Archive of January 28, 2011

True religious freedom includes Christians in Europe and Middle East, expert says

Vienna, Austria, Jan 28, 2011 (CNA) - A true understanding of religious freedom which includes Christians in public life is the corrective for both the “subtle” discrimination facing European Christians and the open intolerance for Christianity elsewhere, an Italian religion expert said.

Dr. Massimo Introvigne, an official who combats racism and discrimination for the Vienna-based Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, discussed the situation of contemporary Christianity in an interview with Dr. Gudrun Kugler, director of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe.

Citing Pope Benedict XVI, Introvigne said discrimination against Europe’s Christians is more “subtle” than elsewhere.

“Christians are excluded from public discourse, ridiculed, or marginalized. There are also legal decisions discriminating against Christians’ right to free speech in the workplace or in public positions,” he explained.

Introvigne noted the irony that one of the most important discussions of this situation came in the Pope’s prepared discourse for his January 2008 visit to La Sapienza University in Rome. The pontiff had planned to address the marginalization of Christians in Western public discourse, but the visit itself was canceled due to “the intolerant reaction of a small minority of professors and students.”

This incident confirmed that there is a problem of  intolerance against Christians in the West, Introvigne said.

The religion expert argued that opposition to such intolerance in Europe is not a distraction from more severe problems facing Christians in the Middle and Far East because both are rooted in a misunderstanding of religious liberty.

Some non-Western countries see the Western notion of religious liberty as a “disguise” for imposing relativism. Many of these countries reject religious liberty or try to substitute a narrower understanding which allows only “freedom of worship.”

“The same relativism is responsible for marginalizing and discriminating against Christians west of Vienna,” Introvigne explained. “As you may see, combating discrimination against Christians east and west of Vienna is based on the same philosophical rationale.”

Religious liberty, he explained, includes freedom to worship inside a church but also the freedom to preach outside it and to print books and to be active as believers in political life.

“And if as a result of the preaching somebody converts, the new convert should be left in peace rather than prosecuted for apostasy or blasphemy.”

Introvigne noted Pope Benedict’s criticism of the “illusion” that relativism provides the key to peaceful coexistence. In fact, this is the “origin of divisions” and “the denial of the dignity of human beings,” the pontiff said in his 2011 World Day of Peace message.

Turning to specific controversies, the Italian expert was critical of the effort to remove crucifixes from public schools in Italy. The most recent legal case, the subject of a decision by the European Court of Human Rights, was brought by a single family who rejected their local school’s near-total consensus that crucifixes should be kept in classrooms.

“Minority rights are a very important part of our civil conversation. We should however not forget that majorities, too, have their rights,” he commented.

While a balance between the two should be found, he said that going against the feelings of a large majority for the sake of a “tiny minority” is not rational and does not lead to a true respect of minority rights.

“Majorities tend to respect minorities, as they of course should, when they think that their rights as a majority are in turn respected and not discriminated against,” Introvigne noted. “A climate where the rights of the majorities are systematically ignored is not a climate which is favorable to general tolerance and non-discrimination.”

He also noted the case of two owners of a small hotel in the U.K. who were forced to pay a fine to a homosexual couple because they limited their double rooms to married guests. Introvigne said such disputes should instead be treated with “common sense.”

In extreme cases, he granted, perhaps there is a duty for someone to provide room for those believed to be sinning.

“In an average U.K. Town, on the other hand, probably there is a variety of accommodations, and there may be a peaceful coexistence between establishments which are ‘family-oriented,’ ‘gay friendly,’ and so on.”

Turning to the topic of freedom of artistic expression about religion, he noted that this is part of the Western heritage. Many minor and major artworks have been “remarkably free” in their negative depictions of the Church, as when Dante placed several bishops and Popes in his depiction of hell.

However, each country has its own traditions and there is a “fine line” between critical allegory, humor or satire and “insult and defamation.” Introvigne supported the prosecution of an “ultra-fundamentalist” Muslim preacher who had said “Jews are pigs.” While calling Judaism a false religion is protected by free speech, calling Jews or Christians “pigs” is a legal offense in Europe.

Discussing his other duties, the religion expert noted that his organization includes countries in central Asia and the Caucasus region where laws and regulations and religion are “comparatively new” and may need improvement. There are difficulties in registering religious bodies as legal entities or obtaining visas for missionaries.

Introvigne’s duties also include combating xenophobia and working with the Roma population.

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Construction near LA’s oldest church uncovers cemetery

Los Angeles, Calif., Jan 28, 2011 (CNA) - The construction of a Mexican cultural center in Los Angeles has uncovered a 200-year-old Catholic cemetery mistakenly thought to have been moved. The development has caused concern among Native Americans and others who believe their relatives are among the buried.

La Plaza de Cultura y Artes is a project of Los Angeles County and a Smithsonian affiliate. Its construction work is taking place near Our Lady of the Angels Catholic church, the city’s oldest parish also known as La Placita.

Historical records indicate that anywhere from 100 to 300 American Indians are likely to be buried at the center’s site, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune reports.

The construction on the center halted as soon as the cemetery was discovered, though it is still scheduled to open soon.

Archdiocesan officials said their records erroneously showed the cemetery was closed in 1844 and the graves were relocated.

Officials also said the builders should have notified them that full grave sites were found. They reported that their initial impression was that only a few bone fragments had been uncovered.

CNA contacted the archdiocese for further comment but officials were unable to respond to inquiries.

The cemetery was the final resting place of early residents of Los Angeles, who include Native Americans and Spanish, Mexican and European colonists, along with their intermarried children, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Some archaeologists say they have found records concerning who was buried in the original cemetery. Residents who claim ancestors in the first cemetery have gathered at the site on occasion to pay respect to the dead.

“We want the Native American history to be told also, besides just the Mexican American,” Tim Poyorena-Miguel, archivist for the Montebello Historical Society and a Gabrielino Indian, told the Tribune. "The Native Americans were there first and they're digging up their bones."

He said Gabrielinos have asked La Plaza officials to return the bones to the site and be reburied.

"We're just trying to understand all the interested parties' concerns and that will help figure into how we use the land moving forward," La Plaza spokeswoman Katie Dunham said. "We gave them a chance to air their concerns. We left it as an open forum for them to say what they think."

Construction of the cultural center is currently on hold, following the discovery.

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Sodalitium Christianae Vitae elects new superior general

Lima, Peru, Jan 28, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - The General Assembly of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae has elected a new superior general.

Eduardo Regal Villa, who has been the apostolic society's vicar general since 2001, was chosen as the Sodalitium's new leader on Jan. 25 in Lima, Peru. The Sodalitium is a Society of Apostolic Life.

Regal succeeds Luis Fernando Figari, the founder of the Sodalitium and its general superior since it received approval from the Archdiocese of Lima in 1994.

Regal was born in Lima, Peru on May 7, 1966.  He is the second of three children born to Jose Antonio Regal Alberti and Graciela Villa Stein. He completed his studies in electronic engineering and business management before making his perpetual vows as a consecrated layman in 1992.

Since then, Regal has carried out apostolic activities specifically targeting youth, the poor, the culture, the family, the defense of life and rights of the human person.

Before his election as the new general superior, Regal was the general coordinator of the Christian Life Movement, one of the main apostolates of the Sodalitium. He is also currently a member of the editorial board of the magazine Vida y Espiritualidad.

Upon election, Regal told his fellow members, “I commended myself to Most Holy Mary, to whom I have a deep filial love. Christ points us to his mother at the foot of the cross, and in looking at her we see that everything in her life points toward Jesus.

“With the help of the Holy Spirit I will strive to make this the heart of my time of service in this post: ‘To Mary through Christ and more fully to the Lord Jesus through Mary’.”

“Authority in the Sodalitium is above all a position of service to all its members and its works of evangelization,” he added.

Regal Villa recalled that “the Holy Spirit is the main protagonist in the life of evangelization of our community. “For this reason, the superior general, like all members of the Sodalitium, should be open to the grace of God in order to carry out the commandment of Christ to all his disciples ... to go out to all the world and proclaim the Gospel.”

Eduardo Regal appointed Fernando Vidal Castellanos as vicar general of the Sodalitium. 

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Rejection of euthanasia not unique to Christians, states French bishop

Rome, Italy, Jan 28, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Bishop Bernard Ginoux of Montauban, France has noted that opposition to euthanasia is not unique to the Christian faith.

The French Senate recently voted 170-142 against a bill legalizing euthanasia. Bishop Ginoux reflected on the results, saying, “We are dealing with human beings and the respect for every human life. No one can deliberately kill.”

“Whenever the law allows for killing, it is granting human beings an absolute power over others, those who are the weakest and most defenseless. The fact that it is done by a team in a hospital, even if they are specialists, doesn’t change anything. 

“Medicine is supposed to cure, and those who cure must not become assassins,” the bishop said in remarks to the French daily La Croix on Jan. 25.

Bishop Ginoux recalled his service at various hospitals, remarking that there are “very few people who really ask to die.”

Palliative care and compassion by those providing care helps patients realize that life is no longer so unbearable, he added.

“To say that the programmed death of someone considered ‘unfit’ to live because of his physical or psychiatric state is a crime is not something unique to the Christian faith,” the bishop said.

“The dignity of every human being is intangible and unchangeable. To overlook that is to fall into barbarism,” he said.

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On religious liberty, Obama administration still 'falling short,' leading authority says

Washington D.C., Jan 28, 2011 (CNA) - Last week’s state visit by China’s President Hu Jintao again underscored the Obama Administration’s reluctance to defend human rights and religious freedom, according to a leading authority.

“The real issue is not what any administration says, or even what the President says, as important as his words are. What is critical is whether — and how — a given administration backs up its words with consistent and effective policies,” said Thomas Farr, a former diplomat who heads the Religious Freedom project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

“This is where the Obama administration is falling short, especially on religious freedom,” he said.

Farr has been a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s handling of human rights and religious freedom issues.

And in the wake of Hu’s Jan. 18-22 state visit, he expressed skepticism about the Administration’s claims to have taken a tougher line in private talks with Hu.

“Whatever the President told Mr. Hu, the latter doubtless knows that there will be no policy implications, except for the annual rhetorical condemnation in the State Department's designations,” Farr told CNA in an e-mail Jan. 25.

He noted that China every year winds up on the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” for its “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty.

“The designations result from China's persecution of religious dissenters, including Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, evangelical Protestants, or Roman Catholics,” he explained.

Despite these “rhetorical condemnations of China,” Farr says the Administration has done little to back up its words with concrete actions, such as economic sanctions.

Farr was the first head of the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom,  established by Congress and President Bill Clinton in 1998. He served under both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

The office is in charge of monitoring religious liberty issues worldwide and making annual reports to Congress on “countries of particular concern.”

Farr noted that two years into his administration, President Barack Obama has yet to fill the post of ambassador at large for religious freedom, a diplomatic position created by Congress in 1998.

Although President Obama nominated pastor Suzan Johnson Cook last June, her nomination hit a bureaucratic snag and expired in Congress. The president has yet to propose a new nominee.

For Farr, the vacancy speaks volumes about the Administration’s commitment to religious freedom.

And he says the Administration’s seeming lack of interest is not lost on countries like China that routinely violate religious rights.

For instance, he said, the Chinese president is likely aware that “halfway through the Obama presidency, the administration has not even bothered to put into place the senior official responsible for promoting religious freedom in China and elsewhere.”

Farr urged an approach to China that combines “public statements and quiet policy steps.”

He recommended that the U.S. encourage President Hu to support a joint U.S.-China working group on religious freedom that would meet periodically in both countries.

He also recommended that the U.S. encourage China’s Institute on World Religions, a branch of the country’s Academy of Social Sciences, to “develop a program on the study of religious freedom.”

Such steps, Farr said, “can have real impact over time by helping the Chinese deepen their understanding of the value of religious freedom to China’s own interests — including social harmony, broader and more sustained economic growth, political stability, and undermining religious extremism.”

Farr has suggested previously that the Obama Administration’s outreach to Muslim nations — many of which are on the State Dept.’s list of egregious violators of religious freedom — has made it reluctant to pursue these issues.

But Farr believes that these issues are crucial to U.S. security and foreign policy concerns. That is the subject of his 2008 book "World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security.”

Recently his Berkeley Center at Georgetown received a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to undertake a three-year international study a broad range of religious freedom issues, including the relationship of religion to questions of democracy, economic and social development, and peace.

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