The Church is the ‘only functioning institution’ in South Sudan

March 13, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Washington D.C., Mar 13, 2017 / 04:46 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid war and famine in South Sudan, the Catholic Church is still serving the most vulnerable even as the government has collapsed.

The Church is the “only functioning institution in civil society,” Neil Corkery, president of the Sudan Relief Fund, told CNA in an interview, and “is really the only thing that’s left trying to help people” who live “in the remotest parts of the country.”

Famine was recently declared in parts of South Sudan, where there has been an ongoing civil war, interrupted by tenuous peace, since December 2013.

42 percent of the population, an estimated 4.5 million people, are facing “severe food insecurity,” Corkery said, and that number is expected to rise to half the country’s population – or 5.5 million – by July.

There have been 2.5 million refugees created by the conflict, he added. A confidential UN report warned that the conflict had reached “catastrophic proportions for civilians,” the South China Morning Post reported last month.

“This crisis is man-made, the direct consequence of a conflict prolonged by South Sudanese leaders who are unwilling to put aside political ambitions for the good of their people,” State Department acting spokesperson Mark C. Toner stated on February 21.

“We call on President Kiir to expeditiously make good on his promise that humanitarian and developmental organizations will have unimpeded access to populations in need across the country,” Toner added.

Recently, President Salva Kiir called for a day of prayer for the country ahead of a national dialogue. The auxiliary bishop of Juba, however, dismissed it as a “political prayer” and “a mockery” amid violence inflicted by government troops.

Because of the conflict and the “scorched earth” policies of government troops, many have been “unable to plant their crops,” Corkery said.

At a parish in the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio, in the southwestern portion of the country and an area that is “very fertile” and was once a bread basket for the country, “these people are now in hiding, or taking refuge in the parish compound, and unable to plant crops,” he said. “Things are obviously just getting much worse.”

“It is a real crisis that’s coming down the pike,” Corkery warned.

The country’s bishops have spoken out against the violence there, accusing soldiers of committing war crimes and saying that the violence has interrupted the harvesting of crops.

“Despite our calls to all parties, factions, and individuals to STOP THE WAR, nevertheless killing, raping, looting, displacement, attacks on churches and destruction of property continue all across the country,” the bishops of South Sudan stated in a Feb. 23 pastoral message.

“Much of the violence,” they added, “is being perpetrated by government and opposition forces against civilians,” especially those of ethnicities deemed to be in alliance with rebel factions. And those victims “are prevented from harvesting their crops,” the bishops added.

Some members of the government have frustrated local peace deals brokered by the Church, the bishops said, and churches, priests, and nuns have been attacked.  

The U.S. has sent “$2 billion since 2014 in humanitarian aid alone,” Corkery said, but the United Nations humanitarian workers only operate in “certain pockets” of the country.

Amid this crisis and growing famine, Catholic priests, nuns, and missionaries have been laboring to bring food and supplies to remote areas and are “reaching these people who are truly destitute and starving.”

It is not an easy task. Aside from the ongoing conflict where soldiers could seize food and supplies if they were aware they were being transported, the country’s logistical infrastructure is so poor there are no paved roads outside the capital city of Juba, Corkery noted. During the country’s rainy season, this problem is expanded.

“The real heroes that I see there,” Corkery said, are the “missionaries toiling away on the front lines.”

“These people are looking at the long-term solution in terms of the eternal scheme of things, people’s souls.”

Several aid workers with Samaritan’s Purse were detained or kidnapped by opposition fighters near Mayendit March 13.

South Sudan announced earlier this month it plans to charge $10,000 per visa for foreign aid workers.

“The government and the army have largely contributed to the humanitarian situation. And now, they want to create profit from the crisis they have created,” Elizabeth Deng, South Sudan researcher with Amnesty International, said in reaction to the announcement.

Despite the heroic efforts of missionaries, the Sudan Relief Fund, and other aid groups like Aid to the Church In Need and Samaritan’s Purse, a long-term peace is the only lasting solution to the country’s problems, Corkery insisted.

Prayer is the most important thing Catholics in the U.S. can do to help the situation, he said, as peace can only come about through “prayer and grace working in the hearts and the minds of these warring tribes and factions.”

However, citizens can also ask members of Congress to “push the U.S. government to put more pressure” on South Sudanese leaders. The U.S. has already begun listing “top leaders as war criminals” there, he said.

Pope Francis has spoken about the crisis in the country and has expressed his desire to visit there. No details of the trip have yet been released, Corkery said.

“The Pope and the Church,” he said, “are the only people that have the ability to convene, bring the parties together” for a peaceful solution. Pope Francis will try to “refocus the international community on the gravity of this crisis that’s there” and “convene the warring parties to try to bring them to the table to get some peace.”


Fr. Stanley Rother, first US-born martyr, to be beatified in September

March 13, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Oklahoma City, Okla., Mar 13, 2017 / 10:37 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Father Stanley Rother, the Oklahoma-born martyr who served as a priest in Guatemala, will be beatified in Oklahoma City on Sept. 23, 2017.

The beatification announcement was made by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on March 13. Fr. Rother was a priest of the archdiocese. The beautification Mass will take place at 10 a.m. at the Cox Convention Center.

In December 2016, Pope Francis officially acknowledged Fr. Rother’s martyrdom, making him the first recognized martyr to have been born in the United States.

Fr. Rother was from the unassuming town of Okarche, Okla., where the parish, school and farm were the pillars of community life. He went to the same school his whole life and lived with his family until he left for seminary.

Surrounded by good priests and a vibrant parish life, Stanley felt God calling him to the priesthood from a young age. But despite a strong calling, Stanley would struggle in the seminary, failing several classes and even out of one seminary before graduating from Mount St. Mary’s seminary in Maryland.

Hearing of Stanely’s struggles, Sister Clarissa Tenbrick, his 5th grade teacher, wrote him to offer encouragement, reminding him that the patron of all priests, St. John Vianney, also struggled in seminary.

“Both of them were simple men who knew they had a call to the priesthood and then had somebody empower them so that they could complete their studies and be priests,” Maria Scaperlanda, author of The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run, a biography of the martyr, told CNA in an interview last year.

“And they brought a goodness, simplicity and generous heart with them in (everything) they did.”

When Stanley was still in seminary, St. John XXIII asked the Churches of North America to send assistance and establish missions in Central America. Soon after, the dioceses of Oklahoma City and Tulsa established a mission in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala, a poor rural community of mostly indigenous people.

A few years after he was ordained, Fr. Stanley accepted an invitation to join the mission team, where he would spend the next 13 years of his life.

When he arrived to the mission, the Tz’utujil Mayan Indians in the village had no native equivalent for Stanley, so they took to calling him Padre Francisco, after his baptismal name of Francis.

The work ethic Fr. Stanley learned on his family’s farm would serve him well in this new place. As a mission priest, he was called on not just to say Mass, but to fix the broken truck or work the fields. He built a farmers’ co-op, a school, a hospital, and the first Catholic radio station, which was used for catechesis to the even more remote villages.

“What I think is tremendous is how God doesn’t waste any details,” Scaperlanda said. “That same love for the land and the small town where everybody helps each other, all those things that he learned in Okarche is exactly what he needed when he arrived in Santiago.”

The beloved Padre Francisco was also known for his kindness, selflessness, joy and attentive presence among his parishioners. Dozens of pictures show giggling children running after Padre Francisco and grabbing his hands, Scaperlanda said.

“It was Father Stanley’s natural disposition to share the labor with them, to break bread with them, and celebrate life with them, that made the community in Guatemala say of Father Stanley, ‘he was our priest,’” she said.

Over the years, the violence of the Guatemalan civil war inched closer to the once-peaceful village. Disappearances, killings and danger soon became a part of daily life, but Fr. Stanley remained steadfast and supportive of his people.

In 1980-1981, the violence escalated to an almost unbearable point. Fr. Stanley was constantly seeing friends and parishioners abducted or killed. In a letter to Oklahoma Catholics during what would be his last Christmas, the priest relayed to the people back home the dangers his mission parish faced daily.

“The reality is that we are in danger. But we don’t know when or what form the government will use to further repress the Church…. Given the situation, I am not ready to leave here just yet… But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it…. I don’t want to desert these people, and that is what will be said, even after all these years. There is still a lot of good that can be done under the circumstances.”

He ended the letter with what would become his signature quote:

“The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”

In January 1981, in immediate danger and his name on a death list, Fr. Stanley did return to Oklahoma for a few months. But as Easter approached, he wanted to spend Holy Week with his people in Guatemala.

“Father Stanley could not abandon his people,” Scaperlanda said. “He made a point of returning to his Guatemala parish in time to celebrate Holy Week with his parishioners that year – and ultimately was killed for living out his Catholic faith.”

The morning of July 28, 1981, three Ladinos, the non-indigenous men who had been fighting the native people and rural poor of Guatemala since the 1960s, broke into Fr. Rother’s rectory. They wished to disappear him, but he refused. Not wanting to endanger the others at the parish mission, he struggled but did not call for help. Fifteen minutes and two gunshots later, Father Stanley was dead and the men fled the mission grounds.

Scaperlanda, who has worked on Fr. Stanley’s cause for canonization, said the priest is a great witness and example: “He fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, visited the sick, comforted the afflicted, bore wrongs patiently, buried the dead – all of it.”

His life is also a great example of ordinary people being called to do extraordinary things for God, she said.

“(W)hat impacted me the most about Father Stanley’s life was how ordinary it was!” she said.

“I love how simply Oklahoma City’s Archbishop Paul Coakley states it: ‘We need the witness of holy men and women who remind us that we are all called to holiness – and that holy men and women come from ordinary places like Okarche, Oklahoma,’” she said.

“Although the details are different, I believe the call is the same – and the challenge is also the same. Like Father Stanley, each of us is called to say ‘yes’ to God with our whole heart. We are all asked to see the Other standing before us as a child of God, to treat them with respect and a generous heart,” she added.

“We are called to holiness – whether we live in Okarche, Oklahoma, or New York City or Guatemala City.”


My life isn’t a tragedy – a Rwandan woman’s incredible story of survival

March 13, 2017 CNA Daily News 1

Vatican City, Mar 13, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- She begged and scrounged for food in the forest; she drank water from a stream with dead bodies in it; she wrapped grass on her feet in order to walk long distances in the hot sun in order to survive, facing starvation and malnourishment, all before the age of six.

Now, Mirreille Twayigira is a licensed medical doctor hoping not just to save lives, but to inspire young women worldwide – particularly those in her same situation – by showing them there’s hope, and that life is more than the tragedies they face.

While some might label her life “a tragic story” due to the suffering and loss she faced as a young child, Twayigira said others might choose to call it “a story of courage and perseverance.”

However, “I choose to call it a story of hope, a story of God…from ashes to beauty, (like) a beautiful stained glass window.”

Twayigira was among several speakers at the March 8 Voices of Faith women’s gathering in the Vatican, marking International Women’s Day.

First held in 2014, the VoF conference was established in response to Pope Francis’ call to “broaden the space within the Church for a more incisive feminine presence.”

Gathering women from around the world, this year’s VoF took place at the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV, headquarters of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, and featured testimonies of women from around the world, including Syria and Burundi, who shared their stories of perseverance, highlighting the importance of building peace in a world filled with conflict.

In her testimony, Twayigira noted that when war broke out between Tutsis and members of the Hutu majority the government, leading to mass killings of the Tutsi tribe, she was just three years-old.

Although she doesn’t remember much about the war itself when it started, she remembers the day she got the news that her father had been killed.

“I remember being told that my father had been killed, his body being brought home wrapped in this blue tent,” she said, noting that she was too young to fully understand what was happening on the day of his burial.

Before the war, “we were a big, happy family. Our house was next to our grandparent’s house, so my sister and I used to spend our days with uncles and aunts…so it was a beautiful and happy childhood,” she said.

After her father’s death, however, this changed dramatically.

“My family knew that it was no longer safe for us, so they had to pack and leave,” she said, explaining that at first, they fled to another district of Rwanda, thinking they would be safe.

However, after just a short time her younger sister, who was just one-year-old at the time, got sick and, because her family didn’t have access to medicine or proper nourishment due to the war, she passed away.

After her sister’s death – which marked the second time she had lost a sibling, since an older sister had died before Twayigira was born – the family fled through Burundi to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“In the camp I was a very happy kid,” she said, “but this all ended when I encountered more loss.”

While in the camp, her mother fell ill and “one night she was gone.” However, Twayigira said that despite the tragic death of her mother, “life had to go move on,” so she and her grandparents continued to move forward.

But just two years later, in 1996, they had to leave because of war in the DRC, which is when “I began to experience a life that is unimaginable,” she said, recalling how she had her grandparents fled the camp with bullets flying over their heads, and took refuge in the forest.

“We only survived by begging for food,” she said. Her grandparents begged from locals in nearby villages, and at times were given moldy bread to eat. When begging wasn’t enough, “we even had to eat roots from the forest.”

“I remember sometimes we had to drink water from rivers with dead bodies floating in it,” she said, noting that their situation had become one of the “survival of the fittest.”

They had long distances to walk going from village to village and in search of another camp, many times walking on rough terrain. When the weather was too hot for their bare feet, they bunched up grass and tied it to their feet in order to be able to walk.

“We escaped death from so many things: from hunger, bullets, drowning, wild animals, you name it. No child should go through what I went through. In fact, nobody should go through what I went through,” she said.

Eventually the family made their way to another refugee camp, “but life would not be better there,” she said. While there were some soldiers protecting them, they would take young boys and train them to fight, and would take girls either as companions for the night or, at times, as wives.

Most of the boys leave refugee camps “with some sort of trauma,” she said, noting that when it came to the girls, some got pregnant, and others were made to be servants.

“The only reason I survived this is because I was very little,” Twayigira said. Due to the ongoing war, she and her grandparents traveled to nearby Angola before eventually ending up back in the DRC for a period of time.

However, with no improvement to the situation and no end to the war in sight, they again made their way to Angola for the second time. But when they arrived, “my grandma was very tired, and as for me, I was very malnourished.”

“You can imagine a big tummy and thin brown hair, and swollen cheeks and feet,” she said, describing herself as a young girl.

Twayigira recalled that her grandmother died shortly before they reached the refugee camp in Angola, and that had they not arrived when they did, “I was also almost gone.”

With just the two of them left, Twayigira explained that her grandfather eventually decided to travel to a different refugee camp in Zambia, because he heard they had a better school.

Despite such a long journey and so much loss, her grandfather moved again for no other reason “than to give his granddaughter a better education,” Twayigira said. She recalled that her grandfather “really believed in me so much. He never once said, ‘she’s just a girl, let me not waste my time on her.’”

After spending a few years in Zambia, the pair decided to make yet one more move, this time heading to a camp in Malawi that had better living conditions and even better schools. They arrived in September 2000.

Twayigira immediately enrolled in school once she arrived, making several new friends and, for the first time since they had left, was happy to have adequate food and shelter.

Being able to do well in her classes “would give me joy. Because at least I got to make some people proud, and I was very happy,” she said. Twayigira was eventually selected to join a Jesuit-run school, with all fees paid for by the Jesuit Refugee Service.

When she finished school in 2007, Twayigira’s grandfather fell ill, passing away just a few days after.

“I cried uncontrollably, badly, but life had to go on, and although I was in so much pain with the loss of my loved ones, it did not stop me from working hard,” she said, “because I knew that my future, it was not certain, I did not know what my future had, but I knew that my hard work would pay off.”

In 2009 she studied for the national final exam in Malawi, and finished among the top 6 students in the country. At the awards ceremony, the Chinese embassy offered a number of full-ride scholarships to study in China for the top students.

Twayigira was one of the students selected and, despite being a refugee with no citizenship status or passport, was able to get her paperwork in order with the help of the Jesuits at her school, a Catholic radio station and even the Malawian parliament.

She then moved to China and studied the language for a year before officially beginning classes in Chinese. She has since graduated and is currently working as a medical intern in Malawi.

While there were many times she wanted to give up along the way, Twayigira said she persisted, because at a certain point she realized that “God spared my life” not to keep it for herself, but because “there are people that I was meant to serve.”

“Before I went to China, I used to think I was just this girl with a tragic past…but when I got to China I realized that I’ve got a story to tell; a story of God and his love, a story that can change somebody’s life.”

As a doctor, Twayigira said she feels she can give even more. But in addition to her medical duties, she also looks for opportunities to speak in schools to try and “raise hope among the youth, especially refugee youth.”

She said that in the future, she hopes to work more directly with refugees, “because I believe I have a lot to share, having gone through what they’ve gone through.”

“Now this is my story…but unfortunately for many, theirs is just in the tragedy part,” she said, explaining that many refugee children don’t even have access to adequate housing let alone higher education.

Even those who do get a good education don’t necessarily have the same opportunities, Twayigira said, so “their hopes are just crushed.”

In order to change the situation, she said war itself has to end: “why not end all this violence, and I’m not talking about people from other countries coming in to invade our own countries, I mean why wait for an outsider to come to stop hurting, and killing?”

“Is the money or power at the expense of their blood really worth it? I don’t think so,” she said, adding that the only way to really resolve conflict is with “forgiveness, mercy and love.”

“Is there such humanity in us, or have we become robots?” she asked. “What is happening to innocent kids is completely unfair, and it needs to stop and I believe it starts from within us: from love, forgiveness and mercy.”

People in situations similar to hers need to know “that they are loved by God and people around them. They need to know that they matter, that there is hope for them, that they have a purpose in life,” she said, noting that this stems not only from having the basic needs met, but above all from education.

In an interview with CNA after her talk, Twayigira stressed the importance of education, saying it’s “really the key to everything, because if not educated, many girls don’t even know their value.”

However, with a good education women learn that “okay, I’m not worthless and someone can’t just come and step on my foot. I am somebody,” she said, adding that a proper education helps women to step into decision making positions where they can change things.

“I believe that once a girl is educated, that means you’re actually educating the whole family. Because a woman, you raise your children, they’re with you all the time, you know that whatever they get is what you teach them,” she said.

“So if a woman is educated that means the whole family will get quality advice from their mothers. So educating a girl is actually educating the whole country.”

Twayigira said she was happy to be able to speak at the Vatican, since the event was streamed live. She voiced her hope that people can hear her story “and not just feel sorry for me, but also see ways they can help other people like me to get a better education or a safe place, or open their homes to refugees like me.”

She said she also hopes other young women and girls from around the world will be able to see and hear her story, and to know that “it’s all possible…I believe that I’m a pillar of hope for them.”

She said one of her hopes coming out of the conference is not only to encourage young women in her situation to have hope, but also that the people who have the power and resources to change things will see that they “can actually do something under-privileged people like I was.”

“Their actions can change somebody’s life for the better, never to be the same,” she said.


Catholic church guard attacked over personal feud in Bangladesh

March 11, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Rajshahi, Bangladesh, Mar 11, 2017 / 06:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A man acting as a guard outside a Catholic church in Bangladesh was injured in a knife attack on Friday. Local authorities attribute it to a private feud, and not terrorism.

According to local reports, Gilbert Costa, 65, was guarding Saint Rita parish in the Chatmohar upazila of the Pabna district, about 55 miles southeast of Rajshahi, when he was attacked in the early hours of March 10 by several young men from his village wielding knives.

“He was hacked randomly by sharp knives and was left severely injured. He was shifted to a hospital where his condition is now stable,” local police chief Ahsan Habib told AFP.

Officials have ruled out a link to Islamic terrorism, and have said that the attack was motivated by “personal enmity.”

“Costa and his relatives have identified the attackers with whom they had personal feud in the village. We have found no extremist connection whatsoever,” Habib told AFP.

Three young men from Costa’s village have been arrested in connection with the attack.

Christians have suffered numerous attacks in the country, where they make up approximately 0.2 percent of the population in the Muslim-majority nation.

While the country has a history of violence against Christians, violence has spiked in the wake of the rise of extreme Islamic terrorism. In November 2015, an Italian missionary priest working at a hospital in Bangladesh, was shot and critically injured an attack claimed by the Islamic State. In summer 2016, several attacks left dozens dead, including a Catholic man coming home from Sunday prayers in June and 28 people who died in a hostage situation in July.

Pope Francis recently met with families of the victims of the 2016 hostage scenario, most of whom were foreigners from Italy and Japan. During his visit with the families, he offered his prayers and encouraged forgiveness.

“It’s easy to take the road from love that leads to hatred, while it is difficult to do the opposite: from bitterness and hatred to go towards love,” he said.

Despite the persecution, the Catholic population in Bangladesh is reportedly on the rise. In 2015, Pope Francis established a new diocese in the south-central region of the country, due to an increase of Catholics in the region.