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Archive of December 16, 2013

Experts warn of 'ominous trends' in Western secularism

Rome, Italy, Dec 16, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Experts on religious liberty cautioned participants at a weekend conference in Rome that discrimination and persecution against Christians is growing in many regions of the world. 

Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, spoke about the causes underlying current global anti-Christian persecution.

“Western secularism has been growing in the last few decades,” Marshall told CNA in a Dec. 13 interview. “I want to emphasize that the patterns we're talking about are not like those in the remaining Communist world or the Middle East. It's not persecution in that sense, but it's getting very worrying.”

“There are very ominous trends and I think we need to be aware of them, in terms of job discrimination, of the ability to speak out your mind, the ability to live out your faith. Things are really worsening in the West,” he explained.

He pointed to several recent examples of this discrimination, including “German home-schooling families applying for asylum in the United States; people being fired from their jobs for holding Christian symbols.”

“These things are new, and then the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a major center on religion statistics, says its measures of religious hostility in Western Europe are now as high as they are in the Middle East.”

Such situations arise from an underlying mentality, noted Marshall. “You've had patterns, very strongly in the educational system, of the assumption that a secular society is a society where religion has no place. It can be private, within your home, within your church, but it has no place in society at large.”

Rather than a traditional notion, “this is a new and very unusual view,” which is further tied to the “idea that a society cannot really be open if religion is present.”

“Instead of a generally open society where secular people are free, Christians are free, (and) Hindus are free,” the more novel view of secular society is one “where the State holds to a particular ideology and demands that everybody succumb to it.”

Marshall described the change in understanding as “a shift from a plural society to an ideologically secular society.”

“And that’s worrying,” he stressed.

Marshall spoke at the “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” conference, held Dec. 13-14 at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. The conference is a project of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, secretary for the Holy See's Relations with States, also addressed the conference on Dec. 13, focusing on “discrediting the erroneous and outdated notion that Christianity is the enemy of personal freedom and conscience, and that its claim to truth surely leads to violence and oppression.”

“Nothing could be historically less accurate than statements such as these,” he said.

The Archbishop emphasized the crucial link between Christianity and freedom, noting that “it has its roots in the teaching of Christ himself.”

“Freedom is intrinsic to Christianity, for it was, as (St.) Paul says, for freedom that Christ set us free.”

Although the apostle was referring primarily to “interior freedom,” explained Archbishop Mamberti, “this interior freedom naturally also has consequences for society.”

When human beings fail to value religious freedom, the results for wider society can be quite damaging, he cautioned.

“Indeed, whenever human beings cannot be open to the infinite according to their conscience, truth yields to a mendacious relativism and justice to the oppression of the prevailing ideology, whether it be atheistic, agnostic, or even overtly religious.”

The modern notion of freedom tends to be understood as “mere caprice” or “in a purely negative sense as the absence of constraint,” he said.

Yet the more traditional and Christian idea of freedom is “not dominated by fear, but rather by the joy of that truth which sets us free,” the archbishop clarified.

Such a vision, he said, “provides a bulwark against both relativism and against those forms of religious fundamentalism which, like relativism, see in religious freedom a threat to their own ideological dominance.”
 

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Pope prays for Church to be 'free of clericalism'

Vatican City, Dec 16, 2013 (CNA) - In his daily homily preached in the Santa Marta chapel, Pope Francis emphasized the need for prophets in the Church in order to prevent a negative spirit of legalism from taking over.

“May our prayer in these days, in these during which we prepare for the Birth of the Lord, be: ‘Lord, let there not be a lack of prophets among your people!’” he said on Dec. 16.

“Lord, free your people from a spirit of clericalism and aid them with a spirit of prophecy,” Pope Francis prayed.

In the gospel, those who met Christ with a spirit of prophecy welcomed him as the Messiah, but without it, “the void that is left is occupied by clericalism: and it is this clericalism that asks Jesus, ‘By what authority do you do these things? By what law?’”

In such demands, “the memory of the promise and the hope of going forward are reduced only to this: neither the past, nor the hopeful future” but merely to the question of whether the present “is legal?”

The Pharisees who question the authority of Christ “did not understand the prophecies. They had forgotten the promise! They did not know how to read the signs of the times, they had neither penetrating sight nor hearing of the Word of God: they only had authority!” he exclaimed.

A prophet is one who “has in his heart the promise of God,” explained the Pontiff. “He lives it, he remembers it, (and) he repeats it.”

“The Lord has always safeguarded his people with the prophets, in difficult moments, in moments in which the people were discouraged or destroyed, when the Temple was not there, when Jerusalem was under the power of the enemy, when the people wondered to themselves, ‘But Lord, you promised us this! Now what happens?’”

In the heart of a prophet are three different times, “the promise of the past, contemplation of the present, and courage to show the way towards the future.”

In carrying the promise of God throughout these moments, a prophet reminds the people of God to move beyond a spirit of legality.

Pope Francis closed his homily with a prayer, “Lord, let us not forget your promise! Let us not grow tired of going forward! Let us not close ourselves in with legality!”
 

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New Pope interview touches on Church political reform

Vatican City, Dec 16, 2013 (CNA) - Pope Francis' recent interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa Dec. 15 addressed some of the more political issues in the Church, including reform of the curia and changes to the Vatican banking system.

When questioned about the council of eight cardinals Pope Francis appointed one month after his election to help and advise him in sketching out curia reform, the pontiff explained, “I am always present at the meetings, except for Wednesday mornings when I have the General Audience.”

“But I don't speak, I just listen and that does me good.”

According to the Pope, the council of cardinals which met for a second round of meetings Dec. 3-5 after the first round that took place Oct. 1-3, has “a lot of work to do.”

“Those who wanted to make proposals or send ideas have done so. At the last meeting, the eight cardinals told me the time has come for concrete proposals and at the next meeting in February they will present their suggestions to me.”
 
The third round of meetings will be held Feb. 17-19, and will precede a wider meeting of cardinals in occasion of the consistory for the creation of new cardinals.
 
During the meetings, the cardinals clarified that they are not making “adjustments” to the Pastor Bonus, the constitution that regulates functions and duties of the Roman offices, but they are thinking about writing a brand new constitution.

In his interview, Pope Francis shared an anecdote that illustrated his approach to curial reform:

“A few months ago, an elderly cardinal said to me: 'You have already started curia reform with your daily masses in St. Martha’s House.' This made me think: reform always begins with spiritual and pastoral initiatives before structural changes.”

In a previous interview granted to “La Civiltà Cattolica,” Pope Francis underscored that “Ignatius is a mystic, not an ascetic. It irritates me when I hear that the Spiritual Exercises are 'Ignatian' only because they are done in silence. In fact, the Exercises can be perfectly Ignatian also in daily life and without the silence.”
 
This perhaps illustrates why Pope Francis is so fond of 16th century Jesuit priest Blessed Peter Faber’s thought – so much that he wanted him to be proclaimed a saint for “certain science,” that is, without the need of a miracle.
 
For Bl. Peter Faber, interior experience, dogmatic expression and structural reform are intimately inseparable. Thus, when questioned about the pastoral situation of Catholics who are divorced but living in a second union, the Pope also explained that “synodality of the Church is important,” and this is why “we will discuss marriage as a whole at the consistory meetings in February.

“The issues will also be addressed at the Extraordinary Synod in October 2014 and again at the Ordinary Synod the following year. Many elements will be examined in more detail and clarified during these sessions,” he added.
 
Pope Francis and the IOR
 
In addition to curial reform, Pope Francis was questioned about the Institute for Religious Works – the so-called Vatican bank, known by the Italian acronym of IOR.

The IOR reform is not part of the Curia reform, but deals with the wider reform of Vatican finances, and this is also a reason why Pope Francis appointed a commission for reference on the IOR and a commission for reference for the rationalization of the Vatican administrations.

More recently, Pope Francis appointed Msgr. Alfred Xuereb, his personal secretary, has his deputy for the commission of reference. According to the Pope, “the commissions for reference are making good progress.”
 
Pope Francis also refers to the progress report issued by the Council of Europe’s committee MONEYVAL, and he said that “we are on the right path.” The report dealt with the overall Holy See financial system, of which the IOR is just one part.
 
The pontiff stressed that the Vatican “central bank” is “meant to be the Administration for the Patrimony of the Holy See,” while the “IOR was established to help with works of religion, mission and the poor ones. Then it became what it is now.”
 
The IOR purpose, according to its statutes amended by Pope John Paul II in 1990, is “to provide for the custody and administration of goods transferred or entrusted to the Institute by physical or juridical persons, designated for religious works or charity. The Institute can accept deposits of assets from entities or persons of the Holy See and of the Vatican City State.”

Church and politics
 
Pope Francis also addressed the wider question of the relationship between Church and politics, which, according to him, needs to be “parallel and convergent at the same time.”
 
“Parallel because each of us has his or her own path to take and his or her different tasks. Convergent only in helping others.”
 
The pontiff said that “when relationships converge first, without the people, or without taking the people into account, that is when the bond with political power is formed, leading the Church to rot: business, compromises…The relationship needs to proceed in a parallel way, each with its own method, tasks and vocation, converging only in the common good.”
 
Pope Francis then reiterated that “politics is noble,” as he said several times in the morning mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, but “we sully it when we mix it with business. The relationship between the Church and political power can also be corrupted if common good is not the only converging point.”

Kerri Lenartowick contributed to this report.

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Pope Francis: Christians worldwide are 'united in blood'

Vatican City, Dec 16, 2013 (CNA) - In an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa Dec. 15, Pope Francis called ecumenical dialogue a priority of his pontificate, noting that Christians of all traditions face the same persecution today.

“For me ecumenism is a priority. Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill we are Christians,” the Pope said.

“This is what ecumenism of blood is. It still exists today; you just need to read the newspapers. Those who kill Christians don’t ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptized in. We need to take these facts into consideration,” he added.

“We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity between us and perhaps the time has not yet come. Unity is a gift that we need to ask for.”

Since the very beginning when he leaned out the balcony of the central loggia of Saint Peter’s basilica on March 13, Pope Francis called himself “the bishop of Rome” who “presides over the other Churches in charity.”
 
Some observers said that Francis’ emphasis on being the “bishop of Rome” led Bartholomew I, the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to attend the Pope’s inaugural Mass March 19, marking the first time the patriarch has attended such an event since the Great Schism in 1054.
 
In fact, the path to Christian unity started long time ago, a truth acknowledged by Pope Francis in his recent La Stampa interview.

“John Paul II spoke even more explicitly about a way of exercising the primacy which is open to a new situation. Not just from the point of view of ecumenical relations but also in terms of relations with the Curia and the local Churches,” he explained.

The late Pontiff’s encyclical letter “Ut unum sint” asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.” This sentence has been fully quoted by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium.”

In his interview, Pope Francis expressed the affection and good will that he feels for his ‘brother bishops’ of the East.  

“Over the course of these first nine months, I have received visits from many Orthodox brothers: Bartholomew, Hilarion, the theologian Zizioulas, the Copt Tawadros. The latter is a mystic, he would enter the chapel, remove his shoes and go and pray.”

“I felt like their brother. They have the apostolic succession; I received them as brother bishops,” he explained.

“It is painful that we are not yet able to celebrate the Eucharist together, but there is friendship. I believe that the way forward is this: friendship, common work and prayer for unity.”

“We blessed each other; one brother blesses the other, one brother is called Peter and the other Andrew, Mark, Thomas…” Pope Francis recounted.

A new way for ecumenism is considered to have been opened after Benedict XVI's resignation. With this action, Benedict proved the Roman Pontiff to be a primus inter pares (first among equals), and this action should assist in resolving the papal primacy issue – one of the most important controversies between Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

A milestone of this path to Christian unity should be in the next Pope Francis trip to Jerusalem.
 
Talking to La Stampa, Pope Francis said that he “is preparing” to go to the Holy Land, “to meet my broche Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and commemorate” the 50th anniversary of the embrace between Pope Montini and the then patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem.
 
The Pope Francis' trip to Jerusalem has not been scheduled yet, but according to Israeli media it should take place on May, 25-26.

Kerri Lenartowick contributed to this report.

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Wife of imprisoned pastor says faith helps her persevere

Washington D.C., Dec 16, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - The wife of a Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran is relying on her faith as she speaks out to ask for prayers and concrete aid in helping secure the return of her husband to the United States.

Over the past 15 months, Naghmeh Abedini said she has been surprised at “how much I can endure through my relationship with Christ and my belief as a Christian.”

Just over a year ago, she told CNA, “I didn't believe that I could stand so much.”

Since September 2012, Naghmeh has been advocating the release of her husband. She has been surprised at “how hard it has been working with my own government to bring my husband home.”

“I didn't think it would be such a push – I thought it would be a more proactive movement on their part,” she said.

Naghmeh Abedini testified at a Dec. 12 joint hearing before two congressional subcommittees regarding the plight of her husband, Saeed, who is currently serving an eight-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Rajai Shahr Prison.

Saeed Abedini was born and raised as a Muslim in Iran. He converted to Christianity in 2000, and became an American citizen in 2010 following his marriage to Naghmeh, who is also an American citizen. The couple has two children, ages 5 and 7, and lives in Idaho.

After his conversion to Christianity, Saeed Abedini began working with house churches in Iran. Although his work was technically legal, it drew complaints from the government, and he agreed to shift his work towards non-religious humanitarian efforts.

However, in September 2012, he was arrested on charges of threatening national security for his earlier work with the churches. Some human rights advocacy groups have argued that the pastor’s Christian faith is the real reason for his imprisonment.

Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J), who chairs a House subcommittee on global human rights, was a co-sponsor of the Dec. 12 hearing.

He explained that the Iranian government had promised Pastor Abedini in 2009 that “he could enter and exit the country for humanitarian aid work if he agreed to cease pastoring house churches.” But despite complying with the government’s request, the pastor was arrested three years later during a visit to help build an orphanage in Iran.

“He was denied contact with his attorney until just before the trial,” Smith said, adding that the “sham” trial was not public and that Pastor Abedini was “barred from participating in key portions of the trial.”

Naghmeh Abedini said that the agony of being separated from her husband and constantly unsure of his well-being has been compounded by the fact that she has had to “battle my own government” to make the matter a priority.

She described the pain of realizing that the United States could “easily” have made her husband’s release a precondition to recent talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Now that this is no longer an option, she fears that negotiating her husband’s release will be more difficult.

She issued a plea for diplomatic forces to “put his freedom center-stage instead of as a side-discussion.”

During her testimony before Congress, she warned that “Iran’s treatment of Saeed Abedini is an experiment” to test the waters and see whether the United States is willing to “protect and defend” American citizens captured in the country.

While she is still investigating diplomatic avenues through the U.S. government, Naghmeh told CNA that she is also seeking the help of European countries, as well as Pope Francis.

She is asking the Pope for his help, “because in the past when (Popes have) spoken out against presidents in Iran, the Iranian government has released those prisoners” that were mentioned by name.

“I know his voice carries a great weight,” she continued.  “I do hope that he would speak out, and I do hope to meet with him personally and discuss my husband's case and the persecution of religious minorities in Iran.”

In the meantime, the Abedini family has turned to faith as they maintain hope for Pastor Saeed's release.

Naghmeh explained that she and the children “have been able endure this trial only through of our faith and trusting in God, and knowing that above all governments, God is in control.”

She pointed to the letters she has received from her husband, in which “he talks about how 'the Joy of the Lord is my strength,” and how he “is forgiving his enemies.”

“He loves his enemies,” Naghmeh said, “so I know his faith has strengthened, and that no one can take that away from him.”

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