Washington D.C., May 24, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The U.S. should actively promote religious liberty, a critical right that forms a foundation for a healthy society, the head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom told members of Congress.
“This hearing is timely and important,” said Robert P. George, who is the chairman of the religious freedom commission and a professor at Princeton University. “Religious freedom remains under serious assault across much of the world.”
During a May 22 hearing before the House congressional panel overseeing global human rights issues, George explained that this “pivotal human right is central to U.S. history, affirmed by international treaties and obligations, and a practical necessity crucial to the security of the United States and the world.”
He stressed that “we need our government to pay attention to the violations and abuses going on abroad.”
The hearing was chaired by U.S. Congressman Chris Smith (R- N.J.), who stated that religious freedom is an area of emphasis for the U.S. “because of its foundational role in the life of a free and democratic nation.”
“Religious freedom is a constant reminder to governments that their power is limited, that governments do not create rights but merely recognize them, and that a man or woman’s first duty is to his or her well-formed conscience,” the congressman said.
In his testimony, George applauded U.S. President Barack Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, which defended the value of religious freedom in American foreign policy.
He urged the U.S .government to put these ideals into practice, keeping “the plight of persecuted persons at the forefront of foreign policy,” and never allowing it to “fall out of view” behind other policy concerns.
George spoke of the plight of people around the world who are “either victimized by their own governments” or face mob violence for their religious beliefs.
Pointing to the 2014 assessment by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, he recommended that the U.S. State Department re-designate Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan as “Countries of Particular Concern,” or “CPCs” in its annual report. He also asked that the department add Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to that list.
He specifically highlighted the religious freedom violations occurring in Pakistan, “the worst religious freedom environment for a country not designated as a CPC,” as well as Syria, where “horrible and tragic” violence has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands since 2011.
By law, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom exists to counsel the State Department in the creation of its annual report and in the department's designation of CPCs. This designation enables the U.S. government to enact restrictions and sanctions on the offending nation, with the aim of improving religious freedom conditions in the country.
George criticized both Republican and Democratic administrations for failing to update the list of CPCs regularly, noting that the list has been updated once in the past decade.
“Every administration needs to make these designations on a regular and, we believe, annual basis,” he stressed.
Designating Countries of Particular Concern does have an impact, George said, pointing to Vietnam as an example of a nation whose treatment of religious minorities has improved after being designated as a CPC and worsened when removed from the list.
This designation can also inspire people in a nation and “can lift the spirits and encourage those human rights activists” where religious freedom and human rights more broadly are threatened, he counseled.
In addition, George recommended some revisions of U.S. law governing international religious freedom, in order to better address threats occurring in local governments or propagated by non-state actors such as Boko Haram or al-Qaeda.
These changes to the International Religious Freedom Act would be a “minor, limited adjustment to bring the law in line with the world,” he said.
Jerusalem, Israel, May 24, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
In light of centuries-old property divisions within the Holy Sepulcher, a Vatican journalist who lived in the Holy Land has expressed that locals welcome Pope Francis’ visit as moving in the direction of peace.
“They all long for peace, they long for peace within very crucial situations between Israel and Palestine,” Paul Badde told CNA May 24, adding that although the Pope himself cannot do much in terms of concrete changes “they see it as a step to pray together and they rejoice.”
Badde is the former Rome correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt and lived in Jerusalem for two years prior to his transfer to the Eternal City.
Regarding the Sunday meeting and moment of prayer between Pope Francis and the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartolomeo I, inside of the Holy Sepulcher, the journalist stated that this marks great progress in Orthodox-Catholic relations since such an encounter was banned until 50 years ago.
“Only 50 years ago” the ban “was lifted by Paul VI” Badde observed, “so it’s a very early phase of reconciliation after centuries of deep, deep conflict and rift between east and west” and Pope Francis is “complimenting it, it’s one step more.”
Housing both the tomb of Christ and the site of his crucifixion, the Holy Sepulcher was a source of conflict among varying Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Armenians, as to who claimed property rights over the holy sites.
As a solution to the ongoing tensions a “status quo” was implemented during the 17th and 18th centuries to negotiate property rights between Christian communities and the government, which were inseparable at the time. Effectively this “listed what’s who’s” Badde noted.
According to the Franciscan Custody website, a religious order charged with watching over the holy sites, the “status quo,” which is still in effect today, not only determined which sites belong to which tradition, but also the to the times and durations of events and liturgies as well as how they are practiced, whether singing or reading.
Communities who claim rights within the sepulcher include Catholic, Greek, Armenian, Coptic and Syrian Christians. Any change to the schedule requires the consent of all the communities.
“Every minute is precisely clear” Badde observed, noting that although “they have some little debate when some say you have been here too long,” you “will never debate what hour is who’s.”
“All the claims have been discussed and then decided alright this goes to the Catholics, they’re called the Latins here, this to the Greek orthodox, this to the Armenians to avoid any more conflicts” he continued, stating that compared to the past conflicts this separation has been a “beautiful” solution.
“It’s much more problematic if you have the claims overlapping other claims” the journalist said, adding that “if you have two parties say no that’s mine, that’s mine, nobody can say that’s mine,” so “It’s all separate.”
However, despite the sense of peace the current norms of the status quo have brought, local citizens have expressed hope that Pope Francis’ visit further unify the differing Christian communities, allowing open access to the holy sites outside of the status quo time restrictions and divisions of prayer times and locations based on one’s tradition.
Even though the Christian communities “know that the Pope can’t do too much,” they “rejoice” at his presence, especially in “praying with a patriarch” Badde explained, and it gives many people “hope.”
Amman, Jordan, May 24, 2014 (CNA) -
Today Pope Francis began his pilgrimage to the Holy Land by visiting with the authorities in the kingdom of Jordan, urging them to support efforts for peace amongst Christians and Muslims.
“Religious freedom is in fact a fundamental human right and I cannot fail to express my hope that it will be upheld throughout the Middle East and the entire world,” said Pope Francis on May 24 in the Royal Palace of Amman, Jordan.
Pope Francis urged the people of different religions to live together peaceably, noting, “Christians consider themselves, and indeed are, full citizens, and as such they seek, together with their Muslim fellow citizens, to make their own particular contribution to the society in which they live.”
Before the Holy Father delivered his remarks this afternoon, King Abdullah II welcomed the Pope to Jordan and spoke of his hopes for continuing improved relations between Muslims and Christians. The King noted Pope Francis’ call for “dialogue” as an inspiration, saying, “you have become a conscience for the whole world.”
Pope Francis responded by reiterating his “profound respect and esteem for the Muslim community,” as well as for King Abdullah II “in promoting a better understanding of the virtues taught by Islam and a climate of serene coexistence between the faithful of the different religions.” Departing from his prepared remarks, the Pope referred to King Abdullah as “a peacemaker.”
The Pontiff expressed his gratitude for the welcome in such a significant place, greeting “the members of the Royal Family, the government and the people of Jordan, this land so rich in history and with such great religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
Pope Francis then spoke gratefully of Jordan’s welcoming of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees, noting that “such generosity merits the appreciation and support of the international community.”
“While acknowledging with deep regret the continuing grave tensions in the Middle East,” he continued, “I thank the authorities of the Kingdom for all that they are doing and I encourage them to persevere in their efforts to seek lasting peace for the entire region.”
Pope Francis urged the authorities to work towards “a peaceful solution” to “the crisis in Syria” and “a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The Holy Father also offered his “affectionate greeting” to the “Christian communities present in this country since apostolic times.”
Although Christians are a minority, he acknowledged, they contribute “to the common good of the society of which they are a part.”
He concluded his remarks by praying that his visit “will help to advance and strengthen good and cordial relations between Christians and Muslims.”
The Pope’s three-day visit to various places in the middle east comprises his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His itinerary includes not only Amman in the Kingdom of Jordan, but also Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, where he will meet with various political and religious leaders.
Pope Francis will be taking time to pray at different churches and sacred sites throughout his pilgrimage.
During his flight from Rome to Amman this morning, the Pope sent telegrams to the Presidents of Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, assuring them of his best wishes and prayers during the flight. After landing at the Queen Alia airport in Amman, the Pontiff was welcomed by representatives from the King and Queen of Amman, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and several other leaders.
Amman, Jordan, May 24, 2014 (CNA) -
Pope Francis focused the first homily of his Holy Land pilgrimage on the work of Holy Spirit in bringing peace and unity amongst different peoples.
Preaching during the Mass held on May 24 at the International Stadium in Amman, Jordan, the Pope noted, “We are not far from where the Holy Spirit descended with power on Jesus of Nazareth after his baptism by John in the River Jordan.”
“The mission of the Holy Spirit, in fact, is to beget harmony - he is himself harmony - and to create peace in different situations and between different people.”
During the Saturday afternoon mass attended by thousands of Christians, who make up a minority of the population in Jordan, some 1400 children received their first communion.
Pope Francis used the occasion to mediate on the work of the Holy Spirit, who prepared Jesus for his mission at the baptism in the Jordan, just the Spirit now works to prepare the way to greater unity amongst peoples.
“Diversity of ideas and persons should not trigger rejection or prove an obstacle, for variety always enriches. So today, with fervent hearts, we invoke the Holy Spirit and ask him to prepare the path to unity and peace.”
The Holy Father also expressed his closeness to the many Christian refugees who have had to feel their homes in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq due to political unrest. “Please bring my greeting to your families and communities, and assure them of my closeness,” he asked.
“The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the Jordan and thus inaugurated his work of redemption to free the world from sin and death,” he preached.
“Let us ask the Spirit to prepare our hearts to encounter our brothers and sisters, so that we may overcome our differences rooted in political thinking, language, culture and religion.”
Reflecting on Jesus’ life, Pope Francis noted that the preparation for peace sometimes comes in the form of prophecy, as in the case of Simeon and Anna who “were awaiting the Messiah.” Upon seeing the infant Jesus, they “knew immediately that he was the one long awaited by the people.”
The two elderly people “gave prophetic expression to the joy of encountering the Redeemer and, in a certain sense, served as a preparation for the encounter between the Messiah and the people,” the Pontiff remarked.
The Pope went on to explain that the Holy Spirit works in Christians just as he worked to prepare the way for Christ.
Moreover, just as the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus “inwardly,” he also “anoints the disciples so that they can have the mind of Christ and thus be disposed to live lives of peace and communion.”
It is the anointing of the Spirit, Pope Francis reminded the crowds, that enables Christians to love their neighbors with the same love God has for them.
“We ought, therefore, to show concrete signs of humility, fraternity, forgiveness and reconciliation. These signs are a prerequisite of a true, stable and lasting peace,” encouraged the Pontiff.
“Let us ask the Father to anoint us so that we may fully become his children, ever more conformed to Christ, and may learn to see one another as brothers and sisters.”
Christians must be “messengers and witnesses of peace” sent by the Holy Spirit, stressed Pope Francis.
“Peace is not something which can be bought,” he emphasized. “It is a gift to be sought patiently and to be ‘crafted’ through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives.”
The path to peace will be easier if “we never forget we have the same heavenly Father and are all his children, made in his image and likeness.”
Pope Francis concluded his homily by praying that the Holy Spirit may “anoint our whole being with the oil of his mercy, which heals the injuries caused by mistakes, misunderstandings, and disputes.”
Jerusalem, Israel, May 24, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The sisters who run the only children’s hospital on the West Bank have made it their mission to pray for peace in the Holy Land, traveling each week to invoke a Marian icon on the wall dividing the region.
Mary’s image is “a sign to pray the rosary and to look at her because” the situation is “not easy,” Sister Donatella of the Padua Franciscans told CNA May 24. The icon, she said, is a reminder to “ask for peace in the Holy Land.”
Often referred to as “the dividing wall,” the barrier is under construction by the State of Israel and forms a separation between itself and Palestine.
Argued as necessary by Israel in order to protect civilians against Palestinian terrorism and suicide bombs, the wall is opposed by Palestinians, who object that the barrier violates international law and is an illegal attempt to annex Palestine under the false guise of security.
Recounting how the first procession to the icon, written on the wall by an English artist, was made 10 years ago as part of a larger international event to pray for peace, Sr. Donatella explained that the organizers wanted to “call the people in the world to pray for peace.”
Now occurring March 1 of each year on an international scale, the visit to the image is made by the sisters every Friday to pray the rosary for an end to conflicts and tensions in the area as well as a greater respect for human dignity. Depicted as pregnant, Mary in the icon is “impregnated by peace.”
Sr. Donatella is a member of the Padua Franciscan community and assists in running the only children’s hospital in Bethlehem, Caritas Baby Hospital.
Founded in 1962, the hospital was established by Fr. Ernst Schnydrig after he witnessed a father burying his child in the mud near a refugee camp on Christmas Eve. After learning that that the child died because he could not get medical care, the priest made a commitment that no child in the city of Jesus’ birth would ever be denied it.
Containing both a neo-natal and ICU unit, the hospital is nonprofit and has also established an educational program called Children’s Relief Bethlehem.
One of the most frequent problems affecting the children they treat are genetic diseases resulting from inter-family marriages, the sister explained.
It’s a great problem “especially because of Muslim familial and religious traditions” she observed, adding that although most women are at least partially aware of the risks of inter-family marriage “they can’t do anything because their family chooses their future husbands.”
Education on this topic, the sister noted, is one of the highest priorities of the Children’s Relief Bethlehem educational program.
Speaking of Pope Francis’ visit to Bethlehem tomorrow, where he will say Mass in the city’s Manger Square, Sr. Donatella expressed her hope that the pontiff will also bring a message of peace to the area.
“All of us would like Pope Francis to bring with him and let all of the world not lose hope for peace,” she said, adding that they would like him “to say that one day there will be peace in this land. Don’t lose the dream of peace.”
Amman, Jordan, May 24, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
On the first day of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pope Francis met with a group of nearly 600 refugees and disabled youth, urging them to offer their prayers and sufferings for an end to violence.
During the May 24 meeting at Bethany beyond the Jordan, the Pope encouraged those gathered to build a peaceful society through prayer and “offering your daily efforts and struggles to God. In this way your prayer will become particularly precious and effective.”
“We are profoundly affected by the tragedies and suffering of our times, particularly those caused by ongoing conflicts in the Middle East,” said Pope Francis. “I pray once more that reason and restraint will prevail...May God change the hearts of the violent and those who seek war, and may he convert those who make and sell arms.”
The Pope departed from his prepared remarks with an emphatic denunciation of the arms trade.
“This is the root of evil! “Hatred, the desire for money,” he exclaimed, linking it to “the manufacturing of arms and the sale of arms.”
“This ought to make us think – who is behind (it) that gives to everyone, to everyone who is involved in conflict, the arms for continuing the conflict?” he reflected.
Pope Francis continued, “let us think, and also in our hearts, let us say a word for these poor people, criminals, that they may be converted.”
The Holy Father then spoke gently to the disabled youth, saying, “despite your difficulties in life, you are a sign of hope.”
“You have a place in God’s heart and in my prayers. I am grateful that so many of you are here, and for your warmth and enthusiasm,” he assured them.
The Holy Father went on to express his gratitude to the Jordanian authorities for their welcome of refugees, and urged the international community “not to leave Jordan alone in the task of meeting the humanitarian emergency.”
He also renewed his “heartfelt appeal for peace in Syria.”
“May all parties abandon the attempt to resolve issues by the use of arms and return to negotiation,” he stressed. “A solution will only be found through dialogue and restraint, through compassion for those who suffer, through the search for a political solution and through a sense of fraternal responsibility.”
The Pope concluded by praying that God “strengthen the hearts and minds of peacemakers and grant them every blessing.”