Beirut, Lebanon, Mar 3, 2011 (CNA) - Pope Benedict XVI has written a personal letter to the retiring Cardinal Patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Catholic Church, thanking him for his “service for the greater glory of God and the good of all his faithful.”
On Feb. 26, the 90-year-old Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir of Antioch retired from his position as the leader of more than three million Maronite Catholics. He has served as a bishop for 50 years – 25 of them as his Church's patriarch – and as a priest for 60 years.
Although the outgoing patriarch – like most of the Maronite faithful – resides in Lebanon, difficulties in his homeland transformed his ministry into a global one. Pope Benedict took note of the fact in his letter, recalling how war had dispersed some Maronite Catholics throughout the world.
“You started this noble ministry of the Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites in the turmoil of the war that bloodied Lebanon for too many years,” he wrote, referring to the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. “With the ardent desire for peace for your country, you have driven this Church and traveled the world to comfort your people forced to emigrate.”
The Pope recalled how Patriarch Sfeir was chosen, in April of 1986, to lead one of the oldest Christian communities in existence. The Maronite Church, unlike most of the other Eastern Catholic Churches, was never formally separated from communion with the Holy See. Their primary liturgical language, Aramaic, is the language of Jesus himself.
During the 1990s, the Pope noted, “peace finally came back” to Lebanon – a peace that he observed was “always fragile, but still present.”
Pope Benedict drew attention in the letter to other key moments in Patriarch Sfeir's ministry, such as his 1994 appointment to the College of Cardinals, and Pope John Paul II's visit to Beirut in 1997. Looking back on these moments, the Holy Father said they signified the patriarch's depth of “communion with the Church Universal” and the “constant link” between the Maronite Church and the Church of Rome.
Maronites take their name from their patron, St. Maron, a priest and monk whose life and example established the traditions of the Syriac Church within present-day Syria and Lebanon during the fourth and fifth centuries. During 2010, Maronites celebrated a jubilee year marking the 1,600th anniversary of their patron saint's death.
Shortly before the patriarch's resignation on Feb. 23, Pope Benedict blessed a statue of St. Maron that was recently installed at St. Peter's in honor of the jubilee year.
“You have chosen to forego the burden of Patriarch of Antioch for the Maronites on this very special occasion,” the Pope acknowledged. “I welcome your decision, which is a free and magnanimous expression of great humility and deep detachment.”
“I am confident you will always accompany the path of the Maronite Church in prayer, wise counsel, and sacrifices.”
New York City, N.Y., Mar 3, 2011 (CNA) - At the U.N.'s annual meeting on the global status of women, a Vatican observer stressed that the modern workplace should improve its accommodation of wives and mothers, who “have an irreplaceable role” in families.
True progress for women “requires that labor should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family,” said Prof. Jane Adolphe, a member of the Holy See’s Delegation to Commission on the Status of Women.
Prof. Adolphe – an Associate Professor at the Ave Maria School of Law – spoke on behalf of Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the U.N. on March 1 at the 55th session on the Commission on the Status of Women in New York.
During her address, Prof. Adolphe called for the “promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work” and for an increase in global access for women and girls to “education, training, science and technology.”
This education, she clarified, “must be firmly rooted in a profound respect for human dignity and with full respect for religious and cultural values.”
“If this is absent, then education is no longer a means of authentic enlightenment but becomes a tool of control by those who administer it,” she warned.
Prof. Adolphe also discussed the worldwide status of women in regard to sexual violence, insisting that “all States must enact and enforce legislation to protect girls from all forms of violence and exploitation, from conception onwards, including abortion, especially sex-selective abortion, female infanticide.”
On the current international issue of human trafficking, Prof. Adolphe said that governments need to make “concerted efforts” in order to stop “this heinous crime.”
This can be done, she added, “by addressing adequately the demand side of trafficking in persons by strengthening laws against prostitution of children and adults, child pornography and sexual exploitation.”
“The authentic advancement of women begins with full respect for the dignity and worth of all persons,” she underscored. “Such respect must take into account the entire life cycle – from conception to natural death – and States have the responsibility to ensure this in their national legislations.”
The current session of the Commission on the Status of Women will conclude on March 4, and is one of nine functional commissions of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
Vatican City, Mar 3, 2011 (CNA) - Pope Benedict XVI met with the head of the United Nations' World Food Program on March 2, to discuss the humanitarian crisis that has emerged at the border between Tunisia and Libya.
“I was so moved that His Holiness asked for this briefing and expressed his concern for the innocent people trapped in this terrible tragedy,” said Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the U.N. relief agency. She discussed the United Nations' response in Libya with the Pope, in the context of broader efforts to ensure adequate food availability in several politically conflicted Middle Eastern nations.
Tens of thousands of Libyans are fleeing the country and seeking to enter neighboring Tunisia. Libya's embattled leader, Colonel Moammar Gaddafi, has resorted to widespread violence against civilians in an effort to put down a full-scale revolt that began during protests in late February.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said last week that U.N. officials “anticipate the situation to worsen,” noting that it was “crucial for humanitarian agencies to have access to the border regions.
Sheeran recalled seeing “desperate people pour across the border,” at a rate of more than 2,000 an hour, during her recent visit.
“The world must act, and must act quickly,” she said, “to prevent a major humanitarian disaster.” The executive director was “honored” to convey the World Food Program's gratitude to the Pope “for the invaluable support he continues to give to our work feeding the hungry around the world.”
The World Food Program regularly collaborates with Catholic organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Services, and Caritas Internationalis.
Meanwhile, reports from Caritas Internationalis indicated that the crisis was particularly acute among immigrants who had originally come to Libya from other countries. Caritas has sent two emergency teams to the border region, to assess the situation and provide emergency assistance.
Although estimates vary widely, Caritas estimates that immigrants – mostly from sub-Saharan African countries – represent up to one-sixth of Libya's 6.4 million people. The country is also a prime destination for immigrants from Bangladesh.
Fr. Alan Arcebuche, director of Caritas Libya, told the Italian newspaper Avvenire that these migrants to Libya were in an especially dangerous situation, attempting to leave Libya amid the fighting.
“They can’t get in touch with their governments – which, besides, aren’t doing anything to help them,” the priest said. Nevertheless, Caritas is petitioning the government of Bangladesh to provide food and water, and possibly arrange evacuations.
Elsewhere in Libya, the agency's own workers have been unable to continue their services amid the disturbances and violence.
“There is no way we can go to the center where we take care of migrants,” said Sr. Sherly Joseph, one of the Franciscan Sisters who normally works with displaced persons in the capital. Instead, the sisters have been forced to barricade themselves indoors.
Bishop Giovanni Martinelli of Tripoli told Caritas that Catholic institutions were receiving support and protection from Muslim groups. “We got in touch with the Red Crescent and other Muslim organizations,” he said, “to ask them for their protection for our churches and convents, and also for the faithful and sisters working in hospitals.”
Vatican City, Mar 3, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Specially-trained guides are now available to offer one-of-a-kind tours of the Vatican Museums to the deaf and blind.
The museums' staff announced the new service at a March 1 press conference. Initially, they will be offered for Italian speakers and signers.
In the tour for the blind and visually impaired, visitors are able to touch copies of two of “the 30 most important works” in the Pinacoteca – the Vatican museum that houses an extensive collection of paintings.
They are guided in groups of eight to examine a replica of Caravaggio's “Deposition from the Cross.” The work depicts Christ being taken down from the cross to be laid in the tomb.
The experience of discovering the painting's content and texture through the hands-on examination of a special three-dimensional bas relief replica is accompanied by Scripture and poetry readings that explain the moment, as well as sacred music inspired by the depicted event.
Tourists are also guided through second work in fresco from an artist named Melozzo da Forlì. It depicts an angel playing a stringed instrument. Both this piece and the copy of the “Deposition,” created in the same way as the original, are available to be touched.
The raised design works of art are also available to the visitor in a pamphlet that is available in both Braille and dark print.
In addition, for Caravaggio's work, the guide enhances the tour by offering visitors the chance to smell aloe and myrrh, which were used 2,000 years ago to prepare bodies for burial.
According to a statement from the Vatican Museums, the expierence will evoke the images represented in the paintings, “promoting the passage from simple knowledge to the more profound perception of the work in an integral appreciation.”
The director of the new program, Maria Serlupi Crescenzi, told Vatican Radio that the tour “is a sum of stimuli that permits entering in contact with the work, deepening both the cognitive and, of course, the emotional sphere.”
For the deaf, seven specialists in Italian sign language offer tours two days a week. L'Osservatore Romano called the new offering “without precedent or equal, at least in Italy.”
The new tours, offered only in Italian for now, are free for those visitors who reserve a place in the limited-sized groups.
Rome, Italy, Mar 3, 2011 (CNA) - President of Chile Sebastian Pinera,said March 2 that human rights, especially the right to life from conception to natural death, must be protected in order to achieve comprehensive human development.
President Pinera wrote in an article published in L’Osservatore Romano that “Development has always been a central objective of humanity and constitutes a principal goal for nations, governments and the international community.”
“Benedict XVI’s encyclical 'Caritas in veritate' concentrates in depth on the concept and need for comprehensive development as put forth in the Social Doctrine of the Church,” he continued.
The president noted some of the recent challenges has Chile faced. He recalled the Feb. 27, 2010 earthquake and underscored that the “the Church and civil society should actively participate” on the path toward development.
He also reflected on the solidarity that unified the country during the rescue operation to save the 33 miners trapped in the San Jose Mine in Atacama. “Chile came together as one big family, overcoming differences and willing to do whatever necessary to find and rescue the miners.”
“We know that we were able to count on the prayers of the Pope and of millions of men and women of good will around the world, and we continue to count on them today,” he said.
The president said development must take place “in both its material and spiritual dimension,” and that this requires seeking after the common good, defending “the inalienable rights of the human person in every moment, place and circumstance, and supporting a transcendent humanism.”
It is essential, he stressed, “that our democracy protects human rights, especially the right to life from conception to natural death.”
On Feb. 25, Chile received the International Protect Life Award as the country with the lowest maternal mortality rate in Latin America. The honor was a clear indication that abortion, contrary to the claims of its supporters, does nothing to diminish maternal deaths, as abortion is illegal in Chile.
Nearly 30 representatives of pro-life organizations that work before the United Nations presented the award on Feb. 25 during the 2011 meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.
A spokesman for the pro-life leaders, Dan Ziedler spoke with CNA on Feb. 25, saying, “It should be noted abortion is not allowed in Chile under any circumstances. Chile respects the life of both the mother and the child, the two are equal under the law.”
“Chile’s example for other countries at the international level is something we need to emphasize,” he added
Vatican City, Mar 3, 2011 (CNA) - Catholics and Jews share “joint responsibility” to work together to fight religious bigotry and promote “justice and solidarity, reconciliation and peace,” according to the Vatican’s top ecumenist.
Cardinal Kurt Koch made his remarks during a Feb. 27-March 2 meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee for Interreligious Consultation. He is president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism.
Cardinal Koch called on both religions to promote the defense of religious rights, according to a report by the Italian bishops' SIR news agency.
Catholics and Jews should work together for “religious freedom and human rights to be fully guaranteed to everyone, anywhere in the world,” he said.
Cardinal Koch spoke against the targeting of Christians for persecution and murder in the Middle East. As the “most widely persecuted group in the world,” Christians need religious leaders of all the world's religions to join in efforts for protection and solidarity, he said.
“Jews and Christians can raise their voices together to protect those who are persecuted for religious reasons, wherever they live and whatever religious tradition they profess.”
The Vatican consultation marked the 40th year of official dialogue between the Church and the Jewish people.
Cardinal Koch praised the “huge miracle” of their continued cooperation as “the fruit of the Holy Spirit.”
“I have the feeling that over these last 40 years many prejudices and hostilities have been overcome, that reconciliation and cooperation have increased, and that relations of personal friendship have grown more intense,” he said.
This relationship means the two sides share challenges for the future, he said.
In a joint statement issued by the Vatican March 2, the committee declared “a shared desire to confront together the enormous challenges facing Catholics and Jews in a world in rapid and unpredictable transformation.”
According to the statement, conference participants expressed their “profound sadness” at repeated acts of violence or terrorism in God's name.
The conference also acknowledged the ongoing events “taking place in parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East where millions of human beings are expressing their thirst for dignity and freedom. In many parts of the world, minorities, especially religious minorities, are discriminated against, threatened by unjust restrictions of their religious liberty, and even subjected to persecution and murder.”
Speakers at the meeting expressed a “profound sadness at repeated instances of violence or terrorism 'in the name of God', including the increased attacks against Christians, and calls for the destruction of the State of Israel,” according to the statement.
Rome, Italy, Mar 3, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Archbishop Casmoussa of Mosul has guided the Church in northwestern Iraq since 1999.
It has been period in which political repression and more recently religious extremism has threatened to extinguish the Christian footprint here, which dates back to the origins of the Church.
The Vatican announced his retirement March 1, although he will continue to work in the archdiocese, the historic Christian capital of the region where a rich mix of Syriac, Chaldean, Assyrian and Latin Rite Catholics are interspersed with Syrian and Armenian Orthodox Christians amidst the majority Muslim population.
The Christian population has been halved in the last decade — due mostly to emigration because of violence and security concerns, he told CNA in a Feb. 25 interview.
Archbishop Casmoussa believes Iraq now faces a turning point. The nation’s leaders must find a way to ensure equality for people of all religions. Or, he suggests, leaders must consider creating a new autonomous region where Christians could live and practice their religion freely.
“When you haven't got all your rights in your country, you ask for some other way to have your rights,” he said .
Christians in Iraq, he indicated, are seeking a solution that gives them equal rights and equal access to services, infrastructure and employment – and most importantly freedom and security.
As their numbers dwindle, life has grown more difficult for Iraqi Christians who remain. With fewer numbers, they have less clout to demand their rights.
Land and property that have been owned by Christians are being sold off to the government or to non-Christian Iraqis by those who have gone. In the Nineveh plain, historically “Christian” cities and villages are in danger of becoming a thing of the past.
“We lose our freedom, our majority in our cities, our identity,” Archbishop Casmoussa said.
“If we lose our homes and our lands, we have to choose to be a minority at home or to leave. It is a big problem.”
“What we also need now is to change some laws in Iraq, to have our rights as others,” he said.
At stake is nothing less than the status of non-Muslims as full citizens. Inequalities are written into the very constitution, he complained.
The list of inequalities is long. For instance, every Iraqi must carry a religious identity card. Depending on one’s religion, he said, access to some jobs is impossible. Muslim men can marry Christian women freely, while a Christian man faces death if he even attempts to marry a Muslim woman. Christian education is also sharply restricted.
For the archbishop, Islamist terrorism and political peace are closely linked.
These “executioners,” many of whom come in from abroad, “cannot do anything if they are not supported within the country,” he said.
He is sure that terrorism will “lose many points” with a better political situation.
Meanwhile, Christians are caught in the crossfire of political power struggles.
“Islamic extremism is not the only part that commits terroristic acts,” he said.
“We can't deny that in Iraq there is a project to have an Islamic state, it is a reality. But, everything is not made by them. We have lived together with Muslim people for hundreds of years without any fear. Yes, each community is separated by religion, but not by life.”
It is “impossible” that all Muslims are “Islamists,” he said.
For Christians still in Iraq today, he said, the greatest concern is the absence of security. He reported that in Mosul, Christians are currently being “pushed out.”
“If the security was retained in the city, I am sure that many Christian families would return to their home.”
In Mosul, the number of Christians is down by half to 50,000 since fighting began. The total number of Christians in Iraq has also been cut in half, leaving between 400,000 and 500,000, he said.
A major concern is not just the loss of Christians, he said, but the “very dangerous” matter of a loss of confidence in their future.
“When you lose your confidence in your country, you lose your confidence in yourself and your history and future.”
The true solution, he said, is not in emigration. The solution “will be found inside Iraq ... to have security, to have jobs, to work everywhere freely, to be respected and to have rights equal to those of others.”
All they ask, he concluded, is to achieve “a basis for an honorable life, with freedom, rights and security ... to continue to rebuild our country with our neighbors, with our Muslim countrymen.”
“We refuse to be separated from them, by the logic of life, but also by respect of each other, from one another. Christians are a minority in Iraq, in Syria, in Jordan. But, it is not a good reason, or enough reason, that if I am from a minority I have fewer rights than others.”
The “big project” now, he said, is rebuilding the country after so many years of war. “And, we can't rebuild it without peace, without security.
“It's the key to the future, for Christians, for Muslims, for all citizens.”
Islamabad, Pakistan, Mar 3, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Torn with grief over the recent assassination of Pakistani government minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian community in Pakistan declared three days of mourning for the late Catholic political leader, who was gunned down on March 2.
Peaceful protests, prayer vigils and a funeral Mass for Bhatti are slated to take place during March 4 – 6, with a public procession starting Thursday evening in Bhatti's home Diocese of Faisalabad.
A local priest told the Vatican-based Fides news agency that the demonstrations by local Christians are “a testimony of faith to gather together around the memory of this martyr, to remember his message, asking God for the strength to go on in this state of suffering, as an exiled people.”
March 4 has been declared a day of fasting and prayer, when Bhatti will be laid to rest after a funeral Mass at Our Lady of Fatima church in Islamabad. Local Archbishop Anthony Rufin will preside at the Mass.
The 42-year old Bhatti – a leading voice for religious freedom and peace in Pakistan – served as federal minister for religious minorities. He was a Catholic and the only Christian in Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari's Cabinet.
Bhatti was slain by three men on Wednesday as he left his mother's home in Islamabad by car. His usual police escort was not present because Bhatti preferred to keep a low profile while visiting his mother, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Eyewitnesses told the AP that as the vehicle left the driveway, two men pulled Bhatti out of the car while a third fired on him with an automatic weapon.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, recalled that Bhatti was the first Catholic to hold such a high position in Pakistan and that he had met with the Pope last September.
“He bore witness to his own commitment to peaceful coexistence among the religious communities of his country,” the spokesman said of Bhatti.
“Our prayers for the victim, our condemnation for this unspeakable act of violence, our closeness to Pakistani Christians who suffer hatred, are accompanied by an appeal that everyone many become aware of the urgent importance of defending both religious freedom and Christians who are subject to violence and persecution.”
Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, head of the nation’s bishops, called Bhatti’s slaying “a perfectly tragic example of the unsustainable climate of intolerance in which we live in Pakistan.”
Fr. Robert McCulloch, a Columban missionary who has been in Pakistan for 20 years, said that he believes the current climate of extremism can be linked to the country’s broken education system.
“Religious hatred is cultivated and nurtured in Pakistan's public schools” which have become “closely linked to the madrasas," he told Fides. He also said that textbooks are a major source of the growing extremism, pointing to some official texts completely exclude religious minorities and don't even consider them “part of the nation.”
Bhatti had received death threats in recent months from Islamic extremist groups angered by his opposition to the nation’s anti-blasphemy law. The law is designed to prevent any public criticism of Islam or its prophet, Muhammad.
Bhatti and other critics, including Pope Benedict XVI, say the law should be abolished because it is consistently used to harass and intimidate religious minorities, mostly Christians.