Washington D.C., Mar 22, 2013 (CNA) -
Five members of Congress say the U.S. State Department is not doing enough to help Pastor Saeed Abedini, an imprisoned U.S. citizen being held in an Iranian prison because of his Christian beliefs.
“To date, the State Department’s posture on this case has been woefully inadequate, especially given that the life of an American citizen hangs in the balance,” their March 20 letter said.
“Both the European Union and the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran have advocated publicly for Pastor Saeed – the same cannot be said of this administration.”
Those who signed the letter to Secretary of State John Kerry included Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the House Committee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The letter charged that the absence of State Department testimony at a recent hearing “sent a dangerous message” that “even human rights that compromise the safety and security of American citizens will be met with virtual silence from the U.S. government.”
Pastor Abedini is serving an eight-year sentence in Iran’s harsh Evin Prison. He converted to Christianity from Islam 13 years ago and had worked with house churches in Iran until attracting government opposition. In 2009, he agreed to stop working with house churches and he began work in non-religious orphanages.
He was arrested in September 2012 on charges that his earlier work with house churches posed a threat to national security.
The pastor has been a U.S. citizen since 2010, following his marriage to his American wife. He has the support of legal groups like the European Centre for Law and Justice and the American Center of Law and Justice, which have helped collect nearly 450,000 petition signatures in support of Abedini.
In a February letter, the pastor reported that in prison he has suffered physical violence, psychological abuse, death threats and declining health.
Last week the Tom Lantos Human Rights commission held a hearing about religious freedom abuses in Iran with a specific focus on the Abedini case. The State Department said no one was available to testify.
“There was a palpable sense of disappointment in the room that our government didn’t deem the hearing important enough to provide a witness,” said the congressmen’s letter.
State Department officials met with Rep. Wolf’s staff and Abedini’s wife and her legal counsel later that day. Wolf said these officials would have made suitable witnesses for the hearing.
Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) also signed the letter.
They charged that the State Department “misled” the commission. They urged Kerry to issue a public statement advocating Pastor Abedini’s “immediate and unconditional release” and to use the full resources of the U.S. government to free the pastor.
The congress members said an earlier State Department statement that expressed disappointment at Abedini’s sentence failed to convey “an appropriate sense of urgency.”
They also backed a proposal to create a special envoy at the U.S. State Department to advocate on behalf of religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. In the last congressional session, the proposal passed in the House but failed to advance in the Senate Foreign Relations committee, which Kerry headed at the time.
Rep. Wolf earlier this month released a report on the persecution of Christians, Jews and other religious minorities in the Middle East and south central Asia that lamented that persecution was causing a Christian exodus from the Middle East.
New Orleans, La., Mar 22, 2013 (CNA) -
After fighting a lawsuit for over five years, Benedictine monks in Louisiana finally won the right to sell their handmade wooden caskets when a federal appeals court ruled in their favor March 20.
“This is great news for us...we're first of all very grateful,” said Abbot Justin Brown of the Covington-based Saint Joseph Abbey.
“We noted that the news came to us the day after the feast of St. Joseph, so we felt that we certainly had a friend and an intercessor in St. Joseph throughout these years we've been involved in this case,” he told CNA March 21.
The Abbey was forced to file a suit against the members of the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, who claimed the sale of caskets within the state could only be done by a state-licensed funeral director at a funeral home.
Wednesday's ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms the decision of a lower court that the funeral directors' policy denied the monks' rights to equal protection and due process.
“We have felt very much vindicated...we felt from the very beginning that we were being denied our constitutional rights with this law, that said we could not sell our caskets in Louisiana.”
“We could sell them outside Louisiana, but we couldn't sell them inside Louisiana.”
The abbey started its casket program on All Saints Day, 2007. It had previously received income from its timberland, but it had been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and “the Abbey began looking for other revenue sources,” the appeal court's decision explained.
The month after their casket business began, the Louisiana embalmers board “ordered the Abbey not to sell caskets to the public.”
The court wrote that the State Board's rule granting funeral directors a monopoly on Louisiana casket sales “adds nothing to protect consumers and puts them at a greater risk of abuse including exploitative prices.”
The simple wooden caskets made by the monks are sold at prices “significantly lower than those offered by funeral homes.”
“The funeral directors have offered no rational basis for their challenged rule and, try as we are required to do, we can suppose none,” the court concluded.
The case may go to the Supreme Court, as the Fifth Circuit's decision is at odds with the Tenth Circuit's 2004 decision upholding a similar law in Oklahoma.
Abbot Brown said the decision “is helping us certainly support our ministry and life here at St. Joseph Abbey, and it means a lot also to those who purchase our caskets for their loved ones.”
St. Joseph Abbey is nearly 125 years old, and operates a college seminary that serves dioceses in the South. It also has a retreat center, and a bakery that provides bread twice a week for New Orleans' poor, in addition to their casket business.
The caskets have “good craftmanship,” Abbot Brown noted. “They're very simple but very well done.”
“We feel that not only for us but for others, this is a victory for economic liberty. Especially for small businesses, that run against these kinds of regulations, and we hope this victory can help others.”
Albuquerque, N.M., Mar 22, 2013 (CNA) - Despite only being 27 years old, Tim Harris already has a lengthy resume.
The New Mexico native has won more medals than Michael Phelps, was voted homecoming king by the largest margin of votes in his high school’s history, is a college graduate and owns the “world’s friendliest restaurant,” Tim’s Place, in Albuquerque.
Although Harris was born with Down syndrome, his life has been defined by his dreams, not his disability.
“My inspiration,” Harris told CNA March 21, “is that I have wanted to open a restaurant since I was a kid.”
With the help of his family, Harris was able to realize that goal in 2010 when he opened Tim’s Place, a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and hugs.
“The best part is the hugs and all the love that comes with those hugs,” Harris said.
According to his digital hug counter that hangs on the wall, Harris has given away over 33,000 of them so far.
“I want people to feel comfortable and (give them) something awesome to have when they go home,” Harris explained. “They’ll give a hug to their people in their hometown … then they can send a hug around the state.”
Harris’ older brother, Dan, works as the operations manager while his father, Keith, helps with the “business side” of the restaurant. His mother, Jeannie, helped put up the pictures from Harris’ life which adorn a wall under the words, “I’m more like you than different.”
In the over two years that Tim’s Place has been in business, Harris has been featured on local news channels, NPR, People Magazine and NBC’s Today Show, to name a few. The media attention has brought in even more loyal patrons.
“I feel really happy when I’m with my customers and they’re just so happy for me,” Harris said.
Harris’ restaurant also helps support Special Olympics of New Mexico and the National Down Syndrome Congress.
“We support the Special Olympics because they do a lot for us,” he said.
While some of his favorite events are basketball, hockey, track and field and golf, Harris – a Special Olympic athlete and medal winner – has already begun training for volleyball.
Harris has three brothers, each of whom is a “superhero,” he said.
Vatican City, Mar 22, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Pope Francis invited the diplomats accredited to the Holy See to join him in fighting both material and spiritual poverty, which both contribute to the lack of peace in the world.
“Fighting poverty, both material and spiritual, building peace and constructing bridges: these, as it were, are the reference points for a journey that I want to invite each of the countries here represented to take up,” Pope Francis said March 22.
The Pope met this morning in the Regia Hall of the Apostolic Palace with representatives from the more than 180 countries, sovereign orders and international organizations that have formal relations with the Vatican.
After a message of welcome and thanks from Ambassador Jean-Claude Michel, the dean of the diplomatic corps, Pope Francis offered his thoughts on the meeting and the Church’s engagement with the world.
This is “a simple yet deeply felt ceremony that somehow seeks to express the Pope’s embrace of the world. Through you, indeed, I encounter your peoples, and thus in a sense I can reach out to every one of your fellow citizens, with their joys, their troubles, their expectations, their desires,” he said.
He also highlighted some of the reasons why he chose the name Francis, including his love and care for the poor, work that he noted Christians are engaged in throughout the world.
“But there is another form of poverty!” he told the diplomats.
“It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously.
“It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘tyranny of relativism,’ which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples,” he said.
The second reason that he chose Francis, the Pope recalled, is that the saint worked to build peace.
“But there is no true peace without truth!” he stressed.
“There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”
Pope Francis noted that one of his titles is “pontiff, that is, a builder of bridges with God and between people.”
“My own origins,” he explained, “impel me to work for the building of bridges. As you know, my family is of Italian origin; and so this dialogue between places and cultures a great distance apart matters greatly to me.”
And the growing interconnectedness and interdependence of the world makes the need for “real spaces of authentic fraternity” more important as well, he said.
Pope Francis underscored that building real brotherhood requires the contributions of faith, since it is “not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God.”
“But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God, while ignoring other people,” he added.
For this reason, the Pope told the ambassadors it is “important to intensify dialogue among the various religions” and that he is “thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam” and “non-believers.”
Pope Francis acknowledged that “fighting poverty, both material and spiritual, building peace and constructing bridges” will be “difficult if we do not learn to grow in love for this world of ours,” which involves both people and the environment.
“Here too, it helps me to think of the name of Francis, who teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation and the protection of our environment, which all too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment,” he said.
After delivering his address, Pope Francis individually greeted the diplomats, some of whom were accompanied by their wives.
On Saturday, Pope Francis will take a helicopter to meet with Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo around noon. His first Holy Week as Pope will begin the following day with the celebration of Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.
CNA STAFF, Mar 22, 2013 (CNA) - The director of the Catholic News Agency of Argentina (AICA) has told CNA that claims of Pope Francis supporting gay civil unions when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires are not true.
Miguel Woites, who works directly with the Bishops’ Conference of Argentina, the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires and the Apostolic Nunciature, dismissed statementes made by Sergio Rubin, the author of an interview with Cardinal Bergoglio entitled “Over Heaven and Earth.”
Since Pope Francis’ election on March 13, media reports have circulated Rubin’s claim that the future Pope had supported homosexual unions as a possible political compromise in Argentinia. Rubin has been the only source used by the media for this claim.
In an article for the Argentinean newspaper Clarin, published on March 14, the day after Pope Francis’ election, Rubin wrote, “When debate on the gay marriage bill began in the country, Bergoglio proposed that the bishops adopt a moderate position and perhaps leave room for civil unions as a compromise.”
Days later, Rubin told the Associated Press that when Cardinal Bergoglio realized that same-sex marriage might be legalized, he suggested the Church support civil unions, a position that, according to Rubin, was rejected by the bishops.
Woites told CNA that Rubin’s statements about the future Pope Francis “are not true, they are totally inaccurate.”
“He never said who said it and when. It’s wrong to invent something like this out of thin air. That article was severely criticized by the bishops. He probably was referring to (heterosexual) domestic partnerships, but not that anything be legalized,” Woites said.
He underscored that what Rubin said in his article “is an incorrect statement.”
In a letter to the Carmelite nuns of Buenos Aires on July 8, 2010, when the debate on homosexual marriage in the country was in full swing, then-Cardinal Bergoglio wrote, “Let’s not be naïve: This is a not simple political struggle, but an attempt to destroy God's plan. It is not just a bill but a move of the Father of Lies, who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
Los Angeles, Calif., Mar 22, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Addressing America's immigration problem, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles urged religious believers to recall the nation to an understanding of human dignity based on its biblical roots.
“The real problem is that immigration is a question about America – about our national identity and destiny, about the national 'soul,'” the Archbishop of Los Angeles told the Jewish advocacy group AJC's event “Bonds of Fellowship and Friendship” March 19.
“The question for us is what’s our role in immigration reform, as religious people? ... I think our role is to be the voice of conscience and vision. That’s what’s been missing in the debate so far.”
During his remarks, the archbishop said that he himself is an immigrant – a native of Monterrey, Mexico who did not move to the U.S. until after his college education.
Archbishop Gomez noted that the evening was an opportunity to deepen friendship between Catholics and Jews in Los Angeles, “deepening the spiritual ties that unite us in truth, respect and goodness.”
He said that the communities' joint mission is to make their city a place of love, truth and peace, and that immigration reform is among the most pressing issues faced by Los Angeles.
The archbishop expressed gladness that “finally” there is movement on the issue, noting that at a meeting with religious leaders a couple weeks ago, President Obama “agreed with our concerns” on immigration.
Immigration poses questions about America's identity, he said.
“What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a people and where are we heading as a country? What will the “next America” look like? What should the next America look like?”
Archbishop Gomez noted G. K. Chesterton's comment that the U.S. is the only nation founded not on a territory or shared race or ethnicity, but on a creed, on a vision.
The vision, he said, is Judeo-Christian, rooted in both the Old and New Testaments.
“America’s 'creed' is based on the biblical teaching that human life is sacred and has great dignity — because God made men and women in his own image. It gets expressed this way in the Declaration of Independence.”
This belief has allowed a “flourishing diversity of cultures, religions and ways of life,” but increasing secularism, he said, “makes it hard to talk about the values and commitments we find in America’s founding documents.”
America's founding principles – that human rights come not from government but from God – is what makes it even possible to talk about human rights and dignity, said Archbishop Gomez.
“So if we are not allowed to talk about God anymore in our politics or civic life then it becomes very hard to talk about human rights and human dignity.”
“And I think that’s one of the problems we are having in this immigration debate. We have lost sense of the 'humanity' of the men and women and children who are living in this country illegally.”
He expressed concern that we are “losing something of our national soul” in how illegal immigration is addressed.
“This great nation finds itself today reduced to addressing this major issue in our public life through: name calling and discrimination; criminal 'profiling' based on race; random identity checks; violent raids of workplaces and homes; arbitrary detentions and deportations.”
A quarter of persons deported from the U.S. are from intact families, he said. “In the name of enforcing our laws, now we are breaking up families.”
Last year, 400,000 persons were deported, the archbishop noted. That means that last year, 100,000 families were rent apart in the name of American law.
“These are not statistics, these are souls. Human beings. We’re talking about fathers and husbands who, with no warning, won’t be coming home for dinner tonight – and who may not see their families again for a decade at least. We are talking about a government policy that punishes children for the crimes of their parents.”
Archbishop Gomez called the nation to be “a better people than this.” He said America must be a place of both justice and law, as well as compassion and common sense.
“What we’re doing right now betrays our values and makes our country weaker and more vulnerable.”
Jews and Christians are called to be mindful of the strangers among us “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” God told the Hebrews in Exodus.
Archbishop Gomez said that is “what our society needs to hear right now...We need to help our brothers and sisters to remember the founding vision of America. The vision of the Bible.”
He said Jews and Christians must communicate this vision, in which the human person is made in the image of God. We must be “the people who remember and believe – that in God’s eyes we’re all his beloved sons and daughters.”
Even though in “our agitated political climate” this sounds “naïve,” he said this is “no time for polite silence about our values. Too much is at stake to give in to the corrosive cynicism that masks itself as political 'realism.'”
“We need to remind our neighbors,” Archbishop Gomez concluded, that America was was founded on the vision “that nobody ever forfeits his humanity or his right to be treated with dignity. No matter where he comes from or how he got here.”
“No matter what kind of papers he possesses or doesn’t possess. This is as fundamental to the Bill of Rights as it is and the Torah or the Sermon on the Mount.”
Vatican City, Mar 22, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis celebrated a small Mass for the Vatican’s janitors and gardeners on the morning of March 22 in the Domus Sanctae Marthae chapel.
Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano described the Mass as “a simple celebration to which the Pope invited employees of the garden and cleaning services of the Governorate of Vatican City State.”
The Pontiff’s short homily commented on the daily readings, explaining that we “stone” Jesus in our weak and vulnerable brothers and sisters when we have hearts of stone, according to the publication.
The Vatican newspaper reported that sisters from three religious communities were also present at the Mass - the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, the Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple.
Throughout the early days of his papacy, the Holy Father has drawn attention for his gestures of humility and simplicity.
During his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis stopped his vehicle during the procession to bless and kiss a disabled man. The Vatican recently announced that the Pope has decided to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper in a juvenile detention facility in Rome rather than at a basilica, where the Mass is usually held.
As archbishop of Argentina, he was known for his humility and deep affection for the poor, living in a simple apartment where he cooked his own meals, riding public transportation and spending time with the marginalized.
Other small acts since his election to the papacy have also attracted attention. Pope Francis made personal phone calls to both the head of the Jesuits in Rome and the owner of a newspaper kiosk back in Argentina, whom he informed that he would no longer need a paper delivered daily to his residence.
Washington D.C., Mar 22, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
U.S. bishops have asked participants in an ongoing fast to pray for the upcoming March for Marriage in Washington, D.C., noting that Pope Francis urged Argentine Catholics to take part in a similar event.
In a March 22 statement, the bishops recalled how then-Cardinal Jorge Bergogli, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, encouraged support for a July 2010 march in the Argentine capital.
The pontiff had said in a letter to Carmelite nuns in Argentina that at risk in the marriage debate are “the identity and the survival of the family.”
“At stake are the lives of children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God,” he said, praying that the Holy Family of St. Joseph, St. Mary and the Christ Child defend the family.
The bishops' statement Friday encouraged prayer for all who take part in the March 26 March for Marriage, asking “that they may witness boldly to the truth of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
Their prayer intention is especially directed to those taking part in the Year of Faith “Call to Prayer” for the protection of life, marriage and religious liberty. Participants are encouraged to abstain from meat and to fast on Fridays until Nov. 24, Christ the King Sunday. Over 1,000 people have signed a pledge to fast.
The bishops encouraged those who cannot attend the march to participate spiritually through prayer and fasting on March 26. “Following our Holy Father’s example, let us entreat the Holy Family to defend marriage and the family in the United States!”
Plans for the the march in downtown Washington, D.C., are generating excitement and enthusiastic support, according to organizers of the event.
The occasion has been hailed as “an opportunity to witness to the culture about our pro-marriage beliefs,” according to Thomas Peters, cultural director for the National Organization for Marriage.
Peters told CNA in a February interview that the nation's citizens coming together visibly to support the institution of marriage is critically important.
The March 26 date coincides with the first day of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Hollingsworth v. Perry. The lawsuit challenges California’s Proposition 8, a state measure recognizing marriage existing solely between a man and a woman.
Hollingsworth v. Perry is one of two cases on same-sex “marriage” that the nation’s high court will consider this year. The other challenges the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman for all federal purposes.
The two cases are both expected to yield landmark decisions that will set the tone for the definition of marriage throughout the nation. Decisions in both cases are expected in late June.