Washington D.C., May 25, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
After being treated for two months in a hospital for injuries suffered from beatings during his imprisonment, Saeed Abedini – a Christian pastor and American citizen – is being returned to Iran's Rajai Shahr prison.
“This is an extremely disappointing development - one that breaks my heart,” said Abedini's wife, Naghmeh, in a May 20 statement.
“Our family is deeply saddened and we continue to pray for Saeed – for his safety and his release.”
“We are very grateful that so many people around the world continue to pray for Saeed,” she added.
Pastor Abedini was arrested in Iran in September 2012. The Iranian government has charged him with compromising national security. However, the pastor’s supporters say he is being imprisoned for his Christian beliefs, particularly because he left the Muslim faith to become Christian.
Abedini, who was born in Iran and raised as a Muslim, converted to Christianity in 2000. He became a U.S. citizen in 2010 following his marriage to his wife Naghmeh, who is also a U.S. citizen. The couple resided in Idaho with their two children.
After his conversion, the pastor worked with house churches in Iran until government authorities raised objections. In 2009, he reached an agreement with the government by which he could move freely in the country if he abandoned the religious work. He subsequently began working with non-religious orphanages instead. It was during a visit to one of these orphanages in 2012 that he was arrested.
After sustaining injuries in prison during more than a year's captivity, Abedini was transferred to a hospital in March 2014, where “he was initially shackled by guards who lashed out violently against him,” said the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which represents Naghmeh.
According to family reports, he was denied appropriate medical care and family visits for weeks. In late March, near the start of the Iranian New Year, the hospital began to treat Abedini and permitted frequent family visits.
According to a statement by the ACLJ, Abedini will now be returned to Rajai Shahr prison, which has a record for holding some of the most violent and notorious criminals in Iran.
The ACLJ added that Abedini's transfer back to prison “came without any advance notice” and that the “reason for the transfer is unclear.”
The U.S. State Department and president Barack Obama have called for Abedini's release – as have nearly 260,000 people worldwide who have signed a petition for his release.
Bethlehem, West Bank, May 25, 2014 (CNA) -
Pope Francis began the second day of his Holy Land pilgrimage in a meeting with Palestinian authorities, urging them to work for an end to conflict and violence in the region.
“For decades the Middle East has known the tragic consequences of a protracted conflict which has inflicted many wounds so difficult to heal,” the Pope lamented to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and other authorities on May 25 in the presidential palace of Bethlehem.
“The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good, the courage to forge a peace which rests on the acknowledgment by all of the right of two States to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders,” he stressed.
The Pontiff also spoke forcefully in defense of Christians living in the Holy Land, who “desire to continue in this role as full citizens”
Calling upon the “good relations existing between the Holy See and the State of Palestine,” Pope Francis expressed his hope that “it is possible to find a means of serene, ordered and peaceful coexistence, accepting our differences and rejoicing that, as children of the one God, we are all brothers and sisters.”
Religious freedom is a “fundamental right,” he emphasized. It is “one of the essential conditions for peace, fraternity, and harmony.”
The Pope expressed his “closeness to those who suffer” in the “climate of instability” in the region.
He noted that a “lack of mutual understanding” has produced “insecurity, the violation of rights, isolation, and the flight of entire communities.”
Pope Francis then said, “I wish to state my heartfelt conviction that the time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.”
The Pontiff was firm in his emphasis that peace must be sought.
“There is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of the rights of every individual, and on mutual security.”
He insisted that the conflicts in the region must end, “even if each side has to make certain sacrifices.”
Moreover, the Pope called for authenticity on the part of all, saying “I can only express my profound hope that all will refrain from initiatives and actions which contradict the stated desire to reach a true agreement.”
Concluding his remarks with a quote from Scripture, the Holy Father prayed for God’s blessing upon everyone, for the “wisdom and strength needed to continue courageously along the path to peace, so that swords will be turned into ploughshares and this land will once more flourish in prosperity and concord.”
Bethlehem, West Bank, May 25, 2014 (CNA) -
In his homily delivered in Bethlehem this morning, Pope Francis meditated on the role of the Christ child in the life of every person.
“The child Jesus, born in Bethlehem, every child who is born and grows up in every part of our world, is a diagnostic sign indicating the state of health of our families, our communities, our nation,” the Pope preached on May 25 in Manger Square in Bethlehem.
“And we have to ask ourselves: who are we, as we stand before the child Jesus? Who are we, standing as we stand before today’s children?”
Celebrating mass on the site of Jesus’ birth, Pope Francis delivered strong words in condemnation of every kind of violence and exploitation against children, including trafficking, slavery, and abortion.
Pope Francis was joined at mass by leaders of the Syro-Catholic, Coptic Catholic & Maronite Catholic Churches, as well as nearly 250 priests and 48 bishops.
In an Ignatian-style meditation, the Holy Father considered the different figures present in the nativity, and their response to the Christ child.
“Are we like Mary and Joseph, who welcomed Jesus and care for him with the love of a father and mother? Or are we like Herod, who wanted to eliminate him?” he queried the crowds gathered at the historic site.
The Pope went on to lament that “all too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking.”
“Are we indifferent?” he asked. “Are we perhaps people who use fine and pious words, yet exploit pictures of poor children in order to make money?”
Just like the child Jesus in Bethlehem, every child “is vulnerable,” emphasized the Pontiff. “He needs to be accepted and protected. Today too, children need to be welcomed and defended, from the moment of their conception.”
Children are “a sign of hope, a sign of life,” he explained, but also “a ‘diagnostic’ sign, a marker indicating the health of families, society, and the entire world.”
Societies and families are more healthy “wherever children are accepted, loved, cared for and protected.”
Pope Francis mourned the numbers of children who are “hungry and suffering from easily curable diseases, who cry out in vain” in a world “which daily discards tons of food and medicine.”
He also repeated his frequent condemnation of the arms trade.
“In an age which insists on the protection of minors, there is a flourishing trade in weapons which end up in the hands of child-soldiers, there is a ready market for goods produced by the slave labor of small children. Their cry is stifled: they must fight, they must work, they cannot cry!”
These children deserve the world’s attention, he stressed.
“Are we ready to listen to them, to care for them, to pray for them and with them? Or do we ignore them because we are too caught up in our own affairs?”
The Pope closed his homily by reflecting on Mary’s response to Jesus as an example for all - a theme that he continued after mass in his Angelus remarks, also delivered in Manger Square.
“As we prepare to conclude our celebration, our thoughts turn to Mary Most Holy, who here, in Bethlehem, gave birth to Jesus her son. Our Lady is the one who, more than any other person, contemplated God in the human face of Jesus.”
He entrusted the Holy Land, its residents, and pilgrims, to Mary, asking for her intercession in watching over “our families, our young people and our elderly.”
“Watch over the Church’s pastors and the entire community of believers,” prayed the Holy Father.
Pope Francis then once again encouraged the leaders of the Middle East to work together for peace, offering a very concrete invitation to the leadership of Palestine and Israel.
“In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace. I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”
He concluded, “building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace.”
Bethlehem, West Bank, May 25, 2014 (CNA) -
Today Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that they have accepted Pope Francis’ invitation to join him at the Vatican for an encounter of prayer.
Pope Francis issued his invitation at the close of a papal mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on May 25, asking both men “to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace. I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”
According to a report by the Associated Press, President Peres’ office issued a confirmation statement soon after: “"We welcome Pope Francis' invitation to the Vatican. President Peres has supported and will continue to support all avenues to bring about peace.”
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for President Abbas, noted that the meeting would take place sometime in June.
Pope Francis’ invitation was issued on the second day of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where all of his addresses have focused heavily on the theme of peace.
This morning he told Palestinian President Abbas and other leaders that “the time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.”
Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have broken down over the last year, leading to what the Pope termed, “a climate of instability.”
“All of us want peace,” the Pontiff affirmed at the end of this morning’s liturgy.
“Many people build it day by day through small gestures and acts; many of them are suffering, yet patiently persevere in their efforts to be peacemakers.”
But the Pope called upon the leadership in a particular way, saying, “All of us – especially those placed at the service of their respective peoples – have the duty to become instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers.”
Pope Francis spent Saturday in Jordan with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, then started out early on Sunday morning for Bethlehem where he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders.
His itinerary also includes a meeting on Monday with Israel's President Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as several religious leaders from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Tel Aviv, Israel, May 25, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Late Sunday afternoon Pope Francis arrived in Tel Aviv, where he urged Israeli President Shimon Peres and other authorities to adopt a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Renewing the appeal made by former pontiff Benedict XVI, Pope Francis called for “universal recognition” of “the right of the State of Israel to exist and flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”
“At the same time, there must also be a recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement. The 'Two State Solution' must become reality and not remain merely a dream,” he urged those gathered at the Ben Gourion Airport in Tel Aviv on May 25.
The Pope’s speech to Palestinian leaders in Bethlehem early in the day expressed the same call for a peaceful solution.
Pope Francis reiterated his invitation to prayer in the Vatican, which he had also offered to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Both Abbas and Peres have accepted and will join him sometime in June.
The Pontiff noted improving relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel, expressing his prayerful best wishes to “all the people of Israel” that “their aspirations of peace and prosperity will achieve fulfillment.”
He described his journey as a pilgrimage to a land of “immense spiritual significance for a great part of humanity,” praying that “this blessed land may be one which has no place for those who, by exploiting and absolutizing the value of their own religious tradition, prove intolerant and violent towards those of others.”
Pope Francis’ words were emphatic, imploring “those in positions of responsibility to leave no stone unturned in the search for equitable solutions to complex problems.”
“The path of dialogue, reconciliation and peace must constantly be taken up anew, courageously and tirelessly. There is simply no other way,” he stressed.
Before his speech, the Holy Father had been welcomed by both Israeli President Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu spoke of his gratitude to Pope Francis for his closeness to the Jewish people, particularly visible in his co-authorship of a book with Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
The Prime Minister assured the Pontiff of Israel’s desire for peace, describing the state as an “island of tolerance” where they are committed to freedom of religion.
Pope Francis also acknowledged his desire to “promote an education in which exclusion and confrontation give way to inclusion and encounter.”
He lamented the many victims of anti-semitism in the Holocaust, saying, “I beg God that there will never be another such crime, which also counted among its victims many Christians and others.”
The pontiff closed his remarks by offering “a warm and fraternal greeting” to the local bishops and Christian faithful – assuring them that they are in his prayers.
“I encourage them to persevere in their quiet witness of faith and hope in the service of reconciliation and forgiveness, following the teaching and example of the Lord Jesus, who gave his life to bring about peace between God and man, and between brothers,” he said.
Jerusalem, Israel, May 25, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The director of the choir who sang during Pope Francis’ Mass in Bethlehem earlier today expressed that to sing for the pontiff in his country is like receiving your father into your home.
“It’s as if you are welcoming your father in your home. You have a home, and your father is coming to support you,” Fr. Ibrahim Shomali told CNA May 25.
“God is visiting you in his person and honoring him, honoring Jesus with Mass celebrated by the Pope with these songs that are very special for me, and especially with Pope Francis who is the Pope of the poor and the needy people.”
Fr. Shomali is a priest of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and oversees a parish in town of Beit Jala, which lays close to Bethlehem.
Explaining how he was asked by the Latin patriarchy to lead the choir for the papal Mass, which took place earlier this morning in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, Fr. Shomali noted that the group of 120 was composed of five different groups coming from surrounding areas.
Aged between 13 to almost 80, the members are all part of local communities in Palestine, most hailing from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.
In order to compliment the fact that Pope Francis celebrated Mass using the liturgy of Christmas Day in honor of the city of Jesus’ birth, the choir sang mostly Christmas songs the priest observed, “because we are in Bethlehem, and in Bethlehem every day is Christmas.”
Referring to how Pope Francis is often characterized by his joyful spirit, Fr. Shomali stated that the hymns, such as “Gloria in Excelcis Deo” and “Oh Come Let Us Adore Him,” suit the pontiff because “Christmas is always joy.”
“And joy must be built on justice. And we need justice for this Holy Land. This is what we are asking the Pope” he stated, adding that he has great hope for the pontiff’s visit.
“He was great yesterday in Jordan and he will be more than great today in Palestine.”
Among the 120 choir members who sang for Pope Francis today was Kasandra, 17, who comes from the town of Beit Jala.
Revealing how it was the first time she had sung in an event of such importance, the youth stated that “this is my first time and I am proud of myself. “
“It’s an honor to be here in this time. I think it’s good, very good” she explained, saying that despite being part of such a diverse group of people and ages “you are like one person, you are one person, one choir.”
“To sing for Pope Francis is very important. You feel like an important person and that your voice will reach to the whole world.”
Expressing her hope that the Pope would like their music, Kasandra said that “I think he will be happy from this side because we are singing from the bottom of our heart.”
Pope Francis traveled to Bethlehem today to celebrate Mass for local Palestinians as part of his May 24 – 26 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Before entering the city’s Manger Square where he celebrated Mass, the pontiff made an unscheduled stop to pray in silence before the wall dividing Palestine and Israel.
Jerusalem, Israel, May 25, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
In a declaration delivered at the end of a private meeting, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Costantinople Bartholomew I marked a new step on the journey towards unity, stressing their commonality in areas such as respect for the sanctity of life and the protection of the family.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew met in Mount Scopus, Jerusalem on May 25 during the pontiff's current three-day visit to the region.
The two signed a common declaration after a private meeting and an exchange of gifts, and then held an ecumenical celebration in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The meeting between the Pope and Patriarch marks the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Paul VI and the then Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem Jan. 6 1964, which concluded with the historical embrace between the two.
Pope Francis and the Patriarch Bartholomew wanted to commemorate that historical meeting again in Jerusalem, thus pushing to foster the ecumenical path toward the Unity of Christians.
“Our fraternal encounter today is a new and necessary step on the journey toward the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in legitimate diversity,” the common declaration read.
Pope Francis and the Patriarch Bartholomew declared to look forward “in eager anticipation to the day in which we will finally partake together in the Eucharistic banquet,” and that Christians are “preparing to receive this gift of Eucharistic communion” through “the confession of the one faith, persevering prayer, inner conversion, renewal of life and fraternal dialogue.”
The Pope and the Patriarch underscored the “substantial progress” of the theological encounters which took place under the predecessors St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Patriarch Dimitrios.
The theological dialogue “does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church,” the common declaration said.
“Our faithfulness to the Lord demands fraternal encounter and true dialogue,” a common pursuit that does not “lead us away from the truth,” but “rather, through an exchange of gifts, it will lead us into all truth,” the Pope and the Patriarch stressed.
The common declaration provided the fields in which the Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate may work together in the service of humanity.
The common fields are: the defense of the dignity of the human person at every stage of life an the sanctity of family based on marriage; the promotion of peace and the common good; the response to the suffering that afflict the world.
“We acknowledge that hunger, poverty, illiteracy, the inequitable distribution of resources must constantly be addressed,” and “it is our duty to seek to build together a just and humane society in which no one feels excluded or emarginated,” the Pope and the Patriarch declared.
The Pope and the Patriarch also announced their common commitment for the safeguard of the creation, acknowledging “in repentance the wrongful mistreatment of our planet, which is tantamount to sin before before the eyes of God.”
“We reaffirm our responsibility and obligation to foster a sense of humility and moderation so that all may feel the need to respect creation and to safeguard it with care,” the Common declaration reads.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew also urged an “effective cooperation of Christians in order to safeguard everywhere the right to express publicly one’s faith and to be treated fairly when prompting that which Christianity continues to offer to contemporary society.”
While inviting to the promotion of “authentic dialogue” with Judaism, Islam and other religious tradition, the Pope and the Patriarch expressed “profound concern” for the situation of the Christian in Middle East and “for their right to remain full citizens of their homelands.”
The Roman Pontiff and the Patriarch of Constantinople especially prayed for the Churches in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and encouraged “all parties, regardless their religious convictions, to continue to work for the reconciliation and for the just recognition of people’s rights.”
“We are persuaded that it is not arms, but dialogue, pardon and reconciliation that are the only possible means to achieve peace,” the common declaration read.
For this purpose, the Pope and the Patriarch stressed that “it is precisely through our common witness to the good news of the Gospel that we may be able to help the people of our time to rediscover the way that leads to truth, justice and peace.”
Jerusalem, Israel, May 25, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
At an ecumenical celebration in Jerusalem during his visit to the region, Pope Francis told inter-denominational Christians that the Risen Christ unites them all in a message of hope for the world.
“Each of us, everyone baptized in Christ, has spiritually risen from this tomb, for in baptism all of us truly became members of the body of the One who is the Firstborn of all creation,” Pope Francis said.
The Pope encouraged those gathered to “pause in reverent silence before this empty tomb in order to rediscover the grandeur of our Christian vocation,” since “we are men and women of Resurrection, and not of death.”
“Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the basis of our hope! Let us not deprive the world of the joyful message of the resurrection! And let us not be deaf to the powerful summons to unity which rings out from this very place!”
Pope Francis made his remarks on May 25 at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre after a private meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Costantinople Bartholomew I in Mount Scopus. The pontiff's three-day visit to the area took him first to Jordan, Palestine and now Jerusalem. Aside from stressing peace, an end to the arms trade and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Pope has insisted on the importance of Christian unity during his trip.
In his address to faithful gathered at the church built where Christ was crucified, Pope Francis underscored the basis “of the faith which unites us,” given by the empty tomb of the Risen Lord.
The pontiff then stressed that “the divisions which continue to exist among us, the disciple of Jesus” cannot be denied and that “this sacred place makes us even more painfully aware of how tragic they are.”
Conscious that “much distance still needs to be travelled before we attain that fullness of communion,” Pope Francis said that “our disagreements must not frighten us and paralyze our progress.”
“Every time we ask forgiveness of one another for our sins against other Christians and every time we find the courage to grant and receive such forgiveness, we experience the resurrection!”
“Every time we put behind us our longstanding prejudices and find the courage to build new fraternal relationships, we confess that Christ is truly risen! Every time we reflect on the future of the Church in the light of her vocation to unity, the dawn of Easter breaks forth!” said the Pope.
Pope Francis reiterated the hope of a continued dialogue “with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, aimed at finding a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and ca be, in the present context, a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all.”
In his address, Patriarch Bartholomew invited not to be afraid of death nor of evil, because “the Cross of Christ amassed all the arrows of evil.”
“However, rest assured – all of you who are crucified in this life – that, just as in the case of Christ, the Resurrection follow the cross.”
According to Patriarch Bartholomew, the message that emanates from the Tomb is that “history cannot be programmed” and that “the ultimate word in history does not belong to man, but to God.”
Bartholomew then stressed that the tomb “invites us to shed” the “fear of the other, fear of the different, fear of the adherent of another faith, another religion, or another confession.”
While different forms of discrimination, often “permeating the religious life of people” are “still widespread in many of our contemporary societies,” Patriarch Bartholomew underscored that “the message of the life-giving Tomb is urgent and clear: love the other, the different other, the followers of other faiths and other confessions.”
Recalling the meeting between Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras, Bartholomew I stressed that “they cast away from themselves the fear which had prevail for a millennium, a fear which had kept the two ancient Church, of the West and East, at a distance from one another, sometimes even setting them up against each other.”
On the footsteps of their predecessors, Bartholomew and Pope Francis have “exchanged the embrace of love,” since “no other way leads to life except the way of love, reconciliation, genuine peace and fidelity to the truth.”
Patriarch Bartholomew said that the way of love is that “Christians are called to follow in their relations among themselves – whatever church or confession they belong to – thereby providing an example to the rest of the world.”
“The way may be long and arduous; indeed, to some it may occasionally seem like an impasse. However, it is the only way the leads to the fulfillment of the Lord’s will “that his Disciples may be one.”
Jerusalem, Israel, May 25, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
A leader of one of the Boy Scout troops manning the entrances to Pope Francis’ Mass in Bethlehem today explained that the volunteers came from all over in order to join the pontiff in praying for peace.
“Now we came, all of us, to pray with our Pope, praying for peace. We’re praying for justice, to be and to give for everybody” George Zenee explained to CNA May 25.
Zenee hails from Palestine and is a senior member and leader of the Boy Scouts of Terra Santa College in Bethlehem, a school which is run by the Franciscan Custody, whose mission is to safeguard the holy sites of the Catholic faith.
The group, along with various other troops, were among the 200 local volunteers who assisted pilgrims and checked tickets during Pope Francis’ Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square earlier this morning, which was intended primarily for inhabitants of the Palestinian region.
Speaking of the significance of Pope Francis’ presence in his homeland, the Boy Scout leader observed that “the visit of the Pope will have many meanings for us.”
“The Pope, he is the father of the poor people. He is honest in his message, the message of our Lord Jesus, the message of love and peace” he noted, describing how the pontiff’s presence is particularly important for those suffering due to the conflict between Palestine and Israel.
“Everybody is looking for this visit to give us more hope of staying on our land. A land where our Jesus was, and that’s very important for us, to see very soon peace in our country.”
Dating back to the end of the 19th century, the conflict originally developed as two key nationalist movements amongst the Arabs and the Jews attempted to gain sovereignty in the Middle East. Tensions erupted into violence between the parties during the Civil War of 1947 – 1948, and continues to this day.
Noting how there are many who have left the area due to the ongoing tensions, the boy scout leader explained that “There are many Palestinians living all over the world, and for that we are praying with our Pope to see if he puts peace in our area.”
“We like to see our flag, we like to see our passport, we like to see our freedom, we like see our state, we like to see our capitol and in the end we say we are all human beings” he said, “we don’t like to make any troubles or war.”
Zenee stated that he believes peace is coming “someday,” but “that’s not easy. Because today we have troubles all over the world, and many crazy things happen all over the world.”
“And we pray for the leaders of the government to change their policy, and how to give more hope to their people” he said, noting that “From the time of our Lord he worked, from before the time of 2,014 years we have been praying for peace and for that strength.”
“If peace doesn’t come from our God, then it’s not easy to do it with the people.”