U2’s lead guitarist rocks Sistine Chapel in concert for a cure

Vatican City, May 3, 2016 / 03:31 am (CNA).- Lead guitarist The Edge from Irish rock band sensation U2 played “the most beautiful parish hall in the world” this weekend – the Sistine Chapel. The performance, the first-ever rock conce… Read more

Nepalis show resilience one year after devastating earthquake

Kathmandu, Nepal, May 3, 2016 / 12:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Members of the international Catholic aid agency Caritas visited Nepal last week to mark the anniversary of a devastating earthquake that left millions homeless, bringing aid and a spirit of solidarity. A delegation of Caritas International participated in a conference in the Nepali capital Kathmandu April 25 – 27, and visited outlying areas affected by the quake. They evaluated the relief effort of the Church thus far, and planned future projects for the agency. “I am really amazed by the resilience of the earthquake affected people in Nepal,” Bishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi of Niigata told CNA May 2. Bishop Kikuchi participated in the delegation as head of Caritas Asia. “People have not lost their hope for future,” he said, though “one year after the disaster, people are still living in shelters, unable to reconstruct their houses.” “Though they have been facing terrible difficulties and a delay of official assistance, they are confident of rebuilding their life in due time.” A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Kathmandu April 25, 2015, killing more than 8,000 persons, and was followed by some 120 aftershocks. A second major quake, magnitude 7.3, hit eastern Nepal May 12, 2015. Bishop Kikuchi and the other delegates visited quake-hit areas outside Kathmandu, going to villages in the Himalayas often accessible only by dirt roads, and where the path to recovery will be a long one. Among these was was Balthali, one of the worst-affected areas which is more than 25 miles southeast of Kathmandu, where nearly 190 houses were destroyed. Nepalis there are continuing their lives despite continuing to live in makeshift shelters made of tarps or sheets of tin. Very few of the estimated 800,000 buildings destroyed by the earthquakes have been rebuilt, and the Red Cross believes some 4 million persons continue to live in substandard, temporary shelters. The Nepali government has given some payments to earthquake victims for hardship, but most of its pledged funds of $2,000 for each family to rebuild a home have not been paid. The slow government response in releasing grants, the delay of official assistance, and bureaucratic hurdles are frustrating locals as well as international aid workers. Caritas and Catholic Relief Service quickly released initially basic relief materials after the quakes, to reach out to more than 15,000 households with emergency food, blankets, tents, clean water, medicine, personal hygiene kits, and other basic items. CRS and Caritas Nepal have also begun rebuilding efforts in four of the country’s 75 districts. According to CRS, 25 percent of the population of Nepal live in extreme poverty, and 83 percent of Nepal’s people live in rural areas, and for them  “the impact of the quake on lives, livelihoods, and dignity was immense.” Bishop Kikuchi, whose own country was recently struck by earthquakes, commented that “based on our experience of disaster in Japan and also my own encounters with so many victims of natural disaster in different countries, I know it takes quite long time for victims to recover normal life as before the disaster, both in rich, developed countries and in poor, underdeveloped countries.” “Materially speaking, people in rich countries such as Japan have an advantage in receiving relief goods without much delay, and in abundance,” Bishop Kikuchi continued. “However, that does not mean victims in rich countries have an advantage in psychological compensation, because in many cases in rich countries, human relationship in local communities have been lost in individualism.” Ananda Pokharel, the Nepali minister for culture and tourism, told participants at the Caritas Symposium that the government appreciates the Catholic Church’s aid in relief efforts. Though only 7,000 of Nepal’s 29.8 million people are Catholics, the national and local governments appreciate the Church’s social action and pastoral services. Bishop Kikuchi explained that the Church is adept at providing disaster assistance because it is “there with the people even before disaster happens, as well as during the disaster and after the disaster.” During the conference the bishops and Caritas members also prayed in solidarity with the victims who lost their lives, and encouraged the Nepali people to look to the future with optimism and hope. Read more

The world became more dangerous for religious believers last year

Washington D.C., May 2, 2016 / 04:48 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The right to exercise religion came under sustained assault around the world in 2015, according to a new report from a bipartisan United States commission, affecting Christians, Muslims, Jews, among others. “By any measure, religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault since the release of our commission’s last Annual Report in 2015,” Dr. Robert George, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated Monday. He was speaking at the release of USCIRF’s annual religious freedom report. “At best, in most of the countries we covered,” George noted, the situation of religious freedom “failed to improve” or, worse, “spiraled downward” in 2015. “I fear … that we’re losing the battle of ideas,” he stated in a May 2 press conference introducing the report. “We need the American people’s support on this,” he added. “The public needs to get behind this. We believe in religious freedom. It’s enshrined in the very first amendment to our Constitution.” USCIRF is a federal, bipartisan commission that advises the State Department on religious freedom worldwide. It was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act. One of the commission’s main tasks is to publish an annual report on the global state of religious freedom, noting the countries with the worst abuses against the freedom to practice religion. Among the report’s recommendations is a list of countries that should be on the agency’s Countries of Particular Concern list, or the countries where the worst violations of religious freedom are taking place, either at the hand of the government or with impunity from the government. The current CPC list includes China, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Eritrea. USCIRF has also asked the State Department to designate seven more countries as CPCs: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam, Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria. Respect for religious freedom declined in 2015 because of multiple factors, the report explained: religious violence by terror groups killing and displacing millions for their religious beliefs, governments continuing to imprison persons for their religious beliefs, and growing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe and Russia. The terror groups Islamic State and Boko Haram have killed or uprooted millions from their homes in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria in the last few years, inflicting a scourge of violence, torture, and abuse on entire minority populations and contributing to a global refugee crisis. Meanwhile, the governments in those countries have not been able to protect their religious minorities in harm’s way. Iraq and Syria have shown a “near-incapacity to protect segments of their population from ISIL and other non-state actors, as well as their complicity in fueling the sectarian tensions that have made their nations so vulnerable,” the report noted. In Syria, the Assad regime “has been guilty of inflaming those tensions” that helped create Islamic State, George said. The regime has been guilty of crimes against humanity committed against Sunnis and others, according to the report. The U.S. should be a leader in accepting refugees and victims of religious persecution, the report said. The nation should set a goal of accepting 100,000 Syrian refugees and should provide sufficient funding for the vetting of these refugees. Congress should also “reauthorize the Lautenberg Amendment” to accept beleaguered Iranian religious minorities fleeing persecution by the government there, the report insisted. In Asia, thousands of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority group of Burma, have been disenfranchised by their own government and have fled their homes, having no legal protection. There are 1 million displaced Rohingya, according to the report. Refugees fleeing Africa, Syria, and Iraq, especially from the onslaught of Islamic State and Boko Haram, either flee to surrounding countries that have become strained from the large refugee population, or make a perilous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There they are met with an increasing hostility, especially Muslim immigrants who face a rising tide of Islamophobia. Muslims in Europe are harassed for wearing public symbols of their religion such as headscarves and face cloths. They are even subject to violent attacks. Far-right political parties that profit from xenophobia against immigrants, Muslims, and Jews are rising in popularity. Furthermore, the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016 “produced backlashes against Muslims by members of the wider societies, many of who blame Muslims collectively, which is of course itself a terrible thing,” George said. Laws restricting religious acts such as circumcision and halal slaughter of animals have surfaced in Denmark and Holland. Xenophobia and hate crimes – particularly against Jews – are now being committed with “impunity” in Russia and are a problem throughout Europe, resulting in “an exponential rise in Jewish emigration from Europe,” the report stated. Jews are being targeted by secularists, far-right political parties, and “Islamist extremists who sought recruits from disaffected members of Muslim communities,” George said. Other governments, including those of China, Iran, Russia, Eritrea and North Korea, are actively persecuting religious minorities and jailing people simply for expressing their religious beliefs. “The existence of these prisoners [of conscience], people who are being jailed, beaten, tortured simply for expressing their conscientious religious beliefs or beliefs about religion, are an indictment of every government that holds them,” George stated. In Iran, the number of persons from religious minorities imprisoned because of their beliefs has increased under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, with Baha’is, Sunni Muslims, Christians, and dissenting Shia Muslims all targed. In China, Bao Guohua, a Protestant pastor, and his wife received 14 and 12 years respectively in prison for leading an effort against the state’s desecration of churches. The bulldozing of unauthorized churches in China has become such a problem that another Protestant pastor and his wife were buried alive in their attempt to stop the bulldozing of a church: Li Jiangong survived, but his wife Ding Cuimei died. In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi was jailed in 2012 for on charges of “insulting Islam and religious authorities.” Just “for speaking his mind, speaking his conscience, he has been subjected to horrific abuse,” George said. Another Saudi, Ashraf Fayadh, was arrested for “promoting atheism.” In Uzbekistan – where Islam is followed by more than 90 percent of the population and where religious groups must register activity with the government – more than 12,000 Muslims have been imprisoned for unsanctioned religious activity. Another problem for religious freedom is anti-extremism laws, which are often used to crack down on religious minorities under the pretext of fighting terrorism and extremism. In Russia, such laws have been used against Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. The law requires no evidence for an accusation of religious violence, and so persons can be convicted and jailed simply for “proclaiming the truth or superiority” of their religion. Governments enforcing these anti-extremism laws “often fuels the very extremism they are purporting to fight,” George explained, and fighting terrorism “becomes a pretext” for human rights abuses. This is evidenced in China where the state’s actions against the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority of northwest China, “has simply fueled violence,” he noted. Blasphemy laws against words or actions showing contempt or mockery of religion are a pernicious problem in some countries as well – most notably in Pakistan, where no evidence is required for an accusation, and the crime can be punishable by death. Blasphemy “might be insensitive or hurtful to many,” the report’s summary stated, but “blasphemy laws are not the answer. They inappropriately position governments as arbiters of truth or religious rightness, empowering officials to enforce particular views against individuals, minorities, and dissenters.” Along with the recommendations for CPCs, the commission also has a “Tier 2” list of countries which “are not the worst abusers,” George noted, but where there are still “serious” and “significant” abuses occurring.  These countries are Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Laos, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. Leaders of certain countries such as Egypt and India have said the right things about religious freedom and protecting religious minorities, but their administration is either complicit in the persecution of the minorities or powerless to stop sectarian violence, the report added. “In a number of nations there has been a continued gap between the rhetoric of the regime and the reality on the ground,” George said, adding that “rhetoric doesn’t really matter unless it is accompanied by action.” Read more

Cling to divine mercy, Pope Francis urges Mercedarian Order

Vatican City, May 2, 2016 / 03:15 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis on Monday met with representatives of a centuries-old Marian order of priests and brothers dedicated to mercy, encouraging them to persevere in their service to the marginalized by clinging to the “strength and joy” of the Gospel. “We do not rely on our own strength, but instead we always entrust ourselves to divine mercy,” the Holy Father told members of the Mercedarian Order during a May 2 audience in the Vatican’s Consistory Hall. “If God is present in your lives, the joy of bringing his Gospel will be your strength and your joy. God has also called us to serve within the Church and in the Community. Let us keep to this common path,” he said. The Mercedarians are in Rome ahead of their 800 year anniversary in 2018 for their General Chapter where they will elect new governing body and decide on projects for the next six years. The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, or the Mercedarians, was founded in 1218 in Spain by St. Peter Nolasco as a community dedicated to a life of prayer based on the Rule of St. Augustine in service to Christians imprisoned by Muslims. Along with the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Mercedarians take a fourth vow to give up their lives to those in captivity and in danger of losing their faith. Today, they work in 17 countries including the United States, India, Brazil, Italy, and Spain. The Mercedarians work to serve the most marginalized members of society: prisoners, the hospitalized, addicts, and those living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. They also have a special emphasis on safeguarding the faith in families through parish work and education. Pope Francis praised the order’s work over the centuries, noting that the priests and brothers became “like hostages” to the marginalized, dedicating their lives to “bring them consolation, to suffer with them, completing in their own flesh what was lacking from the passion of Christ.” Although “there is much to remember” of the Order’s long history, “this memory must not be limited to an exposition of the past,” the Holy Father said, but should instead “be a serene and conscious act that enables us to assess our achievements, without forgetting our limits and, above all, to face the challenges that humanity presents to us.” “The true life of the order must be sought in the constant effort to adapt and renew, so as to be able to respond generously to the real needs of the world and the Church, while remaining faithful to the perennial heritage of which (the Mercedarian Order) is a depository,” he said. The Mercedarians, through their religious vows, have been made prophets who have received a “gift of the Holy Spirit for the service of the Holy People of God,” the Pope said. “You have also received a gift, and have been consecrated for a mission that is a work of mercy: following Christ, bringing the good news of the Gospel to the poor, and the liberation of captives,” he said. By following the Holy Spirit in service of the marginalized, “we must make ourselves small, unite ourselves with the prisoners” and in doing so will “encounter true freedom” of recognizing the Redeemer in the form of the “poor and captive.” Pope Francis exhorted the Mercedarians not to neglect to “proclaim the year of grace of the Lord to all those who are sent to you,” namely, those facing persecution for their faith, victims of human trafficking, and school children. “I offer my blessing to each one of you and for the entire Mercedarian family, and I beg you not to forget to pray for me,” the Roman Pontiff said in closing.   Read more

Use your vote to protect life: a message from Northern Ireland’s bishops

Belfast, Northern Ireland, May 2, 2016 / 01:53 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Northern Ireland’s voters should use their vote to uphold the right to life, not violate it, the Catholic bishops of the region said. “The social and moral teaching of the… Read more

The Holy Spirit gives strength amid persecution – Pope Francis

Vatican City, May 2, 2016 / 09:55 am (CNA/EWTN News).- It is the Holy Spirit who gives Christians the ability to be witnesses of the Gospel in their daily lives, Pope Francis said Monday during Mass at the Santa Marta residence’s chapel. However, with that witness comes persecution. “The Christian,  with the strength of the Spirit,” the Roman Pontiff said, “gives witness to the living Lord, to the Risen Lord, to the Lord’s presence in our midst, that the Lord celebrates with us His death, His Resurrection, each time we come to the altar.” “The Christian too gives witness, aided by the Spirit, in his daily life, through the way in which he acts. It is the continuous witness of the Christian.  But many times this witness provokes attacks, provokes persecution.” During his May 2 homily, Pope Francis spoke of the witness Christ shares through his Spirit, and the witness of the faithful – especially in periods of persecution. Such persecution, he said may take the form of “little persecutions,” such as gossip and criticism, or more serious forms, such as those which “place Christians or make them even give up their lives.” Citing Christ, the Pope said this is price of the Christian’s witness: “They will expel you from the synagogues; in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God.” Pope Francis reflected on the day’s first reading from Acts, which recounts God opening the heart of a purple-cloth dealer named Lydia, who had come to listen to St. Paul’s preaching. “This woman felt something inside her which made her say ‘this is true! And I agree with what this man says, this man who gives witness to Jesus Christ,’” the Pope said. He asked who it was that “touched the heart of this woman,” and told her to listen to the truth?   “It was the Holy Spirit who made this woman feel that Jesus was the Lord,” he said. “It made her know that salvation was in Paul’s words; it made this woman hear witness.  The Spirit gives witness to Jesus.” The Roman Pontiff said every time our heart is moved to draw “closer to Jesus, it’s the Spirit which is working inside us.” “The Holy Spirit which introduced us to Jesus,” continued Pope Francis, “is the same one who urges us to make Him known to others, not so much through words, but through living witness.” “It is good to ask the Holy Spirit to come into our heart, to give witness to Jesus; tell Him: Lord, may I not stray from Jesus.  Teach me what Jesus taught.  Help me remember what Jesus said and did and also, help me to give witness to these things. So that worldliness, the easy things, the things that really come from the father of lies, from the prince of this world, sin, do not lead me away from giving witness.” Read more

Why Iraq wasn’t what I thought

Erbil, Iraq, May 1, 2016 / 04:02 pm (CNA).- Loai Behnam Toubia pulls up his shirt, uncovering a thick, dark scar – probably 10 inches long – that tears vertically down his large, round belly. With a cockeyed arm he points to three smaller scars that decorate the left side of his misshaped abdomen, marking the times he was shot when ISIS opened fire on his car last year. I stand in the dust surrounded by rows of boxy prefab trailers listening to his story. I focus on the scar marking where the bullet that landed just centimeters below his heart entered his thick body. My translator recounts the terrifying story of how Toubia’s car burst into flames in the middle of the road he had been driving between Qaraqosh and the small village of Shikhan when ISIS opened fire. He was pulled to safety by passersby just in time. Now, having barely survived the ordeal, he says that “it was grace that saved me.” With a body marred by gruesome scars, he carries on.   Toubia had been a taxi driver in Qaraqosh – the former Christian capital of Iraq now in the clutches of ISIS after the militants stormed the city, lighting up the night sky with bombs and gunfire Aug. 6, 2014. Like the 120,000 others who fled with him, Toubia heard late that night that ISIS was coming and crammed his family and a few belongings into his taxi and sped toward Erbil in stop and go traffic alongside the thousands of others who were headed to the same destination. Since then Toubia has been among the 5,500 Christians, including more than 2,000 children, living in the city’s Aishty 2 camp for the displaced. He had attempted to continue working, driving people from one city to another for income until his car was shot up by ISIS. Now, after losing his home, his livelihood, and with a body marred by gruesome scars, he tries to carry on, and says that he is “happy to be alive.” This is Erbil, Iraq – home to nearly 70,000 internally displaced persons, most of them Christians. Toubia’s is just one among the many similar stories I came across last month when I spent six days in Iraq as part of a media delegation accompanying Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York on a pastoral visit to Erbil and Dohuk. The two cities are where the majority of those who fled their homes are now living in camps after ISIS swept across the Plains of Nineveh in the summer of 2014. We as a delegation spent our time visiting various schools, projects and camps set up for the hundreds of thousands of refugees – internally displaced persons (IDPs) – who left their homes, and in many cases their livelihoods, behind in one night. Most of them are Christians and Yazidis from Mosul and Qaraqosh. The trip was nothing like I had expected. There were moments when what I saw and heard took my breath. I smiled. I choked back tears. I found myself fidgety, nervous. As an American I have to admit that I was anticipating some hostility and a fair amount of blame from the people for their present situation. But that was not at all what happened. Instead, what I encountered from the people was the opposite: I was received by them warmly with open arms: women embraced me, kissed me on each cheek and pulled me into their trailers, forcing fruit and Pepsi into my hands. The men were quick to shake my hand and the children all ran up and asked for their picture to be taken. A woman dying from cancer – who may or may not have access to pain meds – welcomed me into the small trailer she has now been confined to living in and beckoned me to her bedside. Wincing and short of breath, she grabbed my face, kissed my cheeks and whispered “thank you.” Not once did I experience a moment of hostility, but instead my eyes were met by the tearful gaze of so many who feel completely alone and abandoned, but a gaze which at the same time was filled with joy because my presence there, however brief, brought with it the hope that the world had not forgotten them, and that maybe soon help would come and they would be able to return home.What it’s really like to live in a refugee camp Erbil itself is a city frozen in time. Only a few years ago it was on the fast track to becoming the next Qatar or Dubai of the Middle East: construction was booming and everywhere new buildings and condominiums were popping up in what was a promising upward economic tilt. However, after the rise of the Islamic State and the sharp fall of oil prices, the construction came to a screeching halt and building projects, highway remodels and construction renovations were simply abandoned. Incomplete edifices, one of which was to be a large new shopping mall, are scattered throughout the city. As investors, homeowners and contractors suddenly found their pockets empty and their hands tied up in litigation, families fleeing from ISIS poured into the unfinished buildings and took refuge. Some have been living there ever since, while the majority have gone to one of the many camps that have been formed throughout Erbil. The stench of sewage wafts into rooms and coats the air.   Once the grim reality set in that it would be more than just a few days or weeks before the people could go home, the Church acted swiftly and aggressively in setting up the camps. Most of them are overcrowded, with families packed into prefabricated trailers between 1-3 rooms each, at times housing 8 people or more. The largest Christian camp in Erbil, called the Aishty camp, is located in the Christian suburb of Ain Qawa, and is divided into three smaller camps: Aishty 1, 2 and 3. Fardos, who lives in a squashed, two-room trailer in Aishty 1 with five other members of her family, including her mother and children, worries that the snakes and insects that creep into the trailer will get to her infant daughter. As I squeezed in with the family around their humble kitchen table, Fardos told me they all escaped from Qaraqosh Aug. 6, 2014, when ISIS attacked. When they got to Erbil, they initially took refuge inside a church hall, where they slept on the floor along with 14 other families, numbering more than 100 people in total. There was barely enough room to walk between the people, and at night they couldn’t get up without disturbing the others. After moving into the camp, problems abounded. Bathrooms were few and hard to get to, there was little space inside their flimsy trailer, they had no water and “the room stunk a lot.” While the majority of the issues have been taken care of, the stench of sewage from where the water is hooked up under the trailer wafts into the rooms every now and then and coats the air. Many of the 250 families in Aishty 1, roughly 1,000 people, live in 1 room compartments set up inside a warehouse with no windows. Though they now have bathrooms, the camp still doesn’t have showers, leaving residents, including many elderly, the option of either not bathing, or walking long distances to other camps where they can freshen up. On our second day in Iraq we as a delegation took the long, bumpy road to Dohuk, which sits near the Iraqi border with Turkey, and near Mosul. The city is where the majority of the Yazidis fled and is the closest we came to ISIS territory. As we walked into the Dawodiya camp – which is about 60-70 percent Yazidi, followed by Christians and a few Muslims – the smell wasn’t initially obvious. The stench of sewage sets in only after a few minutes. It comes in waves with a gust of the breeze that carries the scent of the murky water flowing in thin canals carved into the dirt pathways that snake through the camp for drainage. Suffering abounded in each of the “homes” we entered. My heart ached as I walked into the trailer of a grieving mother whose son, just one month after being married, joined the Kurdish army forces, known as the Peshmerga. He was killed after only a few weeks of fighting ISIS on the front lines, and is referred to as one of “the martyrs.” His picture now hangs on the wall of his mother’s trailer with a rosary draped over it. Another story that made my stomach churn was that of Hazar Namir, a 32-year-old Yazidi woman born in Sinjar. As our delegation crammed into her trailer, we were told that she, her husband and their three sons were all abducted by ISIS when the militants stormed the city Aug. 3, 2014. While Hazar and their sons managed to escape in November 2015, after more than a year in captivity, her husband remains in the hands of ISIS. What had they done to her? Did she know where her husband was? Did she have nightmares? As the rest of our delegation piled out of her tiny home, I lingered for a few moments and asked to take her picture. Once the men had left (I was one of only two women in the delegation), she lowered the black fabric covering the lower half of her face and flashed me a confident, yet reserved, almost bashful smile. As I smiled back and captured her flawless beauty in digital form, I couldn’t help but wonder why she felt so open with me – did she trust me? Why? How could her eyes still sparkle so brightly and familiarly when her family had experienced such terror and undergone so much suffering? What had they done to her? Did she know where her husband was? Did she have nightmares about what was happening to him, or what had happened to her and her sons? Does she feel safe? These are the questions that raced through my mind over and over as I met with different families and spoke with different people, most of whom are desperate and confused.Should they stay or should they go? What the displaced really want What most of the displaced want is to go back home. But with the situation showing precious little improvement many have become fed up, and are thinking of going abroad. While hopes of returning might have been higher after the initial displacement in 2014, they have significantly diminished now that the situation has drug on for some 20 months. The people are conflicted and have steadily become more and more impatient. The future is no clearer than it was two years ago – if anything, it’s foggier, especially for Christians. “If we were not believers, half of us would be suicidal.” This is what Ibrahim Shaba Lalo, the director of Ain Qawa’s Aishty 2 camp told me when asked about the mental state of the people living in the camps and how they are handling the situation. For many hope is small and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, he said, explaining that many are thinking about leaving, fueling growing concerns that within a few years Iraq will be empty of Christians if their land is not liberated. However, despite the growing sense of desperation among the people, I also found a surprising resilience and determination on the part of many to stay; to return to their land and their homes. But the solution to getting these people home isn’t an easy one, especially since liberating the cities taken by ISIS has proved to be a much longer task than anyone initially thought. Most thought they would be home in a few days, or a week at most. Instead, the days became weeks, weeks became months and the months have now become years. For many, one question hangs densely in the air: now what? A parish priest in Alqosh, the only remaining Christian village on the Plain of Nineveh not captured by ISIS, told me as he sipped from a typical Iraqi glass teacup that in the time that’s passed, “we have understood now that ISIS is a game.” “It is the world’s game” in which it has become clear that certain nations “want ISIS to stay” either for the economic benefit of selling them weapons, or to keep the war out of their own territory. Even if entire nations are crumbling in the process, it’s not a concern for those whose pockets are being lined, he said. The majority of locals I spoke with share the same anger and frustration, and pin the majority of the fault for funding ISIS on neighboring Middle Eastern nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Despite their open sense of welcome and generosity toward me, most Iraqis do blame the United States for the rise of the Islamic State and for the chaos that has ensued since the end of the war in 2003. Yet, in my time there I also discovered that they believe the U.S. is one of the only nations that has enough influence in the international community to do something about it. The religious leaders in the area practically begged Cardinal Dolan to advocate to the U.S. government on their behalf once he returned to New York. Many of the displaced hold out hope that a current offensive to retake the city of Mosul will be successful, and that Qaraqosh will be liberated soon after. There is hopeful buzz in the community that within a year both cities will be taken back and made livable soon after, yet a skeptical shadow of doubt still shrouds the hopes of many, who are frustrated that more action has not been taken at this point. Ecclesiastic leaders such as Archbishop Bashar Warda, Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, praised the recent decision of the U.S. government to declare ISIS persecution of Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims genocide, saying it “does justice to the victims.” On April 20 the UK parliament became the most recent nation to follow suit. But while these decisions are a step in the right direction, for many of the displaced these declarations on the part of governments are too little, too late. They are thankful the world has finally decided to call a spade a spade, yet for many one question hangs densely in the air: now what?Photo credit: www.shutterstock.com. Read more

Pope laments recent violence in Syria, renews call for dialogue

Vatican City, May 1, 2016 / 07:36 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis on Sunday decried the resurgence of violence in Syria in recent days, especially in Aleppo, and renewed the call to bring about peace through dialogue. “I receive with deep sorrow the tragic news coming from Syria, about the spiral of violence that continues to aggravate the already desperate humanitarian situation of the country,” the pontiff said May 1 after reciting the Regina Caeli address in St. Peter’s Square. Citing in particular the nation’s largest city Aleppo, which has borne the brunt of the most recent violence, the Pope remembered the “innocent victims,” namely the children, the sick, and “those who with great sacrifice have pledged to help others.” “I urge all parties to the conflict to respect the cessation of hostilities and to strengthen the ongoing dialogue, the only path that leads to peace,” he said. Since the breaking of a ceasefire nine days ago, President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces have launched against Aleppo hundreds of air and artillery strikes, as well as bombs and missals, according to The Guardian.Reuters reports that around 30 airstrikes struck Aleppo on Saturday alone. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, says around 250 civilians have been killed in the Aleppo region since the most recent bought of fighting began on April 22 between government and rebel forces, The Guardian reports. Over the course of the civil war between Syrian and government forces, which has just entered its fifth year, estimates say that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more displaced. Later during his post-Regina Caeli address, Pope Francis commended an Italian initiative for its work in fighting against the abuse of minors in all its forms. Child abuse “is a tragedy!” the Pope said. “We must not tolerate child abuse!” He expressed his gratitude for the “Meter Onlus” Association, an organization founded in 1989 to work for the rights of children and combating abuse.   “We must defend the children and we must severely punish the abusers,” the pontiff said. “Thank you for your commitment, and continue courageously in this work!” Turning to the themes of the environment and employment, Pope Francis acknowledged an upcoming international conference in Rome entitled: “Sustainable development and the most vulnerable forms of employment.” He expressed his hope that Monday’s conference may “alert the authorities, political and economic institutions and civil society,” in order to “promote a model of development that takes into account human dignity, in full respect of labor standards and the environment.” Before leading the crowds in the Regina Caeli prayer, Pope Francis reflected on the day’s Gospel reading which recounts Jesus, at the Last Supper, foretelling the coming of the Holy Spirit. The pontiff notes that the Holy Spirit’s mission to deepen the disciples’ understanding of the Gospel as they spread proclaim it throughout the world, and to “awaken the memory” of Jesus’ words. While Jesus “already communicated everything he wanted to entrust to the Apostles with Him, the Word incarnate,” the Pope said, the Holy Spirit reminds them how to put these teachings into practice in “concrete circumstances of life.” “It is precisely what is happening today in the Church,” the Pope continued. The Church is “guided by the light and strength of the Holy Spirit, in order that it may bring to everyone the gift of salvation: that is, the love and mercy of God.” “We are not alone: Jesus is near us, among us, within us!” Pope Francis said. It is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we “can establish a living relationship with Him, the Crucified and Risen One.” “The Spirit, poured out in us through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, it acts in our lives. He guides us in the way we think, act,” how to know the difference between write and wrong. “It helps us to practice charity of Jesus, his gift of self to others, especially those most in need.” Read more

Facing shortages, Venezuelan bishops want permission to bring in food, medicine

Caracas, Venezuela, May 1, 2016 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid Venezuela’s grave economic crisis, the country’s bishops have urged the government of President Nicolás Maduro to allow the Church to bring in much-needed supplies such as food and medicine. Venezuela is suffering from a triple-digit inflation rate, economic recession, shortages of basic goods, and a power crisis. In their April 27 statement, the Venezuelan bishops warned that never before had the country suffered from such an “extreme lack of goods and basic food and health products” along with “an  upsurge in murderous and inhuman crime, the unreliable rationing of electricity and water, and deep corruption in all levels of the government and society.” “Casting the situation in terms of an ideology and pragmatism in order to manipulate it are exacerbating it,” they warned.   Venezuela’s socialist government is widely blamed for the crisis. Since 2003, price controls on some 160 products, including cooking oil, soap, and flour, have meant that while they are affordable, they fly off store shelves only to be resold on the black market at much higher rates. The bishops reminded the Maduro government of its duty to “encourage all forms of assistance to its citizens” to overcome the shortages. They pointed out that “authorization is urgently needed for private institutions in the country, such as Caritas or other programs of different religious denominations (…) to bring in food, medicine, and other basic needs from national and international aid groups, and to organize distribution networks in order to meet the urgent needs of the people.” The economic crisis has led to smuggling and a thriving black market. Widespread looting broke out last week in several cities, after extended power cuts. Venezuela’s bishops also addressed “all those who are taking advantage of the shortages” by speculating on prices or and “those who are abusing their authority by demanding bribes.” “This kind of behavior is morally unacceptable and makes apparent the lack of ethical values in their lives. Taking advantage of another person’s need for profit is a crime and a mortal sin,” they warned. The bishops also touched on the issue of an amnesty bill which has been approved by the National Assembly, Venezuela’s unicameral legislature, which is led by the opposition. Maduro has rejected the bill. “The amnesty law is a national and international outcry and a contribution to easing social tensions,” the bishops said. “To ignore the National Assembly is to ignore and trample on the will of the majority of the people.” “All government officials, including those of the opposition, should express their serious concern for  the entire people, without getting carried away by partisan or special interests. Now is the time to demonstrate your frame of mind to stand up for the common good and the genuine interests of every citizen of Venezuela,” they added. They urged the people to not let themselves be “manipulated by those would offer to change the situation by means of social violence. But neither let yourselves be manipulated  by those who urge resignation, or those who force you into silence with threats … violence, resignation, and hopelessness are serious dangers for a democracy.” “We should never be passive or conformist citizens, but individuals aware of our own and calamitous reality: peaceful individuals, but active, and as as result, acting like protagonists of the transformation of our history and our culture. The Gospel calls us to be effective!” This week, the Venezuelan opposition claimed that 600,000 people – triple the number needed – have signed a petition which is the first step towards a recall referendum on Maduro. Read more

Intervene in Christian genocide: 400,000 bring plea to UN

New York City, N.Y., Apr 30, 2016 / 04:39 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Advocates delivered hundreds of thousands of signatures to the United Nations on Friday, calling on the body to declare that genocide is occurring against Christians and other religious min… Read more