|Archbishop Chaput rejects 'false' media reports on synod comments
Philadelphia, Pa., October 24 (CNA) .- Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia rejected claims that he had harshly criticized the Vatican or the recent synod, saying that he had instead been cautioning against a public image of the synod created by media reports that distort the truth.
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VATICAN CITY, October 23 (CNA/EWTN News) .- As founders of an institute studying reproductive healthcare, Thomas and Susan Hilgers have seen the benefits that natural family planning can offer in the realms of health, sexuality and human relationships.
But the couple was not always focused on advocating Church teaching on sexuality and family planning. Their years of dedication to the subject were largely inspired by reading Blessed Pope Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” and later St. John Paul II’s “Familiaris Consortio,” documents that they say bring “great hope and joy to the people to utilize them.”
“This whole concept is rich. I said in another place we should be shouting out from the mountain tops as a Church, we shouldn’t be crawling under like it’s something we have to be embarrassed by,” Dr. Thomas Hilgers told CNA on Oct. 15.
The Hilgers were present in Rome for the Oct. 19 beatification of Pope Paul VI at the end of the Synod of Bishops on the Family. During the Mass, the doctor read aloud one of the Prayers of the Faithful in English.
Together with his wife, Dr. Hilgers founded the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and the National Center for Women's Health in Omaha, Neb., in 1985 after reading Paul VI’s encyclical letter “Humanae Vitae” on the regulation of birth.
The doctor recalled that he was one of many people who had expected the Church’s position on contraception to change at the time that the encyclical was released. However, he said, upon reading the document, he was “an instant convert, because the things that were being portrayed in the newspapers and television was not what Humanae Vitae was saying.”
“It was much more, (it was) a rich document spiritually, rich sociologically and rich in a lot of other ways,” he said, noting how at the end of the encyclical Bl. Paul VI had written a series of pastoral directives to physicians and those working in the fields of science and healthcare.
With the feeling that the pontiff was speaking directly to him, Dr. Hilgers went on to complete his first research project in natural methods of parental planning in December 1968, after which he received training in obstetrics and gynecology.
He currently works at the St. Louis University and Creighton University Schools of Medicine. At Creighton, he serves as a clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The doctor is also a senior medical consultant in obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine and surgery at the Pope Paul VI Institute, where he still serves as director. He was appointed to the permanent membership of the Pontifical Academy for Life in 1994.
Together with his other colleagues, Dr. Hilgers developed NaPro Technology – Natural Procreative Technology – a method of women’s healthcare that relies upon scientific methods of monitoring and maintaining a woman's reproductive health.
Using Creighton Model Fertility Care System biomarkers to monitor the hormonal patterns during the menstrual cycle, NaPro Technology is the current method practiced at the Paul VI Institute, which will change its name following the beatification of its patron.
The technology has successfully been used to help women better understand their bodies’ natural fertility, achieve or avoid pregnancy, and find solutions to a variety of health problems.
In his more than 35 years of experience in the reproductive medical field, Dr. Hilgers said that since the publication of Humanae Vitae, “I don’t know of any other field that could claim such advances in (so) many ways.”
Although medical sciences have changed since the time of Pope Paul VI, the late pontiff knew the importance of promoting natural methods, “and that’s why he called on people to be involved, and that’s why I became involved,” the doctor noted.
“So what we see is the potential that these approaches bring: balance in your sexual life, harmony into your physical life with regard to your illnesses, diseases or whatever you might have, and it builds relationship in marriage.”
Among the institute’s biggest advocates are the women and couples themselves who have received treatment there, said Dr. Hilger’s wife, Susan.
Most women, she told CNA, don’t understand their fertility because “we haven’t been teaching women about how their bodies work and how to live with their fertility.”
For perhaps the first time in history, women are truly starting to understand how their bodies function, she explained, saying that it brings her “great joy as a woman” to see other women know exactly what their bodies are doing.
“It’s been a great blessing for us personally, and to see the blessings that have come from this work because of the teachings of the Church has been absolutely miraculous and unbelievable for us. That’s why we’re so dedicated to this.”
When asked if it was difficult for him and the 22 members of the institute’s staff to stay faithful to the precepts laid out in Humanae Vitae in a secularized culture, Dr. Hilgers said: “Not at all,” because Pope Paul VI “predicted all of those sociological calamities we have come up against.”
“The way we treat women, the divorce rate, abortion and everything that has occurred in one way or another is predicted in Humanae Vitae,” he said, observing how some have referred to the revolutionary encyclical “as ‘Paul VI’s Prophecies’ (precisely) because they were so prophetic.”
Although they never met Bl. Paul VI, “he spoke to us in Humanae Vitae and we listened, so it is an honor” to continue his work, the couple observed.
To see Pope Paul VI beatified “brings a lot of emotion out of me personally,” Dr. Hilgers explained. “Sometimes it is hard for me to talk about it because he suffered so much; he was an incredibly courageous man and I personally have no doubt he’s in heaven.”
“I am deeply grateful for the Church recognizing him as being blessed and I hope someday he will be canonized. For us, he’s our namesake.”
Dr. Hilgers has recently written a book entitled “War on Women,” in which he compiled 17 of the cases he has seen at his clinic of women who have experienced great damage and trauma due to the use of contraception, abortion and in vitro fertilization.
“There has been a lot of political chatter about the so-called war on women, but they described it as the inability to abort, the inability to get contraceptive measures, and it pretty much stops there, abortion and contraception,” the doctor noted.
However, he said that the real “war on women” doesn’t come from a lack of access to these “very accessible” products and procedures, but rather from “the result of abortion, contraception and in vitro fertilization,” which can often be physically damaging and emotionally scarring to women.
The book, he said, could just as easily be filled with “1,700 or 17,000 cases,” because most everyone that comes to his institute has some sort of history with artificial contraception in their background.
“And that is why they’ve sought services with us; because we provide a real alternative to them, we look for the causes, we treat the diseases.”
PHILADELPHIA, PA., October 24 (CNA) .- Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia rejected claims that he had harshly criticized the Vatican or the recent synod, saying that he had instead been cautioning against a public image of the synod created by media reports that distort the truth.
“That's simply false,” Archbishop Chaput told CNA Oct. 24 about claims that he had “blasted” the recent Synod on the Family.
“The synod isn't mentioned in my formal remarks, and what I said in answer to a question from the audience about the synod is easily available, in full, online. People can see or read for themselves.”
Archbishop Chaput’s comments followed a report by David Gibson of Religion News Service covering the archbishop’s Oct. 20 delivery of the 2014 Erasmus Lecture, hosted by the interreligious journal First Things.
The lecture itself did not involve the synod, but focused on the role of religious believers in modern America.
After the lecture, an attendee asked Archbishop Chaput about the Synod on the Family, a global gathering of bishops that recently concluded in Rome, and the archbishop replied:
“Well, first of all, I wasn’t there. That’s very significant, because to claim you know what really happened when you weren’t there is foolish. To get your information from the press is a mistake because they don’t know well enough how to understand it so they can tell people what happened. I don’t think the press deliberately distorts, they just don’t have any background to be able to evaluate things. In some cases they’re certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church.”
“Now, having said all that, I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion. Now, I don’t think that was the real thing there,” he said, adding that he is eager to hear from the U.S. bishops who were present at the event.
“I want to hear from them. Then you can ask me the question and I can give you a better answer,” he said.
The archbishop then went on to say that “the Church has a clear position” on matters of marriage and communion, adding, “I’m not fundamentally worried because I believe the Holy Spirit guides the Church.”
In his reporting for Religion News Service, Gibson omitted the archbishop’s qualifying remarks about not presuming to know what really happened at the synod that he had not attended. He also omitted the archbishop’s comment that while confusion was the public image presented in the media, he did not think “that was the real thing” at the synod.
Gibson quoted Archbishop Chaput as saying, “I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.” He then moved on to other parts of the archbishop’s remarks.
The Religion News Service article was picked up by several other publications. Michael Sean Winters, a blogger for the National Catholic Reporter, pointed to Gibson’s article to argue that Archbishop Chaput was challenging Pope Francis, “criticizing the process of synodality,” and pushing an “agenda.”
Archbishop Chaput reiterated to CNA that when he had spoken of confusion being from the devil, he was not referring to the Vatican or the synod debates themselves, but to the way that the proceedings had been presented.
“The news media, sometimes innocently and sometimes not, distort the public image of the Church and her efforts. That creates confusion, including confusion in public perceptions of the synod, and there's nothing Godly about that,” he said.
He lamented a sense of “infallibility” among some parts of the press, adding that “the worst offenders refuse to acknowledge their own mistakes and prejudices.”
Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor of First Things magazine, responded to Gibson’s article in an Oct. 23 blog post. He included both the video and written transcript of the archbishop’s comments.
Gibson’s article portrayed the archbishop as critical of the synod itself, Schmitz stressed, while “(i)n fact, Chaput denounced its public image while saying he would need to hear more from his brother bishops who actually attended before forming a firm opinion.”
Kenneth Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, also voiced “grave concerns” about Gibson’s article, particularly its headline, which initially read, “Archbishop Chaput Blasts Vatican Debate on Family, says ‘Confusion is of the Devil’.”
After the archdiocese contacted Religion News Service, the headline was changed to, “Archbishop Chaput ‘disturbed’ by Synod Debate, Says ‘Confusion is of the Devil’.”
Both of these headlines, however, inaccurately present Archbishop Chaput as being critical of the Vatican and the synod, Gavin said, when in reality, the archbishop was simply criticizing “those who used the draft report from the Synod out of context to reinforce their own opinions and agendas.”
Additionally, Gavin said, the focus that Gibson’s article places on the comments could lead the casual reader “to believe that the Archbishop’s talk was all about the Synod,” when his comments were actually in response to an audience question, and his lecture was not about the synod at all.
“The RNS piece that was published just isn’t an accurate reflection of reality. It mischaracterizes both Archbishop Chaput and what he said,” Gavin said. “The story has been picked up by secular and religious media at the national level and it has created a false and misleading image. That’s problematic and unfair. People have a right to the truth. Media have an obligation to present it.”
WASHINGTON D.C., October 24 (CNA) .- Recovering an understanding of friendship as a vocation could be a way for the Church to help ease spiritual problems of isolation, especially for those who are gay, said one Catholic author who is both lesbian and celibate.
“Friendship is a vocation which can include lifelong devotion and commitment,” said Eve Tushnet, suggesting that Church leaders should “talk more about vocations outside of marriage and the priesthood.”
“That’s totally scriptural, and we should be ahead on this instead of letting the culture lead us around and act like friendship is relatively trivial in the scheme of things,” she told CNA.
Tushnet is a Catholic convert who has described herself as “an openly lesbian and celibate Catholic.” She has written frequently on living out her Catholic faith amid same-sex attraction and recently released a book, “Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.”
Among the topics that Tushnet has covered is the sense of isolation that can come from the idea that one is called to neither marriage nor religious life, and therefore feeling abandoned to a life of loneliness.
In her interview with CNA, she suggested a “vocation of friendship” as one possible remedy to that problem.
Tushnet argued that modern culture does not respect and discuss friendships as it does sexual relationships “or the ones that have the potential to become sexual.” Instead, she said, society views friendships almost as a “relationship of convenience” instead of as “a relationship of commitment or devotion or sacrifice.”
“By contrast when you look at Christian history,” she explained, friendship had a prominent and public place in Christian life. She noted that the records of the early and medieval Church point to friends living together and supporting one another, as well as to the sacrificial love of “spiritual friendship.”
Tushnet also pointed to the life of Christ, who did not have children nor a spouse, but explained his sacrificial death as an act of laying down his life for friends.
“He singles out this relationship and says this is a sacrificial and devoted relationship,” she said of Christ’s emphasis on friendship.
Church outreach to homosexual persons garnered significant media attention during the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome.
But while much of the media coverage focused on Church teaching against homosexual acts and “gay marriage,” Tushnet said she believes there was a missed opportunity to discuss the concept of “vocation for gay people.”
She argued that the Church must “give some image of what your life would look like” for a practicing Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction, giving concrete help for people “trying to live out your sexuality in a way that’s fruitful.”
While perhaps well-intentioned, a general focus on what should be avoided rather than what should be embraced risks “pushing people into isolation,” she said.
“Being alone all the time is not a great idea for your spiritual life…it’s really easy to despair.”
To alleviate this problem, Tushnet continued, “there’s some elements that probably need to be explored a little more, such as what does friendship mean now.”
“Just letting people know that there is such a thing as intentional community life,” where celibate partners or groups of people take care of one another, would be helpful in putting forth another vision of vocation for Christians who are not married, she said.
She also warned against focusing solely on the question of sexuality when ministering to people who identify as gay.
“People think the thing we care about either positively or negatively is always going to be something related to our sexuality,” she said, but in reality, “there’s plenty of other stuff to struggle with,” including pride, sloth and other vices that can affect all people, regardless of sexual orientation.
Among Tushnet’s other suggestions were a normalization of spiritual direction and the promotion of artistic creation for people to “express the best part of themselves.”
Ultimately, she advised the laity to take a more active role in improving the Church’s response and options for individuals with same-sex attraction and others struggling with isolation and without clear vocational paths.
“We need to be more open to doing it ourselves,” she said. “There’s so much need, so look for the needs that you are willing to fill.”
FRONT ROYAL, VA., October 24 (CNA/EWTN News) .- Amid the chilling dark chaos of a woman’s unwanted and unexpected pregnancy, a group of pro-life Catholics try to be a light to both the mother and the unborn child.
Their mission is in an unassuming plot in a modest town well outside the sprawling Washington, D.C. suburbs. Not much car traffic passes through town other than tourists on their way to see the mountain leaves turn every October.
Seventy miles outside the nation’s capital in northern Virginia, there is no national pro-life headquarters, army of lobbyists, or melodramatic political battle being waged. The Front Royal Pregnancy Center is simply part of a national chain of crisis pregnancy centers, “the real future of the pro-life movement,” as board member Mary Brand put it.
And this future is carried out in a drab brick building on South Royal Avenue, ministering to pregnant women from town and from the surrounding area. Walk through the door, however, and one will meet a disarmingly festive atmosphere. Decorations festoon the ceiling and walls. A joyful, peaceful intoxication pervades the place.
“It’s liberating to work in a place like this where every life is precious. Every life is important. Planned or unplanned,” said head nurse Rosemary Antunes, RN.
If there’s any gravitas over a battle for the life of an unborn child, the volunteers aren’t showing it. There’s no grim reminder of what’s at stake, no guilt-trip ready for an anxious mother who is not sure what to do with her baby. The focus here is simply on the goodness of life and the Gospel.
“We work hard to be across-the-board life-affirming,” Antunes told CNA. “Not just the baby’s personhood. (The mother's) personhood. Oh, and their significant other’s personhood.”
Crisis pregnancy centers are sometimes criticized for existing solely to save babies. The staff flatly rejects that line of thought when treating expectant mothers.
If the mother’s needs aren’t taken care of, if she is not affirmed and cared for through and even after the pregnancy, than the child will suffer the consequences, explained outreach coordinator Maura McMahon. A healthy mother is necessary for a healthy child.
This includes a mother who freely chooses to carry the child to term. She may be feeling intense pressure, on multiple fronts, to abort or keep the child, but the volunteers will not pressure her to save the life of the baby. All the witness to life is done through gentle, patient affirmation and education, through an authentic personal care for the woman.
“You’re merely giving them all the tools that they need to make an educated choice. And they know it,” McMahon said. “We’re giving them the space and time to make the decision. And we obviously pray that they keep (the baby), for the baby’s sake but (also) for their own sake. For the sake of their health, their well-being, and their conscience.”
“We really work hard on our non-judgemental, cheerful attitude,” Antunes says. This welcoming atmosphere begins right when a mother walks in the door.
“It’s important to get someone to smile or laugh,” said executive director Kathy Clowes. And no judgement of the woman is even considered.
In fact, the staff admire the women who come through the door, knowing that many of them are under intense pressure to abort their child.
“I think that a lot of them have heroic virtue, according to where they’ve come from, the very little training they’ve had,” Clowes added.
From humble beginnings
The center was begun in 1991, and presently ministers to almost 400 women per year and provides $23,000 worth of material assistance to mothers.
A local Catholic businessman offered the building that is the current location, and once they saw the building, the staff then knew they had room for an ultrasound machine. They procured one with the fundraising help of the Knights of Columbus. The local Knights council, the John Carrell Jenkins Council at St. John the Baptist Church, raised $24,000.
The national Knights of Columbus covered half the cost of the ultrasound machine. Through a program begun in 2009, the Supreme Council matches the funds raised by local Knights councils for ultrasound machines for local pregnancy centers.
The staff acknowledge the machine has been a game-changer.
“It’s been transformative, really,” Clowes said of the ultrasound machine. “The most common thing that the women say is that it did not seem real until they saw the baby on the screen. And they might expect to see a motionless little figure, they don’t expect to see it moving. Sometimes they don’t expect a heartbeat.”
The staff recounted once how an unborn baby on the ultrasound screen waved with his hand and the two year-old in the room waved back.
“You just let it dawn on them,” Clowes said. “Let the beauty of it come to mind.”
The image of a baby on the screen is transformative for fathers as well.
“They’re frequently stunned,” Antunes remarked. “There’s a genuine disconnect in our society between having sex and having a child. It’s documentable with the advent of contraception and the proliferation of contraception devices and use.”
Caring for the woman, no matter what
However, the woman needs more than pre-natal care if she decides to bring her baby to term. For many women the journey to childbirth can be a lonely and scary one. Motherhood, said McMahon, is a “life-changing experience,” and the women and babies need to be cared for even after the birth.
Women can participate in the center’s “Earn While You Learn” program, where women can “earn” supplies for motherhood as they are educated about pregnancy and motherhood.
“We make what seems like an impossible feat possible to them,” said McMahon. “Like you’re taking something that’s so intangible and you’re saying look, we have these material things for you to help you through the rough patches.”
The program also brings women back to the center, where they can establish a relationship with one of the volunteers.
“That first 45 minutes, you’re creating the start of a relationship, and if they come to ‘Earn While You Learn,’ you have all these hours to build on that relationship,” said Clowes.
And it is especially though these personal one-on-one meetings that the center strives to “share the Gospel,” as Antunes put it.
“A lot of centers have a group class, and you have to sign up for the group class, you come for the group class, you’re in the group with all these other people that you don’t really know,” Clowes explained.
“And we do one-on-one individual lessons. You come, you come with your mom, you come with your boyfriend, whatever. And if we can, we’ll sit in with you, most of the time, sit in with you and spend that time with you one-on-one.”
And any judgements of the women walking through the door go out the window.
“If they’ve had a couple of kids, or something like that, we’re not looking down our noses that they’re pregnant again,” Antunes said. “We’re here to help you through this pregnancy. And we think your kids are cute, by the way.”
“There has to be a safe place where they can know that this baby is welcomed,” Clowes said.
“And their other kids are welcome,” Antunes chimed in.
WASHINGTON D.C., October 23 (CNA/EWTN News) .- St. John Paul II's life and teachings offer a witness to love that is so profound it is only beginning to be be mined for its riches, said the chaplain of the late pope’s national shrine in Washington, D.C.
“I think we’re just touching the surface, the scope of his teachings,” Fr. Jonathan Kalisch, O.P., said Oct. 22.
The chaplain of the Saint John Paul II National Shrine told CNA this, pointing to the legacy and witness the newly-recognized saint brings to the Church, made known in part through his teachings in his numerous writings, encyclicals and public speeches.
“They’re so rich with defense of human rights, and also religious freedom,” he commented, also noting the Pope's writings on forgiveness and on human sexuality.
“And even his personal witness and the ways that he did those things,” Fr. Kalisch added.
Fr. Kalisch also spoke to how the saint’s life demonstrates “his witness to non-violence.”
Saint John Paul II, he said, “supported the churches under communism, never calling for a violent overthrow” and cautioned political leaders “to stand for the truth, even if it meant imprisonment. But never to resort to violence.”
Greatest, however, the chaplain said, was the Pope’s witness to love and friendship, noting that it’s demonstrative that Saint John Paul II “kept his friends,” and grew in those friendships despite changing life circumstances.
“I think he understood, having grown up under Nazism,” Fr. Kalisch said, “the power of fraternity. And he understood (that) under communism, where again you couldn’t be together in widespread circles, that he had to help create spheres of freedom.”
These friendships created a space that led to God and that deepened in exploration of truth and beauty. Throughout his life, the chaplain said, Saint John Paul II drew those around him to a greater relationship with others, with truth, and with God.
This habit of fostering deep and meaningful friendships also followed Saint John Paul II to Rome and the papacy, Fr. Kalisch said.
“You wouldn’t think that was the case: ironically you would think the Pope would be completely shut off,” he explained. “But no, they all came to him.”
“Despite whatever tragedies in his own family life that he went through,” Saint John Paul II was able “to flourish and to give a witness and example for himself personally, to inspire others to lead lives of holiness.”
MONTECASSINO, ITALY, October 24 (CNA/EWTN News) .- Pope Francis on Thursday appointed a new Abbot of Montecassino – the first monastery built by St. Benedict – and at the same time reduced the territory for which the new abbot is responsible.
“The Monastic Community warmly welcomes Father Donato Ogliari as 192nd Ordinary Abbot of the territorial Abbey of Montecassino,” the abbey posted on Twitter Oct. 23.
Abbot Ogliari, O.S.B., who is 57, was professed as a member of the Consolata Missionaries in 1978, and ordained a priest of that institute in 1982. He later transferred to the Order of Saint Benedict, and was solemnly professed there in 1992. Before his appointment as Abbot of Montecassino, Abbot Ogliari had been abbot of Santa Maria della Scala Monastery in Noci, Italy.
The Territorial Abbey of Montecassino had been vacant since June 2013, when Abbot Pietro Vittorelli resigned.
Montecassino is one of the few remaining “territorial abbeys” in the world. This means that the abbey is independent of a diocese, and is in fact its own particular church.
The Code of Canon Law defines a territorial abbacy as “a certain portion of the people of God which is defined territorially and whose care, due to special circumstances, is entrusted to some prelate or abbot who governs it as its proper pastor just like a diocesan bishop.”
While they were more common in the past, a 1976 motu proprio of Bl. Paul VI, Catholica ecclesia, moved toward reordering territorial abbeys so that monks might focus on their proper charism rather than also being responsible for a portion of the people of God.
Many were suppressed, and only 11 remain. There are six in Italy, two in Switzerland, one in Hungary, and one in Austria. There is also one in North Korea, Tokwon, though it has been vacant since its abbot died in 1950.
The U.S. once had a territorial abbey: Belmont Abbey, in North Carolina. The abbey had been founded in 1876, and in 1910 was given the status of territorial abbey, with jurisdiction over the parishes in eight North Carolina counties. Belmont's territory was reduced twice, in 1944 and 1960, to the point that it retained jurisdiction over one parish. One year after Catholica ecclesia was issued, the territorial abbacy was suppressed and its territory transferred to the Diocese of Charlotte, though it remains an abbey.
Pope Francis' Oct. 23 decision applied Catholica ecclesia to Montecassino.
Prior to the reorganization, it had been responsible for a territory of 227 square miles, including 53 parishes, 37 priests, 50 women religious, a number of seminarians, and nearly 79,000 faithful total.
Though Montecassino retains the status of territorial abbey, Abbot Ogliari will no longer be responsible for the care of so many faithful.
They have now been transferred to the Diocese of Sora-Aquino-Pontecorvo, which had previously been responsible for 551 square miles and included 91 parishes, 83 diocesan priests, and 175 women religious.
The diocese will now be known as Sora-Cassino-Aquino-Pontecorvo, according to Vatican Radio.
“To the entire diocesan community of Sora-Cassino-Aquino-Pontecorvo I extend my cordial greetings and I entrust my deep trepidation of soul,” Bishop Gerardo Antonazzao wrote to his newly-enlarged diocese Oct. 23.
“I invite all to prayer for one another, and in a particular way for my episcopal service, invested in an expanded pastoral responsibility. Along with the charity of prayer and of fraternal friendship of the entire diocesan community, I am comforted by the trust accorded by the Holy Father.”
CAIRO, EGYPT, October 23 (CNA/EWTN News) .- While problems still exist, Christians in Egypt feel “much safer” under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military officer who played a key role in the coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, a Catholic official said.
“The mood has improved considerably. The security situation is getting better. There is greater stability,” Father Rafik Greiche, press officer for the Egyptian bishops' conference, told Aid to the Church in Need Oct. 21.
“Christians feel a lot safer. They are going to church without feeling threatened as they did under President Morsi … In all, a more peaceful atmosphere is being created.”
A 2011 revolution, part of the Arab Spring, had overthrown Hosni Mubarak, a military officer who had been Egypt's president since 1981. The following year Morsi, of the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, became the first democratically elected Egyptian president.
“Under the Muslim Brotherhood Molotov cocktails were hurled at churches or graffiti was sprayed on the walls,” Fr. Greiche recounted.
On July 3, 2013, Egypt's military ousted Morsi, and in August began a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Violence then spread across the country, with Islamists killing hundreds of people from August to October. Churches were vandalized, burned, and looted, as were the homes and businesses of Christians.
In January, the interim government approved a new constitution, and then el-Sisi won elections in May, which were boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other political groups.
Three journalists from Al Jazeera have been imprisoned in the country since December 2013, accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and of spreading false news; the three have an appeals hearing scheduled for Jan. 1, 2015.
“The number of acts of aggression has fallen to a low level, a minimum,” Fr. Greiche explained. “Sometimes there are still inter-religious tensions in some villages. It still happens that jihadists abduct Christian girls. But the situation has nevertheless improved considerably. The problems that exist are only a fraction of those that Christians experienced under Morsi.”
He added, though, “That does not mean that there are no incidents whatsoever. There continue to be Muslim-Christian difficulties of the kind we have been familiar with for more than 30 or 40 years.”
Fr. Greiche said that el-Sisi has received representatives from both the Orthodox and Catholics, as well as Protestants: “He told them that Christians have every right to have their churches and to pray.”
El-Sisi's government is working with Christians “to prepare a law governing the construction of churches,” the priest reported. “This is one of our most urgent problems here in Egypt – to-date it has been very difficult to build a new church.”
The drafted version of the law, Fr. Greiche said, would allow such symbols as crucifixes to “be mounted visibly on the exterior” and would “also stipulate that the construction of new places of worship is no longer subject to the approval of state security authorities.”
“The President himself will no longer himself have to grant permission to build a new church; instead this will be the responsibility of the provincial governor. If the latter has no objections after a period of 60 days after a proposal is submitted, the work can proceed.”
The proposed legislation, however, “is in limbo, as the country currently has no Parliament that could pass such a law.”
Fr. Greiche said parliamentary elections “are due to take place at year’s end,” but he fears that Islamists will play a major role in the new legislative body.
“The problem is that the civilian parties are very weak and lacking direction. They also don't have much backing. The Islamists will probably not have a majority, but they could form a substantial minority that is capable of upholding or delaying the passing of legislation.”
Egyptian Christians, he said, are threatened both by “jihadists based in neighbouring Libya, who are sending weaponry into Egypt” and by those on the Sinai Peninsula.
The priest added that when the Islamic State began to drive Christians from Mosul, “not a word was heard initially from the Sunni Al-Azhar University, for example.”
It was only when Copts gathered in Cairo and appealed to the university – the highest authority in Sunni Islam – to condemn the violence that “the school actually did publish a statement.”
“Unfortunately, the curriculum of the university and that of the schools managed by Al-Azhar feature many aspects that are pretty much in line with ISIS transgressions,” Fr. Greiche said.
“Fundamental changes must be made because such teachings have a big effect on people’s thinking.”
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