Damascus, Syria, May 5, 2011 (CNA) - Patriarch Gregorios III, the Syria-based head of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church, is warning Western leaders not to encourage the revolutions currently shaking up the Middle East.
“Our Arab countries are not ready for revolutions, and not even for democracy of the European kind and model,” the patriarch explained in a recent letter to Western leaders. “I am asking the West not to encourage revolutions unconditionally here and there in the Arab world.”
In the patriarch's native Syria, government forces have killed hundreds of protesters in response to continuing mass demonstrations.
The patriarch said “social, religious, and demographic” factors could cause instability and violence if regimes are toppled rather than reformed. He called for “evolution, not revolution,” and said Western leaders should push for reforms.
“Ask the heads of state of Arab countries to work for real development, and demand a clear, bold plan,” he stated. “But don’t encourage revolutions!”
“Arab heads of state should be invited and encouraged to develop democratic structures, freedom, and respect for human rights,” wrote Patriarch Gregorios, the spiritual leader of 1.6 million Melkite Catholics.
He said Arab leaders should also be “supported in promoting systems of medical and social welfare and housing,” to ease economic difficulties that have fueled many of the revolutions.
The patriarch described Syria's own instability, characterized by mounting public protests and increasingly violent responses by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, as a “tragic situation” for all concerned.
But he rejected the notion of overturning the government. Many Syrian Christians are not supporting the protests, fearing that a sudden end to the Assad regime would plunge the country into a sectarian power struggle comparable to the aftermath of the Iraq war.
“Already, the situation has deteriorated,” Patriarch Gregorios observed, citing reports of “organized crime, robbery, fear, terror being spread, and rumors of threats to churches … All this creates trauma.”
Under its present government, Syria manages to keep a delicate balance between its Muslim majority and Christian minority. The patriarch described the country as a “model of faithful and open secularism,” and said the city of Damascus was “one of the most important cities in terms of Christian presence in the Arab world.”
But this presence could come to an end if a sudden vacuum of power leaves Islamic extremists and others fighting to control the country. “Christians especially are very fragile in the face of crises and bloody revolutions,” the patriarch said.
“Christians will be the first victims of these revolutions, especially in Syria. A new wave of emigration will follow immediately.”
Patriarch Gregorios also asked the West to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He said the outcome of that project, which became stalled last year over the issue of Israeli settlements, would be decisive for the future of Christianity in the Middle East.
Vatican City, May 5, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Benedict XVI warned members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences that religious freedom is coming under a renewed attack, from forces he compared to the totalitarian powers of the twentieth century.
The Pope observed that religious freedom was among the rights that underwent a “systematic denial by atheistic regimes of the twentieth century” such as Communism and Nazism.
“Today,” he warned in an address made public May 4, “these basic human rights are again under threat from attitudes and ideologies which would impede free religious expression.”
“Consequently,” he told the social scientists, “the challenge to defend and promote the right to freedom of religion and freedom of worship must be taken up once more in our days.” The pontifical academy's most recent gathering, held in Rome from April 29 to May 3, took up the theme of “Universal Rights in a World of Diversity: The Case of Religious Freedom.”
The Pope noted in his address that “the roots of the West's Christian culture remain deep,” and that it was “that culture which gave life and space to religious freedom” and continues to provide for religious liberty where it exists. He observed that an early Christian writer, Tertullian, was the first author to use the phrase “religious freedom.”
The second-century Christian apologist “emphasized that God must be worshiped freely, and that it is in the nature of religion not to admit coercion,” the Pope explained. “Since man enjoys the capacity for a free personal choice in truth, and since God expects of man a free response to his call, the right to religious freedom should be viewed as innate to the fundamental dignity of every human person.”
He acknowledged the world outlook as a mixed one. “There are some states which allow broad religious freedom in our understanding of the term, while others restrict it for a variety of reasons, including mistrust for religion itself.”
Pope Benedict made if clear that the Vatican “continues to appeal for the recognition of the fundamental human right to religious freedom on the part of all states,” including a special concern for “religious minorities who … aspire to live with their fellow citizens peacefully and to participate fully in the civil and political life of the nation.”
Cairo, Egypt, May 5, 2011 (CNA) - The Coptic Christians of Egypt have announced a march of one million people to protect the Cathedral of San Marco from the protests of a Muslim group.
One Catholic missionary in the country is cautioning against seeing the action as a move toward inter-religious conflict.
Several Coptic movements have announced a May 6 protest march to protect the cathedral in the Cairo suburb of Abbasseya. On April 29 thousands of Salafi Muslims staged a sit-in protest in front of the cathedral to seek the “release” of Kamilia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest who they claim converted to Islam and is now allegedly being held captive and pressured to return to Coptic Christianity.
“We must be careful not to give hasty judgments. We must wait until the situation evolves, without excluding any possibility of development,” Fr. Luciano Verdoscia told Fides news agency.
The priest, a Comboni missionary who has been working in Egypt for many years, pointed out that some analysts say the Salafis do not represent a very large group. However, they can “make themselves heard.”
He said that religious sensibility in Egypt has always been very high among both Muslims and Christians.
“We religious coming from outside feel it, too: one tends to withdraw into a kind of ghetto, where life is pretty good and you can do your business. What is outside of one`s community is seen as a threat from which one must be protected,” Fr. Verdoscia said.
He said work is needed to overcome this mentality.
The famous anti-government protests in Tahrir Square were based on a different logic and drew strength from the internet, which does not reach the 40 percent of the Egyptian population living “in poverty and ignorance.”
“In this segment of the population remains only the religious identity which is easily influenced,” the priest explained.
While not everyone is influenced by extremist preachers, they do have sway over 20 to 30 percent of the population, “a significant number of people.”
“We hope that through education and greater economic prosperity, people can start thinking differently. The young people of Tahrir Square, who come from areas with some economic opportunities and are more educated, have in fact a different mentality,” he told Fides.
Valencia, Spain, May 5, 2011 (CNA/Europa Press) - Archbishop Carlos Osoro of Valencia, Spain praised his predecessor for a life of “service to the Church through love,” as he spoke at the funeral Mass for Spanish Cardinal Agustin Garcia-Gasco.
“A few days into our stay in Rome for the beatification of Pope John Paul II, we received word of the death of Cardinal Garcia-Gasco. Amidst our dismay, we experienced hope, for he lived to love and to give of himself out of love for the Church in service of all mankind,” Archbishop Osoro said in his May 4 homily.
Cardinal Garcia-Gasco died of a heart attack on May 1 in Rome at the age of 80. He had traveled to Italy to attend the beatification of John Paul II.
“The resurrection has reached and permeated us,” the archbishop said. “Cardinal Garcia-Gasco held fast to the Lord’s hand, and consequently he could say, ‘I, but no longer I.’ Cardinal Garcia-Gasco, having received the life of Christ, did not remain in death, he loved,” the archbishop said.
Vatican City, May 5, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Vatican condemned “sexual exploitation in all its forms” and offered prayers for those affected by a Canadian bishop who recently plead guilty to importing child pornography into the country.
“Recognizing the confusion and anger that this case has engendered among many of the faithful, we underscore our pastoral concern for those who have experienced great pain as a result of these events,”
read a statement issued by the Vatican on May 5.
Bishop Raymond J. Lahey was jailed on May 4 immediately after pleading guilty to importing child pornography.
Bishop Lahey, 70, formerly led the Diocese of Antigonish, Nova Scotia and was arrested in 2009 after Ottowa airport workers found him in possession of child pornography as he reentered the country from a trip abroad.
The bishop's lawyer informed the court on Wednesday that he wanted to give up his right to bail and be directly imprisoned out of remorse for his actions.
“The Catholic Church condemns sexual exploitation in all its forms, especially when perpetrated against minors,” the Vatican said, noting that in “a special way our thoughts and prayers are with the people of the Diocese of Antigonish and all the Atlantic region.”
The Vatican statement added that although “the civil process has run its course, the Holy See will continue to follow the canonical procedures in effect for such cases, which will result in the imposition of the appropriate disciplinary or penal measures.”
The Canadian bishops' conference also weighed in after the guilty plea on May 4, echoing the Vatican's stance against sexual exploitation and emphasizing that the conference “continues to work to prevent such behavior and to bring healing to the victims and their families.”
“We reiterate the Catholic Church’s long-standing condemnation of the possession, distribution and use of child pornographic images in all forms, and renew our resolve to do everything we can to promote the dignity and respect of the human person,” the bishops said.
Washington D.C., May 5, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Muslim countries may seek a United Nations resolution that would brand criticism of Islam and other religions as “hate speech,” a top U.S. religious freedom official is warning.
Earlier this year, Islamic nations lost their most recent bid to pass a resolution against “defamation” or “vilification” of religions in the U.N. Human Rights Council. Now they appear to be pursing a new tactic, said Leonard Leo, a presidential appointee who chairs the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“My concern is that the Organization of the Islamic Conference will now try to get 'defamation of religions' and 'blasphemy' resolutions passed through the back door – that is to say, by pushing the 'hate speech' issue,” he told CNA.
The Islamic conference was lobbying the U.N. for what Leo called a “global blasphemy law,” which would have condemned “defamation of religions” and urged member states to pass laws against it.
Although the measure failed, Leo said Islamic states may have better luck using broader “hate speech” language that some Western countries already accept.
The Islamic states' new approach, he believes, will be “to move away from the 'defamation of religions' framework” they have relied on in the past, and move toward “a broader, more amorphous 'hate speech' framework.”
Many European nations already have laws against “hate speech” and a U.N. international covenant on civil and political rights also encourages prohibitions against it.
Leo said the Islamic nations’ shift in strategy may build on a vaguely-worded 2009 resolution that Egypt and the United States co-sponsored in the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Both countries endorsed a statement “which talked about governments taking appropriate actions against 'hostility' as well as incitement to violence” on religious grounds.
Leo worries that the language of that measure, adopted in 2009 without a vote, “opens the door” to new laws that would make it a crime to criticize the behavior of religious believers.
“The problem is, 'hostility' could arguably encompass a much broader category of speech and conduct,” Leo said. “The U.S.-Egypt resolution said that countries should take actions to prevent incitement, hostility, or discrimination. Now, what is 'hostility'? We don't know.”
A U.N. resolution against religious “hate speech” or “hostility” would not bind member states to outlaw these kinds of expression.
The real problem, said Leo, is that such a resolution would lend the appearance of international legitimacy to existing laws outlawing religious criticism – such as those in Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, and many other Muslim-run states. It would also signal international acceptance of new laws that would have similar effects.
Since 1999, U.N. human rights subgroups have passed resolutions every year that incorporated the Islamic states' preferred language against “defamation of religions.”
But these proposals declined in popularity, especially after two opponents of Pakistan's blasphemy law were murdered by Islamic extremists in 2011.
This year, for the first time since 1999, there was no U.N. resolution urging governments to repress either “defamation” or “vilification” of religions.
Instead, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning religious intolerance.
Leo called the rejection of this year's anti-“defamation” proposal “good news.”
He said the resolution against religious intolerance made it clear that “you shouldn't have laws that criminalize anything other than incitement to violent acts.”
Other international observers are less confident about this latest U.N. action.
Ashley McGuire, program director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the new resolution includes language “recycled” from earlier efforts to pass a global blasphemy law.
This language, she told CNA, remains “very problematic,” as in the case of phrases like “incitement to hatred.” Such a language, McGuire said “could be interpreted quite widely” to suppress legitimate criticism.
In one passage of the new resolution, the council “urges states to take effective measures … to address and combat” incidents of “religious intolerance, discrimination and related violence.” However, another portion of the same provision seems to suggest further government measures against “incitement to discrimination” or “hostility.”
McGuire believes the new resolution's central flaw is its failure to distinguish between speech that some may find offensive or provocative, and speech that constitutes an incitement to violence against members of a religion.
“Incitement to violence is something that's already condemned in international law,” she said. “But to say things that are religious in nature, and provocative, is an entirely different thing. What continues to be the problem is the conflation of the two.”
McGuire also noted that the new resolution's failure to condemn blasphemy laws would allow Islamic states to continue claiming a U.N. mandate for such measures.
Zamir Akram, Pakistan's ambassador to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said the new resolution “does not replace the (Islamic conference’s) earlier resolutions on combating defamation of religions, which … continue to remain valid.”
West Hartford, Conn., May 5, 2011 (CNA) - Although the Haitian people are grateful for all that has been accomplished since the devastating earthquake shook Haiti 16 months ago, they need the generous aid and deep commitment to continue.
In a program hosted by Diocese of Norwich Outreach to Haiti and St. Peter Claver Church, Jude Marie Banatte, a Haitian doctor who has been with Catholic Relief Services for 11 years, spoke about CRS activities following the earthquake and about the progress of long term reconstruction and recovery.
"Things are not moving fast in Haiti, said Dr. Banatte. "But they are moving fast enough, when we consider the challenges and the underlying conditions (that existed) before the disaster."
Dr. Banatte, who manages large CRS medical and health projects on Haiti’s southwestern coast, presented statistics to provide a context for considering the magnitude of achievements and to enhance understanding of why recovery in Haiti will require a long term effort. He also contrasted circumstances surrounding the earthquake in Haiti and subsequent quakes in Chile and Japan, where recovery seems to be moving at a faster pace.
Before the earthquake, the literacy rate in Haiti was just 52 percent, and half the population lived on less than $1 a day. The country had the highest infant mortality rate in the region, and there were only two doctors for every 10,000 inhabitants, he said.
Agricultural productivity was so low it only accounted for 28 percent of gross domestic product. Haiti only produced 49 percent of the food it needs to feed itself; forcing the country to rely on imports.
"Farming doesn’t provide for the needs of the country," said Dr. Bannatte. "(Yet) we do not have hunger in Haiti; we do not have malnutrition in Haiti. It’s a major accomplishment."
That’s because CRS has distributed 25 million rations since the quake, he said, to help meet the nutritional needs of the Haitian people.
But the real accomplishment, he said, has been in empowering Haitians to increase self-sufficiency so they may provide for their own nutritional needs.
Dr. Banatte called the fact that no epidemics have started in the camps "another major accomplishment." More than 1.2 million homeless people were sheltered in open areas, creating a huge potential for disease, he said.
Dr. Banatte said the efforts of CRS in Haiti have been in three phases: relief, recovery and reconstruction. Most efforts so far have been on relief and recovery.
In all of its efforts, CRS seeks to help Haitians to become self-reliant and take greater roles.
"We have transitioned into activities that enable people to make their own living, enabling them to provide for their families and develop the economy," he said. CRS is also working with farmers to improve agricultural production.
Eleven thousand people have been employed with pay for clearing rubble, cleaning out drainage canals and building transitional shelters. Others have helped clear debris, making way for 8,000 transitional shelters that have been built. More than 1,300 water and sanitation units have also been installed.
Despite these results, people have the impression that not too much has been done in Haiti, said Dr. Banatte.
"I think that is very true if you are looking at it from the (perspective) of reconstruction; even the rubble hasn’t been removed yet," he said.
"But if you look at it in terms of meeting food, water, and sanitation needs of nearly three million people in a highly vulnerable group, the efforts have been very successful."
In contrasting circumstances in Haiti with the earthquakes in Chile and Japan, Dr. Banatte noted that the earthquake in Haiti had a magnitude of 7.2 and lasted 35 seconds.
The subsequent earthquakes in Chile and Japan were significantly stronger and lasted longer.
People ask why 230,000 died from the quake in Haiti, when in Japan, less than 10 percent of that number (including victims of the earthquake and tsunami) were killed, he said. While all of the earthquakes have been tragic and in Japan the nuclear crisis continues, the disaster in Haiti was exacerbated by many factors.
The people in Haiti were not prepared. The nation’s last earthquake was 200 years ago. Because the country is prone to hurricanes; municipal buildings were made to withstand wind and floods, but not to withstand an earthquake.
Video images of the earthquake in Japan showed people running from buildings. When the earth started to shake in Haiti, people thought something was happening in the streets and rushed into buildings to protect themselves, said Dr. Banatte.
The distance from the earthquake epicenters to major population centers was another factor.
Most of those who died in Haiti were in Port-au-Prince, a city built for 500,000 that was inhabited by three million people, which was near the epicenter. In Chile and Japan, the earthquake epicenters were 60 to 80 miles from major population centers.
Port-au-Prince, the capital city center, was destroyed. "It collapsed the capacity of the leaders – the decision making people – to react because they themselves were victims," he said.
Dr. Banatte said he hoped his presentation encouraged people to continue to help Haiti in the future.
He encouraged people to "use their constituency, their voting power, to talk with Congresspeople (entreating them to) not cut the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable."
Printed with permission from the Catholic Transcript, newspaper from the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn.
Houston, Texas, May 5, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Top Vatican official Cardinal Raymond L. Burke is set to pray and speak out against abortion at Planned Parenthood's new facility expansion in Texas.
“Cardinal Burke is a man of great passion for the pro-life cause and is one of the highest ranking U.S. bishops in the church,” said event organizers from the Catholic Charismatic Center on April 28.
The cardinal serves as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura for the Vatican in Rome.
“His particular presence at this abortion facility will be a very significant moment of official opposition to the abortion industry in America.”
Hundreds are expected to join Cardinal Burke on May 9 outside the Houston clinic, which recently built a sizable addition specifically for late-term abortions.
The prayer vigil is part of two pro-life events slated in the next week which include a “Night for Life” benefit on May 8 with Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and head of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
The gala will help fund the Pro-life Apostolate of the Catholic Charismatic Center.
“The presence of these two prominent voices for the unborn in this country lends special significance to this Gala and the message that will be spoken regarding Planned Parenthood’s huge expansion in Houston making it the abortion capital of the United States and South America, will be heard by many,” organizers said.
Washington D.C., May 5, 2011 (CNA) - The U.S. House of Representatives passed a permanent ban on taxpayer funding for abortion across all federal programs, including those created by last year’s health care legislation.
“Want to reduce abortions? End public funding,” said legislation author Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). “There is no doubt whatsoever that ending public funding for abortions saves lives.”
The ban faces opposition in the Senate and is not expected to overcome a veto threat from the White House.
Smith spoke on the House floor May 4 and said the bill would “end taxpayer complicity in abortion violence.”
“No taxpayer should be coerced to pay, subsidize or facilitate the dismemberment, chemical poisoning, starvation or suctioning to death of a child and the harming of a woman.”
The bill passed by a margin of 251 to 175, with unanimous Republican support and 16 Democrats.
H.R. 3, titled “The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” has 227 co-sponsors, including 11 Democrats. With few exceptions, the bill intends to end any U.S. government financial support of abortion through direct funding, tax credits or other subsidies. It also protects the conscience rights of individuals and institutions which object to performing abortions.
Present restrictions on abortion funding, such as the Hyde Amendment, govern only specific areas of funding and often must be renewed annually.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have advocated the passage of H.R. 3. However, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate. Backers of the legislation could force a Senate vote by pairing it with a vote on raising the federal debt ceiling, the Washington Post reports.
President Obama’s senior advisors would recommend a veto of the bill if it arrives at his desk.
The Obama administration “strongly opposes” the legislation because it “intrudes on women’s reproductive freedom and access to health care,” increases the tax burden on many Americans, and “unnecessarily restricts” private insurance choices, the White House said in a May 2 statement.
Opponents of the bill have also claimed it could result in IRS audits of rape and incest victims who seek abortions.
Smith said his bill would ensure that “Obamacare,” the health care legislation passed in 2010, would no longer allow tax credits for the purchase of insurance plans that include abortion or subsidies for abortion “except in the rare cases of rape, incest or life of the mother.”
The congressman said there was “great” need to protect pro-life institutions such as Catholic hospitals from discrimination by government authorities that attempt to coerce them to perform, have complicity in, or pay for abortion.
Smith said his legislation should become law because America is “more pro-life than ever.” This trend was evident in people such as former Planned Parenthood abortion clinic director Abby Johnson, who now opposes abortion.
He said the country should protect the unborn child from “the insidious violence of abortion” and protect women from the trauma of procuring an abortion.