Washington D.C., Apr 24, 2013 (CNA) -
In his speeches and writings on universities, Benedict XVI constantly focused on the need for reason to be open to God as a subject of knowledge, the editor of a new volume of his addresses says.
“The problem we face in the university is the emptying out or reduction of reason; so what has to be recovered is reason as reason,” said Dr. J. Steven Brown, a professor of mechanical engineering at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
“A reason,” he noted, “that does not exclude at the outset God as being unscientific.”
In an April 22 interview with CNA, Brown discussed his experience in editing the new book, “A Reason Open to God,” a collection of Benedict's thought on universities, education, and culture.
The book is published by Catholic University of America Press, and will be available May 17. After a foreword by Catholic University of America president John Garvey, it opens with Benedict XVI's 2008 letter to the Diocese of Rome identifying contemporary society's “educational emergency.”
The rest of the book collects quite nearly all of the emeritus pontiff's addresses on education and culture while he was Bishop of Rome. They are arranged thematically into seven sections: on faith and reason; freedom and truth; education and love; pedagogy and learning; faith and community; culture and universities; and science and theology.
Brown explained that the book began when Garvey, shortly after becoming president at Catholic University of America, asked Brown and five other faculty members to participate in a symposium answering the question “What does faith have to do with the intellectual life?”
“My obvious starting point,” Brown said, “was to see what has Benedict XVI said about this question. I found everything he'd said in a university context, I pulled it all together, I wrote my 10 minute intervention and I delivered that in January 2011.”
He chose to give this chronological collection of Benedict's addresses on education to Garvey as an inaugural gift, as he had only recently come to the university. He also shared it with another faculty member, who pushed him to have it published.
“I showed it to the director of CUA Press hoping he'd put me off it, but he said 'We'd love to publish this'...So then I began to put the book together in a form that would be helpful to a wider audience, grouping the addresses around themes.”
“The Pope never set out to write a book here; he simply gave discrete addresses in different contexts,” Brown said. He was humble about his thematic presentation of the addresses, noting that since Benedict's thought in any given talk addressed a variety of topics, “any editor could group them in a different way.”
“I also included a few addresses I think are key, crucial to understanding the thought of Pope Benedict,” even though they were not delivered in a university setting, Brown added.
Brown has taught engineering at Catholic University of America for 16 years, and so the question of the nature of a Catholic university is one he said he has “lived existentially, dramatically, during the course of my years here at the university.”
His own engagement of the relationship between faith and reason at universities is informed by his membership in the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, which was founded by Italy's Monsignor Luigi Giussani in the 1950s.
As a teenager in seminary, Giussani had asked “if Christ has to do with everything, then what does he have to do with mathematics?”
“This is a crucial question for me as an engineer,” Brown said. “It's crucial for anyone engaged in university education.”
For the answer, Brown goes to what Benedict said during his Sept. 2008 address to cultural representatives in Paris on the necessity of seeking God for culture. Reducing reason to positivism – the belief that only the tangible is true – results in the exclusion of vital areas of knowledge such as theology, the former pontiff said.
“A purely positivistic culture that tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm as being unscientific would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences,” Benedict warned.
“What gave Europe's culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”
Even the banal things of life, Brown said, “become the basis for a dialogue with Christ” when one accepts the giftedness of nature and existence. Were engineering and Christ put on different sides of the subject, independent of one another, the human person's life “would be split.”
Subjects such as engineering aren't reducible to the positivistic, empirical data of the science, because “engineering is always a human endeavor. And if that's true, then it has to be linked to God,” Brown said.
“Whatever I have in front of me is pure gift...it is for me to enter into relationship with and thus to discover its destiny and its truth, which is ultimately a Person,” he had said in his initial response to Garvey's question of faith and the intellectual life.
Brown works with his stud ents to appreciate Benedict's teaching that reason cannot be narrowed so as to exclude invisible, spiritual beings within its realm, the realm of knowledge. He shows them that humans persistently use faith as a method of knowing, and that we can reach justified, certain belief with this method.
Since Garvey became president at Catholic University of America, he has done a “fantastic job” of engaging questions of faith and reason, Catholic identity, and the breadth of reason, Brown said.
“Not that all the question have been answered; it's an ongoing thing, but I've seen steady progress since I've been here.” Brown mentioned discussions at the institution of how Catholic identity should inform the hiring of faculty and doing research, and that Garvey has engaged these questions “acutely.”
Small changes in the culture at Catholic University of America have helped it to “reverberate within the ecclesial life of faith,” as Benedict XVI said in his April 2008 address to Catholic educators given at the university.
San Francisco, Calif., Apr 24, 2013 (CNA) - The education fund of Catholics United, a Democrat-leaning group that has clashed with the bishops on several prominent issues, received a grant worth almost its entire 2011 budget to recruit Catholic clergy in key swing states to support the Environmental Protection Agency.
The San Francisco-based Energy Foundation gave a $116,000 grant to the Catholics United Education Fund in November 2011 “to recruit and engage Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota” in support of the EPA’s “regulatory authority.”
The Catholics United Education Fund’s 2011 tax forms show total revenue of $116,200 for the year.
James Salt, executive director of the group, told CNA April 23 that The Energy Foundation supported the education fund’s work to teach Catholics what Salt characterized as “Pope Benedict XVI’s and Pope Francis’ elevation of environmental stewardship as a key priority for Catholics.”
He said the project reached about 200 clergy and that the Catholics United Education Fund has “a particularly strong footprint” in the selected states, which also suffer “major forms of pollution.”
The states named in The Energy Foundation grant included several key swing states in the 2012 election. Ahead of that election, many Catholic bishops named issues such as ending legalized abortion and defending traditional marriage as key priorities.
In 2008, Catholics United came under fire by then-Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who said the group and its allies have “done a disservice to the Church.”
The organization, Archbishop Chaput charged, has “confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn.”
The Catholics United Education Fund is a 501(c)(3) partner of Catholics United, a 501(c)(4) organization that often defends Democratic political causes, at times conflicting with Church teaching. The organizations’ different tax statuses mean the education fund faces more restrictions on political expenditures.
Salt is the executive director of both groups and the organizations share many of the same leaders.
The Catholics United Education Fund made the news in November 2012 for a petition drive against the Knights of Columbus’ support for non-partisan political efforts to defend marriage between a man and a woman. It also received news coverage in 2012 for criticizing the end of a Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant to a Colorado immigrant group which was a member of a coalition that supports same-sex unions.
Catholics United has drawn criticism for downplaying religious freedom concerns about the Obama administration’s HHS mandate requiring Catholic employers, including some Catholic colleges, charities and health care systems, to provide insurance coverage for sterilization, contraception and abortion-causing drugs.
It also defended the nomination of Catholic Kathleen Sebelius as Department of Health and Human Service Secretary, despite concerns about her pro-abortion “rights” views.
The Catholics United Education Fund has connections with other groups that have stirred controversy over their political initiatives.
The chair of the organization’s board of directors, Jessica Barba Brown, is vice president for program development at Faith in Public Life, a communications strategy center that favors Democrat-leaning political causes. That organization helped run the “Nuns on the Bus” public relations campaign promoting several vowed religious who object to budget-cutting proposals from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Faith in Public Life also ran a behind-the-scenes media effort in 2012 to undercut the U.S. bishops’ efforts to defend religious freedom against the HHS mandate. The organization sent out a memo instructing journalists to corner the bishops with questions about their religious freedom concerns, which it labeled as “fiction.”
New York City, N.Y., Apr 24, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York will receive the 2013 William Wilberforce Award this weekend from a group of Christians for his leadership in standing up for religious freedom.
“I resonate with Cardinal Dolan as much as any public religious leader in our country today,” Dr. Timothy George, chairman of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview which is bestowing the award, told CNA April 16.
“Cardinal Dolan has just been tremendous, he's one of the major leaders not just of the Catholic Church in the United States today, but of all Christians, and really all people of goodwill.”
George, who is also a Baptist minister and dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, noted that the prelate has “taken a very courageous and bold stand” for conscience protection and religious liberty in the face of the HHS contraception mandate.
“But that's only one of a variety of concerns,” he added. “We're concerned about the dignity of marriage, the sanctity of every human life, including those children waiting to be born, and religious freedom.”
“On these particular issues as well as concern for the poor and the marginalized, Cardinal Dolan is a hero to so many of us.”
The William Wilberforce Award was established in 1988, and honors those who “have done something significant, noteworthy and consequential to show the importance of a positive witness related to the values and character of the Christian faith in our time today,” George said.
Cardinal Dolan is the third Catholic to be given the award, following Father John Neuhaus in 1998 and Bishop Macram Gassis of El Obeid, in Sudan.
The honor is named for an evangelical social reformer of 19th century Britain, who worked to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire.
“Certainly Cardinal Dolan has been a tremendous encourager to Catholics,” but also to other Christians, George said. “He's had a unique position from his base in New York to speak out clearly and boldly, but also winsomely.”
He praised Cardinal Dolan's ability to “speak truth in love” and to convey the truth of Christianity “with a kind of joy, love, and sense of humor.”
“We make a better impact on correcting the culture of death with a culture of life if we can do that in a Christ-like way, and I think Cardinal Dolan has mastered that.”
George expressed relief that Cardinal Dolan was not elected Pope during the conclave at the Vatican in March, saying that “we need his leadership.”
“For him to leave his post would leave a tremendous vacuum, I think.”
Cardinal Dolan has been outspoken in his opposition to the HHS mandate, and had led his archdiocese into a lawsuit against the department, seeking to block its objectionable provisions.
In January 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services issued the mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act, requiring all health care providers to provide and pay for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs – even if the employer or insurance provider has deeply-held beliefs preventing the provision of these products and procedures.
George said that opposition to the mandate “really is a debate about religious freedom, focusing on conscientious objection,” rather than “a debate about contraception.”
“Many evangelicals are not on the same page with respect to contraception itself, but across the board evangelicals have stood with Catholics to say this is not about contraception – it's about religious freedom.”
It is Cardinal Dolan's defense of religious conscience for which the Colson Center is honoring him.
“One's conscience ought to be informed by the truth,” George said.
“Conscience in itself is not a final arbiter of what is absolutely right and wrong – it needs to be an informed conscience, and that requires from a Christian point of view, an understanding of who God is, of his revelation and holy scripture and the life of the church, and a moral sensitivity that is shaped by religious faith.”
“That's I think why Catholics object strongly to this (HHS mandate) enforcement, that it goes against their religious conscience.”
The award will be presented April 27 in Arlington, Va., as part of the Wilberforce Weekend Conference.
George is “very grateful” to Cardinal Dolan for accepting the Wilberforce Award, and said, “I look forward to the occasion.”
Rome, Italy, Apr 24, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
After a Vatican official stated that the Church could support same-sex civil unions, a Swiss theologian is saying that if they are equated with marriage these unions discriminate against married heterosexual couples.
“Besides containing an erroneous moral message, it actually means to objectively discriminate against married people, who intentionally have engaged in a union ordered towards the task of the transmission of human life, accepting all the burdens and responsibilities of this task,” said Swiss theologian Father Martin Rhonheimer.
“Conferring legal equality to same-sex unions signifies to publicly establish, in the law system, the principle of dissociation of sexuality and procreation,” he explained in an April 22 telephone interview with CNA.
His comments come after Archbishop Piero Marini, president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, expressed his openness to same-sex civil unions.
“In these discussions, it is necessary, for example, to recognize the union of people of the same sex, because there are many couples who suffer because their civil rights are not recognized," he said on April 20 in an interview with Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion.
“What cannot be recognized is that that couple be a marriage,” said Archbishop Marini.
A second Vatican official, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who spoke on the subject in a March 27 news conference, was misquoted by the press to make it seem he favored it.
Archbishop Paglia, the head of the Pontifical Council of the Family, said that the Church is opposed to anything that treats other unions as equivalent to marriage between a man and a woman, but that it could accept “private law solutions” for protecting people’s rights.
In a Vatican press conference on Feb. 4, he said that there are “several kinds of cohabitation forms that do not constitute a family” and that their number is increasing.
The archbishop suggested that countries could find “private law solutions” to help people living in non-matrimonial relations, to “prevent injustice and make their life easier.”
But Archbishop Paglia persisted in reaffirming that it is society’s responsibility to preserve the unique value of marriage.
Fr. Rhonheimer, who teaches political philosophy and ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said accepting same-sex civil unions is equating them with marriage, which “by its very nature is a union between a man and a woman.”
But he does not exclude private law solutions as mentioned by Archbishop Paglia, protecting same-sex couples’ civil rights and facilitating, for example, mutual care in case of illness and old age, or adaptations in the field of inheritance law.
“When equating homosexual unions to marriage, however, the legal system starts including a principle which in fact transforms the nature of marriage as a social and legal institution,” Fr. Rhonheimer stated.
“Besides being discriminating against those who bear considerable sacrifices in raising children and contribute in a most essential and irreplaceable way to the common good of society over time, it also has non-predictable long term consequences for the entire legal and social system,” he added.
He explained that approving same-sex unions could only be consistently argued for by assuming there is no moral relevant link between sexuality and procreation, an idea which is the legacy of the “sexual revolution” of the second half of the 20th century having disastrous effects on the societies of Western countries.
“Any attempt of proving the equality, in social and political terms, of heterosexual and homosexual unions is vain, simply because homosexual unions are by their very nature non-procreative,” Fr. Rhonheimer said.
According to the Swiss professor, the Church teaches that homosexual orientation is a disorder, but people who experience that disorder should not be blamed or somehow seen as guilty for having it.
“On the other hand, the Church teaches that homosexual acts are gravely and intrinsically sinful and that therefore persons with homosexual orientation should abstain from sexual acts, being continent (equal to unmarried people),” he said.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a document in June 2003 which stated that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
The document, titled “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons,” says the common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family.
“Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity,” the document says.
Vatican City, Apr 24, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Christians should not be frightened of the final judgment but should let it affect how they live, Pope Francis told the 100,000 pilgrims who filled St. Peter’s Square.
"Human history begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with the final judgment of Christ. We often forget these two poles of history, and above all faith in the return of Christ and the final judgment is sometimes not so clear and strong in the hearts of Christians,” Pope Francis said April 24.
The crowd that turned out for the Wednesday audience was one of the largest yet, with the attendance reportedly surpassing expectations by about 25,000 people.
The Pope dedicated his address to the phrase from the Creed, “He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead,” continuing a series started by Benedict XVI for the Year of Faith.
He began by noting that Jesus “often focused on the reality of his final coming” during his public ministry.
“Today I would like to reflect on three Gospel texts that help us to enter into this mystery: that of the ten virgins, the talents and that of the final judgment. All three are part of Jesus' discourse on the end times in the Gospel of St. Matthew,” he explained. At the present moment humanity is living between the moment of Christ’s Ascension and his final return, and this is the context Jesus used when he told the parable of the 10 virgins, the Pope said.
The parable involves 10 virgins who were awaiting the arrival of a bridegroom to his wedding feast. Five of them were wise and had extra lamp oil to provide light until he arrived, but five were foolish, having brought no extra oil.
The foolish virgins were not able to notice the arrival of the bridegroom with their lamps out, and so they were left knocking on the door of the house where the feast was being held.
“They were knocking insistently, but it was too late, the bridegroom responds, ‘I do not know you,’” the Pope recalled.
The Holy Father said that the time of waiting for the bridegroom – who is Jesus – is a period granted by God in his “mercy and patience,” and Christians should not fall asleep, keeping their faith alive through prayer and the sacraments. Turning to the parable of the talents, Pope Francis recalled how Jesus warned people against letting fear precent them from using the gifts God gave them.
“A Christian who withdraws into himself, hiding all that the Lord has given him, is not a Christian!” the Pope stated. “I would ask the many young people present to be generous with their God-given talents for the good of others, the Church and our world,” he added.
Pope Francis then spoke about the final parable, in which Jesus describes the final judgment as being like a shepherd who divides his flock into sheep and goats. Those on the right are those who followed the will of God in their lives, while those on the left did not.
“This tells us that we will be judged by God on charity, on how we loved him in our brothers, especially the most vulnerable and needy,” he explained.
“Of course,” the Pope qualified, “we must always keep in mind that we are justified, we are saved by grace, by a free act of the love of God, which always precedes us, we alone cannot do anything. Faith is first of all a gift that we have received.”
“Looking to the final judgment must never frighten us,” Pope Francis concluded.
“Rather, it urges us to live the present better. With mercy and patience, God offers us this time so that we might learn every day to recognize him in the poor and the small, might strive for the good, and might be vigilant in prayer and love,” so that when he comes he will find us his good and faithful servants, he said.
Vatican City, Apr 24, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Pope Francis will be receiving over 70,000 young people when he offers the Sacrament of Confirmation to 44 of them this coming weekend.
“We are joyful because we will be receiving so many young people,” said Archbishop Salvatore R. Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.
The archbishop made his announcement April 24 at the Vatican press office, as he detailed two upcoming events in Rome for the Year of Faith.
The first is the April 27–28 weekend gathering, which will bring youths who have received the Sacrament of Confirmation in the past year to Rome for a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter and a Mass in which Pope Francis will confirm 44 young people.
The second Year of Faith event is the Day of the Confraternities and Popular Piety, which will take place May 3–5. A confraternity is an organization of lay people that promotes Christian charity and has been officially approved by the Church.
On Saturday, April 27, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., youths will gather at Saint Peter’s Square with teachers of the faith, who are known as catechists. The catechists will guide them on a pilgrimage that will include Michelangelo’s Pietà, the tomb of Blessed John Paul II and the Tomb of Saint Peter, where they will make the Profession of Faith.
They will gather again the next morning at 10:00 a.m. for a closing Mass with Pope Francis, during which he will confirm 44 young people from five different continents representing the universal Church.
The youngest are 11-year-olds from Romania and Italy and the oldest is a 55-year-old from Cape Verde. Two more could be arriving from Haiti, bringing the total number to 46.
Other countries that will be represented are: the Congo, Nigeria, Madagascar, Lebanon, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Argentina, Brazil, Belarus, France, Germany, Ireland and the United States.
“We have not forgotten the presence of a disabled person to represent those who are privileged in the eyes of the Church and deserve their full attention even in the reception of the sacraments,” Archbishop Fisichella said.
“The Pope will also give the youths a small, simple and symbolic present. But I can’t tell you what it is otherwise it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore,” the archbishop quipped.
The event will finish on Sunday evening in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall with a “Witness Festival,” which will include music, and testimonies from world figures and those who have been confirmed.
A boy living in China and a girl from the Pacific island of Tonga will speak about their faith.
“We will have Antonio, who comes from the Diocese of Carpi to give a voice and hope to the victims of the earthquake and to those who still suffer situations of profound discomfort,” he added.
Archbishop Fisichella told journalists that a boy from mainland China, Paul, who has lived in Italy for several years as a refugee, and Malia P. Malani of the Island of Tonga will “tell everyone that even in the most remote parts of the world, the Church is alive and present.”
And over 50,000 people have already signed up for the second event in May.
The international gathering will bring confraternities from Italy, Spain, Malta, France, Poland and Ireland that will give their testimony on local traditions.
Confessions will be heard and there will be Eucharistic Adoration from 4:00 p.m. until midnight on May 3 in Roman churches of the confraternities.
On Saturday, May 4 there will be a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Saint Peter at 7:00 a.m., Adoration and confessions from 8:00 a.m. to noon in churches across Rome, catechesis at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls and an international Mass in the same basilica at 6:30 p.m.
“On Saturday we will follow the pattern of the pilgrimage to the tomb of Peter divided by language groups, while in the afternoon at four different churches we will have a catechesis with the subsequent celebration of the Holy Eucharist,” Archbishop Fisichella explained.
Catechesis will be in several languages, with Archbishop Arthur Roche delivering the English teaching in the Church of Saint Maria in Traspontina, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera catechizing in Spanish at the Church of Saint Mary of the Garden, and Bishop Jean Lafitte speaking in French at the Church of the Trinita dei Monti.
On Sunday morning, May 5, members of the confraternities in their habits will take part in a procession down the Via della Conciliazione until they reach Saint Peter’s Square.
Pope Francis will then celebrate Mass at 10:00 a.m. in St. Peter’s Square, followed by the Regina Caeli prayer.
“A moment of faith will be lived, which is found in the simplicity of the expressions of popular piety and rooted in our people, who without interruption live these signs as a strong reminder of the faith of previous generations and a tradition that deserves to be witnessed with courage and enthusiasm,” Archbishop Fisichella said.
Vatican City, Apr 24, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Church is not merely “a human enterprise,” but rather “a love story,” said Pope Francis, and the faithful must remember that it is only in the path of love that the Church can grow.
The Church began “in the heart of the Father,” said the Pope at an April 24 Mass for Vatican Bank employees in the Chapel of the Casa Santa Marta.
“So this love story began, a story that has gone on for so long, and is not yet ended,” he explained. “We, the women and men of the Church, we are in the middle of a love story: each of us is a link in this chain of love. And if we do not understand this, we have understood nothing of what the Church is.”
Pointing to the growth and persecution of the early Church, Pope Francis stressed that the faithful must not compromise to get “more partners in this enterprise,” Vatican Radio reported.
He cautioned that “the Church does not grow by human strength” but through the path of love.
While some Christians have “taken the wrong path” and “waged wars of religion,” he said, “that is not the story of love.”
“Yet we learn, with our mistakes, how the story of love goes,” he continued, explaining that it is the Holy Spirit rather than any military strength that allows the Church to grow.
The Pontiff asked the mothers in the congregation how they might feel if someone referred to them as “a domestic administrator.” He suggested that they might respond, “No, I am the mother!”
Likewise, he said, “the Church is Mother.”
“And we are in the middle of a love story that continues thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit. All of us together are a family in the Church, who is our Mother,” he explained.
Pope Francis turned to Mary to ask for “the grace of the spiritual joy of participating in this love story” with her son.
Brussels, Belgium, Apr 24, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Four semi-nude feminist protestors attacked Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard of Malinas-Brussels during a recent conference on freedom of expression.
The April 18 conference took place at the Free University of Brussels and was entitled, “Blasphemy – crime or freedom of expression.”
The four women, who belong to the radical group Femen, removed their shirts and used plastic bottles similar those used by pilgrims at Lourdes to throw water at the archbishop while shouting insults and making violent gestures.
The women painted their bodies with the phrases, “My body, my rules” and “God loves lesbians.” They also carried a sign which read, “Stop homophobia.”
Archbishop Leonard remained silently in prayer until security officials were able to intervene and remove the protestors.
After the incident, the archbishop picked up one of the bottles, which was shaped in the image of the Virgin Mary, and kissed it as a sign of reparation.
In 2010 and 2011, Archbishop Leonard was the target of attacks for his statements against homosexual acts and abortion.
Washington D.C., Apr 24, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - The recent kidnapping of two Orthodox bishops in Syria has a former diplomat urging the U.S. government to make religious liberty a greater priority in its foreign policy.
“U.S. foreign policy with respect to religious freedom consists almost entirely, when it consists of anything, of rhetorical condemnations of acts such as this,” said Dr. Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
However, it is not always clear that these condemnations “have any effect whatsoever,” Farr told CNA April 24.
Archbishop John Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Archbishop Paul Yagizi of the Greek Orthodox Church were kidnapped April 22 near Aleppo, Syria by armed men who appear to have killed their driver.
It remains unclear who carried out the kidnapping. The Syrian government and rebel groups have both traded accusations over who is to blame.
On April 23, both Al Jazeera and l'Oeuvre d'Orient, a French agency serving Christians in the Orient, reported that the bishops had been returned. But a joint statement of the Greek and Syriac Orthodox patriarchs contradicted this.
Al Jazeera has not reported on the matter since, but l'Oeuvre d'Orient said April 24 that “the situation is extremely complex and information is difficult to obtain. The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Damascus confirmed by telephone this morning that there was no release.”
“L'Oeuvre d'Orient calls again on the Syrian opposition forces, the Syrian government and international authorities to make every effort to obtain the release of these two bishops, and two priests, who are foreign to the conflict which tears Syria.”
On April 24, Archbishop Antonio Chedraui of the Orthodox Church of Antioch in Mexico, Central America, Venezuela and the Caribbean, confirmed to CNA that the two Syrian bishops “remain kidnapped. The reports published yesterday are not correct.”
At its press briefing yesterday, April 23, the State Department believed the bishops to have been released and indicated relief. The topic of the kidnapped bishops was not raised in the April 24 briefing.
“In the past we've seen the American government hesitate to speak too assertively about the persecution of Christians, lest they be seen as a vanguard of a kind of Christian imperialism,” said Farr, who directed the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom from 1999-2003.
“Hopefully that will not be the case here and we'll see a vigorous condemnation, whether they've been released or not.”
He said the kind of “rhetorical condemnation” of religious persecution typically issued by the U.S. government is “pretty easy to issue.”
The Syrian civil war entered its second year a month ago, and the country's Christian minority has been caught in its midst.
Many Syrian Christians live in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, all of which are cities strongly contested by the government and the rebels. Many have fled to nearby Lebanon.
Only about a week before his kidnapping, Archbishop Ibrahim had told BBC Arabic that Syrian Christians are in the same situation as their Muslim neighbors.
“There is no persecution of Christians and there is no single plan to kill Christians. Everyone respects Christians. Bullets are random and not targeting the Christians because they are Christians,” he said.
United Nations estimates indicate that about 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict. More than 1 million refugees have flooded into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, while another estimated 2.5 million are internally displaced inside Syria.
The Greek and Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioch stated together April 23 that “the Christians living here are an essential part of their lands. They suffer the pain every person suffers, and work as messengers of peace to lift the injustice off every oppressed person.”
“We call the kidnappers to respect the life of the two kidnapped brothers as well as everyone to put an end to all the acts that create confessional and sectarian schisms among the sons of the one country.”
“We can but call the whole world to try putting an end to the Syrian crisis so that Syria becomes again a garden of love, security and coexistence. Settling accounts should not happen at the expense of the human beings who live here,” they pleaded.
Farr stated that “what the State department should be doing – not yet in Syria, because it's still a war zone – but in all the countries where such a thing happens with some regularity … we should be working not simply to react after they happen, but to engage with these governments and societies to develop structures of religious freedom.”
In addition to citing Muslim-majority countries, Farr mentioned China, India and other non-Muslim nations which need to be actively encouraged in religious freedom by the U.S. These countries should be urged to develop religious liberty as an important component for a peaceful, flourishing society, he said.
“I think U.S. foreign policy, when it comes to issues like religious persecution...is primarily reactive, and that's not enough. We need to be working to convince societies that they have to prevent this from happening in the first place, because it harms their interests.”
As an example, he pointed to the April 7 attack of an Islamic mob on the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo, slaughtering Christians there.
“We shouldn't just be reacting to that,” Farr emphasized. “We should be getting in front of the problem and convincing the Egyptians that it's in their interest to develop religious freedom.”
Religious persecution, he concluded, “is going on all the time, so to condemn it is something we ought to do, but we should be getting in front of the problem.”