Madrid, Spain, Feb 23, 2011 (CNA) - Speaking from the Sheikhupura Prison near Lahore, Pakistan, Asia Bibi, the first Christian woman condemned to death under the country’s Blasphemy Law, is reiterating her innocence and says she trusts “God will hear my prayers and will help me get out of here and get back home to my family.”
In an interview published Feb. 20 by the Spanish daily, El Pais, Bibi recalls the beginning of her calvary and maintains that she is innocent of charges of committing blasphemy.
“One day I complained to a tax collector because he was allowing his animals to run free and they were damaging my house. He insulted me, and from then on he began a campaign against me,” Asia says.
A few days later, during her job as a farm worker, she offered a drink of water to her co-workers. “They told me they could not drink from the same jug as a Christian, and we began to argue, but I never blasphemed,” she insists, noting that five days later she was accused of blasphemy and taken to prison.
She is currently the only prisoner condemned to death among the 2,400 prisoners in the country. Ninety-five percent of those in prison are men.
Asia will mark two years in prison this coming June. She occupies a nine square-foot cell and spends her days reading the Bible. She cooks her own food out of fear she could be poisoned by Muslim radicals.
She agrees with her lawyers that the legal process is affected by pressure from Islamic fundamentalists.
“I did not commit blasphemy,” she says. “I would never speak against the Prophet. And I believe that God sees all and in the end things will be made right.” She thinks her case may be related to some of the difficulties experienced with other people in her town who discriminated against her family because they are Christians.
Asia says she suffers greatly because of the rumors of death threats against her family and that she terribly misses her twelve year-old daughter Isham. “She is my joy, she is a very good girl with a bright smile. It hurts me so bad not to see her grow up.”
Muslim extremists have offered more than $5,000 in reward money to anyone who assassinates Asia. Her husband is unable to work and her children cannot attend school, as radical Muslims have declared them to be targets.
“I have to confront this trial with patience and courage,” she tells El Pais.
Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law groups together a number of norms based on Sharia Law to punish any statement or action considered offensive to Allah, Muhammad or the Quran. Anyone can file an accusation of blasphemy without the need of witnesses or evidence. The accused are subject to immediate trial and, if found guilty, are sentenced to life in prison or death. The law is often used to persecute the Christian minority, which is subjected to exploitation and discrimination in schools and in running for positions of public service.
Santa Monica, Calif., Feb 23, 2011 (CNA) - A sailing Catholic couple killed by Somali pirates during their global cruise to distribute Bibles was a “wonderful part” of a California Catholic parish, the couple’s pastor said.
Retirees Scott and Jean Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif. had decided to make a difference in the world by bringing Bibles to the “far-flung corners of the earth,” St. Monica Catholic Community pastor Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson said in a Feb. 22 interview.
“Our community believes in helping to form loving disciples who will transform this world,” he explained. Sharing Bibles was the Adams’ way of doing that during the sailing trip they began in 2004.
Their 58-foot sloop, the Quest, had separated from the Blue Water Rally cruise fleet traveling from Australia to the Mediterranean when they were hijacked by 19 Somali pirates in the northwest part of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Oman. The pirates captured the Adams and their friends Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle of Seattle.
Four U.S. naval warships were tailing the captured vessel and Navy officials were engaged in negotiations with two of the pirates on board one of the American naval ships on the morning of Feb. 22.
But those talks were cut short by the sound of gunfire coming from the Quest, which Navy forces quickly boarded and captured. However, they found all four Americans had been wounded fatally.
Msgr. Torgerson said the Adams’ deaths made him feel “great great, loss” and “great pain.”
“They were faith-filled people, people of the Scripture, people of the Eucharist. They were great people of our community,” he told CNA.
Jean, who was a retired dentist and a mother of two, sang in the church choir.
The priest cited St. Paul’s words in the daily readings about receiving the “unfaded crown of glory.”
“They won the crown. I believe with all my heart they are with God today,” he continued, calling eternal life “the gift and blessing of faithful people.”
“I hope that the four of them find that great peace,” he added, urging an end to violence.
In their 2011 travels, the Adams visited Phuket, Thailand; Galle, Sri Lanka; and Cochin, India. They passed out Catholic Bibles from the American Bible Society and New International Version Bibles from the International Bible Society.
On their website they spoke of finding “homes” for their Bibles as a part of “friendship evangelism.”
The yacht was en route to Salalah, Oman when they were captured. Two pirates were killed in the naval engagement and 13 were captured and detained.
Msgr. Torgerson said Catholics can take inspiration from the Adams.
“We want to make sure that each one of us does as they have done: to go about with courage and strength to make a difference in this world,” he said. “They were doing that as retired people. So all ages can go out and make some difference.”
The Adams’ parish has celebrated at least three liturgies for the dead and their families. It will remember the dead “in a very special way” at its Masses this week.
New York City, N.Y., Feb 23, 2011 (CNA) - A new billboard campaign has responded to the high abortion rate among black women in New York City by declaring “the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”
The billboard, which depicts a young black girl, is located in the Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo about half a mile from a Planned Parenthood abortion facility. The three Planned Parenthood abortion clinics in New York City altogether reported nearly 17,000 abortions in 2010.
The pro-life group Life Always is sponsoring the billboard, its first in the state of New York, as part of a new national campaign which charges that Planned Parenthood targets minority neighborhoods.
“During Black History Month, we celebrate our history, but our future is in jeopardy as a genocidal plot is carried out through abortion,” commented Life Always board member Pastor Stephen Broden. “We have seen the heartbreaking effects of opportunists who happen to be black abortionists perpetrating this atrocity; it’s not just babies who are in danger, it’s also their mothers, and our society at large.”
A New York City health department report released in January revealed a 41 percent abortion rate in the city, twice the national average. The abortion rate among black women was higher than average.
“This campaign highlights the tragedy that abortion is the number one killer since 1973 in the black community and the truth that we must confront in a city with a near 60 percent abortion rate for black women,” explained Rev. Derek McCoy, another Life Always board member.
The billboard advertises the web site www.thatsabortion.com, which offers pregnancy help information and facts about the effects of abortion on the black community.
Denver, Colo., Feb 23, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - After the recent death of abortionist turned pro-life advocate Dr. Bernard Nathanson, his close friend Fr. C. John McCloskey said that the doctor's conversion to the faith was “one of the great Catholic moments of the 20th century in the United States.”
The 84 year-old doctor, who was responsible for close to 75,000 abortions during his career as an obstetrician before undergoing a profound change of heart, died from cancer on Feb. 21.
Fr. McCloskey, a prominent Opus Dei priest, was instrumental in Nathanson joining the Catholic Church – a step the physician took 15 years after renouncing his role as one of the most staunch abortion advocates in U.S. history.
In a Feb. 22 interview with CNA, Fr. McCloskey remembered the late doctor as “a great, very intelligent man” who had made “a big sacrifice personally in order to change his opinion on a very important issue.”
The two met in the early 1980s and bonded over a love of great literature, soon after Nathanson had abandoned the abortion industry. During the course of their friendship, the repentant abortionist would make the second great decision of his life – to be baptized into the Catholic Church.
In 1996, he was baptized and confirmed on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City by then Cardinal John O'Connor. Fr. McCloskey called the event “one of the great Catholic moments of the 20th century in the United States.”
He noted that although Nathanson knew that “he was completely forgiven of his sin by the waters of Baptism,” the doctor “realized the great evil that he was involved in” and worked to rectify his mistakes “over the course of several decades.”
Part of the “great evil” that Nathanson took part in before his conversion involved performing or sanctioning abortions on tens of thousands of unborn babies.
A successful gynecologist who followed his father's career path, Nathanson eventually worked to co-found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws in 1969. Now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America, the organization would become one of the strongest advocates of legal abortion in the nation.
By the mid-1970s, however, Nathanson began to undergo a drastic interior change and eventually declared himself to be pro-life in 1979.
“The more and more he went into the question of abortion the more he realized he was killing human beings,” Fr. McCloskey said, “and so he publicly came out and said I'm going to the other side – the light side away from the dark side.”
Nathanson soon after produced the 1985 film “The Silent Scream,” which shows sonogram images of a child in the womb attempting to move away from an abortionist’s instruments.
Although Nathanson was “vilified by the secular press,” after the release of the film, Fr. McCloskey said the movie “had an enormous impact on the country.”
The doctor would later release the documentary called “Eclipse of Reason,” which explains various abortion procedures in graphic detail. Nathanson also wrote several books.
“From that time on, he went to get a degree in ethics from Vanderbilt University,” and traveled “all over the world giving talks on pro-life issues,” Fr. McCloskey said. Nathanson would also serve as an expert witness in state legislatures and “continued to practice medicine for a good many years.”
Although critics of Nathanson's conversion were were perplexed as to how a former atheist Jew became of the the most prominent Catholic pro-life advocates, Fr. McCloskey – who has aided in numerous conversions – said he wasn't surprised.
“My experience in dealing with Jewish people whom I love dearly is that, the great majority of them, if they want to become Christian, they become Catholic.”
Fr. McCloskey added: “I think his conversion from atheism to Catholicism will be seen as a real turning point in our history.”
Vatican City, Feb 23, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Vatican believes that its top aid agency, Caritas Internationalis, needs new leadership to build a stronger Catholic identity within the organization, said Cardinal Robert Sarah, who oversees the agency’s work as president as president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum.
The Rome-based Caritas recently announced that the Vatican would not permit its current secretary general, Lesley-Anne Knight, to run for re-election to the position this May.
Cardinal Sarah explained the Vatican’s reasons during the course of a Feb. 22 press conference to release the Pope's annual Lenten message.
Cardinal Sarah told journalists, "we must recognize the work accomplished by Mrs. Knight, but for today's new challenges we need someone else." He added that it is "normal that for new challenges other people are chosen that the confederation presents."
Caritas officials issued a statement Feb. 18 expressing satisfaction with Knight’s performance and dismay at the Vatican’s decision.
Cardinal Sarah said, however:
"I think that each of us has limits. We can be competent in organizing but lack some qualities for coordinating work or for reinforcing the Catholic identity," Cardinal Sarah said concerning Knight’s qualifications.
The British Catholic weekly, The Tablet, reported Feb. 18 there had been communications miscues between then-president of "Cor Unum," German Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, and Caritas when organizing a response to the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
An unnamed official from one of the 165 Caritas locations worldwide told the Tablet that Knight ruffled feathers as she has been “critical of the Vatican machine, has made no secret of it and has failed to be discreet.”
Rome, Italy, Feb 23, 2011 (CNA) - The violence against Christians in Iraq is real and is driven by Muslim extremists and government indifference.
According to a local Iraqi Catholic leader, the anti-Christian persecution is not a concoction of Western journalists, despite claims made recently by Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican.
Father Firas Benoka, who ministers to Syro-Catholics in Mosul, north of the capital of Baghdad told CNA that the ambassador’s remarks were a gross simplification of the sufferings of the country’s tiny Christian minority.
Iraq’s Vatican ambassador, Habeeb M. H. Ali Al-Sadr, recently blamed the media and international organizations for distorting the situation in Iraq.
He told a conference in Velletri, Italy, Jan. 29 that these groups were “playing the game of the terrorists, being concerned about the Christians, their future and the society’s lack of development,” the ambassador said.
But this analysis does not ring true on the ground in Iraq, Fr. Benoka said.
Extremists have been making violent attacks on Christians and their churches for years, he said.
They are targets, he said, for a “single motive … because they are ‘Christians’.”
“This was the only, most decisive accusation and the cause of the evil they suffered,” he added.
Media attention has increased as the violence against Christians has escalated, Fr. Benoka said.
The last year has seen bombings directed at Catholic students from the University of Mosul and the massacre at the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, he continued.
He said he personally knows people were only allowed to escape from the church with their lives after renouncing their faith to their kidnappers.
Though the government has decried the attacks and announced its “closeness” to the Christian victims, “the attacks have become ever more ferocious,” he said.
“Amid all this should the world have been silent? Should such a miserable and humiliating position be tolerated?
“The mass media have not exaggerated in their judgment of the situation,” Fr. Benoka said. “Actually, they have missed many of the injustices that continually take place in the villages of Christian majority populations.”
Fr. Benoka said the Iraqi ambassador’s remarks reflect the government’s desire to cover up its failure to protect Christians.
Christians, he said, “are abandoning the nation because of the evil that have suffered and the indecent life there. It is not because of what is heard indirectly through the mass media.”
Estimates vary on just how many Christians have emigrated. A Feb. 21 Human Rights Watch report estimated there to be 675,000 Christians in Iraq, down from over 1 million in 2003. A U.S. State Department puts the current number between 400,000 and 600,000.
Fr. Benoka expressed disbelief at the ambassador’s claims that Christians received special government privileges worth $15 million for rebuilding their destroyed churches and other building.
“Since when?” he said. “Why be close to them after the attack and not before?”
Other privileges like tax breaks on electricity and water the ambassador spoke of are still in place from Saddam Hussein’s regime and are shared by all religions. In any case, Fr. Benoka said, electricity is scarce these days.
Fr. Benoka also rejected the ambassador’s idea that Iraq’s new constitution “guarantees Christians full equality of rights and duties.”
The constitution, which establishes Islam as Iraq’s state religion, is “ the biggest obstacle to religious freedom of all the non-Muslim religions,” he said. It also bars any “law that contradicts or opposes fundamental Islamic principles.”
Fr. Benoka asked, “With this strong affirmation on Islam, how could one speak of a religious liberty or of equality of law among all citizens of the same Iraq?”
He pointed to specific and practical examples of how this could affect non-Muslim citizens.
In matters of inheritance, he said, women are only entitled to half the share of men. In court, the testimony of two women equals that of one man.
In addition, a woman divorced from her husband can only remarry him if she has married and divorced another man. This clashes openly with Catholic teaching in which neither man nor woman can marry another after divorce.
Another example is that any citizen may convert to Islam, but all Muslims are strictly prohibited from converting to other religions. If one parent converts to Islam, his or her underage children are automatically converted with them.
Fr. Benoka said that there are many other example of laws based on Islam included in the constitution that are applied to all citizens even if these laws “sometimes contradict the fundamental principles of their religions.”
Tunis, Tunisia, Feb 23, 2011 (CNA) - Authorities in Tunisia have arrested the alleged murderer of 34-year-old Polish priest Fr. Marek Marius Rybinski, who was found dead on Feb. 18.
Police are holding local maintenance worker Chokri Ben Mustapha Bel-Sadek El-Mestiri in connection with the murder.
The body of Fr. Rybinski – a Polish Salesian missionary – was discovered last Friday in the parking lot of the local Salesian school, which is located in the Tunis suburb of Manouma. Although the Associated Press reported that his throat was slit, the Vatican-based Fides news agency stated that the priest was beheaded.
Bishop Maroun Elias Nimeh Lahham of Tunis told Fides on Feb. 23 that El-Mestiri was “a jack of all trades at the missionary house” and “was given 2,000 dinars (around $1,400 U.S. dollars) three months ago by Fr Rybinski, to buy materials to do maintenance work at the school.”
“El-Mestiri had spent the money, how we don't know. Fr Rybinski, seeing that the materials hadn't been purchased, began asking for the money to be returned.”
Archbishop Lahham said that the worker allegedly “panicked and killed the missionary.”
“Initially, given the manner in which he was killed, it was thought that this was carried out by extremists,” he added.
In an interview with Vatican Radio broadcast on Feb. 19, Archbishop Lahham recounted the incidents leading up to the murder. He reported that several weeks ago the local Salesian Fathers had received a threatening letter written in excellent French. The correspondence was addressed to “the Jews,” demanded money and threatened to kill everyone in the house if they failed to cooperate.
The archbishop said the letter was signed “with a Nazi swastika,” and explained “for the ordinary people” in the area, “if you are not a Muslim you are a Jew.” He recalled a recent demonstration in front of the local synagogue in which an Islamic group “told the Jews to leave because the army of Muhammad was on the way. ”
On Feb. 23, he told Fides that “whether there is a relationship between the murder” and the “threatening letter” remains to be seen.
Last weekend, hundreds participated in demonstrations including students from the Salesian school and their parents, who mourned the priest's untimely death and brought photographs, cards and flowers to the school in remembrance. On Feb. 18, Archbishop Lahham presided over a Mass in honor of Fr. Rybinski at the Cathedral of Tunis.
Vatican City, Feb 23, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - St. Robert Bellarmine's life and spirituality was the focus of Pope Benedict XVI's teaching during his weekly general audience Feb. 23.
This Jesuit cardinal was remembered by the Pope for his great legacy of writings and teachings and for his capacity to maintain sanctity amid a great deal of work.
He was born in 1542 near Siena, Italy. He studied as a theologian, was ordained priest and became a professor. Later in life, he dedicated much of his time to the important questions of reform, doctrine and stabilizing the Church in divisive times.
His most famous work was a brief catechism written in the last decade of the 16th century, but he had many other works besides. Some of his writings examining how to approach revelation, the nature of the Church and the sacraments are still valid today, said the Pope.
In other works he fought the reformation with reason and Church tradition. He proposed Catholic doctrine in a "clear and effective" way.
But, the Pope said that the "true heritage" of this saint was in his conception of work. He always made time for God between his many duties he had as a teacher and later as archbishop and cardinal member of a number of Vatican departments.
"His burden of office did not, in fact, prevent him from striving daily after sanctity through faithfulness to the requirements of his condition as religious, priest and bishop," said Benedict XVI.
St. Bellarmine was a product of the Jesuit school, which was "entirely focused on concentrating the power of his soul on the Lord Jesus, intensely known, loved and imitated," he explained.
Still today, he offers a "model of prayer and enthusiasm in every activity," said Pope Benedict.
"A distinctive sign of the spirituality of Bellarmine is the strong and personal perception of the immense goodness of God, for which our saint felt truly a son loved by God and meditating with serenity and simplicity, in prayer, in contemplation of God was a source of great joy."
In one of his works, St. Bellarmine spoke of meditation as a way for one to give an account of his life to God. He also spoke of living and dying well by not seeking material wealth, but "living simply and with charity so as to accumulate 'goods' in Heaven."
In another work he extended on this teaching. He said that "if you are wise, then understand that you were created for the glory of God and for your eternal salvation.
Both "favorable and diverse circumstances" are a part of living, he said. All conditions "are good and desirable only if they contribute to the glory of God and to your eternal happiness, they are bad and to be avoided if they hinder this."
In conclusion, the Pope said that these words "have not gone out of fashion, but should be meditated upon at length in order to guide our journey on this earth.
"They remind us that the goal of our life is the Lord," he said. "They remind us that the end of our lives is in the Lord, the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, in which He continues to call us and promise us communion with Him.
"They remind us of the importance of trusting in God, of living a life faithful to the Gospel, and of accepting all the circumstances and all actions of our lives, illuminating them with faith and prayer."
St. Bellarmine died in 1721 and was canonized by Pius XI in 1930. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by the same pontiff a year later.
Vatican City, Feb 23, 2011 (CNA) - The Maronite community of the world is celebrating the installation of the newest statue at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI blessed the 18-foot tall marble statue of St. Maron on the morning of Feb. 23. It was placed into the last open space of a series of large niches in the exterior wall of St. Peter's Basilica.
St. Maron established the first "Maronite" community based on a monastic spirituality in the 4th century. This year, the Church is celebrating the 1,600th anniversary of his death.
Despite hardship, the Maronite Church has remained intact and in communion with the Catholic Church and today has around three million members. Nearly one-third of these live in Lebanon.
Fr. Domique Hanna told CNA that the event was a special one for the Maronites of the world. Fr. Hanna is a parish priest at St. Joseph's Maronite Church, which offers a place of worship for 200 families in Atlanta, Ga.
"It's a confirmation and re-establishment that we are in full communion with the Catholic Church, with the Holy See," he said of the day's ceremony. "We are very proud of that."
They are also proud that St. Maron has taken such a visible place among the many saints of the Church remembered in statues around the Vatican, said Fr. Hanna. His community celebrates an anniversary of its own this March, a century since the establishment of the parish.
Cardinal Patriarch Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir of Antioch of the Maronites was present with the Pope for the ceremony with a delegation from the Lebanon-based Church. Lebanese president, Gen. Michel Suleiman, and other government ministers and Church officials were also there.
L'Osservatore reported that, for Cardinal Sfeir, the 20-ton statue represented peace and reconciliation for Lebanon.
Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica, addressed the gathering on the occasion. He said that the ceremony was "an act of affection, esteem and gratitude to the Maronite Church which in the course of the centuries has suffered so much for staying faithful to Jesus, to the Church and to the Pope."
"The statue of St. Maron will remind us every day of your heroic example and be an invitation to pray for you," he told the Lebanese delegations.
The statue was sculpted from a single block of the famed white marble of Carrara, Italy by Spanish artist Marco Augusto Dueñas.
Engraved into its base is the phrase in Aramaic from Psalm 92, "The just shall flourish like the palm tree, shall grow like a cedar of Lebanon."
Madrid, Spain, Feb 23, 2011 (CNA) - More than 300,000 young people from all over the world will be welcomed by families across Spain prior to the beginning of World Youth Day 2011. The pilgrims will participate in the week long “Days in the Dioceses,” in preparation for the massive event expected to draw two million young people.
The “Days in the Diocese,” a program which first began in World Youth Day Paris in 1997 and serves to help young people prepare for the event, which will take place August 11-15 in cities across Spain.
Some 150,000 young Catholics from 137 countries have registered so far, and 12 of the 63 dioceses that will be welcoming them are already completely booked.
The director of the program, Javier Igea, said that the days will include cultural activities, visits to historical places of interest, festivals, prayers and Masses at the well-known churches in each diocese. Thanking local officials for opening the doors of their communities to the young people, he especially singled out officials in the region of Valladolid, where numerous city mayors themselves requested to host World Youth Day attendees.
Throughout Spain, extra efforts are being made to offer young people room and board free of charge. Those traveling from poorer countries will automatically qualify for the free hospitality, including 260 Haitians who will stay in Ciudad Real, along with 2,000 young people from other countries.
Two contests that will grant awards in journalism and video production by young people will also be part of the “Days in the Dioceses.”
Igea said the contest, “Madrid on Video,” would give young people the chance to submit short videos that will be shown before the main World Youth Day events. Those that receive the most votes at www.envideomadrid.org will be selected.