Francis urged world leaders to be especially attentive to the rights of children, “particularly their right to life and to schooling,” acclaiming the example of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani advocate for female education.

He reminded the UN that the first teachers of every child are his or her mother and father, adding that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society”.

“All too often, the family is the victim of forms of ideological colonialism that weaken it and end up producing in many of its members, especially the most vulnerable -- the young and the elderly -- a feeling of being orphaned and lacking roots,” Pope Francis said.

“The breakdown of the family echoes the social fragmentation that hinders our efforts to confront common enemies,” he added.

In his speech, Pope Francis said that the coronavirus pandemic had highlighted the urgent need to “make every person’s right to basic medical care a reality” and exposed “the rapidly growing inequality between the super-rich and the permanently poor.”

“I think of the effects of the pandemic on employment … There is an urgent need to find new forms of work truly capable of fulfilling our human potential and affirming our dignity,” he said.

“In order to ensure dignified employment, there must be a change in the prevailing economic paradigm, which seeks only to expand companies’ profits. Offering jobs to more people should be one of the main objectives of every business, one of the criteria for the success of productive activity.”

Calling on the international community to “put an end to economic injustices,” the pope proposed instead an economic model that “encourages subsidiarity, supports economic development and invests in education and infrastructure benefiting local communities.”

The pope also renewed his appeals that the poorest and the most vulnerable be given priority in an effort to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines and for the forgiveness of debt burdens for the poorest nations.

For the first time in its history, the UN General Assembly is virtual this year, with world leaders delivering pre-taped remarks via video link due to the coronavirus restrictions on travel to New York. The UN is commemorating this week the 75th anniversary of its founding.

This was Pope Francis’ second speech to the UN General Assembly in the seven years since his election. It was the sixth time that a pope has addressed the UN, following Pope Paul VI in 1964, Pope John Paul II in 1979 and 1995, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.

In his video message, the pope expressed strong support for multilateralism, that is, the partnership between multiple countries pursuing a common goal. 

“We need to break with the present climate of distrust. At present, we are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism, which is all the more serious in light of the development of new forms of military technology, such as lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) which irreversibly alter the nature of warfare, detaching it further from human agency,” he warned. 

The pope said that recovery from the coronavirus pandemic presented a choice between two paths.

“One path leads to the consolidation of multilateralism as the expression of a renewed sense of global co-responsibility, a solidarity grounded in justice and the attainment of peace and unity within the human family, which is God’s plan for our world,” he said. 

“The other path emphasizes self-sufficiency, nationalism, protectionism, individualism and isolation; it excludes the poor, the vulnerable and those dwelling on the peripheries of life. That path would certainly be detrimental to the whole community, causing self-inflicted wounds on everyone. It must not prevail.”

US ambassador issues religious freedom warning at UN event

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2020 / 01:30 pm (CNA).- The U.S. religious freedom ambassador has warned against governments using the pandemic to crack down on religious minorities, in remarks on Friday during the United Nations General Assembly.

Sam Brownback, Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, spoke at an online event “Answering the Call to Protect Religious Freedom” event, held during the 2020 UN General Assembly.

In a review of the developments of global religious freedom in the past year, Brownback noted that the U.S. has “urged governments to make sure members of religious minority groups are not discriminated against during the pandemic,” whether through scapegoating of minority groups for the spread of the virus or unnecessary restrictions on their access to worship.

He also stated his concern of the increased use of technology to restrict religious freedom.

In March, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a fact-sheet on concerns about religious freedom during the pandemic, and Brownback in April called for the release of religious prisoners during the pandemic.

The International Religious Freedom Alliance, announced by the U.S. in 2019, now has 31 member countries and has been renamed the “International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance,” Brownback said on Friday.

There are “still way too many instances where the right to freedom of religion or belief is violated around the world,” adding that “our focus will be to urge all countries to prioritize this issue.”

The abuses committed against Rohingya Muslims in Burma, and the mass detention of ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang Province, China, were of particular focus on Friday.

“It is time for the international community to act, and it is time for us to push back. And both of these communities are being violated and persecuted,” Brownback said, “I believe in major part because of their faith.”

Zuba Murat, Uyghur-American advocate, spoke of the “escalating, terrible persecution” of Uyghurs by Chinese authorities since 2017.

“All of the normal practices of our religions are outlawed,” she said. Her mother, a retired medical doctor, “as of now has been in a concentration camp for the past two years,” with the family kept shut off from knowledge of her condition.

“Uyghurs are facing mental and physical torture, food and sleep deprivation,” as well as rape and forced sterilization, abortion, and birth control, she said.

“In any dialogue with China moving forward, these missing Uyghurs should be central to every conversation,” she said.

Brownback also brought up the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the importance of governments respecting religious freedom during the pandemic.

Another development in the past year was Secretary of State Pompeo removing Uzbekistan and Sudan removed from the “countries of particular concern” list, due to an improved situation for religious rights, Brownback said.

Bishops in US emphasize importance of life, Church teaching in voting guidances

CNA Staff, Sep 25, 2020 / 12:17 pm (CNA).- As election day looms, Catholic bishops throughout the country are issuing pastoral guidance on how Catholics should think about their vote, emphasizing the preeminent importance of “life issues” and Church teaching.

“I recognize that many of you feel such deep distress about this election, perhaps the most contentious in the course of our lifetime,” Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh said in a Sept. 22 letter to Catholics in his diocese.

The bishop noted that there are “problems with each of the major parties’ platforms and their endorsed candidates” and that his job as a bishop is to address “issues grounded on our faith and tradition” rather than to “endorse one or another of candidates for public office, including the office of president.”

Zubik emphasized to Catholics that they must view the act of voting “as a moral decision.”

This decision, he said, must be made with a “well-formed conscience” that is formed through prayer, Scripture, and “honestly inform(ing) yourself about the moral teaching of the Catholic Church,” he said.

Among the major problems facing the country right now are life issues, which “include the serious threats to human life and dignity, some of which are racism, the environmental crisis, human trafficking, unemployment, underemployement, appropriate medical coverage, the death penalty, religious freedom, the plight of immigrants, and poverty among others. In each and all of these, the Gospel calls for our attention.”

Zubik said while that list is but a “partial litany” of life issues, there is a “hierarchy of these issues that needs to be recognized.”

“At the forefront of ‘life issues’ is the right to be born as the right upon which all other ‘life issues’ rest,” he said.

Zubik said that the primacy of the right to life has been a “consistent Catholic teaching,” and pointed to the words of St. John Paul II, Pope Francis, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as examples of this.

“Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question,” Pope Francis wrote of abortion in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium.

“I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations.’ It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life,” Francis wrote.

In a Sept. 23 column for the Diocese of Madison’s newspaper, Bishop Donald Hying of Madison said that this election has “a contentious and angry divisiveness that we have not seen in our lifetimes.”

Hying said he wanted to remind Catholics that “before all else, we belong to Christ. We are Catholic Christians before we are Americans and certainly before we might be part of any political party.”
“Jesus Christ is our Savior; His teachings and the moral truths of the Church guide us in all aspects of our lives, including how we vote,” he added.

Like Zubik, Hying noted that “the Church cannot and will not endorse a particular candidate or party.”

Rather, he said, his role as pastor is to “teach and preach the Faith, so that all may vote with an informed conscience, even as we acknowledge that no individual or party can ever represent the totality of our values and beliefs.”

Hying referenced a statement from the U.S. bishop’s conference last year, in which they stated that abortion is the “preeminent moral issue facing our nation.”

The use of the word “preeminent” is important, Hying said, because “procured abortion surpasses all other moral issues in its urgency, but clearly is not the only issue we face.”

“Although I have always been pro-life, my commitment and understanding deepened when, as a young priest, I listened to and learned from the emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain of so many women and men who have been profoundly wounded by the violence of abortion,” he added.

Hying said he is grateful for the many ways the Church supports women “both in crisis pregnancy and after their children are born -- provides health care, education and social services to those in poverty, and offers hope and healing to women and men grieving in the aftermath of abortion.”

Because of the Church’s support and care for the whole person from birth to natural death, Hying said he rejects the “canard” that pro-life Catholics “only cares about the unborn child, but not those who are born.”

“If a candidate is fundamentally wrong on such a basic and preeminent human rights issue of grave consequence to the most innocent in our society and to our own future, how can I trust the candidate to make moral and prudent decisions on many other important social justice issues pertaining to the common good?” he wrote.

In a joint letter to Catholics issued this month, the Catholic bishops of Virginia - Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond - outlined three things Catholics should keep in mind when going to the voting booth.

“Many issues are important. Not all issues have equal moral weight. Protecting life is paramount,” the bishops noted.

In their letter, Burbidge and Knestout pointed Catholics to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a statement written by the U.S. bishop’s conference and posted to their website.

“Our moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts – which are ‘always incompatible with love of God and neighbor’ – ‘has a special claim on our consciences and our actions,’” the bishops said, quoting Faithful Citizenship.

“Of these, abortion is the ‘preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed,’” they added.

The bishops of Virginia also encouraged Catholics to visit vacatholic.org, to view a “side-by-side comparison of what the two major-party Presidential candidates have said or done on a wide range of issues of importance to Catholics...compiled jointly by a number of state Catholic conferences, including the Virginia Catholic Conference.”

In his column for the September 2020 issue of Florida Catholic, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami also emphasized that the Church was not a political entity that should tell Catholics how to vote.

“Our Church rightly does not tell the faithful to vote for any candidate or party. The Catholic Church is not - nor does she want to be - a political agency or a special interest group,” he said.

“However, she does have a profound interest - and rightly so - in the good of the political community, the soul of which is justice. For this reason, the Church engages in a wide variety of public policy issues including the defense of unborn life, of religious liberty and of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, as well as advocacy on issues concerning immigration, education, poverty and racism, along with many others,” Wenski said.

Wenski also pointed Catholics to Faithful Citizenship as a helpful resource to inform their consciences before they vote.

The Church “offers a specific moral framework that should guide the voter in making prudential decisions as to who are the ‘best’ candidates - or, as sadly happens too often, who are the least ‘worse’ candidates,” Wenski stated.

The moral framework by which a Catholic decides their vote should be informed by prayer and Scripture, the bishop noted, and should rise above “mere party affiliation or self-interests…(to) guide the serious Catholic to examine the candidates on a full range of issues as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy, and performance. In this way, our vote will be an exercise of both responsible as well as faithful citizenship.”

Citing the words of Pope Francis, Wenski noted the importance of “the defense of human life and dignity” which is not a “‘narrow cause’ but a way of life.”

“For this reason, no Catholic should vote for a political program or law with the intent of contradicting the fundamental principles of our faith,” he said.

“That some Catholics in public life promote positions on human life that are not coherent with their Catholic faith is a scandal and while they may claim to be ‘practicing’ Catholics, it is obvious that they need to practice a whole lot more - until they get it right,” he added.

Wenski also lamented in his letter that the political landscape in the United States “can be discouraging.” But he encouraged Catholics to engage in politics, rather than retreat, in order to bring about transformation.

“We need a new kind of politics — one focused on moral principles, not on polls; on the needs of the vulnerable, not the contributions of the powerful; and on the pursuit of the common good, not the demands of special interests.”

Polish president discusses ‘promotion of the family’ with Pope Francis

Vatican City, Sep 25, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- Polish President Andrzej Duda met with Pope Francis Friday during his first official trip abroad since his narrow election victory in July.

The Holy See press office said Sept. 25 that after his audience with the pope, Duda met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States.

“The cordial discussions took place in the context of the centenary of the birth of St. John Paul II and the 40th anniversary of the founding of the independent autonomous trade union Solidarność [Solidarity],” the statement said.

“Some topics of mutual interest related to the mission of the Church were discussed, including the promotion of the family and the education of young people.”

“Finally, attention turned to some international issues, such as the current health emergency, the regional situation and security.”

The Polish president’s official website reported that Duda was the first president to be received by the pope since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. His wife, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, also attended the audience.

The president’s website quoted Duda as saying: “The Holy Father, Francis, pointed out that in recent years we have conducted a very effective policy for the family. He thanked me so much for that. I was deeply moved by these thanks.”

“He mentioned all the programs we had launched and that we care about families raising children. I am glad that the Holy Father knows about it, that the Holy See knows about it.”

While it was not clear precisely which aspects of Poland’s family policy the pope was praising, the government increased child benefits significantly in 2016 with the “Family 500+” program.

Duda, who is associated with the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), won a second five-year term as president in July with 51.03% of the votes, with his challenger, Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, gaining 48.97%. The margin of victory was 422,630 votes in a country with a population of almost 38 million.

In the run-up to the election, Duda signed a “Family Charter” opposing same-sex marriage and adoption, and committing himself to the “protection of children from LGBT ideology.”

After his meeting with the pope, Duda attended Mass at the tomb of St. John Paul II, a native of Poland, in St. Peter’s Basilica. Afterwards, he laid a wreath before the tomb, wearing a black face-covering as protection against the coronavirus.

Duda had intended to travel to Rome May 18 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Polish pope’s birth, but was unable to do so because of the pandemic.

In a statement to journalists outside St. Peter’s Square, Duda said that he had discussed the situation in Belarus with Parolin. The country, which neighbors Poland, has seen widespread demonstrations since a disputed election Aug. 9. Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, president of the Belarusian bishops’ conference, was prevented from returning to Belarus after a trip to Poland Aug. 31.

Duda said: “Basically, we had a common opinion that all those who want real democracy, who want freedom, who want to live in an honest state, should be supported -- these people should have our support. But, of course, Belarus should decide about itself in free and fair elections.”